Fighting the Taliban: The nature of combat in the Hindu Kush | World | Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 25.12.2009

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Fighting the Taliban: The nature of combat in the Hindu Kush

Last year was a terrible one for Afghanistan - both for the local population and the foreign troops fighting there. More troops and a crackdown on corruption are to do the trick in 2010, but no one is holding his breath.

Two Taliban fighters carrying a rocket-launcher

The Taliban have managed to frustrate allied troops in Afghanistan

"When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains, and the women come out to cut up what remains, just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains and go to your God like a soldier."

- Rudyard Kipling -

Flying over jagged and barren seemingly endless mountain ranges it is not difficult to understand why Afghanistan remains one of the most forbidding battlegrounds in the annals of warfare. Fiercely cold in the winter, the sun burns like a furnace in the summer. There are few roads, water is scarce, the terrain is equally hard on machines and men and the thin, alpine air takes its toll on aircraft as well, like the dust and grit of Afghanistan that clogs everything from soldier's throats to rifles and engines.

For centuries, the Hindu Kush has been the graveyard of invading foreign armies. Afghanistan was where Alexander the Great's phalanxes could not advance any further. The British Empire and the soldiers of the Raj never conquered it. In the 19th century an entire British army died to the last man, save for one who told the tale.

The much-vaunted Soviet juggernaut didn't fare much better, the last gasp of the Red Army ultimately retreating in disgrace. Today, with 30,000 more US troops headed for the fray and Washington hoping it can cajole 10,000 more European soldiers from NATO when allied leaders meet at the end of next month, public support for a war that has endured since 2001 continues to wane on both sides of the Atlantic.

Failed states

Burnt-out cars after a bomb attack

If Afghanistan becomes a failed state it could trigger problems in neighboring Pakistan

On the surface of things Western leaders agree that the possibility of a failed Afghan state and the potential collapse of a now embattled Pakistan next door, poses a strategic security risk neither the region nor the international community can afford.

The doomsday scenario sees both nations collapse to the specter of Islamic radicalism, al Qaeda and other extremist groups newly empowered to launch international terror attacks by their Taliban hosts, the surge of Wahabi fanaticism spreading like a fire to the neighboring countries of Central Asia ripe for rebellion and most fearsome of all, Pakistan's nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of hateful Mullahs who pledge eternal war on the West's "Crusaders and infidels."

But if Americans and Europeans don't fully agree on such an apocalyptic outcome, mission failure is not a prospect anyone seeks, because in of itself it would pose a massive psychological victory for radical Islamists throughout the globe. But what does it entail to continue prosecuting the war, aside from the astronomical cost of keeping armies in the field and a body count that now exceeds 1,500 Allied dead and many more times that wounded and maimed? What is it like for a NATO or coalition soldier in the field? It is a reality the average Western civilian cannot remotely comprehend.

For Christian Auchincloss, a former British Paratrooper and longtime private security contractor, recently retired from heading one of the major Western risk consultancies in Afghanistan, the greatest difficulty is as old as guerrilla warfare itself.

"It's the classic unseen enemy who doesn't wear a uniform. He hides his rifle in a secret cache and blends with the market dweller and the farmer, picking up a hoe instead. But when he's ready he finds his rifle or bomb and strikes, only to melt away once more, unseen," he told Deutsche Welle.

Taliban terror

Taliban fighters with machine guns

Taliban militants may not be well-equipped but they are extremely mobile and versatile

The Taliban fighters thought to number anywhere from 10,000 to perhaps double or twice that number are not heavily equipped combatants. In conventional terms they are mostly armed with infantry weapons, small arms, rocket launchers, mortars and recoilless rifles.

They know their own terrain intimately, every hidden mountain pathway, every cave that becomes a fortress, every village safe house where they can find sanctuary and support and in what is now termed "asymmetric warfare" where the weak can fight the strong. Unlike NATO soldiers or the Afghan Army, more often than not they choose the time and place of combat, wresting the tactical initiative away from a much more powerful and technologically advanced Western adversary.

The Taliban fighter is also highly mobile, well-funded and equipped from the underground profits of the world's leading heroin producer and not least highly motivated and better-paid than his Afghan National Army counterpart. By contrast, morale in both the ANA and the Afghan National Police is decidedly poor, and eight years on save for a few elite formations, both remain badly trained, under-equipped and indifferently led.

As the Soviets soon discovered, although heavy armor, artillery and attack aircraft bring overwhelming firepower to bear, it is often taking a sledgehammer to crush a mosquito, prompting too many civilian casualties that only damages hearts and minds efforts.

It is seldom that small-arms fire claims western casualties however, in the improved Taliban war-fighting guide much has been learned from the experience of Jihadists and insurgents in Iraq, where the improvised explosive device or IED rules supreme, and so it does too in Afghanistan.

They are unseen, largely undetected and they kill without warning. More than any other weapon, the IED is what sends NATO and coalition soldiers home in body bags. The result is that road travel is extremely hazardous and allied soldiers have come to rely on mine proof vehicles, but they aren't foolproof either and the Taliban keep improving the explosive strength of their bombs to counter them.

Allies facing uphill battle

A NATO soldier standing in front of a tank

The NATO-led ISAF troops seem unable to eject the Taliban from Afghanistan

So the helicopter as a means of observation, supply and tactical troop deployment has also become invaluable for allied forces, but there aren't enough of them and in many respects the sheer nature of combat in Afghanistan nullifies much of the technological advantage allied soldiers bring to bear. Over the past year, there were nearly 3,300 separate IED attacks nationwide, that number is likely to climb.

Where allied soldiers have seen old-fashioned infantry fighting against the Taliban, a disturbing development is where the "black turbans," who once attacked solely in small formations, have increasingly in the past year launched attacks with hundreds of fighters, sometimes overrunning Allied firebases.

It is a confident enemy that can dare to make frontal assaults and it is an enemy secure in replacing his casualties, when he can endure them hundreds at a time. Western leaders keeping a close eye on public opinion at home can't afford to be as generous with their own combat losses.

The inescapable reality of the military dimension of Afghanistan's war is that where matters stand, though the Taliban is increasingly gaining control of larger and larger swathes of Afghanistan's territory, it is not strong enough to dislodge NATO or the Coalition, nor are they in turn strong enough themselves to both secure Afghanistan's terrain and eject the Taliban.

So it will be a bloody impasse for a long time to come unless at last NATO is able to coordinate success on the battlefield with winning the peace and helping to secure a safer and more democratic and less-corrupt Afghanistan.

When US President Barack Obama announced a potential withdrawal date, which has already been backpedaled, the elusive Taliban leader Mullah Omar responded, "they have the clock, we have the time."

And so perhaps Afghanistan, like all protracted guerrilla wars, comes down to willpower, attrition and the ability to sit out the enemy, in the hope he will tire of an endless fight. For Afghanistan's immediate future it looks like this means more of the same and no end game in sight.

Author: Chris Kline
Editor: Rob Mudge

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