The Taliban, Regrouped And Rearmed

By Peter Bergen
Sunday, September 10, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan

The interpreter's hand-held radio crackled with the sound of intercepted Taliban transmissions, and he signaled the infantry patrol to wait while he translated. At 7 a.m. one morning late in the summer, peasants were already out scything wheat, with their children tending fields of pink and white poppies that would soon add to Afghanistan's record-setting opium and heroin supplies. We were 9,000 feet up, in the hamlet of Larzab, in a remote part of Zabul province -- the heart of Talibanland.

Our interpreter, Mohammed, estimated that the Taliban fighters were less than half a mile away. We walked through the fields for 20 more minutes before stopping next to a small hill. The chatter revealed that the Taliban were "watching us and waiting for us to get closer," Maj. Ralph Paredes explained to me as his men radioed to their base the likely coordinates of the hidden fighters. Soldiers back at the base -- a mud-walled compound without electricity or water -- fired mortar rounds over our heads to a hill several hundred meters from our position, where the Taliban might be hiding. We never learned whether they found their target.

Just one more patrol, and one more skirmish, in Afghanistan's war -- a conflict in which the fighting and ferocity are regaining strength with each passing month. Indeed, the U.S. military and NATO are now battling the Taliban on a scale not witnessed since 2001, when the war here began, and are increasingly fighting them in remote areas such as Larzab where the Taliban once roamed freely.

When I traveled in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003, the Taliban threat had receded into little more than a nuisance. But now the movement has regrouped and rearmed. Bolstered by a compliant Pakistani government, hefty cash inflow from the drug trade and a population disillusioned by battered infrastructure and lackluster reconstruction efforts, the Taliban is back -- as is Afghanistan's once forgotten war.

In the past three months alone, coalition forces have killed more than 1,000 Taliban fighters, according to Col. Tom Collins, a U.S. military spokesman, while the religious militia has killed dozens of coalition troops and hundreds of Afghan civilians, spreading a climate of fear throughout the country. And suicide attacks in Afghanistan have risen from single digits two years ago to more than 40 already this year. Most of the victims are civilians -- including more than a dozen bystanders who were killed here Friday when a bomb-laden car struck a convoy of armored U.S. vehicles just 200 yards from the U.S. Embassy; the attack also killed two U.S. soldiers and wounded a third. Half an hour after the blast, I watched as firefighters hosed down the streets, which were littered with shards of blackened metal and singed body parts.

I recently traveled to Afghanistan for three weeks, meeting with government officials, embedding with U.S. soldiers from the 2-4 Infantry and interviewing senior American military officers. I found that while the Taliban may not constitute a major strategic threat to President Hamid Karzai's government, they have become a serious tactical challenge for U.S. and NATO troops, as the war here intensifies. And their threat is only amplified by their ubiquity and invisibility.

"In this place, they are everywhere," explained Mohammed, our interpreter. "They are sitting here as a farmer. Then they are Taliban."

When I visited Zabul province in July, Lt. Col. Frank Sturek was in charge of U.S. military operations there. Sturek, from Aberdeen, Md., earned his insurgent-fighting stripes in Mosul, Iraq, under the tutelage of Lt. Gen. David Petraeus. When I spoke to Sturek, he had recently lost two of his men in firefights with the Taliban. In a nighttime interview conducted by flashlight in the mud compound, Sturek described a two-hour struggle on July 19 against about 120 Taliban who were armed with mortars, recoil-less rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Judging from newly dug graves, Sturek estimated 35 to 40 Taliban had been killed.

Despite their numerous casualties, the Taliban are much more willing than Iraqi insurgents to engage in pitched battles, Sturek said. "These guys will mix it up," he said, "and they use a lot more direct fire." In the five months he had been in Afghanistan, he noted, none of the Taliban fighters his men had fought had ever surrendered.

Echoing all other U.S. officers I interviewed in Afghanistan, Sturek emphasized that the Taliban threat required a political solution, not a military one, and that expanding the U.S. presence and reconstruction efforts into remote areas would win the long-term conflict. "You can win every firefight you want, but the battle is in these villages," he said. "This is where you change the minds of the people -- or at least create a doubt that the Taliban are not preaching the right message."

A political solution is also the mantra of the U.S. commanding officer in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, an intense, intellectual soldier who speaks Mandarin and is on his second tour in the country. Over coffee in his Kabul office, he said that the situation in Afghanistan still looks reasonably optimistic. "I tell everyone don't look at the snapshot," he said. "Look at the movie called Afghanistan."

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