Turning the Taliban

By Moreau, Ron; Yousafzai, Sami | Newsweek, February 22, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Turning the Taliban


Moreau, Ron, Yousafzai, Sami, Newsweek


Byline: Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai

Pacifying insurgents with jobs and money is central to our strategy in Afghanistan. It's also misguided.

Huddled in the unheated, mud-walled room that serves as the dormitory of their madrassa, not far from the Pakistani city of Quetta, four religious students are talking about the war across the border. They've heard about U.S. plans for luring away thousands of Taliban with offers of jobs and money and persuading the rest to make peace. But the young men say it won't work. "I've lost one of my brothers and 10 other close relatives in the jihad," says Mohammad Salim Akhund, a 21-year-old fighter from Kandahar province. "Any thought of surrendering for money, or entering into any negotiations with our enemies, would dishonor these sacrifices." His young schoolmate Jama-luddin speaks up: "If you're committed to jihad, you won't leave for a mountain of money." At 18, he's the only one of the four who hasn't already fought in Afghanistan, but he expects to go in about two months, as soon as his religious studies are completed. "I want to die in the jihad," he says. "Not as a sick old man under a blanket at home."

To hear some Western officials talk, the Afghan war is practically over. U.S. commanders are placing big hopes on the impending surge of 30,000 additional U.S. troops, and donor nations at a recent conference in London pledged $500 million to help Taliban defectors make the transition to civilian life. Special envoy Richard Holbrooke and other senior U.S. officials have repeatedly argued that 70 percent of Afghanistan's insurgents are fighting merely for pay or strictly local aims and therefore can be "peeled away" from the hard-core believers. At that point, allied strategists hope, senior leaders of the weakened and divided insurgency will agree to substantive peace talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and "irreconcilables" like Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and his inner circle will end up isolated and largely powerless. The Pakistani government is said to be ready to assist in such talks, and Karzai is even calling for a Loya Jirga--a mass meeting of all Afghan tribal leaders, including the Taliban--to hammer out a power-sharing deal.

It all sounds fine--until you talk to the insurgents themselves. Over the past few weeks, NEWSWEEK has interviewed dozens of Taliban commanders and foot soldiers, and not one showed any interest in money or power-sharing deals. They insist they have a sacred duty to drive the invaders out of Afghanistan, return Mullah Omar's self-proclaimed Islamic Emirate to power, and reimpose his merciless version of Islamic law throughout the land. "In the next few months we will prove this is not a fight for power, for land, or for becoming president, but for Islam, ideology, and jihad," says a top Taliban official, a former cabinet minister who attends the insurgency's senior leadership meetings and who has never before spoken to the Western press. (He's unwilling to be named.) "You say 70 percent are fighting for money and can be bribed?" he asks. "You'll be lucky if you get 5 percent."

If there's one thing that motivates the insurgents to keep fighting, religious fervor aside, it's vengeance. Nearly all Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns who adhere to the age-old code of conduct known as Pashtunwali. One of the required duties under its rules is eye-for-an-eye revenge. Just about every Taliban who talked to -NEWSWEEK for this story recited lists of kinsmen who had been killed in the war, or imprisoned, or humiliated by Coalition searches of family compounds. At least in part, their reason for going to war was to seek payback against those who had inflicted pain and dishonor on their relatives.

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