Friday 24 August 2012

Ghosts That Walk In The Dark

Turbans and Kalashnikovs: The mental image most New Zealanders hold of the Taliban is of Taliban 1.0 - the religious student army that won the Afghan civil war back in 1996. But the new Taliban - Taliban 2.0 - is as likely to be kitted-out in business suits and carry lap-tops. According to Kiwi war correspondent, Jon Stephenson, Taliban 2.0 are "ghosts that walk in the dark" - guerrilla fighters against an army of occupation. And because the soil they walk on is their own, they will not be beaten.
WHEN WE HEAR the word “Taliban” most of us think of turbans and Kalashnikovs. In our mind’s eye we see an embittered Pashtun tribesman, his lungee as black as his bristling beard, squatting in the mouth of a mountain cave. Such fighters still exist, of course, but this mental picture much more closely resembles the Mujahedeen who drove out the occupying Soviet forces back in the 1980s. The word talib means, simply, a student of the Koran, and it was an army of such holy scholars – taliban – that ended the Afghan civil war in 1996. Think, Salvation Army – with machine-guns.
The first Taliban administration – let’s call it Taliban 1.0 – entered into the complexities of government with very little experience. Raised and educated in the deeply conservative religious schools (madrassas) of Pakistan’s tribal territories, many of its fighters were the sons of refugees who had fled the Soviets’ murderous attack helicopters. Hardly more than teenagers, the Taliban relied almost exclusively upon their religious teachers (mullahs) for political and legal guidance. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan became an Islamic Emirate, governed according to Sharia law.
That was the Taliban the West defeated in the aftermath of 9/11.

The insurgent force which has grown up in Afghanistan during the occupation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is, however, very different from the first Taliban army. Let’s call it Taliban 2.0.
The guerrillas of Taliban 2.0 are as likely to be dressed in a Western suit and carry a lap-top as they are to wear a turban or tote a Kalashnikov. They are highly skilled, highly motivated and highly dangerous. Like the French Resistance and the Viet-Cong, the new Taliban’s strategic and tactical objectives are brutally simple: wear down the occupiers’ will; sap his morale; undermine his faith in the “mission”; cause him to fear and mistrust the local population. In short, make him want to leave.
The New Zealand war correspondent, Jon Stephenson, based in Kabul, warns that this “fighting-season” the insurgency and its insurgents “are everywhere”. With typical bluntness, he says that were he to set out alone from the Afghan capital and drive for twenty-five minutes in any direction: “I’d be dead.” His description of Taliban 2.0 is chilling. They are, says Jon: “Ghosts that walk in the dark”.
And they’ve been walking our way.
Because the Hungarian Government’s rules of engagement do not permit its ISAF contingent to do any more than escort and protect its aid workers, a tactical window has opened in the south of Baghlan province. Unharried by regular forward patrols, the Taliban appears to have established a base of operations from which its fighters sally forth into neighbouring Bamiyan Province to attack the Afghan National Police and install deadly Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) along roadsides patrolled by ISAF troops from New Zealand. In less than a month, the Taliban have killed five Kiwi soldiers – three of them by means of a massive IED.
Their tactics have already borne fruit. According to a report in The New York Times: “New Zealand announced Monday that it would probably withdraw its small troop contingent from Afghanistan months ahead of schedule, aiming for early 2013 rather than October of that year.”
This is, of course, exactly what the Taliban wanted to hear. The more ISAF members who bring forward the date of their withdrawal, the less tenable the whole occupation becomes.
The Graveyard Of Empires: An American GI whistles nervously past the cemetery of previous occupiers' hopes.
As the Times report points out: “New Zealand now follows France, a much bigger coalition partner, which in January announced it was accelerating its troop withdrawal.”
Prime Minister John Key’s decision to move up New Zealand’s withdrawal date is a wise one. Had he attempted to “tough it out”, it’s highly probable the Taliban would have continued to seek out and kill New Zealand soldiers. The public announcement of this country’s early departure from Afghanistan is, however, almost certain to satisfy the Taliban’s strategic ambitions vis-a-vis New Zealand. Their tactical priority now will be to melt back into the population before ISAF Special Forces (including, most likely, members of the New Zealand SAS) locate and destroy the unit responsible for the latest deadly attacks.
This is the enemy against whom we have deployed our soldiers. He will not be beaten. Because, no matter how many Taliban are slain, the ‘ghosts that walk in the dark” walk upon their own soil. 

This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 August 2012.


Victor said...

I continue to favour a speedy but (if possible) managed withdrawal from this graveyard of empires and, for what it's worth, don't necessarily think this will result in total Taliban dominance.

Be it Taliban 1 or Taliban 2 (and, perhaps, Chris, you're making too much of the differences twixt the two), the movement remains overwhelmingly Pushtun.

When the Russians pulled out, it took several years of intense fighting for the Taliban to triumph over its hitherto allies in the non-Pushtun regions. They may or may not have the ability to achieve this second time around.

If, as some experts currently claim, Taliban 2 is aware of its limitations and is not seeking immediate total dominance, we are in for an interesting time politically, as the US, Pakistan, India, Iran and China jostle for influence and promote their respective factions.

Poor Afghanistan! What a terrible and seemingly hopeless series of options: either dominance by one of the worst bunch of fanatics (smart suits notwithstanding) since the fall of Pol Pot OR renewed civil war (replete with murderous war lords) OR continued foreign interference OR a combination of all of the above!

It's mind numbing and sickening!

Chris Trotter said...

You're quite right, Victor.

Taliban 1.0 were late entrants in a complex civil war (which they won with surprising speed BTW).

Taliban 2.0 are a reasonably loose confederation of guerrilla fighters united in their hostility to the foreign occupation force.

Jon Stephenson, who knows more about what's happening on the ground than you or I, Victor, tells me that when ISAF finally withdraws the Karzai Government will evaporate (along with most of the West's financial aid).

It is likely, then, that the central figure of the Pashtun resistance, Mullah Mohammed Omar (if he still lives) or his successor will convene a Loya Jirga to produce a provisional government. After that, it's anybody's guess. (And nobody's business but the Afghans.)

Brendan McNeill said...


I can never fully understand how so many individual Americans I meet are hospitable, generous people of good will, and yet their foreign policy in the Islamic world is so illconcieved devoid of meaning and purpose.

I suspect Afghanistan will descend back into the tribal hell hole it was before US intervention. The billions spent and the lives lost on all sides will count for nothing.

Unknown said...

Leave them to sort things out for themselves - we don't need that country. The Romans, the British Empire, the Soviets and now the West have fought in Afghanistan - for what?

Chris Trotter said...

Alexander the Great and his Macedonians - yes. The Romans - no.

Monique Angel said...

And the hazara people. Should nationss withdraw and leve them to be slaughtered in their thousands? They are killed; easily identified by physical characteristics like another race that comes to mind. It once was the case that wars used to take hundreds of years.

Patricia said...

I don't think we should be involved in other peoples' wars and to help a Government to make good decisions I suggest that a law be passed so that when a Prime Minister declares War or continues a War then their eldest child, girl or boy, is conscripted to the Front for the duration of that War.  If a Prime Minister doesn't have any children then the Deputy Prime Minister's eldest child should be conscripted.  In fact let's conscript the eldest child of each member of the whole cabinet for the duration of the War.  It just might make a Governent think before they decide.

Victor said...


Whilst I think it's long past time that the US-led coalition decamped from Afghanistan, I can't, ethically, agree with you that what happens there next is no-one's business but the Afghans.

Apart from anything else, I don't relish the thought of handing Afghanistan's women over to the unrestrained mercies of unreconstructed misogynist thugs.

Moreover, it would palpably be the rest of the world's business if Afghanistan once more became the launching pad for global terrorism (not that I expect this to happen).

I would certainly agree with you that the last 20 years have amply demonstrated the inherent flaws of even the most genuinely righteous 'humanitarian interventions', let alone the capacity of mendacious governments to dress up their elective wars of aggression in humanitarian clothing (c.f. Blair, Bush, Howard).

But I was reared on the notion that we're all responsible for each others lives, freedom and welfare. That's why,like you, I opposed the Vietnam War and the Apartheid regime in South Africa. And it's why, had I been older, I'd have gladly borne arms against Hitler and perhaps fought for the Spanish Republic. However, I'm a sadder, wiser man following Bosnia and Kosovo.

Even so, I'm reluctant to conclude that I (and the governments I might help elect) have no responsibility for the lives and welfare of people beyond these narrow shores.

I don't know the way out of this conundrum. But I don't fool myself that the conundrum doesn't exist.

Meanwhile, I hope and pray that better brains than mine will focus on leading us out of this unconscionable moral impasse.

Unknown said...

Thank you Brendan. I knew there was something we agreed on.

Monique Angel said...

@Patricia. Yes. And so on down the ranks until they came for your "eldest child". First of all, boys don't go to war, men do and the families don't have any say. I can only infer that you want to throw Key's young son into the front line to support your point of view which is just inhuman and horrible. Secondly, that's what happens in war, your sons go off to fight. Thirdly NZ troops are in there for peacekeeping and re-stabilisation. JS is right that they are not taking ground so are "cannon fodder" and will be home early. I enjoyed the original post.

Chris Trotter said...

And shall we save every woman under threat, Victor? Every child who has an AK47 thrust into his hands?

Were "we" to take on such a burden we'd never be free of it - and the world would never be free of us.

Victor said...

And so, Chris, do you wish us to resign from membership of the human race?

Bear in mind, please, that I'm not arguing for a continuation of the Afghan imbroglio or for wars of intervention in general, merely for continued engagement (in what ever ways are judicious, appropriate and likely to be effective)in the fate of our species.

If the child with an AK47 thrust into his hands is not my business, why should I regard the child being tortured a couple of suburbs away as my business?

Are we not all siblings and are we not all our brother's keeper?

Chris Trotter said...

Primarily, Victor, it's about how many of our good intentions remain intact when all of the necessary force has been assembled and applied.

Using war to solve the problems of your neighbours is a bit like using acid to clean your kitchen utensils. When all is concluded you discover that you've destroyed the very things you set out to save.

Great Britain went to war in 1939 to rescue Poland from invasion and tyranny. Ask the Poles how well that worked out.

Victor said...


I'm not arguing the case for the application of force either in Afghanistan or anywhere else.

To take an obvious current example, the application of external force in Syria could only make a horrendous situation worse.

I'm arguing against the notion that what happens in the world's less happy regions is none of our business.

It is our business because everything human is our business. If that sounds like an uncharacteristic blast of moral absolutism on my part, then so be it.

But I may have been making too much of the form of words you used, in which case I apologise for my excessive literalness.

As to the morality or good sense of the British declaration of war against Germany in 1939....well that's a huge topic that requires another occasion.

I would, however, suggest that Poland would probably have resisted Germany’s demands with or without the (as it turned out, worthless) Anglo-French guarantee and that, with or without the ensuing global conflict, the country’s immediate fate would have been destruction, tyranny and mass murder. Moreover, however unenviable the fate of Poles under Soviet occupation, it was very mild compared to the near extirpation that Hitler and Himmler had in mind for them, once 'Bolshevism' was in ashes.

I certainly would agree, though, that war is the province of uncertainty. That's one of the many arguments for regarding it as a last resort.

Twenty years ago, much of global opinion was deeply ashamed of the international community's pusillanimous responses to atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia. And imagine how deep our shame would have been, had we baulked at sending peacekeepers to East Timor (was that our business?).

And now, we're ashamed, with equal if not greater justification, of the mess we've contributed to in Afghanistan, whilst, of course, the invasion of Iraq was simply wanton and brutal aggression dressed up as liberation.

There's a conundrum here that I cannot resolve. But I know that neither "It's none of our business" nor "We've simply got to do something" provides an always relevant universal template. Nor, of course, do I think that "involvement" need or should necessarily (or nomally) be military.

Yet, ulitimately,'no man is an island'!

Brendan McNeill said...


I usually agree with you more than I do with Chris, but this time I think he is right.

I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that foreign intervention, regardless of how well intentioned, or justified we may believe it to be, usually ends in a greater disaster than would otherwise have been the case.

Vietnam is a very recent reminder for me of the foolishness of engaging in other people's wars regardless of how justified we may have felt at the time.

Afghanistan was never a candidate for democratisation, the liberation of women, the freedom of speech and religion, and it may never be for another 1,000 years until the local people begin to want these things in large numbers.

I believe that over 30 allied troops have been killed this year directly by 'allied' Afghan forces that the USA has been training to take over after we leave.

The US Army is too PC to accept that these are anything other than random 'lone wolf' attacks. It could never be jihad against the unwanted infidel because it does not fit with the current political narrative.

And to what end. There will not even be footprints in the sand to show for the billions of dollars spent, and the thousands of lives lost, wounded, crippled and forever changed.

There is a place for self defence of course, and for defence alliances between like minded peoples, but what does the average Kiwi or American share in common with the average Afghan? A common humanity, yes, but that's where it ends. Our culture, our religion (or lack of it) our history and our aspirations are all completely different.

If those whom we are supposed to be defending hate us to the point of murdering our troops, what's the point?

It is long past time we went home, and hopefully learned some hard lessons along the way.

Victor said...


I'm obviously failing to get my point across and will therefore desist after this post.

I'm not, repeat NOT, advocating armed intervention anywhere, although, as it happens, I would not rule it out absolutely in all cases.

I'm merely arguing that what happens in less fortunate places should not be dismissed as none of our business.

We share a small planet and cannot pull down the blinds on the rest of humanity. Nor should we wish to.

That's not an argument for military involvement but for a broad sense of global responsibility (i.e. what used to be known as internationalism).

Our primary concern might well be our own "small platoon". But it is neither sensible nor ethical for this to remain our sole concern.

Practically, in terms of Afghanistan and most of the world's current conflict zones, both you and Chris are correct.

But I object to the "none of our business" mantra. It has "previous" and rather unpleasant previous at that.

In the 1990s, the world sickened of "non intervention" and over-ready intervention became the vogue. And now, for good reason, we've sickened of that. But, if we continue to allow the pendulum of intellectual fashion to always swing to the maximum, we will be back to over-ready intervention in the blinking of History's eyelids.

As they say on Coronation Street: "Think on't!"

Anonymous said...

The Taladan believe us and the other coalition forces to be invaders,be hard to argue otherwise.

As far as the N.Z. public are concerned, our troops are there in a rebuilding and peaceful capacity.Maybe someone should inform our elite special combat forces the S.A.S of that.

The sooner we get out of there the better,and let their tribal cabals get on with, what they are going to get on with.