Killing of aid workers part of unravelling of Afghan society


ANALYSIS:All the signs point to these deaths being the work of bandits and not the Taliban, as claimed

LAST FRIDAY, it emerged that a group of armed men had ambushed and summarily executed 10 aid workers in a remote part of northeastern Afghanistan. One of the victims was American Dan Terry, who had spent a lifetime in Afghanistan, living among its people through every dramatic stage of its modern history.

In material terms he lived a pretty austere existence. And yet Dan never had the whiff of the martyr about him. He always retained his boyish sense of adventure and discovery. Dozens of Dan Terry tales live on after him – of trekking in the mountains, riding his bike, driving rickety Russian jeeps, running community development schemes in the wildest places, and always making friends and spreading happiness.

Last week, the team was in Badakhshan on its way back to Kabul after performing an eye treatment camp. For more than half a century, such camps, in remote parts of Afghanistan, have been the trademark of the International Assistance Mission, which Dan’s father helped to found. The Afghan interior ministry’s preliminary assessment was that it was a case of robbery with violence. But the execution-style killings do not square with this explanation. With scant information, we are left to fathom the real significance of the killing of Dan Terry, veteran ophthalmologist Tom Little, and their companions.

These killings are different in approach to the use of improvised explosive devices and abductions around Kandahar or Kabul. They are part of the violence of mountainous Afghanistan rather than plains Afghanistan, and took place well outside the Taliban command.

Badakhshan is as far from the Taliban’s Kandahar heartland as you can get within Afghanistan. The insurgency in the northeast is closely integrated with neighbouring Chitral in Pakistan. Many of the fighters have been inspired by mullahs trained in Chitral and the eastern part of Pakistan’s border areas.

Though the eastern insurgency nominally acknowledges the Taliban’s Kandahari leadership, in reality its local roots are completely different from those of Mullah Omar’s movement, and its commanders can operate autonomously without the need for orders from the Kandaharis.

The Taliban leadership simply does not have the degree of control over what happens in remote places such as Kiran wa Munjan to orchestrate events.

Quite apart from the insurgency, here is a history of sporadic acts of zealotry and violence justified as attacks on infidels, taking place in some of Afghanistan’s most remote places. Outsiders have no brothers or cousins to act as a deterrent against violence. Killers of outsiders, even if they are really bandits, can claim moral authority and enhance their reputation as purveyors of violence. Political groups with limited control on the ground can claim responsibility for such extreme acts of violence as a way of trying to project themselves beyond their real limits of influence.

But even in Afghanistan, in times of stability, such acts of violence and zealotry are normally the domain of outlaws and those who are shunned by civilised society. When in power, the most bigoted of Taliban commanders were capable of showing hospitality to western guests.

Of course, statements were quickly attributed to the Taliban, claiming they had executed the medical team over their alleged proselytisation. A senior Talib from Badakhshan told me their spokesman was lying. In any case, any claim that they were proselytising is simply concocted. Dan was a believing Christian working in Muslim communities with a spirit of mutual respect.

Such veterans do not thrust their beliefs down anyone’s throat and they enforce strict guidelines against proselytising. However, when in need of a pretext for violence against foreigners in Afghanistan, the choice is basically between falsely accusing people of proselytising or spying.

Perhaps the best way to understand the politics of the killing of the eye camp team is that it is the product of the social breakdown caused by two competing systems failing to control Afghanistan. The internationally backed government has failed to deliver security, has limited projection beyond administrative centres and long ago compromised on the idea of enforcing law and order.

The Taliban movement boasts a shadow administration and tries to brand itself as an enforcer of tough justice. The Taliban grip on territory is not firm enough for its administration to fill the gap left by a struggling government. But the movement’s willingness to use extreme violence, even against the civilian population, prevents the emergence of the kind of tribal-village republics that Afghans dream of as an alternative to government.

And so Afghanistan lurches towards a new variation on the theme of the civil conflict of the 1990s. Conflict entrepreneurs adopt the mantle of government or opposition, to prey upon the civilian population or economic activity. Whether driven by zealotry or profit, fighters can engage in the ultimate anti-social activity of massacring health workers, free from the restraint of social norms, government law or Taliban discipline.

Many Afghans, both on the government side and within the insurgency, fear the consequences of this new conflict-driven social breakdown. The shrewder fighters feel powerless, and fated, as the default option, to continue with the conflict which destroys their country, rather than defeating Nato. Might Dan Terry and his friends’ deaths jolt a few moral people into action?

Michael Semple is a fellow at the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard