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March 24, 2008 -- Globe and Mail (Canada)

Air Strikes, War On Drugs Drive Taliban

The Afghan Mission: Talking To The Taliban

By Graeme Smith

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Insurgency's Foot Soldiers Are Motivated By Loved Ones Lost To NATO Planes And Money Lost To Poppy-Eradication Programs

Air strikes and drug eradication are feeding the insurgency in southern Afghanistan, as those actions convince some villagers that their lives and livelihoods are under attack.

In a unique survey, The Globe and Mail interviewed 42 ordinary Taliban foot soldiers in Kandahar and discovered 12 fighters who said their family members had died in air strikes, and 21 who said their poppy fields had been targeted for destruction by anti-drug teams.

The results suggest an unusual concentration of first-hand experience with bombing deaths and opium eradication among the insurgents, analysts say. Despite the violence and expensive counter-narcotics campaigns in Afghanistan, most villagers have not been touched by these events themselves, and their prevalence among the Taliban highlights two important motives for the insurgency.

"This is very interesting," said Sarah Chayes, an American author who lives in Kandahar.

The Taliban may exaggerate their claims of civilians killed in air strikes, she said, "but I do think civilian deaths, and the cultivated impression of civilian deaths, is playing an increasing role."

Some analysts have described senior Taliban leaders reaping large profits from the opium industry, but Ms. Chayes said the ordinary fighters are simply trying to protect a meagre source of income in a place where other jobs are scarce.

"It's not profit motive at these guys' level -- it's bare livelihood," she said. "Anybody would defend that."

Aerial bombings and civilian deaths have both increased: the United Nations estimates that more than 1,500 civilians were killed last year.

That figure as compares to the 900 to 1,000 civilian deaths counted by two studies of the previous year. An analysis of the first nine months of 2007 found the number of air strikes was already 50-per-cent higher than the total for 2006.

Civilian bombings emerged as a major theme of the war last year. President Hamid Karzai shed tears in public as he spoke about civilian deaths. In June, a coalition of Afghan aid agencies published a controversial report suggesting that the rate of civilian casualties had doubled from the previous year, and that international forces were starting to rival the Taliban as the greatest source of civilian deaths.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization disputed the aid groups' figures, but quietly took action to reduce the likelihood of killing civilians. A report from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this month said international forces had reviewed standard operating procedures for aerial engagement with a view to reducing collateral deaths caused from the air.

Still, some countries, such as the United States, have been reluctant to curtail their use of air power.

"The United States views this as the tragic but bearable cost of a successful operation against insurgents, without understanding that the Taliban has deliberately traded the lives of a few dozen guerrilla fighters in order to cost the American forces the permanent loyalty of that [bombed] village," wrote Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason, of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in California, in an academic paper last year.

The Taliban are usually reluctant to admit that they're fighting for any causes other than religion, but they have recently embraced civilian deaths as a rallying point. Insurgents have helped journalists arrange interviews with victims in the aftermath of air strikes in southern Afghanistan, and NATO soldiers have repeatedly witnessed the Taliban forcing civilians into dangerous situations in hopes of getting them killed by foreign troops, thus evoking the wrath of the village.

The Globe and Mail's survey was not scientific, but it offers a sample of the insurgents' views on the topic. Asked specifically about bombings by foreign troops, almost a third of respondents said their family members had died in such incidents during the current war.

Some insurgents complained about bombings by Russian aircraft in the 1980s in addition to recent air strikes under the Karzai government, suggesting that memories of the Soviet invasion fuel some of the current opposition to U.S. and NATO troops.

Even those who have not lost relatives in the bombings clearly identify themselves as defending Afghanistan against such attacks. In response to the question, "Has your family been bombed by foreigners?" four fighters offered fatalistic responses such as: "No, not yet." Two others gave variations on a declaration of solidarity. "No," one fighter said. "But the families of my friends have been bombed, and other Muslims are like my own family." Others described the air strikes hitting closer to home: "No, but our neighbours and relatives have been bombed."

About half of those who cited bombing deaths in their family said they joined the Taliban after the killings occurred: six joined afterwards, five joined before and one was not asked.

Those for whom the bombings was a trigger for joining the Taliban generally fell into two categories: young men replacing older relatives who died fighting in the Taliban ranks ("call-ups"); and men who took up arms against the government after their civilian relatives were killed.

An example of the call-up mechanism was the case of a 25-year-old farm worker who said three older members of his family were killed in air strikes. He specified that all of his slain relatives were Taliban fighters, and that it was his duty to replace them.

"All of them were with the Taliban and when one of them was killed in war, after that another was killed and then the third one was also killed," he said. "So after that I decided to join the Taliban." "But what is your goal? Do you want to take revenge or what?" he was asked.

"No, no, no," the fighter said. "I would never fight to take revenge for my family or something else. I am fighting only to remove the non-Muslims from my country because they are here to destroy our religion."

Others did not dwell on the rhetoric of jihad. A 22-year-old farmer initially said he abandoned his farm work because foreign troops arrived in his area, but later specified that three of his relatives -- -- two elders and a child -- had been killed in an aerial bombing in the previous year, and that he joined the Taliban after the bombing.

"Are you fighting because of that bombing?" he was asked. "Yes," he said. "Because of the bombing, and also because the foreigners are here."

Bombing was the only reason given when an older farmer, perhaps in his 40s, described his motives: "The non-Muslims are unjust and have killed our people and children by bombing them, and that's why I started jihad against them," he said. He said his family was bombed several times. "They have killed hundreds of our people, and that's why I want to fight against them."

International troops sometimes complain that they're fighting three wars in Afghanistan: the war on terrorism, a war against insurgents, and a war on drugs. The first two conflicts are viewed as inescapable, but the counter-narcotics campaign is often seen as hurting the rest of the war effort.

With opium production soaring to record levels, however, many Western politicians are pushing for a new crackdown on poppy farmers. The International Crisis Group predicted in February that such an effort would be disastrous: "Insurgents would exploit local alienation to recruit more soldiers," the ICG report said.

Most of the insurgents in the Globe survey admitted a personal role in the opium industry, with more than 80 per cent of respondents saying they farm poppies themselves and a similar percentage saying the plant is farmed by their family or friends.

Those numbers aren't surprising in rural Kandahar, where poppies rank among the most common crops. The more significant number, in the view of some analysts, was that half those surveyed said their fields had been targeted by government eradication efforts, sometimes more than once.

Eradication was not widespread in Kandahar in the years before the survey was conducted; it appears the Taliban either exaggerate the government's counter-narcotics program, or there is a connection between farmers who face crop eradication and those who join the insurgency.

The Taliban did not seem inclined to admit an economic rationale for the war, saying it's a secondary reason for fighting after the primary concept of religious war, but a few described the connection bluntly:

"Previously they were cutting them [poppies] down, but now those areas are controlled by mujahedeen and now they cannot cut them down," said a 26-year-old who described himself as a former religious student.

Under the previous Taliban regime, Afghanistan briefly witnessed one of the world's most successful anti-drug campaigns when Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar declared that growing poppies is un-Islamic. Some historians say the Taliban cynically cut production to increase the values of their own stockpiles, but the effects in the fields was dramatic: a year's crop was almost entirely wiped out.

The idea of opium as a religiously forbidden product has lingered in Afghanistan, and is often reinforced by the current government. But many of the Taliban in the survey gave a new rationale when asked to explain why they have reinvented themselves as protectors of the drug trade.

"We grow it because it damages the non-Muslims," one fighter said, repeating the line used by many others, sometimes parroting the phrase verbatim.

"Before this drug reaches the non-Muslims, won't it destroy our own people first?" he was asked by the Afghan researcher, expressing concern about Afghanistan's growing population of drug addicts.

But the fighter shrugged off this argument, saying the opium is mostly consumed in foreign countries.

"Islam says that it isn't permitted," the fighter conceded. "But we don't care whether it is permitted or forbidden. But we are only saying that we will grow poppies against non-Muslims."

A private security consultant in Kabul who reviewed the videos of the Taliban who were surveyed said the recurrence of this argument among the fighters seems to suggest an indoctrination campaign by Taliban leaders.

"If you read between the lines, some higher commanders have figured out a good excuse to cultivate poppy," the consultant said. "Those farmers are quite well brainwashed."

Taliban Funding

The Taliban revealed very little about their financing when asked by The Globe and Mail's researcher. Other sources suggest that their biggest cash inflows arrive from supporters in Pakistan, sometimes originally from donors in the Middle East, but the front-line insurgents didn't seem to know much about those transactions, or else kept them secret.

"All the Muslims give us money, whether they are Afghans or from Saudi Arabia or somewhere else," one fighter said.

Other insurgents described voluntary payments by ordinary Afghans and implied that the insurgents get a cut of the local drug trade. Such payments were always couched in the language of traditional Islamic payments to charity, usually in two forms: usher and zakat.

Usher literally means one-tenth, but can refer to any portion of agricultural crop that is set aside as a donation. Zakat is another kind of obligatory charity, usually 2.5 per cent of annual profits from business.

These payments are regularly shared with the Taliban in southern Afghanistan; farmers sometimes give half their donations to the insurgents and the other half to the local mullah for charitable causes.

Prominent local drug dealers and businessmen in Kandahar are known to make donations beyond the requirements of zakat and usher, sometimes in the form of cash, opium, vehicles, cellphone-recharge card numbers, or even warm clothing in winter.

Latest Developments

Afghan and NATO forces killed more than 40 insurgents in an air and ground battle in southern Afghanistan, a security official said yesterday.

Troops seized dozens of weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, after Saturday's battle in Dihrawud, a district in Uruzgan province, the Afghan Defence Ministry said in a statement, adding many militants were killed, including a commander, but provided no figures. An official at the ministry put the number of dead at more than 40.

U.S.-led coalition troops hit a roadside bomb in Kandahar province Saturday as they were conducting a security patrol with Afghan troops, the coalition said in a statement. Two soldiers died, it said. Coalition officials say the dead are not Canadians but their nationalities have not yet been released.

There have been at least eight instances in the past two years in which the Canadian government has dipped into its own pocket to compensate Afghan civilians or their families for accidental deaths or injuries. But the figures and details of the settlements remain a closely held secret, despite calls in the Manley commission report for the Conservative government to be more open and forthright.

The Justice Department, which shares responsibility with the Defence Department for ex-gratia payments, refused to release any details. The payments ranged from $1,971 to $31,584.

Under the arrangement, civilians can submit damage claims and lawyers deployed with the troops are allowed to make payments up to $2,000. Twenty-five trucks carrying fuel to U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan have been destroyed in a possible bomb attack on the Pakistani border. Officials say that dozens of people have been injured.

Mohammed Sadiq Khan, a local government official, said that the explosions and blaze occurred on the Pakistani side of the Torkham customs post late yesterday. At least 50 people were injured, eight of them seriously.

Fida Mohammed, the commander of a paramilitary force that helps provide security at the crossing, said 25 trucks carrying fuel to U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan were destroyed.

Afghanistan's intelligence agency said it had arrested a 14-year-old Pakistani boy who was planning a suicide car bombing in the eastern city of Khost. The teenager was arrested Thursday, Khost province deputy intelligence chief Mira Jan said. A car fixed with bombs was also found.

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