Afghanistan: The Taliban’s High-Tech Urban Strategy

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Militants attacked the Afghan Parliament from this building on April 16, 2012. Bay Ismoyo / AFP-Getty Images

Qari Jamal has returned safely from a reconnaissance mission in Kabul. Short, thin, and immaculately dressed, the fresh-faced 25-year-old relaxes in a house near the Afghan-Pakistan border and tells how he toured the city with his digital camera, looking like an innocent civilian as he scouted sites for future Taliban attacks. “The work is both easy and difficult,” he says. “We have to photograph and survey the area, get the exact GPS coordinates, and note the daily movements of the security forces guarding the installation, without getting caught.” Polishing his glasses on his long, spotlessly white shirttail, he mentions one of the targets he and other undercover Taliban have been casing near NATO headquarters: the Ariana Hotel—a CIA operations center, Jamal calls it. “This is a most attractive target for the fedayeen,” he says. He’s talking about suicide bombers.

The young Afghan belongs to a dangerous new breed of Taliban militants. He grew up in a city, not in a mud-hut village in the backcountry, and he got his education not only at a madrassa but also at a public high school in Pakistan, and then at a college where he majored in information technology. His beard is neatly trimmed, and he doesn’t even carry a gun. Instead, he says, his weapons are a MacBook computer, a clutch of mobile phones, and an array of IT gadgets, from digital cameras to webcams and GPS devices. Citified techies like him are playing an essential role in helping the guerrillas to reshape their strategy with attention-grabbing surprise assaults in places that previously were spared from the heaviest fighting.

As brutal as the Taliban’s leaders can be, they’re not stupid. After two years of losing ground to the Americans in the countryside, they’ve concluded that splashy operations against urban targets have big advantages over attacks in rural areas: they generate more local and international publicity, require fewer fighters, and give the insurgents the appearance of being stronger than they may actually be. “This year 70 percent of our focus will be on the cities,” says a Taliban commander in Ghazni province who has seen the latest strategic plan for urban warfare from the Taliban’s ruling council, the Quetta Shura. “That’s the best way to put pressure on the government and the Americans, and to show them that we are as strong in the cities as we are in the countryside.”

The deadly new campaign has already begun. Immediately after President Obama’s latest surprise visit to Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul this May, a team of Taliban suicide bombers attacked a residential compound where Americans and other foreigners were living on the outskirts of the capital. Seven Afghans were killed in the assault. The previous month, guerrillas wielding machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and small arms had seized two high-rise construction sites in Kabul and opened fire on NATO headquarters, the Afghan Parliament, and the American and several other embassies. The attack mirrored a similar operation the insurgents launched against the U.S. Embassy and the NATO command last September.

Most other news outlets have attributed practically all of the recent attacks in Kabul not to the mainstream Taliban but to the Haqqani Network, an allied but distinct insurgent group. Those reports have it wrong, Taliban sources insist. Senior Taliban commanders boasted to Newsweek of those attacks at the time, and some expressed frustration that the Haqqanis were given credit. Lutfullah Mashal, the spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, confirms to Newsweek that the recent attacks in the capital were carried out by regular Taliban under the direction of Hajji Lala.

That’s the code name used by the Taliban’s seniormost commander in the capital, Mullah Hayatullah—the mastermind of the new urban strategy, according to Jamal and other Taliban sources. A logistics expert who keeps a steady stream of money, arms, and explosives flowing steadily into Kabul, he’s also the Taliban’s chief of operations on the eastern front and the Quetta Shura’s shadow governor of Kabul. Lala’s bloody résumé doesn’t end there. Mashal says he was probably behind the assassination of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, the chairman of Karzai’s High Peace Council.

As if that weren’t enough, he’s also believed to have orchestrated the assassination of another High Peace Council member, Arsala Rahmani, on May 13. Rahmani had been the Taliban’s deputy education minister before the fall of the regime in 2001, and before his death he was said to maintain close ties to his former associates. The Taliban’s chief spokesman, Zahibullah Mujahid, has denied that his group had any part in either killing, but senior Taliban sources tell Newsweek that the militants are determined to eliminate anyone, whether on the Kabul side or within their own ranks, who promotes peace negotiations between the insurgency and Karzai’s administration. The Taliban made an exception of sorts for talks with the Americans in Qatar, in hope of winning the release of senior insurgent commanders from Guantánamo Bay, but they abruptly broke off the dialogue in March, calling it “pointless.”

Instead, Taliban leaders have set out to transform and revitalize their war against Karzai and the Americans, assembling dozens of technologically sophisticated young militants like Jamal to help make it happen. The young wizards use their specialized skills to perform all sorts of essential duties, not only gathering and transmitting intelligence but facilitating communications and maintaining electronic security as well. They’re particularly valuable in urban reconnaissance. As experienced city dwellers they know how to blend in, checking out potential targets, ambush sites, and escape routes without attracting attention where an ordinary village-bred guerrilla couldn’t help being conspicuous.

taliban-strategy-OVNB02-secondary Rubble and a guerrilla corpse from a suicide attack in Kabul. Johannes Eisele / AFP-Getty Images

More than that, however, they know how to put together meticulously detailed information about streets and buildings, using tools the old-style Taliban never dreamed of, like Google Maps, GPS, and video. Urban reconnaissance teams are now working in several major Afghan cities, says Jamal. “Almost every day our mujahedin are walking the streets of Kabul, Kandahar, and Mazar-i-Sharif, taking photos, drawing maps and gathering information,” he says. “Our teams are checking daily the security at embassies, hotels, and even guest houses where foreigners stay.”

Some team members will drive around town with dashboard-mounted webcams, collecting images of sensitive neighborhoods, government buildings, and military facilities and transmitting them to Jamal and other remote operators. All this data helps insurgent commanders to plan and organize their attacks like never before. And when the shooting stops, the reconnaissance teams will return to the scene with cameras to do post-operation damage assessments in order to improve planning for future attacks. “IT is making things easy for the mujahedin,” Jamal says. “The technology was made by infidels, but Allah has turned it into a very positive and useful tool for jihadists.”

The militants keep finding new uses for the foreigners’ tools. They use email and even Internet chat rooms to send intelligence wherever it’s needed. The Internet has revolutionized the insurgents’ training system as well. The techies are able to set up real-time instruction sessions, where Taliban master bombmakers demonstrate their techniques via webcam as students watch from mud-brick houses hundreds of miles away. “We don’t have to all gather in one place,” Jamal says. “Now we can switch on a webcam and teach one man, a group, or groups, sitting in different places, how to make IEDs and other explosives.” The webcam classes can be less dangerous, too: there’s no need for militants to gather in large numbers for training or strategy sessions, exposing themselves to the risk of armed drone attacks.

But the Americans have some new technological tricks of their own. Among the most visible is a network of hundreds of U.S. spy balloons known as aerostats. Insurgents say the big stationary blimps have severely hampered their ability to get around undetected. More than 100 feet long and packed with surveillance cameras and electronic eavesdropping equipment, the airships float tethered above cities, U.S. bases, and strategic highways. “These balloons are very dangerous,” says Jamal. “The photos and videos they take have led the enemy to our mujahedin’s hideouts.” He says he and his colleagues have tried to figure out ways to thwart the eyes in the sky, but so far without success. All they can do is keep to the shadows and hope to hide themselves in crowds.

Jamal says he’s intensely security-conscious. In case he’s ever arrested and his computer is seized, he disguises his digital folders and files. Under innocuous-sounding labels like “Pashto Poetry,” “Pashto Dance,” and “Jokes,” he keeps sensitive and incriminating information such as detailed maps of the neighborhood around the U.S. Embassy and contact information for fellow militants. “If a policeman opens my laptop, he will think I’m not serious—just a lover of music, dancing, and jokes,” he says. In real life, he says, he despises such frivolities: “We believe that music makes Muslims lazy and neglectful of their Islamic obligations and values.”

Cities are rife with such temptations. Nevertheless, one of the chief reasons behind the Taliban’s strategic shift has been the lack of any plausible alternative. Since the U.S. military surge began two years ago, the guerrillas have been mostly driven out of their former southern strongholds. One senior Taliban commander in the south says the Americans’ night raids and drone attacks have all but demolished the insurgents’ rural infrastructure. “They [the Taliban] don’t have the manpower to put up a big fight in the countryside,” says an Afghan intelligence officer who requested anonymity to speak. “So now their main target will be attacking and terrorizing the cities.”

Even so, the new urban campaign has angered many of the Taliban’s surviving commanders in the countryside. They say inordinate amounts of money and resources are being funneled to operations in Kabul while the longtime rural insurgency goes begging. “There is too much money available now to fund attacks in the cities,” complains an angry insurgent commander in the east. “I hear they are paying $1 million to buy safe houses in Kabul.” It’s not just the money, he says; it’s everything: “Requests for planning urban operations get approved months before our requests for the funding of rural offensives.”

That’s not the only sore subject. The insurgency is split from top to bottom over whether the Taliban should start talking to Karzai. Some senior commanders privately support reaching out to Kabul to see what kind of peace deal can be struck, despite Mullah Mohammad Omar’s unbending opposition to dealing with Karzai. The Taliban’s supreme leader has repeatedly denounced the Afghan president as a traitor and an American stooge. This past March Maulvi Ishmael, the former head of the insurgency’s military committee and a powerful southern commander, was arrested at gunpoint by Taliban militiamen for allegedly daring to sponsor unauthorized peace talks between local Taliban officers and representatives of Kabul’s High Peace Council. There are even unconfirmed reports that in April he was hanged from a tree in Helmand province for his transgression.

The guerrillas are at odds among themselves over whether Ishmael merited such a fate. “He cheated me and Islam and got the punishment he deserved,” says Mullah Bismullah Akhund, a Ghazni-province subcommander who supported Ishmael before the arrest. Others see the situation very differently, arguing that his imprisonment—or worse—has weakened the insurgency and damaged the morale of guerrilla fighters who were loyal to him. “His arrest has directly impacted our offensive in Ghazni, disappointed each Talib, and sown confusion in our ranks,” says the eastern commander. “If the leadership arrests him, then why not arrest those talking to the Americans in Qatar?” At present, of course, the question is academic, since both the Taliban and the Americans say no one is talking in Qatar these days.

The Taliban’s new urban strategy seems unlikely to fully offset the guerrillas’ evident weakness and disarray in the countryside. It’s true that the militants’ high-profile suicide attacks will probably deepen the Afghans’ sense of insecurity and intensify their fears that the Kabul government is too weak and incompetent to protect them. But rising violence in the cities won’t add to the insurgents’ popularity among the urban population. And by ruling out peace talks with Kabul, the Taliban is offering only more bloodshed to the war-weary people of Afghanistan.

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