Friday, May 6, 2011

The Eyes of the Enemy

Farah's reaction to Osama Bin Ladin's death was muted. Our engineers were headed out on a routine project inspection that morning and I asked the SecFor guys to poll passers-by on Bin Ladin's death, assuming that the Embassy would want man-on-the-street reactions. SecFor reported that the streets were largely empty -- they blamed the 120-degree temperatures -- but said that not one of the seven people they asked was aware of Bin Ladin's death. "It seemed like they didn't know who Osama Bin Ladin was," they told me.

I passed that information to the Embassy. It did not make the final report.

I am not under the impression that Bin Ladin's death will change much here in western Afghanistan. We do have an active insurgency in Farah, though whether they're truly Taliban (with Quetta Shura connections) or funded or supported by Al-Qaeda or the Osama wing of global terror is an almost academic debate, and one for which I have limited tolerance. They have attempted to blow up convoys and have succeeded in killing a handful of soldiers in Farah, and the exact taxonomy of insurgent fighter they fall under seems unimportant when placed in that light. The military generally refers to them succinctly as "bad guys," and I have taken to doing the same.

Generally speaking, though, the insurgency is something that I see little of. Fighting happens in outlying districts, and the PRT won't usually move in until the combat is done; there can be no reconstruction until the fighting is over, and the PRT is not a kinetic or maneuver unit, the military's euphemisms for combat troops. I have traveled on occasion to outlying districts and sat through shuras in the shadow of buildings riddled with bullet holes, but I have never been anywhere near active, ongoing combat. My year here, mercifully, has been nothing like the movie Restrepo.

The insurgency happens elsewhere. And so I was quite surprised when I, in mid-March, came unexpectedly face to face with a pack of Taliban.

They were reintegrating. There's a much ballyhooed Coalition program -- the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program, though its names and subprograms seem to switch acronyms on an almost weekly basis -- that seeks to bring to bring insurgents and low-level Taliban back into Afghan society. The program on the Coalition side is managed by a charismatic British 2-Star named General Jones, who has visited Farah several times to discuss the program with the Farah Government. ("I'm implementing a nation-wide program," he told us in his charming north-of-London accent, "and I've only got two men and two dogs to do it.")

Jones runs the program on the Coalition side, but for the most part it's Afghan led and we take a largely hands-off approach, supporting from the background as needed. The idea is that non-ideological Taliban -- those who got swept up in the fighting for one reason or another but do not seek the eradication of all non-muslims or the restoration of a pan-global Islamic caliphate -- can be given a means to honorably exit the fight and a small subsistence stipend to get them back on their feet. It's not intended to be a jobs program, nor is the very small stipend intended to be a reward for coming back; it's meant to be a means of grievance resolution and community building. It's one of our exit strategies.

And so, when a pack of Taliban from central Farah Province decided to reintegrate, the Governor called us to let us know, and I and Commander Killjoy tagged along with a few other officer who were headed to assist with registering them in the program.

It is indescribably strange to stand talk to people who just days prior were holding arms against the United States. We were standing in the pleasant garden space just across from the Governor's office, outside a conference room used for large meetings, and exchanging the normal pleasantries that go along with meeting any Afghan, chatting like we were old friends instead two groups of people who, as of days ago, had been on opposite sides of the war. They were young -- early twenties or so, with scruffy beards and the black turbans favored by the Taliban. None of them had ever been to school for a day in their life, a fact which I, well-trained in reading faces from my visa tour in Islamabad once upon a time, could see in their faces without having to ask: it was etched into their eyes.

(After almost a year in Afghanistan, I can tell if someone is literate just by the brightness in his eyes, and I can pick out who the important people are in a crowd just by how they carry themselves; the requisite visa tour that all entry level officers have to go through can seem like a soul-sapping waste of time, but I will concede that it taught me to read people -- and to trust my instincts -- better than any training ever could have).

The reintegrees spoke only Pashto and no Dari, and seemed wary of talking to me through through an interpreter. But like a lot of Afghans, they could get by in Urdu, the primary language of Pakistan, and they opened up once we switched to a language they could talk to me directly in. They were rural poor, and claimed to have joined the insurgency for the wages it pays -- Ten Dollar Taliban, as they're known. One said he joined because it seemed like fun -- he was bored, and taking pot shots at passing soldiers seemed like something to do to break up the otherwise staid life of a rural farmer. The others nodded in agreement: it was a way to kill time.

I had expected that talking to members of the Taliban would be fascinating beyond any speaking of it: they were the physical incarnation of America's enemy -- actual, living examples of "bad guys" who likely had taken up the cause of Death to America and all of that. It is not inconceivable that even a scant week prior, they'd possibly have tried to kill me if our paths had crossed and it had been convenient.

And yet, they were remarkably uninteresting. They were all sheepish about their past with the Taliban, and seemed almost embarrassed that they hadn't engaged in any major combat activities. Mostly they just wanted the bags of wheat they'd get as a subsistence allowance from the reintegration process. We talked about farming and tending the fields, but ended up having not much to say to one another.

I left the larger group of reintegrees to go inside with Commander Killjoy, who was set to begin talking to the self-identified leader of the group, the one who had ostensibly convinced them to come in and reintegrate. He, in a clean set of Afghan clothes and with a larger and more commanding turban than the others, claimed to have spent significant time in the Pakistani city Quetta, home of the Quetta Shura which ostensibly guides all Taliban activities.

And again the Consular experience kicked in: I was convinced that this man was lying to me. I wasn't sure what it was that he was lying about, if he was just stretching the truth or embellishing things, or if parts of his story were true and just small falsehoods had been studded in, but I was positive that he was lying.

Without realizing I had done so, I switched into visa officer mode and began interviewing him as if he were a suspected fraudulent applicant in the immigrant visa line at U.S. Embassy Islamabad. I started grilling him, trying to trip him up within his own story so I could figure out what was true and what wasn't. I knew what I was doing, but I thought that I was doing a good job of keeping it lighthearted and friendly. "Lighthearted? Are you f__king kidding me?" the Commander told me later. "I'm not sure you realize how intense you can be, sometimes. That was really, uh, really something to watch."

(Commander Killjoy and I have since worked out a code word -- "cupcake" -- to use if either of us think the other is being too hostile with our interlocutors. I originally made it up to use on the off chance he went off the deep end, but the only time it's been trotted out has been to calm me down in the face of unreasonable and repetitive demands, something that makes me irrationally annoyed. The first time he used it ("did you get one of those cupcakes at lunch?"), I responded that I didn't see any cupcakes at lunch, and he sighed despondently about there being no point in having a code word if I refused to remember what it means).

And so I grilled him, through an interpreter since I don't speak Pashto and didn't want to give him the upper hand by speaking Urdu.

How often did you go to Quetta?

At least once a year.

How did you get there?

By road, and then over the mountains.

Through which cities? On which road?

Highway one, the ring road. And then through Spin Boldak and through Balochistan.

You drove? Or someone else drove? Or you took a bus? How did you get there?

I told you, we took highway one. Everyone takes highway one -- even regular citizens. It's not out of the ordinary. Starting to get defensive.

And when you got there, where did you sleep? What did the room look like? Did you have a bed, or a cot or did you sleep on the ground? How many other people slept in the room with you, and were you inside or outside? When you met representatives of the Quetta Shura, what did the room look like? Did it have a table or did you sit on the floor? What did you eat? Did you have to pay for the food or was it provided? How many meals a day?

And so on. I remained steadfastly convinced that he was lying to me, but the Commander told me gently that it ultimately doesn't matter if parts of his story were made up or embellished or whatever. He had been accepted by our Afghan counterparts and was reintegrating, and that was the end of the story; where or about what he was lying was no longer relevant. The Taliban leader looked visibly relieved when I stood and left the room.

After Osama Bin Ladin was killed, I noted on Facebook that I have lived in Pakistan and even driven through Abbottabad, but was not involved with the Operation that got him. I have spent exactly one day on the range and have never shot anyone, much less a major figure from the world of Islamic extremism or a terrorist leader -- such is not my role in this war. But I can say confidently that at least one member of the Taliban -- or ex-member, now -- will always remember me as the guy from the PRT who, for a period of twenty minutes or so, stared him down and made him bracingly uncomfortable. It's no take down of Bin Ladin, but there's still an odd sense of satisfaction to it.


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Thanks again.

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Tea house trekking (10 days trekking)


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