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May 14, 2009 / jeni

Occasional Taliban

The Institute for War & Peace Reporting has a trainee reporter in Farah, forced to publish pseudonymically, who recently wrote about the district’s ‘Occasional Taliban’. His report supports the contention that most Taliban fighters participate in the conflict on an ad hoc basis, and many are largely motivated by the need for cash. (See David Kilcullen’s recent The Accidental Guerrilla for more on this subject.)

“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…”

“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.”

From a Taliban perspective, this may be a pretty wise approach to manpower. Fighters cannot be identified when ‘off-duty’ and easily disappear within the civilian population. Paying them on an ad hoc basis is not that expensive  given Taliban resources (1000 afghani is about $20) and it provides a level of stability and predictability in payouts; it is somewhat reminiscent of US companies discerning the advantages of hiring workers on an hourly wage with no benefits. Given economic deprivation in the region, paying fighters in this way probably ensures a steady stream of recruits, who then bear the brunt of military action while the ‘real Taliban’ remain behind in relative safety.

The potential disadvantage is that cash-motivated fighters will melt away if economic conditions improve — as Abdullah says, he will no longer fight for the Taliban if he can find a proper job. However, there is a self-reinforcing aspect to this state of affairs that makes improvements less likely:

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.

The article also highlights how local men weigh the pros and cons of different kinds of illicit paid work. The main disadvantage of being a hired fighter seems to be the possibility of death. Abdullah, however, plays down this risk. “I have to work with the Taleban,” he insisted. “There is no other job except stealing or kidnapping. I think this is better than stealing. If we are killed, we are martyrs. This is what the mullahs say. They tell us we are doing jihad.”

This line of thinking — fighting is better than stealing — suggests that even fighters who are economically motivated are also swayed by normative concepts associated with both crime and militancy. Of course, understanding why individuals engage in different (or multiple) types of illicit work is necessary if effective counterstrategies are to be developed.

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