Afghanistan: A Terrifying Relationship

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July 6, 2010: Civilian casualties, mostly from Taliban activity, are up a third so far this year, compared to 2009. The greater use of roadside bombs plays a major role in this. There have been nearly three times as many deaths from roadside bombs and mines, compared to last year, and most of these victims are civilians. Foreign troops are protected from these bombs in their MRAPs, while nearby civilians in trucks, cars and busses, are not. Sometimes, inept Taliban trigger teams set the bomb off next to a civilian vehicle, rather than a nearby military one. Anti-vehicle mines on dirt roads explode whenever a heavy enough vehicle hits the pressure plate. Often, that vehicle is full of civilians, not troops. The Taliban have also been using the output of their bomb workshops to set off explosions in village and markets, to terrorize the locals into supporting them, or not cooperating with the foreign or government troops. The Taliban don't want to be loved, they just want to be feared.

Accusations that over a billion dollars of foreign aid money (in cash) has been flown out of the country each year, for the last three years, has led donors (especially the U.S.) to threaten cuts and suspensions in aid. The corruption in Afghanistan is no secret, but foreign governments avoid confronting the problem. It's messy. The Afghan officials can get nasty if you press them too hard about the stealing. Sending in auditors to monitor how foreign aid is spent, results in death threats, and often actual violence. Stealing foreign aid is seen, by many Afghans as a right, or at least as something essential to keep the peace.

Afghan officials continue to get stonewalled by Pakistan when it comes to closing down al Qaeda bases in Pakistan. North Waziristan still has al Qaeda and Taliban bases, and the Pakistani government keeps delaying sending in the army, while also denying that the bases exist (despite lots of evidence provided by the United States). The Afghans have evidence in the form of captured terrorists who openly admit where they were trained. Pakistani officials, if they respond at all, call it lies or part of an Indian conspiracy to destabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan. There's a failure to communicate here.

July 5, 2010:  Police arrested two Taliban leaders in the northeast (Badakhshan province). This area had seen no Taliban activity for over a year, but recently police have been murdered and local tribal and government officials threatened by Taliban operatives. The large amount of cash available to the Taliban enables them to franchise, and set up local operations all over the country. This is nothing more than the traditional Afghan banditry, but with a flag and a playbook. It also reflects the fact that the Taliban, fueled by their drug income, are one of the more powerful warlord operations in the country.

July 4, 2010: Over the last two days, government forces raided a major drug gang in Helmand province. Afghan officials reported that 63 criminals were killed, 16 tons of drugs and drug refining chemicals were captured, and 14 civilian kidnap victims were freed. Such an operation is unusual, because government officials and security forces are normally well bribed, or intimidated, to prevent something like this. Either someone did not pay, or someone else paid extra to have a rival eliminated.

Over the last decade, ever since Pakistan drove opium production out of their territory, and into Afghanistan, the drug trade has become a, if not the, major economic activity in the south. In Helmand and Kandahar province, it is the main source of income. Several million people depend on the drug money, either directly (via growing, processing and smuggling the drugs) or indirectly (via supplying goods or taking bribes). You mess with the opium and heroin trade, and you mess with the livelihood of lots of heavily armed  and violence prone people. Moreover, the money has been very good for a lot of Afghans, bringing unparalleled prosperity to one of the poorest countries on the planet. It's something worth killing and dying for. It's also worth terrorizing fellow Afghans. While members of drug gangs can usually depend on cooperation (in return for cash and other gifts) from members of their own tribe or clan, all other Afghans are "foreigners" and subject to terror (beatings, theft, property damage, kidnapping or death) to coerce cooperation. This is why opinion polls consistently list the Taliban as the most hated group in the country. But the Taliban are also the most feared organization as well, and they prefer it that way.

The combination of drug income (in a very poor country), endemic corruption and tribalism, plus Islamic radicalism (which is tolerated by most Afghans, it not usually practiced by most of them) provides the  West with a very difficult situation. Destroying the drug business in the south is key to crippling the Taliban (without the drug cash, these Islamic radicals would wither away), but that means fighting thousands of armed Afghans willing to resist losing their version of the good life. But Western nations cannot tolerate this growing supply of heroin and opium, or the continued use of Pushtun tribal lands on both sides of the border as a sanctuary for Islamic terrorists. Unfortunately,  for many Western politicians, Afghanistan shapes up as a place where they cannot afford to lose, but have not got the popular support to keep troops there. Some Western nations are planning on pulling their troops out, safe in the knowledge that the U.S. usually steps up and saves the day. But even American politicians are under growing pressure to leave, and let the situation get bad enough so some future politicians are forced to send the troops back in.

The new American commander in Afghanistan, general David Petraeus, has to review his predecessors plans and policies. The two biggest issues are the potential for larger and more competent Afghan security forces (not very high) and the stricter ROE (Rules of Engagement) that limit how much forces American troops can use when civilians are around. Because the Taliban frequently use civilians as human shields, much to the frustration of U.S. troops (who often suffer additional casualties as a result), there is a lot of pressure to ease up on the restrictions. Many Afghan civilians back this as well, because it allows the Taliban to act more freely against civilians.

July 3, 2010: For the third time in five weeks, a large team of Taliban attempted to blast their way into an airbase used by foreign troops. This attack was against Jalalabad airbase, 120 kilometers east of Kabul. The Taliban used a car bomb and a dozen gunmen. Eight of the attackers were killed, and they failed to get into the base. The same thing happened in the earlier attacks against large airbases outside Kabul and Kandahar. It's unclear what's going on here. These bases are obviously well guarded, and the three failed attacks simply proved that. Someone organized and paid for these futile attacks, but it remains a mystery as to why.

July 1, 2010: Last month, 102 foreign troops died. This was the highest monthly number ever, and was partly the result of their being 50 percent more foreign troops in action compared to last year (when the highest monthly death toll was 77) and more aggressive operations. The combat death rate is less than a third of what it was in Vietnam and World War II, largely because the Taliban and drug gang fighters cannot hold their own in a head-to-head fight, and must rely on roadside bombs and mines to do most of their damage.

 

 

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