By David Mays
Special to American Forces Press Service
Oct. 16, 2007 - Taliban fighters are facing overwhelming coalition firepower and abject rejection from Afghan citizens, a U.S. Army commander said today. "I think we have the Taliban in pretty bad shape," Col. Thomas McGrath told online journalists and "bloggers" during a conference call from Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city. "They lost thousands of fighters in the last six months, and they continue to lose more on a daily basis."
McGrath leads Afghan Regional Security Integration Command South, which oversees the training of Afghanistan's army and police forces. He said Taliban fighters simply refuse to face coalition forces in the open.
"They cannot stand to fight against us. So they're moving to more asymmetrical attacks: (improvised explosive devices), rocket attacks, things of that nature," McGrath explained. "It shows they are not gaining the support of the local populous, because they're losing sanctuaries in large areas, areas like Kandahar and other major cities."
When Taliban fighters do engage coalition forces from their hiding places, the colonel explained, they do so indiscriminately. "They'll shoot up a convoy, but they also don't hesitate to shoot up civilians who are driving by in their own vehicles," McGrath said. "They're also murdering Afghans regularly."
For instance, just a week and a half ago, the colonel said, an Afghan teenager was executed by the Taliban, just for possessing American currency.
"They hung a 15-year-old boy in public in a local village for carrying five U.S. dollars on him," McGrath said. "And as they were hanging him, they stuffed the money in his mouth."
Many new Taliban recruits are young men "led astray" to cross the 500-mile border with Pakistan and fight coalition forces with no idea of the resistance they will face, the colonel explained.
"They're coming from outside, and they're just coming up here and getting killed," he said. "It's been a colossal failure for them."
To stop the flow of foreign fighters, coalition "mentoring" teams have been training border police in counterinsurgency techniques, McGrath explained. And in the past month, pay for border police has gone up to match that of the Afghan national police, which has helped recruit better qualified candidates.
"We're moving in the right direction," he said.
Coalition training of Afghanistan's national army also continues to proceed with significant results, McGrath explained. He cited a major exercise just completed in conjunction with the British-led Regional Command South.
"It was a huge success, a big step forward for the corps," the colonel said. "We assisted the Afghans in the development and execution of independent combat operations, and the staff performed brilliantly."
McGrath said he expects the first independent brigade-size operations to be conducted by Afghan National Army forces sometime in the spring. "The ANA are very aggressive," he said. "They're fearless. They're not afraid to engage the enemy in combat, and they're not afraid to put their lives at risk."
Equally important to destroying the insurgency, McGrath explained, is helping educate Afghan citizens about how horrifically the Taliban destroys lives.
"That's when we come in with the non-kinetic side and say, "Hey, what have they done for you lately? They're forcing you to harbor them, to give them food, money. They're terrorizing you,'" he said.
To help Afghan citizens, the colonel explained, coalition teams visit with village elders to get a sense of what each community needs.
"We're aggressively pursuing construction projects throughout the region," McGrath said, "including district centers, police stations, schools, mosques, wells."
Sometimes all a community needs is something as simple as tools, seeds or medicine, the colonel said.
"It's a very inexpensive way of bringing up the quality of life of people in the area," he said. "And it's a very good way of reaching out and winning their hearts and minds."
(David Mays works for the New Media branch of American Forces Information Service.)