December 02, 2007

A New Kind of Tribal Warfare in Afghanistan

One of Abu Muqawama's readers sent along this Wall Street Journal article on the U.S. in Afghanistan. Ten bucks says this Capt. John Gibson is the same guy with whom Abu Muqawama went to the Infantry Officer Basic Course and Ranger School. That guy -- on field exercises, mind you -- used to do the Ambiguously Gay Duo routine with your humble blogger at IOBC. "Ace and Gary!" he would shout. "Unite!" And he would then do a %$#@ing cart-wheel right there in the woods of Fort Benning into Abu Muqawama's arms (we were supposed to be re-acting to an ambush or something) while our squad mates broke down in laughter and the TACs looked on in horror. He then sneaked fake teeth into Ranger School -- %$#@ing Ranger School! -- and put them in when we got our dental and medical briefing at the beginning of the course to ask a question of the medics. You're not supposed to have anything that's not on the packing list, but the RI's were laughing so hard they let him keep the teeth with him the whole course. What. A. %$#@ing. Clown. No kidding, he was the only officer Abu Muqawama has ever met who could out-do this blogger in terms of Grade A Jackassery. (And this is meant as the highest compliment.) Abu Muqawama still has a picture of the two of us at the IOBC dining-in, in our dress blues and drunk as Irish sailors, acting like idiots in an impromptu dance contest. (You better believe we won. Oh yes.) Ah, good times...

Abu Muqawama re-prints this password-protected article in full as a service to his readers -- and a middle finger aimed in the direction of Rupert Murdoch. All that homo-erotic humor must have prepared John well for tribal life in Afghanistan:

ZEROK, Afghanistan -- The villagers handed out red roses. The elders lined up to welcome guests to their ancient tradition, the shura. And John Gibson, a U.S. Army captain with sunburned cheeks, warmly embraced Haji Taday, a tribal leader with a black Abe Lincoln beard.

But what looked like a reunion with an old friend last month was really a political ambush of a bitter enemy.

"He takes us for fools," Capt. Gibson, smiling slightly, said minutes after hugging Mr. Taday. "We just got enough evidence to move against him."

In Afghanistan's insurgency, politics is warfare by other means. U.S. officers knew that if they wanted to take down Mr. Taday -- both a major figure in the local Taliban and chief of Zerok's council of elders -- they would have to avoid cultural missteps that could hand propaganda victories to their enemies.

So for the next hour, U.S. and Afghan officials used the shura, a traditional Pashtun gathering of respected senior villagers, to discredit Mr. Taday before his peers and engineer his downfall.

They succeeded, but not in the way they expected.

Capt. Gibson's boss, Lt. Col. Michael Fenzel, commander of the 1st Battalion of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, set the snare hours before the elders arrived at the Zerok district center. In a private meeting at the adjacent American combat outpost, the colonel laid out the case against Mr. Taday before a few trusted Afghan officials, including both the chief of intelligence and the head of shura for Paktika Province, where Zerok is located.

Lt. Col. Fenzel had a receptive audience. The Afghans had their own suspicions about Mr. Taday, not least because his nephew is Commander Sangeen, widely known to lead one of the Taliban factions in the area. Mr. Taday has provided safe haven for foreign fighters who cross the Pakistani border, some 20 miles away, and move into Zerok District, according to U.S. and Afghan intelligence reports. Mr. Taday also arranged the theft of a green Ford Ranger pickup truck from the Afghan National Police and delivered it to his nephew to use as a suicide car bomb, according to U.S. intelligence reports.

At the pre-shura meeting, Lt. Col. Fenzel told the Afghan officials he wanted the police to arrest Mr. Taday immediately. But Nawab Waziri, the provincial head elder, argued that such a move on shura day would cause an uproar. The colonel agreed to hold off, and the group headed next door to the shura at the district government office, a single-story building with broken windows, surrounded by a stone wall topped with razor wire.

Mr. Taday was waiting for them in the courtyard, lined up with the other elders. Appearing to be in his 60s, short and rotund, he wore a gray tunic and loose trousers, with a long brown vest and dirty white turban, striped delicately in black.

Despite the friendly embrace, Mr. Taday knew he had been in the captain's sights for months. In July, insurgents ambushed two U.S.-Afghan troop convoys near the Zerok outpost, leaving a pair of Afghan soldiers dead. Afterward, Capt. Gibson summoned the Zerok elders, pulled Mr. Taday into a room and yelled at him for 20 minutes, pausing only so the interpreter could translate the obscenity-laced tirade into Pashto.

"You say you're in charge and that there is security in Zerok, but there's not," Capt. Gibson said at the time. "Either you're lying to me or you're working for them. Which is it?"

At the shura last month, Afghans delivered the message. An Afghan army officer opened with a verse from the Koran, an effort to show that the Taliban, known for their fierce interpretation of Islam, don't have a monopoly on faith. "For 30 years we've been fighting and killing innocent people," said Mr. Waziri, the provincial chief elder. "It's time we stop fighting."

"Innocent people get killed when the Taliban attack," said the provincial intelligence chief, Yaseen, who uses only one name. "Every day they fire rockets. They put bombs in the roads. Where are the fighters coming from? You elders are helping them. Don't sell out your country for five rupees."

The Afghan officials urged all of the elders to come forward with information about insurgent movements. "You don't care about your country," Qadar Gul, the subgovernor for Zerok District, chided them. "You don't care about your area. You are Taliban."

As the Afghan officials spoke, Capt. Gibson, his lip full of Copenhagen snuff, took care of side business. He quietly radioed his men to order a symbolic artillery and mortar barrage intended to ward off potential attackers in the ridgelines above the base. He relayed Lt. Col. Fenzel's orders that the guns fire only illumination or smoke rounds, not explosive munitions that might endanger civilians -- and only after the shura ended.

From across the room, the village doctor asked Capt. Gibson when he would receive $1,500 in promised compensation for four cows and four chickens killed in a firefight between Taliban fighters and U.S. soldiers. "It will be next week," Capt. Gibson assured him.

Meantime, the Afghans began to direct their comments more pointedly at Mr. Taday, and his body spoke of his discomfort. He crossed his arms tightly, and, at one point, dropped his beard to his chest and his head to his hands.

"I know you," Mr. Yaseen said.

"OK, you know me, but I'm not an insurgent," Mr. Taday responded.

Mr. Yaseen and other Afghan officials interrupted Mr. Taday on several occasions, a rudeness meant to diminish his stature before his peers. Mr. Yaseen challenged him to provide the names of Taliban fighters to the intelligence service, while Mr. Taday continued to protest his innocence.

"I support the government," he said. "Everyone knows Sangeen is a bad guy, but we can't do anything about it. He lives in Pakistan. There are no insurgents living here in Zerok."

Last to speak was Lt. Col. Fenzel. "We will always conduct ourselves with respect for your culture and your religion, Islam," he promised the elders.

"As your guests, we would ask for your protection," he added. "My pledge to you is that our forces will always conduct themselves as guests. When you know the Taliban are coming, let us know so we can provide security."

The colonel then looked directly at Mr. Taday. "You can't be on both sides," he warned.

Mr. Taday stared glumly at the floor.

The next day, Lt. Col. Fenzel got word that other shura members -- who U.S. officers say had long remained quiet for fear of Commander Sangeen -- now planned to depose him. At the same time, the colonel began working to secure orders from the provincial governor, Akram Khapalwak, to have the police arrest Mr. Taday.

They never got the chance.

Three days later, Mr. Taday, his son and three bodyguards traveled from Zerok to a nearby town where he met with the local head of the Afghan intelligence service, according to a U.S. intelligence report. Another son told a local official later that his father also met with American intelligence agents that day.

On the way home, as the sun went down, Taliban insurgents ambushed Mr. Taday's vehicle, blasting it with rocket-propelled grenades and killing all five men inside.

Insurgents then launched rockets at the Zerok outpost, but missed their target by a couple of hundred yards. U.S. troops counterattacked with a barrage of mortars and artillery, killing 10 Taliban fighters, thought to be the same group that had ambushed Mr. Taday, according to a U.S. intelligence report.

Using live images from an unmanned spy plane, the U.S. soldiers later watched as three trucks carried the corpses of Haji Taday, his son and bodyguards along mountain roads and dried riverbeds back to his home village. When they arrived, the drivers sprinted into the houses to deliver the news, and dozens of men swarmed around the bed of a pickup truck, apparently to glimpse Mr. Taday's body.

Lt. Col. Fenzel was stunned by the turn of events. He didn't think the other shura members would be bold enough to have Mr. Taday killed. So he surmised that Taliban loyal to one of Commander Sangeen's rivals had seen Mr. Taday meet with the government spy boss and assumed that he was betraying them.

One Afghan official with access to intelligence reports said that the killers had left a letter with the bodies, accusing Messrs. Taday and Sangeen of betraying the Taliban cause. Days later, insurgent factions in the area battled each other, leaving two fighters dead, the official said. His report couldn't be verified.

That night, Lt. Col. Fenzel called Gov. Khapalwak and told him of Mr. Taday's fate. The governor said he would inform the local media that the Taliban had murdered one of Zerok's respected village elders.