May 22, 2007

Star on Dadullah

The conclusions of Star freelancer Hugh Graham about the death of Mullah Dadullah in Afghanistan seem deeply backwards.

"With Dadullah gone, Pakistan's peace strategy is in a shambles and the politically isolated, fanatical, Al Qaeda-backed leadership of Haqqani and Hekmatyar will once again be in the ascendant.

"The present situation may not change much in Kandahar and Helmand. But the future seems to have taken a turn for the worse."

Well, that's one interpretation. Another would be that the death of a movement's most popular and charismatic leader will be at least a short-term local setback: to say it will make no difference at all really seems unduly negative.

As for the long-term prognosis, Graham's thesis is that Dadullah, despite all his many, many words and utterances to the contrary, was potentially turnable by Pakistan and/or the Karzai government, and was therefore a potential point of weakness for the Taliban, who will now be only more determined about unseating Karzai.

Again, that's one interpretation. Another would be that Dadullah was not only Mullah Omar's right hand, he was the only Taliban leader proven capable of brokering peace within the Taliban's own organization, as his recent involvement in the Waziristan Accords with Pakistan would indicate. The other commanders Graham cites, Haqqani and Hekmatyar, are older, have histories of switching sides and pursuing independent courses of action, and less beholden and loyal to Omar. If anything a greater role for them in a Pashtun insurgency means less unity of purpose, not more.

Dadullah was at least fighting the elected Afghan regime. Since 2002, Haqqani and Hekmatyar have sat in their mountain fastnesses, and basically waited for Afghanistan to collapse from within (not exactly a risky bet, that). Again, Dadullah's death would seem, at least in the short term, to lead to less Pashtun insurgent activity, not more.

Here's my prediction: barring an extreme situation, like a U.S.-Iran War or a Pakistani coup that destabilizes the entire region, this year in Afghanistan is going to see marked improvement in the sense of increasing general stability, through the end of 2007. It's going to be very difficult for the Taliban, after Dadullah's death, to rescue anything much of the situation in the southern provinces, this campaign season. Past the end of this year is harder to predict, but it should be possible for NATO forces to make at least some headway in the Kandahar area, and hopefully that will reflect in public opinion both here and there.

Outside of Helmand, which is likely to remain a powderkeg for some time, the insurgency could also see a shift of focus, to the more mountainous eastern area where Haqqani and Hekmatyar are both more comfortable operating. Neither leader has the capability to mount any sustained operation in Kandahar province proper. By the time the Taliban have identified a new leader for their Quetta-based militants who does have that ability, the 9-month campaign season, now already almost a third over, will be almost done.

As for Dadullah, when your key battlefield commander is killed near the front lines, that can only mean one of two things: increasingly good intelligence, or a Taliban leadership that is beginning to run out, after a year of relentless pounding, of good mid-level commanders in the Kandahar region, that forced Dadullah to take personal control more often.

Posted by BruceR at 03:51 PM

LOTR mashups

Speaking of LOTR, and my crappy looking mace, I feel compelled to note down for posterity that I was never able to watch the very first moments of battle in Fellowship of the Ring, that remarkable elven phalanx, without thinking about Monty Python's architect sketch, and how it could be repurposed as the pre-battle briefing for the orcs involved:

Orc commander: Right: This is a standard divisional attack, 2 regiments up, one back. The first regiments will advance here, with full support from the archers on the hill behind, advancing to the sounds of pipes and drums, towards the Elvish phalanx and their rotating knives. The last twenty feet of the advance will be over rough ground to prevent anyone slipping on the blood. The mangled flesh will be recovered for burial at some point, or more likely just left for the crows and other wild...

Subordinate: Excuse me.

Commander: Yes?

Subordinate: Did you say 'knives'?

Commander: Rotating knives, yes.

Posted by BruceR at 01:35 PM

Lord of the Rings Online, day 6

Another couple hours last night. Results: up a level, to 11 now. Deaths (or rather, defeats, as no heroes die in LOTRO): 1, when I got too much to handle fighting dourhands in the hobbit swamp. Chastened, I went sightseeing again, passing past Bag End, Brandywine Bridge, the Prancing Pony in Bree, and ending up in the human village of Archet with my "open quests" list now maxed out at 40. Along the way, tried a little monster play: definitely a nice flipside to the game, although I didn't stay long enough to be ganked by anyone; picked a crafting profession (Historian), and closed off the night by levelling through the repeated whacking of spiders. Not much happening socially, though.

An interesting phenomenon that I'm really noticing in this game more than others is a sort of "quasi-grouping," where a bunch of soloes aiming at the objective end up effectively working together. You see the guy in front of you whacking the spider, assess he needs no help from you, then run past to take down the next spider. Then a third solo player you've never seen before runs past you both and takes on the one past that, and you end up leapfrogging each other all the way. You can end up clearing out the lowbie dungeons quite rapidly, with everyone achieving their quest objectives independently, without ever really sharing a word this way. In practice, it looks a little like Nathaniel and Chingachgook's last, also wordless, fight scene in the Last of the Mohicans movie (last 2 mins); there's that damn Irish reel in the back of my head at times.

There's a couple reasons this tends to happen (good NPC and PC population density, and aversions to grouping with strangers generally) but it's also a testament to an easy and well-developed quest system. In DAOC, for instance, a quester could never really assume that kind of unity of larger purpose with the strangers around him: some people were questing, some were just XP-farming, and without communication you had no idea (often with comms you still had no idea what the hell they were doing half the time). In LOTRO if you see three other people on the same basic directional vector as you, you can safely assume you're all ultimately headed for the Bijou of Boggies +1 at the end of the tunnel and comport yourselves accordingly.

The other factor is the rapid monster respawn rate, which rewards fast play: in monster zones it's in everybody's decided interest to move as fast as possible, rather than standing around talking strategy, so you all end up unconsciously collaborating towards that objective. Once the monsters get a little stronger, obviously you'd have to start grouping up, of course: the quasi-grouping I'm seeing is really only suitable in situations of relative plenty of monsters that are at or below one's own level. Still, it's fun to participate in, even if it's not particularly conversational.

Posted by BruceR at 12:47 PM