ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—The war in Afghanistan has evolved into clash of similar military strategies. Counter-terrorism is what the United States calls its program of targeted assassinations of key insurgents, typically “night raids” on their homes, where there is a high likelihood for collateral casualties.
The Taliban factions operate similarly, zeroing in on key members of the foreign occupation, particularly Afghan collaborators in the regime of Pres. Hamid Karzai, like his half-brother, Kandahar powerbroker Ahmed Wali Karzai, and a senior aide, Jan Mohammed Khan, former governor of Oruzgan province.
The United States never implemented a full-blown counter-insurgency campaign, which was envisioned as a joint U.S.-Afghan effort to win the “hearts and mind” of locals by providing good governance, jobs and security. Gen. Stanley McChrystal advocated counter-insurgency, but insubordinate remarks triggered his resignation in June 2010, and the plan implemented by his former boss, Gen. David Petraeus, began shifting toward the more narrow counter-terrorist focus of killing the bad guys.
What is harder to determine is the degree to which the Taliban are also abandoning some earlier efforts to earn local support by the purchases of foodstuffs, a functioning dispute resolution process, security, and compensation for military recruits and their families. This has never been a consistent practice and there are reports in which locals portray the Taliban as ultraconservative foreigners (e.g. Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens, Uzbeks), often quite young, who impose their will on their host communities.
The Petraeus counter-terrorist “surge” changed the war by de-territorializing it. The conflict today appears to place less emphasis on the occupation and control of specific geographies, like the Taliban heartland in Kandahar, than on destroying each other’s leadership and inflicting symbolic defeats that reverberate deeply in the public imagination.
The public relations plum for the United States was the assassination of al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May. The following month the Taliban attacked the Intercontinental Hotel, a popular roost for foreigners in Kabul, on the eve of a conference that was designed to address the transition to Afghan rule. Just days ago, Afghan insurgents took down a NATO helicopter, in which 22 Navy Seals, the same special operations unit that killed bin Laden, perished alongside eight other Americans and eight Afghans.