Monday, September 14, 2009

The Taliban on their own turf

Journalist Stephen Farrell, along with his Afghan colleague Sultan M. Munadi, was captured by Taliban fighters on September 4 while collecting accounts of a NATO airstrike that killed civilian scavengers in remote Kunduz province. Four days later, paratroopers rescued the Western reporter in an operation that killed Munadi, some number of other Afghans and one British soldier.

On the New York Times blog, At War, Farrell has described his captivity. This was an awful way to get the story, but Farrell is able to provide a glimpse of who the local Taliban are.

Once away from immediate pursuit, they transferred me to a waiting car and drove into the dusty back roads of Char Dara District at high speed. "Russian?" one asked me, a question that seemed so out of recent historical context that it made my heart sink. ...

They delighted in showing off, at one point driving within 500 meters of what they said were government and NATO watchtowers -- gleeful at their daring, at others they drove with headlights full on at night as they moved us from house to house, at least three different buildings a day.

It became a tour of a Taliban-controlled district of Afghanistan, and that control appeared total. At no point did we see a single NATO soldier, Afghan policeman, soldier or any check to the Taliban's ability to move at will. ...It felt like a military embed with the American military, except at gunpoint. "You spend enough time with the Americans, you should spend some time with us," one of the Taliban said, making the comparison explicit. ...

There was no doubting the absolute force of their writ in the area southwest of Kunduz, which we traversed time and again, in an area of cornfields, rice plantations, mud brick villages, waterways and other farmlands, measuring perhaps eight miles long by three or four miles wide. They drove down lanes, through villages, stopping at will and talking to residents, boasting about how the people provided a willing intelligence service to them. The extent of volition was impossible to determine, but the Taliban were the only armed presence I saw there for four days.

Interestingly, they paid when they needed gas for the car, instead of just commandeering it, which they could have easily done. Some villagers appeared very friendly, others more wary and formally polite. Motorists unfailingly gave way as soon as they saw a Taliban car coming in the other direction, and snapped to a smile and an Islamic greeting.

The Taliban may or may not be popular, but they are not foreign occupiers. It is impossible to believe that continued U.S. application of force will subdue people who simply fight the invader, distinguishing little between one sort of infidel intruder and the next.

What was it the U.S. is trying to accomplish in Afghanistan?

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