A Mullah Dies, and War Comes Knocking

By Sarah Chayes
Sunday, November 18, 2007

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan

Wednesday, Oct. 31: I woke to the sound of artillery thudding -- like the beat of a heavy heart. It was Afghan army batteries firing into Arghandab, at new Taliban positions there. Through several nights, I had been listening, my ears pricking like a dog's, to the faint popping of gunfire, the clattering of helicopters, the whine of personnel carriers speeding along the roads, falling asleep only when the morning call to prayer rang out in the pre-dawn chill.

I can't explain how this felt, the penetration of war to this crucial part of Kandahar, where I have lived for six years. Arghandab district, with its riot of tangled fruit trees, is the lung of Kandahar province; its meandering, stone-studded river is the artery of the whole region. Arghandab is shade and water, and mud-walled orchards, and mulberries and apricots, and pomegranates the size of grapefruits hanging from the willowy branches.

This magical land was first given to the fighting Alokozai tribe by Nadir Shah, who brought down the Safavid empire of Persia with its help in 1738. The latest in the line of Alokozai leaders was the gentle, jocular military genius Mullah Naqib, who died of a heart attack in mid-October. Mullah Naqib fought the Soviets from his base in Arghandab; they were never able to dislodge the mujahideen from this place.

As the Taliban gathered strength and insolence recently, they would contact the mullah from time to time, trying to strike a deal, telling him that they wished him no ill, but just to pass through Arghandab. He would bellow his retort. He would get on the radio and vow by God that if they dared set foot inside his Arghandab, the whole population would rise up. And thus he held his fractious, disgruntled tribesmen firm against them.

A week after the mullah's death, Zmarai, the district police chief, received a phone call at 1 a.m. "You're alone now that Mullah Naqib is gone," said the voice on the line. "We're coming to Arghandab, no matter what. Why don't you just stand aside? We're your friends and tribesmen."

"If you're coming as our friends," Zmarai shot back, "don't. If you're coming as our enemies, we will fight you."

I heard about this the next day, at an Alokozai elder's house where some friends of Mullah Naqib's had gathered to figure out how things would shake out in the wake of his death. It seemed as though the governor of Kandahar, President Hamid Karzai's two brothers and the president himself were deliberately creating the conditions for disaster in Arghandab.

They had interfered in the recent selection of a new elder, sidelining a man who had been Mullah Naqib's deputy during the anti-Soviet jihad, army corps commander after the fall of the Taliban, then chief of police in two cities. This man had been implacable in his opposition to the Taliban since before the Islamic radicals first appeared in Kandahar in 1994. If anyone knew how to fight the Taliban in Arghandab, it was he. And yet the government's machinations were plainly aimed at shutting him out.

We spent several urgent days thinking strategy, poring over maps, cross-checking the stories people were reporting. The Taliban now owned the whole district of Khakrez, just to the north of Arghandab. They had mined the roads and trapped the police and government officials in the district government building.

We looked at the roads leading down through the mountains, picking out good places for checkposts to stop a Taliban advance. Veteran fighters said each one needed only about 50 NATO soldiers and 200 Afghans. When I went to the local Canadian peacekeepers with the advice, they laughed. The Canadian commander simply didn't have the men.

Some days later, after a couple of desultory Taliban advances across the Arghandab district line, word leaked out from an infiltrated contact that they were withdrawing back to Khakrez, that we were safe for a time. It was a lie. And the effectiveness with which it was put about, the degree to which the truth was sealed away, demonstrated a significant level of command and control.

In fact, just a day or two before, the Khakrez district chief -- a friend of the Karzais' -- had struck a deal with the Taliban, according to numerous Khakrez residents, a deal reportedly sealed with a transfer of some weapons and some wheat. They could go where they liked, as long as they didn't attack the police.

On Monday, Oct. 29, I had a missed call from Zmarai on my cellphone. I rang him back. The Taliban were in Chahar Ghulba, his racing words announced, Mullah Naqib's home village. They were in his very house. Their commanders were meeting in the village mosque, and they were thick in the country all around.

All through that day, the battle lines were drawn: the Taliban north of the Arghandab river bed, government forces to the south. Cars ferried women and children away from the scene of the impending fight. Others, on foot, drove the animals that sustained their families ahead of them as they moved south, toward the city of Kandahar. It was the scene that has come to characterize the tragedies of recent years: poor people, innocent of the decisions that brought about violent events, fleeing ahead of their unfolding.

Only that night was a general council of war convened on the NATO military base outside Kandahar. All the actors were there: the chief of police; the head of the army corps; a representative of the governor, who was away on vacation; the Canadian battle group; the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team; U.S. police trainers and Special Forces officers; the untried son of Mullah Naqib. What a strange task it must have been for the Canadian commander to try to wrest a concerted plan from this company.

On the base the next day, I found a quietly exultant mood of work well done: NATO troops had responded, the Afghan National Army had responded, and some villages had been retaken, with significant Taliban casualties. The beginnings of a noose had been arrayed around the rest.

And yet I knew that the significance of this event could not be weighed in the usual quantitative metrics dear to journalists and military men. The number of bodies, the number of houses vacated, the inches of terrain occupied or retaken did not add up to the full reality of what had taken place. That reality was in the hearts of the people, the sinking sense of impending tragedy.

What had in fact transpired, in my view, was a deft, successful psychological operations action by the Taliban. Their attack on Arghandab was designed to communicate, and it did -- eloquently. It said that they are here. It said that, despite the likelihood that they would attack after the death of Mullah Naqib, no obstacle was thrown up to oppose them, and they were able to walk into the district. The targeting of the mullah's house was a deliberate affront. It said: "You see, o men of no honor? You can't even protect his house. You are nothing now." The sum of these messages was aimed at the ordinary people who are the prize in any insurgency: Our encroachment is inevitable, the Taliban said. You should align yourselves with the inevitable.

In the end, after three days of fighting, the Taliban were not crushed in the jaws of a closing trap, as we had been led to expect. They executed a disciplined, fighting withdrawal -- one of the most difficult maneuvers on a battlefield. Even their retreat emphasized their message.

Now, Kandaharis fear, they will quietly capitalize on this psy-ops victory. They will visit the villages and the mosques in tiny groups. They will instill their poison, a savant dose of seduction ("Brother, we have nothing against you; you are a Muslim, and we love you. Our fight is with the infidels. Let us pass") and terror: a "collaborator" tracked down and cut into pieces, a suicide bomber at a normally tranquil village crossroads. They will work to turn the people toward the inevitable.

All of this is a pattern familiar from other districts. What troubles me more is evidence that the battle for Arghandab may have been a piece of psy-ops mounted by a different set of actors, aimed at a different audience, against a backdrop of diplomatic initiatives that would have been unthinkable a few short years ago. There is suddenly this backbeat -- persistent references in the media, unchallenged pronouncements by Karzai -- that the only way to end the "insurgency" is to negotiate, to invite the Taliban back to share power.

This is a seductive refrain. After all, wasn't the IRA brought to the table? Didn't Yasser Arafat win a Nobel Peace Prize? Isn't it true that insurgencies are never defeated, that they are always accommodated in the end through negotiations?

Except these Taliban are not home-grown insurgents. These Taliban, I have become convinced by evidence gathered over the past six years, were reconstituted into a force for mischief by the military establishment -- in other words, it seems to me, the government -- of Pakistan, as a proxy fighting force to advance Pakistan's long-cherished agenda: to control all or part of Afghanistan, directly or indirectly.

The only reason Pakistan's invasion-by-proxy has morphed into something even vaguely resembling an insurgency is that the Afghan people are at the limit of their endurance with a government that pillages and brutalizes them and lies to them barefaced. Judges demand fortunes for positive verdicts. Customs agents expect kickbacks for every transaction. Police officers shake people down or kidnap them for ransom. Six years of depredations by the government have led to its rejection -- and to resentment of the international community that installed it and then refused to supervise it. From those feelings of anger have spread pools of collaboration with the Taliban.

Meanwhile, have the Taliban changed their approach to the exercise of power? Not in the least. They still seek to gain control via terror -- by hanging bodies upside-down from trees, by placing pieces of men in gunny sacks like quarters of meat to horrify their neighbors.

So what has changed in six years, except the West's failure to provide a palatable alternative? Is this to be the world's response to that failure? "Oh, we weren't able to do any better for the Afghans than the Taliban, so we may as well bring them back in and get the place off our hands."

The battle for Arghandab never had to happen. The probable consequences of Mullah Naqib's death were plain even to me, a foreigner. Surely they were clear to Afghan leaders who have spent their lives in the tortuous politics of the place.

But far from taking steps to prevent the Taliban attack, those leaders did exactly what would help bring it about, almost as if they wanted it to happen. If they did, perhaps they too sought the battle for its psy-ops value. In the West, the message would be: "You see, there's just no way to achieve a military victory over the Taliban. You don't have the forces or the political will. You will always be putting out fires. You should let us negotiate."

As if echoing this message, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown emerged from a meeting with Karzai in late October to say that solutions in Afghanistan require "reconciliation of all the groups." Karzai alluded to "the need for political activity alongside our military campaign."

Absent from these statements was the least recognition that proper conduct of government is the best antidote to the Taliban. Provided with accountable, responsive leadership, the Afghan people wouldn't give that lot a second glance.


Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter, runs a local cooperative in Afghanistan.

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