Monday, 17 November 2008
There is no doubt that the insurgency against US-led forces in Afghanistan has gathered pace this year (see my previous post). And even if it is true that many incidents described as 'Taliban' attacks are not necessarily what they seem, that organisation is undoubtedly playing a leading role. Yet even the most devout Taliban supporter must surely wonder about claims of military success made on theTaliban's official website (www.alemarah1.com). Take the last week for example; between 12th and 17th November the Taliban issued 32 statements about military actions. That's roughly four or five per day. If we look in a little more detail at the Taliban statements, they claim to have killed four Canadian soldiers, 15 British , 48 Americans, 10 French, 12 Germans, 44 soldiers from the Afghan national army and 14 policemen - a total of 143 fatalities in one week. They also claim to have destroyed 11 tanks and 10 other unspecified military vehicles. In one of these reports claiming to have killed 11 Americans in Herat in Western Afghanistan on 16 November the official statement says: "According to a report, the Mujahide detonated his explosives, and completed attack in which 2 tanks of American invaders were completely destroyed".
A second report on an attack in which the Taliban claim to have killed 11 German soldiers, also on 16 November, in Baglan province contains the following statement: "According to a report, the Mujahide detonated his vehicle, and completed attack in which 2 tanks of German invaders were completely destroyed few vehicles were damaged ."
What a coincidence! Clearly we cannot place a lot of trust in the Taliban claims on the battlefield. They appear to be issued by rote, with little concern for the truth. In reality, several Coalition soldiers have been killed and there have been a number of firefights, but nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, with the first heavy snows of winter already being reported in Laghman province, the level of fighting is likely to decline.
Even the most widely reported event of the week - the seizing of a number of US Army Humvees and other military equipment from a convoy that was halted and pillaged in the Khyber Pass (see picture above) - was not actually the work of the Taliban itself, but of the Tehreek-e-Taliban, the movement's Pakistan-based co-thinkers, who have numerous differences with the Quetta-based Taliban leadership.
Why is it that the Taliban chooses to publish so many lies? After all, they are likely to be much happier about the present state of the insurgency than, say, the White House or Downing Street. The increasingly directionless US entanglement in Afghanistan will soon be that country's longest active military engagement anywhere.
Is it because they think people in the West will believe the lies? That is unlikely. The spokesmen for the Taliban (who can easily be contacted by journalists) are no fools. Although it is often difficult for journalists to travel within the country to check on reported incidents for themselves, they are unlikely to swallow such improbable 'facts' fed to them by Zabiullah Mujahid or Qari Muhammed Yousuf, the two Taliban spokesmen. Eleven British fatalities on one day, as reported by the Taliban in the last week, would have caused a major political crisis in Britain.
It is because the Taliban are unsophisticated and don't care too much about accuracy? This is not true either. The organisation runs a professional propaganda operation, which produces well thought-out dvds that use the latest video technology and computer programs, runs regularly updated websites and often succeeds in getting its message across by being first to issue a statement on an important event.
No, the simple truth is that in many parts of Afghanistan, with little or no access to public information and high rates of illiteracy, the outlandish claims of the Taliban are believable. In an interview with the BBC last week, Abdul Raziq, a teacher in Lashkar Gar in Helmand province, spoke to reporter Jill McGivering: " 'The current insecurity is because of the illiteracy in our country,' he told me. 'If the people were literate, they wouldn't have this insurgency now. That's why I'm trying to do what I can to educate the future generation, so they can serve their country, instead of destroying it.' "
At the same time, people know that there are Taliban roadblocks appearing on a regular basis in many of the more remote places. Vehicles are 'taxed' by local militias. Night letters are distributed threatening anyone who steps out of line.
No wonder that they think the insurgents can destroy dozens of tanks, kill hundreds of foreign soldiers and drive them from the country.
That is a measure of where we are today. Even the most barefaced of Taliban lies is believable to many Afghans, who at the same time grow increasingly sceptical of Coalition claims, particularly following numerous recent bombings of innocent civilians. Unless Western policy on Afghanistan changes rapidly the Taliban will soon be calling all the shots.