The second of occasional postings
Guest Post by Afghanistan Ag Man
As it stands today, much of Afghanistan is at risk of experiencing a spring and summer drought on a scale not seen in over a decade. Agriculturally, the full impact of a continued lack of precipitation will not reach its apex until the planting season begins in February and March; however, the security ramifications of a lack of snow for the Integrated Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in the country have already been felt…
Last Monday, Taliban suicide bombers and militants stormed the usually peaceful Pashtunistan Square in downtown Kabul. Even before this attack, those of us on the ground have been discussing the abnormality of intense violence during the winter months. In recent years, one of the few similarities between traditional wars of the past in Afghanistan and the current unconventional conflict had been that a change of climatic seasons was usually accompanied by a change in the pace of the conflict. Unfortunately, this winter has been different.
Violence has increased dramatically during a season that is typically a time for troops and insurgents alike to pause, plan, and wait for the traditional “fighting season” to commence again when the snow melts off in the spring. New York Times reporter Rod Nordland notes that insurgents have remained in the war theater this winter due to a number of factors, including a stronger Afghanistan-Pakistan border (which prevents insurgents from filtering back into Pakistan) and the growth of American troops levels throughout 2009. To give a personal example, the troops of my outpost are finding undetonated improvised explosion devices (IEDs) at abnormally high rates, rocket attacks continue to target our convoys and outpost, and missions are usually prefaced by security intelligence reports warning of heavy Taliban activity in the area.
Eastern Provinces are fighting off insurgents at levels usually seen only in the Southern Provinces while violence is prevalent in both the countryside and in Kabul. ISAF casualty rates for the past three months have all increased compared to previous late fall and winter months. And this January, which is not yet over, has surpassed all monthly casualty reports for previous January combat action since 2001. As the number of troops is set to continue to increase in 2010, so too will the opportunities for insurgents to mount attacks against our forces. NATO predicts increased IED attacks for 2010.
In my view the lack of snowfall has exacerbated the increase in violence. Since my arrival in late November, there has been one night of notable precipitation in my region which added only a few inches to the now-absent snowpack. A deforested, mountainous terrain of at least 8000 feet in elevation that is usually blanketed by an average of three to five feet of snow currently contains little or no snow.
Even though the privates and sergeants in my unit like to rib me when I promote the relationship between snowpack and instability, I do find merit to my argument. Without cold weather and snow to keep insurgents in caves (where they “plot,” instead of “act”), there will be more violence in the streets and fields, even during the winter months.
In addition, while the risks of a water shortage due to the absence of snowpack will not impact the common farmer when his trees are dormant and his fields are fallow, the consequences in the spring growing season and throughout the summer’s crucial pre-harvest period could be devastating for the development efforts we are trying to implement. With unemployment rates at record levels, the only alternatives for an unskilled, illiterate farmer put out of work by poor crop yields will be to join the Taliban in fighting coalition forces and/or turn to the production of poppy, which requires far less water than, say, wheat. Needless to say, the ramifications of a drought on the outcome and success of the new counterinsurgency strategy that is currently being implemented would be huge.
Do I think this winter violence is a sign of a strengthening insurgency? No. Instead, I see this as a sign of a desperate one. The US and its allies have committed additional troops and have proportionally increased their civilian and financial presence in the country. To give another personal example, development and capacity building projects in the realm of agriculture are underway earlier than expected in the countryside. Examples include vocational trainings on reforestation, orchard management best-practices, and watershed/irrigation rehabilitation, to road construction projects that will facilitate the movement of goods from farm-to-market in the fall. The Taliban has reason to feel threatened by this progress and it is no wonder that they are mounting a last-ditch effort to thwart the Afghan people’s efforts.
I think we can prevent the insurgents from succeeding.