Children Of The Taliban

There’s a really good segment on Pakistan on Frontline World called ‘Children of the Taliban’. I can’t seem to embed the video here, but just click through and watch it, or at least read the synopsis, which is long enough to give a lot of the details, but a lot quicker than watching the video. It focuses on children who have been affected by the war against the Pakistani Taliban: children whose schools have been destroyed by the Taliban, children who have lost relatives in air raids, children who are being recruited as suicide bombers.

Besides the interviews, which are fascinating and heartbreaking, it also shows footage from the Swat valley and the tribal areas, where not many journalists manage to go and do in-depth reporting these days. You can see the destruction from the war and the drone strikes in the tribal areas; there’s footage from one town in Bajaur that seems to have been entirely flattened. 7,000 people used to live there. Much of the population of Bajaur, one of the tribal agencies, is now in refugee camps.

Pakistan would have been in very tough shape even if we had not made a series of awful mistakes there and across the border in Afghanistan. But we have made it much, much worse. Just imagine, for instance, what a difference it would have made had we not let the leadership of al Qaeda escape into Pakistan from Tora Bora. We could have prevented that. If Donald Rumsfeld had not been so eager to show how few troops he could use in Afghanistan, we would not have had to rely on Afghan and Pakistani troops to block the passes.

If the al Qaeda leadership had not fled into Pakistan, we would not have had to try to catch them there, in a country we had not invaded, and whose sovereignty we needed to respect. That means that we would not have had anything like the same reasons to launch drone attacks in Pakistan, with their inevitable civilian casualties, and populations radicalized by the simple means of having watched their relatives killed and their homes destroyed.

Moreover, the list of things we needed the Pakistani government to help us with would have lost one hugely important item. That would have given us much more freedom of action, and more leverage to use on other things, like, oh, I don’t know, economic development, or moving back towards democracy. It would also have made it more difficult for them to use the periodic capture of al Qaeda members to conceal or compensate for their cooperation with the Taliban.

Obviously, doing a much better job of fostering stability, economic development and the rule of law in Afghanistan would have been enormously important as well. Likewise, doing more that directly helped the Pakistani people, as opposed to the Musharraf government, would have done a lot. But using our own troops at Tora Bora, when we knew that we had Osama bin Laden in our sights, would have prevented an enormous amount of damage.

No country likes having another country launch air strikes on its population. No army likes being deployed against its own citizens, especially when the reason for doing this is widely perceived to be orders from the same country that is launching the air strikes. We wouldn’t like it if, say, China was routinely bombing New Mexico and Arizona, and if we were fighting a war there and had flattened towns from Tucumcari to Flagstaff at their request, and if, moreover, we had spent eight years living under a military dictatorship supported by these same Chinese. Pakistanis don’t much care for it either. And the Taliban is more popular that it would otherwise be because they are fighting us.

We can debate whether the drone attacks and the war in the tribal areas is justified or not, but it would surely have been much, much better if there had been no need (or: much less need) of it to start with.