Afghanistan: The System

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November 4, 2010: The NATO intelligence and combat system has become a nightmare for the drug gangs and Taliban. The larger number of aircraft and UAVs and growing databases enables analysts to find the pulse of Taliban operations. Tools like predictive analysis uncover the rhythm of drug production and smuggling, and the more complex moves and motives of the many Taliban groups. There are still surprises, as predicting trends of how organizations will act not alert you to exactly what individuals or small groups will do. But that's why the troops, and especially the air power, is organized to quickly respond to a large range of situations. The Taliban fighters are much less skilled, disciplined and flexible. The Taliban leadership and fighters are not stupid, but it is discouraging to be defeated so often. They have other problems, like the growing vulnerability of their well hidden arms caches (found by tracking the movement of Taliban, who tend to visit the cache for new supplies on a regular basis), bomb workshops and safe houses. Increasingly, nothing is safe. One recent raid found 24 tons of ammonium nitrate (a fertilizer that is easily turned into explosives). The damn foreigners seem to know more about Taliban operations than the Taliban do, and that is true. Welcome to the 21st century.

The ability to respond quickly to emergencies has made it easier to recruit villages to organize their gunmen and resist the Taliban. Traditionally, if you arrived in a village with enough armed men, you could do what you wanted. No reinforcements were going to arrive in time. But that is no longer the case, not always anyway. So the Taliban have to be careful where they show up out in the countryside. Usually, the Taliban will organize their own intelligence network in an area they are operating in, but that does not enable them to move quickly enough to terrorize all the villages in their area, to prevent them from Taliban-proofing themselves with a village defense plan and a radio connection to call in reinforcements. Meanwhile, while the Taliban are watching the local villagers, they are in turn being watched, and analyzed, made predictable and, eventually dead or fled.

It's because of this that the Taliban are at their most dangerous near the Pakistani border. The American intel system is partially blinded in Pakistan, and the Taliban know it. Thus the Taliban based in Pakistan are less predictable, and can dash across the border and stage raids that are surprises, just like in the good old days. On the downside, you don't want to be attacking military bases, because the foreigners are real good about getting night-vision eyes and smart bombs on the attackers real quick. Instead, the Taliban prefer to overrun small towns, preferably one of the 398 district capitals, and then get to the border with their loot before the local quick reaction force catches up. The Taliban also take advantage of the fact that the new intelligence system is not strong everywhere. Afghan police or government officials with cell phones or radios are an important part of the intel network, and in many parts of Afghanistan these guys just aren't there. This is usually not because of the Taliban, but more because the local tribe or warlord is strong enough to keep the central government officials out. This is an ancient Afghan tradition that is still vigorously practiced.

Another problem is that less combative NATO contingents in the north (especially France, Germany, Italy, and Spain) have been reluctant to send a lot of their helicopters south to help out. The refusal to send combat troops south is less of a problem now that the U.S. has brought in reinforcements. But there is still a shortage of helicopters.

Although president Karzai has loudly protested the presence of  Russian intelligence agents on a recent series of drug raids (that destroyed over a ton of heroin and other drugs), he has not forbidden more such raids. The presidential protest was to placate the drug lords who pay off members of the president's family and powerful allies. Meanwhile, Russia is also supplying Afghan police with over a hundred tons of weapons and ammunition. The Russians are not popular because of the 1980s invasion, and centuries of interference in Afghan affairs. But gifts are always welcome, as is help in fighting the plague of drugs. As unpopular as the Russians, or foreign troops, are, the growing addict population is even more unpopular. Getting rid of the drugs is something all Afghans can agree on, except the ten percent of the people who are making so much money out of it, or are too doped up to care.

Drugs, and the inability to hurt the foreign troops (the way Afghans hurt the Russian forces in the 1990s) has been very demoralizing for the Taliban, and goes a long way towards explaining the media reports of government talks with the Taliban. Actually, these talks have been going on all the time. One benefit of the tribal system is that personal connections with people in other tribes is important (just so you can safely travel from one part of the country to another.) Negotiation has long been an entertaining, and often profitable, activity. So even when the Taliban ran things in 1990s, the opposition tribes still maintained personal and tribal connections that allowed some kind of discussions. Same thing after the Taliban were run out of power in 2001. But now the pro-Taliban tribes are talking about making a real deal. The war is going nowhere. Most Afghans hate the drug gangs and the Taliban. Worse, the foreign troops are least hated of all, because this bunch of foreigners, unlike the Russians, avoids killing civilians (far more are killed by the Taliban and other Afghans), and brings lots of gifts. The Taliban bring lots of annoying rules, and the drug gangs bring wealth for a few and misery for the many. The Russians lost seven times as many troops, and killed or drove into exile nearly half the population. Nothing like that has happened this time, and the Taliban need to get the best deal they can. So many Taliban tribes, in the time honored Afghan way, are backing off and looking for a good way out of the bad place they have gotten themselves into.

Official results for the September 18 elections have still not been released. There was a lot of cheating, and a lot of Afghans are not happy with that. A functioning democracy is essential to build a civil society. But the existing tribal coalition system is not going quietly. The ancient ways still find wide acceptance, especially in the countryside. Besides, those who are most eager to accept modern ways, simply migrate. Not every budding democrat has  the cash or courage to leave, and the democrats may be the majority. But the traditionalists are heavily armed and determined to keep the old ways. This sustains the corruption (stealing is good, as long as it's not from family or tribe), tribalism (who else can you really trust), drug gangs (based on tribal and family ties) and the Taliban (the most traditionalist group).

Another major obstacle to good government is a lack of training and education. Not only is most of the population illiterate, most also lack useful skills (aside from basic farming and herd management). Many living in the cities lack even the farming and animal husbandry chops, and are even more likely to join drug or criminal gangs as a basic, and very expendable, minions. So the last nine years has seen a huge increase in education. American and NATO commanders quickly realized that a major problem in Afghanistan was illiteracy and lack of skills. So more Afghans have gone to some kind of school in the past nine years, than at any other time in the country's history. But there aren't enough schools (which the traditionalist Taliban keep blowing up) or instructors (especially the foreign ones, who are the most expert, and most often attacked by the Taliban or bandits.) So the trend is to do more of the training outside Afghanistan. The major problem with this is that many of the trainees see this as an ideal, and cheap, way to get out of Afghanistan got good.

October 30, 2010: In a classic example of what the Taliban are increasingly running into, a Taliban attack on an American outpost in the southeast was driven off. At least eighty of the several hundred attackers were killed, and many more wounded. It's unusual to leave that many dead bodies behind, indicating that a large portion of the force was killed or wounded, and unable to retrieve their dead. Moreover, many of the dead had been blown to pieces by smart bombs. The Taliban force had crossed from the nearby Pakistani border and quickly moved to attack the small outpost at night. But the U.S. and Afghan troops know this tactic and have been equipped and trained to cope. Only five of the defenders were wounded and the base perimeter was not breached.  

 

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