Who are the Taliban? A talk from Anand Gopal (part I)

Posted by CODEPINK Staff

Last night a few CODEPINKers from L.A. attended a talk by journalist Anand Gopal at the Brave New Foundation studio, connected through his help on the BNF film, "Rethink Afghanistan."

HIs story mirrors that of many New Yorkers in some ways. Gopal watched the Twin Towers collapse as he ran from his apartment building located directly across the street.  His building was destroyed and lost three close friends in the attacks. After witnessing and being affected by the devastation first hand, Gopal became intensely interested in the Global War on Terror (GWOT). So much so that he moved to Afghanistan to work as a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and soon the Wall Street Journal.  He's become somewhat of an expert on the GWOT, hence his link to BNF.

Gopal spoke on a variety of issues that are facing Afghanistan and why we need to rethink and change our outlook on the conflict. First, to understand what "Taliban" means.

  • The Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban often get intertwined but they are completely different groups fighting for completely different reasons. The Pakistani Taliban is fighting the state of Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban is fighting the United States. Pakistan is fighting against the Pakistani Taliban but is funding and aiding the Afghan Taliban.

  • Groups from many different ethnic backgrounds make up the Afghanistan insurgency; the Taliban is only one of those groups but the most prominent. Taliban are Pashtuns, an ethnic group that makes up 40 percent of the country and mainly resides in South and East Afghanistan, where most fighting takes place.

  • The Taliban today often get confused with the Taliban of the 1990s, but they are very different groups. During the 1990s, the Taliban were orphans of the Russian war and had grown up in mudras that bred Islamic Fundamentalists. Today, the Taliban are poor famers and herders who have never stepped foot in mudras. Their reasons for joining the Taliban have nothing to do with religion.  Instead they are motivated by money and grief.

Afghanistan is the third poorest country in the world.  Virtually no money is devoted to developing the country, most is used to fund the military. The Taliban pay their soldiers $200-$300 each month, a salary difficult to pass up given that the war rages on adding to the incredible amount of poverty in the region.  Other insurgents, about one-fourth of the Taliban,  join because they have personally been affected by the war in some way, usually U.S. bombs, air raids, and other mistakes that generate civilian casualties.

In recruiting, the Taliban specifically target young, mentally distraught kids who feel they have no reason to live because of the loss of loved ones to become suicide bombers.  Gopal gave a striking example of a boy who he called Zuber.  When Zuber was 10 or 11 (dates of birth are largely unknown in Afghanistan) he came home one day to find all of the villagers huddled around an area with smoke and rubble.  As he got closer and pushed his way through the crowd, Zuber realized it was his house that had been bombed.  The rest of his family had been home when the bomb struck his house.  He began to frantically rummage through the rubble until he found his mother’s severed head.  The boy cradled his mother’s head in his arms and refused to let go until the tribal elders pried the head from his arms.  One of the tribal elders consoled him by telling him that he could not change what happened to his family but he could help prevent this from happening to other families.  These words echoed in his head as he signed up with the Taliban.  At 15 he was fitted for a vest and sent into an area with police and officials to attempt his suicide-bombing mission.  As he went to release the trigger on his vest a policeman recognized what he was about to do and tackled Zuber before he had a chance to set off the bomb. Zuber is now in jail and his story is one of many.

The war in Afghanistan has resulted in a large number of civilian casualties, propelling youth and attracting victims to the Taliban. Here in the West we tend to only hear about civilian casualties when something bigger happens, like a bomb hits a wedding party.  But civilian casualties are a daily occurrence in Afghanistan.

Gopal likes to embed himself with all different groups in the areas, rotating frequently between American soldiers, insurgents and conversing with civilians.  When Gopal was embedded with the Americans, they were involved in a cross fire with insurgents.  A black car sped quickly by them and the American soldiers automatically opened fire on the car.  The car came to a jolting halt and an old man emerged holding a newborn that was shot and crying.  Three civilians in the car were killed during that cross fire.  Some Americans felt bad about their mistake, but some of the American soldiers actually laughed.  In this type of combat situation the line between civilians and combatants are blurred especially in this day and age as insurgents are embedding themselves in villages.  All Afghans become Afghan soldiers.  And so the vicious cycle of bombing and recruiting and it continues.]

Pashtuns want the U.S. to leave because when the U.S. soldiers arrive it increases the violence in the area.  Non-Pashtuns want the U.S. to stay because they aren’t residing in war-torn areas and do not want to have to deal with the Taliban.  But the Taliban only resides in half of the country and though they have grown they do not have the ability to grow beyond their ethnic group and into urban areas.  On the contrary, the U.S. cannot uproot the Taliban because of their strong presence and integration in Pashtun villages.  It is a war of attrition; there is no end and there will be a stalemate.  A political settlement is the only option.

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