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War in Afghanistan 2008: First quarter review

You can tell it's spring by the annual outbreak of handwringing and lamentation in the mainstream press over the mission in Afghanistan.

Boo hoo hoo, they write. We're losing. We can't win. The Russians had a bigger army and they failed. The Taliban are resurgent and invincible. They have an endless supply of volunteers. They never give up. Time is on their side. We have to bug out as fast as possible. Any day now the Taliban will launch their Feared Spring Offensive (tm). Whimper.

What's amazing is that, if you listen carefully to the enemy, you hear the exact opposite.

And, you'd think, they ought to know.

We're taking a detour from the usual weekly look at the war in Afghanistan. Call it the first quarterly report on the big picture.

Defeat

Regular readers of The Black Rod will remember the concessions this past winter by Taliban leaders of defeat on the battlefield.

Where, in the two years past, the Taliban boasted of "years of decision" in which they would drive foreign troops out of Afghanistan by their fierce attacks, this year they've pulled in their horns. This year they're promising only to teach NATO and U.S. forces a stern lesson.

Mullah Baradar Muhammad has issued the official announcement on behalf of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan of a new operation dubbed "Ibrat" (translated as "Lesson" by some, and "Admonition or Warning", by others) being launched throughout the country.

Barader signed his proclamation Deputy Leader, Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which puts him just behind Mullah Omar, aka Fearless Leader. Baradar is one of the three top commanders who led Taliban forces when the United States invaded Afghanistan following September 11, 2001. The other two--- Mullah Akhtar Usman and Mullah Dadullah-- were killed in the past year, leaving Baradar to lead the Taliban's military operations. He'd better have his insurance paid up, if history is any guide.

The Nation reported the offensive was launched March 21, 2008 "with the help of 5,000 militants." That's a relief. Last year Mullah Dadullah launched his spring offensive with the claim he had 10,000 fighters at the ready, plus suicide bombers. Already we've halved the enemy forces. It looks like killing 4000-plus insurgent fighters last year has had some effect.

Ibrat, according to The Nation, will involve "maximum emphasis on targeted killing, kidnapping and targeting gatherings through suicide bombers." A Taliban contact told them the purpose behind Ibrat is to "harass and terrorise not only the foreigners but also those Afghans who occupy important offices in the government."

Barader, in his own (translated) words put it this way:

The Taliban's spring offensive is "aimed at giving the enemy a lesson through directing powerful strikes at it, which it can never expect, until it is forced to end the occupation of Afghanistan and withdraw all the occupier soldiers". We will add to the tactics and experiences of the past years new types of operations. The operations will also be expanded to cover all locations of the country, in order for the enemy to be weighed down everywhere" (Sawt al-Jihad, March 28).

In a nutshell, this "resurgent" army of religious fanatics is going to rely on kidnapping, killing public officials, and mass murders. That ought to win the support of the local population.

"...we are without resources, but we have the support of God," admits Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani in a video message currently being circulated.

Spooked

One reason the Taliban is downsizing their plans is the abysmal lack of success in standard military operations. And for that they blame spies. Spies, everywhere. The Taliban leadership is obsessed with spies. Especially when the leaders keep getting killed by missiles fired from UAV's.

Last year in areas under their control they killed anyone they suspected to spying for the government. This year they've destroyed or damaged 10 cell phone towers to force phone companies to shut down their service overnight. The Taliban is convinced NATO can track their commanders by tracing cell phone calls. Boy, have they ever underestimated U.S. SIGINT capabilities.

Can you spell 'backlash'? When up to 300,000 rural customers wound themselves without phone service, they told Taliban fighters in no uncertain terms that this was unacceptable. In Ghazni province villagers told the telecommunications minister that if the cell tower was reopened, they would guarantee its security themselves. The Taliban have acknowledged they made a big, big mistake and are trying to mend fences. But memories are long.

Golden Oldies

The Taliban have long memories, as well, which is why they're bragging at the return of "legendary" Afghan mujahideen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani. Once upon a time, he was somebody. That was 20 years ago when he fought the Russians. Nowadays he dyes his hair red with henna. Most recently he, or rather his son Sirajuddin, has been flirting with Al Qaeda supporters in Pakistan's tribal territories. Which is why the Taliban is trumpeting Haqqani's return to an alliance with them.

The Haqqani network of terrorist resources is a particular thorn in the side of American forces in eastern Afghanistan. While Haqqani will undoubtedly do his fighting in his Pakistani redoubt, its his name the Taliban wants. They're a little short on big-time commanders following the harvest of top leaders in 2007 by resurgent American airpower.

Propaganda Power Down

The Taliban are even crying that their most powerful weapon--propaganda--is failing them.

"They think they can enslave poor Afghans - bomb us with their planes and gunship helicopters - they think they have everything and we are voiceless - the media are with them and they belittle our resistance. We kill 80 and they report two or one. I promise the Afghan nation that soon we will be victorious," laments Haqqani in his video.

Even Asia Times Online, which is usually sympathetic to the Taliban spin on the war, had to temper its enthusiasm as Taliban claims grow more grandiose, reporting recently:

"Last week, NATO announced the opening of an intelligence center near the Torkham border post, at the crossroad of Khyber Agency and Nangarhar province. But it was not able to thwart the biggest-ever guerrilla operation against a US base in the province a few days later. More than 200 Taliban participated in an overnight hit-and-run operation. Taliban sources claimed the killing of 70 US soldiers, but there was no confirmation of that figure from NATO or any other independent source."

The Taliban are even having their noses rubbed into it. Last year they captured two French aid workers and released them only after, they claimed, French president Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to pull French troops out of Afghanistan. This week Sarkozy committed another 700 troops to the fight, and the Taliban are crying foul at, in their eyes, being played for suckers.

Hearts and Minds

You read that term all the time from MSM reporters and columnists trying to subliminally link the war in Afghanistan with the war in Vietnam. But by all accounts it's the Taliban that have to worry about winning hearts and minds. They've never been more marginalized.

Take the wedding industry. It's thriving despite the "resurgent" Taliban.

"But since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, the Afghan wedding industry has rebounded and is now bigger than ever. The growth is reflected in the proliferation of wedding halls, palaces of mirrored blue glass and blinking neon lights that glow incongruously among the country's dusty streets and mud-and-cinder-block homes. The number in Kabul alone has risen to more than 80 today from 4 in 2001.
(Big Afghan weddings, banned under Taliban, are back, International Herald Tribune, Jan. 14, 2008).

But, you say, that can't be true in the southern provinces where the Taliban are strongest and most "resurgent."

The Globe and Mail recently carried a series of articles based on interviews with Taliban fighters in the field. Reporter Graeme Smith discussed his stories on-line with readers, including this comment:

Graeme Smith:
I'm not entirely sure what you mean, especially about substitutions, but you're right that the Taliban appear to be shifting their cultural stance. A friend who lives southwest of Kandahar city tells a very amusing tale about a family wedding party, with singing and dancing, that stopped dead when a few Taliban walked into the compound.

Everybody froze, thinking the Taliban might have been upset by the merrymaking. But the Taliban quickly reassured them that they're no longer punishing such activities - one of many indications that the list of Taliban laws that existed during their regime no longer applies to the zones now heavily influenced by the insurgents. Whether this indicates a stronger "Pakistani flavour," as you suggest, isn't clear to me. It does seem to show a bit of political adaptation by the Taliban, as the adjust to the shifting cultural reality in the country.

The Taliban might be able to terrorize the populace into providing food and shelter, but they're obviously not welcome. "

Foreigners Go Home

Taliban propaganda, including the aforesaid Globe and Mail series, is long on table-thumping declarations that they're only fighting to repel foreign invaders.

But increasingly, "foreign invaders" applies to Taliban fighters.

"A relatively new string in the Taliban's bow is the reliance on thousands of Pakistani and other jihadis put out of "work" since the struggle in Kashmir de-escalated. They are well trained, and as they did in Indian-administered Kashmir and other parts of India, they can be expected to target key infrastructure and high-profile targets, such as government buildings." (Asia Times Online.)

"It is some consolation that the Taliban are also ever more unpopular. And Western intelligence officials claim the militants' co-ordination is breaking down under the relentless killing of Taliban leaders (200 have been killed and 100 arrested in the past year) by Western special forces. Taliban commanders in Helmand bear out this claim. Chains of command have become disjointed, they admit, with larger numbers of junior commanders filling the space left by senior figures such as Mullah Dadullah, their overall commander in Helmand, who was killed by British special forces last May. Internal discipline is harder to enforce. New recruits tend to be younger, more radical and from outside.

Two out of five Taliban fighters in Helmand are now outsiders, according to one Taliban leader. This causes friction with local people. One older Taliban commander admitted that some of his colleagues have been treating people "too harshly". Local people have become more vocal in demanding that reconstruction be allowed and schools reopened. Militants differ over how to respond."
(Putting the Hell in Helmand, Apr 3rd 2008, The Economist)

"Under the Taliban, the town's former agricultural college was used as a madrassa. Allah Dad, a village elder, fled when the Taliban moved in because they demanded that his five sons become fighters. Now back, he said he is afraid to speak to a reporter lest the Taliban notice and "punish" him." (In Helmand province, a tug of war, Washington Post, March 31, 2008)

**************

What, then, with this in mind, can we expect in the rest of the year?

The battle lines are being drawn.

The Americans have moved 2000 Marines into the south for seven months.

"It's all part of counterinsurgency, but at this point [the Marine mission] is more kinetic than not," Col. Peter Petronzio, commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, told the Baltimore Sun.

"The unit, a combined air and ground strike force, will branch out across southern Afghanistan to strike at Taliban fighters and clear as many areas of them as possible." (Short-term strategies threaten success, David Wood Baltimore Sun April 1, 2008)

"The 24th is heavily armed, with its 1,200-man infantry battalion and an air squadron with attack and transport helicopters and Harrier strike fighters. Its arsenal holds some 4,000 weapons, from pistols to long-range 155-mm howitzers."

Expect to see the Marines co-ordinating with the Brits in Helmand province who will be concentrating on building a road and installing a new generator at the Kajaki Dam. The Taliban will throw everything they've got into stopping the project, as they did in 2007.

The French have pledged to send 700 troops to eastern Afghanistan, which would free up American troops to move to Kandahar province to help the Canadians in the field. Since the Yanks are much more aggressive, expect lots of action in Kandahar. The corollory may be a sharp drop in the number of roadside bombs which are responsible for almost all the Canadian deaths.

On a related note, last week NATO released a report on IEDs in Afghanistan. They said 2,615 roadside bombs were either detonated or discovered in 2007. That works out to an average of about 7 a day. But half of the IEDs reported last year were discovered before they did any damage, thanks to route clearance efforts or information from Afghanis. There were 1931 roadside bombs discovered in 2006 and 844in 2005.

The Taliban, for their part, have announced they will be concentrating their efforts in the east, in provinces closest to the Pakistan border. They're particularly focussing on the Khyber Pass through which 80 percent of NATO's supplies is funneled. It's no wonder the U.S. struck a deal this week with the Russians to allow supply operations through Russian terriority.

The Pakistan-based insurgents have already made a fatal mistake, though. The U.S. and Pakistani governments have wooed the elders of two tribes of the Kyber Agency to win their allegiance.

"But since the Taliban want to chop off NATO supplies from Pakistan into Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban have warned these tribal elders to stay away from the conflict. However, the elders have received huge bribes from NATO, and so they are obsessed with providing protection to the supply convoys. Therefore, the Taliban will increase their activities in Khyber Agency, which means a war with the elders of the Shinwari and Afirdi tribes," a contact affiliated with al-Qaeda told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. (Revolt in Pakistan's Tribal Areas, Part 1, Asia Times, Feb. 9, 2008.)

The last time Al Qaeda took on tribal elders it was in Iraq, and they sent Al Qaeda packing. If a mistake is worth making once, it's obvious to Al Qaeda it's worth making twice.

Did You Know?

Afghanistan is sending at least three athletes to the Beijing Olympic Games and hopes to win its first ever medal.

"Since our taekwondo player Nesar Ahmad Bahawi got the first ever silver medal in an international taekwondo event in Beijing in 2007, we have enough reason to expect the first ever Olympic medal especially on taekwondo for cheering up people in this war-torn country,"
Sayed Mahamood Zia Dashti, vice president of Afghanistan National Olympic Committee told Xinhua news agency.

Bahawi will be joined by Afghan male sprinter Masood Azizi and 19-year-old 1,500 metre runner Mahboba Ahdyar, the only woman. Two other Afghans may win wild card positions. Azizi and Ahdyar were to go to Malaysia in March for five-months of training before going to China.

There is not a single proper running track in all of Afghanistan. The pair of runners were training on a concrete track circling a dusty soccer pitch inside the main sports stadium in Kabul where the Taliban held public executions until they were ousted from power by the U.S. in 2001.

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