August 21, 2010

Who killed Tom Little?

Tom Little and Dan Terry were laid to rest today in Afghanistan, more than two weeks after they were killed, along with eight colleagues, as they made their way through eastern Afghanistan at the tail end of an unusual three week mission to provide medical care to remote villages in Nuristan.

As the first reports of the merciless killings began to surface, a leading Taliban spokesman was quick to claim responsibility. Aidworkers

Friends and relatives of those on the medical trek, which included eight international staff and two Afghans, were dubious.

The Taliban are known for their methodical, destabilizing attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians in the past six months alone.

But they had never deliberately targeted such a large group of international medical workers.

The International Assistance Mission, the Christian-based group behind the Nuristan medical trek, quickly came to the conclusion that the attack "was an opportunistic ambush by a group of non-local fighters."

The focus turned away from the Afghan Taliban and towards Pakistan.

In recent days, two Taliban leaders in the region have come forward to condemn the killings and deny responsibility for the attack.

"We regret these killings and strongly assert that this is not the work of the Taliban who will never do harm to genuine aid workers… as soon as we manage to apprehend those responsible for this act, we shall subject them to whatever punishment our laws prescribe,” Qari Malang, a Taliban leader in Nuristan, told Kate Clark, a former BBC correspondent and close friend of the families, who has been trying to figure out who was responsible for the attack.

In a piece for the BBC, Kate called these "dark and disturbing times."

Dan and Tom were hardly foreigners in Afghanistan.

Both men had come here in the 1970s, both raised their children here, both learned to speak the local languages, and they both devoted their lives to helping this country through invasions, coups, civil war, Taliban rule, and America's nine-year-old war.

That's why both were buried in Afghanistan, the country they loved.

The premeditated attack was jarring.

In an opinion piece days after the assault, Michael Semple, a specialist in this region, described the attack as a ominous event.

"Perhaps the best way to understand the politics of the killing of the eye camp team is that it is the product of the social breakdown caused by two competing systems failing to control Afghanistan,"  Semple wrote. "The internationally backed government has failed to deliver security, has limited projection beyond administrative centers and long ago compromised on the idea of enforcing law and order. The Taliban movement boasts a shadow administration and tries to brand itself as an enforcer of tough justice. The Taliban grip on territory is not firm enough for its administration to fill the gap left by a struggling government. But the movement’s willingness to use extreme violence, even against the civilian population, prevents the emergence of the kind of tribal-village republics that Afghans dream of as an alternative to government."

The FBI is investigating the incident, though there is widespread skepticism in Kabul about the ability of the U.S. government investigators to figure out who was behind the attack.

As Deb Riechmann and Amir Shah reported for AP, the lone survivor (one of the group's drivers) thought the leader of the group was Pakistani because of the language he used.

That has fueled speculation that the attack was the work of the Taliban in Pakistan, not the Taliban from Afghanistan.

Along with the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami, the insurgent Taliban ally, also reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack. Led by the widely reviled Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Hezb-e-Islami has launched tentative peace talks with the Afghan government and it's hard to see how killing a group of international medical aid workers would help their strategy.

Finding out who is responsible for these killings could serve as a barometer for the state of the insurgency in the region and where things are heading.


Checkpoint Kabul is written by McClatchy journalists covering Afghanistan and south Asia.

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