Where There Is Smoke
In the Helmand Province, this year’s fighting season has started off with a whimper. On May Day (as predicted) the only action was in Paktika Province where a child suicide bomber violated the latest Taliban public announcement by blowing himself up in a police station. The Taliban had just announced they would no longer allow beardless boys into their ranks and, although the Pashtun are a hirsute people, I’m not aware of any 12 year olds who have begun to cultivate beards. After that, the Taliban launched a two day siege in Kandahar which accomplished little; they couldn’t manage to inflict any casualties on ISAF or the Afghan security forces.
Defeating the Taliban in battle in downtown Kandahar is not a victory for the good guys because of the fact they were fighting in downtown Kandahar. The people of Kandahar are the prize for both ISAF and the Taliban; the real estate is meaningless, so the fact that the Taliban even mounted this operation is bad news. There are additional reports that groups of Taliban fighters had “foreigners” embedded in them which may, or may not be bad news.
The Taliban did spend 10 to 15 minutes warning local people near the government buildings to bug out ahead of the fighting which was appreciated by the local population. They then launched a spirited attack, gained a foothold in some government buildings, barricaded themselves inside those buildings and then they sat around waiting for ANSF to come and kill them, this took a couple of days. After the assassination of the Provincial Chief of Police, Khan Mohammed Mujaheed, and the jail break at Sarapoza prison, the locals have serious doubts about the ability of ISAF and ANSF to protect them. This summer is going to be the tipping point for somebody and now that the Taliban have imported a few more foreigners to help them fight they have to fight or risk losing their foreign fighters piecemeal. JSOTF doesn’t take days off, they don’t sleep, they won’t stop and will not run out of money. They go after foreigners like white on rice and Afghans will sell out foreigners in a heartbeat (if the price is right) regardless of which side in this conflict they support. If there are that many foreigners here they have to fight or flee; going to ground in hopes of avoiding compromise by the locals is not going to work.
So where is the spring offensive? Looks like it’s in the north:
Here are a few recent security reports from last week (AGE =anti-government elements in UN security speak):
On 2 May, Balkh Province, Chahar Bolak District, Timurak Village, at approximately 1830hrs, reportedly 150 fully armed AGE entered to the village and overwhelmed the entire village.
On 6 May, Sari Pul Province, Sayyad District, Khwaja Chargonbat and Khwaja Yagana Villages, at approximately 1300hrs, AGE attacked ANSF within the above villages. There were firefights for three consecutive nights which forced the ANSF to withdraw from the village and AGE captured the mentioned villages. One ANA personnel and one local police were wounded.
On 7 May, Balkh Province, Chimtal District, Hotaki Village, at approximately 2005hrs, AGE fired 15 rounds of mortar towards ANP Posts. One of the mortars impacted on an ANP vehicle and as a result, the ANP vehicle was damaged.
Security in the northern portion of the country has been going down the tubes since 2008,with Taliban influence spreading into provinces that have little or no Pashtun population. Their gains came from a combination of ideology and religion with non-Pashtun peoples who have very few reasons to side with them. Actually they have only one reason to throw in with the Taliban which is this; the Taliban settle land disputes and other legal manners in a way which is perceived by all sides as fair and just. Two of the most experienced journalists working in Afghanistan, Antonio Giustozzi and Christoph Reuter, just released a 64 page report titled The Insurgents of the Afghan North which is a fascinating, detailed account of how the Taliban gained such a large foothold. But 150 armed Taliban running around Balkh Province? That is hard to believe.
In 2010 joint Afghan/American SF teams started in on the Taliban shadow government and Taliban leaders up North and they had a clean run with only one exception; the targeted killing of “a senior member” of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) Mohammed Amin. They did not get Mr. Amin but ended up killing a prominent former Taliban commander named Zabet Amanullah, who was out campaigning for his nephew’s parliament run. I remember this as being a big deal when it happened but didn’t know the story behind it until this recent post on The AfPak Channel by Kate Clark. Ms. Clark makes an interesting observation in her piece:
Dealing with the U.S. military, it has felt like we are from parallel worlds. Their Afghanistan, where knowledge is often driven largely by signals intelligence and reports provided by a very limited number of local informants, with a very narrow focus on insurgent behaviour, and the normal, everyday world of Afghan politics. In the case of the Takhar attack, these two worlds simply did not connect.
This too has been my observation for many years, however it is no longer true in the Helmand Province. The Marines are too active inside a population which is limited to the irrigated lands fed by the Helmand River. Their constant patrolling out of an ever expanding series of spartan combat outposts is paying off. They are gleaning the human intelligence that naturally flows from constant contact with local villagers. We don’t have that ability in the north and judging from both of the articles linked above we have done about all we can do.
The SF teams have run the JPEL up north, and although the Taliban filled their vacancies, the old home grown local leaders have apparently been decimated. Their replacements are not from the local tribes and are overwhelmingly Pashtun. My prediction (and I’m on a roll with Egypt still up in the air) is that the North will be end up being the test case for the Karzai government and the Afghan Security Forces. With the Helmand on lockdown, our litmus test remains in and around Kandahar. If the Taliban have really imported as many foreign fighters as we are hearing of, they have a problem. They’re running out of maneuver room and their foreign fighters are going to start running out of time.