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In Afghanistan, background and a reading file from those who have been there

Schools as a source of hope Many see hope in education in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Here, children leave their school last month after classes in Qutbal, Pakistan. That nation is seeing a surge in private schools, a trend some find hopeful where public education is decrepit and the alternatives are the madrassas, religious schools offering little education beyond memorizing the Koran and seen as a source of militancy.

Associated Press

Schools as a source of hope Many see hope in education in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Here, children leave their school last month after classes in Qutbal, Pakistan. That nation is seeing a surge in private schools, a trend some find hopeful where public education is decrepit and the alternatives are the madrassas, religious schools offering little education beyond memorizing the Koran and seen as a source of militancy.

New York Times Education as a counter to insurgents

Recently, New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof argued that building schools and educating people in Afghanistan and Pakistan would do more to stabilize these societies than military interventions. In response, a number of U.S. servicemen wrote to the New York Times with their own stories about education as an effective counterinsurgency measure. One of the most detailed came from Lt. Col. Michael Fenzel. Here is an excerpt, but the full version is available at

As an infantry battalion commander (with 2.5 years on the ground in Afghanistan) my number one priority was education. As visitors and congressional delegations moved through our little corner of the country in Eastern Paktika (where the literacy rate is at 2 percent) there was typically disbelief that this was a legitimate counterinsurgency priority. …

We reached out to the University of Nebraska and Columbia University's Teachers College to develop a partnership in our effort to raise literacy and broaden educational opportunities in Paktika. … The effort began with a 30-day education needs assessment where I committed nearly a company of infantry for security to the University of Nebraska and Columbia. They traveled to each of the province's 22 districts and talked to teacher after teacher and district governor after governor.

This assessment cost us (the battalion) $179,000 in CERP funds … a pittance. Indeed, this is how much it often costs to pave one kilometer of road! They came back to us with a 3-year plan to place up to 9 qualified teachers in every district and remain on a trajectory to continue mentoring and developing teachers after the three years of funding ran dry (i.e. self-sustaining — the watchword of the development community).

This three-year program cost us $359,000, about the cost of one 2,000-pound bomb, yet dramatically more powerful in a counter- insurgency effort. Afghan communities that are largely illiterate are subject to propaganda and intimidation of the Taliban on a scale that cannot be compared to the university cities where there is almost no support for the Taliban.

Guardian Meeting the Taliban

The British newspaper the Guardian has an interview with its Iraqi journalist, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who spent time in Afghanistan late last year and met with the Taliban in southeastern Afghanistan. You may listen to the full interview at, but here are a few excerpts:

"I realized that Afghanistan is much different than Iraq, that each little town, each little valley has its own problems, fighting their own war. I realized that the Taliban, in one way or another, they are so different from the Iraqi insurgents."

• • •

"Here is the thing. It's not that most of Afghans I met were supporting the Taliban, but almost every single Afghan I met was disappointed with both the Karzai government and with the NATO and American forces."

• • •

"When I entered that room (you know, the room where I was to meet the Taliban for the first time), you know, you take off your shoes, you step into that room, and suddenly a strong sense of stepping into another world engulfs you. We can write about these things, we can take pictures of these things, but when you enter the room with a dozen men wearing huge silk turbans, having black around their eyes, huge beards, and guns all over the room, whoever you are and whatever the things you've done in your life and the people you've met, entering that room is an experience by its own."

Guardian | A U.N. mission of political misery

At the Guardian, Peter Galbraith weighs in with his experience as the deputy head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan for several months this year: "Afghanistan's presidential election is over, and it was a fiasco." Here's an excerpt. Read it in full at

Unfortunately, we now have to live with the consequences (of this failed election). Before the election, Karzai was seen both at home and abroad as ineffective and tolerating corruption. Now, many Afghans see him as illegitimate while large parts of the public in the troop-contributing countries consider him irredeemably tainted by the fraud. Western leaders say they will work with Karzai, as they must, but he cannot be an effective partner in Obama's enhanced counter-insurgency strategy. And without an effective Afghan partner, the strategy will not work.

New York Times Diary of a captive

David Rohde, a New York Times reporter, was kidnapped with two Afghan colleagues a year ago as they traveled to an interview with a Taliban commander outside Kabul, Afghanistan. He has written a five-part series offering a first-person account of his seven months as a captive of the Taliban in Pakistan. The narrative gives readers an inside look at how the Taliban thinks and operates, useful context for pondering the proper U.S. course in Afghanistan. He was held by the forces of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of one of the most hard-line factions of the Taliban. Read the series in full at Here is an excerpt:

My captors harbored many delusions about Westerners. But I also saw how some of the consequences of Washington's antiterrorism policies had galvanized the Taliban. Commanders fixated on the deaths of Afghan, Iraqi and Palestinian civilians in military air strikes, as well as the American detention of Muslim prisoners who had been held for years without being charged. America, Europe and Israel preached democracy, human rights and impartial justice to the Muslim world, they said, but failed to follow those principles themselves. …

As the months dragged on, I grew to detest our captors. I saw the Haqqanis as a criminal gang masquerading as a pious religious movement. They described themselves as the true followers of Islam but displayed an astounding capacity for dishonesty and greed.

A letter of resignation

Matthew Hoh was the senior U.S. civilian in Zabul province, a Taliban hotbed in Afghanistan, when he resigned in protest over the Afghan war. You may see a copy of his letter of resignation at Here are excerpts:

The Pashtun insurgency, which is composed of multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups, is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The U.S. and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified.

In both Regional Commands East and South, I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul.

National editor Bill Duryea, who has traveled to Pakistan before, and Perspective editor Jim Verhulst combed through background on Afghanistan, looking for some context as well as a reading file of pieces from people who actually have lived, worked and fought there. Here is what they found.

The insurgents in Afghanistan

The Afghan Taliban

The Taliban emerged in the chaotic aftermath of the war with the Soviets as mujahedeen, which had been more or less unified against the Soviet enemy, split in factions vying for control of the liberated Afghanistan. Though their numbers are fluid, they are estimated to number no more than 25,000 now.

Mullah Muhammad Omar, a religious teacher (hence the title mullah) who, it's said, lost his right eye fighting the Soviets, assembled a band of about 30 armed students (talibs) from religious schools (madrassas) in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Emerging from the Pashtun-dominated southeast of the country, the Taliban took control of Kandahar.

That success — and a religiously suffused anti-corruption message — attracted more support, drawing in more and more students from madrassas. By 1996, Omar's forces had seized the capital of Kabul. Omar added Islamic Emirate to the proper name of Afghanistan and was awarded the title of "Commander of the Faithful," a designation that had not been used by an Islamic leader in more than 1,000 years.

Forced from power by the United States in 2001, Omar is believed to be in hiding in the Pakistan city of Quetta where he once taught. A bounty of $10 million has been offered for his capture.

Other non-Taliban Afghan groups

Two other major factions in the Afghan insurgency are led by veteran Afghan warlords, Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who are in Pakistan's tribal areas, where the Pakistan Taliban is strongest.

Hekmatyar led the Hizb-i-Islami, considered one of the more disciplined mujahedeen factions during the Soviet war, and received vast sums of money and arms from the United States.

Religiously fundamental Hekmatyar served as prime minister in the early 1990s but was forced from power when the Taliban seized Kabul. Though not a Taliban leader, he is bound ideologically to the group by his fervent anti-Americanism.

While many Taliban fighters are poor and uneducated, Hizb-i-Islami members have usually gone to school, even college, according to the Christian Science Monitor. They tend to have a more lenient interpretation of Islam than other insurgent groups do — for example, they often allow music and parties.

Western officials say the Haqqani network may be the most dangerous insurgent group, according to the Monitor. It is centered around Jalaluddin Haqqani, another former U.S. ally, whose son Sirajuddin has in recent years assumed leadership. The group usually operates independently of — though sometimes in concert with — the Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami. It is behind many of the boldest attacks in recent memory, including an assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai last year.

The Pakistani Taliban

Baitullah Mehsud founded the far looser coalition of Pakistani Taliban under the name Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or Students' Movement of Pakistan, in 2007. He was widely believed to have ordered the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

After Mehsud was killed by an American missile in August (see the New Yorker reading file on this page), a fellow tribesman, Hakimullah Mehsud, took over after a period of jockeying for power in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Other key Taliban

Two men — Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur — claim significant power in the agencies of North and South Waziristan in Pakistan's restive western tribal regions. Bahadur holds sway in North Waziristan, where an estimated 80 percent of the suicide bombers who have attacked coalition forces in Afghanistan were trained and equipped, according to the United Nations. But his desire to retain regional power has at different times created conflict with Baitullah Mehsud and led him to broker peace deals with the Pakistan government.

There are rumors that Bahadur and Nazir, whose power is based in South Waziristan, have given permission to the Pakistan military to pursue the Mehsud forces in the ongoing offensive. In the past, Nazir has said his allegiance is neither to Mehsud nor to the Pakistan government, but to Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden.

The Taliban is not al-Qaida

The Taliban, which simply means "religious students," ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, when they were ousted by an American-led invasion after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Their rule was characterized by strict adherence to fundamentalist Islamic law.

Al-Qaida is a terrorist network that was formed to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. It was created by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian native who orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks. He was sheltered in Afghanistan until then, but has since probably relocated to the mountains of Pakistan.

Al-Qaida and groups linked to it call for global jihad — attacks on Western cities and on U.S. forces worldwide. But Mullah Omar's Taliban has adopted the rhetoric of a national liberation struggle, to oust foreign forces and restore Islamic rule. That fundamental difference causes tension between al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Los Angeles Times The Gorgon Stare

The Los Angeles Times reports on the broad new surveillance capabilities coming for U.S. unmanned drone spy planes. Read the full story at Here is an excerpt:

The Pentagon plans to dramatically increase the surveillance capabilities of its most advanced unmanned aircraft next year, adding so many video feeds that a drone which now stares down at a single house or vehicle could keep constant watch on nearly everything that moves within an area of 1.5 square miles.

Military officials predict that the impact on counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan will be impressive.

The newest technology program has been given a fearsome name: the Gorgon Stare, named for the mythological creature whose gaze turns victims to stone. Computers will take the Gorgon Stare images and "quilt" them into a mosaic that shows a large swath of territory, military officials said. That will enable the Defense Department to keep unblinking watch on a midsize city or village — turning the drones into a kind of heavily armed traffic camera.

New Yorker Death of a Taliban leader

The drones aren't a magic answer, however. Jane Mayer, writing in the New Yorker, looks at the risks and rewards of the CIA's covert drone program in "The Predator War." Read it in full at, but here is an excerpt:

On Aug. 5, officials at the Central Intelligence Agency, in Langley, Virginia, watched a live video feed relaying closeup footage of one of the most wanted terrorists in Pakistan. Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Taliban in Pakistan, could be seen reclining on the rooftop of his father-in-law's house, in Zanghara, a hamlet in South Waziristan. It was a hot summer night, and he was joined outside by his wife and his uncle, a medic; at one point, the remarkably crisp images showed that Mehsud, who suffered from diabetes and a kidney ailment, was receiving an intravenous drip.

The video was being captured by the infrared camera of a Predator drone, a remotely controlled, unmanned plane that had been hovering, undetected, two miles or so above the house. … The image remained just as stable when the C.I.A. remotely launched two Hellfire missiles from the Predator. Authorities watched the fiery blast in real time. After the dust cloud dissipated, all that remained of Mehsud was a detached torso. Eleven others died: his wife, his father-in-law, his mother-in-law, a lieutenant, and seven bodyguards.

In Afghanistan, background and a reading file from those who have been there 11/09/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 9, 2009 11:32am]
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