September 4, 2009

COIN 101

Al Jazeera is reporting that over 70 people have been killed in a NATO/German air-strike in Kunduz province; reports claim a US F-15E Strike Eagle ultimately dropped the bombs. The district police chief told the AP that 40 people had been killed while Govenor Mohammad Omar said at least 45 were killed. Another AP report listed the dead at 90, including 40 civilians; senior Taliban commander for the district, Abdur Rahman, and four Chechen fighters were killed. This story has multiple levels. If true, it shows the reach of Taliban AO's as Kunduz is on the northern border in Tajik territory. The death toll could be exaggerated, but this would mean America has already lost the propaganda battle, for now.

Denial isn't going to work.
The German army said 56 Taliban militants after they attacked an alliance convoy. An army statement claimed, "There were no civilian casualties." This isn't the way to conduct counterinsurgency. An investigation should begin immediately.

The Taliban operation itself is most interesting. Stealing two tankers of fuel to give to a village sounds like propaganda. Is this a new tactic to win back popularity? The Taliban hasn't followed the manual discovered in May; while it succeeded in striking NATO convoys and high level targets, hundreds of civilians died in the process. General McChrystal has held back to make the gap seem larger than normal, with the result that the Taliban were responsible for most deaths this summer. Stealing fuel and giving it away is like Robin Hood.

Of course a sinister side exists to this incident. The Taliban, having lost the power to provoke air-strikes simply by running into civilian buildings, have taken to baiting NATO with theft and villagers with charity. By using fuel as bait the Taliban ensured an abnormal explosion. But the question remains to when the air-strike was dropped. Were the villagers nakedly bombed? Coalition troops sound like they still lack the resources to scope their target.

And America has another problem, either a security lapse, miscommunication, lack of man power, or combination of factors. The alleged driver of one of the tankers told reporters, "The Taliban were there from 2 p.m. yesterday. I informed the military about this and I told them they will hijack us. They told me that they will inform the (NATO) military about this. No one came to protect us."

New details are emerging. According to the NYT, "
Late Thursday, a gang of Taliban guerrillas hijacked the two tanker trucks on the main highway south of Kunduz, Afghan and NATO officials said, and drove the trucks to Omar Kheil. But when they came to a river the trucks could not cross, they stopped and told villagers to siphon off the diesel fuel, Afghan officials said. Scores of villagers came out, carrying all sorts of containers." Al Jazeera claims the Taliban called out villagers to help push the tankers, but after no success, told the villagers to help themselves to the fuel. The air-strike occurred shortly after.

Two tankers aren't worth the civilian casualties and bad publicity. The bombs absolutely should not have been dropped.

The White House and General McChrystal will learn that civilian casualties are inevitable in guerrilla war. Defense Secretary Robert Gates claims he is doing "everything conceivable" to prevent them, but his power is limited in a Washington office. He's relatively helpless when a NATO squad is tracking a Taliban group at night and a German commander calls in a strike. As for General McChrystal, he must stay sharp because the Taliban is going to bait his soldiers with every trick possible. That German troops were responsible is irrelevant; America is the QB in Afghanistan, liable to all credit and blame.

This news is spreading rapidly across the Internet, not a good headline when President Obama is already under fire in Afghanistan. His silence sometimes sounds like a cry for help. Octopus Mountain is committed to high quality analysis for his use.

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