February 15, 2010

A Step in Which Direction?

The headline is right, a meeting between US and Afghan commanders and Marjah’s tribal elders is a start. Which direction the future is headed in is another matter.

The AP reports, “During the firefight, a missile-firing helicopter destroyed a mosque after troops on the ground said they were taking fire from the building — and the 15-year-old son of the mullah, or Islamic cleric, was killed.”

So apparently America killed the son of a mullah in Marjah. The AP report in detail:
“The meeting started with Afghan Maj. Abdul-Jalal Jalal appealing, cajoling and even mildly threatening the elders from the villages where the fight happened. Give us information about the Taliban, he said. Don't let them into your homes. They are taking advantage of you.”

"If you won't help us, then whom are we fighting?" the major asked. "We might think we are fighting you."

U.S. Lt. Col. Burton Shields, commander of the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment of the 5th Stryker Brigade, then stood up in his faded green uniform and addressed the seated elders in clipped sentences.

"I think you all know why American forces are in Afghanistan, but I'm going to remind you," he said, delivering a summary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — the 3,000 people who died, some of them Muslim. The war started when the Taliban refused to hand over al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Shields apologized for the death of the mullah's son and the destruction of the mosque. He promised to rebuild it, noting at the same time that the Taliban had failed to build schools and clinics during their time of uncontested control.

"It was a very unfortunate incident," he said. "They shot from the mosque because they wanted us to destroy the mosque."

The elders, however, were not easily convinced. They withheld clear declarations of support, perhaps because they fear the Taliban may come back someday after the Americans have grown tired of the war. Whatever the reason, they stood their ground.

Nurul Hadi, the mullah whose son was killed, said he had last seen his son reading a book in the mosque. Another elder, Abdul Ajan, denied that anyone had shot from the mosque, saying it was a "place for worship, not a place for combat," and declared that an apology was no solution.

"When someone gets shot, you can't put a price on it," he said. "I don't want your sympathy after you kill someone."

At that, Jalal cut him off, saying he had witnesses who saw someone firing from behind the mosque.

"You have to agree," he insisted. "You know the truth. Don't tell us 'no.'"
Afterward Shields offered, "It's a start. It takes a while to break the ice. They're very skeptical." Perhaps their attitude is connected to the mounting civilian casualties. But Shields was also skeptical.

“There's no doubt in my mind they weren't telling the full story."

Not much of this story sounds promising. Striking is the lost opportunity. Three straight days of civilians casualties is bad enough, but killing a mullah’s son is unthinkable. It keeps getting worse if some of those elders really are lying, which suggests some Taliban connection or protection.

But the 9/11 speech is particularly lamentable. None of those people care about 9/11. They don’t want to be lectured. America has already recognized the Taliban as part of Afghan society by submitting to negotiations. Another topic should have been chosen to address the elders. Belittle al-Qaeda instead.

Is it so difficult to wipe the slate clean and say, “You all know we’ve had a long history with a lot of ups and downs, a lot of terrible things, a few good things, so we want to do more for you and we’re here to help you. We want to start a new relationship with you based on the future?”

Why not give them the Barack Obama?

If US commanders really want to get into political negotiations then they should accept that the Taliban will be reintegrated into society, rather than terminated because of 9/11. Anything else would have better capitalized on meeting with the tribal elders.

Why not be bold in political and social attacks instead of just military formations? Why settle for a small step when you could try for a big step?

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