Afghanistan: July 5, 2002


Call it "Information War Meets the Ancient Sagas." The Taliban are using the only weapon they have left; Information War. Afghanistan is one of those few places on the planet where word of mouth is more important than electronic media (few people have televisions) or print (very high illiteracy and no money to buy anything.) During the wars of the last two decades, reporters have encountered some really exciting stories by listening to Afghans pass on "the news." In a verbal tradition going back to antiquity, the stories, or "sagas", get embellished with each telling. Reporters going along with Afghans into battle find exciting stories, but note that the Afghans apply spin and fanciful details when recounting events later. 

The Afghans hear enough international media to know that clueless pundits will fall for a certain spin. For example, the US troops have been extremely careful with their firepower. They only use the guided bombs outside of occupied areas. In this particular case, they were dropped on a cave complex that showed signs of fresh fortifications being built. Special Forces, most pundits forget, are expert scouts. And a sighting like this is confirmed by a Special Forces or commando patrol that gets in close and confirms what is going on. Then the bombs come down. The other incident, where casualties did occur, was the result of a gunship getting in close to assist ground troops under fire. The Afghans know that if they keep lying fast enough, some foreign media, eager for an explosive story, will bite. The media has a short memory and poor math skills. They don't realize that more Afghans die from banditry in a week than from American combat action in the last six months.   There are so few civilian casualties from American military action that when any occur, real or imagined, the Western media will jump all over it. The Taliban have seen this happen several times, and realize that if Taliban casualty deceptions are exposed, they will be soon forgotten. The Taliban may not be able to fight, but they can sure spin.

And so it is that the Taliban are trying to protect their leaders, who are hiding out with friendly tribes outside of Kandahar (the home of the core Taliban believers) and trying to avoid the effects of Special Forces sneaking around and large rewards becoming more attractive to locals. 

The Special Forces are closing in on Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who is hiding behind civilians (the deader the better, from a propaganda point of view). Many of the villages in the Afghan outback look like little forts, and they are. And they have been built that way for centuries. The enemy has not been American gunships, but fellow Afghans. The pro-Taliban tribes demonstrate their anti-American feelings with gunfire whenever they see Americans (on the ground or on the air.) The American avoid firing back on the villages, but the pro-Taliban Afghans will take advantage of this and fire with impunity if there is never any return fire. When American do fire back, the villagers get hurt, whether or not they are carrying guns. Why would Afghans fire from the village/fort knowing that the Americans might fire back with far more powerful weapons? For the same reason you have hundreds of little wars and armed feuds going on at any one time. Afghans have their guns and love to use them. They love to make up stories, especially if an altered truth will hurt their enemies. American Special Forces had to learn to be careful with tips from Afghans about who is Taliban or al Qaeda. Afghans now boast of how they got the Americans to bomb an enemy tribe by convincing the Americans that the tribesmen were Taliban. So the Special Forces have to sneak around, and ask around, to confirm tips. Gunfire from a village is considered good evidence that the locals are hostile, and probably pro-Taliban. Everyone knows who the Special Forces are looking for.

The current dispute is over what Americans fired on outside Kandahar. Local tribesmen say it was a wedding party firing off their weapons. But investigators found no bodies (buried or otherwise), only evidence that a C-130 gunship had worked over a fort that Special Forces said hostile fire was coming from. Witnesses say there was no wedding party or participants firing off their guns (as is customary at a wedding). Afghans, who don't like foreigners in general, and know that guilt can sometimes produce gifts/payoffs/compensation, have generated some bad buzz in the cities with stories of innocent Afghan villagers getting bombed by cruel Americans. So far, the American brass aren't blinking. But if the Taliban can arrange to get more civilians killed, they will be able to translate that into a battlefield edge (ie, more tribes that are lukewarm about the Taliban become more pro-Taliban as they get more irked at foreigners killing Afghan civilians. Same drill Saddam, the Somalis and Arafat have used.

Most Afghans are disgusted with the two decades of warfare. It started with tribal warfare against the central government in the late 1970s. The Russians intervened on the side of the communist influenced central government, which continued as purely tribal war after the Russians left in the late 1980s. The fighting has died down, but the tribal animosities and willingness to take a cheap shot via foreigners continues. The Afghan wars are not over, no matter how many Afghans wish they were. 


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