Taliban gunman recently boarded a bus in rural Pakistan and fired a bullet into the head of a 14-year-old girl who had written diary-style dispatches for the BBC bemoaning the Islamic group’s stern ban on female education. For the Taliban, impatient with shadings, the girl was guilty of promoting secularism and was summarily punished. Her silencing — she was seriously injured — was little more than a blunt object lesson.
The response was predictably hyperbolic. Her story instantly made global rounds as the saga of a brave village girl resisting barbarians by writing down her thoughts and provoking the ire of a wicked and regressive oppressor, one portrayed not only as a scourge but also as incubators of the September 11 terrorist attacks and other acts of regional and international terrorism.
If Al Qaeda is a medusa, the Taliban is a whale in the same sea: Unbending Islamists ready to shoot teens while pushing to recover the Afghan citadel from which they were dislodged a decade ago.
Though convenient and linear, the assessment tells only part of the story. That the villains are in fact villainous (or anti-enlightened Islamists) is fair enough. Less fair is the willingness to fully describe the war against them, reviving the same shortsightedness that presaged and followed 9/11, an event that many bewildered Americans knew only to lash out against, and did.
The wounded girl came from a village in the Swat Valley located on Pakistani border with Afghanistan. Portions of it are Taliban-run as part of an effort to regroup and eventually return home to “occupied” Afghanistan. Despite years of war, the deposed Taliban endures, and with it Al Qaeda, because — to paraphrase historian John Gray — pre-modern social forms that prize family and tribe are uniquely able to regenerate and resist modernist impulses. Progressive lurches remain intolerable. The web is used, yes, but only to transmit that message. Vindictiveness is survival tool.
For years, Allied troops have focused their attention on the Swat Valley and other border regions. Trained infiltrators have made lethal forays into Taliban enclaves. Pakistani troops have done the same, though erratically. The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is beautiful but violent real estate lived in largely by ethnic Afghans who have mixed views about the Taliban, many of them considering it a kind of Mafia. Despite edginess between the two sides, the Pakistani government has worked with the U.S. to diminish the Taliban presence, which the Pakistani government perceives as a threat to precarious national secularism.
A few days after the teen girl was shot, an unmanned U.S. unmanned drone fired four missiles into a religious compound near the Afghan border, killing 16 people. Such drones have been in continuous use since 2004. The CIA, which runs the paramilitary missions, has long insisted the dead are mostly radical militants or insurgents, with civilian casualties fallout from well-intentioned missions. Human rights groups are less forgiving, suggesting errant attacks have killed dozens of women and children. The drones themselves make no claim to discrimination: They’re called Predators and Reapers.
Whatever the townsfolk-outlaw casualty balance, drone warfare has generated a considerable number of local funerals. In essence, the mountainous but populated terrain between Pakistan and Afghanistan where the outspoken girl was shot is a field of battle between two sides that have very different goals. It’s an ugly coin, but it does have two sides.
After September 11, many Americans struggled to fathom the why of the attacks. They ultimately settled on the “us vs. them” propaganda promoted by both the Bush Administration and Al Qaeda. But Osama Bin Laden came late to his threats. He spent the early 1990s first begging the U.S. to end its support for the Saudi regime (and Israel) and only later suggesting continued support would yield reprisals. Americans, he wrote, had become remote from the consequences of their policies and insensitive to religious convictions and precepts different than their own. Part of the rhetoric was disingenuous, but a second part was fully coherent, if deplorable to those who didn’t want to hear it.
Brutalized schoolgirls don’t exist in a vacuum. In enlightened theory, women are fundamentally entitled to an education, free speech is a right, and religious choice is an option. That, however, is not the Taliban view, a view that hasn’t changed for two decades. For them, freedom of choice is a threat to family and tribal values, values for which many of their own have fought and did.
On gangland streets, thugs die, as do bystanders. That reality is a staple of American cop shows. Mourning the street dead is limited because their numbers are semi-segregated from public concern. Until — on either side — an “innocent” schoolgirl makes an appearance and righteousness is briefly substituted for the pornography of high-stakes conflict, whose rights and wrongs are more manipulated than ever.