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.
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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.