The Occasional Taleban

Impoverished young men struggling to find work hired by insurgents as part-time fighters.

Abdullah Jan and Abdul Khaleq are both from the Pushtrod district of Farah province in western Afghanistan. Both are young, unemployed, and seek work as day laborers, for which they get about 200 afghani (4 US dollars) per job.

There is one big difference between them though: while Abdul Khaleq earns his money by digging ditches, painting houses, and other manual labour, Abdullah Jan, not his real name, does so by attacking police checkpoints. He is a Taleban part-timer.

“I am the only breadwinner in our family of eight,” said Abdullah Jan, a 22-year-old from a small village. “I went to Iran three times to try to find work, but I was expelled. I was in debt, and my father told me to go to the city. I looked for a job for three weeks, but then my brother got sick and needed medical treatment. He later died. Two of my friends then suggested that I go to the local Taleban.”

His mother was against it, said Abdullah Jan, and tried repeatedly to dissuade him. His father, however, kept silent.

“My first assignment was to attack the police checkpoint in Guakhan district,” recalled Abdullah Jan. “We killed four policemen, and we lost two of our own. Another one was injured. The fight lasted for two hours, with the real Taleban encouraging us from behind the lines, saying ‘go on, further, move, move, move.’

“When it ended, I was paid 400 afghani by the local commander. He said that if I performed better in the future, I would get more money. Since then, I have participated in five more attacks, and I make about 1,000 afghani per week.”

Under this ad hoc arrangement, Abdullah Jan is a Taleban for only a few hours per week. Other than that, he goes about his business like any other citizen. He has no gun or any other equipment that marks him as an insurgent, and he does not consider himself to be one.

“I am just fighting for the money,” he said. “If I find another job, I’ll leave this one as soon as possible.”

By some estimates, up to 70 per cent of the Taleban are unemployed young men just looking for a way to make a living. In Farah, Helmand, Uruzgan, Zabul, and other southern provinces, the majority of insurgents are fighting for money, not ideology.

But they are caught in a vicious circle: as long as their provinces are unstable, there is little investment that could generate employment opportunities. However, in the absence of jobs, they join the insurgents, prolonging the violence and guaranteeing that security and development, remain but a distant dream.

Mohammad Omar Rassouli, chief of police of Pushtrod district, confirmed Abdullah Jan’s story, pointing to unemployment as the main motivating factor in the surge of these Taleban day-labourers.

“Farah is now dominated by unemployment and poor living conditions,” he said. “This is what makes young men join the opposition.

“The number of attacks on checkpoints has risen lately, and the only reason I see for this is that young men are joining the opposition for very small amounts of money.

“The opposition is getting stronger, and we can do nothing. These young men are only armed while they are fighting. Other than that, they are just normal people in their homes, which makes it very difficult for us to identify them.”

The job is not without its risks, according to Abdullah Jan.

“I had a close friend, Rahmatullah. He was very brave,” he said. “But he was martyred when we attacked the Karez Shekha checkpoint two weeks ago. Since then I have lost interest in this job, and I hope to find something else soon. I do not want to be killed, since I am the sole support of my family.”

Abdul Khaleq, meanwhile, does odd jobs in Farah city, the provincial capital. He makes about 200 afghani when there is work to be had. But he does not want to risk his life.

“My cousin and I were unemployed in our village,” he said. “We were asked many times to join the Taleban. But we did not accept. I do not have a steady job, but still, it is better than being killed.”

Abdullah Jan disagrees.

“I have to work with the Taleban,” he insisted. “There is no other job except stealing or kidnapping. I think this is better than stealing. If we are killed, we are martyrs. This is what the mullahs say. They tell us we are doing jihad.”

Mullah Sadeq, the Taleban chief for Pushtrod and Khak Safed districts, told IWPR that the movement was justified in recruiting Farah’s unemployed youth.

“All young men should participate in the jihad and defend their country,” he said. “We will use any tool in our fight against the government and the foreign forces.”

According to Mullah Sadeq, there was a sliding scale of remuneration for Taleban fighters, but he declined to be more specific.

“The money we give those young men is just for pocket money,” he said of the day-labourers.

The authorities in Pushtrod and Khak Safed estimate that more than 500 young men are now working with the Taleban.

One elder, who did not want to be named, explained that recruits like Abdullah Jan were used almost exclusively as attack soldiers, “The Taleban do not want to lose their veteran fighters in these small skirmishes.”

The young men were often deployed outside their home villages or districts, he said, to avoid the possibility that they might be recognised by those they were fighting, or that they might be asked to attack friends or relatives.

Laying mines or burning schools are more delicate operations, added the elder, and were usually performed by regular Taleban.

Afghan commentators say the Taleban’s recruitment of part-timer fighters is a worrying development, as it shows how easily they can draft ordinary Afghans into their ranks.

“This tactic should be studied,” said one political analyst, who did not want to give his name. “They are provoking more and more people to violence, and extending their influence in the society.”

Fetrat Zerak is the pseudonym of an IWPR trainee in Farah.