July 27, 2011

Taliban Score Another Kandahar Kill

Did Ryan Crocker somehow stubble onto The U.S.-Taliban Assassination Challenge? Reacting to the Taliban’s latest casualty, Kandahar mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi, America’s new ambassador to Afghanistan explained in the clearest terms that a high-level assassination campaign “could indicate a shift in tactics.” Only Crocker reaches the opposite interpretation. Rather than adapting to America’s surge and the ensuing barrage of air and night raids, the Taliban have been forced into “cowardly” assassinations “because of an overall weakness.”

“I would judge that the Taliban is now damaged to the point where they can no longer conduct large-scale operations. They’ve had to kind of regroup and figure out what they can do, and in some cases that has been assassination,” Crocker told reporters at the embassy. “Clearly, these are horrific attacks but they can also be interpreted as a sign of significant organizational weakness on the part of the adversary.”

The details of Hamidi’s death aren’t as immediately shocking as Ahmed Wali Karzai or Jan Mohamed Khan's, two mainstays in President Hamid Karzai’s inner circle, but only because the latter assassinations raised the bar so high. Both attacks struck their targets inside their homes, one by a “trusted bodyguard” and the other by two “students” who tricked Khan’s security detail into giving them money for “clothes.” They then smuggled in weapons and avoided a second body-check. Although Taliban responsibility has yet to be confirmed in either case, Karzai and Khan’s death shared the ingenuity that was again employed to eliminate Hamidi.

Again the Taliban greeted its target in their sanctuary, this time in the mayor’s office at Kandahar city hall. A group of elders had come to speak on Wednesday after Hamidi entered a building dispute the previous day, and a Taliban bomber managed to infiltrate this very group. With a bomb hidden under his turban - “a new tactic used by the guerrillas as security officials do not check turbans” - the unknown Taliban infiltrator shook Hamidi’s hand and detonated them both, according to Kandahar police chief Gen. Abdul Razzik.

Afghanistan’s most notorious “border-lord” upgraded from Colonel after replacing Khan Mohammad Khan, also eliminated by the Taliban in his office in April. A Wali clone (U.S. friendly drug smuggler/tribal warlord), Razzik is presumably next on the list; his power, while substantial, isn’t close to Wali’s.

Crocker may not believe any of these assassinations qualify as ingenious, but the level of sophistication and planning speaks for itself. As for the Taliban’s “cowardliness” and “weakness,” we admitted in our analysis that guerrillas operating openly, in large numbers, symbolizes the insurgency’s evolution into semi-conventional warfare, and thus a sign of strength. Operating in large groups could be a sign of foolishness though. The Taliban does need to regroup and high-level assassinations provide a way of maintaining momentum - a plan no different from America’s withdrawal into counter-terrorism.

The insurgency can also field 15,000-20,000 regular fighters and local reserves, but appears to be content with hit-and-run tactics and out-waiting coalition forces.

Crocker would prefer that the Taliban lay down their arms and surrender unconditionally (apparently a non-cowardly act), or else assault superior armed and armored coalition forces. He is essentially demanding that the Taliban violate the laws of guerrilla warfare, typical goading on the government’s side. This is the pattern of insurgency, just as the Taliban condemns U.S. air-strikes and night-raids as “cowardly.” While we do not question the courage of U.S. soldiers, the Pentagon’s escalating use of drones has led many Afghans and Pakistanis to believe that Americans are afraid to fight their own battles.

Now, after the Taliban removed Kandahar’s police chief, provincial council chief and mayor in less than four months, who can truly deduce the weakest party in Afghanistan: the government, the Taliban or America and NATO?

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