Attrition: Avoiding Another Bloodbath In Afghanistan


January 7, 2016: As promised in early 2015 the Taliban undertook a major military effort against the Afghan security forces now that that foreign troops are no longer doing any of the fighting. That role ended in late 2014. As a result the 350,000 personnel of the Afghan security forces (170,000 troops and 180,000 police) have suffered 27 percent more casualties in 2015 compared to 2014. Taliban losses have also been very high, but they have lower recruiting standards and can offer drugs as well as money for those young tribesmen willing to take a chance during the “fighting season” (the annual warm weather period between the time crops are planted and harvested). Going off to try and gain some glory and loot during the fighting season is an ancient tradition in Afghanistan. Being part of an organized army is not. American advisors believe that losing nearly three percent of its strength a year to combat deaths or crippling wounds is not sustainable. While the Taliban suffer higher losses the Taliban are more flexible in how they operate. This is more in line with the traditional Afghan way of warfare, which is more about raiding and ambushes than it is in operating like soldiers. The army and police are often standing guard in exposed positions (checkpoints or in bases) or obliged to go after fleeing Taliban, who often pause long enough to ambush the troops then move off again. Afghan soldiers and police know they are more effective fighters than the tribal warriors, but that their job requires them to expose themselves to danger regularly in order to maintain control of territory. The Taliban are not tied down nearly as much and that makes a big difference in morale.

Afghan military leaders point out that these operations are most successful and less stressful when they have American air support and the U.S. has apparently responded to that by quietly sending more warplanes and helicopter gunships to Afghanistan, along with more ground control teams to work with Afghan ground forces. But the air support is still much less than what it was when there were a lot of U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan.

NATO is working to increase the number of Afghan warplanes by 50 percent by the end of 2016 and are training several hundred new pilots and even more technical people to keep the aircraft operational. The problem here is that technically trained Afghans see those skills as a way out, or at least to take a better paying (and safer) job outside the military. Afghan received twenty MD-530 helicopters armed with machine-guns and rockets in 2015 along with twenty A29 Super Tucano light support aircraft (trainers that can also be used for ground attack). India is sending some Russian helicopter gunships. But what the Afghans really want are the American smart bombs, missiles, helicopter gunships and A-10 aircraft.

Even without air support Afghan army and special police units have been very effective against the Taliban, often killing ten or more of the enemy for each of their own dead. Overall though the Taliban lose about 15 men for every ten soldiers and police killed. Afghan special operations units make up about ten percent of the 350,000 soldiers and police in the security forces and are much more effective but don’t spend much time standing guard on roads or in front of important places (dams, buildings, roads) and don’t suffer the high losses doing so. The Afghan commandos took years to recruit, train and turn into experienced operators. Most of the other police and army units can defend themselves and at least a third of army units can regularly defeat the Taliban on the ground. Most soldiers and police can be depended on to defend a checkpoint, base or compound. But that does not replace the enormous American intelligence collecting and analysis capability which, along with all that airpower (for moving troops as well as blowing things up) which made the foreign troops so incredibly deadly against the Taliban. Many Afghan commanders warned that this support would be sorely missed by Afghans and now that all these foreign forces are gone, a lot more Afghans are agreeing.

The problems the Afghan security forces are facing have largely disappeared from Western media, in large part because far fewer Western troops are being killed in Afghanistan. From the peak year of 2010, when 711 foreign troops died (70 percent of them American) to 2014 (the last year Western combat troops were operating in Afghanistan) Western losses fell to 75 (73 percent American) Western media coverage declined in equal measure. In 2015 twenty-seven foreign troops died in Afghanistan (81 percent American).

The Taliban can ultimately cause most of the soldiers and police to desert if nothing is changed but even then the majority of Afghan tribes (and their tribal militias) oppose the drug gangs and the Taliban. So an ultimate Taliban victory is just about impossible. What Afghans want to avoid is another 1990s style bloodbath to prove this once again.


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