Afghanistan: March To The Sound Of The Guns


December 1,2008: The U.S. is planning to increase its troop strength in Afghanistan from 32,000 to 52,000. The increase would include four combat brigades and an aviation brigade. This would mean eight more battalions of U.S. infantry, as the new brigade structure has reduced the number of battalions from three to two. But each battalion now has four combat companies, instead of three. The aviation brigade has about a hundred helicopters (half transport, half combat). The new brigades also have more support troops (all trained to fight) attached. The four combat brigades are, in effect, what the new U.S. combat divisions have. But the new organization uses the division mainly as an administrative unit. The new combat brigades are designed to operate on their own, and do so. It would take about 18 months to get all the new forces to Afghanistan. That would then result in a Western force of about 92,000 troops (52,000 U.S. and 40,000 NATO). In that time, the Afghans are expected to expand their own security forces (police and army), to produce a total force of nearly 300,000 local and foreign troops and police.

The additional military forces are arriving in the midst of another of Afghanistan's interminable tribal wars. The tribes are fighting for many reasons. The big one is money. Most of the Afghan opium trade is in the south, and pro-Taliban tribes are heavily involved. This gives the illusion that "the Taliban" control the drug business. They don't. There is also no unified Taliban movement. There are simply dozens of tribal factions on both sides of the Pakistani border that share certain Islamic radical beliefs that are currently called "Taliban." Fact is, these conservative religious and social customs have been common to these Pushtun tribes for centuries. The Islamic radicalism, however, was imported in the last three decades by Saudi Arabian missionaries (who preached the more conservative Wahhabi brand of Islam). That said, these Taliban factions do not agree on all religious and lifestyle matters. Some of the Taliban factions are hostile to the heroin trade (which is generally recognized as "haram", or "forbidden" to true Moslems).

So how do you fight or negotiate with an organization that has no central command and control? Why, you do what the kings of Afghanistan have always done, you divide and conquer. This is what president Karzai is doing. Now Karzai also represents his own Pushtun tribe (which his family has helped lead for generations), and all his tribes current allies. This causes friction with many Pushtun tribes because they believe they are not getting their share of the loot (foreign aid) and that the non-Pushtun tribes (who comprise 60 percent of the population) are getting too much of that loot. While a majority, the Pushtun have long been the largest minority in Afghanistan, and are accustomed to getting more than half of the loot.

Ah, the loot. Let us not lose sight of how important loot is in Afghan culture. Out in the hills, raiding other tribes, or foreign visitors, is considered great sport. Especially if you steal valuable, or neat, stuff. In the last century, a growing source of loot has been payments to the Afghan leader (formerly a Pushtun king, now a Pushtun president) by foreigners, to keep the Afghans from raiding outside their borders. In other words, protection money. Which tribe got what piece of that bit of loot often led to the kind of tribal violence you now see in Afghanistan. And many of the Taliban factions are fighting over the issue of how much money they get from the national government. Another source of conflict is who is getting paid off by which drug gang, and how much. In the midst of all this, there are disputes among the Taliban factions over who would be the supreme ruler if the Taliban recaptured Kabul. Technically, the Taliban ruler is still Mullah Omar, who was in charge on September 11, 2001. But Mullah Omar was always considered a compromise candidate, and a bit of a dimwit. The real power in Taliban controlled Afghanistan of the late 1990s was a committee of faction leaders. Many of those guys are dead (of natural causes, or because of Hellfire missiles). President Karzai has tribal connections that enables him to keep in touch with most of the Taliban faction leaders and, in typical Afghan faction, make a (peace) deal when the time is right. But the Taliban don't just want money, they want power (a say in national affairs), respect (both political and religious) and maybe a new SUV or wife.

The Western news reports about "negotiations with the Taliban" are actually (if not intentionally) referring to talks with one of more of the major factions. Afghan officials believe that if they can get a few (three or four) of the largest factions to accept an amnesty deal (which apparently includes comfortable exile in Saudi Arabia for the more notorious, and wanted by the United States, leaders), the lesser factions would fold in the face of overwhelming battlefield odds. The idea behind the "battlefield surge" is the knowledge that many of the Taliban factions can be dismantled (their key combat leaders and followers captured or killed), and the local sources of drug money shut down (as the heroin trade has been shut down in most of Afghanistan). This was a tactic that was successfully employed in Burma (against the former major producers of heroin), Pakistan (where the heroin trade went after Burma was shut down) and Colombia (where the cocaine trade is being destroyed, and moving to neighboring countries). Yes, these the production of these illicit drugs always seems to find a home. But for the nations that find themselves cursed with a lot of drug production and smuggling, it quickly becomes imperative to drive the plague out, with or without U.S. help.

Meanwhile, a UN survey team reported that most of the country was at peace, and making progress in reconstruction, and improving living conditions in the poorest country in Eurasia. The Western media tends to declare all of Afghanistan a mess because of the tribal warfare in a few southern provinces. But all the fighting is indeed a local, and long standing, problem local to the border area. Reporters, like aggressive generals, "march to the sound of the guns."  Reporters are also prone to inaccurate extrapolation and interpretation.

UN and government efforts to decipher the heroin trade have found that acreage of poppies (which produce opium, which is refined into heroin) has declined 19 percent in the last year. But the amount of opium declined only six percent. This is apparently because the government has been successful in shutting down poppy growing outside of Helmand province. This is largely because it's easier to grow poppies in Helmand, and the presence of  many pro-Taliban tribes provides the armed men needed to protect the poppy fields from government action (destroying the plants). The Taliban extort some cash from the drug gangs, but the drug gangs have hired lots of gunmen, and are not at the mercy of the Taliban. It's a mutual benefit type of arrangements, because the joint drug gang and Taliban forces are sufficient to keep the Afghan security forces and foreign troops busy, and not triumphant. The Taliban and drug lords are not looking forward to the American "surge," as that could break the Heroin business in Helmand.

Military operations against the Taliban continue to kill, would or capture several hundred Taliban fighters a week. Many of the "Taliban" are actually guys working security for drug gangs. Since no one wears uniforms, gunmen can call themselves whatever they want. But once captured, they usually talk freely about who they really are. The Taliban, in response to their continuing failure to achieve battlefield success, have tried to increase their suicide bomber attacks on foreign troops. But these continue to mainly kill Afghan civilians, which cause the Taliban serious public relations problems.

November 25, 2008: Police in the south have arrested ten men for the November 12 attack outside the southern city of Kandahar, where two men on a motorcycle came up to some 18 girls and some teachers walking to school, and sprayed them with acid. Two girls were blinded, and two others disfigured. The ten men confessed that they had been paid $1,300 by Pakistani Taliban to organize attacks against schoolgirls. The girls had first been sent anonymous notes warning them to stay out of school, but most of the girls and their parents defied the warnings. So far this year, there have been over 300 Taliban attacks on schools, students (mostly girls) or teachers in Afghanistan.

November 23, 2008: For the second time in a month, British forces in Helmand province have killed a senior Taliban leader. In this case, it was Mullah Asad, who controlled most terrorist operations in the southern part of the province.

November 21, 2008: The NATO commander in Afghanistan assured Pakistan that India was not sending a thousand troops to assist in fighting the Taliban. Pakistan is quite paranoid about any Indian involvement in Afghanistan, seeing that as an attempt by India to surround Pakistan and, well, you know how that story goes. Indian aid organizations in Afghanistan have brought in Indian security specialists (former Indian troops, some of them were commandos) to protect Indian aid workers from kidnapping and other violence.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close