October 22, 2010: For the last two months, 12,000 NATO troops, and 7,000 Afghan soldiers and police, have been swarming all over Kandahar province, systematically taking down Taliban bases, safe houses, headquarters and bomb workshops. This culminated on the recent air-land assault on the Horn of Panjwai (a hilly, and heavily fortified Taliban base area, 30 kilometers long and 10 kilometers at its widest, shaped like a rhino horn). The Taliban have controlled this rural area for four years, but now admit they have been forced to abandon it. However, the Taliban also say they were return from their Pakistan sanctuaries when the foreign troops leave.
The successful offensive relied on several factors.
Intelligence was the biggest reason. The additional UAVs, intel aircraft and intelligence analysts reaching Afghanistan in the last year have made their mark. Much more is known about the enemy, and the foe can be monitored 24/7 when necessary. The Taliban were surprised at the speed and accuracy of the attacks, and how follow up raids, based on just captured information, were carried out. This was all possible because of good intelligence, that was constantly updated. All these operations were also carried out with little or no publicity. The troops, and the smart munitions, were just suddenly there. Few protracted firefights. Just a lot of initial noise, and then a systematic clean up.
Cell phones are very common throughout Kandahar province. While more tips are coming in from disgruntled Afghans (who are getting tired of the Taliban, even if they are the home team), the Taliban are also very reliant on them. Now the Taliban are well aware of the fact that the Americans can tap into cell phone networks, but too many Taliban use them freely anyway. Smart phones are particularly popular, and newly recruited Taliban will often blow their first month's pay on one, and then do all sorts of stuff with their new toy, providing American intel analysts with lots of useful information. This drives the Taliban leaders nuts, but you know how it is with kids and their toys.
Precision weapons are being used more often, even with the more restrictive ROE (Rules of Engagement). The better intel about Taliban hideouts made it more possible to hit targets that did not have local civilians rounded up as human shields. With NATO troops on the move a lot, more Taliban were flushed out into the open. Thus, last month, warplanes made 700 attacks with smart bombs, missiles or cannon fire (more than twice as many as were made in September 2009). Add to that hundred of attack helicopter and UAV attacks, and you have some three dozen attacks a day (and these were often at night). In addition, the American soldiers and marines fired hundreds of GPS guided rockets and 155mm artillery shells. These were particularly unnerving for the Taliban, because they came without any warning. You can often spot a warplane or UAV up in the sky, and head for cover. But the guided 227mm rockets just hit, within a few meters of the aiming point, and could take down an entire compound.
Air mobility allowed assault troops to bypass roads well covered with mines and roadside bombs. The Taliban planned on these roads to slow down approaching troops so that a proper getaway could be organized. Not so when the helicopters came in at night, sometimes after a few smart bombs or guided rockets had hit.
Defeat of the IED (Improvised Explosive Device, the bombs and mines) has deprived the Taliban of their main weapon. Last month, 1,320 IEDs were encountered by NATO and Afghan forces. Most were destroyed, disarmed or simply marked and avoided. Less than 14 percent of them went off, killing 24 foreign troops. It was a repeat of what happened in Iraq, with American troops neutralizing enemy IED tactics faster than those tactics could be modified and improved.
Kandahar has a population of 950,000, about half of it in the city of Kandahar. It's the homeland of the most important Taliban leaders, and many of their early followers. It's second to adjacent Helmand province in opium and heroin production. These two province produce most of the world's heroin.
The Taliban didn't just get hammered in Kandahar, but all across southern Afghanistan, and in those areas of the north where there has been some Taliban activity. A lot of this anti-Taliban activity has actually been aimed at the drug operations the Taliban guard. The heroin gangs have had a bad year, what with a fungus that wiped out half the opium crop, and more attacks on labs (that turn opium into heroin) and caches of drugs and smuggling operations in general. No wonder the Taliban are trying to negotiate a peace deal.