OPINION: When we hear the word 'Taleban', most of us think of turbans and Kalashnikov rifles.
In our mind's eye we see an embittered Pashtun tribesman, his turban as black as his bristling beard, squatting in the mouth of a mountain cave.
Such fighters still exist, of course, but this mental picture much more closely resembles the mujahideen who drove out the occupying Soviet forces in the 1980s.
Taleban derives from the word talib - simply, a student of the Koran - and it was an army of such holy scholars, the Taleban, that ended the Afghan civil war in 1996. Think Salvation Army - with machineguns.
The first Taleban administration - let's call it Taleban 1.0 - entered into the complexities of government with little experience.
Raised and educated in the deeply conservative religious schools (madrassas) of Pakistan's tribal territories, many of its fighters were the sons of refugees who had fled the Soviets' murderous attack helicopters. Hardly more than teenagers, the Taleban relied almost exclusively upon their religious teachers (mullahs) for political and legal guidance.
Under the Taleban, Afghanistan became an Islamic emirate, governed by sharia.
That was the Taleban the West defeated in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
The insurgent force which has grown up in Afghanistan during the occupation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is, however, very different from the first Taleban army. Let's call it Taleban 2.0.
The guerrillas of Taleban 2.0 are as likely to be dressed in a Western suit and carry a laptop as they are to wear a turban or tote a Kalashnikov.
They are highly skilled, highly motivated and highly dangerous. Like the French Resistance and the Viet-Cong, the new Taleban's strategic and tactical objectives are brutally simple: wear down the occupiers' will; sap his morale; undermine his faith in the 'mission'; cause him to fear and mistrust the local people. In short, make him want to leave.
New Zealand war correspondent Jon Stephenson, based in Kabul, warns that this 'fighting-season', the insurgency and its insurgents 'are everywhere'. With typical bluntness, he says that were he to set out alone from the Afghan capital and drive 25 kilometres in any direction, 'I'd be dead'.
His description of Taleban 2.0 is chilling. They are 'ghosts that walk in the dark'. And they've been walking our way.
Because the Hungarian Government's rules of engagement for its ISAF contingent do not allow it to do any more than escort and protect its aid workers, a tactical window has opened in the south of Baghlan province. Unharried by regular forward patrols, the Taleban appears to have established a base of operations from which its fighters sally forth into neighbouring Bamiyan province to attack the Afghan National Police and install deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDs) along roadsides patrolled by ISAF troops from New Zealand.
In less than a month, the Taleban have killed five Kiwi soldiers, three of them by means of a massive IED.
Their tactics have already borne fruit. According to a report in the New York Times: 'New Zealand announced on Monday that it would probably withdraw its small troop contingent from Afghanistan months ahead of schedule, aiming for early 2013 rather than October of that year."
This is, of course, exactly what the Taleban wanted to hear. The more ISAF members who bring forward their withdrawal, the less tenable the whole occupation becomes.
As the New York Times report pointed out: 'New Zealand now follows France, a much bigger coalition partner, which in January announced it was accelerating its troop withdrawal.'
Prime Minister John Key's decision to move up New Zealand's withdrawal date is wise.
Had he attempted to 'tough it out', it is highly probable the Taleban would have continued to seek out and kill New Zealand soldiers.
The public announcement of this country's early departure from Afghanistan is, however, almost certain to satisfy the Taleban's strategic ambitions vis- a-vis New Zealand. Their tactical priority now will be to melt back into the population before ISAF special forces - including, most likely, members of the New Zealand SAS - locate and destroy the unit responsible for the latest deadly attacks. This is the enemy against whom we have deployed our soldiers.
He will not be beaten. Because, no matter how many Taleban are slain, the "ghosts that walk in the dark' walk upon their own soil.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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