February 16, 2010

These men of steel, men of power... they're losing control by the hour

Is it possible the captured shadow governor of Helmand, forced to flight by the Marjah offensive, is the one singing like a canary? Is it even remotely possible that that's part of the reason why his boss, Mullah Barader, who has more Canadian and Afghan blood on his hands than anyone, is now in custody? Cause that'd be a shame...

The biggest break came in early February, when Afghan intelligence agents, tipped off by a source, arrested the Taliban's so-called "shadow governor" of Marjah, who doubled as the insurgents' military chief, said coalition and Afghan officials.

He was grabbed in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan's biggest city, and was on his way to Pakistan, where the Taliban's top leadership had ordered him to take refuge, officials said. "They were worried. Taliban has lost so many mid and senior commanders, they are hurting right now; that's clear from a lot of intel," said a senior coalition commander in Kabul.

The captured shadow governor, whom officials refused to identify, gave allied officers what they said they believed was a fairly accurate accounting of the Taliban's defenses and plans for fighting off coalition forces. He has been a "chatty Cathy," said another senior coalition officer in Kabul.

By Afghan intelligence, no less... Nice. I'd even be happy to bet that my old colleague in Kandahar, the ANA Brigade G2, knew about this particular grab, of the Helmand guy, before anyone in KAF did. This kind of high-value snatch stuff is one thing the NDS seems to do fairly well unbidden, I'll give them that...

This is the point people often miss about the effects of kinetic clearance ops like the current go into Marjah. 'Cause sometimes they're even worth it, if only because they can force the enemy's leadership to expose themselves, use unusual or slipshod communications, or basically, just make mistakes under pressure. Regular COIN in the "hold" areas can never be a total substitute for those kind of disrupt effects in areas still to be permanently cleared.

The other big point here, about the Barader snatch, is the obvious improvement in U.S.-Pakistani-Afghan intelligence coordination, which at the moment seems about the best it's been in at least three years. Yes, part of that is Bush lameduckery in the final year of his second term, but there's no doubt now that a downward trend has been reversed under the new American management.

(Sorry for the headline, been listening to a lot of Disturbed recently.)

Posted by BruceR at 05:58 PM

Kilcullen on metrics

Tom Ricks' series of posts by David Kilcullen on good counterinsurgency metrics are all worth a read, but the one on local security forces was particularly good, I thought. Others:

The enemy.
Local officials.
The population.
Stupid metrics.

Posted by BruceR at 08:40 AM

Collateral damage incident in Zhari (Title changed, see UPDATE #2)

Both regrettable and thankfully unusual (I can't recall another similar multi-casualty mistaken-identity situation involving Canadian troops), but if I'm going to criticize mistakes like the Kunduz tanker strike I figure I have to mention when we make those kinds of mistakes in Kandahar as well. (NOTE: See update #2). Every roto has its own story of mistaking night time background farming activity in a place like Zhari for IED laying: they really seem extremely difficult to tell apart.

UPDATE: It's largely Americans in Zhari now, struggling with the same problems Canadians did for 3 years there. The WSJ had a good writeup earlier this month. Excerpts follow:

American troops have dubbed Pashmul, a cluster of villages sprawling across the fertile belt of grape and poppy fields west of Kandahar city, "the heart of darkness."

Capt. Duke Reim, commander of the American unit responsible for Pashmul, estimates that about 95% of the locals are Taliban or aid the militants. District Gov. Niyaz Mohammad Serhadi agrees. "People here are on the side of the insurgency and have no trust in the government," he says. "Insurgents are in their villages 24 hours."

Among front-line troops, many of them used to more liberal rules of engagement in Iraq, frustration is boiling over. "It's like fighting with two hands behind your back," says Sgt. First Class Samuel Frantz, a platoon sergeant in Capt. Reim's unit, the Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion of the 12th Infantry Regiment. "We're so worried about not hurting the population's feelings that we're not doing our jobs."

Facing the outpost is an abandoned compound from which the soldiers often take fire. When Charlie fought in Iraq, such a compound would have been long obliterated. Here, the soldiers are still waiting for permission to destroy Afghan property.

Helicopters are indispensable in hunting down the squads that plant IEDs—the cause of the company's four fatalities and of most of its 14 serious injuries on this deployment. But, after Kiowa choppers fired rockets at two people spotted digging near road culverts at the end of last year, an angry delegation of Pash mul area elders descended on the battalion headquarters, demanding an end to overflights.

"Villagers were just livid with me," says the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Reik Andersen. "Because so much lethality was going on, they said that the kids are crying, the women are scared" whenever choppers appear in the sky.

Attempting to win local support, Col. Andersen says he promised to the elders that the helicopters would stay away unless called in for a specific incident. He also ordered that villagers spotted digging near culverts be scared away with smoke rather than killed.

"Could that guy be emplacing an IED? He could be. Is he? Unlikely," Col. Andersen says. "Killing 10 civilians to get one Taliban—that mentality is gone. We want to be darn sure that we're killing the right people."

Mr. Serhadi, the district governor, says the delegation of elders had gone to see Col. Andersen on the orders of the insurgents.

IED activity has continued unabated in the area since then. Two villagers died in recent weeks after stepping on buried home-made bombs near the Pash mul outpost, and an American contractor lost a leg.

Between patrols, soldiers openly speak of being betrayed. "It doesn't matter if we get killed—we're here to die," says Lt. Mark Morrison, 24 years old, the leader of the second platoon. "Our lives are not valuable enough to protect."

On a recent patrol, the troops came upon a crater from an earlier IED. Lt. Morrison ordered his men to knock down the upper part of a mud wall fringing the path, so that anyone burying explosives there could be seen from the outpost.

Soon afterward, an angry field owner, Ghulam Farooq, confronted the Americans. "Why are you destroying the wall? If there is no wall, the sheep and the goats will come into my field," he said.

"I'd rather cut down a few trees and break a few walls so that the bad guys stop coming here and placing the IEDs," Lt. Morrison answered.

Hearing the translation, Mr. Farooq broke out in sarcastic laughter. "What's so funny?" Lt. Morrison demanded. The villager snuffed out his laughter, but didn't respond.

Moments later, explosions rang out in the distance. The lieutenant's radio operator, Pfc. Justin Jun, shuddered. "Why does everything have to blow up in that country?" he asked, and vaulted himself over yet another mud wall.

The same piece could have been written any time in the last 3 years when it was Canadians in the AO. A Canadian officer I knew used to say Zhari District would be a nice place if it wasn't so "explosion-y." Plus ca change...

UPDATE #2: Sources at Kandahar Air Field say Canadian forces were not the NATO forces involved.

Posted by BruceR at 07:58 AM

Taliban #2 in custody

Hmm... guess he was in Pakistan after all. Go figure.

I know we've all made jokes about the lifespan of the #3 guy in Al Qaeda, and there are obviously a couple targets who would be bigger in a moral victory sense, but in terms of actual impact on insurgent command and control on the ground in the south of Afghanistan, it's hard to think of a target who would be more significant. This is the supreme military leader of the insurgents who killed Canadians on my watch and previous. It's certainly nice to see him taken off the chessboard: I hope his is a long and barely tolerable captivity.

This is big: Dadullah in 2007 was only a tactical commander, albeit a well-known one. Akhtar Osmani in 2006 was the Taliban treasurer, not a military leader. And both of them were killed, whereas this guy was captured, making him the richest potential target for Western interrogators... well, ever, really. (The closest World War Two comparison would be the capture of Rudolf Hess.) As far as the Afghan war goes, this guy knows more than anyone, full stop. Nice. (By the same token, though, he is as clear a target for Geneva POW protections as there is in this fight, too... or at least he would be if he was in U.S. custody, as opposed to Pakistani.) So will that Thiessen idiot shut up now? (Never mind, I know the answer to that one.)

(Ironically, Baradur's place will likely be inherited by Abdul Qayum Zakir, a Taliban fighter first captured back in Mazar in the very early days of 2001 and released from Guantanamo to Afghan custody in late 2007. Oh, that Afghan custody: it's a peach.)

UPDATE: Yeah, the Taliban's unhappy about this one. You can tell when their PR lead completely denies it.

"In reality there is nothing regarding Baradar’s arrest. He is safe and free and he is in Afghanistan."

As the Newsweek article linked above correctly reported, the man in question would never have been physically in Afghanistan: too dangerous. So that's a complete falsehood. And any leader (Taliban included) who's actually fought in the south will know it for what it is, too. So they're scrambling: their safe haven (at least the Karachi part of it) suddenly looks a lot less safe. Expect some blowback against Pakistani forces and institutions, though. This is the kind of thing that gets bombs set off in Rawalpindi and politicians assassinated.

(As an example of what the other shoe could look like, the last time a capture this big happened, when senior commander Obaidullah Akhund was captured in Quetta in March, 2007, the Taliban also completely denied that capture, as well. The Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan was then taken hostage by Pakistani Taliban working for the late unlamented Baitullah Mehsud (KIA-by-drone, 2009), now also generally acknowledged as the guy behind the Benazir Bhutto hit, in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to secure his release.)

Posted by BruceR at 07:33 AM