David Rohde’s insights into what motivates the Taliban

Seven months of captivity reveal how U.S. "anti-terrorism" actions fuel extremism and anti-American hatred.

Topics: Afghanistan, Washington, D.C.,

(updated below – Update II)

The New York Times‘ David Rohde writes about the seven months he was held hostage by a group of extremist Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and conveys this observation about what motivates them:

My captors harbored many delusions about Westerners. But I also saw how some of the consequences of Washington’s antiterrorism policies had galvanized the Taliban. Commanders fixated on the deaths of Afghan, Iraqi and Palestinian civilians in military airstrikes, as well as the American detention of Muslim prisoners who had been held for years without being charged.

Apparently, when we drop bombs on Muslim countries — or when Israel attacks Palestinians — that fuels anti-American hatred and militarism among Muslims.  The same outcomes occur when we imprison Muslims without charges in places like Guantanamo and Bagram.  Imagine that.  Recall, according to Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, what prompted 9/11 “ringleader” Mohammed Atta to devote himself to a suicide mission, as recounted by Juan Cole during the Israel/Gaza war:

In 1996, Israeli jets bombed a UN building where civilians had taken refuge at Cana/ Qana in south Lebanon, killing 102 persons; in the place where Jesus is said to have made water into wine, Israeli bombs wrought a different sort of transformation. In the distant, picturesque port of Hamburg, a young graduate student studying traditional architecture of Aleppo saw footage like this on the news [graphic]. He was consumed with anguish and the desire for revenge. As soon as operation Grapes of Wrath had begun the week before, he had written out a martyrdom will, indicating his willingness to die avenging the victims, killed in that operation–with airplanes and bombs that were a free gift from the United States. His name was Muhammad Atta. Five years later he piloted American Airlines 11 into the World Trade Center. (Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, p. 307: “On April 11, 1996, when Atta was twenty-seven years old, he signed a standardized will he got from the al-Quds mosque.  It was the day Israel attacked Lebanon in Operation grapes of Wrath. According to one of his friends, Atta was enraged, and by filling out his last testament during the attack he was offering his life in response“).

On Tuesday, the Israeli military shelled a United Nations school to which terrified Gazans had fled for refuge, killing at least 42 persons and wounding 55, virtually all of them civilians, and many of them children. The Palestinian death toll rose to 660.

You wonder if someone somewhere is writing out a will today.



One could — and should — ask that question every time the U.S. or Israel engages in another military strike that kills Muslim civilians, or for that matter, every day that goes by when we continue to wage war inside Muslim countries.  Rohde adds this about what motivates these Taliban:

America, Europe and Israel preached democracy, human rights and impartial justice to the Muslim world, they said, but failed to follow those principles themselves.

One of the taboo topics in the American media is how the U.S. Government routinely violates the principles we espouse for, and try to impose on, the rest of the world.  We systematically torture Muslims and then cover it up and protect our torturers while preaching accountability and the rule of law; we condemn deprivations of due process while maintaining and expanding lawless prison systems for Muslims; we demand adherence to U.N. dictates and international law while blocking investigations into U.N. reports of war crimes and possible “crimes against humanity” by our allies; we righteously oppose aggression while invading and simultaneously occupying numerous countries, while threatening to attack still more, and arming countries like Israel to the teeth to wage still other attacks, etc. etc.

As a result of the media avoidance of such topics, many Americans don’t ever think much about the huge gap between what we claim about ourselves and what we do.  But much of the rest of the world — certainly including the Muslim world — sees that discrepancy quite clearly, often up-close.  That’s what accounts for the radically different, even irreconcilable, perceptions that Americans and so many people in the rest of the world have about who we are and what we do (“why do they hate us?”).  Is it really surprising that young Taliban fighters, surrounded by a foreign occupying army and lawless prison system for the last eight years, are “fixated” on such things and are radicalized by it?  Shouldn’t that, by itself, make us think about not doing those things any longer, since they only exacerbate the problem we claim we are trying to solve?

Finally, Rohde describes his treatment at the hands of the Taliban during his seven months of captivity as follows:

They vowed to follow the tenets of Islam that mandate the good treatment of prisoners. In my case, they unquestionably did. They gave me bottled water, let me walk in a small yard each day and never beat me.

Rohde explains that the Taliban automatically believe that journalists — especially American journalists — are spies.  Despite that belief, the Taliban never waterboarded him, never hung him naked in a cold room to induce hypothermia, never stuffed him in a coffin-like box as punishment, never deprived him of sleep to the point of severe disorientation, and instead adhered to their commitment regarding “the good treatment of prisoners.”  We might want to think about what that means about us.  That many of the Taliban are inhumane, brutal and barbaric extremists only underscores that point further.

* * * * *

Two other items, one related and the other not:

(1) An Iranian dissident group staged two suicide bombing attacks today which killed some Revolutionary Guard commanders as well as “dozens of others.”  At least according to an ABC News report from 2007 (from the unreliable Brian Ross), the group which claimed responsibility for these attacks (and which has staged similar attacks in the past) – Jundallah — “has been secretly encouraged and advised by American officials since 2005.”  If that’s true, would that make the U.S. a so-called “state sponsor of terrorism”?  

(2) Following up on the Goldman Sachs issues I wrote about on Friday, The New York Times‘ Frank Rich today has a scathing column condemning Goldman.  Their behavior is becoming so transparent that it cannot help but enter mainstream discourse (that even prompted David Axelrod to condemn Goldman’s bonuses and other practices as “offensive,” while claiming the White House was powerless to stop it).

 

UPDATE:  From Bryan Bender, The Boston Globe, October 9, 2009 (h/t CarolynC):

Nearly all of the insurgents battling US and NATO troops in Afghanistan are not religiously motivated Taliban and Al Qaeda warriors, but a new generation of tribal fighters vying for control of territory, mineral wealth, and smuggling routes, according to summaries of new US intelligence reports.

Some of the major insurgent groups, including one responsible for a spate of recent American casualties, actually opposed the Taliban’s harsh Islamic government in Afghanistan during the 1990s, according to the reports, described by US officials under the condition they not be identified.

“Ninety percent is a tribal, localized insurgency,’’ said one US intelligence official in Washington who helped draft the assessments. “Ten percent are hardcore ideologues fighting for the Taliban.’’

US commanders and politicians often loosely refer to the enemy as the Taliban or Al Qaeda, giving rise to the image of holy warriors seeking to spread a fundamentalist form of Islam. But the mostly ethnic Pashtun fighters are often deeply connected by family and social ties to the valleys and mountains where they are fighting, and they see themselves as opposing the United States because it is an occupying power, the officials and analysts said.

One of the most astounding feats in propaganda is how we’ve managed to take people who live in a country which we invade, bomb and occupy — and who fight against us because we’re doing that — and call them “Terrorists,” thereby “justifying” continuing to bomb and occupy their country further (“We have to stay in order to fight the Terrorists:  meaning the people who are fighting us because we stay”).

 

UPDATE II:  The second installment of Rohde’s story is now available, describing the first couple of weeks after he was taken to Pakistan, and it includes this:

For the next several nights, a stream of Haqqani commanders overflowing with hatred for the United States and Israel visited us, unleashing blistering critiques that would continue throughout our captivity.

Some of their comments were factual. They said large numbers of civilians had been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories in aerial bombings. Muslim prisoners had been physically abused and sexually humiliated in Iraq. Scores of men had been detained in Cuba and Afghanistan for up to seven years without charges.

To Americans, these episodes were aberrations. To my captors, they were proof that the United States was a hypocritical and duplicitous power that flouted international law.

When I told them I was an innocent civilian who should be released, they responded that the United States had held and tortured Muslims in secret detention centers for years. Commanders said they themselves had been imprisoned, their families ignorant of their fate. Why, they asked, should they treat me differently?

Note how it is the very policies undertaken in the name of fighting Terrorism that actually exacerbate that problem.  Note, too, the vast gap in terms of how Americans perceive of the conduct by the U.S. (those are mere “aberrations”) and how much of the rest of the world perceives of them, especially the people targeted by them.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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