måndag, september 05, 2011

Speaking with the enemy: how US commanders fight the Taliban during the day and dine with them at night

US Marine commanders spend their days hunting Taliban fighters but lay down their weapons to dine with insurgent leaders at night as they try to negotiate an end to fighting in Afghanistan.

Sangin - Sitting in the spartan parlour of the governor of Sangin's office, Lieutenant Colonel Tom Savage waits for his opposite number in the Taliban to turn up for tea.

Fittingly, perhaps, for a man whose day job is killing Lt Col Savage's fellow US Marines, the insurgent leader will only ever meet at night, and even then, it is a cloak-and-dagger affair.

Shortly after 9pm, there is a crunch of gravel in the fortified compound outside, and in walks a figure swathed in black save for a slit for his eyes.

He peels off his veil with theatrical flair, greets the Colonel, and over a dinner of stew and rice, the two discuss the one thing that both badly want, but neither can deliver alone - peace.

"I have talked to three different local Taliban commanders, and this particular one is a pretty respected guy," said Lt Col Savage, who says they may well have killed his own men, and almost certainly some of the British whom the Marines inherited part of southern Afghanistan from last year.

"But he's tired of fighting, and if he lays down his weapons he could have a significant effect around here. I have to put aside what he may have done in the past, and think about what he can do in the future."

Shrouded in secrecy and fraught with mutual mistrust, it is meetings like these that the West hopes may finally achieve what nearly a decade of military intervention, billions in aid and thousands of troops' lives has not yet done - a lasting accommodation with the Taliban that will one day enable Col Savage and every other foreign soldier in Afghanistan to leave for good.

Speaking last month in the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden, the outgoing US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, said he hoped that talks might begin with the movement's Pakistan-based leadership as soon as the end of this year. But with hardline elements in the high command apparently reluctant to talk, parallel efforts to peel away battle-weary footsoldiers may prove just as important.

Hence the need for Col Savage, a lean figure who might have stepped out of a Marines recruitment poster, to play both warrior and diplomat. Brought in via the local governor, a respected schoolmaster named Mohammed Sharif, the Taliban leaders he talks to represent a spectrum of motivations. One, says Col Savage, is the 25-year-old grandson of a local elder, "very cocky, but under pressure from the Taliban leadership to continue fighting".

Another seems partly mercenary, open to side with whoever offers him money. And the third, for whom he has highest hopes, is a taciturn, bearded man in his mid-40s, who has fought almost non-stop since the anti-Soviet jihad, and wants to spent some of his adulthood in peace.

The commander of 15 to 20 fighters, he is a former pupil of the governor, who guarantees him safe passage to his compound during his visits after dark, and ensures that the Afghan police outside allow the visitor's vehicle to pass unhindered - although he is still frisked for weapons on his way in. How far his clandestine visits are known to other senior Taliban figures, of whom some may have given approval but others may oppose, is unclear.

"This particular guy is fairly educated by local standards - he signs papers with his initials rather than a thumb print," said Col Savage, who heads the 1st Battalion 5th Regiment US Marines. "He doesn't say much, but we get on fairly cordially."

Such civility is all the more surprising given the intensity of the combat outside. While successive Marine battalions have inflicted heavy casualties on the Taliban, 37 of their own men have died in the process, an attrition level comparable to the British, who lost 100 here in four years. Yet to Col Savage, concerns over their respective casualties offer a chance for common ground.

"We talk as one commander to another, about how it feels to lose men, and what it is like making difficult decisions," he said. "This is an unusual war, and often the best way to engage the enemy is by talking to him." Col Savage has had several confidential meetings with the middle-aged Taliban leader, whose fondness for dramatic entrances is perhaps worthy of the Cadbury's Milk Tray Man.

Yet unlike the chocolate advert's hero, the leader in question is far from guaranteed to deliver. The deal on the table for commanders seeking amnesty can include development projects for their villages, and employment for their men in local security forces. In exchange, they must agree to be photographed and biometrically assessed, so that coalition forces can keep tabs on them.

But it is not so much the beady eye of Uncle Sam that worries them, as the threats they will face from so-called "irreconcilable" Taliban, who will see them as traitors. So far, none of commanders in Sangin district have taken the plunge.

"The middle-aged commander blows hot and cold, offering to bring in 10 or 20 followers, but then not showing," said Col Savage. "They ask us for extra weapons to protect themselves from other Taliban factions, but that isn't something I can help with. I'd let them keep their AK47s, maybe even a few RPGs, but I can't go beyond that."

For Col Savage, such wooing evokes memories of the "Sunni Awakening" in Iraq's Anbar province, in which US Marines helped persuade tribes to ditch al Qaeda and join local security forces.

But comparisons, he stresses, are limited. While Iraq's Sunnis were driven by both hatred of al-Qaeda and fear of Shia domination, the Taliban have no such urgent motivations.

For all that their ranks have taken a hammering, courtesy of the US troop "surge" and drone attacks on their senior leaders, many believe that coalition plans to remove combat troops by 2014 mean it is now just a case of biding their time.

"It is true we are kicking the crap out of them, but the Taliban aren't in their death throes yet," said Colonel Eric Smith, a senior Marines commander.

"Many fighters on the ground are fed up with 'leadership by cellphone', where people who aren't actually fighting themselves are issuing orders, and I'd certainly rather talk to those guys than kill them. But it seems there are guys up in Quetta who aren't interested in giving up any time soon."

Quetta is the Pakistani city on the other side of Afghanistan's mountainous border, where the Taliban's one-eyed spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, is thought to have lived since the 9-11 attacks.

Last month, Marc Grossman, the US envoy to Kabul nicknamed "Mr Reconciliation", reportedly appealed for him to get in touch. While the fugitive leader is said to have ruled out any dialogue, Col Savage suspects lower-level Taliban commanders in Sangin may have been given "tacit permission" for exploratory talks.

Ground-level talks are already underway elsewhere in Afghanistan, courtesy of an £88 million formal "integration" programme which began a year ago, jointly funded by the US, Japan, Germany and Britain.

Overseen by a British commander, Major General Phil Jones, it requires defecting Taliban fighters to spend three months in a safe house while they undergo a "parole" screening to assess the sincerity of their decision to quit.

So far, however, only around 2,000 of the estimated 25,000 active Taliban fighters have signed up, with few from the most volatile southern regions, and the programme has not been without blips.

One prominent commander who was paraded on national television when he signed up has threatened to rejoin the insurgency, claiming he got none of the money that he was promised.

Others have been killed by Taliban loyalists, while some should arguably never have been allowed into the programme at all - such as Moulavi Isfandar, who had ordered the flogging and execution of a widow accused of adultery.

Three registered ex-fighters were also part of a mob that stormed a UN compound in April and killed eight foreign aid workers. "It just demonstrates the sort of complexity of the issue we're dealing with here and the need to take this extremely seriously," Gen Jones conceded at a recent Pentagon briefing.

The limited take-up of the programme also poses questions as to how many Taliban actually want to quit fighting. Contrary to popular belief, not all are just poor peasants in it for the money. For some, the Taliban's brand of hardline Islamic piety is still seen as preferable to the corrupt, Western-backed government in Kabul.

The other problem is what happens should the de-fanged Taliban seek a role in government, which has always understood to be part of the wider peace deal. While power-sharing could probably only go ahead if they agreed to soften their stance on social issues like women's rights, it is hard to see how such a hardline movement could adapt to democratic compromise.

That certainly, is the impression given from meeting ex-Taliban officials like Mohammed Qalamuddin, who banned make-up, music and television while serving as deputy head of the notorious vice and virtue ministry. Last week, as part of continuing confidence-building measures, the United Nations removed his name and 14 other Taliban figures from a sanctions blacklist.

But while time has mellowed the bushy-bearded cleric a little - he now has a television in his own living room, and even allowed The Sunday Telegraph to take a photo of him, which would have counted as an "idolatrous image" in the old days - he has no regrets about the extreme strictures he passed while in office.

"We have 25 million people here, and if you go outside of Kabul, you will find 24 million of them still accept Islamic rule," he said. "Music and TV is not important to them."

Given the ubiquity of satellite dishes and CD music shops not just in free-and-easy Kabul but across the country, it would seem many Afghans would disagree.

Yet a partial return of the Taliban could also split the country along ethnic as well as moral lines.

Afghan's ethnic Uzbeks, Hazaras and Tajiks, who dominate the north, are increasingly anxious that the West's haste for a peace deal will hand the Pashtun-led Taliban more influence than they deserve.

Still, as long as foreign soldiers are being killed, men like Col Savage are likely to continue hunting their adversaries one day and dining with them the next. And for Sangin's "irreconcilable" Taliban, Col Savage also has the option of what is arguably an altogether more Afghan solution. One local elder has offered his services as a bounty hunter, killing "irreconcilables" for bounty cash.

"It seemed idle talk at first, but then the guy offered me a detailed price list," Col Savage said. "I told him 'You kill these guys, and we will figure things out afterwards'."

Source: Telegraph By: Colin Freeman


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