Taliban in Southern Afghanistan (Image: voanews.com, (public domain))

One challenge that US policy makers face regarding Iran is the very nature of its Islamic form of government. To put it in very simple terms, Islam's many manifestations are hard for Westerners to fully understand. Yet, this can be crucial. In Afghanistan, for example, the outcome of the war may depend on how well US military commanders understand the Taliban.  The militants who are now waging a guerrilla war against American forces are rooted in a complex Islamic movement.  

Reporter Charles Sennott has covered the Taliban from their early days.He's produced a series of four reports on the movement's history and fluctuating fortunes.The series is a partnership between PRI's "The World" and Globalpost.com, an international news website that Sennott co-founded.

In this report, Sennott met with former Taliban leaders and tried to determine if US forces are making progress in their quest to understand their enemy.

To talk with the Taliban, we drive past a graveyard of stones and dust and frayed green flags for martyrs of the jihad that flutter in a hot wind. We pass a small mosque with its minaret echoing the call to prayer, and we continue along this road into a western part of Kabul.  At a compound flanked by army and police officials, we meet with former leaders of the deposed Taliban government who effectively live under house arrest. In meetings over several days, some of the former Taliban leaders spoke on and some spoke off the record. They are clerics and founders of the movement and they are the closest thing to "the moderate Taliban" that President Obama has said the US should reach out to for negotiations.

Abdul Hakim Muhajid was the UN representative for the Taliban and living in New York City at the time of the September 11th attacks. He, and another leader I spoke to, listed mistakes made by their old government, including the closing of girls' schools and falling in with Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda at a time when the country felt abandoned by the US and cornered without options. But Muhajid insisted it was time to move on.

"There are mistake on both sides, mistakes were taken on the Taliban side, mistakes were taken on the United States side, and mistakes were taken on the Afghan government side," said Muhajid. "I think we have to start our thinking in the future. How can we bring peace and security in this country and peace and security in the region, and peace and security in the world? This is very important for me, not look back to the past."

Muhajid says he and other Taliban officials have served as "third party" mediators between Afghan government officials and the active Afghan Taliban insurgency, including he says, Mullah Omar, the spiritual founder of the Taliban. He said there have also been unofficial talks with US officials and that meetings in Saudi Arabia earlier this year established a framework for dialogue. There is now a momentum for talks with the Obama Administration indicating it wants to engage, and the August 20 elections pending. But other Taliban leaders disagree.  

Abdul Salam Zaeef was the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, who has since spent four years in Guantanamo and at the Bagram Air Base. He says the US is sending mixed signals, "At the same time when Obama would want to talk with the Taliban, they are sending more troops to Afghanistan; they are killing more people. They are including the war in Afghanistan. That is some kind of contradiction. They destroy all the trust."

President Obama has indeed committed 21,000 more US troops to Afghanistan. And Zaeef, who is also a cleric, believes the Taliban have the right and the theological grounding to resist the deepening occupation, "There is no way without war for the Taliban to do it.  They are defensing themselves for their country, I think this is their right."

That would likely place Zaeef in the category of what General David Petraeus calls "the irreconcilables." As head of Central Command, Petraeus has focused his counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan on separating out those who will negotiate and those who won't, as he did in Iraq during the surge. But Afghanistan poses a far greater challenge in achieving this because of a more rugged terrain and smaller villages that are more difficult to penetrate.  Petraeus says his troops need to get inside the communities where the Taliban are still strong, particularly among ethnic Pashtuns, who make up more than 40 percent of the population.

And to accomplish that, Petraeus told the world the military will need to deepen its understanding of the Taliban, "Well, I think we need to know it better. We have all recognized that to foster reconciliation, for example, at the very lowest levels, you must understand who the reconcilables and irreconcilables are. And to do that, you need a very nuanced appreciation of local situations, of who is who – who are the local power brokers, who could be, again, part of the solution instead of a continuing part of the problem. And I don’t think we have that kind of granular understanding across the board."

To help Field Commanders obtain that understanding, the US started a new in-the-field training course at a counter-insurgency center at Camp Julien on the bombed out fringes of Kabul.  Inside the camp, US and coalition Commanders cram into a classroom in a military-issued wood hut. Owen Sirrs, a former US intelligence officer, has been recruited to Camp Julien to instruct field commanders and to help them understand the Afghan people and the Taliban.

But Sirrs says the forward operating bases, or "FOBS," like this one keep the troops from interacting with the very community they need to understand, "Part of the issue, I think, is what the people around here call “Fobistan”.  We’re all in these hermetically locked little seals.  We drive out into the streets in our armored cars.  There is minimal or no interaction with the populace."

Sirrs does his best to teach the finer points of counter-insurgency to the troops, introducing them to the full history of campaigns from ancient Rome to Vietnam and now to Afghanistan. The lessons are spelled out in the manual authored by General Petraeus. A copy of it can be found on every desk in this camp.

US troops have a long way to go in grasping the main motivation behind the Taliban: their Islamic faith, says Sirrs, "I really don't think we understand the religious dimension very well. If there is an Achilles heel in our psyop information operation strategy, it is a misunderstanding of religion.  And I think as Americans, we are hesitant to play that game – we are hesitant to get into it and when we do get into it, it seems to backfire."

One of Sirrs students in this counter-insurgency center agrees that this is where the fight begins. Emsharaff is an Afghan who serves as a senior translator for the US field command. He believes that the counter-insurgency, or "Coin" as it's called, requires the US forces to understand Islam and to make it part of countering the Taliban.

"I think in COIN, we really need to understand religion and culture. If you want to win this COIN war, we can also use our religious leaders, Islamic leaders who see the truth to let them know what’s the real Islam. If they hit us by religious bullet, we have got to hit them back with the same thing," said Emsharaff.

That's easier said than done. This is a political and military struggle against an extremist Islamist movement that draws its strength from multiple grievances, which is why, says former Taliban ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban are resurgent, "The Taliban become stronger day by day. The people, they are convinced this is a war of obligation, and the whole country is occupied by America. There is no law, there is no respect for the people, for our culture, our religion and the government are powerless. They are not able to do anything.  And that’s the reason that the people, they aren’t doing anything."

Troops just arrived from the US and getting their first lessons at Camp Julien, have a lot to learn and not much time to learn it. Understanding the Taliban is part of a broader counter-insurgency campaign based on three principles: secure, hold, and build. It's language straight out of the playbook from Vietnam, and, one hopes, not as doomed. The greatest challenge then as now is to convince the local population that the Taliban are not their best option for the future, and that the US has the staying power to defeat them.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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