Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Afghanistan and the Taliban-Collateral damage

The Taliban are more violent, but the locals are not turning against them

FOR years a dark hope has lurked in the minds of some senior NATO soldiers in Afghanistan: that the Taliban-led insurgency might turn on the country’s rural population, killing, maiming and intimidating civilians instead of wooing them in more subtle ways. The hope, voiced always in a whisper, is that a nastier Taliban would then be comprehensively rejected by ordinary Afghans.

Such unmentionable thoughts are deeply at odds with the stated NATO policy of trying to protect the population as much as possible from the depredations of Taliban insurgents. Nonetheless, the view is particularly prevalent among American military alumni of Anbar, the province in Iraq that descended into hell when (foreign) al-Qaeda insurgents overran it. In 2006 Iraqi civilians took a stand against the insurgents and ran them out of town.

During the past year or so Taliban insurgents appear to have taken ever less care to protect civilians. According to UN statistics, they were responsible for four-fifths of the 1,500-odd civilian deaths caused by fighting in the first six months of this year. One reason is that, as local insurgents have been captured or killed in NATO operations, Taliban leaders have responded by sending in fighters from “out of area”: usually young, inexperienced hotheads from Pakistani madrassas, less fussy about harming or alienating locals. Kate Clark, at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, reports that in the south-east, the insurgents’ quasi-legal structures for establishing the guilt of alleged spies have largely been abandoned in favour of summary executions. This summer insurgents in Helmand province in the south hanged the eight-year-old son of a local policeman. This kind of thing is at odds with Taliban claims to protect ordinary people from predatory warlords, corrupt government officials and infidel NATO invaders.

In a sign that the movement itself is starting to worry about its own behaviour, Mullah Omar, the one-eyed Taliban chief, based over the border in Pakistan, has just issued a rare statement threatening rogue insurgents with sharia justice if they kill or injure civilians. Unfortunately, as NATO hastens to point out, just days after the mullah’s proclamation, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a mosque in a north-eastern province, Baghlan, killing seven and wounding 17.

Although the Taliban insurgency is getting nastier, little suggests that the Afghan people are being pushed towards an Anbar-style “awakening”. Despite a few isolated incidents, including one group of infuriated villagers in Helmand who stoned a Talib to death this summer, Afghans are still more likely to blame their increasingly miserable circumstances on the foreigners. What is more, levels of violence are nowhere near those that prevailed in Iraq at the height of its insurgencies. And the risk of defying the Taliban is still high. Civilians know that the Afghan government will only rarely be able to protect them. The Economist

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