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An Afghan Taliban commander feels NATO’s heat, but it could backfire

Commander H. is nervous.

He rarely sleeps twice in the same place, and tosses away his cellphones almost as often as he changes houses. He can’t stay in close contact with the foot soldiers who report to him. And he wonders, sometimes uneasily, whether his leaders are looking to cut a deal with the people who are trying to kill him.

Midlevel Taliban field operatives such as Commander H., who leads a cell of fighters outside the southern city of Kandahar, are acutely aware that they are being hunted more intensely than ever before: The NATO-led force in Afghanistan says that in the last three months, it has killed or captured hundreds of insurgent commanders and thousands of lower-level fighters.

Increasingly, the Western alliance’s effort to find a way out of the deadlocked conflict in Afghanistan centers on a two-track approach: seeking to devastate the Taliban field-command structure while trying to woo the movement’s leaders to the bargaining table. But some analysts, officials, diplomats and other observers say this strategy could backfire, perhaps even providing the insurgency with fresh impetus, stronger motivation and more recruits.

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They point out that the loose and decentralized nature of the insurgency means that many of those on the battlefield have no real pipeline to the upper echelon. And it is not at all clear that the Taliban fighters on the ground feel it’s time to make a deal.

Commander H., for example, insists that his troops are ready to continue the battle, and says that he himself could be readily replaced if he were killed or captured.

He succeeded an older cousin who was killed last year, and said avenging that death and other killings and destruction of property guides his belief that the fight must go on until all foreign troops have left Afghan soil.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force routinely reports the capture or death of several Taliban “leaders” a day, wording that suggests they are senior figures, with a role in shaping the movement’s overall aims. But Commander H., answering questions through an intermediary, described his role in the fighting in almost workaday terms.

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He and others like him, he said, are men who organize the planting of roadside bombs, the Taliban’s signature weapon. They move arms from one place to another; they keep Western troops in their district under close surveillance; they stage occasional ambushes, often merely to give the impression that their own numbers are greater than they actually are.

Western officials contend that the high-tempo campaign of targeted strikes on operatives such as Commander H. is sowing doubt and disarray in the ranks of the Taliban. And that, they believe, is key to “softening up” the insurgency, making its leaders more receptive to peace overtures.

More explicitly than at any point in the 9-year-old war, senior U.S. and other Western officials are describing a negotiated settlement with the Taliban as not only necessary but perhaps inevitable. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has disclosed that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force had gone so far as to ensure safe passage for high-level Taliban figures to informal meetings between them and associates of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

But the Afghan government’s much-touted effort to lure insurgents from the battlefield with financial and other incentives has largely foundered, despite Western encouragement and cash commitments. When asked about the government “reconciliation” program, Commander H. laughed.

He also suggested that he and fellow fighters, facing heavy pressure from the large-scale Western offensive in Kandahar province, would fall back on a favored tactic: melting away in the face of superior force, then reinfiltrating when it suited them.

“We have long experience in this,” he said. “We can change our location, we can come and go, we can leave behind land mines that will kill them. Yes, they are many, but with only a few, we can make great problems for them.”

Western and Afghan officials are increasingly touting their success against the Taliban command structure, especially in the south.

“Their networks have been shattered,” Col. Nasrullah Garumsir, a senior police official in Kandahar, told reporters last week.

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Those familiar with the Taliban’s inner workings acknowledge that the effects of NATO’s campaign against the Islamic movement’s field leaders are being felt, but doubted that battle fatigue or losses in the lower command ranks alone would bring the militants to the bargaining table.

“Of course it makes it more difficult to fight, to stay organized, when commanders are getting killed,” said Waheed Mojda, a member of the Taliban government that was ousted in 2001. “But experience shows they can always find new ones.”

Taliban leaders believe they have made significant gains, both in territorial terms and their ability to bloody the NATO force. They point with satisfaction to Western combat deaths, which are running at their highest levels since the start of the war, and the fact that they have been able to push into more parts of the country during the last two years, even as the Western force was doubling in size.

Observers also point out that one of the Taliban movement’s hallmarks is its ability to regenerate itself. It bounced back, after all, from the devastating blow of the U.S.-led invasion, steadily gaining strength over the last several years.

“In 2006, officials were estimating that the Taliban were as low as a few thousand strong, and today [the NATO force] estimates the Taliban as 35,000 to 40,000,” said Matthew Waldman, an analyst who recently wrote a report on the prospect of negotiations. “One of the points we have to bear in mind is they have a very large pool of recruits inside Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Furthermore, as Waldman and others point out, the emerging commanders are younger and in many cases more hard-line than their pragmatic elder brothers, the ones being killed and captured. The average age of midlevel commanders is thought to have dropped from the mid-30s to the mid-20s.

But strong Taliban denials that contacts are taking place suggest that the leadership is worried about a loss of morale in the ranks if preliminary talks turn into real negotiations.

“We hope this is not the truth, that this talk of negotiations is propaganda and rumors,” said Commander H. “Because the infidels are still here in the land.”

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laura.king@latimes.com


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