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War in Afghanistan 2008 Mid-year Update

The drones are driving Pakistani villagers crazy.

All night they can hear the buzzing of the engines of U.S. unmanned aircraft --- and they don't like it one bit.

The Americans are filling the skies over the Afghan-Pakistan border with their Predator drones in a never-ending search for Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. And that's got the villagers who shelter the fighters scared.

The Predators can stay in the air for up 24 hours -- with their high-tech cameras providing their handlers with invaluable intelligence. They're flying over the border villages so high by day they can't be seen, but by night they come lower and the sleepless villagers have to listen to their engines as they make their passes.

They carry two anti-tank Hellfire missiles each, with deadly consequences once the signal to shoot is sent. The villagers have big reason to be worried. The chickens are coming home to roost.

The Washington Post is reporting that Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is in Pakistan to “read the riot act” to the new government. In a nutshell, if Pakistan can't or won't do anything about Taliban camps and sanctuaries on the border with Afghanistan, the U.S. will.

Pakistan's governing coalition has proved itself incompetent in imposing any controls on Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in its lawless tribal region. While General Musharraf efforts were half-hearted, the new government isn't even pretending to put pressure on the insurgents. The insurgents are so emboldened they're threatening to take over Peshawar, the largest city nearest the tribal region.

This week a U.S. air strike wounded 11 people west of Wana, the central city of South Waziristan. Two vehicles were destroyed. Nine of the injured were security personnel. A message had been sent.

Last month air strikes, whether from planes or Predators is debated, killed 11 Pakistani soldiers who were assisting Taliban forces that fled from Afghanistan to safety across the border. The joke was on them. The Taliban's safety zone is shrinking.

The pressure on the Pakistan's tribal region is a good sign that the new commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan intends to build on the successes of his predessor. General David McKiernan took over from General Dan MacNeill in June.

MacNeill's tenure as head of ISAF will be hard to top. Arriving on the heels of a hapless British commander who was preparing to surrender large chunks of Afghanistan to the Taliban in so-called peace deals, MacNeill showed how a real general works.

* He decapitated the Taliban leadership through targetted air strikes, stopping a planned spring offensive dead in its tracks.

* He took the training of Afghan soldiers away from the incompetent Germans and built the ANA into a force that could, and did, defeat Taliban fighters foolish enough to challenge them head on.

* He recaptured Musa Qala, a village held under a 10-month reign of terror by the Taliban as a result of one of the British commander's peace deals.

* And in his final months, he moved to cut off infiltration routes through the Garmser district in Helmand province for Taliban reinforcements from Pakistan into Helmand where the British are in the thick of fighting and rebuilding efforts.

Did it work? Let the Taliban propaganda machine answer.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Pakistan Bureau Chief for Asia Times Online and you can count on him to give the Taliban spin to every story. Here's what he wrote at the end of June:

"Earlier, the Taliban lost their grip in Helmand province in the face of a joint British and American offensive in Garmser, in the south of the province. With logistical difficulties and high casualties, the Taliban's reply was to move into Kandahar and Khost, rather than attempt to retain their positions in Helmand." (Islamabad blinks at Taliban threat, June 28, 2008, Asia Times Online.)

"The Kandahar jailbreak this month, a meticulously planned Taliban operation combining heavily armed fightes and suicide bombers, was the first operation since the switch from Helmand to Kandahar," he continued.

The jailbreak was a great publicity coup, and, as usual, it worked like a charm with the Western press. It had no strategic or tactical impact on the war, but the press built it up as a major defeat for NATO.

The reporters on the scene went so far as to predict the imminent collapse of Kandahar City and Kandahar air base in some imaginary Tet-like offensive. Reports of hundreds of Taliban fighters capturing scores of villages around Kandahar were front-page news. Until Afghan and Canadian forces easily marched into the villages and watched the Taliban fighters run like rabbits.

The most significant discovery of the two-day "crisis" was that half the Taliban army forces stationed in Kandahar ran away or otherwise proved ineffective in a real combat situation. But that's not the important part.

The important part is that the other half of the Afghan National Army forces were every bit the professionals we expected them to be. And they stood up to the Taliban and chased them out. If the insurgents can't stand up to half the Afghan troops in the area, what hope do they have when the other half is retrained or replaced by soldiers up to the calibre of the first half?

June, however, was a terrible month for NATO in Afghanistan. Coalition forces suffered 41 killed in combat or by IED's and roadside bombs. Last year (2007) the worst month for casualties was August with 30.

By the end of June, 110 coalition soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan in 2008. (We're counting combat-related deaths only, not suicides and accidents which are included in press totals.)

The number killed in 2007 by the end of June was 83.

NATO and the separate U.S. command suffered 189 combat deaths in Afghanistan in 2007.

Canada has recorded eight combat-related dead in Afghanistan in the first six months of the year. In 2007, there were 26 combat fatalities for the entire year.

The United Nations said almost 700 civilians are known to have been killed in Afghanistan in the first six months of 2008, a rise of 62 percent from the the 430 deaths recorded in the same time frame in '07. The UN says the Taliban is responsible for at least 60 percent of civilian deaths. The terrorist toll is climbing weekly as the scores killed in recent suicide bombings are not yet counted.

Stories from Afghanistan usually end with the stock paragraph:

At least (fill in the number) people-- mostly militants - have died in insurgency-related violence in 2008. The most recent number is 2100.

But remember that in 2007 at least 8000 people were killed as a result of the fighting. If 2100 reflects half the year, then an annual toll of double that, 4200, would still be a phenomenal decrease in casualties from 2007 and a huge measure of success for coalition forces.

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