Three years ago the Taliban operated in squad sized units. Last year they operated in company sized units (100 or more men). This year the Taliban are operating in battalion-sized units (400-plus men). So reported retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, professor of international affairs at West Point, after his second trip to Afghanistan to assess the balance of forces.
The former Clinton administration drug czar and commander of the 24th Infantry Division in the Gulf war, Gen. McCaffrey concluded that in the last three years, Taliban has reconstituted the obscurantist movement that took Afghanistan back to the Middle Ages in the 1990s. “They are brutalizing the population,” said the general’s written report, “and they are now conducting a summer-fall campaign to knock NATO out of the war, capture the provincial capital of Kandahar, isolate the Americans, stop the developing Afghan educational system, stop the liberation of women, and penetrate the new police force and Afghan National Army (ANA).”
Taliban now have “excellent weapons” and “new field equipment” — prized by the equipment-poor ANA — and “new IED [improvised explosive devices] technology and commercial communications,” Gen. McCaffrey said. “They appear to have received excellent tactical, camouflage and marksmanship training,” and “they are very aggressive and smart in their tactics.”
“The Afghan Army is miserably underresourced,” the report concluded. “This is now a major morale factor for their soldiers. They have shoddy small arms — described by Defense Minister [Abdul Rahim] Wardak as much worse than he had as a Mujahideen fighting the Soviets 20 years ago.
“Afghan field commanders told me they try to seize weapons from the Taliban who they believe are much better armed. … [They] have little ammo… no mortars, few machine guns, no MK19 grenade guns, and no artillery… no helicopter or fixed transport or attack aviation now or planned … no body armor… no Kevlar helmets… no light armored wheeled vehicles.”
The Afghan National Police is even worse off than the army: “They are in a disastrous condition, badly equipped, corrupt, incompetent, poorly led and trained, riddled by drug use and lacking any semblance of … infrastructure.”
Gen. McCaffrey didn’t mince words about Pakistan’s links with Taliban: “Their base areas in Pakistan are secure.” Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf hotly denies what is undeniable. But Gem/ McCaffrey counters, “Pakistan is an active sanctuary for the Taliban and is struggling against the ‘Talibanization’ of their side of the frontier. … Pakistani madrassas [Koranic schools] continue to get the very bright sons of the Afghan rural areas because of poverty and lack of a proper Afghan educational system.”
Gen. McCaffrey said there were two obstacles on the unmarked Pakistani-Afghan border. First of all, the border — a long, 1,400-mile line through deserts and mountains that peak at 15,000 feet — does not exist. A British colonial official and an Afghan king drew an arbitrary line on a map in 1893 and agreed it would be the border for the next 100 years. The Pashtun tribes are the same on both sides.
Second, the Pakistani army has lost some 700 men killed and several thousand wounded while trying to establish control over its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) where Taliban and al Qaeda call the shots among tribal fundamentalists.
Recently, some 400 tribal leaders held a jirga in North Waziristan with Mr. Musharraf’s representative and demanded dismantling of all army checkpoints and return all troops to their base camp. Mr. Musharraf’s answer was to move 10,000 additional troops to FATA, for a total of 90,000.
Taliban will soon adopt a strategy of “waiting us out,” Gen. McCaffrey predicted. Anyone who has spent any time in Afghanistan in recent years says, “Afghans know the foreigners will leave sooner or later and Taliban is here to stay.” That was why Gen. McCaffrey recommended a firm, irrevocable minimum of 10- to 15-year U.S. and NATO commitment to see Afghanistan locked in to a democratic future.
Arrayed against a resurgent Taliban, Gen. McCaffrey says, “We have a very, very small U.S. military presence [17,000 troops] in a giant and dangerous land which is one-third larger than Iraq [the size of Texas]. U.S. forces face thousands of heavily armed Taliban as well as pervasive criminal and Warlord forces. … Afghanistan is awash with weapons. Taliban suicide bombings and IEDs are now constant and rapidly growing in intensity and effectiveness.”
“NATO forces will face a great challenge during the coming 24 months as ISAF assumes total responsibility for the security situation,” the general’s report stated. “The training and partnership of the Afghan Forces will require at least five years of continued robust U.S. military presence.”
“In my view,” Mr. McCaffrey continued, “the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan requires a continuing division-sized U.S. military force with at least six ground combat battalions supported by significant U.S. Army aviation (gunships and transport helicopters), engineers, USAF CAS and C-130/AC-130, civil affairs, military police, reconnaissance, intelligence, logistics, and 155mm and MLRS artillery support.”
Also needed, he wrote, is “a continued robust presence of Special Operations Forces for counterterrorist unilateral action. These SOCOM Forces are inspiring for their incredible professionalism in stealthy air-ground actions supported by superb intelligence. They are very judicious in their employment of force. They are, in my judgment, the most dangerous people on the face of the Earth.
“We will encounter some very unpleasant surprises in the coming 24 months that will require U.S. fighting forces which can respond rapidly throughout this huge and chaotic country to preserve and nurture the enormous successes of the past five years. The Afghan national leadership is collectively terrified that we will tip-toe out of Afghanistan in the coming few years — leaving NATO holding the bag — and the whole thing will again collapse into mayhem. They do not believe the U.S. has made a strategic commitment to stay with them for the 15 years required to create an independent, functional nation-state, which can survive in this dangerous part of the world,” he stated.
Afghanistan remains “devastated by the peril of half a million land mines, which kill and maim hundreds a year. The country also produces 90 percent of the world’s opium poppy [4,500 tons a year], and is the world’s largest heroin producing and trafficking country. Which accounts for at least half the GDP — and buys the Taliban’s guns envied by ANA.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.