My first meeting with the Taliban was reassuring. Their commander of Ghazni said, ‘you can trust me today, I’m not going to kill you,’ as he put his two handguns on the windowsill of his safehouse. I replied, ‘we have something in common, the Governor Osmani wants to kill us both’. And just like that under a lore as ancient as Afghanistan itself, my enemy’s enemy became my friend. He even gave me a letter to carry in my pocket as a pass to get through Taliban check-points. I didn’t want to risk the goodwill by reminding him that none of his guys are literate. It’s the symbolism that matters.
It all started after I sent one of my local guys, Mr Tabibi, to find the Taliban commander and ask for a meeting. Mr Tabibi was hired because his uncle was with them. Being the only Westerner living in Ghazni, surrounded by low-intensity warfare with no frontline, I figured it might pay to have a back channel. Mr Tabibi returned and said the commander would not meet me. ‘That’s strange,’ I said, ‘because before coming to Afghanistan I was terrified of the Taliban. Go back and tell him I was wrong and that he is chicken shit. Because he will only be meeting me in my Shalwar Kameez and Turban’. To live in Ghazni and travel around the province, as well as Wardak and Logar, I dressed like a Pashtun. Riding my own motorbike or driving a beaten-up white Corolla. With my beard and turban, no one noticed. It also endeared me to the tribal elders. I even adopted local mannerisms including how they walked. The trick with the vehicles was to find an old car that ran well. When you look like a member of the Taliban, breaking down outside a US Forward Operating Base could have tragic consequences.
Back to the meeting. I asked Mr Tabibi to tell the Taliban commander that I even question if he is a Pashtu warrior – a bigger insult. Mr Tabibi began nervously scuffing the dirt with his sandals. I reassured him he was to say the insults came from me. After two weeks, Mr Tabibi came back and said, ‘He will meet with you’. The thing is, when dealing with an Islamic reform movement – driven by jihad – that believes in the afterlife, physical threats are pointless. Their centre of gravity is metaphysical.
I then started to receive interlocutors to my compound. Each more senior than the last. Testing me over raisins and green tea; probing for my real intentions; asking if I would convert to Islam; wondering if I was actually an American. I also had a good cook, so perhaps they kept coming for the food.
Meetings with the Taliban or Afghan tribal or village leaders were tests of emotional intelligence; they’re all psychologists and philosophers. Every expression and gesture is watched for signs of weakness. You had to unravel their metaphors. What was said, what was not said. Listening more than talking. The conversation would weave across a tapestry of topics avoiding the actual agenda. They will sign anything you put in front of them and then later claim they never agreed to the project. At the same time, you were wondering if they would try to kill you on the way home. At first it really gets to you, then it becomes normal.
In the end it came down to declaring I had zero interest in changing any aspect of their life in their village. The only thing that mattered was not allowing Al-Qaeda to be present and not blowing up US soldiers or my local staff and friends. Aside from that they could do as they pleased. In the end we met over lunch. Before leaving I asked for the commander’s mobile number. Like lollies, he pulled 25 SIM cards from his pocket. I can’t say we became besties. Although this encounter helped me foresee the reality of our fate.
In Why I am Not a Muslim, Ibn Warraq explains how Americans think that deep down we all have the same values. Americans believe that all these terrorists, if you scratch beneath the surface, are looking for religious equality and justice. That’s complete nonsense. Americans can’t face the reality that different people have different values. Sure, twenty years of Western engagement and a diaspora spread as far as Australia will have changed the world view of many. Yet the enigma of Afghanistan rests within the clans, tribes and ethnic groups spread across the villages, nestled in valleys of far-flung districts. That has never changed. And who are we to try?
Most members of the Taliban are Pashtun, the largest tribal group in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pashtunwali is their code of honour. So simple, yet so unforgiving in practice. Values include justice, courage, bravery, revenge, protection of women and, significantly, hosts defending guests while in their house. There are no ‘safe spaces’. Pashtunwali has been practised for centuries by those living beyond government control. The question is whether any honour exists under this new generation. The original Taliban were former Mujahedeen who had fought the Russians. They came together under Mullah Omar in 1994 to kill brutal warlords who had been raping young boys and women in Kandahar. Most of those guys are long gone. Then there is Pakistan. It has infiltrated all layers of the Taliban. As the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, explains, Pakistan is so treacherous it can get milk from a bull.
We come to these places believing we are historical alchemists. It was during this meeting that I learned the Ghazni Taliban commander had a rival in the neighbouring district. He asked if I could help deal with that guy, ‘a real criminal’. It dawned on me that the lessons from history are still relevant today. It was common for US and other Western forces to be tricked by locals into solving inter-tribal disputes by telling the foreigners that their rival was with the Taliban.
My local staff in Logar called one morning to say they’d been robbed, the car shot up and the driver wounded. $30,000 had been stolen. They’d been on their way to pay local villages and fighting-aged males to do other things than plant IEDs. So I invited the village elders and a couple of our staff who I suspected to lunch. As we passed the flatbread around I calmly explained there would be no going to the police or the US forces. Instead, if the money was not returned within 72 hours the 300 local men would be told that one of those present had stolen their money. Bingo. Within 48 hours every dollar was returned.
Winston Churchill described it best when he said, except at the times of sowing and harvesting, a continual state of feud exists. Tribe wars with tribe. The people of one valley fight those of the next. There is an Afghan joke: an angel is sent to Earth to grant a wish to one person from each country on condition that whatever they want, their neighbour gets twice of the same thing. People in most countries say we don’t mind whatever you’re giving to our neighbours as long as you give me what I wish. When it came to the Afghan, he requested the angel pluck out one of his eyes. That about sums it up.
Yet despite all of that something tells me Afghanistan will lure us back.
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