Afghanistan: Why The Russians Are Jealous


December 22, 2009: As the U.S. and NATO begins moving in more troops into Afghanistan, the generals calculate that they can cripple the Taliban, and do significant damage to the drug gangs, within two years. But the generals are having a hard time explaining the more difficult, long term, problems, to the politicians back home. In short, Afghanistan is, and always has been, a mess because the local culture has some peculiar habits that are, well, self-destructive. The problem is that much of Afghanistan, and many Afghans, cling to a medieval culture, where tribal loyalties are paramount, religious beliefs take precedence over rational decision making, and modern technology is treated like some kind of magic, not the result of education and large scale cooperation. This clash of cultures is nothing new, not even for Afghanistan. Some 2,400 years ago, Alexander The Greats  spent three years subduing the Afghan tribes. He also found the locals to be stubborn, violent and ignorant, especially those living outside the towns and cities. It took Alexander so long to conquer the place, he only needed six months for Iran, because then, as now, there was no real central government. Each tribe considered itself, ultimately, a power unto itself. So, much as he had to do in the Balkans a decade earlier, Alexander took down one tribe after another, killing many of the tribesmen in the process. Back in those days, the basic tactic used against unruly tribes was "surrender or die." While the warriors could run off into the hills, the women, children and food supplies, could not  move as fast. Alexander would go after the more vulnerable elements of the tribe, and force the tribal warriors to submit. Actually, this approach was successfully used into the 20th century in many parts of the world, but has now largely gone out of fashion in the West.

A variation of this ancient tactic is still going to be used against the Taliban, but without any threat to civilians. The Afghans consider this reluctance to hurt civilians to be a major weakness, which they exploit as often as possible. Mostly, this means using civilians as human shields, and having weapons moved separately from the gunmen, until the last moment. The Taliban know that the American ROE (Rules of Engagement) prohibit smart bomb attacks on unarmed men. But the Taliban have major weaknesses when it comes to public support (most Afghans hate them, especially in the north), and the U.S. forces have far superior intelligence collecting capabilities. The recent headlines about the enemy grabbing the unencrypted video from U.S. UAVs is way overblown, as only rarely do the bad guys have the equipment, and skill, to tap into those video feeds. This is especially true in Afghanistan. But the major U.S. intel edge is not the UAV vids, but the ability to eavesdrop on enemy use of radios and cell phones. Much more of this SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) capability is coming into Afghanistan. It makes a big difference.

The Taliban can't do much to reverse the hatred most Afghans have for them. Part of its based on inter-tribal antagonisms. The Taliban is considered a front for some southwestern Pushtun tribes. But beyond that, the Taliban profess a lifestyle that is considered odd and oppressive even by the standards of the traditionally conservative (especially in terms of religion and lifestyle) Pushtun tribes. But most Afghans really hate the Taliban because this group of religious fanatics is trying to rule the entire country, no matter what the cost to the inhabitants. While many rural Afghans accept medieval attitudes towards government and commerce, most Afghans, especially those in the cities, know what the West has (education and higher standard of living), and wants it now. The Taliban also uses the carrot, along with the stick, to try and gain popular support. The big Taliban asset is that they are less corrupt. But this advantage is often lost because the Taliban are also against Western style education (only religious type schools are allowed) and entertainment in general.  

The many Afghans that migrate to the West are even willing (in most cases) to adopt Western attitudes towards freedom and civic responsibility in order to get these prizes. This is less the case back in Afghanistan, where many Afghans want the benefits of Western affluence and technology, without paying the price (living by rule of law and embracing education). Currently, Afghans are largely illiterate and tolerant of corrupt practices. Even senior members of the government accept corruption (steal all you can, when you can), and are smart enough to tell Westerners what they want to hear when it comes to all the missing money.

The Taliban are more frequently leading with their strength; the support of poor, illiterate, frustrated country boys. These are guys in their late teens or 20s, who see no future, and accept the conservative religious line the Taliban dispense. This makes it easier to recruit suicide bombers. A decade ago, it was almost impossible to get an Afghan to be a suicide bomber. But the Taliban have discovered, first in Pakistan, that if you put a kid in religious school for a few years, and constantly drill him about how great it is to be a suicide bomber, a percentage of those kids will buy into it by the time they are old enough to pass for an adult. The Taliban have set up some of these religious schools in remote parts of the country, and are repeating the success of the Pakistani Taliban in turning kids into suicide bombers.

Russia has declined to provide more assistance for the NATO and U.S. effort in Afghanistan. Part of this is jealousy. The U.S. has been much more successful against the Afghans that the Russians were in the 1980s. Not just militarily, but also in terms of logistics. One of the big limitations on the Russian military effort in the 1980s, was the lack of roads and railroads in Afghanistan. The Soviet General Staff calculated, even before Russian troops went in, that the sparse transportation net would prevent Russian from supporting more than 134,000 troops there. Actually, the Russians generally had no more than 110,000 troops in Afghanistan through most of the 1980s. But NATO and the U.S. are building up a force that is nearly twice that size. There are a few more roads in Afghanistan these days, and still no railroads, and  U.S. troops require far more supplies than their 1980s Russian counterparts ever got. The U.S. has achieved all this by developing ways to make better use of existing roads, and flying more material in. Despite their silence on the matter, the Russians have been watching this logistical effort intently, and taking notes.

Newly reelected president Karzai has replaced half his cabinet and promised to clean up corruption. It does not look like this is going to happen, and few locals believe that it will. But Karzai is determined to convince the foreign governments, that supply most of the cash he has to work with, that the stealing will stop. It won't.

December 18, 2009: Additional U.S. troops are assisting Canadian forces in surrounding Kandahar (long the Taliban "capital") and eventually clearing out the pro-Taliban neighborhoods in the city. The drug gangs will be hard to evict (as they will often pay, rather than just threaten, the locals for corruption) than the Taliban (who ignore complaints about the civilians they kill with their attacks).

December 17, 2009:  Afghan, NATO and U.S. troops have launched an operation in eastern Afghanistan, led by a battalion of the French Foreign Legion. These sweeps do a lot of damage to the Taliban, because it's Winter, and very difficult for the Taliban to just hide out in the hills until the troops leave. The American heat sensors can more easily spot groups of men up in the hills, especially if they build a fire. Even hiding out in a cave won't protect you. Traditionally, Afghan warriors take the Winter off, and devote their efforts to obtaining enough food and fuel to survive the cold and snow. This is more true in eastern Afghanistan, where the weather is worse in the highlands. Southwestern Afghanistan is lowlands, and drier.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contribute. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   contribute   Close