SHARANA, Afghanistan — 1st Lt. Chip Heidt, his wire spectacles sliding down his wet nose in the hot midday sun, was walking with a purpose amid a stretch of the 20-foot-high mud walls in this Afghan town opposite Pakistan's lawless Waziristan tribal area. Heidt, 25, a scion of the Scripps newspaper family in Cincinnati, was on a foot patrol to gather local intelligence.
A man in a large beret waved him over and asked, "What will be the sign between us when the Taliban attack us here?" Heidt didn't have a ready answer. He had a question of his own, however, about the rumor that Taliban insurgents had beheaded an Afghan amid the scrub brush down the road. He asked the man to follow him back to the military base a mile away for a chat and a cup of tea.
The Taliban are aware of such foot patrols and try to work around them. They've learned to calibrate the movement of NATO forces, and have mounted a campaign of intimidation to expand their grip on villages and towns across the country. Using terrorism tactics, the widely unpopular guerrilla movement has built up its presence in the countryside, which NATO wants to help hand back to Afghans.
They're a far cry from the Pashtun guerrillas who seized power in 1996. Back then, they were the rescuers who arrived on a wave of popular support and provided security from the raging chaos and horror sown by warlords. Now the Taliban are the sowers of chaos and insecurity as they seek to undermine the Afghan government and dodge attacks from the world's most advanced military.
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U.S. forces belatedly have recognized the Taliban's tactics and adjusted their own, starting with foot patrols such as Heidt's. In this game of cat and mouse, however, the Taliban have been winning, according to Afghans.
The Taliban are so omnipresent, albeit often covertly, in many cities, towns and villages that many Afghans have surrendered with resignation to their intimidating ways, said Afghans who were interviewed for this story.
Heidt took his guest through the gate, past a perimeter with two checkpoints and two 10-foot-high walls. The visitor confirmed the rumor of the beheading, the latest in a spate of atrocities.
An enormous U.S. air base is under construction in Sharana that will support ground operations in Paktika — a poor, mountainous province beset by dust storms and surrounded by Taliban and al Qaida havens — but there are many who doubt that it will bring security.
U.S. forces have been stationed in outposts in this region for seven and a half years, but the Taliban staged a comeback by stepping up crimes against ordinary Afghans. Now the Afghans are increasingly hostile to the Americans who failed to protect them.
How this state of affairs came about is largely a tale of missed opportunities by the United States and seized opportunities by the Taliban, according to Afghan experts. The story of Paktika, with variants, is the story of almost every border region of Afghanistan.
Today, the insurgent group's "footprint" extends across the east and south of the country and well into the west. NATO intelligence officers told McClatchy last month that the Taliban have gained a surprising new hold in northwest Afghanistan in Badghis province, along the northwest border with Turkmenistan. Local officials said that the Taliban, in the absence of a large Western or Afghan army presence, have stepped up a campaign of kidnappings and extortion there.
Early on Thursday, about 4,000 U.S. Marines along with 750 Afghan forces launched a major operation in southern Afghanistan's restive Helmand province. U.S. military leaders hope to rout out the Taliban's hold over parts of Afghanistan's major poppy-producing province, so that government forces can regain control for the first time in five years. So far, one Marine has been killed.
According to Vahid Mojdeh, an Afghan historian who served as a Foreign Ministry adviser to the Taliban in the late '90s, the Taliban began their major thrust — under the radar — about five years ago, almost three years after a U.S.-backed military offensive had pushed most of them underground or over the border into Pakistan. At first, fighters, often operating out of sanctuaries in Pakistan, were reluctant to bed down with the local population.
"Then, slowly but surely, they started trying it and they were accepted, even staying the evening in villages," he said. With one eye on the movements of U.S. and NATO forces, Taliban fighters started launching military strikes from Afghan villages and recruiting more local fighters to bolster their ranks.
Embedding with the local population has paid considerable dividends to the Taliban, Mojdeh said. Coalition and Afghan forces regularly launch major sweeps of the countryside, which sometimes lead to aerial bombings of "suspected" villages, but the Taliban fighters melt into the farming communities. Civilian casualties from airstrikes, as well as the rounding up of the wrong "suspects," anger locals and enhance Taliban recruitment.
NATO officials concur that the Taliban, over the last four years, have gradually stepped up their level of intimidation and coercion across Afghanistan.
"One of the mistakes we have made for years here in Afghanistan was to measure the violence in terms of attacks on NATO and U.S. forces," said Maj. Gen. Michael Tucker, 55, a Charlotte, N.C. native, who's NATO's chief of operations.
"When you drive down the road with guns stuck out like porcupines, you are going to get shot at. But our measurements are changing now, and we've just begun to try to gauge the levels of violence and intimidation against Afghans." Phone and text-message threats, as well as "night letters" warning people not to cooperate with NATO and U.S. forces, have been common, often accompanied by kidnappings and assassinations.
U.S. forces, whose inclination when outflanked has been to protect themselves, have a new mantra: keeping in touch with Afghans.
Back inside the confines of his base near Sharana in Paktika province, 1st Lt. Heidt pulled out a set of cards where he kept notes on how the enemy is working around U.S. military patrols. He read out a few of Gen. David Petraeus' words to the wise: "Forces must conduct patrols, share risk and maintain contact to obtain the intelligence to drive operations." Petraeus, who'd been the chief military commander in Iraq and now heads the U.S. Central Command, which includes Afghanistan, is widely viewed as the principal champion of counterinsurgency strategy in the U.S. military.
Unfortunately for the Americans, the Taliban already have the upper hand, after having seized one immense "human shield," their fellow Pashtun tribesmen in villages and cities across the country, Afghan analysts said.
According to a recent analysis of the group's tactics by the nonpartisan International Crisis Group, the insurgents' strategy "is not to use indiscriminate violence but rather to prevent citizens from accessing already limited government services, and to target and isolate the international community" and the Afghan government.
To outsiders, however, the violence looks calculated to sever all ties to U.S. and NATO forces. Afghans "are slaughtered every day for working with us and their government, even if they are only related to someone who is simply trying to feed their family," said one senior U.S. intelligence officer, who also said that the Taliban had murdered Afghans he knew personally. The intelligence officer spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the secret nature of his contacts with Afghan civilians. "They are unprotected, and slowly slaughtered for even the mere presumption of U.S. support," he added.
In recent months, the Taliban have embarked on a broad national effort to enhance their organizational structure and address the concerns of Afghans who are unhappy with their tactics. Some analysts see the move as a self-critical, correcting mechanism within an insurgency that regularly engages in brutality that alienates it from the local population.
"People — some of them supporters — have actually come to the Taliban to complain about why the group is burning so many schools and taking massive bribes from contractors," said Mojdeh, who's written a book about the Taliban. He said that even Taliban backers were disturbed by the notion that the insurgents they admired were seen by the broader public as in league with criminal gangs that engaged in kidnappings for ransom.
The complaints have sparked a new effort to rework the group's image, he said. In an unusual move, the brother of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, known in Taliban circles simply as "Mullah Brother," has criticized the burning of hundreds of schools, complaining that it merely increases illiteracy. Omar even has called on Afghans to respect the country's different religions and their varied messages, Mojdeh said.
In addition, Omar has reshuffled commanders in different parts of the country, as has the Kabul government.
Lutfullah Mashal, 36, the governor of Laghman province, said in a phone interview that Taliban leaders had been shifted from Ghazni province and had stepped up attacks on government compounds in Laghman, hitting the local prison twice in recent weeks. "We believe the new commanders . . . have likely been ordered here by more senior Taliban commanders," he said.
Mojdeh said the jury was still out on whether the field commander shakeup would bring more success to the Taliban's overall operation. The Americans, even with the enormous air base being built here, are planning to stick closer to the ground. After an investigation into the U.S. bombing of a residential compound in far western Farah province in which dozens of civilians were killed along with the Taliban fighters who'd fled into their homes, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the newly named top U.S. commander for Afghanistan, instructed U.S. commanders this week to think hard about possible civilian casualties before they unleash their bombs.
Nevertheless, the deeper that Taliban insurgents ensconce themselves across the country, the more difficult it will be for NATO to dislodge them in the long war ahead.
(Smucker is a McClatchy special correspondent. Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article from Kabul, Afghanistan.)
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