Afghanistan: The Others


January 17, 2009: The Taliban are shifting strategy in response to heavy losses fighting foreign troops. The Taliban has not been able to come up with a counterstrategy for the smart bomb and UAVs, which give foreign troops an unassailable advantage in battles. The word has gotten around, and Afghans are demanding more money to take up arms and join a bunch of Taliban. The Taliban still need these large groups of armed men. Just threatening Afghans about their girls schools, video and music stores, and not having a beard, does not work unless you can show up once in a while with a large bunch of armed friends, and punish those who defy you. But over 5,000 Taliban fighters were killed last year, and about as many badly wounded or arrested. Some of these were actually working for drug gangs, who employ a lot of the groups of armed men prowling the countryside. But both the drug gangs and Taliban are united in their desire to keep Afghan and foreign troops out of southern Afghanistan, and often collaborate in that effort. They share information, and the wealthier drug lords often subsidize the Taliban payroll  (Holy War or not, the Taliban have to live and that takes cash).

U.S. troops have been operating in Afghanistan for eight years now, and have established special training courses back in the United States to prepare troops for the unique combat situations they will encounter. Over 100,000 U.S. soldiers and marines have served in Afghanistan, and these are usually the instructors for these preparation courses. Most of these troops have also served in Iraq, and they know they must warn Iraq veterans to forget about some skills and tactics that worked in Iraq, but won't in Afghanistan. There are also special courses for commanders, who must be prepared to deal with tribal politics in Afghanistan, which is somewhat different than it is in Iraq. The U.S. Army has collected so much information on troops dealing with Afghans that it has created an online simulation (it looks like a video game) where players can realistically interact with Afghans in a wide variety of situations. This helps to eliminate a lot of opportunities for misunderstandings because of cultural differences.

At the same time, the troops in Afghanistan now are trying out new tactics for taking down the Taliban and drug gangs. The U.S. is expanding its intelligence operations in Afghanistan, bringing in a lot of the equipment, and specialists, who were so useful in Iraq. The U.S. Army has developed intelligence tactics that provide "information dominance" that makes it difficult for the enemy to carry out attacks (without the U.S. knowing about it), and more vulnerable to American raids and sweeps. The information based tactics concentrate on capturing or killing the enemy leadership and specialists (mostly technical, but religious leaders and media experts are often valuable targets as well). The Australian commandos have specialized in this approach, and made themselves much feared by the Taliban (who will make an extra effort to avoid dealing with the Australians). The U.S. and NATO commanders know that the Taliban leadership is in trouble, with a new generation of leaders only recently shoving the older guys (veterans of the 1980s war with Russia) out of the way, and introducing more vicious tactics (more terrorism against reluctant civilians). This is backfiring, as it did in Iraq, and the Taliban leadership is not having an easy time trying to come up with a new strategy. One strategy that is working is making a big deal whenever foreign troops kill Afghan civilians (about 80 percent of civilian deaths are caused by the Taliban, but that has successfully been played down, a real spin victory for the Islamic radicals). This has caused NATO commanders to issue increasingly restrictive rules of engagement to their troops, which the Taliban eagerly exploit to save their butts in combat.

The U.S. cultural training for troops concentrates on the Pushtun minority, which has created the Taliban (mostly from a few tribes around Kandahar) and most of the violence (over 80 percent of the Afghan heroin and opium is produced by Pushtun tribes, and lot of "Taliban" violence is actually drug related). The Pushtun account for about 40 percent of the Afghan population (12 out of 30 million), and have 25 million more Pushtun just across the border in Pakistan. There are also some Pushtun in eastern Iran, but the Iranians are trying for force all these refugees from the 1980s war with Russia, to move back to Afghanistan. The Pushtun have long (we're talking thousands of years) dominated the region. Not as rulers, the Pushtuns are constantly fighting each other, but as a force that will unite if anyone else tries to dominate them. Modern Afghanistan (only a few centuries old) came about when non-Pushtun tribes to the north (Uzbek, Hazara, Tajik) agreed to become allies with the Pushtuns in order to keep foreigners (Russians, Iranians, British) out of their little piece of the world. Although the Pushtuns were the minority, they were the largest minority, and it was understood that the Pushtuns would take the lead. So the king of Afghanistan, has almost always been a Pushtun. So is the current president of Afghanistan. But the Pushtuns believe that president Karzai is too generous to the "lesser (non-Pushtun) tribes" who backed Karzai in the elections (and political bargaining) in becoming president. The Pushtun resent the presence of foreign troops because these heavily armed outlanders threaten Pushtun domination of the northern tribes. In many ways, the current war in Afghanistan is a struggle between the northern (non-Pushtun) tribes and the Pushtun. Many of the Afghan soldiers and police are from the north, and very few of the foreign troops are of Pushtun ancestry. The Taliban is further weakened by the fact that most Pushtun tribes do not back the Taliban (on most days, such attitudes seem to change with the weather in Afghanistan.)

The northern tribes remember that, when September 11, 2001 happened, they were still fighting the Taliban government that had  not yet gained control over all of Afghanistan (the "Northern Alliance" of non-Pushtun tribes was still holding out). The United States sent in a few hundred Special Forces and CIA operators, a hundred million dollars in cash and a few thousand smart bombs to help the Northern Alliance out, and the Taliban were broken and fleeing the country within two months. The northern tribes don't mind Pushtuns getting the top jobs in the government, but are no longer willing to meekly follow the Pushtun lead blindly. The Pushtun see it differently, claiming (with some truth) that they did most of the fighting against the Russians in the 1980s, and that many of the northern tribes cut deals with the Russians (as did some Pushtun tribes, something the Pushtuns don't like to talk about). That had more to do with Afghan politics, (the northern and southern tribes disagreed on how to deal with Russia and modernization) than with anything else. Then came the Taliban (a cynical invention of the Pakistanis, created from Pushtun refugees convinced that a Holy War would bring peace to Afghanistan). Meanwhile, the heroin trade (growing poppies and using a chemical process to turn the sap from these plants into opium and heroin) moved from Pakistan (where the government saw it as a curse) to Afghanistan. Many of the same tribes that produced the refugees who became the Taliban, also produced the most successful drug lords. The Pushtun are many things, including well organized and ambitious.

Now both the Taliban and the drug gangs are under attack, and the Pushtun blame the northern tribes and their foreign allies. Outsiders don't see it this way, but most Afghans do. To the Pushtuns, anyone who is not Pushtun is "them." Same deal with the northern tribes, who are weakened by their lack of ethnic and tribal unity (the Uzbeks are Turks, the Hazara are Mongols and the Tajiks are, like the Pushtuns, cousins to the Iranians and Indians). Thus no matter how successful the Taliban might be in the south, among their fellow Pushtun (many of them anti-Taliban), they still have to face the northern tribes, who now have powerful foreign allies that proved invincible in 2001, and can do so again if called on.

The Taliban are trying to adopt the Iraq "bombs not bullets" strategy against the unbeatable foreign troops. The use of roadside and suicide bombings are up. But these tactics don't kill enough foreign troops to make a difference, unless the foreign media can be manipulated into declaring the bombing losses as proof that the war in Afghanistan is hopeless. The Taliban are having some success from that, but victory is elusive. That's because the foreign troops themselves know that the Taliban are playing a weak hand and this story keeps getting out to confuse a public accustomed to all the gloom and doom reporting about Afghanistan. The British and Dutch have recently conducted successful "anti-leadership" campaigns, which disrupted Taliban operations by capturing or killing leaders and destroying bases (caches of weapons, food and equipment) and destroying buildings used by the Taliban (if it was determined that the owners had willingly rented space to the terrorists). When it is known that the Taliban are forcing the locals to provide aid, the troops just go after the Taliban, and win points with the locals for chasing out these nasty "outsiders."




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