The Afghan Ant Hole

by Eric Walberg / March 24th, 2010

joint operation involving several thousand troops was launched in
Kandahar last week, the second one this year after Operation Mushtarak
in Helmand province. Kandahar has been the bailiwick of 2,500
contingent of Canadian troops who have suffered heavy losses in this
mountainous home of the Taliban. It is ruled by a Canadian national, Governor Tooryalai Wesa,
a close friend of President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai,
chairman of the Kandahar provincial council, infamous for his
involvement in the drug trade.

Already, there are strong indications from Marja,
that the new offensive will run into trouble. The Taliban claimed
responsibility for a suicide bombing there two weeks ago that killed
35. Though Marja now has one coalition soldier or policeman for every
eight residents, after dark the city is like “the kingdom of the
Taliban”, said a tribal elder in Marja. “The government and
international forces cannot defend anyone even one kilometre from their

The new governor of Marja, Haji Abdul Zahir, like Wesa, a foreign
national (German) parachuted in by the occupation forces, said the
militants post “night letters” at mosques and on utility poles and hold
meetings in randomly selected homes, demanding that residents turn over
the names of collaborators. The Taliban “still have a lot of sympathy
among the people.” Zahir has no idea how many Taliban are still in
Marja. “It’s like an ant hole. When you look into an ant hole, who
knows how many ants there are?”

Marja district MP Walid Jan Sabir scoffed at Zahir’s denial that the
Taliban were beheading collaborators. “He is not from the area and he
is only staying in his office, so he doesn’t know what is happening.”
He predicts the situation will deteriorate and return to “chaos” as
“the Taliban and Marja residents all have beards and turbans so it’s
impossible to distinguish them.”

Will these campaigns in Marja, Kandahar and Kunduz subdue the
Taliban and bring them to the negotiating table, the newly professed
strategy of the occupiers? It should not be forgotten that Karzai
himself was a member of the Taliban government from 1995-98, before
Unicol hired him as an insider to try to clinch an oil pipeline deal.
His effortless transition to US protege suggests he was probably
already on the US payroll, along with his less reputable colleague,
Osama bin Laden. Though Karzai sees negotiations as the only way out,
comments by other ex-Taliban officials who have cast their lot with the
occupiers, however reluctantly, are not encouraging. 

The leading co-opted Taliban, Abdul Salam Zaeef,holds no hope
whatsoever. Zaeef was the Taliban’s minister of transportation until he
became ambassador to Pakistan. His post-911 news conferences, where he
condemned the attacks, insisted Osama bin Laden was not responsible,
and offered to send him to a third country for trial, are now the stuff
of legend. Despite his diplomatic immunity, he was arrested, held at
Bagram and Guantanamo, and, according to his
hot-off-the-Columbia-University-press My Life with the Taliban, tortured.

He was released in 2005 and returned to Afghanistan, where he was
installed in an upscale home around the corner from ex-Taliban foreign
minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, and lives more-or-less under house
arrest. In 2007 he called for a unity government and negotiations with
the Taliban, no doubt at the prompting of his beleaguered former
comrade-in-arms, Karzai. However, in a recent interview, he gave no
hope for the reconciliation process, as the US is “a monster” that is
“selfish, reckless and cruel”, and the “reintegration process will
further strengthen the Taliban.”

Hakim Mujahed, a former Taliban ambassador to the United Nations,
reconciled with Karzai several years ago, and is currently the head of
a Taliban splinter group Jamiat-i-Khuddamul Furqan, which still has not
been incorporated into the US-controlled Afghan political process. He
told the US-funded Radio Free Afghanistan that reconciling with the
Taliban through a traditional Loya Jirga will not work “as long as the
foreign powers – the United States and Britain in particular – don’t
agree with this. The first important thing is to lift the sanctions on
the leaders of the armed opposition. They are blacklisted and
multimillion-dollar rewards are offered for them.” He wants Saudi
Arabia to mediate. Clearly with Zaeef in mind, he argues that if a
Taliban were to attend a Loya Jirga, “he might get captured the next
day and end up in Guantanamo Bay. Our president has no authority to
even release somebody from Bagram.”

Mulla Salam defected to the government three years ago in Helmand
and was made district administrator of his native Musa Qala district as
a reward. He sees the British occupation as a blatant act of revenge
for their defeats in Afghanistan in the 19th century and regrets his
decision, like Mujahed calling Karzai a powerless president. “We are
still slaves. Foreign advisers are sitting in the offices.” He
complains that no Afghan minister can even visit Helmand without the
permission of British military commanders. The British troops “haven’t
served our people and have yet to build schools or mosques in Musa
Qala.” Poor Salam’s days are numbered as he has barely survived several
assassination attempts. There will be no “reconciliation” for the likes
of him.

Then there is Abdul Ghani Baradar – second in command only to
Taliban leader Mohammed Omar – whose recent capture in Karachi was
hailed by the US as a sign that Pakistan was getting serious at last.
His arrest appears to have backfired big time. Not only has Pakistan
refused to extradict him, but Karzai is apparently furious over the
capture, as he was supposedly negotiating with Baradar to split the
Taliban and co-opt moderates.

Former UN special representative to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, who
stepped down this month (in disgust?), asserted last week that the
arrest was a huge mistake, stopping a secret ongoing channel of
communications with the UN, and revealed that he had been holding talks
with senior Taliban figures for the past year in Dubai and other
locations. He suggested Pakistan was deliberately trying to undermine
the negotiations, as it ultimately wants to control the political
landscape in Afghanistan, however rocky and dangerous for its own
stability. “I don’t believe these people were arrested by coincidence.
The [Pakistanis] must have known who they were, what kind of role they
were playing,” adding it would now take a long time before there was
enough confidence between both sides to really move forward.

“I see no evidence to support that theory,” immediately harrumphed
US envoy to AfPak, Richard Holbrooke, insisting that the US had no
involvement in any of Eide’s talks, and knew of them only in a “general
way”. In line with the Washington line, he heaped praise on Pakistan
for the capture. At the same time, he welcomed “reconciliation of all
Afghans”, whatever that could possibly mean. Of course, Pakistan
protests its innocence, understandably preferring the American version
of events. It just happens to have presented Washington with a
multi-billion dollar bill for its selfless battle in the “war on
terror”. Publicly at least, Karzai is all smiles, calling (ominously?)
Pakistan a “twin” during a visit to Islamabad last week.

A bizarre theory about the capture promoted by McChrystal is that
Baradar, deemed more pragmatic than other top Taliban leaders, was
“detained” to split him from fellow insurgents. McChrystal said
recently that it was plausible that Baradar’s arrest followed an
internal purge among Taliban leaders, that Omar himself, angry about
Baradar’s negotiations with Karzai or the UN or whoever, squealed on
him and tipped off Pakistani intelligence officials. But both
McChrystal and Holbrooke are so out-of-touch with reality that we can
probably safely assume that the opposite of what they say about

During his trip to Afghanistan last week, Defence Secretary Robert
Gates – the guy who, in fact, calls the shots – made the real US policy
clear. He said it was premature to expect senior members of the Taliban
to reconcile with the government, that until the insurgents believe
they can’t win the war, they won’t come to the table. Said Heritage
Institute researcher Lisa Curtis ghoulishly, “The military surge should
be given time to bear fruit.”

The purpose of undermining the feeble attempts by Karzai or Pakistan
or the UN or Bob’s-your-uncle to undermine the resistance is hard to
fathom, considering that negotiations are now part of  US policy. At
the pompous London conference on Afghanistan in January, US advisers
even came up with the very American idea of simply bribing them with a
cool half billion greenbacks, a strategy that Russian officials (tongue-in-cheek?) also have urged on the Americans.

A key US protege in the Pakistan military with close contacts with
the Taliban in Pakistan, Colonel Imam, said the idea of paying members
of the Taliban to change sides would not work and only bogus figures
would come forward. “It is shameful for a superpower to bribe.” He
seconds Zaeef’s conclusion that negotiations, like Lisa’s strategy of
mass murder, are fruitless. The Taliban cannot be defeated and they
will not be weakened by the recent capture of even senior commanders
such as Baradar.

“The movement is so devolved that commanders on the ground make most
of their own decisions and can raise money and arrange for weapons
supplies themselves. The Taliban cannot be forced out, you cannot
subjugate them,” he said. “But they can tire the Americans.” Obama is
“doing what you should never do in military strategy, reinforcing the
error. They will have more convoys, more planes, more supply convoys,
and the insurgents will have a bigger target. The insurgents are very
happy.” Of all the thousands of men he trained, he said, religious
students like Mullah Omar were the most “formidable” opponents because
of their commitment.

Hamid Gul, a former director of the Pakistani intelligence service,
says the insurgents want three things from the US before talks could
begin – a clearer timetable on the withdrawal of troops, an end to
labelling them terrorists, and the release of all Taliban militants
imprisoned in Pakistan and Afghanistan. What could be more obvious?

So,  Mr Obama, even if you ignore your own loyal opposition in
Congress, where a motion to withdraw immediately garnered both
Democratic and Republican support 10 March, even if you ignore the
thousands of loyal Americans who marched on the anniversary of the
invasion of Iraq 20 March, calling for the same, please listen to these
voices of reason.

Eric Walberg is a journalist who worked in Uzbekistan and is now writing for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric’s website.

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