by DAVID AXE
PAKTIKA, Afghanistan — The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan has an unusual new strategy for defeating the Taliban in one key eastern town: join them.
In Marzak, a Kharoti-tribe village of just a few thousand people in northern Paktika province, the U.S. Army’s 172nd Infantry Brigade, along with attached Afghan army and police, is laying the groundwork for a close alliance with native-born Taliban who have grown tired of the abuses of neighboring tribes and foreign Taliban.
The implications for the decade-long war are enormous. The Marzak alliance is helping hone the coalition’s definition of “enemy” in Afghanistan, and pointing the way towards a realistic framework for a lasting peace. Afghans affiliated with the Taliban are widely known to be less extreme and violent than their foreign compatriots.
Marzak, part of Sar Howza district, lies astride a key Taliban supply route connecting Pakistan’s tribal region to Afghanistan’s heartland via Highway 1, Afghanistan’s famed “ring road.” For the Talibs, “the point of operating in Sar Howza and Marzak is to get to Highway 1,” says Maj. Joe Buccino, a public affairs officer for the 172nd.
To ensure the smooth flow of people and material through Marzak, the foreign Taliban — including Pakistanis, Chechens and Arabs — maintained no fewer than five separate groups of fighters in and around Marzak during the warmer months. The foreigners stole from Marzak, forced residents to fight alongside them and, in August, murdered a village man they accused of spying for the Americans. (Sources insist the man was not a spy.)
The murder pushed Marzak’s elders over the edge. While continuing to declare their allegiance to the Taliban’s basic ideology, the elders wanted the foreigners out of their community. To them, that included members of the neighboring Zadran tribe, known to maintain closer tied to the foreign Talibs.
The elders took advantage of the harsh winter to reach out to the Americans and their allies. In winter months, the foreign Taliban mostly retreat to Pakistan to re-equip and recruit fresh fighters.
Marzak sent messages to the coalition indicating they were ready for an alliance. The 172nd responded by sending in Alpha Company, 2-28 Infantry, under the command of Capt. Jim Perkins. Their job was to establish a base in Marzak, forge ties with village elders, and stand up a volunteer Afghan Local Police force capable of resisting the Taliban.
Alpha Company quickly discovered the true extent of Taliban influence in Marzak. Senior elder Mullah Anwar is a self-avowed member of the extremist group, as are several other key elders. A mosque contained within the perimeter of Alpha Company’s patrol base in Marzak had once conditioned two men to become suicide bombers. Two village residents had recently died in gunfights with U.S. Special Forces.
Incredibly, another resident survived a fight with the Americans only to volunteer for the U.S.-run local police force. Perkins permitted the man to join. Lt. Col. Curtis Taylor, Perkins’ commander, says his intelligence specialists have had “informal” conversations with the man, hoping to glean whatever intelligence they can from him.
Pvt. Anthony McCarthy, a machine-gunner, was using a retinal scanner and fingerprint device to register police recruits. He was surprised to find he had already scanned several of the recruits … as suspected Taliban.
Taylor says he believes Marzak can be lured away from extremism and reintegrated with mainstream Afghan society. One trick is to take advantage of the local tribe’s opposition to meddling by the neighboring tribe, using that as a wedge through which to insert a government-run security force. That force, the ALP, “is very closely tied” with reintegration, Taylor says.
The true test of the strange new alliance will come in the spring, when the foreign Taliban return to Marzak and discover their old comrades have sided with the government and the Americans.