July 23, 2011

The U.S.-Taliban Assassination Challenge

Assassination, whether internal or external, obviously isn’t a new phenomena in Afghanistan. Mohammed Zahir Shah, the “Father of the Nation,” began his four-decade reign in 1933 after a teenager gunned down his father, King Mohammed Nadir Shah. The Soviet Union would birth its war from a crucible of KGB bloodshed, taking down three presidents - Mohammed Daoud Khan, Nur Muhammad Taraki, Hafizullah Amin - between 1978 and 1979. Two days before 9/11, al-Qaeda gunmen would assassinate Ahmad Shah Massoud, a key Tajik mujahideen leader during the Soviet invasion and founder of the Taliban’s future enemy, the North Alliance.

Like Moscow's ill-advised invasion, America’s tireless gears of war have accelerated Afghanistan's grisly legacy. Hamid Karzai counts himself lucky to have survived four assassination attempts since 2002. His charismatic half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, ran out of fortune when a “trusted, anti-Taliban” bodyguard shot him in the head in his own office. The same death had greeted General Khan Mohammed Mujahid, Kandahar’s police chief, in April, but Ahmed’s assassination rocked the Greater Kandahar area. Many of the loose ends he had tied together through influence, cunning and brute force now attached themselves to a void inside Kandahar’s provincial council. Then, on the following Saturday, the Taliban only needed two operatives to deceive and eliminate Jan Mohammad Khan, Karzai’s strongman in the neighboring Oruzgan province.

All the while, with Reapers lurking overhead, U.S. and Afghan Special Forces have hunted Taliban day and night.

Yet in spite of this tactic’s familiarity, the Taliban’s latest assassination spree does indicate a new pattern; rather than a strategic shortcut to power, the insurgency has crafted a majority of its future strategy around premium targets. This “counter-assassination” campaign is synchronized with President Barack Obama’s surge to the degree that coincidence is improbable. As the insurgency’s shadow governors parallel the government to vie for control of the battlefield, parallel assassinations are designed to undermine America’s surge and cancel out their own high-ranking losses.

Death By Statistics

The Taliban only had to watch Obama’s short speeches to know that an onslaught was coming. While his surge’s intensity may have exceeded expectations - The Associated Press reports “mild concern” in the CIA over David Petraeus’s pattern of killing high-level commanders - America’s blitzkrieg invasion couldn’t have been forgotten after just 10 years. One must assume that the Taliban (roughly) expected a 40% increase in Special Forces operatives, raising their level above 5,000, and a 50% increase in operations.

In June Vice Adm. William McRaven, head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), testified that 1,700 night-raids were conducted under Petraeus’s 13 months in Afghanistan, grabbing over 900 low and mid-level leaders. Coalition warplanes also fired their weapons on 5,831 sorties, a 65% increase from the previous 12 months. NATO’s figures for 2011 boast of an astronomical 2,832 special operations raids between April and July alone, resulting in the capture of 2,941 insurgents and killing of 834.

The AP notes, “That's twice the number captured or killed during the same period a year ago, when special operations forces captured more than 1,350 insurgents and killed 1,031 in roughly the same number of raids.” And with U.S. forces leaning more and more on counter-terrorism, The New York Times reported last week, “the military’s dependence on the night raids... may only increase as the United States reduces its troops over the next three years.”

So maybe the Taliban didn’t expect this level of intensity, or perhaps its ranks never experienced the full brunt. In June investigative reporter Gareth Porter recorded the Pentagon’s own statistics as showing 80% of some 5,000 captured “Taliban” had been released within two weeks due to a lack of affiliation. Many U.S. officials including McRaven defend their night-raids with 80%; targets are secured 80% of the time and 85% without a shot fired. Conflicting statistics from have fueled an endless debate over whether the Taliban’s rate of attack is dropping.

“This just means that they have less capacity; they have been degraded somewhat,” Petraeus said of the nascent downtrend. “This is the first real indicator — for the first time since 2006 — compared to the previous year, insurgent attack numbers are lower.”

For what it’s worth, annual U.S. casualties in June and July are down to 47 and 29 from 60 and 65. However these numbers are swallowed within the Afghanistan's overall narrative. The argument over the Taliban’s effectiveness will go on indefinitely, as the population is less secure and the government no stronger than 2010. According to Afghanistan's NGO Safety Office (ANSO), the Taliban launched 54% more attacks and killed or wounded 56% more U.S. troops from October 2010 through May 2011. Petraeus himself now claims that U.S. gains are “fragile and reversible.”

The Taliban could also maintain 20,000 fighters even after losing 10,000 if an estimated 30,000 in 2010 and 2011. The U.S. is betting that it can kill another 10,000-15,000 Taliban in the next three years (and that the group won’t be able to recruit when “losing”) while the Taliban is betting that it can erode the government quicker than the U.S. can deplete its forces.

Thus the Taliban’s own assassination campaign perfectly aligns with America’s strategy of strong-arming the group into favorable negotiations. While Petraeus and company busy themselves highlighting U.S. metrics, the Taliban continue to succeed undermining the government’s authority and credibility. Imitation is not a sign of flattery in war, but a piece of the battle-line between two enemies, each evolving its tactics and strategy in a never-ending war of adaptation. During 2011's spring offensive, the Taliban has inflicted its main damage not by retaking territory or piling up coalition kills, but by copying America’s surge in night-raids and drone strikes.

Karzai Faces Death's Reflection

Gunning down a police chief or provincial chairman seems like common sense from an insurgent’s point of view. However the Taliban is now running most of its narrative through political assassination, selecting each target for maximum impact. The first objective is simple enough: prove that the government is too weak to defend its own officials, let alone 28 million Afghans. Attacks on foreign aid workers and infiltration of the Afghan security forces disseminate this message at the lower levels, while high-ranking kills send shocks to the top. As U.S. officials have attempted to justify security through its kill count, so too has the Taliban used assassination to demonstrate the opposite.

A parallel assassination campaign naturally creates multiple parallels; the exact matching of U.S. and Taliban goals fully illuminates their assassination race. As the U.S. portrays the Taliban as weak, the Taliban has portrayed the government as weak. As the U.S. depicts the Taliban as fearful, exhausted and in disarray, the Taliban has accentuated the government’s frailty. Afghan opposition to night-raids will never fade and the Taliban wisely targeted a major source in Karzai and Khan, both of whom were subsequently accused of feeding information to U.S. Special Forces. Even Karzai’s assassin, Sardar Mohammad, was allegedly flipped from working with U.S. hunter/killer teams.

Mirroring these very units, the Taliban is bringing fear directly into the houses of government officials.

Local officials, businessmen and analysts alike now view Karzai’s inner circle in total disarray after losing his brother and Khan, who was considered a family warlord. It turns out that two Taliban tricked Khan’s entire guard before eliminating him. Masood Bakhtawar, a close friend of Khan’s, retold the story to Al Jazeera: "It is difficult to believe that two young students, from the mountains of Uruzgan, could put up a fight against an elite force for two hours.” The theory that the Taliban cannot replace its skilled operatives finally reflected onto Karzai’s inner circle - except his half-brother's death is more significant than Osama bin Laden’s within Afghanistan's particular theater.

The government's argument that the Taliban is too weak to fight back conventionally is ultimately negated by the insurgency’s strategy. Although operating in the open does indicate a higher level of strength, guerrillas aren't supposed to confront numerically and technologically superior forces. Transitioning to a distinct campaign of assassination offset internal loses without easing pressure on the government’s nerve system. This strategy forfeits the short-term for the long-term: cede the battlefield to foreign forces, undermine their progress by removing local and national leadership, then re-infiltrate territory as U.S. and NATO forces gradually withdraw.

Petraeus turned “we cannot kill our way out” into a brief catchphrase when he assumed command in June 2010. Then he tried to do just that. Now, with several pinpoint strikes, the Taliban have undone a year of “progress” in Kandahar and re-seized Afghanistan's narrative.

They had no need to out-bomb the Pentagon and CIA - the plan has always been to outsmart and outlast them.

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