Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
When almost 500 insurgents crawled their way to freedom this week through a dirt tunnel built by the Taliban under the walls of Kandahar’s main jail, news came fast — from the Taliban.
And when an Afghan Air Force pilot shot dead eight American troops and a civilian contractor at Kabul airport on Wednesday, the earliest guide to what would be the eventual casualty count came also from the Taliban, hours ahead of NATO confirmations.
The insurgency seems to be making a concerted effort to improve the quality of its breaking news communications, perhaps recognising that the first word often hits hardest.
And NATO, with its vast resources and innumberable media advisers, is struggling to keep up.
The insurgency in the past has always cloaked its victories in hyperbole, making nonsensical claims of enemies killed or wounded, destroying the credibility of the message.
It still does.
But with the mass escape Kandahar, which itself seemed too fantastical to believe at first, the claims in unusually clear English of more than 500 fighters freed proved very close to the eventual security forces mark of around 488.
And while it’s still uncertain how the insurgency knew of the pilot’s attack inside the military airport (was someone actually watching?), their early numbers for those killed were far closer than ISAF’s.
NATO’s vast media machine feeds out a daily diet of the mundane, and at times vies with the Taliban for Orwellian claims. Try this selection of recent headlines:
* “Attack on Ministry of Defence is no threat to transition. Despite public skepticism in light of the insurgent attack on the Afghan Ministry of Defense on Monday, MoD and International Security Assistance Force spokesmen say everything is on track for transition to begin.
* “Taliban attacked on multiple fronts. As Taliban fighters increasingly intimidate and launch attacks on civilian populations, village elders and residents, known as Guardians of Peace, are reporting insurgent activities to the Afghan National Security Forces, Afghanistan’s True Protectors.”
* “The first step towards a great cooperation. The first-ever Public Affairs meeting of Herat city was held today afternoon at Regional Command-West Headquarters at Camp Arena.”
Buts ISAF’s unwillingness to provide timely information on attacks means it is the Taliban’s voice that is often heard first in early stories. NATO information often comes late in the day or even at night, well behind the news cycle.
NATO claims often in its daily operational roundups to have killed Taliban or al Qaeda “facilitators”, a bizarrely vague description for insurgent organisers and weapons suppliers.
But as the conflict in Afghanistan intensifies ahead of a transition to full Afghan security control from 2014, a little more media facilitation of its own would not go astray to help build international confidence in the course of the war.
The U.S. military has stopped the Taliban momentum in southern Afghanistan, and is probably starting to reverse it following the surge, according to a study we wrote about this week here. The view from the ground, though, is much less rosy.
Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy has published a paper under its Afghan Voices series looking at how ordinary Afghans view the current round of military operations centred around Kandahar.
The American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War has a new report out that says rather unequivocally that the United States is starting to turn the war around in southern Afghanistan following the surge. Since the deployment of U.S. Marines to Helmand in 2009 and the launch of an offensive there followed by operations in Kandahar, the Taliban has effectively lost all its main safe havens in the region, authors Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan argue.
The Taliban assassination squad in Kandahar has ben dismantled, the insurgents’ ability to acquire, transport and use IED materials and other weapons has been disrupted, and narcotics facilitators and financiers who link the drug market to the insurgency have been aggressively targeted. Above all, NATO and Afghan forces continue to hold all the areas they have cleared in the two provinces, arguably the heart of the insurgency, which is a significant departure from the past.
The United States is introducing tanks into the fight against the Taliban in the Afghan south for the first time since 2001, but the logic behind the move is still being hotly debated.
One of the reasons advanced is that the arrival of the M1 Abrams tank, propelled by a jet engine and armed with a 120mm gun that can destroy a house more than a mile away, is going to shake up the battlefield. “The tanks bring awe, shock and firepower,” The Washington Post quoted a senior U.S. officer based in Afghanistan as saying. “It’s pretty significant.”
U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan will have to demonstrate basic proficiency in Dari, the lingua franca of the country, Mother Jones reports. It’s the latest of the orders issued by commander of U.S. and NATO forces, General David Petraeus, in a late bid to bridge the gulf with citizens. “Even a few phrases really breaks the ice and just shows good intentions,” Petraeus says in an interview on the U.S. army- run Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System. Here’s the video.
Is it too little, too late ? Some military experts point out that just about half of Afghanistan speaks Dari. Over a third speak Pashto, followed by Turkic languages including Uzbek and Turkmen and then 30 minor languages according to the CIA’ Factbook. Are the soldiers going to learn a smattering of these languages too, especially Pashto, the language of the original Afghan Taliban and other Pashtuns who straddle both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border ?
I was embedded with Western troops a few days ago. Beforehand I was warned of austere living conditions at the combat outpost. I thought about the agony — since I suffer from technophobia — of filing stories through a satellite phone in the scorching heat.
As I rolled out my sleeping bag I noticed all the soldiers had mosquito nets over theirs. Actually, they were there to keep camel spiders and scorpions away. It was remote as can be. Grape fields, mountains and villages with mud brick huts with, probably, no electricity.
Walking into a mess hall at Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan can be confusing.
Soldiers from NATO countries, walking in all directions, have plenty to choose from. Asian workers load heaps of food on plates as long rows of soldiers wait patiently. There is the salad bar. The fruit bar. The bread toasting area. In the centre of mess halls are short order cooks who make stir fry meals, for instance. The drinks section offers everything from apple to multi-vitamin juices to chilled milk.
I was with Western forces the other day as they tried to persuade a group of Afghan farmers to come to them for help if they saw Taliban militants plant an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) or intimidated them.
A team of U.S. geologists and Pentagon officials have concluded that Afghanistan is sitting on untapped mineral deposits worth more than $1 trillion, officials said. The deposits of iron, copper, cobalt and critical industrial elements such as lithium are enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the war itself, the officials said.
Lithium is a key raw material for the manufacture of batteries for laptops and mobile phones, and the potential reserves of the metal are so huge that the country may well become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium”, a Pentagon memo said.
If you still thought things hadn’t dramatically changed on the Afghan chessboard ever since U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans to begin pulling out from mid-2011, you only need to look at President Hamid Karzai’s recent utterances, or more accurately the lack of it, on the Taliban and Pakistan, the other heavyweights on the stage.
For months Karzai has gone noticeably quiet on Pakistan, refusing to excoriate the neighbour for aiding the Taliban as he routinely did in the past, The Guardian quoted a source close to the country’s former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh as saying.