7 NATO Troops Killed;
as Karzai is Said to Dicker with Insurgents;
and Panetta Scoffs
Taliban Rejoice in McChrystal Firing

Radio Azadi reports that from early Sunday morning in the Marawara District of Kunar Province, a vigorous firefight has been pursued by the Taliban on the one hand and on the other, joint NATO and Afghanistan National Army troops. At least three NATO troops were killed, including 2 Americans, in the fighting.

Those tribesmen who take up arms against NATO and the central government are termed ‘Taliban’ in the Western press. But the major Muslim fundamentalist guerrilla group in Kunar Province is the Hizb-i Islami of old-time Reagan-era ‘freedom fighter’ Gulbuddin Hikmatyar. Hikmatyar has been talking about negotiating a peace with Karzai. In March, his forces fought a battle with rival Taliban that left dozens dead. Hikmatyar offers himself as a mediator with the militants who can pave a path to peace and reconciliation if only the US and NATO will agree to get out of his country.

Just Saturday, a battle broke out between Taliban and Hizb-i Islami militants in Maidan Wardak province, southwest of Kunar, on the other side of Kabul.

Not only is President Hamid Karzai reputedly talking to Hikmatyar, but Aljazeera reported Sunday that he has had secret meetings with Siraj Haqqani. The son of old-time Reagan-era Mujahidin leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, Siraj is based in North Waziristan and raids into Afghanistan. Western intelligence considers the Haqqani network closest to the Arab al-Qaeda cells in Pakistan’s tribal belt. If it is true that Karzai is talking to Haqqani (he denies it), this step is taken to signal that he may be tacking toward Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence, and away from the embrace of the United States.

On ABC This Week with Jake Tapper, CIA director Leon Panetta threw cold water all over the idea of talks and reconciliation:

‘ the bottom line is that we really have not seen any firm intelligence that there’s a real interest among the Taliban, the militant allies of Al Qaida, Al Qaida itself, the Haqqanis, TTP, other militant groups. We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation, where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce Al Qaida, where they would really try to become part of that society.’

I think Panetta is being too categorical in his skepticism. There are other reasons for tribal factions to dicker with bigger, stronger forces than fear of annihilation (indeed, given Pashtun codes of honor, they could hardly parley when their situation was truly perilous). For instance, there is Hikmatyar’s feud with the Taliban, which may have brought him closer to compromise with Karzai.

As if to underline Panetta’s skepticism, however, the Taliban leader in Kunar Province, Obaid al-Rahman, had said this weekend that he and other Taliban were delighted with the firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, since it would take his successor, Gen. David Petraeus, time to get used to Taliban tactics. In the meantime they could regroup. He promised a dramatic attack soon. Obaid al-Rahman also offered Gen. Petraeus a praetorian “Guard of Death.” It is therefore no surprise that fighting broke out in Marawara between US/NATO forces and the Taliban.

In the US, Afghanistan is mostly discussed abstractly, leading to categorical judgments like that of Panetta. But let us look at the concrete situation. Marawara in southeast Afghanistan, abutting Pakistan’s Bajaur Tribal Agency, is just about at the end of the world. Here are its social statistics [pdf]. It is 86 percent either mountainous or semi-mountainous. Its 400,000 people are 96 percent rural. It still has thousands of pastoral nomads. The people of Marawara widely lack access to clean drinking water or sanitary toilets. Some 47% of the men are literate (a remarkably high number, probably attesting to the efficacy of Qur’an schools) but only 18% of women are. The majority is Pashtuns, but it has a small Nuristani minority. Nuristanis, called ‘Kafirs’ until their conversion to Islam in 1896, speak an Indo-Iranian language very different from Persian or Punjabi, which is often considered a third branch of this language family, and likely they are descendants of a very ancient wave of Indo-European migration into Central Asia that never went south into India. The major tribes of Marawara, mostly Pashtuns, include the Safi, Salarzai, Mashwani, Mamon, and Shinwari.

Districts such as Marawara are in the midst of an internal fight. Some of the villages and the few urban people support the government of Hamid Karzai and his NATO allies. A provincial reconstruction team visited the district in January and spoke of progress in building a district government center (where Afghanistan National Army troops would also be stationed) and in fighting malnutrition and malaria.

But many young tribesmen do not want the government center or the Kabul troops, or the foreign armies. Government programs do not help everyone equally. Perhaps they have even been disadvantaged by changes wrought from the outside. For them, independence and Muslim fundamentalism and local interests are supreme, and they will not rest until the foreign troops (and they may well count the disproportionately Tajik national army in that category) are out.

It is not clear from the vague Persian and English press reports whether Sunday’s battle was with Taliban, or Hizb-i Islami, or just tribal youth who don’t like foreigners. If NATO is fighting Taliban in Marawara, they may be making friends thereby with Hizb-i Islami, which had been in the past the second-largest insurgent group, responsible for significant losses of life among US and NATO soldiers.

Of course, that issue raises the question of which faction of Taliban is active in Marawara. Is it the Old Taliban of Mulla Omar (which tends to have its power bases in the West) or the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan), based over the border in Pakistan?

In any case, two American soldiers died fighting in Marawara on Sunday, along with another NATO soldier. The Western press just said it was in eastern Afghanistan. Maybe they mentioned Kunar. Not all did. We aren’t told the details of these things. Which tribesmen fought? Under whose banner, exactly? Is the fighting a cause of despair, as we’re losing troops at the end of the world? Or were they maneuvering Hikmatyar and Hizb-i-Islami into an alliance with Karzai that seems promising as a way of ending the war?

In other news, Taliban set a roadside bomb in the northern Faryab Province that killed 4 Norwegian troops on Sunday, as well. That datum is actually quite weird. Faryab is mostly Uzbek, with a Tajik minority, and Pashtuns there are only 12 percent of the population. But likely it was a cell of radicalized Pashtuns that carried out the bombing. Faryab is a relatively calm, safe, posting. It is a little worrying that the Taliban are developing such long arms that they can reach into it and hit NATO, way up there.

Marawara. Faryab. The words mean nothing to most Westerners, even as they insist that their security depends on what happens in those fabulous and distant places. But if we do not even know what the fighting is about in those places, we do not understand the circumstances in which young men of NATO gave their lives Monday. And since in a democracy, young men fight on behalf of we the people, we have an obligation to know more about the hells into which we send them before we conclude that we did the right thing.

17 Responses

  1. You present a picture that seems quite different from what we are getting elsewhere. For instance, George Packer in The New Yorker, speaking of the Taliban, writes: “… the kidnapping narratives of two American journalists, Jere Van Dyk and David Rohde, who were held by the Taliban, along with the autobiography of the former Taliban official known as Mullah Zaeef … show that the years since 2001 have radicalized the insurgents and imbued them with Al Qaeda’s global agenda.” I’m not sure what he is talking about, since I have not read the items he refers to, but he seems to be saying that the Taliban have acquired a global terrorist agenda. Am I misreading this? Or is he just plain wrong?

    • Globalist Taliban exist; their numbers are exaggerated in US policy circles. Most Afghan “insurgents” inside Afghanistan appear to me to be very locally oriented.

  2. Excellent article Prof Cole. The signs that COIN operations are losing badly in Afghanistan are mounting by the day. Hopefully this will led to a dramatic draw-down and focus on The Biden Plan.

    Also Off Topic – But I am curious as to what you think of the long predicted rumors of an Israeli strike on Iran, given the much reported military buildup. Do you think a strike will take place or is this more Smoke and Mirrors from a desperately hard to read region and how do you think Iran would react.

  3. Excellent analysis, great detail, all correct except for one slip:

    Marawara is in /northeast/ Afghanistan.

    • I disagree. Badakhshan is in the *north*east. Kunar and Nangarhar are in the *south*east. Look at the map. Kunar is on the southern border of Afghanistan to the east.

  4. I had an old Toyota SR-5 pickup that developed some electrical problems, so I got the repair manual and studied the schematic of the electrical system — then I opened the hood and was confronted by the most confusing and impossible to follow mess of wires I ever saw. The real world under the hood looked nothing like the schematic in the repair manual. Most sources feed us the schematic. More and more I appreciate the fact that you give us a peek under the hood in places like Afghanistan.

  5. thanks so much — I may have to read this entry several times before I will be able to recognize the names and places, but I too appreciate the details. I’ve realized for a long time that all this talk of “the Taliban” was possibly even deliberately obscuring a much more complicated social reality. Even the reports from Marjah in the NY Times indicated that most families have “Taliban” kin — despite repeated polls showing that “the Taliban” are despised.

    I have wondered about our sources of information — whether the voices of the common rural folk are EVER heard and factored into the pronouncements of public opinion. I doubt the ambitions and desires of the tiny powerholding, affluent movers and shakers are either “altruistic” nor their concerned shared by the masses trying to keep body and soul together. I wonder if the average person has enough money and opportunity to be affected by “corruption” or if this is primarily a concern of the powerful and affluent (the original trickle down economics, if you’re lucky enough to have kin in on the gravy train). Speaking of which, wasn’t part of the base of power for the Taliban that they were “honest” in comparison to the warlords?

    Disturbing to read of the polio outbreak. I gather hunger is all too common as well.
    What are OUR priorities, beside avoiding casualties and “disgrace”?

    Anyway, thank as always — Susan

  6. I does seem that our military and our oxymoronic military intelligence has taken to taking the long, generalistic (pun intended?), view. This seems to serve the purpose that when we bomb those people, they are all given a generic ‘enemy’ quality.

    I appreciate seeing the societal texture of the region. It is indeed our duty as citizens to look the ‘enemy’ in the eye.

    A question: How does recent congressional action (development $s being held up) shape the political reality in Afghanistan?

  7. “And since in a democracy, young men fight on behalf of we the people, ”

    Sure, but since we’re Americans, the question is what do men and women fight for in a plutocracy?

    Gen. Smedly Butler “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class thug for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. ”

    As true today as it was then.

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