- By Anand GopalAnand Gopal is a freelance reporter based in Afghanistan. His dispatches are available at anandgopal.com.
The following is excerpted from Anand Gopal’s paper, written for the New America Foundation’s Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative, "The Battle for Afghanistan: Militancy and Conflict in Kandahar."
Many Kandaharis insist that the foreign coalition forces have been a source of insecurity. The perceptions of the government mentioned above also fall upon the foreign troops, since foreigners are largely seen as being the real power in the country. Sections of the military, such as the U.S. special forces, actively supported strongmen and militias, undermining state-building efforts. Men like Ahmed Wali Karzai and Gul Agha Sherzai were largely made through the support-financial and political-of the United States. U.S. forces also worked closely with strongmen like Karam, one of Sherzai’s commanders, to hunt down former Taliban, and helped create a perverse incentive system in which such commanders would hand over suspects on dubious grounds or simply arrest people to extract money.[i] The foreigners were caught in a complex system that they didn’t fully understand and often fell prey to local rivalries. They frequently failed to distinguish between friend and foe, in the process creating many enemies.
In Panjwayi and Zheray districts, the heartland of today’s insurgency, the case of Malim Feda Muhammad is seared into the consciousness of many Taliban fighters. Muhammad, a schoolteacher when the Russians invaded, joined the mujahedeen and became a famous commander in the greater Panjwayi area. He joined the Taliban movement in its early days and later became a frontline commander in the north. After the Taliban’s fall, he retired from political life back to Panjwayi. But U.S. forces captured him and sent him to their detention facility at Kandahar Airfield, and he was released only after intensive intervention by tribal elders. One National Directorate of Security (NDS) official who visited him after his release recalled that:
I went to his home. For weeks he had been hiding in the house, too ashamed to come out and talk to people. Finally I convinced his son to let me see him. He looked like a disaster. He hadn’t been sleeping well. He started to tell his story of how he was humiliated, stripped naked, beaten, and how they put dogs on him while he was in that state. He was crying and asked how he could possibly live in Afghanistan with any dignity.[ii]
It is difficult to verify Muhammad’s claims, although they fit with other testimonies of abuse at the Kandahar prison from that time. Still, for our purposes-to understand the motivations and ideology of the insurgency-the fact that other Taliban and the community in general believe his story is what is important. Many of the Taliban and tribal elders interviewed in Panjwayi repeated his tale as an example of why people were standing against the Americans. Muhammad eventually fled with his family to Quetta, where he rejoined the Taliban and today commands a number of fighters in the Panjwayi and Zheray areas.[iii]
In the northern district of Shah Wali Kot, Taliban fighters, locals, and elders tell the story of Mullah Sattar Akhund, a former Taliban official who was living at home during the early years after the movement was ousted. One Taliban commander recalled that:
In that first year of the Karzai government Mullah Sattar was in retirement. But the government kept coming to his house and questioning him or searching his house. Sometimes he was going out during the day and would come home at night to sleep. One of those days the Americans came and searched his house. They came again and again and searched his house, and it turned out to be a big shame for him. The people in his village started to gossip about his family. Finally his mother got very angry and told him, "You are bringing shame upon our family! Either defend us from this or run away. She gave him the family weapon, a Sakeel[iv] from the old days, and told him to use it. The next time the Americans came he started firing at them, and he got many people in the village to fire at them. The Americans called for an airplane, which finally came and bombed the house. Later on they arrested all of the surviving adult male family members and many were taken to Bagram. They took the heart out of the village. We knew that we had to fight them and so we joined the Taliban.[v]
Along with the arbitrary arrests and abuse, night raids by special forces and targeted assassinations played a significant role in turning many against the foreign presence. The case of Hajji Burget Khan in particular had lasting negative effects. Khan was one of the best-known leaders of the Ishaqzai tribe, which has hundreds of thousands of members in Kandahar, Helmand, and elsewhere.[vi] In 2003, U.S. forces raided his home in the Band-i-Timor area of Maiwand, killing him and leaving his son a paraplegic. "They took the women and children and put them in a bawaray," a type of shallow well, recalled one prominent Noorzai elder from the area. "It was a shock to us. We had lost our leader and even the women were mocking us, saying that despite our big turbans we could not protect our community. The Americans also arrested a number of relatives of Hajji Burget Khan and shaved their beards and cut their hair," a humiliating act for a Pashtun man.
The killing of Hajji Burget Khan is often cited as the single most important destabilizing factor in Maiwand district and other Ishaqzai areas. Three Taliban commanders from the region interviewed for this report all mentioned the killing as one of the main factors that led them to join the insurgency. Afghan government officials concede that it had disastrous effects in the area. It is unclear why Khan was targeted; he was very old at the time-most put his age over 70-and was not a member of the insurgency. He had a son who was with the Taliban during the 1990s but had since retired. And like many other Ishaqzai and Noorzai elders in the area, he may have had ties to drug traffickers. But the most likely explanation is that the commanders with whom U.S. forces had allied had seen Khan as a rival.
News of his death even had effects on other tribes and districts. "We heard about Hajji Burget Khan’s murder," said one elder in Shorabak district. "It was enough to convince many people the foreigners and the government were our enemy." Khan’s paraplegic son moved to Quetta, where he became a Taliban facilitator, while his brother became a leading commander in Helmand.
The killing was notorious throughout Kandahar province, but nearly every district had similar stories. In Zheray, for instance, foreign forces killed two influential religious scholars, Mullahs Abidullah and Janan, causing many of their followers to join the insurgency.[vii]
One Taliban commander in Zheray gave his reasons for joining last year:
There were so many examples in the last nine years of the foreigners’ methods. During last Ramadan, it was 12:15 a.m. and the Americans invaded a house of my relatives in Hazaruji Baba.[viii] They killed an innocent 18-year-old boy named Janan who was sleeping under a net. They left his body there while they searched the house, and dogs began to gnaw at him. In the same month, in the Nar-i-pul area, they raided the house of Mawlawi Ahmadullah. They killed him, took one of his brothers with them, and tied the wives to each other and left them as they searched the house. When we arrived later, we could not untie the women with our hands and we had to use a stick [because of Pashtun customs that forbid contact between members of the opposite sex who are not relatives or married]. What were we to do after these sorts of things? So I joined the Taliban.[ix]
Furthermore, there were a number of high-profile incidents in which airstrikes killed a sizable number of civilians, such as the 2008 bombing of a wedding party in Shah Wali Kot.
Anand Gopal is an Afghanistan-based journalist. He is the coauthor of the New America Foundation’s "Battle for Pakistan" paper on militancy and conflict in N
 In this paper, "Taliban facilitator" means someone who is not an active military commander but works in other spheres-political, financial, or logistics-to aid the movement.
[i] For examples of special forces working with Sherzai’s commanders, see Anonymous, Hunting Al Qaeda: A Take-No-Prisoners Account of Terror, Adventure and Disillusionment. Zenith Press, 2005.
[ii] Interview with NDS agent, Kabul, August 2010.
[iii] Interviews with Taliban fighters, tribal elders, and government officials, Kandahar, 2010.
[iv] A type of PK machine gun.
[v] Interview with Taliban commander and elders from Shah Wali Kot, 2009.
[vi] Interviews with Ishaqzai elders in Helmand, Kandahar, and Kabul, 2009-2010, and Malalai Ishaqzai, lawmaker, 2010.
[vii] Interviews with Zheray elders, Kandahar, April 2010. Janan was preaching against the foreign forces but was not a fighter himself. Despite his preaching (or maybe because of it), he was very popular and influential in the area.
[viii] Ramazan is the Persian and Afghan term for Ramadan.
[ix] Interview with Taliban commander in Kandahar city, July 2010.