Nagieb Khaja, a well-known journalist and filmmaker in Denmark, has travelled extensively in Afghanistan since 2004. In 2008 he was kidnapped by the Taliban. His new documentary ’My Afghanistan – life in the forbidden zone’ provides civilians in Helmand province with camera phones, thus giving a voice to those normally ignored by the Western media. Last year his book about the war in Afghanistan, ’The story that’s not being told’, was published in Denmark by Gyldendal and he is currently looking for an English-language publisher. Khaja spoke to Ian Sinclair about the Taliban, counting civilian casualties, Western media coverage of the occupation and the chances for peace.
Although they are only seen once in your documentary, the Taliban are a constant background concern for the participants. Who are the Taliban in southern Afghanistan and what are their motivations for fighting the US/NATO forces?
The insurgents in southern Afghanistan are different groups fighting under one umbrella – the Taliban organisation. My experience is that most of the insurgents in southern Afghanistan are driven by more than ideological reasons. Some fight because of tribal rivalries with the authorities like the police and district governors, while others fight because they have been oppressed by local power holders such as corrupt police or paramilitary forces. Then you have the drug lords and opium farmers who need their crops to be protected by the Taliban, and of course there are also ideological insurgents who want the political system of the Taliban to prevail. The people who are fighting the Afghan government and foreign forces have different agendas and the reality is much more complex than we have been told by the mainstream media. For example, in Musa Qala and Sangin the local police and district governor oppressed the local inhabitants who then sided with the Taliban and took up arms against them. Our forces then helped the local police and authorities which obviously makes us look like the bad guys. There are several examples of ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] helping criminal elements which have infiltrated the authorities and are the cause of why local people consider the Taliban to be the lesser of two evils.
How much support does the Taliban have in southern Afghanistan?
My impression is that the support for the Taliban increased from 2003 until 2010 but since then I think it has started to decrease. One of the reasons may be that many of the elder Taliban leaders who were respecting local power structures and customs in the villages have slowly been eradicated by the American kill/capture strategy during night raids. This has left younger and more radical leaders who aren´t that good with their hearts and minds campaigns as the former ones. I can´t give exact numbers but I would say the Taliban still has more support outside of the district centres than the Afghan Government. It should also be said that my impression is that a majority of Afghans in southern Afghanistan don’t side with any of the parties, but ultimately prefer the lesser of two evils.
The Taliban in southern Afghanistan have been under immense pressure for the last three years because of the so-called ‘surge’ where the Americans had radically increased the amount of soldiers in southern Afghanistan. It made a difference, pushing the insurgents out of central areas in Helmand, but they were definitely not defeated. For the past year the Americans have started to decrease the amount of soldiers in the ‘surge-area’ and this will, of course, have a positive effect on insurgent activities. The insurgents still have a well-functioning organisation which is capable not only of challenging their opponents in their own areas, but also of making spectacular attack inside the so-called ‘ring of steel’ in inner-city Kabul. It´s hard to say how much the ‘surge’ has hurt the insurgents but time will show whether they have been weakened or they have just kept a low profile for the past three years. It should be said that while the insurgents’ level of activities decreased in southern Afghanistan for the past three years it has increased by 600 per cent in eastern Afghanistan, which indicates that they have used the classic guerrilla tactic of focusing on areas where ISAFs focus isn´t.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported that 81 per cent of civilian casualties in 2012 were caused by the anti-government forces such as the Taliban and just 8 per cent of civilian casualties were caused by pro-government forces, which include the US and NATO forces. What do you make of these figures?
I don´t think the UN numbers are accurate. From 2010 to 2011 the official estimates of the UN about civilian casualties was 2777. These numbers showed that ISAF and government forces were behind 440 casualties. Of them 171 were killed by aerial bombardment and 80 as a consequence of night raids. When I mentioned these official numbers to the hospital director in the district of Gereshk in Helmand province he shook his head and said that in this period of time aerial bombardments in Gereshk alone had killed approximately 200 civilians. During my stays in Helmand and Kandahar up until 2011 I have personally seen cases of civilians who were killed or injured, which were not mentioned in either the Western or Afghan media. Gereshk is only one out of 14 districts in Helmand, and Helmand is one out of 34 provinces in Afghanistan.
The main problem covering the Afghan war has been the inaccessibility of rural areas where the war is happening. For example, we don´t have the slightest idea about the consequences of the war in Afghanistan compared to Iraq. Large parts of Afghanistan have a poor infrastructure, no security and no authorities. Therefore domestic and foreign journalists are not able to see how many civilians our military offensives have killed. Another problem has been the local authorities’ reluctance to report civilian casualties because of their fear it would be used as a propaganda tool by the insurgents. I have personally witnessed how local authorities have worked against people from rural areas who have accused foreign or government forces of killings.
How are the UN figures calculated?
The UN figures are measured by using methods where they cross examine information that they themselves collect (witnesses, victims etc), from NGOs, from hospitals and ISAF. In the examples I mention above the people (relatives or victims themselves) have not been interviewed by anybody else other than me. Some of the wounded I spoke with were dumped at the hospital by ISAF forces after they had had immediate treatment in an ISAF military base. They then waited to be treated for days and sometimes weeks in local Afghan hospitals. Most of them end up going home without being treated because of either lack of resources or corrupt staff who want money even if they are public hospitals. On several occasions immediately after I spoke with witnesses I checked ISAF press releases and they were not mentioned even though ISAF declares that they always take responsibility for civilian casualties. The UN often does not take the risk of going into a lot of rural areas to do research when civilian casualties happen because of the security risks. I have described some cases in my book where locals in Helmand accused Danish soldiers of killing 11 innocent people. Shortly afterwards the Danes declared they had investigated the incident and couldn´t find evidence. I went to Helmand, found the father of nine children and husband of two wives who were killed in the incident and found out that the Danes hadn´t interviewed him or any of the other witnesses. Even though the father was in a safe place close to the Danish soldiers in Lashkar Gah the Danes had only interviewed their own soldiers. I also cite another example in my book of ISAF reporting British soldiers may have killed civilians. I went to the location of the incident in Helmand and spoke with witnesses who told me about an aerial bombardment that had killed seven children but nobody had investigated the incident. It was only because of my pressure on the ISAF press officer that ISAF started an investigation.
In the West a popular concern is that the return of the Taliban will lead to a step backwards for women’s rights in Afghanistan. To what extent are the Taliban to blame for the poor position of women in Afghanistan?
The poor position of women in Afghanistan is mainly a result of the generally very conservative culture which dominated the country even before the Taliban came to exist. Middle and upper class women had more rights in Afghanistan until the communists lost power in 1992. When the mujahedeen groups came to power in 1992 these women lost a lot of rights and it got worse when the Taliban came to power. The withdrawal of the foreign forces will lead to a worse situation for women’s rights but ironically it may happen even if the Taliban do not come to power because some of the most influential politicians whom the Afghan president is dependent on have the same views about women as the Taliban.
How do you assess the chances for peace in Afghanistan? Is a negotiated peace likely in the near future?
The only way forward in Afghanistan is a peace process with serious negotiations between the Government and its local backers (especially the groups who were a part of the Northern Alliance) and the insurgents. At the same time it is of vital importance that there are negotiations between the USA, India, Pakistan, Iran and other local countries. There can be no peace if Pakistan and India do not come to terms and agree that Afghanistan shouldn´t be used as a proxy state by either country. The rivalry between Pakistan and India has been a disaster for Afghanistan. Pakistan is afraid of Afghanistan becoming a pro-Indian state and leave them squeezed between two non-friendly neighbours. India on the other hand does not want Afghanistan to become a failed state like the days of the Taliban where it harboured groups and individuals who fought in Kashmir. The international community needs to step in and guarantee both countries that Afghanistan will remain neutral and at the same time demand a guarantee from Pakistan and India that they will not interfere in Afghanistan’s domestic politics.
‘My Afghanistan – life in the forbidden zone'; Denmark 2012, 88 mins (in Danish, English with subtitles). Ian Sinclair is the author of ‘The march that shook Blair: An oral history of 15 February 2003’, published by Peace News Press. firstname.lastname@example.org and https://twitter.com/IanJSinclair