Monday, June 1, 2009

Report from Kabul II: There is no Taliban

It's an extraordinary statement, but people here believe it's true. That's not to say men aren't fighting for the Taliban, they are. But it's not because they are Taliban.

An illustration is best. Take Dani, not his real name, a man of about 40, with a wide smile and an engaging manner full of warmth and kindness. Before the Taliban, he was with the Mujihadeen, as a young commander fighting against the Soviets. When the Taliban came in, he was a top Taliban commander. Now that the the Taliban has fallen, he is with the Afghan National Army. Afghan Army pay is $150 per month, or about $7 a day. Where the job is, that's where he'll go. He doesn't care much about politics. But he's the only breadwinner for his family in a place where family, extended family, is everything. Your cousin is like your brother. If he dies, you can no longer watch his children starve than you can your own.

During the reign of the Taliban, 100% of Helmand Province was Taliban. Now, they are flocking to the city for jobs with the ANC. One thing we know is that the rural population of Helmand was not suddenly replaced with new people in the space of a few years. They are the same people.

Dani's story is not an exception. It is the rule. The Taliban is a construction made up 90% of hungry men with hungry families looking for the only job they can get, in whatever army is in power, whether the Taliban or the one financed by Uncle Sam. But for the black eyes and black hair, the youth and open expressions on most of their faces say they could be American mountain men in Appalachia, tough mountain men that is, who have come here to take the only job in the country for farmboys with no skills, except knowing how to fight. The only other job is joining the Taliban, which pays $8 a day.

It's hard to go more than 50 to 100 yards in any direction without seeing a man or men with an automatic weapon, the ANC sporting nice new American weapons, and security guards hefting whatever beat-up looking AK-47 your dad or grandpa handed down to you. I'd have more photos of men with rifles for you, but some don't take to having their pictures taken, and pointing a camera is a good way to get shot. It's understandable. They aren't trying to be mean, but being with the government can mark you for death. The rule is: ask first.

Positive meetings all around today, with startling agreement all around that unemployment is the number one problem driving the insurgency. This came from non-governmental organizations, military officials, and government departments alike. Spend one-tenth of the appropriation on the military for a $10 a day wage, public works program instead, and chances are the insurgency will melt away. The problem isn't implementation. The problem is political will, most of which the difficulty believing anything like this could work. It's too easy.

It's like a man locked up for 30 years turning around and seeing the prison door standing wide open. It doesn't compute. It's a trick. So he'll stand there, not walking out, now successfully imprisoned by his own mind. We are in a mental prison that tells us war is necessary. That's what we've been told. I had to come here and see it for myself, and if I thought this was an unnecessary war before, I think it tenfold now.

These guys with guns are country bumpkins with simple faces and ready smiles, until they are locked in a firefight, when they are fearless, skilled fighters. I don't see why we wouldn't want to spend a few billion to give them $10 day day jobs clearing trash, which would make them love us. I hear it over and over. Instead, we're running up civilian casualties (which the leadership of what calls itself the Taliban, which most people around call "the nuts,") plan deliberately to radicalize the countryside.

Our hosts are an amazing story, which I will share more fully later. They have a foundation which prints an independent magazine and other publications, builds roads at a fraction of the cost of USAID, and is a major presence in the community. At it's compound tough-looking former Taliban commanders sit working on the magazine on computers, Shahir having been the only man in the world to have ever reached out and taught them computer skills. It is remarkable, and they are clearly devoted to him.

Took a long walk around downtown Kabul. Passing through a busy major traffic circle, I had a fleeting thought that this is the kind of place where a car bomb blows up. It was silly, of course. Kabul is relatively safe. Relatively. Nevertheless, I snuck sideways glances into cars, and felt a bit relieved when I saw families or bored-looking men in suits. It's a kind of tension you can't describe, but these people live with it every day.

At another traffic circle an ANC soldier pointed at our car in the signal to stop. He approached my passenger side passport and asked me for my passport. I looked around to make sure he meant me. He did. I pulled it out and handed it to him, open to the right page. American. He handed it back and I gave a soldierly wave, and he waved back. He looked about 18, a kid's friendly face.

If we can keep the confidence of this people we will have a truly strong ally in the war on terror. If we alienate them, we've got a problem. I'd venture to say we'd have no better friend or fiercer foe. If they believe you are honest and really to trying to help them in their miserable, semi-starvation, they'll die for you. If they believe you are trying to screw them and use them the way all empires have for 30 years, we will go the way those empires have gone.

The way your reconstruction money is getting spent in Afghanistan is now getting hammered out in a conference committee on War Supplemental Appropriations bill, co-chaired by:

Sen. Daniel Inouye, Ph: 202-224-3934 Fax: 202-224-6747

and Rep. David Obey. Ph:(202) 225-3365 Fax: (715-842-4488)

Please call ask them to create cash-for-day labor jobs for Afghans to shorten the war, then email and call your own congressman to ask him or her to call them too, as your representative on a matter of war and peace.

The key pressure points are manageable now, and you can make a huge difference by calling these two at this time, asking them to create jobs for Afghans. At 40% unemployment, it's the only thing that will stabilize this country and allow US troops to go home. Please print out this Mission Statement, then fax it to them. Also please send a copy to President Obama.

Ralph will be blogging from Afghanistan this week. You can follow it at

Boy selling plastic jewelry in front of military compound. I shook my head twice, then he said "I'm so hungry, no business, I'm so hungry." Had to by a few, no one can bear that.

Burkas are not imposed unlike Taliban days, many women choose not to wear them.

My Afghan Buddies

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