The Taliban have conceded defeat.
After two years of fruitless offensives designed to oust NATO from Afghanistan and overthrow the elected Karzai government, the Taliban concedes it's impossible. This year they're switching to terror tactics and offering to negotiate with the government.
According to Reuters, Taliban deputy leader Mullah Brother told a militant Website that: "Martyrdom attacks and roadside explosions will form major part of the such operations."
"Through our military commanders, local and central councils we are working on these tactics...which will be implemented across the country in the near future as the new military strategy."
Stop Killing Us
A big reason for the change is that the Taliban leaders are tired of getting killed. The U.S. has said it killed more than 50 mid- and top-level Taliban leaders over the last year.
Over the last fortnight, Taliban insurgents have destroyed four microwave phone towers in Kandahar and Helmand provinces after warning the phone companies to shut down service overnight. They fear that U.S. and NATO troops use cell phone signals to track insurgent leaders and kill them in night raids.
Radio Free Europe reports that the threats are actually extortion attempts to raise money for the insurgency. If true, it shows how desperate the Taliban has become for funds. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 cell phones have become the chief manner of communication in Afghanistan. Destroying cell phone towers affects thousands of users, which does nothing to endear the Taliban to local tribes.
Some influential local tribal leaders have already offered to help protect cell phone towers.
Abdul Ahad-Khan Masum, a tribal leader in Kandahar's Kajaki district, where a mobile tower was knocked out of service by the Taliban, said his people can protect the towers "if we are given the authority". As more and more tribes turn against the Taliban, they face a reversal of fortune like that which has defeated Al Qaeda forces in Iraq.
Oops. Too late
The U.S., meanwhile, continued its campaign of targeted assassinations, only this time in Pakistan.
Three missiles, which Internet chatter speculates might have been cruise missiles, destroyed a safehouse for terrorists in a village in the South Waziristan tribal region of Pakistan. Residents of the village in told AFP that the house was blown up by a missile fired from a pilotless drone and the blast was heard kilometres away. At least 13 Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters were killed, including an Al Qaeda fugitive from Egypt. The dead were 4 Arabs, 4 Turkmens, 3 Punjabi Pakistanis, and 2 Afghans. 6-10 wounded insurgents were captured.
Pakistani newspapers said the house was used as a staging centre for Taliban fighters in Paktika province, Afghanistan.
"The attack came as a big surprise to militants as it was a most secret and highly important militant compound: it was disguised as a madrassa (seminary)." wrote Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief, in exquisite understatement.
"Madrassas like the one struck in Azam Warsak are spread all over the border area and nothing is really taught - they are used as a cover by militants." he wrote.
"Thursday's strike therefore serves as a reminder to militants that, despite what politicians might say, they can expect no breathing space and that a ceasefire is not an option. That is, the changing of the government in Islamabad has nothing to do with the "war on terror". " said Shahzad.
Another sign that all is not well with the insurgency is the call from the leader of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan for more foreign Muslims to join the fight and bring money.
"Your brothers in Afghanistan are waiting for you and longing to (welcome) you," Mustafa Abu al-Yazid said in an audio recording posted on an Islamist Web site.
"The time for reaping the fruit of victory and empowerment has come ... The infidel enemy has been badly wounded at the hands of your brothers and is close to its demise so assist your brothers to slaughter him," added the militant leader, speaking with an Egyptian-sounding accent. ."Only a loser ... who ridicules himself, disobeys God, and loves the lower life would let jihad down," he said. He added that doctors and electronics specialists were particularly in need.
You wouldn't know any of this good news if you depended on the MSM which, without its annual supply of Feared Taliban Spring Offensive stories, has resorted to new doom and gloom scenarios.
Among the most reported was an intelligence assessment by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell who last week said the Afghan government controlled only 30 percent of the country and Taliban insurgents held 10 percent. The rest of Afghanistan, was under the control of tribal groups. This was supposed to prove NATO was failing and Afghanistan was sliding back into anarchy.
"We regard the percentage mentioned ... as totally baseless," Afghanistan's intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh told a news conference.
He conceded the government did not have a presence in numerous districts of Afghanistan, but said that did not mean the Taliban insurgents controlled them.
Afghanistan had a deeply rooted tribal society and traditionally tribes formed the basis of a successful administration of the country, Saleh said.
He said President Hamid Karzai's government enjoyed the support of political elites and tribal chiefs.
"Given the history of this country and its national formation and way of governance, we feel proud that we have the support of tribal leaders."
"While in America an administration fully backed by tribal chiefs or dominated by tribal chiefs may be seen as liability, here we see it as a strong asset," Saleh said.
When asked why his account of the Afghan government's control differed so much from that of McConnell, Saleh said: "I am in touch with reality. I am sitting in Afghanistan." (Afghanistan says U.S. control estimates baseless, By Sayed Salahuddin, Reuters, Mon Mar 3, 2008)
Three NATO soliders were killed in the past two weeks. Canadian Michael Yuki Hayakaze, 25, a member of Lord Strathcona's Horse armoured regiment based in Edmonton, was killed by a roadside bomb in Kandahar. And Polish soldiers Corporal Szymon Slowik and Private 1st Class Hubert Kowalewski were killed, and another soldier wounded, when their vehicle hit a landmine as they returned from a humanitarian mission in Paktika province. They were promoted posthumously to Senior Corporal and Corporal respectively. All three Polish soldiers were given the Commander's Cross of the Order of the Military Cross for heroism and courage.
On the ground, coalition forces continued to degrade the Taliban insurgency and to demonstrate why Mullah Brother has ceded the battle.
Regional Command East
In eastern Afghanistan, Army Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel, Combined Joint Task force 82 deputy commander, reported that the forces under his command are conducting three times the operations they were this time last year, primarily because of the increased capacity of the Afghan troops in the region.
"Their proficiency continues to grow," he said. "One of the key things we're seeing right now is with their commando battalions; they are very highly trained and are operating throughout our area and having some very good effects. We think, ultimately, this capability is going to raise the standard throughout the army."
There had been 36 attacks in the 14 provinces of Regional Command East last month, he said, which if it continued at that pace would be 35 percent below February 2007 numbers.
A senior US general based in eastern Khost province said the number of attacks in his region alone had dropped by up to 50 percent in February, compared to the same time last year.
"We've had several locations here where the district and provincial councils have stood up to the insurgents and indicated they will no longer tolerate their presence," Votel said.
"We will soon be joined here by a provincial reconstruction team from the Czech Republic," Votel said. "They are going to be another member of our very progressive group of forces that includes not only the United States, but Poland, Turkey, New Zealand, French and Egyptian forces."
U.S. Army engineers with the 82nd Airborne Division's 36th Engineer Brigade have constructed nearly 200 miles of secondary roads since arriving in eastern Afghanistan in March 2007, Brigade Commander Col. Richard Stevens told reporters during a satellite-carried news conference.
The road-building projects have connected about 120,000 Afghans living in 34 previously isolated villages, the colonel said. New roads and trails "not only allow coalition forces to reach areas that were previously inaccessible, they also provide the Afghan people better security, better access to their government, and increased opportunity for commerce," Stevens explained.
Stevens said his brigade has inspected more than 40,000 miles of road while conducting 1,200 missions in search of improvised explosive devices. Most IEDs in his area are homemade, relying on contact-detonation, he said. Mines that use radio signals for detonation are rare, likely, he said, because of the effectiveness of the coalition's anti-mine countermeasures.
Nevertheless, roadside bombs in Khost on three consecutive days killed 10 civilians and wounded 12 more.
Disrupt, Disarm and Destroy
Coalition troops searching compounds in the Kajaki district for a Taliban commander triggered a raging gunfight.
"While coalition forces conducted a search of the building during one operation, armed assailants who were barricaded in separate rooms engaged coalition forces with small-arms fire and hand grenades," said Army Maj. Chris Belcher, a coalition forces spokesman.
"The assailants were killed when coalition forces responded in self-defense," Belcher said. "A search of the site after the exchange revealed a dead female and child in one of the rooms the assailants used to engage coalition forces."
Earlier, Taliban fighters got the worst of it, again, when they challenged Afghan and coalition forces in the Karez deh Baba and Kajaki districts when Afghan and coalition fighters launched an operation to disrupt weapons and drug smuggling.
"Throughout the day, insurgents kept trying to fight the (Afghan national security forces). The result was always the same," said Army Capt. Vanessa R. Bowman. "(The insurgents were) defeated."
Villagers provided crucial information about insurgent practices and the locations of insurgent safe houses, military officials said.
In another incident, troops found roughly 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate.
"This was an enormous find because this substance is a common explosive additive that could be used in IEDs," Bowman said.
The Afghan-led force discovered the insurgents' command center in a series of caves and a 100-foot deep interconnected tunnel system. Afghan troops suppressed enemy forces until the cave and tunnel system was destroyed with precision-guided bombs.
To add to the hurt, Royal Marines in the Upper Sangin Valley discovered and destroyed a drug factory, and 1.5 tonnes of opium, the precursor of heroin. That's a $400 million (Canadian) bite out of the capacity of drug dealers to finance Taliban protectors during the spring and summer poppy growing season.
The Commandos from Bravo Company unearthed weapons, identity cards and evidence - some in English - of bank accounts. The drug lab, which had apparently been operating for 10 years, was blown to pieces.
The Taliban is getting desperate for funds. In Pakistan, intelligence agencies arrested the Taliban's former defence minister and current #3, Mullah Obaidullah Akhund---again. His arrest, in the border city of Quetta, had been announced in 2006 but he had apparently been released nine months later. He fled to Afghanistan but had returned to Pakistan in January to raise money. He was picked up in Lahore after police got a tip he was meeting with business and fundamentalist groups he hoped would give generously.
They're Baaack. The Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, on the next six-month tour, that is.
But what are they coming back to, they may well wonder.
Kandahar has been on a roller coaster ride in the past couple of years. PPCLI bloodied the Taliban's nose and kicked them out of the Panjwai district in 2006. In 2007 some genius decided to put the territory in the hands of the corrupt, under-trained, under-armed Afghan police backed by a new National Auxiliary Police Force made up of Afghans with all of two weeks training. Last spring and summer the Taliban swept the police away and reoccupied much of Panjwai district. The Canadians had to go back and take it from them again.
Since then, the situation has shifted again.
Canwest foreign correspondent Matthew Fisher reported this past Monday:
"Actual fighting between the Taliban and the Canadians has dropped off to zero in Kandahar this year, according to Lt.-Col. Alain Gauthier, who was the commander of the Van Doo battle group which was responsible for the war here for six months until he handed over command to the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in a ceremony on Friday.
"In the past two months the enemy has not had any direct contact with the coalition," Gauthier said before beginning his return journey to Canada early Saturday."
The last Canadian combat death was in September, 2007.
But insurgents have switched to using roadside bombs, and the occasional suicide bomber, as their weapons of choice. The suicide bombers generally kill only themselves and some unfortunate civilians; IED's on the other hand have taken a heavy toll of Canadian troops.
In 2007, 25 Canadian soldiers were killed by IEDs. This past rotation of troops suffered 10 killed by roadside bombs, almost half of the 18 casualties suffered by the previous rotation. Better equipment and better training is reducing the combat deaths from IED's.
And the next rotation headed for Afghanistan in April 2008 will be better prepared still. They've just undergone intensive training at Fort Bliss, Texas, concentraing on defeating the IED threat. Canadian trainers lead the gunnery, convoy live fire, first aid and most other training blocks, but they turned to U.S. soldiers for instruction on roadside bombs.
They started by examining examples of IED's. Then they made their own.
"If they know the pieces and the components that go into making them, it's going to be easier for them to recognize an IED," a trainer said.
Then it was on to roadside exercises. In one, they marched as a squad along a one-mile stretch of desert along which they encountered a half dozen different IED's. Then, in their LAV's and Coyote reconnaissance vehicles, they drove a seven-mile course pitted with another six roadside bombs they had to avoid or capture. Failure meant a heart-stopping starburst and a big cloud of smoke, followed by a fierce post-mortem.
And the current situation in Kandahar? It depends.
If you want the defeatist view, there's Brian Hutchinson of Canwest News Service who wrote
(Much remains to be done in Kandahar, Friday, February 08):
Kandahar has been without electricity for almost two months. It's causing a crisis, says Abdullah Kamran, a building contractor and commercial landlord. "Factories and light industrial plants are closing because they lack steady power," he explained. "People are out of work.""Why can't Canada send us generators to make electricity, so we can get on with our lives and become productive?" asks Kamran.
Students at Kandahar's university are fed up and on the verge of rioting, says a teacher there. "They have no drinking water, no electricity, no materials." There is talk that people of the Alokozai tribe, the ethnic group that dominates the Arghadab district, are planning to protest a perceived deterioration in living conditions by launching a work stoppage.
Canadian soldiers and government officials point out that before Kandahar city can thrive, the areas around it must be made secure. But the university teacher scoffs. Afghan warlords, chased away by Taliban leaders a decade ago, were allowed to return by coalition forces and the Afghan government, he says. "Thugs and criminals" now run Kandahar, he says.
"Kandaharis have two faces," says the teacher. "For six years, we have been showing our sheep face. Don't force us or pressure us to show our wolf face. Once frustrated enough, the general public will pick up arms. They will wage war on the government and coalition forces responsible for this mess."
If you're looking for optimism, there's Stephanie Levitz of Canadian Press:
In Afghanistan simple projects change many lives
ZAKAR KALAY, Afghanistan - Drew Gilmour's eyes widened as the van took a turn on the bumpy rural road and suddenly dry dusty land was replaced by soaking wet earth.
"This is just since this week?" he asked, in disbelief. Yes, the Afghan engineer replied proudly. All this, just this week.
What Gilmour was staring at was hundreds of hectares of previously dead farmland now awash in water from a series of irrigation canals finally completed in a village about 18 kilometres from Kandahar city.
Water started running through the first of them this week.
Gilmour's company, Development Works, a private company which receives funding from the Canadian government, is overseeing the clearing of about 26 kilometres of canal altogether in the village.
Eventually, more than 3,600 hectares of farmland will be opened up for use, allowing farmers to increase their harvests by as much as 50 per cent.
Where others might see plain patches of ground, Gilmour sees potential.
In Zakar Kalay, shovels have already hit the ground for a bakery, where 60 per cent of the profits will go to paying teacher's salaries.
Next will be a solar-powered market and then a metal shop.
Over 2,000 metres of sewer have been built and 500 metres of road.
"This place will go from a collection of huts to a real village," said Gilmour.
"You have picked us up off the floor and helped us stand," said the village's deputy district leader Haji Mohammad Khan.
Villagers here don't speak of what happened to them during the time of the Taliban - they weren't around to see it.
Many of them fled to Iran and to Pakistan during the Soviet invasion in the late 1970s.
...Now, Mohammad said, more than 800 families have come back to the village in the last six months.
"They have heard we have sewers, that there is water here now," he said. "So they are coming back to rebuild."
Anur Gul, an elderly woman whose voice was muffled by a black veil, said the work made her so happy she volunteered to help, bringing jugs of water from the well to wet down the concrete.
"Everything will be safe, everything will be fine," she said.
"Nobody from here, from anywhere, wants to join the Taliban," said deputy leader Khan. "Everybody just wants to do a job for themselves."
You know which side you'll find us.