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Something Is Happening Down There
by James Dunnigan
August 11, 2009

July 19, 2009: The U.S. Marine advance into Helmand province is being slowed down by the new Rules Of Engagement (ROE), which forbid the use of bombs or missiles in any situation where there might be civilians. The Taliban will typically spend the night, or longer, in a village or walled compound, and that's where U.S. troops will typically trap them. But bombs and missiles cannot be used on these places, so U.S. troops have to besiege the place, or just move on, leaving the Taliban alone. Some marines get creative, like having the jet fighters or bombs make a high speed pass over the Taliban held buildings. The fearsome noise will sometimes unnerve the Taliban and cause a surrender, but not as much as it used to. Another favorite tactic is having the fighter (usually an F-16 or F-18) come in low and use its 20mm cannon. But these air craft only carry a few seconds worth of ammunition. Moreover, having these jets fly that low makes them liable to crashing (this has happened, at least once) or being brought down by enemy fire (has not happened yet). But the cannon fire sometimes induces the Taliban to give up, or try to flee.

The other option, when you have the Taliban cornered, and using human shields, is to go in and fight them room-to-room. That gets more Americans killed, as well as putting the Afghan civilians in danger. This room-to-room tactic has not been used much, as commanders don't want to take the heat for losing troops in that kind of fighting. If there is a lot more of this house to house fighting, and civilians get killed, the ROE may be changed again to forbid any kind of combat if civilians are present. This reduces the anger of locals from civilian deaths involving U.S. forces, but makes it much more difficult to hunt down and destroy the Taliban gunmen. The Taliban are still vulnerable, as they have to move in order to operate, and the Afghan Army or police can often negotiate a surrender, or go in and root them out by force. But the best troops available for chasing down the Taliban gunmen are the U.S. and NATO ones.

It's not just the Taliban who are being shut down in Helmand. The heroin operations are a major target, as are corrupt Afghan cops (who often set themselves up as bandit kings, shaking down criminals and ordinary civilians, and often making peace deals with the Taliban.) The district commanders (there are 398 districts in the 34 provinces) are sometimes corrupt as well, or not willing to risk losing the fight it they go after a rogue police unit. The marines have brought in better trained and led police (the questionable cops are sent away for retraining, or discharge).

The battle against the drug gangs is a complicated one. A lot of money is involved, and the drug lords are pretty smart. They now keep a lot of their processing (opium into morphine or heroin) labs mobile. The vehicles travel with armed guards, but force is a last resort. The security detachment is also armed with a lot of cash, and the first weapon to be deployed is a bribe. That usually works. But the U.S. intelligence troops are after the drug gangs now, and this makes concealment more difficult. The U.S. military isn't releasing any play-by-play of these operations, lest they provide useful information to the enemy. It won't be until the end of August that an initial assessment is possible, and not until the end of the year until one can check the trends in wholesale and retail prices for heroin. As Afghanistan heroin production grew since the 1990s, the world supply has doubled, and prices have come down by about 50 percent. More people are using, and dying from, heroin. And now we can add many of the victims of the fighting in southern Afghanistan to that toll.

The intense combat in Helmand, and elsewhere, has bumped up the casualty rate. Foreign troops are headed for a record number of casualties (possibly 800 or more, including about a hundred dead) for the year. There are also heavier casualties for Afghan soldiers and police, but not as high as the foreign troops and Taliban. Going after key targets in Helmand province, the source of most of the world's heroin supply, goes to the heart of Taliban power: drug money. The drug gangs and the Taliban are partners, just as they were back in the 1990s, when the heroin trade got established in Afghanistan under Taliban protection. With the drug money gone, the Taliban would lose most of their ability to put a lot of gunmen into action each Summer. The heavy Taliban use of suicide and roadside bombs has turned most of the civilian population against them. Thus the push to limit the use of American weapons that can kill or injure civilians. But in Afghanistan, "hearts and minds" work a little differently. Afghanistan is the poorest nation in Eurasia, and most of the population lives on the edge of disaster (one or two bad crops and there used to be massive death tolls from starvation). While the foreign food aid eliminates the ancient threat of starvation, and Afghans know where that food aid comes from, there is a tendency among Afghans to side with whoever is strongest. This was one reason the Taliban were driven out of power in two months in late 2001. There is no shame, to an Afghan, in switching sides. For an Afghan, it's the smart thing to do. It's how you survive. It's how it's been done for thousands of years.

In southeast Afghanistan, NATO and Afghan troops are disrupting Taliban operations by raiding known Taliban safe houses and operating areas. This is part of the effort to damage the network of roadside and suicide bomb builders and those who finance and direct them.


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