Counter-Terrorism: No One To Talk To


August 23, 2007: An interesting aspect of the counter-terror campaign in Afghanistan is that, when there are attempts negotiate with the enemy, it's often impossible to find anyone to talk to. This happened recently when health workers tried to contact the Taliban and al Qaeda to arrange safe passage for health workers seeking to immunize children against polio. This is urgent, because Afghanistan is one of the few places where the polio virus survives.

Radical Islamic clerics in Pakistan, Nigeria and a few other places have been pushing the idea that vaccinations for diseases are a Western plot to poison Moslem children. This particular fantasy has been rattling around for nearly a decade, and has prevented an international effort from wiping out polio. Like small pox (which was wiped out in the 1970s), once there are no people with polio, the disease is gone for good (it can only survive in a human host).

The Islamic clerics urging parents not to vaccinate their children against polio, provide the disease with hosts, and keep it going. Last year, 24,000 children were not vaccinated in northern Pakistan because of this paranoid fantasy. In Afghanistan, it was even worse, with 125,000 children denied vaccination by Taliban terrorists (who attack the vaccination teams) As a result, at least 39 cases of polio were confirmed last year in Pakistan. As recently as the 1980s, polio was paralyzing or killing over 400,000 children a year, mostly in poor countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and throughout Africa. Since then, one of the three strains of polio, Type 2, has been wiped out (or at least no cases of it have been reported in this century.) The worst strain, Type 1, is almost gone, with only 146 cases reported so far this year, versus nearly 1,700 for all last year. It is believed that Afghanistan contains one of the few active populations of Type 1 polio.

Over five billion dollars has been spent on the polio eradication campaign, which began in 1988. The disease had already been largely wiped out in the West, so the eradication campaign was largely to the benefit of poor countries. Most of the few remaining cases of polio exist in Nigeria, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Islamic radicals in Nigeria have been persuaded to back off. The problems in India are largely logistical, and the vaccination teams are now reaching the remote areas. But in Pakistan and Afghanistan the main enemy is not polio itself, but the Islamic radicals who attack the vaccination teams. The government in Afghanistan and Pakistan have agreed to provide safe passage for the vaccination teams. In Pakistan, the tribal leadership was able to guarantee the safety of the health workers, and progress is being made to persuade the few remaining Islamic clerics preaching against vaccinations. But in Afghanistan, there does not appear to be anyone willing to negotiate for the Taliban or al Qaeda. Yet if the vaccination teams try to go into places the southern Helmand province, they are attacked by Islamic radicals who warn the health workers to stay out. Or else. End of story. No discussion allowed.

It's believed that this is largely the result of the casualties the Islamic radicals have taken, especially the loss of so many leaders and technicians. It's known that the Taliban has ordered local leaders to operate on their own, and cut down on communication with other Taliban groups, or the Taliban leadership back in Pakistan. So while the Taliban are willing to work with health workers (who are almost all Afghans) in most parts of Afghanistan, in areas full of armed Taliban, there is only danger.




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