Afghanistan: Down But Not Out

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March 10, 2011: Although most civilian casualties are caused by the Taliban, the Afghan government makes the most noise about those caused by foreign troops. This is despite the fact that the Taliban kill civilians as a tactic (both to terrorize, or use as human shields), while NATO takes extreme measures to avoid civilian losses (which are lower than any similar war in history). The reason for going after the foreigners (who have saved far more people than they have killed) rather than the Taliban (just the opposite) is money and personal safety. The Taliban will pay for media activity that helps them, and will kill those who do not help. Vote-wise, it's always better to speak ill of foreigners, even if they are being helpful. Then there's the Afghan custom, based on thousands of years of surviving because of it, to choose short-term gains over long-term ones. While many Afghans recognize that economic development, less corruption, less crime and more education would, in the long run, do more for Afghanistan, there's always the temptation to take the bribe, or deliver the cheap shot to the generous and helpful foreigners. The struggle in Afghanistan is not just about religion, or heroin or tribal rivalries, it's also about changing ancient customs. The old ways have a strong hold on most Afghans, even those determined to get away from the dismal past.

The war is not going well for the Taliban and their drug gang allies. In the last three months, foreign troops have carried out 15-20 operations (raids, patrols) a day. The main goal has been to capture or kill key Taliban personnel, and that happened to three or four Taliban leaders a day over the last 90 days. In addition, in the course of those 1,500 operations, over 1,800 lower ranking Taliban were captured and 500 killed. In part due to a rewards program for tips, over a thousand  weapons caches and workshops were found and destroyed. This has caused the Taliban severe supply problems, and is a major reason for the decline in roadside bomb activity.

The Taliban have been having a harder time getting weapons via their Pakistan connections (which are under pressure by the Pakistani security forces), and have turned more to Iran. This is difficult. For one thing, the Taliban and Iran are, technically, enemies. The Sunni Moslem Taliban consider the Shia Moslems (which most Iranians are, as are 20 percent of Afghans) to be heretics, and in the 1990s, the Taliban slaughtered a lot of Afghan Shia. But the enemy of my enemy is my friend (or occasional arms customer), and NATO forces have been catching smugglers from Iran with more and more weapons headed for Taliban customers. Not just the usual rifles and pistols for the tribal trade, but 122mm rockets (with a 20 kilometer range) to harass NATO camps with. Several Taliban leaders have been spotted in Iran over the last few months, no doubt negotiating these arms deals. One thing the Iranians want really bad, is less heroin and opium coming their way. There are several million Iranian addicts already, many of them among the families of the wealthy clerics who run the country. This does not just strike close to home, it hits these guys right in their homes. Despite a low level war against the Afghan drug smugglers over the last five years, the stuff keeps getting through. The money is just too good. But the Taliban did something, because the Iranian weapons are headed east. It might be that the drug gangs have been sending more of their exports north, through Central Asia. The Russians would certainly agree. Like Iran, Russia has seen rapid growth in heroin and opium addiction over the last decade, as Afghanistan became the primary source for those two drugs. Russia has allowed NATO to ship supplies (including weapons) to Afghanistan via Russian railroads, and contributed lots of useful intel on Afghan drug gangs, but still the stuff gets into Russia, and the Russians are not happy with how this situation is developing. The U.S. counters that it has done a lot of stop drug smuggling via Russia, but details of these debates is highly classified (to protect sources and methods of getting data on drug operations). But it's no secret that the biggest problem is all the Afghan government officials (at all levels) who are bought and paid for by the drug gangs. When the details of this eventually come out, the extent of the bribery will shock a lot of people, and explain  why a lot of odd things took place in Afghanistan. For example, the Afghan government is currently trying to get UN sanctions lifted on some former Taliban leaders (so they can travel abroad, often for medical treatment). The official reason is that these guys are really no longer involved with terrorism, but there's not a lot of firm proof. The real reason is that these guys want to get paid, and the currency in this case is freedom of movement.

The Taliban media crew have had another success in burying recent Afghan government reports that last year, civilian deaths were up 15 percent, while those caused by foreign troops declined 26 percent. Some 75 percent of the 2,777 civilian deaths last year were due to the Taliban, and a quarter of that was assassination of individuals. The overall increase was due to increased Taliban violence against civilians. But you'd never know this from relying on the mass media, who have been successfully spun by the Taliban. It’s one victory the Taliban can claim of late.

With the warm weather, the Taliban are hiring again and have been detected massing fighters to try and regain control over the many valleys, towns and villages they lost control of over the last year. This is going to be a major test for NATO, especially the Americans. Many civilians in former Taliban strongholds have taken up arms to defend themselves. If the Taliban manages to wipe out several of these local defense forces, many civilians will see the Taliban as driven away, not defeated, and refuse to stand up against them. As hated as the Taliban are, they have guns, are organized and are quick to kill whoever opposes them. Showing that this approach no longer works is what the war in Afghanistan is really all about.

March 6, 2011: In the east, near the Pakistan border, a roadside bomb hit a truckload of civilians, killing ten of them.  This was typical of the incidents that leave about 40 civilians dead a week because of Taliban actions.

 

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