Here are some personal observations, from Kandahar, which are supported by numerous discussions with senior officers and the foot soldiers:
– Pakistan’s lawless tribal belts are a major source of Taliban support, including indoctrinating, funding, arming and training Pakistani and Afghan Taliban recruits. The Afghans I spoke to curse Pakistan for allowing this to happen. The porous situation on the Afghan-Pakistan border is a national security issue for Afghanistan, and the international community as al Qaeda is operating training camps within the Northwest Frontier Province and Quetta in Baluchistan.
– The Taliban is unable to stand up against the Western militaries when they attempt to mass in large formations (100 to 300 fighters, equivalent to company or battalion sized units). Their advantage is they know the local terrain far better than the Coalition forces. The solution is to get the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police trained, equipped and on the front lines in southeastern Afghanistan.
– The levels of effectiveness of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police varies from unit to unit. The Canadian soldiers trust the army units, but are very wary of police units. Corruption is a major problem with local police formations, as is drug usage (this is also a problem within the Taliban). The ANA and ANP are often poorly armed and trained. But to a man, the Canadian soldiers are impressed with their enthusiasm and courage once a fight breaks out. “Once the bullets fly, these guys are solid. They bring everything they got and never shy away from a fight,” one Canadian officer said. The Candians stated the Afghan security forces do not like plan operations but want to immediately make contact with the Taliban. The Canadians often have to restrain the Afghans from leaving the gates without planning an operation. Over enthusiasm is often a weakness in conducting military operations.
– The Taliban’s weapons are not as sophisticated as the media reports would lead you to believe. Their primary weapons are AK-47 assault rifles and RPG-7s (the old variant of the RPG). Rarely are mortars brought to bear on the battlefield. Reports of the Taliban possessing recoilless rifles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles have yet to materialize. Roadside bombs (IEDs), while a threat, have yet to reach either the sophistication or intensity in deployment as they have in Iraq.
– The strength of the Taliban lies in their ability to blend in with the local population, and intimidate or coerce the local population when they must. There are small pockets of Taliban safe havens in southeastern Afghanistan. The increase in airstrikes is related to striking at targets of opportunity and the increased operational tempo to weaken the Taliban prior to ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO mission) takes command of the region by the end of the summer.
– The poppy fields provide a major source of income for the farmers in southeastern Afghanistan. The Coalition and Afghan government made a serous mistake in its implementation of a poppy crop eradication program without providing an alternate source of income. The destruction of crops turned the local population to seek protection from the Taliban. A senior coalition officer indicated a major shift in the policy dealing with the poppy crops is in the works. The intricate relationship between security, economic, political and social aspects of a counterinsurgency operation are in full view in southeastern Afghanistan. While poppy production is viewed as a national security problem by Western governments, this is a critical part of the social and economic fabric of the region. Great care must be taken to address the issue, lest the Coalition continue to alienate the local population and drive farmers and harvesters into the sphere of the Taliban. Alternate crops may provide a solution, however the poppies are easy to grow and provide the highest cash output for available crops.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.