KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — A new report, partly funded by the Foreign Affairs Department, says western nations have misunderstood the war aims of the Taliban and it cautions any potential peace deal with them could be a threat to human rights.
The study, initiated by the U.S. Institute for Peace with help from Ottawa’s Global Peace and Security Fund, comes as the Karzai government made more attempts over the weekend at reconciliation with top insurgents.
The report suggests many insurgent fighters have taken up arms in retaliation for perceived military aggression by NATO — a sentiment echoed Sunday when the Afghan president asked western armies to restrain their operations.
The Taliban cling to that perception despite the billions of dollars the international community is pouring into Afghanistan’s reconstruction, the study found.
The research, which examined the motivations of insurgents through face-to-face interviews, sheds a different light on why the war has cascaded to new heights of violence.
Penned by a former foreign policy and defence adviser to the British Parliament, the document suggests some of the West’s Afghan policies, including the emancipation of women, have served to inflame conservative elements in Afghan society — anger on which the Taliban has capitalized.
Researcher Matt Waldman, recently a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, conducted over 80 interviews in Kandahar, Kabul and Quetta, Pakistan, last spring and many of his findings turn accepted notions about the insurgency upside down.
He says the longer the fighting has dragged on, the more the Taliban have convinced themselves and ordinary Afghans that they’re fighting a war of liberation.
He says it’s one of the reasons the insurgency has grown in strength.
The Taliban see themselves as fighting in “retaliation against perceived military aggression; resistance to perceived foreign invasion” and in “opposition to abuse of power” by the Afghan government.
The fact that the war in Afghanistan is a United Nations-sanctioned mission doesn’t appear to register with them.
The Taliban who agreed to be interviewed see themselves mostly as fighting a war of national liberation under the banner of Islam.
“I would say (for them) it is about resistance and a highly conservative sharia-based society, as opposed to extremism,” Waldman said.
“It is not appropriate to define the insurgency as being about Islamic extremism.”
The research has broad implications for NATO because it suggests that the insurgency is largely indigenous, rather imported from elsewhere and that aid and reconstruction has failed to sway ordinary Afghans.
Waldman said there’s been very little research into the motivations of the Taliban, even though the first precept of war usually is “know thine enemy.”
In some cases, he said, the West, average Afghans and the Taliban want the same thing — namely, a withdrawal of NATO troops, an end to government corruption and more and law and order.
On that basis, Waldman recommends Washington and its allies lend more support to Afghan-led direct talks with the Taliban and clearly define what they want those talks to achieve.
Otherwise, he said, fragile human-rights gains could be in endangered.
Ajmal Samadi, director of Afghan Rights Monitor in Kabul, agreed with the assessment and said the Taliban have been demonized by the international community for harbouring al-Qaeda in the 1990s.
“They have been framed this way and in order to move forward the West must recognize the difference between the two entities,” Samadi said in an interview Sunday.
“People must ask themselves why Afghans’ support for the Taliban has risen, why they are considered so charismatic.”
Waldman interviewed a number of diplomats in Kabul and he said some Europeans are skeptical “that the United States would seriously support negotiations.”
An unnamed diplomat quoted in the report argued: The Americans “don’t compromise, their model is winning … they have a radically different perception of what a political solution means.”
The fact there is no clear position among the allies has “convinced Taliban leaders that the West is not genuinely interested in talks.”
Despite repeated requests last week, Foreign Affairs officials in Ottawa refused comment on the study and declined to say how much the department contributed to the research.
Waldman was in Ottawa three weeks ago to discuss the findings with Canadian officials and praised their level of understanding about the conflict.
As the former Afghanistan policy director for Oxfam, Waldman has extensive contacts in the war-ravaged nation, which allowed him to sit down face-to-face with insurgents, including mid-level Taliban commanders.
“When you spend time in Afghanistan, you begin to build up a network of people who are connected, in one way or another, with the insurgency and indeed many Afghans have those kinds of connections,” he said of the interviews, which were conducted individually and lasted for hours at a time.
“It’s quite necessary research because it helps us to better understand the insurgency, given their strength.”
He said he considered the remarks candid and genuine because they had not been authorized by the Quetta shura, the Taliban’s governing body.
“By and large, the propaganda machine of the insurgents seeks to prevent these kinds of discussions because they have a certain line they want to maintain.”
Waldman found international emphasis on the rights of women and educating young girls has given the Taliban the idea the West is intent upon imposing its “perceived immoral” values on Afghans.
That has only made them fight harder.
In their eyes, Waldman said, the policies “liberation or sexualization of women” strengthen the call for sharia law.
Strangely enough, the Taliban see their fight as “necessary to protect women.”
The report went on to recommend: “The international community must make efforts to protect fundamental rights, but perceived attempts to impose western standards in a predominantly conservative, patriarchal society are likely to be counterproductive.”
The interviews also revealed insurgents are tired after nine years of war and feel the heat of NATO’s troop surge.
But they say they are well-financed and -aided by Pakistan’s intelligence service. Yet it’s an arrangement many of them see as a devil’s bargain because of the dependency it has created.
“Many were unhappy about perceived ISI influence over the movement, especially at the leadership level,” said the report, published in mid-October.
Waldman’s research also paints a nuanced picture of how the Taliban view their atrocities.
In addition to indiscriminate roadside bombings, militants have conducted a savage campaign of assassinations involving local village elders and moderate clerics that has left hundreds dead in Kandahar alone. They’ve been known to spray acid in the faces of young school girls.
“Commanders asserted that the Taliban cause is just, but many displayed unease about certain tactics,” said the study.
The insurgents realized they’ve cost them support but whenever their fighters show up in remote villages, the people still help them.
“Most claimed that they were popular with locals, who provided them with essential assistance such as food and shelter,” Waldman wrote.
“As one commander put it: ’If they didn’t (support and assist), the Taliban could not resist foreign forces.’ However, some of this support may derive from insurgent coercion or intimidation, and a number of commanders from the south and southeast admitted that public support had declined because they were seen to have brought fighting to the area or caused greater hardship.”