Spencer Ackerman over at Danger Room wrote a post last week with the disturbing title of East Afghanistan Sees Taliban as “Morally Superior” to Karzai. This assessment came from the after action slides of Col Randy George who commanded Task Force Warrior this past year. There is nothing in the article or Col George’s slides which is a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. What is not obvious to those outside of Regional Command East is that there is the distinct possibility that change is afoot.
RC East (a.k.a. N2KL to those in the know) is comprised of Nangarhar, Nuristan, Kunar, and Laghaman Provinces. It is mountainous, has over 300 kilometers of border with Pakistan, and full of isolated clannish tribes who have a long history being a pain in the ass to anyone trying to establish governance over their territory. ISAF is restricted to moving along valley roads where ambushes are so common they have become part of the daily routine. But here is the thing; there are only so many places in these mountain from which to ambush convoys. There are only so many places from which the bad guys can attack isolated combat outposts too and we know where each and every one of those places are. As one of the OH 58 scout pilots told me the other day “when we respond to an ambush once we learn where the contact is we know exactly where the Taliban will be. They never change, they never deviate, and we see the same thing over and over and over again.”
Look at this money quote from Spencer’s article:
“As a result, those big mistakes by the Afghan government lead the locals of N2KL to rank the Taliban/al-Qaeda/Militant-Insurgent Syndicate’ fourth out of four on George’s list of how they perceive their problems. Locals consider the insurgents morally superior to the Karzai government. The insurgents provide the population something the government doesn’t, or at least doesn’t provide sufficiently: culturally appropriate access to justice, resources and Islamic identity, in George’s assessment.”
There is little that Col George or the current battle space owner can do about that the military can only do so much. But what they can do to shape the local political landscape by setting up the conditions for success. Those conditions would be first and foremost to beat the Taliban like a drum on a routine basis. To make being Taliban uncool just like it was in 2002 when the local population’s perception of the Taliban was that they were losers. Which is exactly what the commander, whoever he is, up at Camp Blessing started doing last week after the villains over reached with some sort of half ass offensive. Let me set the picture for you as we understand it from our normal open source security reports.
Sami the Finn from Indicium Consulting was the first to raise the alarm as he watched the incident rate in Kunar drop at the height of fighting season and his take was the local Taliban was going to mass and try something dramatic. A quick plug if I may; Sami has been in Afghanistan for over 8 years and is the most informed analysts in the country. Anyone doing business here would benefit from utilizing his company which is highly respected among the old hands.
As the security incident rate was falling we were getting reports from various aid projects in Kunar that the place was awash with Pakistani Taliban and “foreigners” which could be al Qaeda or could be Jihadi tourists not that there is much difference. One project manager I know who is of Arab heritage was approached by a Taliban emissary and told that if he did projects in the Korengal Valley they would provide for his security and even give him a Taliban work permit. That would have been cool I have been trying for a long time to get a scan of one of those but to date nishta. The NGO involved wouldn’t have gone for that deal anyway.
We were seeing lots of smoke and had little idea what was going on and but then there was that attack on the PRT in Nuristan I worte about last week followed by the fighting in the Marwarwa valley. The operational tempo has not slacked off judging from the air and road activity around Jalalabad and the villains have responded with rocket attacks and another VBIED on the Beshud bridge. Have you heard the the people in Kunar bitching about any of this? There has to be collateral damage given the intensity of the air to ground fire being used. But the locals aren’t pitching a fit about it because they’re afraid that they poked the bear one too many times and now we’re seriously pissed off. Besides what do you say to a farmer who lost his children when we bombed his compound from which the Taliban we’re shooting heavy machineguns? What is there to say? We’re in a shooting war.
Perceptions change with the audience in Afghanistan. The local people have every right to upset about the performance of the government in Kabul. But they have no interest in seeing any kind of central government which is strong enough to meddle in their affairs. An example, Afghans will go to great lengths to avoid having their problems brought into the legal system. Regardless of the crime be it murder or little boys stealing apples from a neighbor the Afghans know how to handle it and feel personally disgraced when the authorities step in to apply the rule of law. Their family business them becomes public and their problems known to people outside their clan which brings disgrace upon the sons of the family. They are going to bitch about the central government no matter who is in charge and how effective it becomes. The best we can do is concentrate on making regional government functional at basic things like irrigation, sanitation, health care delivery and other municipal services.
The corruption of the Karzai government adds fuel to the fire but there is no way the people of this region want the Taliban back and they know that we know this is posturing. The Taliban has been operating in the open all over the Nuristan and Kunar Provinces this year as well as southern Nangarhar Province and part of Laghman too. It doesn’t take long for them to wear out their welcome because the locals have big plans for their daughters and getting hitched to some wild eye Waziristani illiterate isn’t past of the plan. Yet the villains are out there filling in the power vacuum created by dysfunctional government and poorly trained Afghan Police. The Taliban is in the open and exposed at exactly the wrong time. The ANA and the Americans have never been stronger and are more than capable of running the Taliban to ground if that is what they want to do. Insurgents are supposed to wait until they defeat local and international security forces before they start walking around with impunity.
The insurgents has unmasked themselves way too early which is a strategic blunder of the first order. In N2KL ISAF and the ANA can make them pay for that. If they did it would be the perfect time to get the “civilian surge” off the FOB’s and out interacting daily with officials at the province and district level. I know the State Department guy and the duty FBI agent, and the US AID guys etc… are all frustrated that they are not able to operate off the bases like the NGO’s and The Skipper do.
There is little question that we are going to have to start reducing our footprint in Afghanistan. That doesn’t mean we cannot define an acceptable end state and start working towards it now while we have so many assets in-country but stuck on FOB’s. There are civilian experts who want to get out and start making a difference but can’t do to force protection policies. These people have the exact skill set needed to mentor regional government agencies but they cannot bring those skills to bear from the FOB. It is time to set these and a number of other people free to follow up what has started to be a little house cleaning of the local Taliban.