In Afghan south, Taliban fill NATO's gaps
TSAPOWZAI, Afghanistan: The Taliban are everywhere the soldiers are not, the saying goes in the southern part of the country.
And that is a lot of places.
For starters, there is the 550 miles of border with Pakistan, where the Taliban's busiest infiltration routes lie.
"We're not there," said Brigadier General John Nicholson, the deputy commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. "The borders are wide open."
Then there is the 100-mile stretch of Helmand River running south from the town of Garmser, where the Taliban and their money crop, poppy, bloom in isolation.
"No one," Nicholson said, pointing to the area on the map.
Then there is Nimroz Province, all of it, which borders Iran. No troops there. And the Ghorak district northwest of Kandahar, which officers refer to as the "jet stream" for the Taliban fighters who flow through. Ditto the districts of Shah Wali Kot, Kharkrez and Nesh, where the presence of NATO troops is minimal or nil.
"We don't have enough forces to secure the population," Nicholson said.
The general is going to get a lot more troops very soon. American commanders in southern Afghanistan have been told to make plans to accept nearly all of the 20,000 to 30,000 additional troops that the Obama administration has agreed to deploy.
The influx promises to significantly reshape the environment of southern Afghanistan, the birthplace of the Taliban. The region now produces an estimated 90 percent of the world's opium, which bankrolls the Taliban.
While the American-led coalition holds the cities and highways, it appears to have ceded much of the countryside to the Taliban, because it lacks sufficient forces to confront them.
A force of about 20,000 American, British, Canadian and Dutch soldiers have been trying for years to secure the 78,000 square miles of villages, cities, mountains and deserts that make up southern Afghanistan. The region is one of the two centers of the Taliban insurgency, which has made a remarkable resurgence since being booted from power in November 2001.
The other center is in the eastern mountains, where 17,000 American troops are battling a multi-headed enemy, which includes Al Qaeda. Its operational center is based in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
Here in southern Afghanistan, the insurgency is home-grown and self-sustaining. The home village of the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is 30 miles from here. Poppy fields, now fallow in winter, dot the countryside here and in neighboring Helmand Province. The United Nations estimates that the opium trade provides the Taliban with about $300 million a year.
American commanders say the open borders allow the opium to move unimpeded into Pakistan and other places, and for weapons and other supplies to flow in. Five of the six busiest Taliban infiltration routes are in the south, American officers said.
"Drugs out," one American officer said, "guns in."
The commanders here call the current situation "stalemate," meaning they can hold what they have but cannot do much else. Of the 20,000 British, American and other troops here, only roughly 300 ? a group of British Royal Marines ? can be moved around the region to strike the Taliban. All the other units must stay where they are, lest the area they hold slip from their grasp.
It is perhaps in Kandahar, one of the provincial capitals, where the lack of troops is most evident. About 3,000 Canadian soldiers are assigned to secure the city, home to about 500,000 people. In a recent visit, this reporter traveled the city for five days and did not see a single Canadian soldier on the streets.
The lack of troops has allowed the Taliban to mount significant attacks inside the city. Two clerics who joined a pro-government advisory council, for instance, have been gunned down in the past two months, bringing the total to assassinated council members to 24. Over the summer, a Taliban force invaded Kandahar and stormed its main prison, freeing more than 1,200 inmates.
But whether extra troops will have the desired impact is unclear. Adding 20,000 new troops to the 20,000 Western soldiers already here ? in addition to an equal number of Afghan policemen and army personnel ? would bring the total to 60,000. The six provinces that comprise southern Afghanistan have a population of 3.2 million. In that case, the ratio of troops to population would just match that recommended by the United States Army's counterinsurgency manual: 50 people per soldier or police officer.
American commanders say the extra troops will better enable them to pursue a more sophisticated campaign against the insurgents; the overriding objective, rather than killing Taliban fighters, is to provide security for the civilian population and thereby isolate the insurgents.
Even so, many of the Western troops already here are not deployed among the population. And Afghanistan, with its predominantly rural population living in mostly small villages, presents unique challenges.
Across much of the countryside, the Taliban appear to hold the upper hand; not necessarily because they are popular, but because they are unopposed. Hediatullah Hediat, for instance, is a businessman from Musa Qala, a city in Helmand Province that was occupied by the Taliban for much of 2007 until the insurgents were expelled by British troops and the end of that year. (The British have about 8,000 troops in Helmand Province.) The British, Hediat said, control the center of Musa Qala and nothing more.
"The Taliban are everywhere," Hediat said in an interview in Kandahar, where he had come for business. "The Taliban are so near to the city that you can see them from the city itself. The British can see them. They can see each other."
Hediat said he had no great gripes with the British soldiers who were occupying the town ? for one thing, he said, they do not raid houses and peer at the women. But the biggest complaint, he said, was the Afghan the British installed as the district governor, Mullah Salam. The governor is unpopular and corrupt, demanding bribes and tributes from anyone who needs something.
"This is why people hate the British, because they put Mullah Salam in power, and they keep him there," he said.
In the mud-brick villages that line the Arghandab River, winning over the people is no easy job. The Taliban are here, in the villages; earlier this month, a suicide bomber killed two American soldiers and nine Afghans in the Maiwand bazaar. But the Taliban are mostly invisible.
On a recent foot patrol through the village of Tsapowzai, about thirty miles west of Kandahar, a platoon of American soldiers ventured inside and found empty streets. It was a sunny day. A pair of Afghans stared at them from a wheat field, and neither of them waved. No one stepped from his house to say hello.
"Where's everybody at, Jimmy?" Lieutenant Brian James asked a comrade.
"Don't know," Lieutenant James Holloway replied.
Finally, the soldiers came across three Afghan men. They were sitting on a blanket and listening to music on a radio. What followed seemed, more than anything, a game.
"So, seen any Taliban lately?" Holloway asked the men.
"We haven't seen the Taliban in eight months," a man named Niamatullah said, looking up.
"Do you ever see anyone moving through here at night?" Holloway asked.
"We don't go outside at night," said Niamatullah, who, like many Afghans, uses one name. "When we do, you guys search us and hold us for hours. And you never find anything."
Holloway shook his head.
"The last person we stopped in this village, we held for twenty minutes," the lieutenant said. "We never detain anyone."
"We are afraid of you," Niamatullah said.
"Is there a Taliban curfew?" Holloway asked.
"Only a man with a white shawl is allowed outside at night," Niamatullah said.
"A white shawl?" Holloway squinted.
Niamatullah did not offer to explain.
"But he has no gun, so you cannot detain him."
After several minutes, Holloway gave up.
"Everybody knows something," Holloway said, walking away, "But no one tells us anything."