Afghanistan: Special note. Lessons from the PBS show, Frontline, titled Behind Taliban Lines.
The first-hand video by Najibullah Quraishi is worth viewing on the PBS home page where it was posted today. Quraishi accepted an invitation by a Hizbe Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) commander to live with a HIG anti-government fighting unit in Baghlan Province. Until the arrival of two men from Pakistan on his tenth day, he had unrestricted permission to video record the fighters.
During his ten days with the fighters, they attacked once. Their primary task was to detonate two homemade bombs on an improved road and destroy “enemy” vehicles.
A few points are worth noting.
Identification of the force. First, this video is the first open source medium to identify the affiliation of the fighters in Baghlan Province, a northern province south of Konduz that has experienced a rise in fighting in the past two years. They are not Taliban, but they are Pashtuns. They called themselves the Central Group, in the sense of the leadership or coordinating group, though no significant coordination with other groups took place in the ten days.
Leadership. The video confirmed that the Central Group is led by a local man and at least some of its members were locals. They were protected or given refuge by villagers who formed for the camera at least a part time militia that claim to support the Central Group.
Walk to work. It also showed that the men walk to their attack sites, sometimes six to ten kilometers. Vehicles in this video were for courier duties or for travel to meetings, to get guns and so on. The HIG are bureaucratic and decentralized.
Communications. The video illustrated the importance of cell phones for coordination and communicating targeting information. One informant who relayed targeting information was a child who apparently spies on US vehicle movements and reports them to a central figure who relayed the information to the cell commander. Cell phones are an enabling technology that makes banditry and thuggery look like jihad.
A living system. The Central Group lives in a living system and survives on subsystems that process information, matter and energy, as do all living systems. The video captured the systemic nature of an Afghan fighting unit perfectly. It is a parasite on village life, but the villagers do not seem to mind because the parasites preach jihad.
Homemade Bombmaking. The scenes on bomb construction were classic. Six men were involved in making two homemade bombs from old ordnance. One filled the shell and tamped the powder around the fuse. Another poured powder using his hand. A third taped the device closed. A fourth used his teeth to strip the wire to attach the remote control device. Another man made the remote control device – he was one of two with more or less expert knowledge. A different man encoded the detonator – the second man with expert knowledge.
Morale. The fighting cell was instructed and encouraged by a man who acted as the chaplain. The attempt to detonate homemade bombs was close to a comedy routine. It failed but the men reported great success to their overall commander. The Central Group members were brave, however, just to attempt the roadside bombing with almost no cover. Some might call this foolish.
Force Size and Periodicity of Attacks. The overall commander claimed to control 3-4,000 fighters, a significant force, but the video never captured more than 30 – 40 men and usually no more than 15. These data tend to confirm the rule of thumb of old hands that any Afghan numbers must be divided by 100 to get a reasonable estimate. A periodicity of ten days between attacks is sustainable by a force of 40 men.
Tactical Combat Radius. While US and other NATO forces patrol every day, most of the time between attacks the Central Group relocated within a rather limited region, possibly only ten kilometers across; did some teaching and backed up various imams in local dispute settlement.
The limited combat radius of the Central Group was confirmed when Quraishi recorded the attack on the local police headquarters some days after he left the Central Group. That attack suggested the periodicity of attacks by this group was probably closer to 15 days. The Central Group is territorial and its territory is rather limited, probably by the size of the villages that support and hide it.
It is roughly comparable to a market area in which the fighting group goes to the fringe of the area to do business.
Targeting. The video of the “overrun” police station confirmed that the Afghan police practice is to remain in the station house until summoned. They respond to crime; they do not have doctrine that prescribes preventing crime by patrolling. That makes the 8 policemen sitting ducks for an attack by 30 -40 members of the Central Group. All eight were killed in an attack after Quraishi departed.
Central Group is tactically inept, but can manage to overrun an outnumbered police contingent trained in all the wrong things and poorly armed and led. Even villagers knew where they were and actually disrupted the bombing for a time by walking in the way.
Comments: The Central Group essentially looked parasites who justified their burden on the village by using the word jihad. In fact there was not much evidence of jihad and more than a little indolence. That is not to deny the Group’s bravery, armed so lightly and so poorly trained.
It is interesting to note they performed very poorly against higher technology targets. Against more or less symmetrical targets – local Afghan policemen — in a direct fire attack with better guns and overwhelming force, they did better, as they should. In southern and eastern Afghanistan, the pattern would be much different.
They said they were attacking the main northern supply route, but the road they tried to mine was not that road, but some access road to a forward post. They regularly exaggerated the importance of their targets and their results. Theirs were low risk operations, a point actually made by the man on the other end of the cell phone when the roadside bombing attack failed.
The Afghan police officer in charge told Quraishi at one point that there was no problem in his area. Quraishi’s coverage of that exchange implied that the police knew little about the real situation. That is probably an egregious distortion. Local police usually have arrangements with any local anti-government element and know as much about the region as the anti-government men do. Even the local villagers and children knew about the HIG unit. Afghan police are corrupt, not stupid.
The police officer had the good sense to appreciate the significance of his remarks being recorded. In contrast, the Central Group had to be admonished by two men from Pakistan before kicking Quraishi out.
In all, the video provided an excellent insight into the nature of the fighting below the District level.