Counter-Terrorism: Burning Down The Taliban Playbook


June 14, 2010:  In southern Afghanistan, the Taliban are fighting hard, and smart, to retain their reputation. This area, in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, is Taliban Central. This is where the original Taliban recruited most of their followers. It's an area full of religiously, and socially, conservative Pushtun tribes. The Pushtun, who dominate southern Afghanistan, although they are only 40 percent of the Afghan population, believe they should rule the country. For the last few centuries they have, but now the non-Pushtun groups dominate the government, and the Pushtuns in general, and the Taliban in particular, want to change that.

The Kandahari Pushtuns, via the Taliban, have angered most of the other Pushtun tribes, by insisting that everyone behave according to the social customs common to Kandahar and Helmand. All the tribes of Afghanistan are very independent minded, and touchy when it comes to local customs and practices. The Taliban have united most Afghans against themselves. And now, the foreign soldiers have come into the Taliban heartland and established scores of small bases, and challenging the local Taliban to run them out. That is producing some interesting results.

Both the Taliban and the foreign (mainly American) troops have learned a lot about each other in the last few years. The foreign troops know that their bases' mere existence is an insult to the Taliban (and local tribesmen in general). The Taliban have taken advantage of this antipathy to recruit many young tribesmen to fight for nothing. But numbers alone will not do it. The Taliban leadership have been furiously trying to develop new tactics to hurt the foreign troops, and force them out, without unacceptable losses to the tribal warriors. If the Taliban cannot do this, they will lose the respect, and support, of the tribes. At that point, which could be as early as next year, there will be fewer recruits, and more Pushtuns willing to cooperate with the government and the foreign troops.

The Taliban have a thick playbook, with techniques for fighting other tribes, as well as foreign troops. Most of these techniques rely heavily on ambush and deception. This has resulted in two primary tactics for use against the foreign troops. The main tactic is roadside bombs and anti-vehicle mines. The Taliban are dismayed that the Americans have a wide array of proven (in Iraq) tactics and technology to deal with these weapons. Thus the roadside bombs are becoming less effective, especially since, in the last year, much of the countermeasure technology and personnel have been moved from Iraq to Afghanistan.

While the roadside bomb tactics and technology was largely imported from Iraq (carried by al Qaeda fleeing defeat there), ambush and deception is a very Afghan technique. The Taliban try to lure the foreign troops into ambushes, which is easier to do this time of year, with lots of vegetation and crops to hide in. But the foreign troops are not only aware of this tactic, but have developed techniques and technologies that enable them to ambush the ambushers. American sensors and UAVs frequently reveal more about where the Taliban fighters are, than the Taliban realize. This has led to very high Taliban casualties. But Taliban morale will remain high enough through the Summer to provide opportunities to develop ambush tactics that will work. It's a game of wits, and side that can think, and innovate, faster, will win. Again, the foreign troops have a technical edge in that they can communicate (via the Internet and intelligence databases) new Taliban ideas among themselves, faster than the Taliban can. It's demoralizing for Taliban leaders when they find that what was a new tactic for them, was already known and understood by the foreign troops.

Meanwhile, the Taliban seek to terrorize those tribes or villages that will not fully cooperate in the war against the foreign troops and the Afghan government. Short term, the terror helps the Taliban, but long term it builds up hatred and resentment against them. The side effects of the roadside bombs, which kill more Afghan civilians than foreign troops, also creates popular resistance against the Taliban.

Meanwhile, the foreign troops make things harder for the Taliban by bringing in economic, educational and medical benefits. The Taliban try to halt this as well, as this "reconstruction" aid mainly makes the local Pushtuns less enthusiastic about supporting Islamic radicalism and the old traditions (of tribalism, banditry, misogyny, blood feud and intimidation).





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