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
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 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
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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,"
"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
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
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.