Afghanistan: When The Myth Hits Reality, Reality Wins


November 19, 2010: U.S. troops continue to attack Taliban held areas in southern Afghanistan. The main targets are Helmand and Kandahar provinces, especially in and around the city of Kandahar. These are areas where the drug gangs have set up shop, under the protection of the Taliban (who were paid well for their security services). The Taliban have planted so many IEDs (improvised explosive devices), especially booby traps in buildings, that U.S. troops have just bombed these buildings and paid compensation to the owners. American troops are equipped and trained to deal with all these bombs, and have been able to take these heavily defended areas. Finding that the foreign troops are unstoppable, the Taliban sought to use their usual media ploy, accusing the foreign troops of killing civilians and causing undue hardship. But this couldn't get much traction, as civilian battle deaths (caused by foreign troops) have been declining all year, and most of the civilian deaths are caused by Taliban action (especially IEDs). The drug gangs pressured the politicians they owned, and soon president Karzai was calling for fewer night raids (which are capturing a lot of Taliban leaders and IED specialists) and combat in general. The U.S. commander, general Petraeus, told Karzai to shape up. Karzai is  getting the same message from the non-Pushtun majority in the north, who are increasingly threatening civil war if the national government does not get with the program of crushing the drug gangs, and their Taliban allies. Karzai is seen as a puppet of the Pushtun tribes and the powerful (and very rich) drug gangs. Members of Karzai's family and tribe openly consort with drug lords, and have grown quite rich without any visible effort. Only a minority of the Pushtuns in the south have profited from the drug business, while most suffer from addiction, violence and corruption. No one speaks for them, and the only ones who seem to help are the foreign troops.

Meanwhile, the Taliban follow the news in Europe with great interest, as most NATO contingents are under political pressure back home to get out. The U.S. was supposed to "start pulling out" next year. The Americans have told the Afghans that this is not going to happen, but the increasingly desperate Taliban and drug gangs are more dependent on this politically motivated departure. The more astute drug lords know their history, that the heroin trade had previously been driven out of Burma and Pakistan, and that it could be crushed in Afghanistan as well. With the foreign troops gone, that is less likely to happen. The core Taliban leadership, while not officially negotiating a peace deal with Pushtun officials in the government, is trying to convince everyone that if the foreign troops would leave, the Taliban would not allow Islamic terrorist groups to set up shop in Afghanistan. But the Taliban are not a unified organization, and several powerful factions still back international terrorism and the goal of global Islamic government. The ultimate U.S. threat is to withdraw, sort of. American troops would get out of the south, the Northern Alliance would raise another army and return to fighting the Taliban in the south. The U.S. would, as it did in 2001, aid the Northern Alliance, but this time would insist that the Northern Alliance conquer the south, not just allow the southern Pushtun tribes to give up and join a new national government. Conquest is extremely destructive and costly to the conquered. The Pushtuns down there have been through this catastrophic process many times in the past, and know what it means. This sort of thing gets the attention of Pushtun politicians and tribal leaders, although few believe the U.S. would have the nerve to pull it off. But it is a possibility.

Meanwhile, Taliban and tribal fighters are still seeking some tactic that will enable them to hurt the foreign troops. The legendary Afghan warriors keep getting their collective asses kicked by the better trained and equipped professional soldiers. This is nothing new, it's been happening for thousands of years. Alexander the Great's pros walked all over the Afghan tribesmen. Less gentle Mongol armies wiped out entire tribes. Persian and Indian armies regularly moved in, brushing aside the tribal fighters. The British were unwilling to use the brutal tactics and major efforts of earlier professional troops (going after the less mobile families and food supplies the tribes needed to survive), and spread the myth of the indomitable Pushtun ("Pathan") warrior. But when the myth hits reality, reality wins. And so, the Taliban continue to suffer more and more battlefield defeats. It's not for want of trying, but the only result is a lot of tribesmen dying.

Many NATO countries see little risk in just pulling out of Afghanistan. But nations in the neighborhood regard Afghanistan as a disaster zone, one that is spreading (in waves of drug addiction, terrorism and banditry.) So, unless many of your citizens are victims of that stuff, a smart politician looks at the cost of maintaining troops in a far-away land, and declares it "not our fight."

Running the Taliban and drug gangs out of villages and neighborhoods is the easy part. The departing thugs ruled using force and terror. That's a low cost approach that eliminates the usual "public service" costs associated with government. But the Afghan government is supposed to supply, well, government. Doing this does not come naturally to Afghans. For most Afghans, "government" is a mishmash of tribal and family arrangements (to negotiate disputes, or simply fight it out). In the former Taliban areas, the traditional local leaders are not willing to step up because the Taliban said they would be back. Many of those Taliban are local guys who, as many Afghans tend to do, entered the thug life. While this is a dangerous career, it's a popular one, and a major reason why the lowest life-expectancy in Eurasia is found in Afghanistan. The casual attitude toward brutality and intimidation makes it very difficult for peacekeepers and government administrators.  

The area in and around Kandahar is built up (urban), so the U.S. Marine Corps is bringing in a company of 16 M-1 tanks to help out. A special version of the M-1 (TUSK) was developed for urban combat, based on experience in Iraq. Other NATO nations have brought in tanks, with much success, but the U.S. has refrained until now.





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