Taliban Back-Up Plan: Unleash the Assassins

The Taliban can’t lose and can’t win. Now it’s shifted to other deadly tactics.

Taliban Back-Up Plan: Unleash the Assassins Taliban Back-Up Plan: Unleash the Assassins
Afghan National Police. Air Force Photo Taliban Back-Up Plan: Unleash the Assassins The Taliban can’t lose and can’t win. Now it’s shifted to other... Taliban Back-Up Plan: Unleash the Assassins
Afghan National Police. Air Force Photo

Taliban Back-Up Plan: Unleash the Assassins

The Taliban can’t lose and can’t win. Now it’s shifted to other deadly tactics.

On the morning of July 27, Brig. Gen. Asadullah Sherzad drove over a bomb.

Sherzad, the chief of security for Afghanistan’s northern Baghlan province, is a frequent target for bombings — it was his second in two months. As his convoy passed over a bridge, a bomb hidden underneath exploded. “It was very close,” police spokesman Ahmad Jawed Basharat told AFP. Had Sherzad’s car been traveling slightly slower, he likely would have been injured or killed.

Two civilians nearby died in the blast.

Farther to the north in neighboring Samangan province, the same day as the bombing in Baghlan, the Taliban detonated a bomb next to the provincial governor as he traveled to work. It was another near-miss. “They escaped this time, but they will be punished and killed the next time,” the Taliban’s spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, threatened in a statement.

For years the Taliban has used assassination as a weapon to raise the cost of securing Afghanistan for U.S. and Afghan forces, and to exercise ruthless control over Taliban-held territory. But the attempts — like the one on Sherzad’s life — are now occurring at an accelerating rate. There have been more than 300 targeted killings this year, in contrast to the 80 similar reported killings four years ago, according to new data from the United Nations.

The attacks are also increasing inside Kabul, which is widely considered one of the least violent areas in the entire country, with better security and the Afghan government’s best U.S.-trained and equipped troops standing guard. It’s a cloudier element of the war in the capital, where spectacular — but sporadic — daylight attacks are more visible.

And it’s even worse everywhere else.

A simulated checkpoint attack on Afghan Local Police. Combined Joint Special Operations Force Afghanistan photo

Targeted killings

Hard data from the war has become murkier. The U.S. plans to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, which means Afghan forces are waging a greater and greater share of the conflict — still backed by U.S. Special Operations Forces and drones, of course. Part of the transition has also included the once-regular reports detailing insurgent attacks.

“[Enemy-initiated attacks] are now primarily an ANSF reporting responsibility,” the Pentagon stated in its latest bi-annual report on Afghanistan. The problem is that the Afghan government does not regularly report these things.

What’s left are reports from NGOs and the United Nations. According to the latest data set from the U.N., attacks against Afghan troops and civilians are escalating. Civilians killed by improvised explosives have jumped, as have assassinations of Afghans deemed loyal to the government by the Taliban. In the rural and agricultural Logar province, targeting killings jumped 367 percent compared to the previous year.

U.S. forces have made Logar’s Baraki Barak district a test case for the build-up of Afghan forces. The initiative has included bolstering provincial councils comprised of village elders. On June 16 in Baraki Barak, the Taliban shot two of the elders.

The killings reflect a changing dynamic. There are fewer air attacks by the U.S. and NATO, fewer bombings of NATO troops by the Taliban — according to the U.N. — but there’s an increase in both “targeted killings and ground engagements,” partly reflecting battles fought by Afghan troops.

Assassination is also a tactic when you can’t win battles. If the Taliban can’t beat the U.S., and runs into trouble against U.S.-backed Afghan troops, then it can exert influence by other lethal means.

Afghan police officer in bomb suit on July 4, 2013. Army photo

Remotely-detonated

Bombings are an all-too frequent means to carry out a killing. It’s highly lethal, effective against moving vehicles, and it’s relatively easy for the assassin to escape unnoticed.

Over a decade of war in Afghanistan, the bombs used by the Taliban have been relatively cruder than the kind the U.S. once encountered in Iraq. Instead of a remote trigger like a cell phone or radio, the Taliban’s bombs are more often triggered by command wire or a pressure plate. The bomb itself? A plastic jug containing fertilizer or potassium chlorate — a chemical used in fireworks and matches. The whole device is cheap, simple to build and impossible to jam with electronic countermeasures.

The method of triggering the blast, however, is becoming more sophisticated. The U.N. documents a 130-percent increase in civilian casualties caused by remote-triggered explosives — many of the devices used against soldiers and police, but also as weapons to assassinate individuals. Many of those killed in the attacks are not the intended target.

On June 18, Mohammad Mohaqiq — a prominent member of of the Afghan parliament and a one-time vice-president — was traveling through Kabul in a convoy when a remotely-detonated bomb exploded. Mohaqiq was unscathed except for a slight burn on his coat. “The intelligence agency was sending letters that I should be careful,” Mohaqiq told AFP. Three others died.

To counter the threat, the U.S. is supplying more jamming devices to Afghan troops. These can scram electronic signals, blocking the bombs from exploding. But most Afghan troops do not know how to properly use or maintain the devices, and are as likely to shoot at a bomb with their rifles as anything else.

There’s also a propaganda reason for the Taliban’s tactic: remote-detonated bombs are a way for the Taliban to say they’re merely targeting corrupt, foreign-backed officials. Never mind that civilians are being butchered by the bombs.

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