August 15, 2009

The Shadow Army

Night. A line of Marines silently creep along a Kandahar mud road. Reeds and shrubs glow under the moonlight. An explosion. Screams. Fire from the right. Crackles from behind. Showers of smoke - incoming mortar. Silence. Gunshots from the left. Silence. Darkness.

Back in a serene Pentagon news room, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates contemplates, “Mysteries were those where there were too many variables to predict. And I think that how long U.S. forces will be in Afghanistan is in that area.”

A summer of death suggests America, and to a lesser extent NATO, is waging an endless war with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Not so says Gates. Despite the “mysteries” of Afghanistan, defeating the two groups will take “a couple years” in his estimation. He said so with a straight face, remarkable considering America will likely be combating the Taliban beyond 2015.

The Taliban is gaining strength on both sides of the border. Much has been made of whether Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan is fighting over the spoils of Baitullah Mehsud’s empire. After a propaganda firestorm, the deaths of Hakimullah Mehsud and Mufti Waliur Rahman turned out to be fabricated. American officials all the way to National Security Adviser James Jones played up a shootout that never was.

James had told Fox News, “if there's dissension in the ranks and if, in fact, he is - as we think - dead, this is a positive indication that in Pakistan, things are turning for the better.”

And if there’s no dissension?

Eventually the rival Abdullah Mehsud Group (AMG), as anti-American as it is anti-Baitullah, was exposed as the rumormonger, raising eyebrows as to whose word President Obama is using. Separate rumors claim the AMG tipped off Pakistani intelligence officials on Baitullah’s location, information swiftly passed along to America. What seemed a conspiracy turned to reality when a battalion of Taliban smashed into a village of Turkestan Bittani, a AMG commander and source of the rumors.

The ensuing massacre delivered a simple message: we're very organized. Challenge the Taliban and we’ll show up with ranks of fighters to burn your houses down. Pakistani intelligence officials estimated over 300 militants took part in the battle while Bittani put their number closer to 1,000.Though he's undoubtedly exaggerating, the Taliban is exhibiting extraordinary capabilities for a guerrilla movement.

Though the use of large scale formations is uncommon, they're the Taliban's version of shock and awe. These formations aren't meant for the conventional battlefield, but they are evidence of a maturing insurgency. Since it is most vulnerable in large scale formations, the Taliban saves them for special occasions like surprising a US army post, destroying supply trucks, the Sarposa Prison break, or razing the village of a rival commander. The Taliban is a fully functional asymmetric army, able to vanish or erupt, field two soldiers or 200.

More than “a couple years” will be necessary to defeat what the Taliban has become.

The notion of a fracturing Taliban is misleading. The umbrella is so big that occasional infighting is inevitable. Instead of collapsing under its own weight, the wide variety of militants presents America, the keystone, with an unlimited supply of enemies. The Taliban is large enough to sustain damage to several subgroups and continue functioning. In spite of its detractors, the Taliban's swelling ranks and growing sophistication imply that it's coalescing.

Mullah Omar unrolled his strategy in 2008, convincing then-rivals Baitullah Mehsud, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, and Maulvi Nazir to form Shura Ittehad-ul-Mujahideen - Council of United Mujahedeen - or SIM. The Haqqani Network cemented its crows nest in Paktia province to oversee Waziristan. Beneath these surface movements, Omar revived Lashkar al Zil - the Shadow Army - al-Qaeda and the Taliban’s elite force in the 1990’s. Originally the 055 Brigade, al-Qaeda has taken the lead in reorganizing the Shadow Army, which is exceeding its predecessor and active on both sides of the border.

One Pakistani officer acquainted with their methods said, “Their tactics are mind-boggling and they have defenses that would take us days to build. It does not look as though we are fighting a rag-tag militia; they are fighting like an organized force.”

Mullah Omar’s efforts are paying off as American and NATO casualties break records and US newspapers spread the fear. His whole army is a nebulous crystal. The Taliban is disciplined, tactically evolving, and has the local advantage. It foresees incoming attacks, whether large scale like Obama’s surge or small scale like in Dahaneh. Unlike the Iraqi insurgency, a multitude of competing interests, the Taliban is an ant colony with one direction from above and legions of foot soldiers below.

Secretary Gates said he doesn’t believe General Stanley McChrystal will request more troops in his new assessment, brushing aside reports of more troops while assuring McChrystal is “free to ask for what he needs.” If America truly intends to defeat the Taliban, it’s going to need more of everything - troops, treasure, time, and blood.

Afghanistan might improve in “a couple years” if President Obama is lucky, but he’ll still be chasing shadows when he leaves office.

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