Attrition: What Afghanistan Really Needs


June 12, 2014:   Afghanistan is facing a lot of problems with the departure of most Western troops by the end of 2014. But the Afghan police and army are not missing the Western combat troops as much as they are the Western combat support. Right now over 90 percent of the combat operations against the Taliban are being handled by Afghan police and soldiers. But most of the support functions are still being supplied by the Western forces and nearly all those logistical, medical, communications and intelligence troops are being withdrawn. This will hurt the Afghans particularly hard because they have not got enough Afghans with technical skills to replace all those support goodies. Medical support will be particularly missed, as will air support (using smart bombs). This will hurt the morale of Afghan security forces, many of them veterans who have gotten used to the availability of Western levels of medical care for those wounded in combat. The Western air support will also be missed, and will result in more Afghan casualties. One or two smart bombs is often decisive when fighting the Taliban, warlords or bandits. The air surveillance capabilities of the Westerners is also a great help in defeating the enemy and limiting friendly casualties. All the other Western support services have a similar impact and all will be gone. Western military advisors and trainers are aware of this looming shortage and are advising their bosses to see about keeping some of those services in Afghanistan or helping the Afghans to replace them using Afghan or foreign contractors. 

Afghanistan has not got enough qualified people to provide a lot of those services and that is despite the fact that Afghanistan gone through a lot of changes since 2001. For example, life-expectancy had increased from 45 years in 2001 to 63 years now. This, plus the rapid economic growth since 2001 means Afghanistan is no longer the poorest country in Eurasia. The increased life expectancy is largely the result to improved sanitation and medical care, especially for newborns and children under five. One reason for the growing hostility towards the Taliban is the continuing efforts of these Islamic radicals to limit the spread of better health care and economic improvements in general. The most obvious example of this is the continuing Taliban opposition to vaccination programs, which the Taliban consider a Western effort to poison Moslem children. Then there is education, which has rapidly increased, despite constant, and often fatal, Taliban resistance.  Better educated children are healthier because they learn about how to keep healthy in addition of how to read and count. Taliban insist that education concentrate mainly on religious matters and that girls be excluded. Islamic educators stress the importance of living like the original 7th century Moslems and avoiding modern technology. This is not popular with most Afghans.

Some things haven’t changed much since 2001. In much of the country the ancient tribalism (every family for itself) attitude prevails, making joint efforts very difficult. A major barrier to economic growth and Western level military support services is education as most Afghans are still illiterate and possess few marketable skills. That is slowly changing but in the Pushtun south where the Taliban and tribal traditionalism are stronger the departure of foreign troops is expected to result in many schools, especially those for girls, being closed or converted to religious schools (where few economically useful skills are taught).

Another problem is that since 2001 more Afghans have become aware of how screwed up their country is. Back in 2001 most Afghans only had a dim knowledge of how different (and usually much better) life was in the rest of the world. But since 2001 Afghan attitudes have been revolutionized by an improved economy. Most of Afghanistan has been at peace, by local standards, for over a decade and economic growth has given most people a lot more cash. That has led to a flood of electronic media. First came cheap TVs and CD players on which pirated copies of Indian and Western movies could be played. For many Afghans this was the first tangible evidence that there was a very different world out there. Gossip and radio descriptions were one thing, but now they could see it. For the younger generation (because of the short life span and high birth rate, most Afghans have always been young) this made staying in Afghanistan a much less viable proposition.

One thing young Afghans quickly learned from all that video was that educational and economic opportunities were much greater outside Afghanistan, as were the chances of living a longer and happier life. Even the millions of refugees (from the 1980s war with the Russians) in Pakistan and Iran were reluctant to return and many refuse to (despite increasing pressure from their host countries). While many did return, they often regretted it (and often went back to the refugee camps) because the corruption and violence so common to Afghanistan were still there. Pakistan and Iran were much safer and comfortable, even though both these nations are pretty low on the global rankings of good places to live. The problem is that Afghanistan is near the bottom of those lists, along with hell holes like Somalia.

A lot of the Afghans now trying to get out of the country have benefitted from the increased educational opportunities in the last decade. In early 2001 only a million children were in school, all of them boys. Now there are eight million in school, and 40 percent are girls. Back then there were only 10,000 phones in the country, all land lines in cities. Now there are 17 million cell phones, with access even in remote rural areas. Back then less than ten percent of the population had access to any health care, now 85 percent do and life expectancy is rising. The GDP and average income has been increasing every year since 2002 and has more than doubled on a per-person basis since the Taliban days. This has been an unprecedented period of economic growth for Afghanistan. The drug trade only benefits about ten percent of the population, mainly in those few districts where the drugs are produced and moved to the border for export. The Taliban, and some other Islamic terrorists (like the Haqqani Network) survive only because Pakistan provides them with sanctuaries and the drug gangs provide lots of cash to hire new gunmen each year to replace the thousands who get killed. Young men still join the Taliban because of the high unemployment in many rural areas and thousands of years of tradition (once the crops are planted many men are free to go raiding). While Afghanistan is still a great place for warlords and drug gangs, legitimate enterprises, requiring better educated men with more skills are still having trouble surviving. Thus there are not enough educated and skilled Afghans to provide essential support for the military and police.





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