The Pakistani campaign against Islamic radicals across the border has spilled over into Afghanistan. Al Qaeda and LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba, an anti-Indian group now allied with al Qaeda) are fleeing to Afghanistan, because the Pakistani government will negotiate with the tribe-based Taliban, but not as much with al Qaeda and LeT (which, like the Taliban, was created by the Pakistani CIA, the ISI). The latter groups are considered out-of-control and particularly bloodthirsty. Even the Pakistani Taliban have turned on al Qaeda (and to a lesser extent, LeT), partly because these guys are, after all, "foreigners", but also because they are quick to kill local tribesmen they don't agree with (usually on religious grounds). Across the border, al Qaeda and LeT tend to operate in areas (like eastern Afghanistan) where there aren't many Taliban. The attacks by al Qaeda and LeT tend to be particularly vicious, even by Afghan standards.
Al Qaeda and LeT bring with them more people who know how to build roadside bombs and use them. They also have cash (there are still Islamic charities and wealthy Gulf Arabs who will back these maniacs). These terrorists are also more likely to use suicide bombers, and prefers to send these into nearby Kabul. Afghan public opinion is very hostile towards these foreign terrorists, making it easier for American intel and the Afghan police to track down them. As a result, al Qaeda and LeT leaders spend a lot of their time evading capture. There are other, smaller, Islamic terrorist groups now operating in eastern Afghanistan, giving the growing U.S. intelligence force a difficult time just keeping all the bad guys sorted out.
The transfer of assets (equipment and specialists) from Iraq to Afghanistan is nearly complete. Most of these assets have to do with intelligence (finding out who and where the enemy are and what they are up to) and dealing with roadside bombs (the most effective weapon against the foreign troops). The result has been a decline in foreign troop deaths, from a peak of 102 in June, to 88 last month and, it appears, about fifty this month. Casualties (dead, wounded and captured) among the terrorists are up, but NATO does not give numbers (partly to deny the enemy, which is not a unified force, an accurate idea of how much damage has been done.) The Taliban have figured out that they are killing fewer foreign troops with their roadside bombs, and have responded, like the Iraqi terrorists did, by trying to use more of them. This, as the Iraqis painfully discovered, makes it easier for the Americans to find the technicians and planners who keep the roadside bomb campaign going.
Meanwhile, NATO commanders are trying to get the Afghans to use their army more aggressively. The Afghan troops don't feel as well prepared or confident as their foreign counterparts. Last year, twice as many foreign troops were killed, compared to the Afghan army. The Afghan police, on the other hand, suffered more deaths than the foreign troops. Most of the Afghan deaths are Taliban, and civilians (most of them killed by the Taliban). The Afghan Army recently tried an operation on their own, and were apparently betrayed by Taliban informants inside the army. The 300 Afghan troops were ambushed by the Taliban and had to be rescued by foreign troops.
Senior American officials visited Afghanistan in the last week, speaking to their counterparts in the Afghan government about corruption. The Afghans were told that if the corruption did not stop, most American foreign aid would. And what did continue coming would be closely monitored. The Afghans promised to set up an independent anti-corruption agency, with authority to go after anyone. This will mostly be for show, giving the foreigners what they want while the looting goes on. Loot is a big deal in Afghan tribal culture, and the foreign aid flowing in is too good to pass up. This, and the income from opium and heroin, are creating a Golden Age of affluence for many Afghans. While many Afghans understand that building infrastructure and fostering commerce is a better long-term strategy, Afghan culture encourages short-term thinking, which is what drives corrupt behavior. The new anti-corruption efforts will make it harder to steal, but not impossible.
There are many forms of corruption that the anti-corruption effort won't even recognize. For example, a lot of the reconstruction work, especially road-building, uses corrupt, and stupid, practices. The most common one is to give all the contracts on a job to whoever offered the biggest bribe, or simply to someone in your family, who will pay you back later on. This guy will then not provide further bribes to local tribal leaders in the area where the road, or structures, are being built. This offends the locals, who are then more likely to cooperate with the Taliban to attack the interlopers. Again, short-term thinking with long term consequences, keeping Afghanistan the poorest nation in Eurasia, a status is has maintained for a long time.
The constant poverty and violence explain the large number of educated and affluent Afghans trying to get out of the country, especially to the West. Afghanistan's neighbors are usually more of the same, just not so much. But most Afghans don't have the skills, money or drive to head for the West, but they can get cheap drugs (locally produced opium and heroin). Nearly ten percent of the population, mostly in the south, is addicted. This gets the attention of government officials, because nearly all have family members who are strung out on these opiates.
The hostility to drugs, and desire for a better life, is a key part of American tactics. The U.S. troops are made to understand that the war is all about winning the cooperation of the dozens of tribes and clans that actually control southern Afghanistan. The drug gangs and terrorist groups like the Taliban, al Qaeda and LeT can be regarded as warlords or criminal gangs. The tribes will follow their own economic, or security (stop killing us) interests. The drug gangs offer money, the Islamic terror groups offer more death if the tribes do not cooperate. It's all a volatile mix, but also a situation as old as the hills. Past conquerors of Afghanistan have found the right mix, and that's what the foreign troops are looking for. Not to conquer the place, but just to quiet it down and keep the drug lords and terrorists out.
Fleeing increasing danger in the south, more and more Taliban are showing up in the north, living among the Pushtun tribes up there. While the Pushtun are the majority in the south, they are a minority in the north. If the Taliban up there go after their more powerful Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara neighbors, the result would be anti-Pushtun violence in the north that could trigger a wider Pushtun violence in the south. Such a civil war situation is quite common in Afghanistan.
Geologists have discovered oil deposits in the north. Nearly two billion barrels are believed deep underground, worth several hundred billion dollars if it could be extracted and sold. Earlier this year, a satellite survey revealed three trillion (3,000 billion) dollars worth of minerals in the country. Building the infrastructure to allow extracting those minerals, and keeping the peace while the work was done, is what a lot of the current fighting is all about. The Taliban, and other Islamic radicals, oppose the social changes that accompany such economic development.
While fortunes are being made exporting drugs from Afghanistan, nearly as much money is being made getting chemicals (to convert opium to heroin) and explosives (for the hundreds of roadside bombs being built and placed each month) into Afghanistan. The bulk nature of these chemicals and explosives means they are most efficiently brought in via roads. So bribes are the main method of getting the stuff in. The government and foreign troops are trying to get around the bribable border guards by sending special, incorruptible, teams to crossing sites, to see what the catch of the day is.
August 11, 2010: Britain is sending two more Tornado fighter-bombers to Afghanistan, to join the eight already there. These aircraft are used to provide smart bomb support for NATO troops, as well as reconnaissance via the aircraft reconnaissance pods.