By Arun Anand
This is the 23rd part of the 30-part series on ‘The Taliban’. You can share your feedback at [email protected]. Here is the 23rd part-
By late 2002, the Taliban had regrouped and announced its comeback through the night letters. These letters were also called Taliban Shabamah. In Pashto, Shabamah means ‘Good Night.’ Ironically, these night letters were death threats. They were handwritten in Pashto and were posted in mosques or slipped under doorways. The first of these letters appeared in areas which were east of Kandahar and very close to the Pakistan border.
These letters gavee reference to the history of Afghan resistance against foreign invaders, great heroes of the past, and Islamic theology. They threatened death to anyone who worked with the United States or the government in Kabul. Taliban runners tacked them on mosque walls or private doorways, or demanded that local notables read them aloud. 1
A few of these night letters which became a regular feature from late 2002 onwards are given below:
Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Maulawi Jalaludeen Haqqani
The warning goes to all students, teachers and personnel of Mohaamad Sedeque Rohi High School. This high school has violated Mujahidenn’s established standards for education. Since the high school has taken a negative stand against Mujahideen, it is Mujahideen’s final resolution to burn the high school to the ground or destroy it with a suicide attack, should any negative propaganda or information regarding Mujahideen be discussed in the future at school.
Another night letter written over a hand drawn figure of a large knife, warned those who worked for Americans:
Afghanistan Islamic Emirate, Kandahar province
We Mujahideen received information that you and your son are working for Americans. You cannot hide from Mujahideen, we will find you. If you and your son do not stop working for Americans, then we will cut you and your son’s heads with the knife that you see in this letter. Anybody who is working with the Americans will be punished with the knife that you see in this letter.
Yet another letter threatened children for fraternising with coalition soldiers:
Attention to all dear brothers:
If the infidels come to your village or to your mosque, please stop your youngsters from working for them and don’t let them walk with the infidels. If anybody in your family is killed by a mine or anything else, then you will be the one responsible, not us.2
After the letters, the regrouped Taliban began its attacks. This time they were better equipped in terms of tactics, training and logistics, thanks to ISI.
On September 5, 2002, Hamid Karzai toured Kandahar. An assassin opened fire on his vehicle from ten yards away, just missing him. American bodyguards gunned the shooter down, accidentally killing Afghan soldiers as well. The same day, a car bomb exploded in a downtown Kabul marketplace, killing fifteen shoppers and bystanders. 3
Larry Goodson, an American scholar of Afghanistan, interviewed Taliban leaders along the Pakistan border during this period and found that the movement benefited from “a perception that the Americans would leave, that reconstruction would not succeed, and that Afghanistan would return to chaos.” Especially in areas such as the Kandahar heartland, the movement’s leaders sought to exploit “popular dissatisfaction in the south over the gap between the expectations of western assistance and the reality that virtually none had arrived.” Taliban units made up of twenty-five or thirty guerrillas crossed over from Pakistan to lob mortars and fire rockets at Kandahar in the night.4
As it prepared for war in Iraq, the Bush administration handed control of Afghan policy increasingly to Zalmay Khalilzad, now a roving envoy to Afghanistan. In April 2003, Khalilzad flew into Kabul to meet with Engineer Arif, the Afghan intelligence chief. Arif reported that I.S.I. clients were “working in Kandahar and Jalalabad . . . providing free passage to terror elements to cross into and out of Pakistan in vehicles loaded with arms.” Arif warned the Bush administration that Pakistan was now “promoting instability in Afghanistan.” 5
Evidence that I.S.I. was back in the game was not difficult to find. That summer, the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid travelled through Quetta and southern Afghanistan to document the Taliban’s return. He found the family of Mullah Dadullah, the movement’s vicious military leader, living openly in a village outside Quetta; in September, Dadullah staged a “family wedding in lavish style, inviting leading members of the Baluchistan government . . . and military officers.” In Kandahar, Rashid met Ahmed Wali Karzai, who told him, “The Taliban are gathering in the same places where they started. It’s like the rerun of an old movie.” The Afghans primarily blamed Pakistan. The sanctuary the Taliban enjoyed in Pakistan as they regrouped empowered them. Afghans wondered, reasonably: How could the United States fail to see that I.S.I. was up to its old tricks? In a land of conspiracy theories, Washington’s apparent acceptance of Pakistan’s policy created confusion and doubt.6
There was no grand American conspiracy, of course. The truth was more prosaic. In all of 2003, Bush’s National Security Council met to discuss Afghanistan only twice, according to records kept by a former administration official. The invasion and occupation of Iraq, overconfidence about Afghanistan’s post-war stability, and the cabinet’s desire to avoid further commitment to reconstruction explained this complacency. It would have required energy and determination to confront and threaten President Musharraf and I.S.I. By 2003 I.S.I. seemed to be running a low-level, testing version of the same covert program it had run in Afghanistan for more than two continuous decades, probing what the service could get away with while the Bush administration tried to subdue Iraq. And a new generation of Pakistan Army officers was rising under Musharraf, schooling itself in the arts of “yes, but” with the United States. Among them was Ashfaq Kayani, a mumbling, chain-smoking general who, even more than Musharraf, would shape America’s fate in South Asia in the decade to come.7
(To be continued)
- Kandahar Tour: The Turning Point in Canada’s Afghan Mission by Lee Windsor, David Charters and Brent Wilson (Wiley, ed.2010) (Pp24-25)
- Understanding Operation Enduring Freedom by Col. Harjeet Singh (Pp114)
- Directorate S by Steve Coll (Pp144)