Afghanistan: Derailing The Gravy Train

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April 6, 2009:  The U.S. is sending a team of 80 DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) agents to Afghanistan. There, they will coordinate and advise the military on how to most effectively cripple or destroy the heroin producing operations that supply over $5 million a month to fund the Taliban (and much more to the drug gangs themselves). U.S. and NATO intelligence have already tracked and identified a large network of financial and logistical support for the drug operations. The heroin itself is but a few percent of the cargo traffic created by the drug business. Far more tonnage in chemicals (to refine the opium into heroin) moves into Afghanistan, and much, much more tonnage in the form of luxury goods, vehicles, building materials and weapons is transported into Afghanistan to reward those getting rich off the drug trade. The DEA has lots of experience in identifying all this traffic, and interrupting it. But the DEA also knows that large drug profits attract lots of people to replace those you arrest or kill. Afghanistan is the poorest country in Asia, and the heroin trade offers the rare opportunity for tribesmen to get rich. Wealth beyond their wildest dreams is quite an incentive. It allows you to build one the many new compounds you see going up all over southern Afghanistan. Inside you can do whatever you want, away from the prying eyes of the local religious zealots. On the outside you can be cozy with the Taliban, who are willing to do your dirty work cheap. Inside your home, you can indulge in multiple wives, boyfriends (this is southern Afghanistan, after all) satellite TV, alcohol, whatever you want. The DEA knows it is going to have a hard time taking all this away from the newly rich, ruthless and heavily armed tribesmen. But with the ability to interdict money and traffic flows, much can be done to spoil the party.

With the increased number of troops over the next six months, U.S. and NATO commanders are planning many more operations against known targets that, until now, they simply could not hit because they did not have enough troops. Over the last few years, intelligence capabilities have found far more targets than there were troops available to go after. This was one reason for the call, over the last two years, for more armed UAVs. These could be used to attack many targets. But often you wanted troops there as well, to take prisoners and collect documents and other evidence. The enemy is elusive, and basically operating like bandits. The Taliban and drug gangs either buy off or, more usually, terrorize any civilians or police they encounter. But they can't do that with the foreign troops or, usually, the Afghan soldiers. But there are only about 100,000 soldiers (foreign and Afghan) in southern Afghanistan, where all the action is. You can't put troops in every one of the thousands of villages or town neighborhoods where some thugs might show up and threaten pain or death to any who do not cooperate. But with more troops, more "clear and hold" operations can be conducted, to clear the gangs and Taliban out of large areas, establish a police and security (local armed volunteers) force to keep the gangs from returning, and moving on. The gangs will resist this, but they are not guaranteed success in fighting against "clear and hold." Most Afghans just want to be left alone, and given decent odds, will fight to achieve that. More foreign troops will even those odds.

The intensity of the fighting is increasing, but Taliban casualties continue to be several times those of the foreign and Afghan forces. The Taliban are still unable to defeat, or even hold their ground, when fighting foreign troops. The Afghan troops are also getting better, and usually win any pitched battles with the Taliban or drug gangs (and you often have to interrogate prisoners or search the bodies before you can identify who you just defeated.) The Taliban and drug gangs are avoiding contact with foreign troops, and shifting their efforts to the use of roadside bombs. But these are also dangerous to use, because the growing number of UAVs and intelligence units are locating the roadside bomb crews, and putting them out of action. As in Iraq, the bomb crews are paid for their work. But it's not too difficult to discover who is making more money in an area, and trace that back to bomb making (rather than drugs, or a relative in the West sending home money). The foreign intelligence troops are often as dangerous as the foreign infantry because of that. The poverty in Afghanistan is very real and pervasive.

While Afghanistan is now more dangerous for foreign troops than Iraq, it's still only about half as intense as Iraq during its most violent (2004-7) period. Moreover, compared to Vietnam or World War II, troops have less than a quarter the chance of being killed or wounded. The foreign troops truly dominate the battlefield more so than foreign troops have here for a long time. It's all about better equipment, training and leadership. The foreign troops are better than their predecessors over the last few centuries, while the local tribal warriors have remained pretty much the same. But NATO still refuses to help out more. While the U.S. has about 14 percent of its troops deployed overseas, NATO cannot manage more than four percent. That's because most NATO countries, especially in continental Europe, spend less (no more than two percent of GDP, less than half what the U.S. spends) on military matters, and much of that is more involved with creating jobs, rather than military capability.

The Taliban and tribal gang attacks on supply traffic from Pakistan have been exaggerated. About one percent of the containers entering Afghanistan each day, are damaged or destroyed (and this includes accidents on the atrocious roads). To avoid any possibility of the Taliban improving their aim, some 80 percent of fuel shipments now come from Central Asia, not Pakistan. Most of the NATO and U.S. supplies will be coming via Central Asian routes by the end of the year. This will not stop the attacks on traffic from Pakistan, but that violence was always more about who was getting the "protection" money from the trucking companies. The big increase in truck traffic (as the heroin fueled Afghan economy boomed) since 2001, has created disputes among tribal factions that have traditionally fed off the truck protection racket.

April 1, 2009: Australian and Afghan troops killed Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Bari, who was in charge of terrorist operations through most of Uruzgan province. U.S. and NATO forces are concentrating more of their efforts on the leadership, as Afghanistan is very much a warlord kind of place. Tribesmen follow a leader, not a bureaucracy, and when a leader is killed, his followers disperse, or fight among themselves to see if a new chief will arise.   

In Kabul, four suicide bombers wearing army uniforms attacked a government building and killed 13 people. Suicide bombings are carried out for the terror effect and media (especially foreign media) attention. Not that many suicide bombings, but they all get noticed, especially if you do them in cities where foreign reporters are.

March 31, 2009: In the south, a suicide bomber wearing a police uniform killed five policemen and four civilians in a police station.

 

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