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MICHAEL SEMPLE is a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a Visiting Professor at Queen's University Belfast. He has worked in Afghanistan for more than two decades.See more by this author
On May 24, a group of Taliban fighters attacked an Afghan police and army post in the Syed Karam district of Paktia province, near the border with Pakistan’s tribal areas. The soldiers inside resisted, aided by air support. By the end of the battle, four Taliban fighters were dead: yet more casualties in the escalating violence that has rocked Afghanistan this year as efforts to start negotiations between the Taliban and the government of Hamid Karzai continue, and as the NATO withdrawal looms. According to the United Nations, over 3,000 civilians were killed in the first five months of 2013 -- nearly a quarter rise over the past year.
Still, the four Taliban fighters -- Sebghatullah, Sherif, Gul Ahmad, and Gul Padshah -- were more than statistics. They were also the cause and consequence of the Taliban leadership’s attempts to sustain the current conflict and rally supporters even as its raison d'être, the Western presence in Afghanistan, recedes. Their deaths reveal both the durability and the vulnerability of Taliban rhetoric among the most hardened militants and in the communities on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border, where the Taliban recruits new fighters.
A TALIBAN FUNERAL
After twelve years of war, the Taliban has no credible strategy to end its conflict with Western forces and the Afghan government -- only an ideology to sustain a seemingly endless fight. This clash between the Taliban’s war aims and doctrine was on full display in the funerals of the four fighters killed in Syed Karam. After the attack, fellow Taliban comrades retrieved their four bodies and transported them to their home district of Zurmat, also in Paktia. They all received quiet burials in their native villages. Three were buried in Sak, and the best-known of the four men, Sebghatullah, was taken to his family in the village of Qala Sarkari. Sebghatullah was buried by his father, Mawlvi Abdul Manan, a former comrade of the charismatic Maulvi Nasrullah Mansoor, who led a faction of militant clerics in the jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s. Civilians in Paktia are ambivalent about fallen Taliban fighters and wary of getting into trouble with the intelligence service by associating with them, which ensured that no elaborate funeral took place in their native villages in Afghanistan.