This morning the Guardian published a fascinating report by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad based on his interviews with a number of Taliban fighters in Wardak province, in Ghazni and in Kabul. The subject of much of the report was Qomendan Hemmet, a young Taliban commander who declared: "When I started in this area, three years ago, I had six fighters, one RPG and two machine guns like these. Now I have 500 fighters, 30 machine guns and hundreds of RPGs."
There is no way at present of checking these figures, but even allowing for a degree of hyperbole, no-one can now doubt that the Taliban is becoming organised throughout the country. Qomendan Hemmet explained how each province now has its own Taliban governor, military leader and shura (consultation) council. Below these are the district commanders, who in turn have smaller units under their command.
Hemmet explained that the Taliban now place a great deal of emphasis on offering some form of government in the areas in which it has a presence. Most importantly, its sharia courts dispense justice, mostly in cases involving bandits or land disputes. The success of the Taliban in offering even a modicum of justice may be one of the reasons behind the recent announcement by the Karzai government that it had begun executing criminals. It wants to be seen as decisive and as popular as the Taleban in the way it tackles crime and property.
Another interviewee, Mullah Muhamadi, also emphasised the importance the Taliban now attaches to being seen to be a government in waiting. "When we control a province we need to provide service to the people. We want to show the people that we can rule and that we are ready for the day when we take over Kabul, that we have learned from our mistakes."
Those mistakes, it would seem, include the closing down of all schools and also the open-ended support for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. While deeply resenting what they see as the military occupation of their country by foreign forces, the new Taliban also know that it was bin Laden who brought death and destruction to their country by launching the 9/11 attacks from their soil. He may now have support amongst some of the tribes along the border because of personal connections, but most Afghans feel little, if any, allegiance to bin Laden and the global jihad.
The Taliban interviewed by Abdul-Ahad appear to have a consistent plan based on cutting the cities off from their hinterlands. They remark that the army and police may control the roads by day, but by night they are in charge. This strategy, most successfully developed by the Peoples Liberation Army in China under Mao Zedong, is just about the only one that can be followed by what is, in essence, a peasant militia. It is unlikely to lead to the collapse of the present government, but it will make much of the country ungovernable.
The reasons it is being successful include the fact that much of the population, particularly in the south, is disillusioned with the Karzai government for not getting rid of warlordism and not settling accounts with those who carried out atrocities in the past.
A good example of this has come to light in the last week. According to IRIN, the UN's office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the site of a mass grave at Dasht-e-Leili near Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan, has been disturbed in the last few months and human remains have been removed. The group Physicians for Human Rights, who discovered the mass grave in 2002, issued a statement alleging that General Abdul Rashid Dostum (see my previous blog below) is responsible for the recent excavations. The involvement of Dostum is examined in more detail in an investigation by Tom Lasseter of McClatchy newspapers.
It was Dostum's men who were accused of carrying out the original massacre of more than 2,000 captured Taliban fighters who had surrendered to the Northern Alliance and US Special Forces after the fall of the city of Kunduz in November 2001. Ever since PHR discovered the remains in January 2002 it has been advocating a full inquiry into what happened there. Their own investigations showed that many of those who died had suffocated as a result of being crammed into freight containers. It was a shocking crime. At the time the US government played down reports about the deaths, saying only that several dozen had died.
However, PHR has now issued much more information that it received from the Departments of Defense and State and also the CIA as a result of a FOIA inquiry.
The documents include a State Department intelligence assessment from November 2002 advising government officials that the remains of between 1,500 and 2,000 individuals were deposited at the site, and that four Afghans who witnessed the death of the prisoners and/or the disposal of their remains had been detained, tortured, killed, and/or disappeared. "Despite having this information," says PHR, "the US Government did not revise its public statements on the issue, nor did it launch a vigorous investigation into the circumstances surrounding these alleged crimes".
PHR adds that the FOIA response calls into question the US Government’s commitment to its responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. These laws require full investigation and accountability for war crimes undertaken by allies during joint military operations. During the time in question, US Army and CIA personnel were advising, equipping and protecting General Dostum, and both parties received the prisoners who surrendered at Kunduz.
So is it any surprise when we now hear that many Afghans are flocking to the banner of a resurgent Taliban? It took several years after 2001 for the Taliban to regain its confidence and to reassert its military forces. Now, as everyone can see for themselves that great unjustices have still not been put right, that aid money appears to have evaporated and that the old warlords continue in power we can harldy be surprised that the insurgency is getting stronger.