The (Taliban) Kite Runner

Post image for The (Taliban) Kite Runner

by Joshua Foust on 2/2/2010 · 11 comments

CJ Chivers sez:

The Taliban and their supporters use other signals besides car horns and pigeons, including kites flown near American movements and dense puffs of smoke released from chimneys near where a unit patrols.

“You’ll go to one place, and for some reason there will be a big plume of smoke ahead of you,” said Capt. Paul D. Stubbs, the Weapons Company commander. “As you go to the next place, there will be another.”

“Our impression,” he added, “is the people are doing it because they are getting paid to do it.”

A couple of things leap out at me. First off, the previous four surges into Helmand have remarked upon this very tactic, as have the officers in almost any major offensive anywhere in the country. “Afghans use primitive methods to defeat a technologically superior enemy” is a theme about as old as the Anglo-Afghan War—the first one.

Secondly… I see correlation but no causation in the article. As BruceR noted, “Kite flying is ubiquitous in Afghanistan, but it would be a lousy choice of signal of an enemy presence.” I mean, we all remember Khaled Hosseini’s maudlin novel about kites, right (and yes, it made me cry, but that doesn’t make it not-maudlin)?

While not proving in any way that these kinds of things—the release of pigeons, children running inside, or fires burning in a kitchen—are not enemy signals, there is just no evidence in the article itself that these are actually relevant. Their presence is noted, and then hours later the patrolling unit received gunfire. In Helmand, though, getting shot at is a routine enough occurrence that, without evidence that normal activities are in fact being tailored to signal to militants, I don’t see the automatic correlation.

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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 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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Capt. Monkey February 2, 2010 at 9:23 pm

I always find it funny when a patrol frantically reports to their higher HQ (on radio/mIRC/etc) “we saw two kids flying kites!”

The higher HQ, equally excited, demands, “what color are the kites?”

Really? Seriously? Maybe, these kids are on their 5 minute recess from the otherwise demanding 18hour schoolday that they have, and decided they want to fly a kite. Or, maybe, their parents kicked them out of the house for playing world of warcraft for too long… oh, yeah. They don’t have enough schools and probably any WoW. So maybe, they decided that playing with the kite today was more fun than rolling a tire with a stick.

Michael Hancock February 2, 2010 at 11:50 pm

Um. Ugg Boot ads? Weirdness never ceases. I’m not sure how common kite-flying is in any part of Afghanistan, but I imagine that if they stick out to the people on the ground, they are uncommon enough to be used as opportunistic signaling systems. Just my uneducated guess.

Reader February 3, 2010 at 6:04 am

Kites are very common in afg, but Talibs forbid it on reasons kites are play and a waste of time which should be used for worshipping A. So if locals see a kite up in a Talib controlled zone they know it is permitted for a special reason. That’s just my guess.

RScott February 3, 2010 at 12:38 pm

In the spring of 97, the first chance I had to get back into central Helmand after the Soviet invasion, kids were flying kites in Kandahar…after our media had made a big thing about no kites or football matches under the Taliban. When asked, the kids said that yes flying kites was forbidden but that the Taliban were not enforcing it (at least in Kandahar). When I got to Lashkar Gah, there were neighborhood teams having a soccer tournament in the central field of that town…under the control of the Taliban.

Joshua Foust February 3, 2010 at 9:37 am

Sometimes, spam comments slip through. I got rid of it.

The point BruceR raises, which is important, is that kites actually ARE common enough that to assume mere presence indicates signaling is a sign of inexperience. And he says this having been there, in that part of the country (I rarely saw kites in the East).

Jakob February 3, 2010 at 10:11 am

Even if Kite Flying may not be a traditional pass time in Afghan history (I don’t know) I assume that at least the Afghan refugees to Pakistan who returned may have brought it back, since there it’s extremely popular (and controversial, considered non-Muslim and deadly because of the glass splinters attached to the ropes to cut down other kites – google Basant+lahore or similar)

Turgai Sangar February 3, 2010 at 3:17 am

A bit more to the east, Lashkar-è-Taiba sees it even more adventurous:

BruceR February 3, 2010 at 11:19 am

@Reader, I remember arguing the same thing once, but I also never heard of the current Taliban taking any action against kid kite-flyers while I was closer to the action. They’ve got more significant fish to fry now. What might have made sense when they held absolute sway is less important now that they’re trying harder to keep the population on side: it seems the more trivial offences are being ignored.

Reader February 3, 2010 at 11:27 am

Sounds right!

RScott February 3, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Kite flying and fighting has been a long tradition in Afghanistan. In the early 1970s at least, Jalalabad was the site of one of the biggest kite fighting tournaments in the spring and Kabul was full of kites as well. Not something recently brought in.

Fnord February 6, 2010 at 10:57 am

From a milytary point of view, kites seem like a ideal way of transmitting basic messages, precisely because it is a common past-time. Hiding in plain sight, and all of that?

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