July 1, 2007:
counter-terror operations have some unpleasant side effects. Case in point is
the recent Taliban kidnapping of 18 Taliban mine-clearing technicians, and four
mine-detecting dogs. The Taliban have accused the de-miners of being spies for
the government, and said they would conduct an investigation. Both the men and the dogs take years to
train, and even the Taliban recognize the value of mine clearing. Foreign aid
groups have been active, for 18 years, in training and equipping Afghans to
remove the millions of mines left in the ground by Russians and Afghans during
the 1980s war.
The head of the Taliban,
Mullah Omar, long ago declared the mine clearing personnel as "protected
people." That has kept the Taliban from attacking the several thousand mine
clearing personnel (almost all of them Afghans) who are still working to finish
the jobs (which is expected to take several more years.) But recent reverses
for the Taliban has caused them to become more paranoid. Many Taliban leaders,
including three of the highest ranking ones, have been killed so far this year.
The Taliban suspect government spies. Technically, the de-miners work for the government,
and to an increasingly paranoid Taliban, the de-miners could have been turned
into intelligence gatherers for the government.
This attack on the de-miners
is very unpopular with most Afghans. Knowing that, if the captured de-miners
are hurt, or killed, it would be a big blow to whatever popularity the Taliban
still have, Taliban leaders rushed to prevent this incident from blowing up in
their faces. Most of the de-miners were released after four days.
Local Taliban leaders are
pretty independent minded, and the ones who had the de-miners didn't take
kindly to this interference from other Taliban, or the local tribal officials,
who demanded the release of the de-miners. One of the kidnapped victims was not
released, so the Taliban could maintain their insistence that this was all
about catching government spies. But the entire incident left Afghans with the
impression that the Taliban was unsure of itself, and increasingly unstable.