Afghanistan: A Ploy, Not A Promise

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February 5, 2012: The Afghan government and non-Pushtuns in general are upset with a recent American announcement that they, along with most NATO troops, plan to halt major military operations a year ahead of schedule (by 2013). The U.S., and some other NATO allies, would shift to commando and training operations. The Special Forces and commandos would continue to hunt down Taliban and drug gang leaders, while foreign trainers continued to upgrade the skills of Afghan soldiers and police. The largest foreign force in Afghanistan is American (90,000 troops) but a quarter of those will be gone within a year. What many (Afghans and foreigners) fear is that Afghan soldiers and police will not be able to effectively replace the foreign troops. There is also a lot of trepidation about the Afghan police, who continue to be poorly trained and led, and generally unwelcome. Afghans have no tradition of rural police and the tribal leaders resent the loss of policing authority. Most Afghans believe the police are ineffective in dealing with crime or tribal leaders who oppose "outsiders" (the police) imposing on traditional powers. Yet each year more and more rural Afghans report encountering honest and effective police. But the rate of improvement is slow and most Afghan cops are still inept and corrupt.

Another problem is money. The Afghan security forces will reach their planned strength of 350,000 (soldiers and police) by 2014. This force will cost $6 billion a year to run and the Afghan government cannot afford it. Some 90 percent of the money must come from foreign donors. But most donor countries (especially American and European) are having cash-flow problems and France has suggested that the Afghan security forces be reduced 35 percent (to 230,000) to ease the burden on donor states. After all, the Taliban only have about 20,000 gunmen. Throw in another 10,000 bandits and hired guns working for drug gangs and other criminal organizations and that appears reasonable. But no one will know for sure until the foreign troops back off or leave and the Afghans take over. That is already happening in some parts of the country and the results are mixed. Some NATO nations believe Afghan forces will be less likely to succeed if American and NATO forces leave earlier than 2014. Everyone agrees that there is a risk of civil war when foreign troops cease combat operations. The Taliban and some pro-Taliban Pushtun tribes have made no secret of their desire to run the country again. Afghans fear a resumption of the civil war, which was interrupted in late 2001, when the Americans intervened on the side of the Northern Alliance (a coalition of non-Pushtun groups from the non-Pushtun north).

The civil war began in the late 1970s, when the Afghan Communist Party sought to upset the tribal alliances that had defined Afghan politics for centuries and replace it with a communist dictatorship. The tribes saw this as an assault on their religion (communists were openly anti-religion) as well as their tribal independence and power. The tribes promptly took control of the countryside and began marching on the cities (where the communists had most of their supporters). Russia, which backed the new communist government, sent in troops in 1979 rather than see the tribes regain control. The Russians entered Afghanistan for political, not economic, reasons and left ten years later, leaving a communist government behind. Most previous conquerors of Afghanistan had come for economic reasons and had the means and incentive to stay for long periods. But the Soviet Union was in terrible economic shape in 1979 and dissolved in 1991, which was a major reason they left in 1989. The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union cut off subsidies for the pro-Russian Afghan government and that government was soon overthrown. The usual ethnic and tribal factions then continued the civil war, mostly over control of the traditional capital of Afghanistan, Kabul.

Meanwhile, some of the Pushtun factions had been radicalized by Saudi Arabian missionaries in Pakistan during the 1980s and were subsequently always the most numerous radicals. Millions of Pushtuns had fled to Pakistan in the 1980s to escape the violence. The Pushtuns live mostly in the south, are 40 percent of the population, and are part of a Pushtun region that has two-thirds of the Pushtuns in Pakistan (where they are only 15 percent of the population). Many of the Pushtuns had always been more traditional and socially conservative than the non-Pushtun tribes. The Saudi missionaries brought with them the ultra-conservative Wahhabi form of Islam, and the most enthusiastic Afghan converts became the Taliban. It was the ISI that formally recruited (from Pushtun refugees attending Pakistan Islamic religious schools) and armed the Taliban and sent them into Afghanistan to end the civil war and take control of the country. The Taliban recruited like-minded Pushtuns in Afghanistan and proceeded to fight the other ethnic factions for control. By 1996, the Taliban had control of southern Afghanistan and Kabul. This war was still going on when September 11, 2001 came along.

The Taliban never conquered the entire country and most current Taliban terrorism is still in the Pushtun south. But from the beginning the Taliban were supported, and heavily influenced, by the Pakistani ISI (their main intelligence agency). Since September 11, 2001, Pakistani support for American anti-terror efforts has turned most of the Taliban (at least the Pakistani branch) and al Qaeda against Pakistan. Yet the ISI stays in touch with the Taliban and al Qaeda, even though they are officially at war with all of these terrorists.

Pakistan sees Afghanistan as its buffer against Russia and Iran and a nation that Pakistan should have a lot of influence over. Most Afghans are not happy with this attitude, which has led to a permanent state of tension between the two states. Most Afghans are particularly unhappy with the fact that Pakistan created the Taliban and still actively supports it, meaning that a Taliban takeover of the country means a Pakistani takeover. A majority of Afghans, including most Pushtuns, oppose this.

In favor of the Taliban takeover are pro-Taliban Pushtuns (about a quarter of the Pushtuns, or about ten percent of all Afghans). The Taliban believe they can take over the country because they are on a mission from God, are Pushtuns (who always believe they should be in charge), and because the many tribes of Afghanistan could not effectively unite against the Taliban coalition. Finally, the Taliban believe they will get a lot of support (mostly in secret) from Pakistan. The Taliban would also have the financial support of the drug gangs, who established themselves in the 1990s, and paid the Taliban “taxes” for the privilege of turning southern Pakistan into the source of nearly all the world's supply of illegal heroin and opium. The drugs, and their producers, are hated by most Afghans but provide the Taliban with cash to hire gunmen and bribe officials. As a practical matter there is no way the Taliban could take over again, if only because so many Afghans have bitter memories of what happened the last time (the late 1990s) when the Taliban were in charge. But a Taliban attempt would cause another round of civil war, which would do a lot of damage.

The Taliban called the UN a liar after the recent release of a UN casualty report for 2011. The UN counted 3,021 civilians killed by combat last year, an eight percent increase over last year, and 77 percent were the victims of Taliban action. The number of civilian dead has doubled since 2007. Last year the biggest increase was from suicide bombings, where civilian victims were up 80 percent, to 450. But biggest killer remained roadside bombs and locally made landmines, which killed 967 civilians.

Military action (foreign or Afghan) caused 14 percent of civilian deaths and nine percent were from situations where the source could not be determined. Foreign troops and Afghan security forces pushed the Taliban out of many areas but the Islamic terrorists simply continued to make their attacks wherever they could. This meant an increase in violence in areas along the Pakistani border, as well as contested areas in Kandahar and Helmand provinces (where most of the world's heroin comes from). The Taliban doubled their use of roadside bombs and mines to nearly a thousand a month. But the number of these devices that exploded only went up six percent over last year. That's because the American anti-IED (Improvised Explosive Device) technology and specialists had arrived (from Iraq) in force and acclimated to Afghan conditions. Most bombs and mines were detected and destroyed.

The Taliban had banned the use of landmines in 1998 but that, like most Taliban promises and proclamations, was a ploy, not a promise. The Taliban always claim they are fighting for the people but civilian deaths to Taliban activity were up 14 percent last year, while deaths due to the security forces (local and foreign) were down four percent. Deaths among foreign troops were 566 last year, a drop of 20 percent from 2010. Taliban deaths are not reported, but they are counted, but all NATO would admit to was capturing or killing over a thousand Taliban leaders last year. It’s believed over 10,000 other Taliban were killed or (less frequently) captured last year.

The Taliban has been shifting its tactics and in the last two years has put more emphasis on assassination of government and tribal leaders who refuse to cooperate. Last year, Taliban death squads murdered 495 people this way, a 160 percent increase over 2009.  

The Taliban are offering to enter into peace talks. But first they want five Taliban leaders released from American custody. The five are men captured in late 2001 and early 2002. All could stand trial for war crimes as all five killed many Afghans for religious, political, or ethnic reasons during the 1990s. Because of this, the U.S. is opposing Afghan government pressure to make nice and let these five guys go. The only reason the Taliban want peace talks are to help placate some of the dissident Taliban groups. For the last few years, there has been growing factional fighting within the Taliban (both the Afghan and Pakistani branches). This is the result of continued lack of success by the Taliban and the constant loss of leaders to American UAVs and Special Forces. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia has agreed to host negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

 

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