Listen All Y’all, It’s A Sabotage

by Joshua Foust on 12/4/2008 · 2 comments

Tell me if this sounds like “sabotage” to you, as apparently it did to the editor who wrote that headline:

America’s plans to enlist Afghan militias in the war against the Taliban are running into difficulties while still in their infancy. In eastern Paktia province, the white-bearded Afghan village elders who are crucial to the “Afghan awakening”, are threatening to unite against the Americans unless such night raids by US special forces are halted.

Saeed Alam was shot four times in the chest in the raid last Saturday. His son landed in a fire pit, used for cooking. His mother died of shock the next day. The American soldiers left, taking 10 other Afghans with them. “We are not Taliban. We do not support al-Qa’ida but if these searches continue we will definitely join the anti-government elements,” said Mr Janan, a senior member of the Gardeserai shura, or council.

To me, that sounds like a normal, expected, one could even say American mindset of bargaining between different costs and benefits. As Christian Bleuer ably explained at CTLab:

When a villager in eastern or southern Afghanistan sees the Taliban in his village on a far more regular basis, is it not the logic of self-preservation that causes him to ‘wait and see’? When the strength of the insurgency is increasing, should an Afghan in an area of contestation throw his/her support behind the Afghan government and the foreign troops?

Viewing ‘fence-sitting’ as some sort of ‘eastern eccentricity,’ rather than basic human behavior, is grossly incorrect. We in the west like to view our choices, and the choices of previous generations, as made out of consideration for some higher ideals. Collaborators and ‘cowards’ who decline to participate in some ‘noble struggle’ are often framed as an anomaly, a disgrace to the nation, surely not representative of many. And judgements are made: it was quite easy to criticize the French from the Nazi-free cities of Britain. But what does a search for fence-sitting in the west reveal?

He shows it reveals quite a bit about America, and Missouri in particular. Of course, this all gets back at a pet peeve I’ve had for a long time now: the relentless quest to exoticize Afghanistan, as if the people there weren’t human who behave in their own self-interest.

But here’s what worries me: that story is portrayed by the Independent as those tribal elders “sabotaging” the “tribal awakening” thing that is supposed to happen in Afghanistan. Ignoring the many reasons such an awakening is a terrible idea (see here as well), this is a pretty basic request on their part: please stop barging into our homes, shooting at us, and dragging our men away for days at a time with no explanation, and we will help you fight off the Taliban.

Indeed, Alex Strick van Linschoten has noted that in Kandahar, “The early years of US raids and night abductions in Kandahar are still not forgotten.” That is, seven years on, they still remember with bitterness being treated the way those Zadran say they were treated by U.S. Special Forces. This kind of behavior—manifested as a fundamental lack of respect, which doesn’t stop at the raid event—has a real effect on how and why people make decisions at the community level, which in this case is manifesting as “fence sitting” behavior from seemingly otherwise amenable people.

One last note: what actual Afghan actually uses the term “anti-government elements” to refer to the Taliban, or HiG, or the Haqqanis? That is a red flag to me—it’s one of the ever-changing fake names the U.S. has assigned to the insurgents, bad guys, Neo-Taliban, whatever you want to call them (the U.S. has switched between AGE, AAF, ACM, ACF, EOA, and plain old “militants” more times than I can count over the last two years). It’s not usually a term you hear village elders using to describe the insurgency. Yet there it is, attributed in quote marks to an elder in Gardez.

You would think that seven years on we would have settled on some way of describing the enemy we are fighting (ignore BABEAA’s weird anti-Uighur side note). But we still can’t really say. That in and of itself is saying something, don’t you think?

Title reference—of course!—is right here.


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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 2 comments }

noah December 4, 2008 at 10:48 pm

This is just a gut reaction, and one that wouldn’t be received kindly by the army brass planning these missions, but the scenario described in the article reminds me quite a bit of Russia’s tactics in the second Chechen war. There are videos, actually, of stuff like this that some of the Russian soldiers themselves gave to Memorial (Russian HR NGO) because they apparently started to grow a conscience eventually. The story in Chechnia seems to be that the strategy didn’t actually work until they had basically rounded up and “disappeared” huge portions of the male population in a lot of areas. Not exactly a workable strategy for us on a practical or a moral level. (Please note the heavy sarcasm here).

Anyway, the point is that I read Christian’s excellent post earlier today and fully agree with you that this sounds much less like some kind of sabotage and more like the way pretty much anyone would react if outsiders with lots of guns came in and started raiding houses and killing people. I think all too often we take it for granted that we’re “the good guys” and forget that for a villager who can’t understand a word we say, we’re just “more guys with guns” and the burden of proof lies on us for convincing them that we’re good and on their side.
And, though this has been heard very often on this particular forum, it can’t apparently be said enough or loud enough that blowing up wedding parties or bombing houses isn’t exactly a great way to reassure people of our good intentions.

A few weeks ago I read an article that I can’t get out of my head. I can’t remember exactly where it happened, I think it was in Helmand, a NATO missile of some kind apparently went of course and killed a house full of people. The image that I can’t shake was only a line or two of a few articles in the news that day, describing how a man carried the dead body of his son across town to the local government office. It’s actually been more than a few weeks, it may have been a month and a half ago and still I can’t get this image out of my head, of this man walking down the road with his dead child in his arms.

I don’t want to get too emotional here, I’d rather not talk about the way that forced me to imagine one of my own sons… well, let’s just say I’m pretty sure things like that are how you lose counterinsurgencies.

Accusing people of “sabotage” when they don’t want to have their communities raided at night and families in their villages killed … yeah, that’s probably another good way to keep losing.

eli December 5, 2008 at 12:43 am

Afghans I’ve spoken to use the terms “dushman” (enemy) or “Taliban”. They know that there’s a difference, at least in the area I am, between the old Taliban (“Kandahari Taliban”) and the new Taliban (“Taliban from Pakistan”), but usually the villagers aren’t all that hung up on terminology, believe it or not.

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