In Afghanistan, things are often more complicated than they look at first glance. Some fighting, for example, is motivated by local conflicts.
But there are always those who will present this as ‘Taliban’-driven. Radio Netherlands Worldwide's Bette Dam pleads for more accuracy in reporting such incidents.
On New Year’s Day, six Afghans were beheaded in a village in Uruzgan province. A horrible incident. The boys were young, some of them only 18 years old.
The New York Times was quick with the conclusion: the Taliban were behind it. They killed the men "because of their alliance with the Karzai government." AFP told their readers they were killed "by the Taliban", for "spying" for the Afghan government. Xinhua made it even more clear: the six beheaded Afghans were "ex-colleagues" from the Taliban who killed them.
A Belgian newspaper presented the story like this: "A group of moderate Taliban held a meeting in a house and a terrorist Taliban group came and beheaded them", as provincial police commander Juma Gul told the journalist.
My first text message to an Afghan colleague in Tarin Kowt about what happened to the six victims was answered with: "Those people were madrassa Taliban". For me that didn't explain anything; my experience is that you have to press a bit. Often the conflicts in the province seem too complex for the Afghans to take the effort to explain them to Westerners. Others find it much easier to blame the Taliban for everything and get away with it. Besides that, the young Afghans I work with feel sometimes ashamed to speak about differences between their tribal leaders.
But I've been working with this Afghan colleague for two years and I knew I could try it again. So I did. "But who was interested in killing them?" I texted, in the hope of being given names of tribal leaders who were enemies with each other, or maybe something else. And again I got an unclear answer: "The Taliban killed among each other."
I felt something strange was going on; most of the time he is more direct. So I tried asking: "Why did they do it then? Is it rivalry between groups? Were the two groups both from Tarin Kowt?" It took a while… and then he replied that he talked to the leader of the jail who arrested four of the killers, and he told him the reason: "To be honest - they fought about a boyfriend".
After talking to the governor and an aid worker in Tarin Kowt, I got it confirmed. The dispute over sex ended up in the newspaper as a clash between Taliban, "who become more strong in the province," as one newspaper added.
The governor was clear: "No, it’s not extremist Taliban, they were not fighters, just students. We are researching it," he said, "but yes, the idea is that it was about a boyfriend."
The aid worker started laughing uncomfortably when I asked him the same question. "How can I explain to you what happened," he tried. "Is it a Taliban fight?" I asked. He quickly denied it. "No fighters, no Taliban, it has nothing to do with that." Then he found a way to put it: "Here we have a habit of... they fought about misusing a boy for love.
So, what happened according to my sources, was as follows: In a village ten kilometres west of Tarin Kowt, the fight started amongst three small madrassas. Two of them, the governor explained, are for adults. The other one is for boys under 18. Two adult groups wanted to take a ‘boyfriend’ from the children’s madrassa, but a disagreement started between them.
In the night, one adult group attacked the other adult group. They first killed their targets (some of them were sleeping, others were studying) and after that they beheaded them. "For Tarin Kowt, this is also very unusual," the aid worker said.
Who is the enemy?
It's the second time in a few weeks that the media have written about 'Taliban' responsibility for certain killings while there seems to be a different reality. The latest suicide attack in Dehrawod in November – where 13 people were killed - also involved two local groups who had been rivals for years.
In those days, when thousands of American soldiers prepare themselves for ‘war’ in Afghanistan, it is important for the media to take the lead and ask the question: What is really going on in Afghanistan? Is there ‘increasing Taliban influence’ and where? What is the real background to local conflicts? Who exactly is the enemy the soldiers are going to fight?
At the same time it is not sufficient to use Afghanistan’s complexity as a pretext for superficial reporting: As it is shown here, the background to incidents like the one in the Tarin Kowt madrassa can be discovered relatively easily, with a bit of patience and leaving behind preconceptions about the Taliban. This way, the public gets to know what Afghanistan is really about and what the soldiers who are sent there are fighting for.