No good options, lots of greys

A few days ago, Hamesha wrote about the ordinary people of Uruzgan:

[..] by looking at these ordinary people, i know deep down that they have reasons, and maybe good reasons, and that all that they think and do is not simply because of wanton rage and indiscriminate and blind passion –they are simple farmers and loving fathers and confused brothers and not always sociopaths and talibs and ideologically hardened insurgents. we have failed to reach out to them and to connect to them. we have foisted the most corrupt and dastardly upon them to represent us and somehow expect that they behave well while they do not even have a say in their own destiny. and we have come to see them as the enemy -and in doing so, have turned them into the enemy. and all along we have resorted to the power of violence and money to change their minds. we have commoditized development and fetishized security. we have come to perceive these people, otherwise ordinary humans, as either ‘elements’, or statistics, or swathes of public opinion, or insurgents, or supporters of insurgents, or a faceless mass of tools that know no reason and logic.

I thought of that passage when I read the following IWPR story today:

The Occasional Taleban

Dari Pashto

Impoverished young men struggling to find work hired by insurgents as part-time fighters.

By Fetrat Zerak in Farah (ARR No. 319, 23-Apr-09)

Abdullah Jan and Abdul Khaleq are both from the Pushtrod district of Farah province in western Afghanistan. Both are young, unemployed, and seek work as day laborers, for which they get about 200 afghani (4 US dollars) per job.

There is one big difference between them though: while Abdul Khaleq earns his money by digging ditches, painting houses, and other manual labour, Abdullah Jan, not his real name, does so by attacking police checkpoints. He is a Taleban part-timer.

“I am the only breadwinner in our family of eight,” said Abdullah Jan, a 22-year-old from a small village. “I went to Iran three times to try to find work, but I was expelled. I was in debt, and my father told me to go to the city. I looked for a job for three weeks, but then my brother got sick and needed medical treatment. He later died. Two of my friends then suggested that I go to the local Taleban.”

His mother was against it, said Abdullah Jan, and tried repeatedly to dissuade him. His father, however, kept silent.

“My first assignment was to attack the police checkpoint in Guakhan district,” recalled Abdullah Jan. “We killed four policemen, and we lost two of our own. Another one was injured. The fight lasted for two hours, with the real Taleban encouraging us from behind the lines, saying ‘go on, further, move, move, move.’

“When it ended, I was paid 400 afghani by the local commander. He said that if I performed better in the future, I would get more money. Since then, I have participated in five more attacks, and I make about 1,000 afghani per week.”

Under this ad hoc arrangement, Abdullah Jan is a Taleban for only a few hours per week. Other than that, he goes about his business like any other citizen. He has no gun or any other equipment that marks him as an insurgent, and he does not consider himself to be one.

“I am just fighting for the money,” he said. “If I find another job, I’ll leave this one as soon as possible.”

By some estimates, up to 70 per cent of the Taleban are unemployed young men just looking for a way to make a living. In Farah, Helmand, Uruzgan, Zabul, and other southern provinces, the majority of insurgents are fighting for money, not ideology.

But they are caught in a vicious circle: as long as their provinces are unstable, there is little investment that could generate employment opportunities. However, in the absence of jobs, they join the insurgents, prolonging the violence and guaranteeing that security and development, remain but a distant dream.

Too often, the Taliban are portrayed as a uniform group of ideologues who cannot be reasoned with and can only be stopped with bombs and bullets. There are, surely, some Taliban like that. Though, I am inclined to believe Fetrat Zerak and Hamesha, who tell a more complex story, one that speaks more to universal human desires and frailties than to unadulterated evil.

What would I do in the place of someone like Abdullah Jan? From my place of privilege, it is hard for me to put myself in his shoes.  I do not know his poverty or his obligations. What would I do if I alone was responsible for filling eight empty bellies? How heavy would that weigh on me, and madly gnaw at me? What might it drive me to do?

Then again, undoubtedly the civil servants Abdullah Jan and others like him kill are also ordinary people doing what they can to make it from one to the next and to provide for those in their care.

Perhaps that is the greatest tragedy and irony of all; those holding power  have pitted the poor and desperate against each other and by doing so have ensured that they remain poor and desperate and easy to manipulate to cynical ends.

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