DARVESHAN, Afghanistan — The Taliban is ratcheting up its intense intimidation campaign in southern Afghanistan in a bid to derail national elections, according to military intelligence.
The impact of the scare tactics is expected to be most potent among rural voters outside of the relatively secured "Snake's Head" region here — so named because of the shape on the map of the Garmsir district's center — thereby virtually cutting off rural voters from a chance at weighing in at polls.
Consensus among U.S. and Afghan security forces is that security could only be provided to voters in the Snake's Head where they have the most concerted presence, according to Capt. Micah Caskey, who heads a civil affairs team in this region. "Our goal is to provide a safe and secure polling location for those Afghans who do decide to exercise their right to vote," Caskey said. "Right now in our assessment, we can only provide security or ensure security inside that patrol base line."
The rise in intimidation comes alongside the uptick in fighting in this region spurred by the launch of a major Marine offensive in early July aimed at uprooting Taliban fighters. The region has historically not been persistently patrolled by International Security Assistance Forces, which has given Taliban fighters an advantage, Col. George Amland, deputy commander of the Camp Lejeune, NC-based 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, said recently.
Tomorrow's national election has prompted a spike in the Taliban's traditional campaign to control locals, according to one Marine officer. "We have seen not only an increase in intimidation reporting, but also their intent," said Capt. Trevor Hunt, intelligence officer for 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines. Instead of fighting while conducting intimidation campaigns on the side, Marines are finding that the Taliban is currently more propaganda-focused in their operations. That said, attacks have remained at the same intensity in the week leading up to the election, he added.
As part of that, rural voters also potentially face the penalty of combat operations, as IED (improvised explosive device) attacks on U.S. and Afghan security forces consequently make it more dangerous for rural Afghans to travel to polling sites in the district center. The Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based unit has already seen 13 Marines killed since their arrival in June, almost all by IEDs.
"For the most part, if you're not in a secure location, you're probably going to stay home," Hunt said. "They obviously don't want people to go vote. If I lived in Garmsir and I knew there was a lot of IEDs out all over the place, I wouldn't go outside either."
Strategy of fear
Threats of violence, such as cutting off fingers stained with ballot-marking ink, are circulating in this region of Helmand province by word of mouth and "night letters," or written threats posted to doors of homes and mosques during the night, according Hunt. The letters are often written on old Taliban government letterhead, he said. One night letter recently obtained by Marines invited locals to a house for training, then warned locals of talking to coalition forces.
"One thing the Taliban does is they keep their honor clean, I guess you could say," Hunt explained. "If I warn you and you do it anyway, and you have repercussions because of that, then it's your own fault. That's kind of a theme you see in the night letters and the propaganda." Just how robust the campaign is, however, remains a mystery. "I don't know how much of the intimidation is carried through," Hunt admitted.
Intimidation is not just limited to the election. The Taliban threaten, for example, to confiscate and destroy money taken from the coalition paid in reparation for damages to property.
Much of the strength of the Taliban campaign comes from history, according to Hunt. "They used to be the legitimate government of Afghanistan. In areas where there's no coalition, they can still walk around and tout that," he said.
They are still providing some of the basic government services in remote areas in southern Helmand, which bolsters the power to intimidate, he added.
Taliban fighting tactics
The organized methods of intimidation mirror the high level of organization of their insurgency. Taliban fighters are operating in four- to five-man fire teams, and are showing high degrees of military strategy, Marines here are finding. These more developed fighting teams are predominantly found in southern Garmsir district, but have been found in other areas in the region as well, Hunt said.
"You've got the random guy, who's a local fighter and doesn't know very much about fighting, but you may also have the trained guy," he said.
"He may also be local, but he's been hanging out with some guys that know their business and he'll pick it up over time. Then you have the guys who have no kidding been to training camps."
A telltale sign of organization is how insurgents are using military tactics with the terrain. IEDs, for example, are often placed in areas that channel foot traffic by irrigation canals and walls. While untrained fighters are typically opportunists, trained fighters seek out operational patterns and terrain aspects that are to their advantage, Hunt said.