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Taliban friend's letters to the enemy


Peshawar, Flickr image by Azfar.2010In the tribal areas of Pakistan, close to the Afghan border, Abdullah Khan, a friend and unashamed supporter of the Pakistani Taliban, gives me a present.

Previously his gifts to me have been fine embroidered pillows or bright dresses for my wife, stitched by Afghan refugees with mirrors and sequins. Today I am surprised when he hands me a rectangular box the size of a cigarette pack.

Slowly I open it.

Lying on a bed of shiny white fabric is a military service medal on a ribbon. Inscribed are the words; 'US Army — Afghanistan Campaign' over an etched map of the country. For a second I am confused. How did Khan come by these?

'Just 200 rupees a piece', he tells me. It's the equivalent of a few dollars. Suddenly I realise what I've been given. The Taliban have for many years been hijacking convoys of supplies arriving in Karachi and up the Khyber Pass, bound for the foreign forces in Kabul. These are, of course, the spoils of war. They are not limited to medals either.

'If you like, we have combat boots, trousers, shirts, compasses, water bottles, bed sheets, kit bags, mosquito nets, badges ... the daggers are the most expensive, really, they are very good ones.'

Tribal bazaars of the frontier are flooded with these items and 'expensive' generally means nothing over five US dollars. Entire containers are snatched on the journey up the Indus Highway on a regular basis and there's little the authorities can do about it.

With the exception of bullet-proof jackets and night vision goggles, prized among insurgents on both sides of the Durand Line, piles of American goods are heavily discounted. Abdullah Khan has amassed quite a collection.

'My favourite', he tells me, 'are the letters.'

Seeing me shake my head, he elaborates.

'Unopened mail to US soldiers from their loved ones, piles of them I see and some I read with my own eyes. Oh, those poor young men out on battle field, not knowing if girlfriends have left them for another man, how forgotten they must feel!'

For a moment Khan almost sounds sympathetic, until he gives a wicked chuckle and slaps me on the back. Anything that demoralises the enemy, including theft of their personal letters, thrills the Afghan resistance.

Nearby in the Darra Bazaar about 40 km south of Peshawar (pictured), a town where weapons are manufactured from scrap metal and smuggled arms sold cheaply, US M4 machine guns are the most popular purchase of late.

'They have a folding butt', says Khan, excitedly. 'Easily concealed.'

Looting of military convoys is nothing new in this part of the world. A few decades ago it was the Soviets who lost their AK47s, big fur hats and service medals. Pre-partition, the British were so frustrated with the Pashtun habit of looting their weapon stores, that they encouraged Afridi tribes to expand the capabilities of the Darra Bazaar. It is ironic to think the only way the colonialists could stop the enemy from stealing their weapons was to help them make their own.

Fifty years later the Pashtuns are putting up the same fight they always have. Thanks to never-ending attempts to control them, war has become their way of life. In Abdullah Khan's gift there is a clear message, but he wants to make sure I don't miss it.

'My friend, tell your soldiers to stop risking their lives in Afghanistan for these medals. Here in Pakistan, we'll give them one for free. As long as they pack up and go home, we'll give them as many as they want.'

Ben GilmourBenjamin Gilmour is an author and filmmaker, recently returned from Pakistan. www.sonofalion.com


Topic tags: Benjamin Gilmour, Pakistan, Taliban, Abdullah Khan, Afghanistan, Pashtuns, medal, letter, Peshawar



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Existing comments

I will make no comment about the rights or wrongs of the Coalition forces' efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. What disgusts me about this article is the author's total lack of comment about who the Taliban are and what they are capable of.

The author makes them out to be nothing other than freedom fighters who want independence. Anyone who looked at the mainstream media and the web knows that the Taliban are savage and brutal barbarians. Women are beaten for showing so much as a sock. Girls' schools are blown up as the place for women is in the home. But this is far from the worst they are capable of. On the net is a video of a 12 year old boy beheading a suspected American spy.

Watch if you have the stomach, I didn't.

The intricacies of the this whole mess are beyond me to solve, but I know that nothing is served by hiding the truth of the Taliban. They must be denounced for the inhuman, cutthroats that they are. This article is shameless for its omissions.

Patrick James | 12 February 2010  

I see this as a very sad article about the futility of the situation in a historical perspective. A similar fragment about an event in America would not be expected to incorporate an analysis of the character of the American people.

David Baron | 12 February 2010  

The saying "Patriotism is the refuge of the scoundrel" comes to me here,War is a great opportunity for the black market to florish.Don't presume the bearer of the message is not aware of the enormity of the crimes of the enemy.Remember our war with the Japanese.Samurai swords were a prized spoil of war for a Digger to bring home.

jack kennedy | 12 February 2010  

It is an offensive article. Talibans are Islamic terrorists, fighting a guerrilla war against the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Nato-led International Security Force (ISAF). God help Afghanistan and Pakistan if the Taliban win the war as they will be controlled by the Taliban Shariah Law. I agree with Patrick James that the article hides the truth of the Taliban.

Ron Cini | 12 February 2010  

The writer, as Salmun Rushdie once said "is not a border guard". Nor is he a propagandist. He seeks reality where others are not looking. He spends time gaining insight where others have erected blindfolds and cliches.

The chime of "savage and brutal barbarians" is not a new one. It has been used to perpetuate war after war after war after war since time immemorial. I would suggest that Patrick James (and anyone else) read "The Sirens of Baghdad" by Yasmina Khadra. It is the story of how an Iraqi peasant becomes a terrorist. Brutality is indeed everywhere but it is never one-sided.

Benjamin Gilmour has the courage of one ready to tell a story from 'behind enemy lines' with an impartial eye for reality. The article's aim is to reflect, through the story of a 'gift' a snippet of this reality.

Why, Patrick James, must every article contain the savagery that you have come to expect from the mainstream media?

If you are looking for barbarity you will find it everywhere in all countries (look to Australia's own history). For one I am thankful for an author with a calm, open gaze who can relate on both sides of the divide.

James Waller | 12 February 2010  

Well Patrick James, anyone who 'looks at the mainstream media and web' may indeed find those atrocities you speak of. Anyone who looks instead at ground realities may find a different story, such as this one. 33 schools in FATA have been blown up and according to the Secretariat, only 5 were being used... by boys. 1 video clip of a woman getting whipped from 1993 has been shown no end on channels since 9/11 as if somehow this justifies war on a nation that shares the same pre-liberation era as numerous other countries we have not invaded. And as for the beheading of a spy? How is this any more brutal that US Drones having blown up women and children and innocent men numbering more than 800 since 2004 along the border? Lets put this into proportion. I did watch that video and I challenge you to watch footage of what is left after a US hellfire missile hits a mosque full of children.

As per David Kilcullen, true Taliban number less than 10% of those fighting us in Afghanistan. The rest are ordinary people who would rather a conservative Talib with integrity than a US-sanctioned warlord rapist as a governor.

Bob McKenzie | 12 February 2010  

Among many others, sharia law is also practiced in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both strong allies of the USA. Read up on Sharia and you will see it more clearly and see why it is so popular among the poor in nations afflicted by the evils of power and greed, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Robert Andrew | 12 February 2010  

James Waller, I think that Mr Gilmour is the one who is blindfolded. Can he not see what it is like to live in areas where the Taliban are in control? When the Pakistani government tried to buy assuage the Taliban by giving them control of the Swat Valley, thousands fled rather than live under their cruel tyranny.

And I do not use such words as "brutal" or "barbaric" to perpetuate any war. I use it to describe accurately the Taliban and their deeds.

You seem to suggest that the Taliban are somehow driven to their brutality because they themselves are victims of brutality.

This argument would make sense, if the Taliban restricted their fighting to the foreign forces. However, long before the Coalition Forces became involved in Afghanistan, the Taliban were busy oppressing and enslaving the people they ruled with their version of Sharia Law.

Finally, James Waller, if the Taliban are just your friendly run-of-the-mill freedom fighters, why is the internet full of reports of the Taliban threatening non-Muslims with death if they do not convert to Islam?

I find nothing nothing praiseworthy in Mr Gilmour's calm. I see this as a sign of a narrow gaze rather than an open one.

Patrick James | 12 February 2010  

Patrick James, please stand corrected. Thousands fled the Swat Valley NOT at the time Sharia or Taliban rule took place, but immediately AFTER the Pakistani Air Force began blanket bombing it. They fled to save their lives from the raining missiles, al la WWII. Yes, some journos combed the IDP camps for individuals critical of the Taliban as this is what Western readers want to hear.

As for the internet and Taliban threats about death to those who do not convert, this is preposterous. Under the Taliban regime, many journalists and foreigners travelled to Afghanistan and were give 5-star hospitality. Just as Christians or any individuals for that matter living in 'Western' nations have a colourful variety of views, so does the Taliban. Your use of the word title seems very black and white indeed, as if they are members of a tight club. In fact, it means 'student'. What singular thing can one say about 'students' in our own country? Perhaps only that they the ones most likely to protest in the streets about issues they believe in!

Unlike your breed of internet-browsing news hunter, Benjamin Gilmour goes to the horses mouth, seeks truth with his bear hands and presents it for us to chew on. And truth, does not always taste nice.

BOB MCKENZIE | 13 February 2010  

Many analysts and aid workers in S/E Afghan have said the war has forced the Taliban to reform. There is plenty of evidence for this, least of all the manual published by Mullah Omar last year about 'hearts and minds' and the relaxing of previous stipulations on music/TV etc in many localities. Everything indicates that we would be dealing with a much changed version of the Taliban.

Ron Cini, you say God help us if the Taliban win in Afghanistan? Sorry mate, looks like 'the militants' have already won in most of the country. I say the 'militants' because as Gilmour puts it, most of them are NOT true Taliban but ordinary insurgents who are more married to their ethnicity than religion. Only negotiating with the Pashtuns (call them Taliban if makes the war more palatable for you) will bring peace. Fighting with never bring it. Lets hope THEY are willing to negotiate with us. After all, they have the upper hand.

ROBERT ANDREW | 13 February 2010  

Hey Bob McKenzie, what you say about the Taliban is great news. You see I read the following on the Refugee Action Collective's website. "Just like those fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan, Tamils are fleeing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka."

These guys have got it all wrong. If only they had read Benjamin Gilmour's article, they would not have bothered to flee across the globe to Australia.

At least we know that we can send them back now as they have nothing to fear in their homeland. Looks like our asylum seeker problem is not as bad as we thought it was going to be.

Timothy Scully | 13 February 2010  

Well done Benjamin, you have seen the area, met the people and realize the true feelings, unlike the people sitting in their airconditioined homes, living in a physical world hundreds of miles away and a mental world millions of miles away.

Vasif Shinwari | 13 February 2010  

Dear Patrick, I don't think anyone is suggesting that the Taliban are 'friendly freedom-fighters' (this is your phrase). And no one here is arguing for the Taliban position or an extremist form of governance. This is about embracing a very complex reality. Gilmour's article is simply a 'bird's eye view' of the ground which helps us form the complexity of the picture. It is not a moral judgement - that is not its purpose or aim.

Primo Levi is praised the world-over for his calm, unflinching reflection of his experience in the NAZI concentration camps. Incredibly he never condemns, he never reduces his reflection to base rhetoric and rage, though he has more reason than anyone. He sees the complexity. He offers us a moving image of our ultimately flawed humanity. If he can do it against such abjection, then perhaps we - in our comfort and safety - can too!

To quote Thomas Merton "the root of war is fear". The more we can do to break down fear (as Merton says, 'in our own hearts') the closer we will come to ending war. We break down fear by finding the human where propaganda creates the 'in-human'. We must find the human precisely where the Taliban are, otherwise there is no hope for humanity.

Ignoring the complexity of situations that lead to war, accepting only the propaganda of war, affirming only blanket judgements which form into the hard crust of cliche and prejudice - these are the things which perpetuate hatred and resentment within ourselves. Writers and film-makers like Gilmour help us to balance and challenge our own natural tendancies to hate simply by providing a calm, unbiased picture. And let us remember that one article cannot be the whole picture!!!

James Waller | 14 February 2010  

Timothy, more accurate comparison would be to compare the Taliban with the Tamils. The Tamils flee human rights abuses by their government. Likewise, the Taliban (or those civilians we persist on labeling such) flee human rights abuses by US, NATO and Pakistani Army. Without looking deeper its easy to mistake a freedom fighter for an oppressor.

Bob McKenzie | 14 February 2010  

Some of those who attack Patrick James and Ron Cini congratulate Benjamin Gilmour for telling it from a side that we don't hear from. He has gone to the other side of the divide. He gets it from the horse's mouth. Well there is another group that he may wish to hear from, if he wants to get more of the story, the non-Muslim minorities living in Taliban controlled areas.

Pardon me if I can only rely on the internet from my news, but I often read the Barnabas Fund website. It looks to support the persecuted Christian Church in various lands. Its director Dr Patrick Sookhdeo had this to say in an article posted on the site in March 09.

“Please pray at this time for the Christian minority in Pakistan, especially those in the North West Frontier Province, where the Taliban are gaining increasing power and enforcing an extreme version of sharia (Islamic law). Sharia is inherently biased against non-Muslims and also prescribes the death sentence for Muslims who choose to follow Christ. The position of the Christian community is increasingly vulnerable. They need your prayers.”

Bob McKenzie and James Waller, does this quotation make you stop and think that maybe the Taliban have an agenda beyond driving out the Coalition forces? Does it raise in your minds even the possibility that the Taliban are inherently militant and violent, regardless of the presence of foreign troops in their country?

John Ryan | 14 February 2010  

Dear James, I can find much more to agree with what you have written here. Indeed the situation is complex. However, (I hope that I am not misunderstanding your position) I do not agree necessarily that if we look beyond propaganda, we will not find inhumanity in what we are examining. In all that I have read of the Taliban, I have found much that we should fear. This is what I was trying to convey in my posts. Regards and thanks for your reply.

Patrick James | 14 February 2010  

John, you are missing my point entirely. I am not at all defending the actions of oppressive and militant groups. Everyone has seen the results of Sharia Law. It is not pretty.

All I am suggesting is that no situation (least of all this one) is black and white. We need to see and understand the complexity in order to grasp the roots of conflict. That means looking at every facet. To ridicule a writer for presenting one of those facets is counter-productive to this aim. And to assume a writer should present the whole sad picture in every article about the same subject is absurd.

The plight of the Christian minority in Pakistan is not enviable. Nor is the plight of the Pashtun child who grows up with a gun in his hand and little else. The forces which propel these realities into being are malignant and the victims are on all sides.

The mirrors of reality are burning and human vision is dim.

James Waller | 14 February 2010  

Dear Patrick, Sorry, I wrote the last post before yours came through - probably wouldn't have otherwise! I think we can all agree on one thing: Sharia law is a very frightening rule of governance. It appears (ironically) to be Islam at its most materialistic. It is obsessed with a control of external form and mistakes this control for religiosity. There can be no spirituality where there is control through fear and violence.

My position with this article, however, is simple: Gilmour provides us with another lens through which to "look". Let us not condemn the lens!! And let us look free of pre-judgement. And I'm sure we will find much that is ordinary and human and also much that is beyond our comprehension - the cycle of violence is so deep and so entrenched.

But if we take the time to form a complex understanding this may lead to a deep compassion for our fatally flawed humanity. What else could enable Nelson Mandela to lead South Africa peacefully - and without rancour - out of the bonds of oppression? What else could enable Ghandi to do the same in India? These transformations came from within and were essentially spiritual ones.

Where the Western powers have aggressively intervened there have only been perpetuations of war and aggression. Rather than quelling the enemy, the enemy has grown.

The Islamic world requires a spiritual transformation from within, away from materialism and towards the spirit - if movements like the Taliban are ever to dissolve. The West, of course, cannot provide this. Our culture doesn't even understand the problem! A military 'solution', in this light, is no solution at all - it is a distraction from the very heart of the matter.

Thanks for your thoughts Patrick and everyone else who has posted - and to Benjamin Gilmour for the birds eye view!

James Waller | 14 February 2010  

Dear James, I think I can finish off my thoughts on this article following your last post. I never meant to ridicule Benjamin Gilmour, but I certainly was angry when I wrote my first post.

My anger was fuelled mainly by this sentence. "Thanks to never-ending attempts to control them, war has become their way of life." I saw it, correctly or not, as Benjamin Gilmour attributing the Taliban's agenda to external forces.

I wanted to condemn the violence of the Taliban, which clearly goes beyond fighting foreign forces, and to say that the onus is on them to transform themselves. You put this very well in your last post.

It would be wrong to assume that I necessarily support the West's efforts Afghanistan. Indeed, this situation is complex. It always is complex to know when force should be used to confront evil or when other methods may see the evil dissolve.

Thanks for your thoughts on this. The whole discussion has been enlightening. I am grateful for forums like this on Eureka Street.

Patrick James | 15 February 2010  

Indeed a great forum, very eye opening. Black and whites are hard to find in Afghanistan and frontier. Under Sharia in parts of Pakistan, Sikhs, Hindus and Christians have lived undisturbed for many years. In the heart if FATA there are active churches and many Talibs have respected this. Christians in Pakistan may be considered as infidels, but the ground reality is that they are considered even by the most devout Muslim to be more trustworthy than non-Christians. Thats why Christians are the most popular guards and servants Pakistani's employ. Sharia is no very complex, even a wikipedia read will demonstrate this. And it does NOT condemn christians to death. This is a false interpretation of Sharia for which the interpreter needs to be hung.

BOB MCKENZIE | 15 February 2010  

Thanks for the factual reporting in Ben Gilmore's article. I did not see this article as defending or upholding either components in this tragedy called 'war'. To me it was pure reporting, giving facts, helping us to understand a little more of a complex situation. and I think needs to be recognised as just that.
Oh that more reporters would be so impartial. Ben is a true example of an honest attempt to say it as it is without distortion.
To be one sided ,with a tunnel vision can only perpetuate exclusion, which may result in violence.
Thank you for a deeper experience into lives so far removed from our comfortable existence.
Perhaps we cannot fight poverty and the trauma it entails, until we are personally involved in lives that are so 'different.'

bernie introna | 20 February 2010  

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