A UN investigation of human rights in Afghanistan has concluded that the situation is grim. Afghan officials agree, admitting that torture is often used by the police, and that laws are often not enforced anyway. Tribal traditions and customs tend to trump laws passed by the parliament. Some tribal traditions are exploited by the Taliban quite effectively. For example, on May 5th, several dozen Taliban were trapped in a western Afghanistan (Farah province) village by police and troops. The Afghan security forces called for an air strike and a U.S. bomber overhead complied (to the order of an American FAC, or Forward Air Controller working for the Afghan commander on the ground). About 25 Taliban were killed, but so were dozens of civilians the Taliban had forced to stay with them in a compound. The Afghan forces refused to let the Taliban get away by using human shields. It was also discovered that some of the civilians were killed and wounded by Taliban grenades.
But the biggest problem with this incident was the locals lying for money (and to avoid Taliban retribution). Often, when a smart bomb gets dropped in an isolated location (which describes most of Afghanistan), and there is any chance of civilian casualties, the locals immediately make a fuss about seeking to find who was hurt or killed. The village elders insist that outsiders stay away during this trying time. Even the foreign soldiers and Afghan police are put off (after the search for Taliban bodies, documents and equipment is completed). Being good Moslems, they bury the dead before sunset of the same day. The next day, the elders will claim as many civilian dead, killed by smart bombs, as they think they can get away with. Sometimes, additional graves get a dead goat or other animal, so the proper stench permeates the mound of earth. Digging up graves is also against Islamic law, so the elders know the foreign troops have to take their word for it. The elders also know that the foreign troops, depending on nationality, will pay $1,000-$5,000 compensation per dead civilian. Not only is there a big payday, but the Taliban appreciate the bad publicity directed at the foreigners, and usually show their appreciation by cutting this village or valley some slack in the future.
This scam works because there aren't many public records in Afghanistan. The only ones who know exactly who lives in a village are the people there, and the elders speak for everyone. Investigators have a hard time interrogating individuals, because the elders, and everyone there, has a vested interest in not being found out. Some of the elders get greedy. For example, despite an intensive investigation into a bombing last Summer in Azizabad (outside Heart), the villagers got paid for over 90 dead. Investigators, piecing together what information they could, were certain that there were only 15 dead civilians (plus Taliban). But you can't touch the graves, and even questioning the veracity of the claims gets you howls of indignation.
The U.S. tried to point out how the May 5th incident was another of these scams, but the media smelled blood and found it more profitable to go with the Taliban version of events. If it bleeds, it leads. Sometimes the Taliban go too far. For example, they tossed some white phosphorous grenades at the civilians during the May 5 incident, and then claimed that the white phosphorous was dropped with the bombs. But it is widely known that the bombers don't have white phosphorous weapons, and the Taliban allegations were unable to gain any traction.
President Karzai goes along with the scam, calling for U.S. air strikes to cease. But about 40 percent of those attacks are at the request of Afghan police or troops. Karzai knows that, and dares not take away support for his own troops (who would suffer higher casualties as a result). Karzai is employing another Afghan tradition; saying one thing and doing another. This ploy is sometimes used in the West as well.
Meanwhile, across the border in Pakistan, the Taliban are reeling from the effects of a three week army offensive. Nearly a thousand Taliban have been killed in the Swat valley alone, and several Taliban base areas have been overrun. Thus the Pakistani Taliban are calling for more help from their Afghan brothers. This causes problems, because normally, Pakistan is a source of recruits for the Afghan Taliban (who have the drug profits, but not the manpower).
NATO forces are preparing for an aggressive Summer offensive against southern areas where the Taliban are strong. This includes a lot of places in Helmand province where the Taliban are highly paid to keep foreign and Afghan troops away from heroin producing operations. Meanwhile, foreign troops have stepped up patrolling and intelligence gathering activities, in advance of the offensive. This has increased the number of raids and smart bomb attacks on Taliban discovered out in the open. It's become very dangerous, and difficult, for the Taliban to get around in groups. There are more UAVs up there, day and night, watching known Taliban transit routes through the back country. This kind of surveillance was not present during the 1980s war with the Russians, and the old timers miss the good old days when you could sneak around and ambush the foreign (Russian) troops.
May 16, 2009: Three 107mm rockets were fired from a residential district in Kabul, but failed to hit anything of worth. The Taliban had previously announced that they would launch attacks in Kabul, but so far, these efforts have either been ineffective, been intercepted by the police, or killed civilians (thus making the population more likely to turn in any Taliban operating in the city.)
May 15, 2009: Taliban fired a rocket across the Pakistan border, at an American base in eastern Afghanistan. The rocket missed the base and hit a nearby Mosque, killing five civilians, and wounding six other who were worshipping. In the southern Zabul Province, Afghan and foreign troops captured Taliban leader Mullah Naseem and four other Taliban.
Several dozen Taliban attacked a prison outside Mehtarlam (halfway between Kabul and the Pakistani border), in order to free ten Taliban held there (along with 120 common criminals). Two policemen , and several attackers were wounded in the battle. One of the Taliban prisoners escaped, while another was shot dead while attempting to. Last year, the Taliban attacked the main prison in Kandahar and freed 400 prisoners. Since then, security in jails and prisons has been increased.
In southern Helmand province, several dozen Taliban attacked two police checkpoints. The police retreated, called for reinforcements, and counterattacked. This resulted in 22 Taliban, including three regional commanders, being killed. No Afghan police died in the operation. The police and army are becoming much better at dealing with Taliban attacks. The basic training all police and soldiers get has been complemented by additional training courses, and the presence of foreign troops and police to advise, and demonstrate new techniques the Afghans have not used before. Afghan police and army commanders (NCOs and officers) have gained a lot of command experience over the last few years, and it's beginning to show.
May 14, 2009: NATO forces spotted 30 Taliban outside the southern town of Lashkar Gah, and bombed them. The Taliban were preparing to attack the town, but the smart bomb attack killed 22 of them, including six known leaders.
May 13, 2009: Three times, in the last two weeks, the Taliban have splashed insecticide outside girls schools, and caused hundreds of female students and teachers to fall ill, and flee the schools. The Taliban are violently opposed to female education. This causes problems because most Afghan parents want their daughters to get an education. Currently, about 85 percent of Afghan women are illiterate. Meanwhile, outside a NATO base in southeastern Afghanistan, a suicide bomb attack killed seven civilians.
May 8, 2009: In Helmand province, a Taliban suicide bomber used the crowds of market to get close to a British patrol. The explosion killed two British soldiers, and 22 civilians. Attacks like these make the Taliban very unpopular. But the Taliban believe the dead civilians are "involuntary martyrs" for the cause (of worldwide Islamic domination.) Most Afghan civilians do not agree with this martyr deal.