“Embedded” With the Taliban: An Interview with Anand Gopal

All of us are trying to make sense of the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially in the light of recent media reports telling of an even further escalation of the US involvement in those conflicts. Anand Gopal is a reporter based in Kabul who has reported from all parts of Afghanistan. He speaks the local language and often travels unembedded to the countryside to try to understand the perspective of Afghans. He was inspired to start covering Afghanistan after losing some friends in the 9-11 attacks. I heard Anand Gopal give a talk about Afghanistan earlier this summer (2009) and arranged to conduct an email exchange with him. Our exchange, while brief, provides a perspective sorely needed.

Ron Jacobs: I heard you speak about the US war in Afghanistan a couple months ago. You mentioned that you had “embedded” yourself with the Afghan Taliban. Could you tell us how you did so and, more importantly, what you observed?

Anand Gopal: I have some well-placed Taliban contacts and I was offered a chance to come out and see how the insurgents really operate. Since there is so little about this in public domain, it seemed like an excellent opportunity. Passing from Kabul to the rural countryside where the Taliban holds sway was pretty illuminating: all traces of government presence vanish and instead the streets are filled with gun-toting insurgents. The Taliban rule through fear, but they also have a degree of support in the areas in which they exist. In some cases I saw locals coming up and offering them food or shelter.

The insurgents, like most rural Afghans, were uneducated and not very worldly. However, they managed to develop a somewhat sophisticated analysis of the situation in Afghanistan. They felt that they were fighting to free their country from foreign oppression, and they felt that they were fighting to preserve their culture and values.

We shouldn’t read this to mean that they are heroic guerrillas or liberators of the Afghan people. They represent the values and outlook of rural Pashtun life, something that is not applicable to the rest of society, whether that be the urban population or non-Pashtun ethnic groups. This is why, for example, the Taliban has little support among these groups.

RJ: Are the resistance forces getting stronger, like all the generals are saying? Would more US troops change anything in terms of their chances for victory?

AG: The insurgency is certainly getting stronger. The amount of area it controls grows yearly, and in the Pashtun areas it is much stronger than the Afghan government. This trend has occurred despite the yearly increase of troops in the country, so clearly just adding more troops is not enough to stem the insurgents’ growing influence. Whenever new troops enter an area, the insurgents usually melt away or move to a neighboring area. It’s very difficult to stamp out a guerrilla force by pure force of arms.

Undercutting the growth of the insurgency would require bringing development, providing jobs and opportunities for social advancement to rural Pashtuns. It would also require bringing an honest and responsive government.

RJ: Back in July, officials in DC said that the new commander of the occupying forces in Afghanistan, Gen. McChrystal, will order all international forces in Afghanistan to stop starting fights with militants near the homes of Afghan civilians. The troops will still be allowed to return fire if they are “in imminent danger,” but the preferred option will be to withdraw from the area. He also went on record stating that he would reduce the number of US air strikes. From your perspective and knowledge of the situation, has this really happened? Do you actually think this will occur in practice and, if so, will it make any difference in Afghan opinion regarding the presence of foreign troops?

AG: It’s still too early to say what effect McChrystal’s directives will have. The number of civilian casualties do appear to be down from last year, although its very difficult to say with certainly since many such cases are not reported. Moreover, the premise of the new strategic thinking from the U.S. military here is that there is a strict division between civilians and the insurgents. In fact, the dividing line is sometimes hard to draw. In many places where the insurgents operate, for example, they enjoy the active support and protection of the locals. How do you deal with such locals–as accomplices to the insurgents or civilians duped into supporting the guerrillas? It’s one thing to draw this line on paper, but a completely different issue to do it in the heat of battle.

For example, McChrystal’s order to bar international forces from starting fights with militants near the homes of Afghan civilians would mean that very little fighting happens at all, since the Taliban (for example) are rooted in the villages and operate there.

Moreover, McChrystal has made clear that the military component is only part of the strategy to turn things around here–equally if not more important is bringing good governance and economic opportunities. There has been no announcement of a plan to do this, nor is the military capable of doing it, so I suspect that the military will continue fall back on what it does best–fighting. On the same day that McChrystal announced his revamped counterinsurgency doctrine, U.S. forces raided a hospital, for example–a clear violation of international law and the new doctrine.

RJ: Now, to Pakistan. What is going on in the Northwestern territory and other tribal areas?

AG: There has been a very perceptible shift in the last six months in Pakistan, starting this spring. The Pakistani Taliban was close to the height of its power then–they controlled large parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and significant swathes of the North West Frontier Province. But they seem to have overplayed their hand on two fronts. First, their rather brutal regime induced a popular backlash–many ordinary Pashtuns in these areas who initially supported the Taliban started to turn against them. Second, they moved close to the province of Punjab, which is the heart of Pakistan and the seat of the ruling establishment. While the Pakistani Taliban grew out of the radicalization surrounding the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, in recent years it turned its sights on the Pakistani state. By this year, things started to destabilize throughout the country, not just in the tribal areas. This induced a backlash by the Pakistani state, who dealt a swift defeat to Taliban forces in Bajaur agency and later moved into Swat and removed Taliban rule there.

The series of setbacks for the Pakistani Taliban have continued into this summer. Their leader Baitullah Mehsud was recently killed by an American drone strike, and he was the glue holding together a very fractured movement. There are dozens of rival commanders, some at war with the Pakistani state, some at peace with Islamabad and at war with the Americans in Afghanistan, and some at war with each other. This has led to some disarray amongst the insurgent forces there, which very visibly affects the fight in Afghanistan. Last fall, for example, NATO and U.S. army supply routes (which comes through Pakistan and into Afghanistan) were in danger because the guerrillas kept attacking them. But this summer we’ve seen very few such attacks, which is a great boon to U.S. forces.

RJ: Can you briefly describe what you see as the differences between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban? Do they coordinate activities at all? Is there shared leadership at any level that you know of?

AG: The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are distinct entities. The Pakistani Taliban is primarily at war with the Pakistani state, while the Afghan Taliban is entirely focused on fighting the Afghan state and the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Of course, the differences aren’t entirely this clear cut–there are Pakistani Taliban commanders who don’t fight against Islamabad and focus their energies solely in Afghanistan, for example. But overall the Pakistani Taliban has very little presence in Afghanistan, while the Afghan Taliban don’t fight in Pakistan.

The Afghan Taliban are products of the war-ravaged rural Afghan countryside. The Pakistani Taliban however are as much the product of the gross social and economic inequalities of the Pakistani tribal areas as they are of the events in Afghanistan. This means that the two movements have a very different character. The Pakistani Taliban tend to attack village chiefs and some landowners, creating an almost Robin Hood air about them–one of the reasons for their initial support amongst local populations–whereas the Afghan Taliban do nothing of the sort. The latter are allied with village chiefs and landlords. Moreover, the Pakistani Taliban are a product of the factious nature of tribal politics–the movement is delineated along tribal lines; often if two tribes are at war it means that the Taliban commanders from those tribes will be at war with each other as well. In Afghanistan, however, 30 years of warfare have eroded tribal structures in many parts of the country and we rarely see the Taliban caught up in tribal conflicts.

The two movements are allies and do support each other when possible–for instance, Pakistani Taliban commanders run training camps and send suicide bombers into Afghanistan. But each group is mostly focused on the conflict in its own territory so this sort of coordination isn’t substantial. Most of the Pakistani Taliban commanders have pledged fealty to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban. But in practice, this means very little, since the Pakistani Taliban have complete operational and political independence.

RJ: In the past couple years I have interviewed and communicated with members of the Labour Party of Pakistan–a left organization in Pakistan. Now, I know the Pakistani Left was decimated in the 1970s, but you mentioned in your talk that there is a Left in Pakistan. Do you think they have the potential to influence Pakistani politics, given the corrupt and autocratic nature of the bourgeois politicians, the authoritarian military, and the influence of Islamist forces?

AG: The Left has shown that it has tremendous potential to influence Pakistani politics–the lawyers movement, which sought to reinstate sacked judges and defend the rule of law in the face of dictatorship–is a prominent example. One of the biggest challenges for the Pakistani left, however, is that its reach is limited in the tribal areas and the North West Frontier Province. This means that there are few credible alternatives for the millions of disillusioned and disaffected Pashtuns in those areas outside of traditional religious structures and extremist movements like the Taliban. And the burden that the Pakistani left bears is especially great considering the fact that there is essentially no left in Afghanistan. As many in the Pakistani left will tell you, a fundamentally transformative solution to the problems in Afghanistan cannot occur without a concomitant push to solve the problems of Pakistan.

RJ: Thanks, Anand. I have a feeling we will be communicating with each other again about this subject.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.