November 27, 2012: In Afghanistan the Taliban have a problem with their use of roadside (or trailside) bombs. These devices are not working out as expected. It all began five years ago when, seeing (incorrectly) how successful the Iraqi Islamic terrorists were with these weapons, the Taliban began using them in a big way in 2007 (when 3,000 were used). That was the same year that the Iraqi roadside bomb campaign collapsed. No matter, the Taliban were committed and they had plenty of cash from the drug gangs to pay rural tribesmen to build, place, and detonate these bombs. In 2007, 78 foreign soldiers were killed with these weapons, which comes out to 38 bombs for each foreign soldier killed. That ratio held until 2010, when 368 foreign troops died. But then things began to fall apart (because of countermeasures). Last year only 252 foreign troops died from these bombs, but it took 66 bombs to cause each fatality. It got worse this year, when foreign troops deaths declined by half and it took over 130 bombs to cause each of these fatalities.
The bombs are killing some Afghan soldiers and police, but mainly they are killing a lot of Afghan civilians. Taliban leaders noted last year that the increasing number of civilians killed by Taliban bombs and terror was counterproductive and ordered more care to be taken to avoid civilian deaths. As a result, the same number of bombs were used this year as last (1,200-1,400 a month) but more of them were detected (by civilians as well as Afghan and foreign troops) and destroyed or disabled. In some cases the tribesmen hired to make and place the bombs scammed the Taliban by building a shoddy bomb and placing it with the intention of never setting it off. Taliban commanders tended to look the other way at this, as it kept civilian deaths down and morale up among the few tribesmen who still supported the Taliban. This kept the Taliban brass content, although still concerned about how ineffective their forces had become.
The Taliban also had problems with their own loss rate. For years there had been about 5,000 tribesmen killed a year while working for the Taliban. These were mostly young guys in their late teens or twenties and from a small population (a few million people). Even though the Taliban paid well, better than the police (who were, unlike soldiers, hired locally), the uneducated, often illiterate, Taliban fighters became less enthusiastic and paying them more didn’t help. They might not be able to read but they could count, and it was obvious that Afghan soldiers and police were taking far fewer casualties. The foreign troops, all long-term professionals, were very hard to kill. Taliban leaders had to lower the losses of their fighters or risk losing the ability to recruit many more of them. The roadside bombs were supposed to help lower Taliban losses, but that didn’t happen until this year, when Taliban commanders were ordered to avoid combat in a big way. Despite that, Afghan and foreign troops kept hunting down Taliban fighters and killing about 500 of them a month. Many more were wounded, surrendered, captured, or deserted. The Taliban are hoping that things will get better after 2014, when most of the foreign troops leave. But Afghan troops and police will still have a lot of the equipment used by the foreign troops, including the stuff that neutralized the roadside bombs.