Taliban losses in Afghanistan, gains in Pakistan
The latest round of fighting in southeastern Afghanistan has claimed over 82 Taliban fighters in two separate engagements in Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces. Security Watchtower provides a breakdown of the estimated casualties of Taliban and Coalition forces in southeastern Afghanistan since the beginning of April. An estimated 600 Taliban have been killed and 22 captured, with 41 Afghan and Coalition security forces killed or wounded combined. The estimated Taliban casualties do not contain the number of wounded, which is often twice the number killed in combat.
Afghanistan UN Security Accessability Map (as of June 20, 2006).Click to view map, .PDF, approximately 1 Megabyte.
As the Coalition ramps up its forces and adds another 9,000 troops to the southeastern theater, the Taliban continues to take a pounding on the battlefield. The security situation in the region is fluid, but the Coalition is clearly gaining the upper hand as it moves forces and devotes energy into regions largely ignored by the central Afghan government. Coalition and Afghan sources estimate the Taliban strength between 2,000 to 5,000 active fighters, while the Taliban puts their strength at 12,000. Using the high Coalition estimate of 5,000 and an estimate of 1,800 Taliban killed and wounded, the Taliban has experienced a 36% attrition rate over the past three months. Using the Taliban estimate of 12,000 strong, the Taliban has experienced a 15% attrition rate. Both are frighteningly high numbers, and belie the reports of a sophisticated and powerful Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan.
To underscore this point, I sat in on a platoon level briefing prior to a Canadian assault earlier this month on the Dari and Panjwai districts in Kandahar province. Intelligence indicated the Taliban were massed in the hundreds, and possessed assault rifles, RPGs (rocket propelled grenades), mortars and other more sophisticated weaponry (I will omit the weapons for security purposes). The grunts of Charlie Company of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, mobile assault team and the tip of the spear for Canadian forces, laughed at the intelligence reports the Taliban possessed mortars and other weapons, as they have shown little inclination to bring these weapons to bear on the battlefield. Mortars are hardly sophisticated weapons, they are a staple weapon of platoon and company sized infantry units. That the Taliban cannot effectively deploy these weapons speaks volumes of their sophistication and training.
But the security situation in Afghanistan cannot be viewed in a vacuum; western Pakistan directly affects Afghanistan's stability. The Talibanization of western Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan has an impact of the situation in Afghanistan. The tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan are openly referred to as Talibanistan. Bajaur is a operational base and staging area into Afghanistan for mid-level al Qaeda commanders, and senior al Qaeda command (bin Laden and Zawahiri) are believed to be operating from nearby Dir.
"The Taliban's sphere of influence has expanded to [the tribal agencies of] DI Khan [Dera Ismail Khan], Tank and the Khyber Agency, where clerks of the area have started to join them. There has been a sharp increase in attacks on heavily-defended military targets in these areas as well," said Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao last April. Coalition and Afghan commanders and government officials have openly stated the Taliban senior command are operating from the city of Quetta in Baluchistan, and have given the Pakistani government addresses of the location of senior Taliban leaders.
The Talibanization of western Pakistan continues. In a sign the Pakistani government is operating from a position of weakness, the government is proposing yet another ceasefire with the Taliban, while local Islamists bomb "a computer and a music centre" in Dir and a bazaar in Dera Ghazni Khan. Last week a suicide fuel truck bomb detonated in the Afghan province of Nangahar after crossing from Khyber agency in Pakistan.
It is no accident the most troubled provinces of Afghanistan reside on the border with Pakistan. The latest United Nations Afghanistan UN Security Accessibility Map (as of June 20, 2006) perfectly illustrates this point. The red & yellow band in Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Ghazni, Zabul and Paktika province is scene of Operation Mountain Thrust. The eastern Afghanistan provinces of Kunar, Nuristan and Nangarhar is in the American zone of operations, and the scene of the ongoing Operation Mountain Lion. And while the map appears dire at first glance, the United Nations, a risk adverse organization, considers the oranges zones as "representing a manageable level of risk with the application of more detailed and security measures." The UN considers a small fraction of Afghan territory as a "not accessible" or "no-go" zone.
Ayman al-Zawahari, al Qaeda's second in command, recent videotapes underscores the al Qaeda's position in western Pakistan. Far from living in a cave, Zawahiri has access to the daily news and Internet, as well as a production facility to make high quality video products. The tape where Zawahiri lashes out against Afghan President Hamid Karzai and calls for a general Afghan uprising against the Coalition clearly cites the May 26th accident in Kabul. The turnaround time between the incident and the release of the tape is about three weeks. Zawahiri clearly is confident in the security of his line of communications. His actions indicate he has nothing to fear from reprisal from the Pakistani military or intelligence units.