Spencer Ackerman wrote a post last week at Danger Room 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 is 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 ISAF can do about that. But what they can do is to set up the conditions for success by beating the Taliban like a drum on a routine basis. Which is exactly what the commander at Camp Blessing (Kunar Province) started doing last week after the villains over reached with a large attack aimed at his battalion. Let me set the picture for you as we see it using 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. He warned that this meant the Taliban was massing for another big attack. 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 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 an Arab/American was approached by a Taliban emissary and told that if he did projects in the Korengal Valley they would provide for his security and 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 he works for wouldn’t have gone for that deal anyway.
We were seeing lots of smoke but no fire and had little idea what was going on but then the 101st (current battlespace owners) attacked into the Marwarwa valley and started dropping bodies. They apparently were seeing the build up of forces too and decided to preempt whatever they were up to with a battalion of paratroopers.
The local people have every right to be upset about the performance of the government in Kabul. But they also have no interest in seeing any central government strong enough to meddle in their affairs. For 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 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 Taliban have been operating in the open all over 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 have 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. There are civilian experts who want to get out and start making a difference but can’t due 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.