How alarmed should we be by this Wall Street Journal article reporting on the brisk sale of Taliban songs and ring tones in Kabul? Even anti-Taliban residents of the capital feel compelled to have them on their cell phones in case they are stopped by a Taliban checkpoint which, the article claims, are common only an hour’s drive from the city center. The Journal reporters note:
“If you are going 30 or 60 miles outside of Kabul, you will surely find Taliban on the road,” said a member of President Hamid Karzai’s government. “If you have Indian music or Afghan music ringtones, they will tell you that you are not obeying Islamic rules and, in most cases, break our mobiles.”
This official said that whenever he leaves Kabul, he routinely carries two SIM cards for his cell phone. One contains the numbers of Afghan leaders, Western officials, military officers and other contacts he needs to do his job. The other is the Taliban-safe SIM card that he pops into his phone outside the capital.
Obviously this is cause for concern — but hardly panic. After all in Iraq, during the bad years (roughly 2004-2007), it was common for insurgent hit squads and checkpoints (sometimes under the color of Iraqi police units) to operate right in the capital city itself. Baghdad was in fact one of the biggest killing fields in the entire country before the surge took effect.
Kabul, by contrast, is relatively secure — notwithstanding the occasional Haqqani Network atrocity. Many of the surrounding areas are secure too, e.g. Parwan Province to the northwest, whose Tajik and HAZARA population is immune to the lure of the Taliban. The trouble really starts in the east and south where coalition forces have not been present in enough density to guarantee security. In particular Logar, Wardak and Ghazni provinces, all south of Kabul, have been and remain prime Taliban areas because so few American troops have been deployed there.
The NATO plan was always to secure Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south and then transition the main effort to eastern Afghanistan and to the area around the capital itself. If Gen. John Allen is given the forces he needs, there is little doubt that he can implement this plan with considerable success. But there is considerable doubt now as to whether he will get the forces he needs — or whether President Obama will declare a premature pullout which will leave the Taliban in control of areas an hour’s drive from Kabul. If we do depart too soon it will be a disaster — and those Taliban checkpoints will start inexorable closing in on Kabul itself.