Winning: The Secret War in Afghanistan

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December19, 2006: The recent fighting in southern Afghanistan was reported in terms of American, British, Canadian and Dutch troops fighting the Taliban. But the most effective troops hardly got mentioned at all, and that's the way they like it. Among 20,000 or so American and NATO troops, there were nearly 2,000 commandos (about a third of them U.S. Special Forces). Afghanistan has been something of a commando Olympics for the past five years. During the last three months, the Taliban were subjected to a series of offensive operations, most of them using the commandos to get the drop on the Taliban, and then call in U.S., NATO or Afghan troops to finish off the enemy, after the commandos and smart bombs had done their work. In this way, about half the 4,000 deaths in Afghanistan this year, took place in those three months. During that period, 2,077 Taliban were killed. Some 40 percent of those Taliban losses occurred during Operation Medusa, which took place in September, in Kandahar province. This operation was meant to upset the Taliban plans to bring in thousands of gunmen, and take control of the area around Kandahar (the traditional Taliban "capital") and perhaps (if only temporarily) the city itself. The Taliban were outmaneuvered and outfought, especially by the international commando force.

The Taliban have declared their 2006 operations a success, despite the death of nearly 3,000 of their fighters, and the wounding of even more. Exactly how many Taliban were running around in southern Afghanistan this year is hard to tell. Could have been as many as 10,000. But success depended a lot on cooperation from local tribesmen. Some tribes were more pro-Taliban than others. Where they had some local support, there was a lot of terrorizing of civilians going on. But any organized attacks on local officials or police, brought a quick response. The Coalition commandos, plus air power, were the most feared combination. UAVs could quickly be over an area and would appear to stay there forever. If the commandos picked up the trail of a group of Taliban, they would usually catch up with them, and, using a combination of smart bombs and superior fighting skills, destroy the Taliban unit. These Taliban groups would sometimes have several hundred fighters. The Taliban were not stupid, and would often scatter when they knew the commandos and UAVs were on their trail. But since so many of the Taliban gunmen were Pakistani Pushtuns, and not familiar with the local terrain, the most effective tactic, of ditching weapons in one of the many little caves in the area, and then splitting up in to much smaller groups and scattering, didn't work. So hundreds of Pakistani Taliban died in these operations, trapped in a landscape they were not familiar with.

American air reconnaissance (UAVs and manned aircraft) made it dangerous for the Taliban to try and get away in vehicles, and the commandos were able to go after them on foot. The Taliban rationale for their "victory" in 2006 rests on the fact that they did mount a major effort, most of them survived it, and they burned down 200 schools, killed at least twenty teachers, and several hundred other uncooperative Afghans. They managed to kill 56 foreign troops, and several hundred Afghan soldiers and police. But the Taliban lost about ten dead, for every enemy they killed. The Taliban also enraged many Afghans, who like the idea of having schools, and roads and being left alone. So who really won?

 


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