Afghanistan: To Know You Is To Kill You


February 28, 2011:  The Taliban are increasingly desperate to decrease the pressure on them from U.S. and NATO troops. In particular, the campaign against the Taliban leadership (the guys who command a few hundred men in part of a province or city), is causing major morale problems. Not just among the field commanders, but also among the rank-and-file Taliban. These guys are increasingly disillusioned with Taliban tactics that often stress killing terror tactics against civilians. The Taliban gunmen are often believers in the Taliban idea of a religious dictatorship eliminating corruption and bringing peace and prosperity to the countryside. But this is not what the Taliban is actually doing, even in areas where they have a lot of control. As a result, recruiting is more difficult (even with the offer of higher pay), and desertions are increasing.

The American "decapitation" (arrest or kill leaders) approach distracts leaders from their main job (organizing roadside and other bomb attacks, as well as fund raising and recruiting). The Taliban leadership jobs pay well, and you get to park your family across the border in Pakistan, where they will be taken care of if you get killed. But the Taliban commanders are not suicidal, and are alarmed at the efficiency of the decapitation campaign. The U.S. has an informant network (propelled by cash rewards, growing use of cell phones and popular hatred of the Taliban) and electronic intelligence collection (using UAVs and manned aircraft). All those Taliban deserters are also a source of information. It's hard for a new commander to remain anonymous or un-located for very long. And once the foreign troops know about you, they come after you. If they can't take you alive, they kill you.

The senior Taliban leadership, across the border in Quetta (Baluchistan, south of Helmand and Kandahar), have largely ignored pleas for some kind of relief, and ordered the Taliban field commanders to keep attacking the foreign troops. That has not been possible, because of the disruption caused by the decapitation effort. Taliban attacks are down, and efforts have turned to less-well-protected civilian targets. This has caused a public dispute among Taliban leaders.

While some Taliban commanders carry out bomb attacks on forbidden activities (dog fighting, sports, police training and recruiting), they are being denounced by senior leadership as "rogue elements." Often, there's some police, or a police base, nearby, to explain to senior management in Quetta why so many civilians were killed. But one thing the senior Taliban do not appreciate is the growing hatred the Taliban are facing in southern Afghanistan (where the  most pro-Taliban tribes come from). Too many Taliban units have turned into bandits and terrorists. That evolution has been hard to halt, especially with the constant turn-over caused by the decapitation campaign, and Taliban field commanders who simply quit (and often flee with their families).

So the Taliban PR machine is busy sending out apologies for any civilians killed during Taliban operations, and accusing most of the deaths on the foreigners. For this, the Taliban have the help of Afghan government officials. For a large enough fee (or promise), these guys will concoct a story about foreign (usually U.S.) troops killing civilians (even if local witnesses saw nothing, or saw the Taliban do the killing). This sort of thing makes a splash in the media, but doesn't really help the Taliban much. The decapitation campaign, and raids on drug producing operations, do hurt, and continue.

Not all Afghan leaders are having a hard time. For officials in the Afghan government, it is a golden age. Bribes from drug gangs (and other criminals), plus the opportunity to steal billions of dollars in foreign aid, has made thousands of families wealthy (at least by Afghan standards, and for a few, by world standards.) This culture of taking bribes, and plundering aid, is widely unpopular among the majority of Afghans (who are not getting any of it), yet most Afghans have no problem joining in if the opportunity presents itself. Being the poorest nation (for a long time) in Eurasia has something to do with this. But unless the bribery and embezzlement is reduced, economic, social and political progress will be very slow.

While the Afghan government is corrupt, it does have an incentive to do some things right. The security forces are somewhat less plundered, and there are financial incentives for intelligence and police commanders who can shut down Islamic terror operations (whose attacks are often directed at Afghan government officials). The Islamic radical groups are very popular if they themselves are not corrupt (like most of the Taliban are) and go after those evil, thieving government officials. The terrorists, and Taliban, have benefitted from sending their death squads after the most effective intel operatives and military commanders. The intel people are easier to get to, as they are often out supervising information gathering, and not surrounded by their troops all the time.

Corruption in the military (stealing payrolls and money for supplies) is a major reason that army and police desertion rates are over 30 percent each year. This is compounded by many Afghans being uneasy operating in an unfamiliar part of the country. Most Afghans prefer to be homeboys, and stay in a place they know. This is prudent behavior in a very dangerous part of the world. New recruits are also put off by the fact that many commanders are more interested in stealing than leading. Despite all these losses, Afghan security forces are expected to reach 300,000 by the end of the year.

February 27, 2011: After two months of deadlock in Parliament, over who the new leader of Parliament (speaker) will be, a compromise was reached. Rather than electing a powerful politician, who might be able to challenge president Karzai, an obscure Uzbek politician was agreed on.




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