Friday, October 21, 2005

Beacon No. 70: Afghanistan's Interesting (Again)


Every so often a newspaper article comes along that perfectly summarizes a complex problem. Carlotta Gall and Eric Schmitt's "Taliban Step Up Afghan Bombings and Suicide Attacks" is one of those pieces. Here's how it starts:

KABUL, Afghanistan, Oct. 20 - Violence in southern Afghanistan has escalated in the last month as militants are increasingly taking a page from the insurgent playbook in Iraq and using more roadside bombs and suicide attacks, senior Afghan and American officials said Thursday.

American officials said they were bracing for protests throughout the Islamic world in response to allegations that American soldiers in Afghanistan had burned and desecrated the bodies of two dead Taliban fighters and used the remains as propaganda. American officials voiced fears of violence after Friday Prayer services.

Standard Gall so far: Lead with hard power to draw readers to this forgotten corner of American interests—then change the subject to something else interesting that's happening in Afghanistan. But suicide-bombing and corpse-burning are more related than they might seem because they illustrate the soft-power problems of both the U.S. and the Afghan insurgents.

Here's a more-detailed report on the corpse-burning story from today's L.A. Times:

According to the [Australian photojournalist's] report, the bodies were set afire on hills above the village of Gonbaz north of Kandahar after the two Taliban fighters were killed by U.S. soldiers the night before. Five soldiers stood around the fire, and two of them read messages trying to provoke militants.

The messages, which apparently were broadcast to the Taliban, highlighted the fact that the bodies were laid out facing Mecca.

"Attention Taliban: You are cowardly dogs," read one soldier, identified as psychological operations specialist Sgt. Jim Baker. "You allowed your fighters to be laid down facing west and burned. You are too scared to retrieve the bodies. This just proves you are the lady boys we always believed you to be."

Another soldier, who was unidentified, read: "You attack and run away like women. You call yourself Talibs but you are a disgrace to the Muslim religion, and you bring shame upon your family. Come and fight like men instead of the cowardly dogs you are."

A third soldier is heard saying, "Wow, look at the blood coming out of the mouth on that one."

Mockery, Mecca and desecration, all captured on videotape in the middle of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. So the U.S. now has bigger image problems in Afghanistan, and throughout the Muslim world, than it did before the report aired in Australia on Wednesday.

But then Gall and Schmitt's return to the ostensible subject of the article—the shift in insurgent tactics—shows the Taliban, al-Qa'ida et al. have problems of their own.

Suicide bombings have spiked since the September elections, something that's surprising because it was thought most Afghans believed this tactic was un-Islamic. Here's Gall and Schmitt's theory as to why:

American intelligence officials say Afghan insurgents are resorting to more spectacular attacks partly to attract financing for operations from extremist financiers in the Middle East who have been increasingly directing their funds to insurgents in Iraq, including the network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

My first reaction to this is relief that Afghanistan's assorted rebels don't have a sufficient funding stream to operate on their own—in other words, they're not hand-in-glove with the opium growers and traffickers, who are having a banner year in South Asia.

My second reaction is that the Taliban and al-Qa'ida have changed tactics because the Iraqi insurgents' relative soft power has grown. Afghan insurgents may somehow need to compete with their Iraqi counterparts in the arena of ideas to attract funding, just like any Western NGO. (The "idea" may be the tactic of blowing yourself up, but it's still an idea.)

In other words, those "American intelligence officials" think the Afghans aren't changing tactics to try to win the war against the U.S. so much as to attract funding and followers—to make a splash in the Muslim world's headlines and only incidentally hurt U.S. forces and their allies. That can come later—after a funding stream is secured. The Iraqis stole our fire. Now what can we do about it? We Afghans don't approve of suicide bombings but if it's getting the Sunnis a lot of press. ...

And just like their Iraqi counterparts, the Afghan insurgents are getting others to strap on bombs:

In the case of the attack that killed an Afghan commander, Agha Shah, the police did find the head of the bomber, he said, and he appeared to be non-Afghan, possibly an Uzbek.

It remains to be seen how the U.S. and the Afghan insurgents will solve their sizeable soft-power problems in Afghanistan. I can only hope that suicide bombing is as distasteful to Afghans as beheadings were to Iraqis, and that the insurgents' shift in tactics fails to attract either funding or popular support.

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