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Taliban Bench Warmers

"They're just coming up here and getting killed."

12:00 AM, Nov 2, 2007 • By CHRISTIAN LOWE
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IT'S TRUE THAT INSURGENT violence is on the rise in Afghanistan, with a surging Taliban taking up tactics first used against U.S. forces in Iraq, including suicide bombs, improvised explosive devices, and vehicle-borne IEDs. Afghan civilians and national security forces are being killed in greater numbers this year than any year since the 2001 invasion. According to an Afghan diplomatic source, 700 civilians have been killed so far this year--some in poorly-targeted U.S. bombing raids--but a large proportion of those have been the victims of insurgent attacks.

The other side of the story is quite different, however. Along with the rise in Taliban--and to some extent, al Qaeda violence--has come a sharp increase in the number of insurgents killed by Coalition (mostly American and Australian) troops and Afghan security forces. The Afghan diplomat said about 3,500 Taliban have been killed this year, and several top commanders captured.

There's been a major tactical shift recently in how the Taliban insurgency attacks Coalition forces. Of course, IEDs and suicide bombings are up 20 percent over last year's 5,388 total, but there have also been a number of large-scale engagements waged against allied patrols that wind up resulting in high enemy losses. It seems anathema to the usual tactics of an insurgency, where small hit-and-run attacks prove most effective at driving government forces and their allies out of the fight. And it speaks to a growing trend of military incompetence within a Taliban depleted of its experienced, native-born fighters.

In September alone, a number of engagements involving hundreds of Taliban fighters resulted in resounding defeats for the insurgents. In two separate battles on September 27, Coalition forces claimed 165 Taliban fighters killed. And just this week, NATO forces and Afghan soldiers reportedly trapped 250 Taliban fighters in a village north of Kandahar after an attempted insurgent ambush. That's counter to the basic tenets of guerrilla warfare which abhors mass--the more fighters you pull together in one group, the bigger the target. The Soviet-fighting mujahedeen were only able to mass in significant numbers after U.S.-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles eliminated Soviet air cover.

So, why the sudden wave of mass attacks? A lot has been made in recent news reports of the increase in foreign fighters joining the ranks of the Taliban, with some of those stories insinuating that the development is a measure of the insurgency's growing strength and influence. The New York Times reported on October 29 that the foreign fighters "are not only bolstering the ranks of the insurgency. They are more violent, uncontrollable and extreme than their locally bred allies."

But a top American commander based in Kandahar--where the Taliban movement was born--explained that from his perspective the foreign fighter influx is actually a sign of weakness. The high body count is a result of "ineptitude" he said, and stems from the fighters' lack of experience and training.

"In this type of war, when you mass against forces like us . . . without firepower, we're able to destroy them quite easily and we've shown that over the last six to seven months," said Col. Thomas McGrath, the American commander in charge of training Afghan security forces near Kandahar. "They're bringing in cohorts of young men who really don't know any better and it's been a colossal failure for them."

The violent reprisals, fundamentalist edicts and civilian deaths resulting from suicide bombings, IEDs and ambushes against Coalition forces have driven the Afghan population away from the Taliban and curtailed local support for any insurgents, particularly foreigners. The Afghan government has been using this rift to its advantage recently, initiating talks with Afghan Taliban commanders to convince them their lot is ill served by an association with the foreign fighters who terrorize their countrymen.

With locals dropping out of the insurgent ranks, foreign zealots are assuming command. And as they continue their suicide charges against Coalition forces in Afghanistan, their influence and battlefield acumen withers.

"What they've been able to do is just terrorize people. And people are getting tired of it, and you can tell that because they don't have the local fighters," McGrath explained. "There's a lot of fighters down here but they're not the same as we saw back in 2001; they're coming from outside and they're just coming up here and getting killed."


Christian Lowe is managing editor of Military.com and is a contributing writer to THE DAILY STANDARD.