The successful technique of concentrating on the leaders and technicians, to disrupt terrorist activities, is having an impact on the Taliban IED (improvised explosive device) campaign. More IEDs are duds (the exact number, and why, is kept secret so the enemy cannot fix their mistakes.) More IEDs are going off while being built. Afghanistan always had fewer bomb makers than the Islamic terrorists in Iraq. There, Saddam had trained thousands of his Sunni Iraqi loyalists to handle explosives and build bombs. The Iraqi population is more literate than the Afghans, and thus easier to train in technical matters, like bomb building. Not surprisingly, much of the IED building in Afghanistan is being done by foreigners, especially Iraqi Sunnis who got out when their movement collapsed in 2008. It's easier to find these foreigners. Afghans have a thing about foreigners, especially Arabs (who tend to be particularly disdainful of these "Afghan hillbillies.") The Taliban leadership is almost all Afghan, and those running the IED operation (which involves thousands of people) have to communicate and move around to instruct, discipline and encourage the troops. This makes them easier to track and catch. This tactic of going after the bomb builder techs and their leaders was pioneered a decade ago, when the Palestinians began their latest terror campaign against Israel. Within a few years, the Israelis had perfected their techniques, and crippled the Palestinian terror efforts. The U.S. adopted these tactics in Iraq shortly thereafter, and it played a large role in reducing the terrorist violence 90 percent by 2008. Now the tactic is arriving in Afghanistan, and having the same impact it did in Israel and Iraq.
June 27, 2010: Combat casualties among foreign troops are at record levels, with over 90 likely for June, the most ever in a single month. In 2007-8, foreign troops in Afghanistan lost about 300-400 dead per 100,000 troops. That went up to nearly 500 last year and will probably be the same rate this year (mainly because there are more foreign troops in Afghanistan). In Iraq, from 2004-7, the deaths among foreign troops ran at 500-600 per 100,000 per year. Since al Qaeda admitted defeat there two years ago, the U.S. death rate in Iraq has dropped to less than 200 dead per 100,000 troops per year.
For Afghan troops and police, the death rate is about 800 dead per 100,000, and this year is headed for 900 or more. The death rate for U.S. troops during Vietnam, Korea and World War II, was over 1,500. Better body armor, tactics, training, weapons and medical care have all contributed to a sharp reduction in fatal losses. Last year, IED (improvised explosive devices) accounted for over 60 percent of foreign troops deaths, but this year that is under 60 percent and falling. In the last year, the Taliban have doubled the number of IEDs employed, but have not been able to overcome better countermeasures. .
The recent dismissal of general Stanley McChrystal made it clear that senior commanders are well aware of what it will take to defeat the Taliban, and that they are contemptuous of American politicians and government officials who see the Afghan operation as a political issue, not a critical effort to hinder terrorism and heroin production. Thus the disparaging remarks about politicians insisting that U.S. troops would begin pulling out of Afghanistan next year. McChrystal has made himself unpopular back in Washington was his insisting that winning will take longer than the politicians are willing to tolerate. What got McChrystal into trouble was that the journalist who reported these remarks was a freelancer. Regular reporters know that, if they wish to have continued access to the people they cover, they cannot report the candid remarks that everyone knows represent real beliefs, but cannot be admitted publicly. McChrystal and his staff let their guard down with a freelancer, and that cost McChrystal his job.
The basic problem in Afghanistan is that if foreign troops withdraw, the civil war (interrupted with a Taliban defeat, via U.S. intervention, in late 2001) will resume. This is not just the 2001 civil war (between the Pushtun Taliban and the 60 percent of Afghans who are not Pushtun), but two civil wars. The non-Pushtun majority (mainly in the north) will increase they violence against drug gangs and the Taliban who work with the drug lords. Meanwhile, there are many Pushtun tribes who are more hostile to the Taliban today than they were in 2001. Recent polls show only six percent of Afghans support the Taliban, the result of the growing violence of the Taliban in the last few years, and the many Pushtun women and children killed as a result.
Such tribal warfare is nothing new in Afghanistan, in fact, it's the norm. But the Taliban have increased the level of violence to rarely seen levels as they attempt to kill foreign soldiers. That has proved very difficult to do, and a lot of Afghan civilians have been killed during these attempts. Thus most of the civilian deaths in Afghanistan continue to be from Taliban action, and the number continues to rise this year. This was the reasoning behind McCrystals new ROE (Rules of Engagement) which severely restricted the ability of foreign troops to shoot back when attacked. This has increased casualties among foreign troops somewhat, but the main effect is to reduce Taliban, and civilian, losses. Yet Afghan civilians complain that letting the Taliban get away does no one any good, as these Islamic radicals are constantly terrorizing civilians, and the foreign troops should kill the bastards at every opportunity, even if some civilians are killed. This makes sense to most Afghans, but not to the foreign media and politicians, for whom every dead Afghan civilian is a media disaster. McCrystal's successor is under a lot of pressure to ease up on the ROE, and let the troops be more aggressive.
Another big hit for Afghan morale is the number of American politicians insisting that American troops will begin leaving next year. U.S. allies hear that, and begin making their own exit plans. Afghan tribal leaders in the south begin looking at whether they should fight the Taliban or try and make a deal. While the Taliban insist they want to go back to their religious dictatorship of the late 1990s, that is not going to happen. The drug gangs are more powerful and better organized now, and will not be as submissive. More of the Pushtun tribes refuse to tolerate Taliban domination. Then there is the "Northern Alliance" (the 60 percent of non-Pushtuns who currently dominate the national government). The civil war could get very ugly, with pro-Taliban tribes facing heavy losses, even extinction if the Taliban leadership refuse to flee or give up. Afghans traditionally make deals, when they count heads before a battle and realize they are likely to take a beating. But the Taliban play by different rules, frequently refusing to make deals, and insisting that things be done the Taliban way, or else.
Many politicians in the West believe that such a civil war is preferable to the expense (in lives, money and bad publicity) of keeping troops in Afghanistan. If the Afghans go after each other, which many Afghans insist they will do, when the foreigners leave, so what? Al Qaeda would probably not have much of a base under those circumstances. After all, look at how ineffective Somalia has been as an al Qaeda refuge. But Afghanistan's neighbors don't want this civil war. That would mean that the drug gangs would be even stronger, and more opium and heroin would pour into neighboring nations. That means more local addicts and corrupted officials. Pakistan, which created the Taliban in the early 1990s to help end an Afghan civil war, does not want another such conflict in Afghanistan, especially since the Taliban movement has spread to Pakistan. From the Pakistani perspective, abandoning Afghanistan will trigger chaos among the 40 million Pushtuns who live along the Afghan-Pakistan border. This could lead to years of major security problems for Pakistan.
June 26, 2010: In Kabul, an Afghan soldier died when a weapon (apparently a Claymore command activated mine) went off by accident in his vehicle. There were no other casualties, but for a while the explosion was reported as a terrorist attack.
June 25, 2010: A senior Taliban leader, Ghulam Sakhi, was caught at a checkpoint (as he tried to pass through wearing women's clothing). Sakhi pulled a weapon and fled, but was soon cornered and killed. Sakhi was known to be one of the key leaders directing the IED (roadside bomb) campaign. This Taliban effort has been less successful this year, as the anti-IED tactics and techniques from Iraq are increasingly applied. This includes finding out who the leaders, and key technical people are, in the Taliban IED effort, and going after them. Sakhi was apparently feeling the pressure, as trying to sneak past the cops by wearing a burqa is a desperate measure (because most Afghans can detect such a deception because Afghan men have a hard time "moving" like a woman, thus a man in a burqa tends to stand out.)
In eastern Afghanistan, a Taliban bomb workshop in a mosque blew up, killing 13 foreigners (eight Arabs and five Pakistanis) and two Afghan militants. Apparently someone made a mistake while building roadside bombs.
June 24, 2010: North of Kandahar, police found the bodies of eleven Shia men. The victims had been beheaded, indicating that the murders were religiously inspired. Some 15 percent of Afghans are Shia, and Sunni Islamic radicals have long encouraged such violence against Shia "heretics." This is why there has always been so much resistance, in Iran, to supporting al Qaeda and other Sunni Islamic terror groups. The Iranian Islamic radicals see the West as the main enemy, and want to help al Qaeda. But the Sunni radicals can't help hurting their own cause by killing Shia.
General Stanley McChrystal, commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan, was dismissed after an American magazine published critical remarks McChrystal and members of his staff made (which they thought were off-the-record). A British general will temporarily take over, and U.S. general David Petraeus (McChrystal's boss as head of Central Command) has accepted a demotion to take over for McChrystal. Petraeus must be approved by Congress, which could take a week or so, before he can take charge. McChrystal was popular with the Afghan leadership, who asked that he not be fired. Patraeus had led the final campaign against Islamic radicals in Iraq, and been promoted to lead Central Command (U.S. forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan). Petraeus, like McChrystal, is a very smart guy, but also inclined to speak plainly to his civilian bosses.
June 21, 2010: American politicians insist they were shocked to discover that Afghan trucking companies pay bribes to local tribes, to avoid attacks on their vehicles. This is an ancient custom in Afghanistan, but has only recently become known to most Americans (via recent news stories describing the practice, although not its long history.)
Because of the growth in Taliban violence, the UN is pulling some of its staff out of the country. Particularly alarming to the UN is the 45 percent increase in murdered government officials. The Taliban believe this use of death squads can effectively intimidate these officials.
June 20, 2010: As part of a deal the government just made (after a nationwide peace conference) with pro-Taliban tribes, some twenty Taliban are being freed from prison. Now it's up to the pro-Taliban tribes to show some support for the government. This may not happen, and it will be a week or so before that is obvious.
June 19, 2010: A UN survey found that drug use (mainly opium and heroin) has doubled in Afghanistan in the last five years. About three percent of adult (15-64) Afghans are believed to be addicts. That's over half a million people. Even more are occasional users.