August 10, 2009:
The Taliban are moving further away from trying to win popular support, and more towards a campaign based purely on terror and intimidation. Increased use of roadside bombs against government officials, and civilians (in areas where there is a lot of anti-Taliban sentiment), has scared a lot of Afghans off the roads. Since 2001, there has been a tremendous amount of road building, in a country with few roads. This has changed the lives of many Afghans, giving them access to markets for their goods, and sources of goods that were previously hard to reach. The Taliban see this mobility as sinful, and a source of un-Islamic behavior. So the roads have become a major target. Destroying the roads is too difficult, as Afghans are well practiced in going around obstacles on the primitive roads that have long existed. So the Taliban attack people using the road, and this has made road travel and increasingly dangerous undertaking. The intensity of these attacks is expected to remain high until the August 20th presidential and provincial elections.
The NGOs (non-governmental organizations, like the UN) that run most of the aid programs, including free food for the third of the Afghan population that is starving, consider about half the roads in the country as unsafe, to one degree or another. Most of these roads can still be used, but it's expensive (you have to hire security guards, or pay bribes to local tribes for "protection.") Most of these aid workers refuse to work in places where they might be attacked or kidnapped. This, however, has been the norm in Afghanistan for centuries. Bring in foreign aid, and the tribes will quickly develop disagreements over who gets what, and the people delivering the aid will become targets. Welcome to Afghanistan.
In the northern half of the country, non-Pushtun tribes predominate, and there is little Taliban activity (and what passes for Taliban violence is often just bandits or tribal feuds). But there the NGOs still have to make deals with local tribal leaders and warlords (who are often the senior government officials, as these are the guys Afghans feel most comfortable voting for). NGOs are still coerced to make payoffs, just not with as much violence.
Despite all this violence, the Taliban have not been able to disrupt voting preparations for a majority of the people in any province. In the worst case, Helmand, less than a third of the population will have a difficult time voting. All this is a big setback for the Taliban, who consider democracy sinful and un-Islamic. Despite that, most of the population, even in the province (Helmand) where Taliban power is strongest, want to vote, and are doing so in spite of Taliban violence and threats. This time around, the U.S. and NATO have provided money to hire thousands of local tribesmen (via tribal leaders, who will then get their share of the money) to help guard polling places. Payments like this are always popular up in the hills. If you have money, you are expected to spread it around a bit.
But Afghans will make deals with the Taliban, as a matter of self-preservation. Most of the tribes considered "pro-Taliban" have gotten cozy with the Taliban as a matter of self-preservation. The Taliban will kidnap or kill the leaders of tribes that oppose them, so it's a matter of life and death for many tribal leaders who "join" the Taliban. Thus one part of the new NATO strategy is to cripple the Taliban ability to terrorize tribal leaders. That means going after Taliban leaders and their money (mostly from the heroin trade, but also from other sources like illegal logging and mining), rather than trying to track down every Taliban death squad out there. While these thugs actually deliver the Taliban "message", they have a boss, who pays them, and threatens them when more motivation is needed. Take away the boss, and the death squad loses focus, and usually ceases to exist.
There were eight civilian deaths to air strikes (by U.S. and NATO aircraft) last month. In July 2008, there were 89 such deaths. Despite the drop, there were 40 percent more air strikes last month, compared to July 2008. But that was because there were more foreign and Afghan troops out there looking for the enemy (including drug gang operations.) The Taliban are making the most of the new ROE (Rules of Engagement), which basically forbid the use of smart bombs (and most other firepower) if there are civilians about. The Taliban now can use human shields more frequently to avoid a fight, or arrest. But the Taliban can still be hit if caught in the open, and they still are, although another aspect of the new ROE (no public announcements of how many enemy are killed) makes it difficult to track damage being done to the Taliban. That data is now classified.
In the U.S., Congressional hearings revealed that U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have a list of fifty drug gang leaders who are believed to be mainly responsible for financing the Taliban. Only a few details of this were leaked by members of Congress (or their staffs) to the media, but it came as no surprise to those on the ground in southern Afghanistan. It was been obvious this year that the drug gangs had become targets. What was less clear was if, as in Pakistan, the drug gang leadership were being hunted down and killed (by armed UAVs, or troops on the ground). In Afghanistan, it's understood that drug gang leaders are in the cross hairs, unless they decide to cut off payments to the Taliban. That can be difficult, as the hired guns from the Taliban often outnumber the other muscle working for the drug gang. The Taliban tend to be more fearless, and scary, because they are on a Mission From God. Thus it is believed that NATO is out to kill the drug gang leaders (since capturing and trying to prosecute most of these guys will lead to lots of bribes being spread around, and result in acquittal, dismissed charges or escape.)