Afghanistan: The Troubles With Traditions


June 27, 2009: Western military commanders in the south are frustrated by conflicting directives. On the one hand, they are very publically ordered to destroy the Taliban. More discreetly, they are told that keeping casualties (their own troops, and civilians) low is imperative. The generals are not given much specifics when it comes to casualties, just the understanding that each dead soldier or civilian brings the politicians back home closer to ordering the troops, or some of their commanders, out of Afghanistan. This frustrates commanders, who get no credit for keeping troop and civilian casualties to historically low levels. That means nothing to the politicians and mass media. While Afghanistan is now more dangerous for foreign troops than Iraq, it's still only about half as intense as Iraq was 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 century, while the local tribal warriors have remained pretty much the same. The new Western way of fighting does give the enemy one advantage. The Western troops now devote a larger portion of their force to defense ("force protection"), and are more cautious on the offense. Some officers, and troops, bridle at this, and insist that more aggressive operations would yield better results, and not that many more casualties.

While the Taliban kill several times more civilians than the foreign troops, and many of the civilians killed by foreign troops are the result of the Taliban deliberately using civilians as human shields, the Western troops are under intense pressure to keep civilian casualties to zero. This is impossible (except to those who ignore how wars are fought), and increasingly complex ROE (Rules of Engagement) imposed on Western troops protects the Taliban, as well as civilians. The Taliban don't care if civilians hate them, and increasingly use terror to get civilians to cooperate (not give information to police or troops). The Taliban are very blunt in their condemnations of democracy, and why it is un-Islamic. As the Taliban are on a mission from God, they do not answer to any earthly power. At the same time, the Taliban are fighting a traditional tribal or warlord battle for money (drug profits) and power (the ability to to extort cash and cooperation from subject peoples). The Taliban are well aware of the ROEs the foreign troops operate under, and take full advantage of it. The biggest advantage the Taliban have is that the foreign troops cannot use the traditional methods of pacifying tribes (killing lots of civilians to impose peace). What worked for the Persians, Alexander the Great and the Mongols, is no longer allowed. Well, not allowed for Western troops, but the Taliban, those champions of traditional values, can do whatever they want. But this does not make the Taliban invulnerable and guaranteed success.

A lot of the "Taliban" violence, isn't caused by the Taliban. What is happening is the normal reaction of rural Afghans to new economic opportunities. Since September 11, 2001, the Afghan economy has been booming, with average annual growth of close to ten percent. This is happening to the poorest country in Asia, where about half the population is considered living below the poverty line, and there is 40 percent unemployment. In response to this, certain tribal traditions (especially among the Pushtun tribes in the south) developed over the centuries. The most popular of these traditions is "grab whatever you can, at any opportunity." Thus "loot" (goodies stolen from someone not belonging to your tribe) is a big deal, and a good thing (for the looter, of course.) The Taliban believe in traditional values, especially those that encourage and justify obtaining loot. So a lot of the gunmen thought to be working for the Taliban, aren't. They are just guys with guns taking advantage of the situation. Many of those civilians killed or kidnapped by the Taliban, were actually done by bandits (some of whom will claim to be Taliban, as that makes them more intimidating.)

With the increased number of troops available, 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. There they face 10,000-15,000 Taliban, drug gang fighters and bandits. 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 can even those odds.

The intensity of the fighting is increasing, but Taliban casualties continue to 5-10 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.

One of the myths about Afghanistan is that "it has never been conquered." Over the centuries, Afghanistan has been conquered many times. Few conquerors bothered to subdue all of what is now Afghanistan. The region is poor, and all the great conquerors have a sense of what is worth fighting for, and what is not. The Afghan tribes were always considered formidable warriors, but they were seen as more of a nuisance than anything else. The Afghan tribes liked to raid their wealthier neighbors, and this often brought savage retribution by more numerous, and equally ferocious fighters. The invaders would kill women and children, burn villages and crops and take herds. With the Afghans more poverty stricken than before, the avenging armies would leave with their loot. Afghans don't like to dwell on this aspect of their military history. The basic truth is that they weren't conquered because they weren't worth conquering. And the only reason foreign troops are again in the country is because Afghans demonstrated, in the 1990s, that they were willing to tolerate the presence of the Taliban (which didn't bother anyone outside Afghanistan) and al Qaeda (which did.) The badlands of Afghanistan (and the tribal areas of neighboring Pakistan) have long been a refuge for criminals and fugitives. The rest of the world doesn't normally care about this, but September 11, 2001 changed all that.

The Western troops are now carrying out the new strategy of "clear and hold", but they are also carrying out raids on lucrative targets (ones that contain lots of drugs, or Taliban gunmen). The attacks on the, previously unhidden, drug markets and processing facilities (where the poppy sap is turned into opium, then heroin) has caused the Taliban a lot of men and money. The Taliban are paid well to provide security for some of these locations, and the guards don't get paid if the place is raided. So the drug gangs are starting to hide the processing and market facilities. This does not make them impossible to find, just more difficult. That's why so many more reconnaissance aircraft have been sent to Afghanistan.

The larger number of raids and patrols has led to an increase in casualties, particularly among the enemy. The Taliban have to move large groups of gunmen around, if only for self-defense from increasingly hostile Afghan villagers. More and more of these Taliban groups (usually no more than 30-40 men) are being detected and attacked. The Taliban have learned that even moving at night provides no protections, since all U.S. recon aircraft and UAV have night vision. Actually, the heat sensors work better at night, and stuff like this severely hampers Taliban operations. In response, Taliban are building more bunkers and tunnels in areas they have settled down in. But when the foreign troops come in, the result is the same. And often the Taliban stay and fight, because they realize that their traditional "slipping away under cover of darkness" tactic no longer works, and is a death sentence if the bombers are overhead.

Herat province was declared "poppy free". Most of Afghanistan is also, and the Afghans have gotten the U.S. to halt the spraying of poppy fields with herbicide. While the spraying has been successful in other parts of the world, in Afghan, local officials have shown that they can persuade farmers to stop planting poppies via a combination of threats and rewards. This policy has worked in the north, but is more difficult to implement in the south because of the large Taliban presence, and the formation of several powerful drug cartels. The latter are your typical warlord operations, but in this case armed with lots of cash (for bribes) as well as gunmen (Taliban contractors, as well as fighters working directly for the drug boss).

The corruption, and government inefficiency, problems are now recognized as the key ones in Afghanistan. These are formidable obstacles, and history shows that these problems are not easily, or quickly, overcome. A major advantage the Taliban have is that the government corruption and inefficiency makes the Taliban seem like a viable alternative. Actually, the economy declined under the Taliban in the 1990s, and the only positive thing the Taliban did was to reduce banditry (by the simple, and traditional expedient of killing lots of the usual suspects.) But the West has no choice here. Abandon Afghanistan and it quickly goes back to being a sanctuary for terrorists and criminals. That might lead to Pakistan and Iran invading and partitioning the country (something that has happened before, but centuries ago.) Few Western politicians want that either. So the new Western strategy is to demonstrate good government at the grass roots levels by having troops pacify areas, and then implement aid programs that make life better.




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