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Killing Reconciliation: How US Policy Undermines Peace in Afghanistan
On March 26, 2009, Mullah Sahib Jan, a militant Taliban imam from the
Mohammed Agha district in Afghanistan's Logar province, walked into the
office of the Independent National Reconciliation Commission, the main
body encouraging the Taliban to lay down their weapons and work with the
government. He was escorting fifty Taliban fighters who, he said, had
committed to ending their fight against the Afghan government and
entering the process of integration. To the government, Sahib Jan was a
shining example of how reconciliation with the Taliban is supposed to
work. But less than a year later, the former militant's story would
stand as a devastating symbol of how the actions of US Special
Operations Forces are sabotaging the very strategy for reaching a
political settlement that US officials claim to support.
Throughout Afghanistan, large billboards line the major roads encouraging Taliban fighters to do what Sahib Jan did—reconcile with the government. The billboards show red silhouettes of Kalashnikov-carrying Taliban fighters walking across a line, after which they transform into civilians and join white silhouettes of unarmed Afghans dressed in traditional garb. The message is clear: lay down your weapons and rejoin the family.
When Sahib Jan walked into the reconciliation office, he publicly announced that he and his Taliban colleagues had agreed to work with the government on a peace process after the commission assured him that it would restrict US-led NATO forces from conducting night raids and killing civilians. "If the killing and arrests of people were not stopped," he said, "we would withdraw our support to the government and the foreign forces."
Reconciliation officials in Logar province say that making allies out of figures like Sahib Jan is the centerpiece of their work. Logar and its neighboring provinces, Paktia, Wardak and Ghazni, contain a strong presence of not only the Taliban but also the Haqqani network, the insurgent group portrayed by US officials as having the closest ties to Al Qaeda and a cozy relationship with Pakistan's ISI spy organization. Logar is also home to several tribes that say they have spent the past two years trying to make peace. A crucial part of this, they say, is building enough trust with the Taliban to make a serious case for ending their insurgency. Soon after his initial trip to the reconciliation office, Sahib Jan left his calling as an imam and took a position as a religious adviser to the reconciliation commission. As part of his work, reconciliation officials say, he traveled to hardcore Taliban areas.
"He was preaching to the Taliban, encouraging them to come to the government, telling the fighters there were a lot of benefits to laying down their arms," says Mohammed Anwar, director of Logar's reconciliation commission and an adviser to a local tribal council. Council officials credit Sahib Jan with putting Taliban fighters on the road to reconciliation.
But on the morning of January 14, Sahib Jan's bullet-riddled body lay on the ground outside his family's mud-brick compound in Logar's Safed Sang village. According to local officials and his family, he was killed in a night raid by US Special Operations Forces. "At 1 or 1:30 in the morning, US soldiers pulled up to the gas station in front of our house. We were sleeping in our rooms at that time," recalls Sahib Jan's 18-year-old son, Haider. "They broke down the doors of our house. My father was in one room, and we were in another. We don't know exactly when the US soldiers entered our house, we just know that they took our father and killed him. They killed our father outside our house, a short ways away. We don't know if they killed him from a helicopter or if commandos killed him."
According to Haider, US forces entered the compound with ladders and corralled the men into one room, where they handcuffed and blindfolded them. They moved the women to a separate room. "They tied all of our hands and roughed us up a little bit. They were beating us with both weapons and their hands," recalls Haider. "I was tied up from 1 or 1:30 in the morning until 6 in the morning." The family says that during the raid much of their property was damaged or destroyed. As Sahib Jan's sons were tied up, they had no idea of their father's fate until the Afghan translator appeared with US soldiers. They showed them a picture and said, "This is the man we killed."
"It was my father," Haider recalls. The soldiers then escorted the surviving men of the family to their father's body, where they saw about six bullets in it. With that, the Americans left; they have never contacted the family since.
"We have checked our logs and with our units that conduct these types of mission profiles. There is no record of the operation," US Lt. Commander Thomas Porter wrote in an e-mail to The Nation. But an eyewitness to the raid named Azmuddin, who works at the gas station in front of Sahib Jan's home, says, "US forces told me the next morning that they killed him because he had shot at them." Azmuddin says the morning after the raid he was arrested by US forces and taken to the classified Tor Prison, or "black jail," for fifteen days before being locked up at the Bagram prison for four months. In response to NATO's statement, government officials in Logar reacted angrily and swore that Sahib Jan was killed by US forces.
"There was a false report claiming that Sahib Jan was a Taliban, and the Americans conducted a night raid and killed him even though he had been working with us for months," says Anwar, the head of Logar's reconciliation commission. "During the entire time he worked with us, he hadn't participated in any attacks against the government. He worked with us as a religious adviser. Only the US soldiers know why they killed Sahib Jan. We don't know why." The local district chief, Abdul Hameed, says US forces carried out the raid without the cooperation of provincial security personnel. Anwar says that when he tries to contact US forces about these deadly incidents, they won't let him on their base, and the guards always tell him the appropriate officials are too busy or not there.
Officials at the reconciliation office point to several night raids over the past year, which they say targeted former Taliban who entered the process of reconciliation, as devastating to their work. "We are trying to build bridges between the Taliban and the government and trying to find jobs for them. We are working to get them decent housing in return for leaving the Taliban," says Anwar. "We are also trying to ensure that once they turn themselves in, they are not arrested again. How can we encourage reconciliation in good faith in the face of these American raids against the very people who agree to disarm?"
Meanwhile, US and NATO officials proclaim that the Taliban are on the ropes and will eventually be forced to make a deal. "The insurgency is under pressure, under pressure like never before in Afghanistan," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on October 22. "Our aim for this year was to regain the momentum. Now we have it." In recent weeks, such rhetoric has been bolstered by a flurry of reports about senior Taliban officials engaging in direct talks with the Karzai government, and US officials portray Washington as open to some form of a political settlement. But there is an enormous disconnect between the image projected by the US and Afghan governments and reality. On the ground the Taliban seem to be gaining traction and increasing membership despite, or perhaps because of, intensified US targeted-killing operations and night raids.
Two senior officials of the former Taliban government have told The Nation that the Taliban will not engage in any meaningful talks until foreign troops are expelled from Afghanistan and that reports that the Taliban are engaged in serious negotiations are false. "There is nothing going on, no negotiations between the Taliban and the Americans or the Taliban and the [Afghan] government," says Abdul Salam Zaeef, who served as the Taliban government's ambassador to Pakistan, in an interview at his home in Kabul. He says if anyone claiming to be Taliban is negotiating, they are essentially nobodies to the movement. "There was no 'peace meeting' because the Taliban reject it."
Privately, US officials have acknowledged that reports in US media outlets of senior Taliban negotiating are propaganda aimed at sowing dissent among the Taliban leadership. "This is a psychological operation, plain and simple," a US official with firsthand knowledge of the Afghan government's strategies told the McClatchy news service. "Exaggerating the significance of it is an effort to sow distrust within the insurgency."
The story of Sahib Jan raises a complicated question: was he really an influential Taliban figure? A current Taliban commander from Kunduz told The Nation that there is no evidence of the reconciliation program's success and that rural people are sometimes used as pawns in a game to elevate the status of tribal leaders with the Afghan government by "reconciling" Taliban fighters. "These are people who are just getting salaries from foreign powers or Afghan officials. You and I just invent a group and give them turbans and weapons and they go and say, We are Talibs and we surrender," says the Taliban commander, who goes by the nom de guerre Salahuddin. It is not clear whether Sahib Jan was an example of this, but in terms of public perception in Logar, that is irrelevant. What is not in dispute is that he publicly announced he was a Taliban mullah on the path to reconciliation and was killed in a night raid ten months later.
The US strategy seems to be to force the Taliban to the table through a fierce killing campaign. According to the US military, over a ninety-day period this past summer, US and coalition Special Operations Forces killed or captured more than 2,900 "insurgents," with an estimated dozen killed a day. Between July 4, when Gen. David Petraeus assumed command in Kabul, and early October, according to the military, US and Afghan Special Operations Forces killed more than 300 Taliban commanders and more than 900 foot soldiers in 1,500 raids. "This is precisely the kind of pressure we believe will lead to reconciliation and reintegration" of the Taliban, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently.
Zaeef, the former senior Taliban official, who spent four years in Guantánamo prison, confirmed that the American targeted-killing campaign of Taliban leaders has been successful, but he believes that the strategy will backfire for both the US and Afghan governments. "If these people, important, known people, disappear from the [Taliban] movement, what will happen? Who should [the Afghan government] make a dialogue with?" he asks. "The fighting will not stop. I know the new generation is more extremist than the last generation. The new generation will not listen to anyone. This is a dangerous thing. It will be bad for the Americans, but it will be worse for the people of Afghanistan."
Evidence of this can be found in a recent incident in Paktia province, when the Taliban leadership in Quetta, Pakistan, sent a representative to "reprimand a group of young commanders who were breaking the organization's rules," according to veteran Afghanistan journalist Anand Gopal. "But the defiant young commanders killed the cleric. While such incidents are still isolated, the danger is that as the Taliban undergo a massive demographic change in the coming years, this trend will accelerate, and the ability of Quetta to enforce decisions on its rank and file will be diminished."
Zaeef says the night raids and the targeted killings are strengthening the Taliban and inspiring more people "to become extremist against the Americans." US political and military leaders, he says, "are thinking, 'When we scare the people, they should be quiet.' But this is a different nation. When you are killing one person, four or five others rise against you. If you are killing five people, twenty, at least, are rising against you. When you are disrespecting the people or the honor of the people in one village, the whole village becomes against you. This is creating hatred against Americans."
The US killing of civilians, combined with a widely held perception that the Afghan government exists only for facilitating the corruption of powerful warlords, drug dealers and war criminals, is producing a situation in which the Taliban and the Haqqani network are gaining support from the Pashtun heartland in communities that would not otherwise be backing them. Since 2005, when Zaeef was released from Guantánamo, "the Taliban have become stronger," he says. "Are the Taliban coming from the sky?" Zaeef asks. "No, it's new people."
Zaeef and Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, the former Taliban foreign minister, insist that the Taliban is still the umbrella under which all of the insurgent forces operate. But at the same time they acknowledge that smaller, localized militias not loyal to Mullah Mohammed Omar or the Quetta-based Taliban leadership are popping up more and more. "By killing leaders, the war will not come to an end, but on the contrary, things will get worse, which will give birth to more leaders," says Muttawakil. "Many people might not like Taliban but join them because they are being harassed by powerful Afghans or foreigners and want to get revenge." Many of these newer insurgents live in rural areas of Afghanistan and, for now, fight in their own communities rather than as part of a cohesive national rebellion. "The nature of this kind of war is that it starts from the rural areas, as it started against the Soviet Union. Gradually the war spreads to district centers and then to the center of small provinces," Muttawakil says. "The war has started in rural areas and gradually will spread to big cities."
On a practical level, the discontent in those rural areas with the corruption of the Afghan government and the consistent killing of civilians by US forces is raising the prospect that Afghans offering assistance to the Afghan government and NATO forces—such as allowing safe passage to key supply convoys—may withdraw that support.
* * *
One community leader in Logar, Hajji Showkatt, works with a network of tribal leaders across Logar and its neighboring provinces who broker complex deals with the Taliban and Haqqani network forces to refrain from attacking oil and supply convoys headed to and from Kabul. Part of this involves paying bribes to the Taliban, but the deals also rely on assurances from Showkatt and the reconciliation commission to insurgent forces that they are working to end the night raids and arrests.
In the weeks leading up to Sahib Jan's killing, Logar officials say, there had been three other night raids in the area. Sahib Jan's killing was the final straw. "At the funeral everyone was so emotional when we took his body to be buried. We cursed the Americans," Showkatt says. In response, local people—not aligned with the Taliban—attacked an oil convoy, blowing up more than a dozen trucks, according to local officials. The scorched earth left by the attack can still be seen on the highway running through Logar. "Here is the bottom line: the US is conducting actions that are killing innocent people," Showkatt says. "The Taliban use this as propaganda and say to the people, 'This is what America is about.' It makes them more powerful."
Showkatt, who fought as a mujahedeen against the Soviets, continues to protect supply convoys for the United States and Afghan governments along key routes, but he says that this is becoming increasingly difficult to justify. Showkatt and other leaders say they cannot guarantee they will continue to offer convoy protection. "In the mujahedeen times, we stopped all of the Russian convoys in this area," Showkatt boasts.
"We fought the Russians when they were here and we expelled them," adds Showkatt's friend Azrat Mohammed, a former mujahedeen commander from Logar. "Americans are not stronger than the Russians. If they continue with these actions, disrespecting our women, killing the wrong people, inshallah, we will rise up to defeat them too."
Throughout the Pashtun heartland of southern Afghanistan, police officials and civilians alike tell stories about personal grudges being settled through death by US night raids, where false intelligence is deliberately passed on to NATO forces to get a rival or enemy killed or captured.
Mohammed is living in a refugee camp in Pakistan, he says, for that very reason. He says he has been warned he is on a list for kill or capture. "I am too afraid to even sleep in my own home at night, so I spend most of my time in the camps in Pakistan. I am afraid the Americans will kill me," he says. "The way the Americans rely on bad intelligence to target people like me, the night raids we keep witnessing, the arrests and the torture and the killing is all making me want to pick up a weapon again. We are not by our nature against the government, but what they are doing is encouraging people to rise up against them."
In Afghanistan, Taliban commanders are fond of characterizing their fight to expel the United States and its allies with the phrase, "You've got the clocks, we've got the time." While US leaders are struggling to define what victory would look like in Afghanistan, the forces they are fighting are not. "We have two goals: freedom or martyrdom," says Taliban commander Salahuddin. "If we do not win our freedom, then we'll die honorably for its cause." The continuing US targeted-killing campaign and renewed airstrikes ordered by General Petraeus seem only to be further weakening the already fragile Karzai government. In plain terms, the United States' own actions in Afghanistan seem to be delivering the most fatal blows to its counterinsurgency strategy and its goal of winning hearts and minds. "I think that the Americans are already defeated in Afghanistan, they are just not accepting it," says former Taliban official Zaeef.
"If the US pulls out, my heart will be very sad because there will be a civil war," says Asif Mohammed, a young driver who escorts supply convoys to Kabul. "If they stay, they will continue killing our women and children." In the end, there could be the worst of both worlds: an escalation in raids by US Special Operations Forces, with their heavy toll on civilians, and a failed counterinsurgency campaign incapable of stopping a civil war.