Afghanistan: Fighting The Wrong War


October 23, 2009: The enemy in Afghanistan is a many headed beast. American intelligence has compiled a list of nearly 500 Taliban and drug gang leaders. If all these guys were to suddenly disappear, the violence who swiftly change to internal battles within the gangs, as lower level men fought for control of dozens of leaderless Taliban and heroin producing gangs. While you can't destroy the gangs, you can greatly reduce their effectiveness. This is particularly true of the ones that chiefly carry out terror attacks. The drug gangs have the money incentive, which constantly brings in more ambitious people. This has been the experience in places like Colombia, where the only successful strategy has been to interrupt drug production, and deny the drug gangs actual control of territory. For Islamic terrorists like the Taliban, killing the leadership is the key, because these leaders (who include those with technical skills) are difficult to replace. Thus groups like the Taliban have been destroyed in many other countries in the last two decades. But in Afghanistan, the Taliban are not the main enemy; the drug gangs are. Without the drug money, the Taliban become a troublesome Pushtun faction, not a mercenary military power that seeks to run the entire country again. That's never going to happen, as the non-Pushtun majority would go back to the civil war (that the U.S. intervened in during its late 2001 invasion).

The lower level of foreign troop casualties in Afghanistan is largely due to the lower skill levels among terrorist leaders. Despite much money and effort, the roadside bomb campaign in Afghanistan is not nearly as lethal as the one in Iraq was. The Taliban apparently misread the experience with roadside bombs in Iraq (where they failed to dislodge the foreign troops), and persist in their belief that every bomb casualty weakens the resolve of the foreign governments, and will eventually lead to the withdrawal of the foreign troops. You'd get this impression by paying attention to the foreign media. But in the long run, those foreign governments have a more troublesome problem with Afghanistan, and that's the growing quantity of heroin coming out of there. This is causing more and more grief in the West. Leaving Afghanistan alone means doing nothing about the heroin supply, and this will eventually become politically unacceptable. Most Western politicians are aware of this, even if the media that reports on them is not (or, at least, is not admitting it yet.)

The casualties in Afghanistan are also being misinterpreted. In the last two years, foreign troops in Afghanistan lost about 300-400 dead per 100,000 troops. 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. Meanwhile, the rate in Afghanistan is headed for 400 dead per 100,000 troops this year. For Afghan troops and police, the death rate is about 800 dead per 100,000, and this year is headed for 800 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. It's not casualties that are going to defeat the foreign troops in Afghanistan, it's willingness by politicians to defeat the drug gangs.

The drug gangs are protected by four large Taliban coalitions. The original 1990s Taliban are based in Quetta (the capital of Baluchistan), Pakistan. This is southwestern Pakistan, an area of tribal unrest (over natural gas revenue, not religion), but the Pakistanis have forbidden the U.S. from going after the Taliban leadership here, apparently because this group, originally created by Pakistani intelligence (ISI) fifteen years ago, still has official protection. These Taliban have the closest connections with the drug gangs (another vestige of the 1990s), and that drug money may be helping to maintain ISI support Also in Pakistan is the Haqqani gang, which is based in North Waziristan, Pakistan, but operates largely in southern Afghanistan. Currently, the Pakistani Army is waging a major offensive against the Pakistani Taliban (headed by warlords of the Mehsud tribe) in South Waziristan, just to the south. The U.S. is trying to convince the Pakistanis to keep going north when they have finished with the Mehsud gang. So far, the Pakistanis are non-committal. Then there is the  Hekmatyar organization,  a survivor of the 1990s civil war. Hekmatyar was an Islamic radical group that lost out to the Taliban in the 1990s, and has been trying to make a comeback ever since.

Inside Afghanistan, there are field commanders for the Pakistan based organizations, as well as several drug gangs based in Helmand province (and other parts of southeastern Afghanistan). Helmand has become a difficult area for drug gangs to operate in, and they are trying to establish new operations farther north. But the locals are resisting this. Not because they don't want the cash the drug business can bring, but because they don't want the cheap opium and heroin, which they know, off experience, creates widespread addiction, especially among the young. For these tribal societies, such addiction is a poison that causes severe physical and social damage. While some Pushtuns down south have become addicted to the money and power of heroin, most Afghans want nothing to do with it. That's why most of the heroin production has been concentrated in one province; Helmand.

President Karzai admitted that there was widespread fraud, in his favor, during the recent presidential elections. He agreed to go along with UN demands that 200 corrupt election officials be dismissed. A runoff election, between him and his main opponent (Abdullah Abdullah) is to take place, despite the start of Winter. There are 25,000 polling places for 17 million registered voters, and many of them are in very remote areas that are normally very difficult to reach in cold weather.

Russia is very concerned about how things turn out in Afghanistan. That's because Russia has become the main transportation route for Afghan heroin headed for the most lucrative markets in Western Europe and North America. The heroin is cheaper in Russia (because it gets more expensive the farther you have to smuggle it) and there are nearly three million addicts there (out of a global total of 16 million). This is a growing problem for the government, and attempts to seal the Afghan border have failed. The smugglers have a tremendous monetary incentive to get the heroin into Central Asia and thence to Russia. The heroin creates a trail of corruption and addiction as it makes its way across Eurasia. But the largest consumer of heroin, and its raw material, opium, is Iran (which lies astride the lucrative export route to the Persian Gulf). With nearly as many addicts as Russia (and less than half the population), the religious dictatorship in Iran is beside itself over the drug problem (which produces lots of crime and anti-social behavior). Pakistan also has an addict problem but not as bad as in Iran (where there is lots of oil money for drug purchases, and lots of upper class addiction).   

October 17, 2009: The government is offering a reward of $40,000 for information on terrorists operating inside Kabul, the capital. This is fighting fire with fire, as the drug gangs use lots of cash to establish their bomb delivery teams inside the capital. But since most of the bombing casualties are civilians, the large cash rewards for information provide an incentive, for those willing to risk gang retribution, to come forward with tips on the terrorists.




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