With the latest poppy (the plant that produces opium and heroin) harvest in, more Taliban gunmen are free to fight Afghan and foreign troops. The harvest lasted three weeks, and the drug gangs called in their Taliban hirelings to help protect the operation. A drought, government action and plant disease has reduced poppy production about a third in the last two years. So the drug gangs were intent on protecting what was left. Helmand and Kandahar provinces produce most of the poppy, which produces opium and is refined into heroin.
The Taliban are now boasting that they will launch a nationwide terror offensive, with the harvest over and all. This is seen as mostly a propaganda exercise. The Taliban rely mostly on image and terror to create the illusion that they are more powerful than they actually are. Most Afghans understand what's going on, that the Taliban, and their drug lord paymasters, are trying to turn Afghanistan into a narco-state, capable of turning out a wide variety of illegal drugs. Polls, and local armed opposition to the Taliban and drug gangs, shows how difficult this will be to carry off. But the drug gangs know they don't have to succeed. If they can keep enough government officials on the payroll, and intimidate the rest, Afghanistan will, in effect, be a narco-state. Thus the big problem in Afghanistan is not that the Taliban will march into the capital and take over like a conquering army, but that the country will continue to wallow in corruption and civil disorder. The problem is that too many Afghans want to be gangsters, and too few want to build a government that serves everyone. It's not a new problem, but an ancient one. There is a shortage of solutions for solving this problem quickly.
Al Qaeda commanders are upset with how easily captured Taliban give up information. No matter how much al Qaeda and Taliban commanders instruct their followers on the importance of keeping secrets, these guys usually talk. What seems treasonous outside of Afghanistan, is considered being practical by Afghans. You get captured, you play nice to your captors, and maybe you'll live. Even with the knowledge that NATO and American troops can't use torture or summary execution, many illiterate Taliban don't believe the foreign troops don't have some secret, and horrible, interrogation tools. So NATO and foreign interrogators have found that just being nice can often get captured Taliban to open up. Even Taliban leaders are amenable to good treatment and the offer of a deal (to switch sides.) This has led to a government plan to buy out many Taliban (luxurious exile for the leaders, government jobs for key followers). This includes amnesty for crimes committed. While this amounts to an expensive bribe, the Afghan politicians point out that it's cheaper than continuing to fight the Taliban. Such payoffs are an ancient custom in this part of the world. The British, Russians, Indians and Persians all have, over the centuries, paid off the Pushtuns to stop fighting. It's, well, tradition. Unfortunately, another Afghan tradition is corruption. In this case, stealing the billions of dollars requested from the U.S. for the Taliban buy-out, and stealing most of it. Negotiations are under way to determine how much of this money Afghan government officials will be allowed to steal.
As the Taliban are driven out of towns in Helmand and around Kandahar, the Afghan government has found that there are not enough trained government officials to go in and run the place. The Taliban have been very aggressive in assassinating government and tribal officials. Al Qaeda has long used this as well. This tactic backfires against tribes, because there are plenty of younger people willing to step up and replace (and avenge) slain leaders. But the government bureaucracy is different. Specific bureaucratic skills are needed, and Afghans with those skills, but from outside the newly liberated areas, are reluctant to deal with Taliban death squads.
May 8, 2010: In western Afghanistan, Taliban attacked a group of tribal militiamen (who protect villages from bandits and Taliban), captured four of them, and beheaded them. A local army Quick Reaction Force caught up with the Taliban and killed ten of them. Four of the Taliban died when their suicide bomb vests went off. The tribal militia were out looking for suicide bombers, which someone had reported were being sent to attack villages that were not cooperating with the Taliban.
May 4, 2010: In western Nimroz province, a Taliban death squad staged an unsuccessful attack on the governors compound. The attackers were a combination of gunmen and suicide bombers. Seven of the bombers detonated their explosives, but were not able to get inside. Several of the gunmen also died, as the police guards successfully defeated the attempt to kill the governor. These assassination tactics are seen as key to Taliban victory, as Islamic radicals tend to believe that terror is a tactic they can get away with.
May 3, 2010: The U.S. government has agreed to send another 850 soldiers and marines, to help train Afghan security forces. This will make up for the inability of European nations to supply the number they had agreed to. The Europeans are having a hard time finding enough qualified volunteers for this kind of work. Meanwhile, European NATO commanders are recommending that NATO establish a combat award recognizing soldiers who risk their own lives to avoid Afghan civilian casualties. This would be called the courageous restraint medal and the first few would probably be awarded posthumously.
In eastern Afghanistan, Taliban suicide bombers against attacked a CIA base where seven CIA personnel were killed by a similar attack last year. This time, a civilian was killed, and two guards were wounded as the attack was defeated. This is why civilian deaths are up a third over last year. It's mostly from Taliban use of bombs, or civilians as human shields. The Taliban and drug gangs bribe, or intimidate, local journalists to concentrate on the few civilians killed by foreign troops. But word gets around, and Afghan civilians know where most of the danger is. For this reason, even in Kandahar and Helmand, more and more civilians are willing to risk death to report on where the Taliban are stashing their explosives (usually bulky nitrate based fertilizer) and bomb workshops.