March 29, 2008

Meeting the Guerrilla

Canada's Globe and Mail has this week released a report on the Taliban entitled "Talking to the Taliban" in which its Kandahar correspondent Graeme Smith interprets interviews of an Afghan who he has hired as a "researcher" (based on the description in the story, "source" would likely be a better term).

The 42 interviews conducted with self-professed and Kalashnikov-wielding Afghan Taliban fighters are a must watch for any counterinsurgent in Afghanistan. These videos give us a window into the average Afghan guerrilla fighter, the men who emerge as a result of underlying causes and whose individual deaths will not resolve the conflict. These are the men that in some combination we will have to convince, cajole, capture, or kill (and compromise with) if we are to win in Afghanistan.

The most important thing to emerge is an idea of the Taliban's narrative which focuses for the most part on foreign occupation, which identifies Karzai and Musharraf as "slaves," and which underplays the role of money or opium in the motivations of the fighters. The propaganda also focuses on the importance of ordinary Afghans in supporting the fighters rather than external support. The interviews also identify subtly some areas of discomfort and disagreement, particularly as applied to the question of poppy and the Durrand line. I will personally spend a lot of time replaying them all myself as I believe it is important to understand not only the fighters but also their message (they know they're playing to an audience when the camera is rolling).

The interviews themselves are fascinating. A few of the graphics and maps are quite useful, including the tribal map of Panja-ve (Kandahar-bound or -present USMC, see Appendix B, 3-24; use accordingly--do not then write "SECRET//NO FORN"). That said, much of the reporting by Graeme Smith in the accompanying videos is unsophisticated to say the least. My main beef is that the he is using a worthy in its own right but admittedly unscientific survey to make sweeping conclusions.

For instance, in his final piece discussing suicide bombing he says, that we are "seeing a shift in the Taliban movement" away from past debates on the practice and toward widespread acceptance. Yet not only is the poll unscientific but the fighters are being watched in most cases by their comrades or minders and would be unlikely to digress from a pre-approved plan, even if they felt otherwise.

And while I agree that the Nurzai and Ishaqzai make up a substantial portion of the insurgency, the video is only coming from places where his researcher can get access and therefore are more likely to come from a small group of tribes among whom the researcher can travel. I should also point out that a number of Ghilzai tribes (as well as tribes outside of the Ghilzai/Durrani branches) are more pro-government than pro-insurgency, even as his diagram identifies all Ghilzai as insurgents.

Because the Taliban could not point to Canada on a map or identify who Stephen Harper is, Smith felt them unsophisticated. I believe (and I am really not taking a cheap shot at Canada here-you all deserve hugs) that most of the world could not identify Stephen Harper's job if asked. Moreover, I bet that an interview of Canadians would find them as clueless as to the Nuristani-speaking areas of Afghanistan as the self-identified fighters are to the French- speaking areas of Canada. Several identified the fact that the US and Canada were neighbors, which is probably better than most Canadians could do if asked to identify the neighboring countries of Afghanistan.

Smith's broader point in this is that the Taliban pose no danger to Canadian shores even if they win. These fighters are not part of a global jihad in Smith's opinion because they profess no allegiance to it. This is to mistake the foot soldiers for their leaders. One need only read Al Qaeda's propaganda of the last month to know that it would pursue global jihad from within Afghanistan and Canada would be a target--heck, just look at Mullah Dadullah Lang's second-to-last interview to see that. He seemed to have a pretty decent grasp of geography.

And, lest we forget, it is from Afghanistan that a true salafist jihadi movement of not only global aspirations but also global reach emerged.