Afghanistan: October 29, 2001

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Russian border guards in Tajikistan again reported heavy fighting just across the border in Afghanistan. Artillery and jet aircraft were heard. The Northern Alliance announced they would begin another offensive to take Mazar-i-Sharif. Winter is closing in up north. While it's still in the 70s and 80s down south in Kandahar, it's in the 50s and 40s in Mazar-i-Sharif. Increasingly, most of the US bombing is in the north. As the Taliban remain determined to hold Mazar-i-Sharif, and have many of their best troops up there, it seems a good move to try and win up north.

Pushtunstan- Never forget that the real boundaries in this part of the world are ethnic, not political. The largest ethnic nation in Afghanistan is Pushtunstan. This is some 20 million Pushtun people, who live in an arc beginning in northern Pakistan, down along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border and through southern Afghanistan (south of Kabul, but including Kandahar.) The Pushtuns are a minority in both nations (40 percent in Afghanistan, ten percent in Pakistan). Although the Pakistanis try to control the border, they do it with a light touch. The brass look the other way as border guards collect bribes from smugglers, and wounded Taliban fighters are let in for medical care. Inside Pakistan, the various Pushtun gangster organizations are dealt with carefully, as most Pushtun men have a weapon and can be turned out in large numbers if the Pakistanis are seen to be "persecuting Pushtuns" (arresting Pushtun gangsters). All those guns have also led to American helicopters being fired on as they operate out of some Pakistan airbases (most of the bases so used are outside of Pushtun territory.)

Back in the United States, the finger pointing over the capture and execution of pro-US Pushtun leader Abdul Haq gets into high gear.  Why was such a valuable ally as Haq allowed to go into Afghanistan without sufficient backup. Where was the CIA? Where was support for US special forces and helicopters? Getting answers to these questions will prove interesting, for men like Haq are seen as the key to US success in overthrowing the Taliban. Unfortunately, there are not too many men like Haq, and fewer will be willing to help us after seeing how Haq was left in the lurch.

Pro-Taliban pundits are making much of the use of cluster bombs in Afghanistan.  In the last, the CBU (Cluster Bomb Unit) would sometimes miss it's target and hit civilians. Moreover, as many as ten percent of the bomblets would not go off  and would remain to explode later when disturbed by civilians. That was about ten years ago. Today's CBU uses the same smart bomb technology to hit targets more accurately. The dud rate was reduced to less than one percent. 

When these high dud rate problems were first discovered in the early 1980s, several solutions were at hand. More complex, expensive and reliable fuzes were a possibility. But research showed that to halve the dud rate would double the cost of a submunition. To bring the dud rate down to one percent would quadruple the cost. At the time, submunitions cost about $6.00 (in current dollars.) In the United States, the largest manufacturer of submunitions, no change was made through the 1980s. To use the more expensive fuzes would mean buying fewer munitions. But the Gulf War of 1991 showed that all those dud submunitions tended to cause a lot of casualties among your own troops. The reason was simple, as you would fire a lot of submunitions at the enemy, and then overrun the enemy positions, your troops would suddenly find themselves amidst all those duds, and friendly casualties were the result.

Israel and Germany, who both manufactured their own submunitions, went for the safer fuze. Better designs brought the cost down, and they ended up paying ten to fifteen dollars for each submunition. But they achieved dud rates of less than one percent. The safer fuze was basically a self-destruct device. If the submunition did not explode as it was supposed to, another fuze detonated it within 14-18 seconds.


Even with the better fuzes, submunitions are still more dangerous after the battle than older shells. Fire 10,000 artillery shells (a typical quantity for a battle in an area covering a square mile or so), and you end up with a minimum of 200 dud shells, or as many as 3,000 if you are using old, poorly made stuff. But if you use the most modern submunition equipped shells, you are putting 200,000 or more submunitions into the area, and a minimum of 2,000 duds. Fight this battle in the Winter, with the older fuzes, and you end up with over 50,000 duds. And the bomblets are on the surface, not buried like most artillery shell duds. It's no wonder that most submunition fuzes are now of the more expensive, and more reliable, variety.

 

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