Officials with NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) based in Kandahar and Kabul credit counterinsurgency offensives in late 2006 for curbing Taliban activities -- and options. They predict insurgent attacks are likely to be limited primarily to dispersed tactics like suicide bombings, improvised roadside explosives, and intimidation.
NATO now says that in the movement's heartland around Kandahar, the nature of that threat has been irreversibly changed.
Squadron Leader Dave Marsh, the spokesman for ISAF's Regional Command South, based at the Kandahar airfield, told RFE/RL on January 22 that ISAF operations in September and December -- known as Medusa and Baaz Tsuka, respectively -- have eliminated the Taliban as a "conventional threat" -- that is, a force capable of carrying out large-scale military operations.
"What we've moved on from, from September to now, is from is a conventional threat that's been destroyed down to an insurgency where [insurgents] must target weak points," Marsh said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently at NATO headquarters in Brussels that Taliban attacks in 2007 are likely to be worse than 2006. That warning was repeated on January 22 by the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald Neuman. ISAF's 'Spring' Campaign
ISAF spokesman Marsh predicted that the seasonal spring campaign by the Taliban could be severely hamstrung this year.
"Traditionally, everyone talks about a spring campaign for the Taliban," Marsh said. "But in actual fact, the spring campaign for ISAF has already started; and it started in winter, and it is to disrupt the Taliban before they can get ready for anything they wish to do. And you can see that quite clearly because of the way they were cleared out of the Zari [and] Panjwayi districts, where they were massing to try to attack Kandahar."
Marsh said that when ISAF forces deployed into the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, they found that the Taliban had massed "hundreds of troops" in the area. He said those troops represented a conventional threat, of which ISAF disposed "quite quickly" during Operation Medusa, reportedly killing between 500 and 1,200 Taliban.
Most of the fighting took place in the Zari and Panjway districts, south of Kandahar on either side of the Arghandab River. Marsh says the area has historically been a vital bridgehead for forces wishing to win control over Kandahar.
Operation Medusa was followed in December by Operation Baaz Tsuka. Marsh said that British, U.S., Canadian, Dutch, Australian, Romanian, Danish, and Estonian troops conducted a mopping-up campaign. That operation followed extensive attempts by ISAF to communicate with local community leaders. He said ISAF also dropped leaflets urging the militants to abandon their positions. 'No Conventional Threat'
At ISAF headquarters in Kabul, Colonel Jo Voncken, who heads the organization's civil-military outreach project, told RFE/RL on January 22 that NATO views the earlier Operation Medusa as, at best, a partial success.
"But what went wrong after [Operation Medusa] was that, especially the [Afghan National Army, or ANA] did not have enough security forces to secure that complete area," Voncken said. "So, what happened after Operation Medusa [was that] a lot of insurgents again came in[to] the area, and again were a threat to Kandahar city itself. So, Operation Baaz Tsuka, you could say, was -- the purpose of the operation, not the execution -- the purpose of the operation was the same as [that of] Operation Medusa, to clear that area of insurgency."
Voncken also said he believes the Taliban now represent no conventional threat.
A NATO officer at Kandahar, who asked not to be named, said ISAF will operate bases comprising 30-60 men in the Zari and Panjway districts to reinforce the Afghan National Army presence there. ISAF will also provide the Afghan army with the means of communication to request urgent backup action.
NATO commanders on the ground said that Afghan Army troops fight far better when alongside Western forces than when alone; they also tend to lack body armor and helmets.
Marsh said ISAF is now focusing on taking out key Taliban leaders to disrupt the insurgency's command-and-control chain. He said that precision bomb strikes against Taliban leaders in 2006 have now been replaced by arrests conducted by mostly British special forces. Who Are The Insurgents?
Marsh said ISAF commanders think that committed Taliban fighters make up only a small portion of the insurgency and that the rest are mostly "hired hands." He said ISAF wanted to target the two groups with different measures.
"What we actually want to do is to break what we call the 'Tier-1 Taliban' away from the 'Tier-2 [Taliban]' -- and 'Tier 1,' we define those as being committed as being cause, and the 'Tier 2' are the hired help," Marsh said. "So [Tier 2] can be the local people, they can be people brought in from outside; we tend to find that they are people usually with some debts that need paying, and the Taliban pay quite well."
Marsh said ISAF hoped that, deprived of their leaders, Tier-2 fighters would return to their farms and jobs.
NATO officials at Kandahar told RFE/RL that the Taliban enjoyed a major wage advantage over the Afghan Army and other Afghan security forces. It can afford to pay insurgents $8-$10 a day, amounting to about $150 a month. The Afghan Army and police can manage just $60, and their payments are often late and subject to arbitrary deductions by commanders.
Marsh and other NATO commanders said there was evidence local communities around Kandahar were beginning to reject the Taliban. Marsh said "people are now turning around saying, 'We don't want you here.'" He said there were many different, local reasons for this.
Part of the reason may be a resettlement campaign of refugees from Operation Medusa overseen personally by the governor of Kandahar Province with the aid of ISAF. Refugee Returns
Voncken said that one-quarter of the total of 90,000 refugees have returned to their homes.
"The latest news is that now, at this moment, almost 5,000 families -- and each family has five persons, that is the measure we have -- almost 25,000 people of these 90,000 people are already back [in] their villages," Voncken said.
Both Marsh and Voncken noted the importance of the Taliban's hinterland in Pakistan if ISAF's hopes for the removal of the conventional threat were to materialize.
Marsh pointed to local talks currently under way between communities on both sides of the border.
Voncken said that in a potentially important move, ISAF would open a joint "intelligence operations center" on January 24.
That center will comprise four to five officers each from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and ISAF, allowing for the first time for direct contacts among all sides.