Wardak province, a rustic region of verdant dales and twisting streams that borders Kabul, is home to one of the untold stories of the Afghan war: over the last nine months, U.S. forces have quietly decapitated the Taliban’s leadership in the area. Through dozens of nighttime raids, U.S. Special Operations Forces have succeeded in killing or capturing a number of important Taliban commanders. Dozens of notorious insurgent leaders who have ruled Wardak for five or six years unmolested have suddenly been removed from the picture, marking one of the biggest setbacks the Taliban has faced on the ground in recent times.
The list of the killed Taliban reads like a who’s who of the movement’s prominent figures in Wardak. There is Mullah Yassin, killed in October; Yassin, a notoriously cruel commander with a penchant for young boys, was widely feared and hated by the population. In addition to organizing attacks on convoys, his men routinely kidnapped engineers and doctors. In the weeks since he was killed, nine of his subcommanders were killed as well. There is also Maulavi Sharif, the head commander of insurgent forces in Nirkh district. Sharif was killed in a night raid in November. A number of subcommanders of Ustad Yassir, a senior Taliban leader based in Pakistan, have also been killed.
Dozens of others have been detained. Maulavi Sher Ahmed, a popular commander, was nabbed in a night raid in Nirkh district. Ahmed headed Wardak’s religious police during the Taliban days and enjoyed good relations with tribal elders. Mullah Rohullah, one of the province’s most prominent commanders, was captured early this year. He headed the Taliban’s Military Commission in Wardak, which was responsible for directing overall strategy and deciding on the fates of prisoners. His deputy (and cousin) Mullah Ghafor, a hated figure known for his fire-scarred face, was apprehended with him.
The list goes on. But despite such stunning military successes, locals in Wardak say that the political and security situation on the ground has not changed at all. The Taliban still control the majority of the province. The American presence is still deeply resented. And the police are still widely viewed as corrupt and predatory. In short, the U.S. has been unable to transform a military success into a political one, and the reasons why point to the deeper challenges confronting the entire American effort here.
First, the Taliban often replace leaders as fast as the Americans remove them. A steady flow of recruits from Peshawar has come to Wardak in recent months, ready to fill the shoes of their predecessors. These newcomers are often much younger, more disconnected from traditional Afghan society and more radical than the previous generation. They are more careful than their predecessors, often spending more time in the mountains. They are able to very quickly resuscitate the groups of the fallen commanders, or form new groups. They are able to draw from the large pool of young Wardak men who are jobless, bored, fed up with the American presence, disillusioned with the local government, or just looking to make a quick buck.
Second, killing insurgent leaders comes with a heavy price. For every raid that succeeds in killing or capturing a Taliban commander, there are others that get the wrong person. Such was the case of Hajji Ghani Khan, a deaf, 90-year-old tribal elder who was widely respected in his native Chak district of Wardak. U.S. forces killed Khan earlier this spring in a night raid. Dozens of others civilians in the province have shared his fate in the past few months, prompting repeated angry popular outbursts.
U.S. forces rely on a network of informers to find targets for their raids. But with tribal feuds, clan rivalries, grudges from 30 years of warfare, disputes over land and water rights and frequent opportunities to exploit the current state of lawlessness, garnering accurate battlefield intelligence is exceedingly difficult. It’s simply far too easy for someone to settle a land dispute, or get even with his enemy, by accusing them of being connected to insurgents and having the U.S. forces take care of the rest. The result is that civilians keep getting killed as the raids continue.
Third, a military success must leave viable political structures in its wake for it to be lasting. But such structures are scarce in Wardak (or in much of the rest of the country). Locals say that the police steal and kill with impunity. Earlier this month U.S. forces apprehended a 12th-grade student named Azim in Wardak’s Jaghatu district because he had Taliban propaganda videos on his cell phone (which many Wardak civilians have). After interrogation they turned him over to the Afghan National Police, who accused him of being a Taliban member, summarily executed him and dumped his bullet-ridden body by the roadside with a note pinned to his body warning others that they would share Azim’s fate if they opposed the police.
It would be useful to keep this in mind as the U.S. prepares for a massive push in Kandahar this summer. Special forces have prepared the ground by launching a series of raids throughout the city and surrounding districts. In Senjaray, an insurgent hotbed a few miles west of the city, a number of leading Taliban commanders were nabbed in a series of recent raids. Other insurgent leaders have been killed in Arghandab, to the city’s north. But like in Wardak, for every few successful raids there are also those that go terribly wrong. In Kandahar city’s District 10, international forces recently detained eight people that the locals insist are civilians. During the raid, enraged neighbors called the Afghan police, who responded to the scene only to be shot at by the international troops. Two Afghan police officers were wounded in the attack.
And the governance challenges in Kandahar—where Ahmad Wali Karzai and other hated, pro-government strongmen reign with impunity—dwarf those of a provincial backwater like Wardak. U.S. military planners seem to have begun to understand this, as they have retreated from planning a full-on offensive in Kandahar in recent weeks to a much more modest series of operations in and around the city. The crux of the new push, officials say, will be a focus on “counterterrorism” strikes, such as targeted assassinations, coupled with efforts to rehabilitate local government. Such Taliban assassinations may count as military successes, but as with the famous reply of a North Vietnamese Army commander when told that his side never defeated the Americans in a battle, “That may be true. It is also irrelevant.”