Tribal War

By Greg Grant

March 1, 2007

Fueled by frustration with an impotent government and resentment of violent American tactics, the forgotten war in Afghanistan threatens to ignite.

On March 28, 2006, as an Afghan army convoy snaked its way through the Helmand River Valley in the high desert of southern Afghanistan, Taliban fighters detonated a massive roadside bomb, blowing a huge crater in the wind-swept blacktop. Taliban machine gun fire raked the convoy as the Afghan troops frantically radioed for help. American attack helicopters and British Harrier jets were scrambled from the sprawling NATO military base near Kandahar, 70 miles to the east. The aircraft bombed and strafed the Taliban forces' positions alongside the road, forcing them to break off the attack and allowing the crippled convoy to escape the ambush. Eight Afghan soldiers were killed.

As night fell, the convoy limped into forward operating base Robinson, with the Taliban in hot pursuit. Little more than a collection of mud huts, shipping containers and plywood buildings, the base was surrounded by a few strands of razor wire and some sand berms. But it was home to about 100 Afghan troops and their trainers, a handful of U.S. Army reservists. Robinson sat astride a key Taliban infiltration route in northern Helmand province, an insurgent stronghold and a staging area for attacks on neighboring Kandahar. The base had been carved out of the desolate valley only a few weeks before the March ambush.

With the Taliban bearing down on Robinson, Canadian special forces were airlifted into the remote base, and dozens of aircraft, including U.S. B-52 bombers, filled the night sky. Taliban mortar and small-arms fire rained down on Robinson's defenders as waves of Taliban fighters charged the wire and pressed a coordinated attack from three sides. Punishing air strikes forced the Taliban to break off the attack and they melted into the night, leaving one American, a Canadian and 32 Taliban dead.

The attack on Robinson signaled the opening salvo in a Taliban offensive that swept across southern Afghanistan-in the heaviest fighting seen in the country since 2002. Suicide bombers, until then unknown in Afghanistan, struck the capital city, Kabul, and other major urban areas. Roadside bomb attacks spiked. Last year, 4,000 Afghans were killed in the fighting, a quarter of them civilians, according to figures from NATO, U.S. officials and wire service reports. Casualties included 191 U.S. and European troops. "[The Taliban] have begun to graft insurgent tactics from Iraq onto classic mujahedeen-style guerrilla warfare," says Thomas Johnson, a research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

Military officials and analysts warn that the anticipated 2007 Taliban spring offensive could be worse. No American fire base has been overrun since the Vietnam War. That could change soon. With reports of a major buildup of Taliban insurgent forces across the border in Pakistan's lawless tribal region, the likelihood grows that one of dozens of lightly staffed outposts that dot the border area will fall to a Taliban human-wave attack.

To prevent such a calamity, additional U.S. and NATO troops are being rushed to south and east Afghanistan. Canada, whose troops are engaged in fierce fighting around Kandahar and have suffered nearly 40 casualties in recent months, is shipping Leopard main battle tanks to Afghanistan, the first country to send tanks. Both Britain and the United States are dispatching thousands of additional soldiers. "It's going to be a violent spring and I expect we'll have more violence into the summer," said Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, in a briefing for reporters in January.

As American and world attention focuses on Iraq, the military situation in Afghanistan over the past year has so deteriorated that the shaky American and NATO coalition risks losing the war against the Taliban.

Since they were ousted from power in 2001, the Taliban rarely operated in groups of more than a dozen fighters, relying on hit-and-run attacks. Now, units of 300 to 400 fighters move about southern Afghanistan undeterred. They descend on lightly defended towns and Afghan government outposts in frontal attacks, tactics unseen since the Afghan mujahedeen's fight against the Soviet forces in the 1980s. In September, a Taliban force numbering 2,000 massed in open ground just miles outside Kandahar, prepared to storm the city. Massive U.S. and NATO airstrikes broke up the assembly before an attack was launched.

Speaking to reporters on Sept. 20, 2006, Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones, NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, trumpeted the battle as a clear-cut victory, saying airstrikes killed more than 1,000 insurgents, a quarter of the Taliban's total strength in the country, by his estimate. But he also admitted, "What we don't have clear figures on is the Taliban's ability to regenerate themselves . . . and that is a serious problem."

Taliban 2.0

That ability is nearly limitless, according to Johnson, who calculated the Taliban could sustain casualties of 10,000 or more a year for 20 years with little impact on their ability to fight. The Taliban have ready access to a huge pool of eager young recruits just across the border in Pakistan. When the Northern Alliance, bolstered by U.S. air power, overthrew the Taliban in 2001, the core leadership of the group, along with some al Qaeda members, simply fled to safe havens in the lawless tribal regions of western Pakistan. There, 3 million Afghan refugees live in extreme poverty.

The poorly educated, unemployed youth who grow up in the border region's refugee camps gravitate to the militant madrassas-Muslim religious schools that function as radicalization academies-that feed recruits to Taliban commanders. Foot soldiers are easily replaced, says Larry P. Goodson, a professor at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., because Taliban fighters aren't trained on the latest high-tech equipment, or strategy and tactics; "they just put an AK-47 in their hands."

"It is really Taliban 2.0," says Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who contends the U.S.-led coalition faces an emboldened and more effective Taliban today than it did six years ago. He calls the U.S. and NATO emphasis on Taliban body counts meaningless, because the Taliban have demonstrated they can raise and disband a fighting force as they like. Guerrilla forces don't maintain standing armies with calculable rosters. The key question, as in any guerrilla war, is who controls the terrain at night when the U.S. and NATO patrols return to base.

Sanctuaries are vital to the success of any insurgency, and as the Viet Cong had them in neighboring Laos and Cambodia, the Taliban have the lawless tribal regions of western Pakistan. In the 1980s, the defeated Soviets learned just how important those sanctuaries are.

Jones acknowledged last year what many suspected: The Taliban's command-and-control center is the Pakistani city of Quetta. But Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has failed to challenge the Pakistani political parties, and elements within his military, that continue to support the Taliban.

Musharraf's controversial peace accords signed last year with pro-Taliban tribes in North and South Waziristan, a mountainous region of northwest Pakistan, failed to staunch the cross-border flow of fighters; "If anything, it has increased in the last several months," says Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group in Washington. The rugged terrain along the border makes infiltration in small groups easy and hard to spot from the air.

The prodigious output of the Taliban's boot camps along the border was demonstrated in January, when large numbers of Taliban moved back into the very areas where NATO claimed to have killed so many last September. On Jan. 22, NATO spokesman Col. Jo Voncken, said, "What went wrong after [the September battle] was that the [Afghan army] did not have enough security forces to secure that complete area. . . . A lot of insurgents again came in the area, and again were a threat to Kandahar city itself."

This year, "There is a good chance Kandahar might be cut off from the rest of the country," warns Barnett R. Rubin, a former U.N. adviser on Afghanistan and senior fellow at New York University's Center on International Cooperation. He recently returned from Pakistan and, based on what he saw and heard while there, says the coming spring offensive will be stronger than last year's and will include rocket attacks on Kandahar and Kabul. If Kandahar were to fall to the Taliban, a rural Pashtun tribal movement, the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance warlords would mobilize against them, Rubin says. Then, Afghanistan could face a repeat of the civil war that tore the country apart during the early 1990s.

While much of last year's fighting took place in isolated rural valleys, Taliban fighters now are infiltrating the cities, says Khalid Pashtoon, a member of Afghanistan's parliament and deputy chairman of that body's Internal Security Committee. Intelligence reports he has received from agents operating in Pakistan's tribal areas point to a stepped-up urban terror campaign in Kabul and Kandahar, where a number of politicians and government officials have been killed in recent weeks. Johnson also sees a new urban focus in the Taliban strategy, with fighters likely to move into the cities in small groups, so as not to be picked up by U.S. aerial drones and aircraft. "What do we do if in late March or early April, 7,000 Taliban stick their heads up in Kandahar?" he asks.

'Reconstruction Light'

U.S. commanders say they have readily defeated the Taliban in every fight. But critics say the United States is losing the strategic battle because of its pursuit of a counterterror strategy that emphasizes killing and capturing Taliban, instead of a counterinsurgency strategy that places more emphasis on reconstruction. The United States intervened in Afghanistan to destroy al Qaeda and the Taliban, not to rebuild the country or spread democracy, and has not adjusted its strategy since, says James Dobbins, a former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND Corp.

CIA agents went to Afghanistan with bags of money for warlords who would fight on America's behalf, not to rebuild an economy ravaged by the Soviet occupation and the subsequent civil war. Only recently has there been any emphasis on rebuilding the country, an effort Dobbins classifies as "reconstruction light." U.S. military development efforts tend toward "clean" engineering projects that have an identifiable end, such as building something tangible like bridges, clinics or schools, rather than the long-term challenges of improving health or education. The Bush administration announced in December that it would ask Congress this year for an additional $10.6 billion to rebuild the Afghan army and for reconstruction. That amount is equivalent to a month's U.S. spending in Iraq. The $10.6 billion is likely to be approved, but probably won't reach Afghanistan this year.

American-led efforts to build the Afghan army also have faltered. Cordesman says an Afghan unit he visited in December, showcased as one of the more experienced ones, was at only 27 percent of its authorized strength. U.S. military officers decry rampant corruption in the Afghan army and police. They say Taliban fighters are paid better wages, reportedly $150 a month, than the Afghan army and police, who make $60 a month, with some of that skimmed off by officers. U.S. Army Maj. Tim Byrne, who spent a year training the Afghan army, says some units refused to go out on patrol alone "because they're scared to go up against the insurgents without U.S. support."

Compared with the Northern Alliance force that fought with U.S. Special Forces and CIA operatives to sweep the Taliban from power in 2001, the current Afghan army is a "step backward," says RAND's Dobbins. Few of Afghanistan's formidable mujahedeen, experienced front-line fighters, joined the army. They were deemed by U.S. trainers to lack the requisite education. "It's easier to train a new recruit than to de-train a warlord's militia and then retrain them as soldiers in an organized army," says Rubin.

War on the Pashtun

The Afghan government's failure to deliver on promises of aid and money has created a fertile field for the insurgency. "The Taliban have been very crafty about playing both sides against the middle," says the Army War College's Goodson. In places such as Helmand, they target nongovernmental organizations and aid groups, making it impossible to distribute reconstruction aid, and then denounce the government for failing to deliver. Widespread government corruption makes locals more receptive to Taliban public relations.

When the Taliban originally came to power, they presented themselves as a religiously pious alternative to the corrupt central government and the warlords. While the Taliban are far from incorruptible-they are engaged in everything from weapons and heroin smuggling to bribing or paying warlords for their loyalty-they once again are portraying themselves as better than the central and local governments. Johnson says the Taliban are playing a brilliant propaganda campaign. For example, they recently announced the opening of schools around Kandahar and Helmand, initially only for boys, but once the security situation stabilizes, open to girls as well, they claim.

In Afghanistan, Goodson says, Americans "have a long-standing reputation as fair-weather friends." Choosing between Americans and the Taliban isn't hard for Afghans who hear U.S. officials touting the virtues of democracy and freedom, and then receive "night letters" threatening death to those who collaborate with foreigners. "The people talk to us and say, 'Yeah, that's all well and good, but see that guy across the room? He's Taliban and someday you'll be gone and he'll still be here, and they're taking names,' " Goodson says.

U.S. policymakers fail to understand the local appeal of the Taliban insurgency and the people's rejection of a failing government "because they're cousins and brothers and they prey on people's religiosity and the government is a long, long way away in Kabul," says Goodson.

Viewing the Taliban as nothing more than a highly radicalized vision of Islam, and viewing all Taliban as terrorists, misses the shared Pashtun tribal ethnicity of the insurgency and the family and clan ties that are stronger than any ties to the central government.

The U.S. counterterror campaign against the Taliban is in many ways a war on the Pashtun, Afghanistan's largest tribal confederation.

U.S. military units operating in Pashtun areas have generated considerable ill will, says a U.S. embassy official. "If you arrest the village mullah, the whole village is now pissed off, and Americans are no longer welcome there." The frustration clearly is visible among village elders who regularly give U.S. civil affairs officers head counts of villagers and the number of wells or goats in the village but see few services delivered, while at the same time millions of dollars still flow to warlords considered allies against the Taliban, the official says.

'Insurgent Multiplication'

Reluctant to become engaged in a peacekeeping mission, the U.S. military views Afghanistan as an "economy of force mission," a euphemism for few boots on the ground. There are now 27,000 U.S. troops there, though the country is 50 percent larger than Iraq and its population 16 percent bigger. Even when NATO's 21,500 troops are added, the size of the Afghanistan operation pales in comparison to past operations in Kosovo, with 40,000 troops, and Bosnia, with 60,000.

U.S. Special Forces with counterinsurgency skills have been pulled out of Afghanistan and sent to Iraq, leaving fewer than 500 to deal with the Taliban. Their mission is to hunt down anyone connected to al Qaeda or the Taliban leadership, so they don't perform traditional counterinsurgency practices such as living among the people and establishing close relationships. "Special Forces doesn't establish a presence, they just roll in and roll back out; the people aren't going to give them anything," says Army Lt. Col. Chris Toner, a battalion commander in the 10th Mountain Division. Developing personal relationships is the key to gathering intelligence on the enemy and winning the confidence of the local people, he says.

Lacking personnel, the United States and NATO rely on airstrikes that result in large numbers of civilian casualties and thus play into Taliban hands by stoking resentment. In a society that adheres to tribal concepts of revenge and honor, such mistakes are fatal. Johnson repeats a Pashtun saying: "Kill one enemy, make 10." The death of a Pashtun guerrilla in battle invokes the code of revenge, he says, so killing a Taliban fighter is "an act of insurgent multiplication, not subtraction."

The U.S. Army's newly published counterinsurgency manual says restrained use of force is vital because "collateral damage from combat can be a major escalating factor for insurgencies." Yet, a U.S. Army officer in Afghanistan says "clear by fire" tactics-lobbing artillery shells into areas suspected of harboring insurgent fighters-has become common practice. When U.S. units patrol uncleared valleys, they use indiscriminate artillery fire to clear ridgelines. Speaking to reporters in Kabul in December, NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Richard Nugee said, "I believe the single thing that we have done wrong . . . is killing innocent civilians."

While paying lip service to counterinsurgency, the U.S. military favors large conventional operations that sound impressive, yet net few insurgents, says Johnson. Last spring, with great fanfare, the U.S. launched Operation Mountain Thrust, in the northern Helmand River Valley, with some 10,000 troops. The operation was launched in response to the March 2006 attack on Robinson. After a couple of months, U.S. troops left with little to show. The Taliban simply evaporated when the Americans arrived in force. When a small unit of British paratroopers replaced U.S. troops, it wasn't long before the Taliban struck, causing heavy British casualties.

Even if the United States decided to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy, it lacks the high level of local expertise required. Goodson says U.S. officers don't speak the language and don't understand the local cultures, things like family, clan and tribal ties: "The two countries we're fighting in right now are the two countries we understand the least." In Afghanistan, loyalty to family, clan and tribe still supersede loyalty to the state.

"Afghans are not a people that honor and respect a system, such as a centralized state government. Rather, they honor and respect the person," says Michael Metrinko, a Middle East expert who serves as an adviser to the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan. To win support for the Afghan government and to wean tribes from the Taliban, the United States might do better to emphasize reconstruction over body counts, and local experts well versed in the culture and tribal complexities over airstrikes. With the spring offensive getting under way, the Americans will need all the help they can get.

---The International Security Assistance Force comprises troops from 37 NATO and non-NATO nations. Here are troop levels of the major contributing nations:
Nation Troops
United States 27,000
United Kingdom 5,200
Germany 3,000
Canada 2,500
Netherlands 2,200
Italy 1,950
France 1,000
Turkey 800
Romania 750
Spain 550
Australia 500
Denmark 400
Belgium 300
Source: NATO

By Greg Grant

March 1, 2007