The War in Afghanistan 2007: Assessing the first six months
Our apologies. A bout of illness interrupted our weekly coverage of Afghanistan early in June.
Before resuming our weekly coverage, we'll use this hiatus as an opportunity for a mid-year reality check on how the mission in Afghanistan has fared over the first six months of 2007.
On Wednesday, July 4, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, said in Rome that the Taliban's "summer offensive" got underway in June after local fighters were given a couple of weeks off to harvest opium crops.
We'll take that as official word that the Feared Taliban Spring Offensive is over. We can now take stock on how that well-advertised spring offensive worked out.
We can start by looking at what the Taliban planned to achieve. Since September, 2006, the Pakistan-based leadership of the Taliban was saying that 2007 was going to be the decisive year in their plan to retake Afghanistan.
"The spring of 2007 is predicted to become the turning point of the war," wrote Matt DuPee and Haroon Azizpour for Afgha.com (Blood in the Snow: The Taliban's 'Winter Offensive', Dec. 7, 2006)
Saleem Shahzad, the Pakistan bureau chief for Asia Times Online, interviewed Taliban sub-commander Qari Hazrat on the Taliban's strategy for 2007. (The vultures are circling, Asia Times, Dec. 13, 2006)
"We are not in any haste. Since the masses invited the Taliban to come down [from the mountains] to their areas, our strength is increasing with every passing day. Six months ago, groups of Taliban were operating with about 10 people. Now they have 50 members and growing. So we have enough time till next spring, and they [NATO] know what will happen until next year," Qari said.
"What will happen and what do they know?" I asked.
"They know that we will mobilize our strength and occupy the Herat-Kandahar highway and establish our pockets all over," said Qari.
"So that way you will isolate the Sangin district and the district of Gerishk - cut them off from the rest of the country?" I asked.
"Yes. And then we will not give them a chance to even find an escape route in their helicopters. We will hold parts of the Kandahar-Herat highway and our friends will hold other points. So Kandahar and other places will automatically come under siege and there will be little chance of reinforcements," Qari said, eating his final piece of bread.
Shahzad, travelled with Taliban fighters, picking up even more of their plans.(How the Taliban prepare for battle, Asia Times, 5 December 2006)
" The Taliban in Helmand are expected to play a central role in the planned fall of Kandahar. Many top field commanders are already concentrated there and Taliban leader Mullah Omar is expected to spend some time in the province making formal tribal arrangements that will unify all tribes under one pro-Taliban flag."
And still more. (Jan 25, 2007 AFGHANISTAN'S HIGHWAY TO HELL - The winter of the Taliban's content)
... the Taliban abandoned their one-dimensional guerrilla tactics and developed a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, militants would seize the main access points around Kandahar - the former Taliban spiritual headquarters in the province of the same name - and on the other, Taliban leaders would foment a popular armed uprising aimed at joining with the militants in the capture of Kandahar.
This is what happened in the mid-1990s when the Taliban emerged and seized power in the chaos following the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989: once the southwest was secured, eastern Afghanistan followed, and the two regions combined for the final assault on Kabul.
Mullah Dadullah, the Taliban's main military commander, boasted that he had 10,000 Taliban fighters ready to sweep across southern Afghanistan, with 600 suicide bombers standing by for the call to turn 2007 into the bloodiest year yet.
"In spring, Allah willing, all the provinces will fall into our hands." he told Al Jazeera in March.
"If a person wants to enter a village, he looks for the main entrance, and then begins to attack the outskirts. In my opinion, the entrance is Helmand, Oruzgan, and Qandahar," he said.
So, how did it turn out?
For the Taliban---not so good.
In the first six months of the year NATO, Afghan and American special forces have killed about 2000 insurgents, including 40 commanders, one of whom was Mullah Dadullah. The only part of Afghanistan he managed to occupy was his grave.
About 103 international troops have been killed and roughly 350 Afghan police, army or intelligence personnel.
British-led forces launched a pre-emptive offensive in Helmand province, driving Taliban forces out of the Kajaki and Sangin valleys just as Canadian-led forces drove them out of the Panjwai district of neighbouring Kandahar province last year.
The coalition of insurgent groups splintered early on with warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar announcing he was leaving the team to go it alone. And Taliban forces in Pakistan's tribal areas of North and South Waziristan fought a fraticidal war, with local tribes pitted against Uzbek immigrants and their allies. Hundreds were killed as Taliban leaders proved powerless to bring order to the lawless region.
The mainstream press, meanwhile, did its part to foster the myths of the Taliban. Jason Straziuso of Associated Press wrote (Fears of a Taliban blitz in Afghanistan subside, July 1, 2007) :
"The Taliban appears to have no difficulty finding recruits."
In May, the Globe and Mail carried a story on how the Taliban are recruiting the disabled to become suicide bombers. A doctor who examined the remains of suicide bombers in Kabul found they were often suffering from muscular dystrophy, amputations, blindness, and other afflictions. The Taliban play on their inability to support their families and offer payments to their survivors after they've blown themselves up.
A week ago the New York Times wrote about two captured suicide bombers. (Bomber's end: Flash of terror, humble grave, Barry Bearak July 1, 2007, New York Times). (emphasis ours...)
"The lockup is a busy place with small, crowded cells. On Thursday, officials said, the inmates included 11 Pakistanis and 14 Afghans who were thwarted suicide bombers. Two who were arrested on June 18 were Pakistanis.
"My target was Gul Agha Sherzai, the governor of Nangarhar Province," said a 17-year-old who uses the single name Farmanullah. Though the interview was unmonitored, the teenager nevertheless made exaggerated efforts to sound contrite. He presented himself as little more than a specimen of cannon fodder.
Pakistani members of the Taliban "came to my high school to recruit volunteers and told us if you didn't join the jihad, you would go to hell and never see the brides in paradise," he said. So he underwent suicide training in the Pakistani tribal areas.
But now hindsight, as well as capture, had made Farmanullah realize he was being used as a political plaything, he said. "We were told that everyone in Afghanistan was an infidel," he said. "Now I know this is not so."
Farmanullah's accomplice in the planned attack was another 17-year-old, Abdul Quddus, who was spoken to separately.
Suicide bombers are often disdainfully described here as impoverished, uneducated and physically or mentally handicapped. But Quddus said he was the son of a businessman in Peshawar and the graduate of a good private high school. His diction displayed refinement. His bearing was calm and prideful.
He said he had been attending a madrasa, or religious school, near the border and later agreed to take a blindfolded journey to a far-off camp for suicide bombers. He spent 40 days there with 20 other young men, he said.
"There are two types of bombs," he said. "One has a button, the other a fuse like a hand grenade. Explosives are packed in waistcoats that look completely normal. The maximum is 11 kilos, the minimum is 6," a range of 13 to 24 pounds.
He was carrying such a coat in a bag when stopped by policemen in Jalalabad. His arrest had not entirely doused his jihadi enthusiasms.
At first, he said he was sorry he had not completed his suicidal mission. Then he expressed ambivalence. "At the training camp I had allowed myself to become too emotional," he said, mentioning that movies he had been shown were probably one-sided and had overstoked his zealotry. But while he was now glad he had not killed the Afghan governor, some of his suicidal resolve remained.
"U.S. soldiers are still killing Muslims," he said. "I still believe in jihad against America, and some things are worth death."
Then just this week the news wires carried this story:
Afghan authorities, meanwhile, showed off a captured 14-year-old boy from Pakistan whom officials said had intended to set off a suicide bomb against an Afghan governor. Afghanistan's intelligence service showed off the 14-year-old Pakistani boy, identified as Rafiq Ullah, at a news conference also attended by the boy's father, Mati Ullah. The two shed tears and hugged in front of journalists.
The father said he had asked his son's teachers at the religious school he attends where his boy was but couldn't get a clear answer.
"I didn't know my son was going to carry out a suicide attack in Afghanistan," Mati Ullah said, his eyes full of tears.
The boy had been instructed by a Pakistani Muslim cleric to carry out the suicide attack, said Sayed Ansary, a spokesman for Afghanistan's intelligence service. Rafiq Ullah's target was the governor of Khost province, where the boy was caught on Saturday.
And here's evidence that AP reporter Straziuso doesn't even read his own reports.
June 26, 2007
Afghan 6-year-old tells how he foiled Taliban bombing
He sought help of Afghan troops after militants put bomb vest on him
By JASON STRAZIUSO
FORWARD OPERATING BASE THUNDER, AFGHANISTAN - The story of a 6-year-old Afghan boy who says he thwarted an effort by Taliban militants to trick him into being a suicide bomber provoked tears and anger at a meeting of tribal leaders.
The account from Juma Gul, a dirt-caked child who collects scrap metal for money, left U.S. soldiers dumbfounded that a youngster could be sent on such a mission. Afghan troops crowded around the boy to call him a hero.
Though the Taliban dismissed the story as propaganda, at a time when U.S. and NATO forces are under increasing criticism about civilian casualties, Afghan tribal elders and U.S. military officers said they were convinced by his account.
Forced to wear vest
Juma said that sometime last month, Taliban fighters forced him to wear a vest they said would spray out flowers when he touched a button. He said they told him that when he saw American soldiers, "throw your body at them."
The militants cornered Juma in a Taliban-controlled district in southern Afghanistan's Ghazni province. Their target was an impoverished youngster being raised by an older sister - but also one who proved too street-smart for their plan.
"When they first put the vest on my body, I didn't know what to think, but then I felt the bomb," Juma said as he ate lamb and rice after being introduced to the elders at this U.S.-Afghan base in Ghazni. "After I figured out it was a bomb, I went to the Afghan soldiers for help."
No difficulty finding recruits?
The Taliban's suicide army appears to consist of brainwashed boys, duped babies and hopeless disabled men.
(part 2 to follow....)