Reviewing the news from the last two weeks during which I was enjoying a vacation, I’ve been gripped by the story of 10 medical aid workers recently murdered in Afghanistan.
This human tragedy provides some insights that may surprise you about the prospects for progress in the Afghan war.
The aid team, six of whom were Americans, was attacked while returning from an arduous trip to a remote area of northeastern Afghanistan where they provided medical services to Afghan villagers. The Taliban took “credit,” claiming the group was proselytizing. That charge was patently false: The International Assistance Mission, a Christian group that organized the trip, forbids proselytizing and has a long track record to prove this. So did the aid workers.
Indeed, these humanitarians were acting out of love for this complex country and its people. They were not naive do-gooders: Tom Little, 61, an optometrist and the group’s leader, spoke Dari and had worked in the country for 35 years, even under Soviet occupation and Taliban rule. Dan Terry, 64, had also spent decades in the country and spoke Dari; in Taliban times, he had sometimes provided saline solution to armed men with eye problems.
Karen Woo, 36, a British surgeon, quit a lucrative practice in order to treat Afghan women. Glen Lapp, a nurse from Lancaster, was following the long-standing Mennonite tradition of doing humanitarian service abroad.
So why were these good people killed?
Afghan officials speculated that the murders were committed by robbers, with the Taliban falsely claiming responsibility. Yet the aid workers were shot execution-style, which doesn’t fit this explanation.
The murders took place in Badakhshan in northeast Afghanistan, far from the Taliban heartland in the south. This is an area populated by ethnic Tajiks who fought fiercely against Taliban rule in the 1990s and would have been hospitable to foreign aid workers. Only recently has there been some Taliban infiltration into this area.
So what really happened in Badakhshan?
The details are still unclear. But Michael Semple, a savvy former European Union representative in Kabul with extensive knowledge of the Taliban, puts forward a credible thesis in the Financial Times. “Perhaps the best way to understand the politics of the killing of the (aid workers),” he writes, “is that it is a product of the social breakdown caused by two competing systems failing to control Afghanistan.”
The NATO-backed Afghan government has failed to deliver security to a country broken by decades of war. The Taliban insurgents, however, are unable to exert firm enough control to fill this gap. This is especially true in the 60 percent of Afghanistan populated by non-Pashtun ethnic groups that oppose Taliban rule.
So, in an effort to expand their control, local Taliban commanders have been willing to use extreme violence against civilians to terrorize the populace and solidify their hold.
According to a U.N. report released Tuesday, insurgents (not NATO troops) are responsible for 76 percent of the civilians wounded and killed in the first half of 2010; the number of casualties is climbing. Afghanistan’s human rights commission says the Taliban and their allies are responsible for 68 percent of the 1,325 civilian deaths they’ve recorded in the first seven months of 2010.
In these anarchic times, anything goes, even the killing of foreign guests bringing needed aid, something that would once have been anathema to local Afghan traditions of hospitality.
Semple points out something else important. Badakhshan, scene of the murders, is just across the border from the Pakistani tribal area of Chitral, which the insurgents use as a safe haven. “Many of the fighters have been inspired by (Afghan) mullahs trained in Chitral,” he says. The insurgency in Badakhshan is “closely integrated” with the Pakistani border areas.
This brings us to the main lesson from this outrage. By taking credit for the murder of the aid workers, the Taliban revealed its willingness to violate basic Afghan traditions. The villagers who welcomed the aid workers don’t want to be ruled by such men, nor do the majority of Afghans.
The Taliban have made gains not because they are admired, but because the Kabul government has failed to deliver security — and because Pakistan has provided them a haven. Change those two metrics, and the Taliban will fail.
— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. firstname.lastname@example.org