We've met the enemy in Afghanistan, and he's changed

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 14, 2010 

KABUL — A decade ago, when the Taliban controlled the Afghan government, their militiamen — barely motivated, untrained conscripts — tried for five years to seize control of the entire country from more moderate forces but didn't succeed, even with the help of Osama bin Laden's Arab and other foreign volunteers.

Today, although the United States and more than three dozen NATO allies and other countries are supporting Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the Taliban dominate a growing swath of territory, and their power trumps the government's in three-quarters of the country.

Although they're often portrayed as mindless fanatics, the militant Islamists' "life experience" from their years in the wilderness, their study of American military tactics and their analysis of the Karzai government's shortcomings have helped reverse their fortunes, U.S. intelligence experts say.

With President Barack Obama sending at least 30,000 additional American troops to knock the Taliban off-balance and a U.S.-led offensive in Helmand province, a better understanding of today's Taliban is central to the effort to defeat them and to begin withdrawing some American troops from Afghanistan in summer 2011.

While much is made of the recent arrests of Taliban leaders in Pakistan and the deaths of others in U.S. unmanned drone attacks, the group appears to be a movement in transition, with greater sophistication along with limited central control and considerable autonomy for its local commanders in Afghanistan.

Western intelligence officials cite varied signs of the "new" Taliban:

  • During and after every military operation, top Taliban leaders — who intelligence officials think move along the Afghan-Pakistani border but sometimes retreat to Karachi and other Pakistani cities — routinely run circles around the Karzai government with rapid-response public relations.
  • Some Taliban still fight as they did a decade ago, in flip-flops and traditional baggy pants, but the hard-core "Taliban cavalry" is equipped with North Face jackets, good boots, warm clothing and swift motorbikes purchased in Pakistan.
  • The Taliban made some 8,000 improvised explosive devices last year, an astonishing rate of almost 22 a day. "An enemy that can generate 8,000 IEDS and bring 8,000 IEDS to bear and have a major effect, we ought to hire the J-4, the logistician," said a top general with the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force.
  • Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar issued a 67-article code of conduct for his fighters last summer, ordering them to protect the civilian population.
  • Based on debriefings of some 4,000 Taliban detainees captured over the past four to five years, the ISAF general concludes that the insurgents are motivated to seize power either by conquest or by negotiation and to establish the rule of law in the areas they control. Taliban fighters say they want to bring Shariah, Islamic law, to rural areas where government officials are known to be corrupt.

The Taliban "have totally changed," said Vahid Mojdeh, a former Taliban foreign ministry official who monitors the movement. "They've totally put behind them their international agenda" of spreading Islamist revolution "and now are just focused on Afghanistan."

Although Western and Afghan experts acknowledge that Omar, the one-eyed cleric, is the group's supreme leader, many Taliban innovations for controlling territory are probably of local origin.

Take, for example, an order to shut down cell phone communications after about 4 p.m. every day in four southern Afghan provinces. Taliban commanders approached the four commercial cell-phone companies in the area and told them to halt service or their towers would be blown up.

According to Mojdeh, the move is part of a Taliban effort to prevent spies from communicating Taliban positions to Afghan government officials.

However, it's also "to make sure they can get a good night's rest," the senior ISAF general said.

The Taliban also must communicate with one another, however, and their devices — VHF radio-relay networks that use hundreds of small antennas linked to big solar panels — have impressed Western militaries. The basic equipment is bought off the shelf in Pakistan or stolen from NATO trucks and assembled in the field.

"It's extremely sophisticated," the general, who couldn't be identified under the terms of the briefing, told McClatchy. On the other hand, he said, Taliban codes are "pretty easy to break."

Taliban policies also have become somewhat more sophisticated. Mojdeh said that in the past year, the insurgents had stopped burning down schools, and they no longer oppose vaccination campaigns for children or health clinics.

"There's a new generation. They are familiar with computers. They communicate with text messages. They're in favor of education," he told McClatchy. Unlike the Taliban of the 1990s, he said, "They are no longer all illiterates."

Drawing on insurgent tactics from the war in Iraq, the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, Pakistani trainers and al Qaida operatives, the Taliban have developed a plan for civilian governance of regions they control, appointing a governor — usually from another region, to avoid local tribal rivalries — a military commander, a financial official in charge and a judge.

Haroun Mir, the director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies, who fought against the Taliban in the 1990s, said the insurgents had taken a leaf from their former archenemy, the late Afghan guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was an ethnic Tajik, unlike the mostly Pashtun Taliban.

The Taliban "previously never let anyone in (Massoud's) movement have influence," but now they're accepting ideas from below, Mir said. "I wonder if the traditional Taliban are still in control?" he asked.

He said the Taliban's new emphasis on justice paralleled Massoud's concern that people behind the front lines "should feel secure," he said. Mir also said that the principal slogan that Omar used today "is to expel the infidels, the same slogan we used against the Russians," but now meaning U.S. and European forces.

However, the Taliban also have adopted new and deadly tactics such as recruiting pupils from madrassas — Islamic schools — for suicide bombings.

Recruiters observe the students and "see who's the more emotional," Mojdeh said. They also seek volunteers from among those who've lost family members to U.S. or Afghan government attacks.

They "work on them and train them and give them a suicide belt — a fake one. If they don't show fear, they give them a real one," Mojdeh said. The suicide attackers say goodbye to their families, "and then they disappear."

The Afghan National Directorate for Security estimates that there are at least 1,000 mobile insurgent training centers in Pakistan's seven tribal agencies — lawless zones beyond the writ of the central government — most in the guise of religious education centers.

To a great extent, though, the Taliban remain motivated by revenge. The massacre in 2001 of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Taliban detainees at the hands of an Uzbek warlord in northern Afghanistan still motivates Taliban to fight.

"That massacre was the base or foundation for all the fighting that is now going on," Mojdeh said.

The senior ISAF general agreed that the massacre was "absolutely" a recruiting tool for the Taliban. "Those kinds of things thicken the hatred and cause more people to join."

Last July, the U.S. military obtained a copy of the new code of conduct issued by Omar, with instructions to protect civilians and spare the lives of prisoners. It came on the heels of a tactical directive by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, that said the aim of American troops was to protect the Afghan population, not to kill Taliban.

Unlike the U.S. directive, however, which reduced the number of civilian deaths last year by 28 percent from 2008, there's little sign that the Taliban are implementing Omar's code, which says that Taliban suicide attacks should be carried out against "major" targets and "utmost steps" taken to avoid civilian casualties.

A U.N. report in January said the Taliban were responsible for 70 percent of the 2,142 civilian killings in 2009, up some 50 percent from the previous year. That included 1,054 victims of suicide bombings and IEDs and 225 victims of targeted assassinations and executions.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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