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The War Through the Taliban’s Eyes

Whatever you do, don’t miss The New York Times’ epic interview with a Pakistani Taliban tactician about what has become “a seamless conflict” on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The tactician is based out of Wana, in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, but spends much of his time focused on Afghanistan. His superiors, for instance, are tied to the network of longtime Afghanistan guerilla Jalaleddin Haqqani. As my friend Chris Albritton suggests at his new blog, Insurgency Watch, much of what the tactician says will be familiar to students of the counterinsurgent Dave Kilcullen. But here’s the highlight reel.

1. Paying off tribal elders won’t work. Gen. David Petraeus’ strategy in Iraq of exploiting and deepening fractures in both the Iraqi insurgency and its base of support provoked study in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The tactician says that Petraeus, now the head of U.S. Central Command, can try it in Afghanistan, but he should just expect to be throwing money around. “We know our Afghans,” he says. “They will take the money from Petraeus, but they will not be on his side. There are so many people working with the Afghans and the Americans who are on their payroll, but they inform us, sell us weapons.”

2. The drone strikes actually work, to a degree. In Pakistan, the CIA’s missile strikes from pilotless drones have caused controversy, both within Pakistan, where civilian casualties are fuel for the insurgency, and among American strategists, who debate their utility both within that context and against the stark fact that U.S. combat troops largely can’t operate in Pakistan. The tactician gives the drones their due, saying they’re “very effective,” and that they’ve thinned the ranks of al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership. (All of which suggests the United States has a significant intelligence base within Pakistan after all. Otherwise, the drones wouldn’t know what to hit.) But:

The drone attacks simply prompted Taliban fighters to spend more time in Afghanistan, or to move deeper into Pakistan, straddling both theaters of a widening conflict. The recruits were prepared to fight where they were needed, in either country, he said.

Within this framework, the drones appear to be the newest hammer with which to play whack-a-mole, which is an unsustainable and insufficient long-term strategy. In Wana, he says, “the gossip has finished,” meaning people don’t gather in large groups for fear of being blown up by drones.” The tactician apparently views that as a win for the United States, but in the longer term, it poses a clear risk to U.S. or Pakistani efforts to cleave the populace from the Taliban.

3. The Taliban is not al-Qaeda. The goals of the Taliban in what The Times says the tactician sees as “one fluid and sprawling war” are to drive the United States out of Afghanistan and to take over Pakistan. What they’re not is to attack the United States at home. The Times describes the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban as “respectful but distant.” Al-Qaeda’s operatives don’t “tell us their activities,” he said. While he respects al-Qaeda’s “ambitions,” he said the Taliban will be “content in capturing Afghanistan and throwing the Americans out,” and destabilizing the Pakistani government. But when al-Qaeda needs a suicide bomber, the Taliban supplies the recruits.

4. The Taliban is in your village already. The tactician’s spent the last month moving about 80 fighters from Pakistan into Afghanistan to combat the American troop increase. They move into Afghan villages and spend four to six months getting to know the locals, who become the Taliban support base. By contrast, how much time do U.S. troops and development workers, who rarely speak the language, spend with the villagers?

5. It’s not hard to get over on the Pakistani Frontier Corps. Meet the force that the U.S. is relying on to conduct counterinsurgency operations in Pakistan.

The Taliban tactician said getting his fighters over the border was not a problem. The Pakistani paramilitary soldiers from the Frontier Corps who guard the border were too busy looking after their own survival, he said.

**6. The near-term Taliban goal in Afghanistan is to control the Kabul-Kandahar highway. **It’s Afghanistan’s major artery for transportation of people and commerce, and the United States has long known its strategic importance to both the Afghan government and the insurgency. That’s why the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division was ordered to deploy to the Logar-Wardak region late last year — so it could sit on that highway. The Taliban intends to harass and inflict as much damage along that highway to U.S. forces as it can. “We want to inflict maximum trouble, to lower their morale, to destabilize,” the tactician says. That includes making movies. They’re increasing their strategic communication efforts, bringing “cameramen instructed to capture video of faltering American soldiers” alongside their operations in order to make and distribute DVDs.

That in turn raises the question of why the tactician is bothering to talk to a reporter at all. Clearly he sees value in spreading this message. Perhaps what he’s saying is interspersed with false statements; it certainly can’t represent a complete account of the situation. But dismissing the report carries its own attendant risks, not least of which is willful blindness. Jane Perlez and Pir Zuzbair Shah of The Times deserve a tremendous amount of credit for what must have been an arduous report to put together, to say nothing of the personal danger they probably faced in doing so.

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