Afghanistan: The Good Old Days Are Really Gone

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January 13, 2010: Civilian deaths (2,412) were up 14 percent last year. The increase was entirely due to many more Taliban attacks on civilians. Taliban activity accounted for 70 percent of the civilian deaths. A quarter of the civilian deaths were caused by government forces or foreign troops (who killed 30 percent fewer civilians last year, than the year before.) The Taliban media campaign has tried to demonize smart bombs, which are the most effective weapon against the Taliban. Such bombs accounted for 15 percent of civilian deaths, and most of the ones that grab headlines. Smart bombs cause about 60 percent of civilian deaths caused by government and foreign troops.

The Taliban has increasingly relied on terror to control civilians. Such control is essential if the Taliban are to remain hidden from government forces and foreign troops. Increasingly, the Taliban cannot rely on friendly relationships with civilians. There is much to hate about the Taliban. They are arrogant and self-righteous, qualities that are as unpopular in Afghanistan as anywhere else. The Taliban also insist on "voluntary" contributions of food and the use of buildings (for living, storing equipment or making bombs). Many Taliban are intolerant of modern conveniences, like cell phones, video or music players. What is most offensive is the Taliban insistence that girls not go to school. It's bad enough that half the men are illiterate, but even the most isolated Afghans have figured out that illiteracy and lack of education is a major reason for the poverty. Afghanistan is the poorest country in Eurasia. This is a distinction that rankles Afghans, and the Taliban are not helping to change it.

Then there are the drugs. The Taliban protect the production and movement of opium and heroin. Worse, the Taliban protect the distribution of the drugs to Afghans. It's rough for tribe and clan leadership to deal with addiction problems when they can't stop the supply of drugs. In the end, the drugs are the key problem. The heroin and opium trade supplies the cash that keeps the Taliban going, and the growing number of addicts has turned most of the population against the people responsible.

The Taliban are not only self-righteous, but greedy and cruel. The farmers in Helmand province, where most of the world's heroin comes from, are treated as cogs in a machine, and not allowed to freely sell their poppies (which produce opium, that is refined into heroin). The drug gangs, and their Taliban enforcers, set the prices, and punish anyone who gets out of line. Most of the money goes to the top, to the warlords who control the drug operations, and Taliban leaders who provide the muscle. Thus when the Taliban show up in some distant part of the country, the locals know that they are not only in for some very conservative religious attitude, but also drug addiction and murderous violence towards those who resist. Thus it should be no surprise that the Taliban keep sinking in popularity polls. Never very popular to begin with, the Taliban have been unable to demonize the American and NATO troops as "hostile foreigners." The Americans have been around for nearly a decade, and are generally considered as odd, but friendly, guys you don't want to get in a fight with. Most Afghans appreciate American help in driving the Taliban from power in 2001, and helping with the drug problem. Some 80 percent of Afghanistan is free of drug production, but not drug distribution and addiction. The Americans are helping with that, as they have also been with useful stuff like building roads, schools and medical clinics. They try to learn the language and customs, and some of them are actually Afghans (which is particularly attractive, as many young Afghans would like to go to the West.)

For U.S. troops who served in Iraq, and arriving in Afghanistan for the first time, they are finding two major differences. First, living conditions are more spartan (because Afghanistan has no ports, and everything has to be trucked or flown in). Second, it's not as violent as Iraq was at its peak (but more violent than Iraq is now, which encourages American troops that victory is in sight.) While it's become more violent in Afghanistan in the last year, it's still much less dangerous for U.S. troops than it was for those fighting in Vietnam, Korea or World War II. The casualty rate in Afghanistan today is less than a third of what it was in those previous wars. This doesn't get picked up by the mass media much, but the troops know. Military history is popular with many troops, and the word gets around that the Afghan war is a lot less dangerous than previous ones. It's not by chance, but because of better equipment, weapons, tactics and leadership. The lower casualty rate makes troops bolder, less stressed, and more effective. The older Taliban, with experience fighting the Russians in the 1980s, noted this early on, and warned their young associates to be careful when fighting the American and NATO troops. These new foreigners are much more aggressive, and dangerous, than the Russians (who were mostly poorly trained conscripts). The Taliban old timers remember that the Russians had some aggressive, and effective, troops in the form of Spetsnaz commandos and paratroopers. There weren't many of them, but with the Americans, everyone seems to be a commando. So the Taliban rely more on roadside bombs and mines. And the Americans come right after the people who make and employ this new weapon. Some Taliban are getting discouraged by all this. Especially with the Pakistani Taliban getting hammered by the Pakistani Army. It wasn't this way back in the 1980s, when the Russians were lousy fighters, and safe base camps in Pakistan were full of rich Arabs giving out equipment, weapons and cash. These days, there's no safe haven, and you have to protect drug dealers in order to make the payroll or buy new gear. Worse, most Afghans hate the Taliban. The good old days are really gone, and more Taliban are just giving it up.

The Taliban also know that more American troops are on the way. The American tactics of spreading these new troops out, in territory the Taliban thought they controlled, has worked. The Taliban are searching for new ideas, because without much support from the population, and an enemy you cannot defeat in combat, the prospects don't look so good. Thus the Taliban are increasing their Information War efforts, by planting more atrocity stories (some invented, some taking actual incidents and altering them). This obviously works. While the Taliban kill five times as many civilians as government and foreign troops, most of the media coverage is of Afghans killed by foreigners.

One of the best assets the Taliban have is the Afghan government. These politicians and appointed officials are very corrupt, and most can be bought or rented. They are constantly squabbling over who should be able to steal what. Currently, the installation of a new government is stalled because suitable deals cannot be made. The legislature rejected 17 of president Karzai's 24 new cabinet members. So new proposals are being formulated. All this haggling takes time.

January 11, 2010: Police arrested Ahmad Gul, the man responsible for recent rocket attacks in Kabul. Gul worked for a section of the Taliban that specialized in terror attacks. Police are searching for Guls associates, and those who provided support (safe houses, storage for rockets, and transport to get rockets into Kabul.) Gul's attacks did little damage, and were mostly for getting the attention of journalists. The small (meter long) 107mm rockets were set up and rigged to fire via a timer. Although very inaccurate, the rockets would always hit something in crowded Kabul.

 

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