Afghanistan: Last Man Standing

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August 14,2008:  Last year, there was a rebellion inside the Taliban leadership, and a new faction took control. This was something of a generational thing, with a younger group of field commanders introducing new tactics and new objectives. While the old school Taliban warlords tended to be veterans of the 1980s war against the Russians, the new crew came up after the Taliban lost control of Afghanistan in 2001. The new guys are more ruthless and greedy. They want to be obeyed, and they want to get paid. So the Taliban are using more terror against reluctant civilians, and more freely cooperating with the drug gangs (which will pay the Taliban for protection from the Afghan army and police, and anyone else who interferes with heroin production and movement of product.)

The new crew has new tactics, which are based on destroying anything that makes life easier for the population living under government control. The idea is to make the people dependent on Taliban goodwill for anything. Thus the Taliban are attacking roads and utilities. Regular users of the roads can pay protection money, and keep the Taliban informed (about truck cargoes and what the drivers see). The cell phone and electricity companies can either pay up, or get blown up. The foreign aid and reconstruction operations are attacked until they leave, and some have gone. Since the Taliban are on a Mission From God (to cleanse Afghanistan of all non-believers in Islam), the ends justify the means. Most Islamic religious scholars disagree with this interpretation of scripture. But the only religious scholars in Afghanistan with any clout are the heavily armed and dangerous Taliban.

The Taliban have also adapted their tactics to minimize their own casualties, and maximize those of the foreign and government troops. Thus the increased use of mines, roadside bomb and suicide bombers. The Taliban are still operating in groups, ones that are large enough to intimidate villagers or fight off  Afghan army or police patrols. It's the foreign troops that cause the most problems. The foreigners have the UAVs and smart bombs, which tend to show up very quickly once Taliban and foreign troops have bumped into one another. The U.S. and NATO forces have also been quicker to get air support to Afghan units, but southern Afghanistan is a large place, and there are hundreds of Afghan police and army units and bases (often just a small police station) in the south. Plenty of targets, especially when the Taliban hit and run. They have figured out that if they stick around they will get smart bombed soon enough. So they shoot and go, with a little quick looting for morale purposes. In Afghan tribal culture, loot taken in combat is a big deal. The Taliban have not found this to be un-Islamic.

The Taliban tactics are expensive. When fighting foreign troops, the Taliban lose ten men for each foreigner they kill. Even against the Afghans, the Taliban lose several of their own for each government man killed. The Taliban also kill three times as many civilians as the government and foreign troops. This is because the Taliban must use terror regularly, and back that up with dead civilians as needed. The Taliban will also use civilians as human shields. Often that does not work, but the dead civilians, especially those killed by foreigners, makes for great propaganda. It also sometimes causes the foreign troops to tighten their ROE (Rules Of Engagement), which slows down the foreign troops and gives the Taliban a better chance of survival.

War in Afghanistan is, and always has been, an endurance contest. Whoever loses the will to fight on first, loses. It's the code of the hills, and has been for thousands of years. The Taliban lost the will to fight in late 2001 and fled across the border to Pakistan. There, like minded tribesmen helped reform and reinvigorate the Taliban, and sent them back in to kill and conquer again. Thus the large number of dead Pakistanis, and other foreigners, being found by Afghan and foreign troops on Afghan battlefields. Sometimes it takes DNA analysis to identify which part of the world the body came from, but this is important information. The Taliban has become less popular inside Afghanistan over the last few years. Actually, the Taliban wore out their welcome a decade ago, which is why they are so dependent on terror and foreign volunteers to stay in the game. The Taliban are hoping the regular, if miniscule (by historical standards) casualties among the foreign troops will cause political unrest back home, and a call for withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But to most Afghans, the Taliban are not so much about winning, but about making life miserable (or "more miserable") for everyone.

 

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