Afghanistan: The Lords Of Darkness Count The Days

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May 14, 2012: The mass media is all over incidents of Afghan security forces killing NATO troops (on purpose or by accident) but the bigger story is being missed. While nearly 20 percent of NATO troop deaths of late were the result of Afghan troops or police, this is partly because NATO casualties are so low to begin with. The casualty rate among foreign troops is much lower than previous wars. This includes Vietnam, the recent fighting in Iraq, and the Russians in Afghanistan during the 1980s. The Taliban are so desperate that they have relied on roadside bombs and paying large bonuses to encourage Afghan soldiers and police to attack foreign troops. But money motivated attacks are rare, most are due to the fact that Afghans are very violent to begin with and quick to anger when frustrated. This is the case when foreigners are not around and is worse when foreigners are present because of Afghan frustration at cultural conflicts. For example, NATO trainers, advisors, and troops insist that Afghans be disciplined and organized (cleaning their weapons, firing only when ordered to, not taking bribes and abusing civilians). The Afghans resent this nagging. Most of the time that results in poor combat performance, which often includes firing weapons at the wrong time and accidentally hitting Afghan or NATO troops. This sort of thing is common in any poorly trained force and has been noted by foreign trainers for over a century (since modern firearms became available and made friendly fire easier to happen). Thus friendly fire incidents were often the result of poor discipline and sloppiness. More often the victims are fellow Afghans, and it's not always clear if the shooting was deliberate or not. A lot of Afghans are tossed out of the security forces because of their inability to handle their weapons properly. It's been more difficult to get rid of Afghan officers who cannot do the job, particularly higher ranking ones with political connections.

As bad as the Afghan soldiers and police are, when it comes to professionalism, the Taliban and drug gang gunmen are worse. These fellows are usually quickly slaughtered when they try to fight foreign troops directly. While Afghans are poor soldiers, they are not stupid, thus the resort to roadside bombs, suicide bombs, and rewards for killing foreigners. The Taliban are out-matched by the foreign military technology. For example, attacks on NATO bases are rare because of the prolific use of security cameras and other sensors (and software that makes the surveillance even more effective). The cameras are mounted on buildings, as well as towers and balloons (aerostats) which can see beyond the range of rockets, making it nearly impossible for the Taliban to use this weapon.

In short, the foreign troops have been very demoralizing for armed Afghans who yearn for the old days when they were feared, not constantly hiding from a superior foreign opponent. This also goes to the heart of the battle between religious fundamentalists (who reject much of the modern world) and the majority of Afghans who believe all this new tech and ideas is just great. The lords of darkness are more willing to kill and terrorize to encourage submission. In a more perfect world this would enable the majority of Afghans to outnumber and outfight the bad guys. But the majority is beset by corruption and tribalism, ancient habits that make large scale cooperation difficult. Many in the government are in favor of more peace deals between the tribes (especially the Pushtun ones from the south, which produce nearly all the Taliban). Many Taliban see the wisdom in this and that has caused growing infighting among Taliban factions. The drug gangs side with the old-school Taliban who, during the 1990s, were content to leave the drug gangs alone and just tax them.

One very obvious example of modernism and prosperity is the cell phone. Over half the population now has one (compared to none a decade ago) and 85 percent of the country has coverage. The Taliban hate cell phones, at least those in the hands of most Afghans. That's because the Taliban have more enemies than friends among the general population and when the Taliban are out robbing, killing, or terrorizing too many people quietly call the police. This has resulted in major efforts by the Taliban to force the cell phone companies in some areas to shut down completely, or at least do so at night (when the Taliban prefer to do their dirty work). These attacks against the cell phone providers make the Taliban even less popular. Most Afghans, given the choice between Taliban promises of spiritual salvation and a cell phone, will take the smart phone nearly every time. This is why most of the terrorism and combat deaths in Afghanistan are civilians and over 80 percent of those civilians are killed by the Taliban.

Despite their growing unpopularity the Taliban have launched a major school closing program in eastern Afghanistan (Ghazni province) in the last two weeks. Over a hundred schools have, under threat of attack, closed. But this is temporary and a prelude to a major offensive against the local Taliban. When enough of the Taliban have been killed or chased out of the province the popular (among most Afghans) schools will reopen. The Taliban are mainly upset that schools teach girls and some of them allow boys and girls to be in the same classrooms.

The drug gangs are not only suffering from a growing number of raids, the destruction of  labs (for converting opium into heroin), and stockpiles waiting to be smuggled into Pakistan but also a crackdown on corruption in the banking system that allowed the gangs to get paid and then move a lot of that money to foreign bank accounts. Despite the ability to bribe and intimidate, the Taliban has not been able to reach enough people who run, or police, the international banking system. A lot of drug money still gets around but a lot more gets caught, or has to take a lot more time, and pay additional bribes to get where it is going. All this cuts drug gang profits and means less money available for bribes and Taliban payroll.

Because of all these woes the Taliban and drug gangs are depending even more on the departure of foreign troops in two years. That will take off a lot of pressure and make it easier to bribe and intimidate Afghan security forces. While the Afghan soldiers and police are easier to kill, this is becoming more difficult. The Afghan soldiers, in particular, are becoming more professional and more expensive to bribe. Worse, the presence of foreign military advisors means that when an Afghan officer is bought he often doesn't stay bought. This is a tragic problem that gets little media attention.

The Taliban are having similar problems with Afghan journalists. While many of these reporters are on the drug gang payroll, or have been terrorized into compliance, many have not or have ceased cooperating. So the Taliban and drug gangs have increased their attacks on the Afghan media. The journalists are openly calling on the government for more protection. This may imply less vigorous investigations into corruption at senior levels if some attention was paid to security for the media.

May 13, 2012: In Kabul a professional assassin killed Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban commander, with one shot from a pistol with a silencer. Rahmani was helping the government and Taliban groups work out peace deals. The Afghan Taliban promptly denied they had anything to do with the death of the popular Rahmani. That, and the sophistication of the killing, indicates this was the work of the Pakistani ISI, which makes no secret of its displeasure with Taliban peace talks with the Afghan government. The ISI and many Pakistani generals and politicians do not want the Afghan Taliban to go away because the Taliban makes it easier to keep India (and foreign influence in general) out of Afghanistan. Pakistan considers Afghanistan a subordinate (to Pakistani needs) state. The Afghans disagree, but for the last thirty years the Pakistanis have often had their way. While this subordination is popular in Pakistan, some of the side effects are not. For example, the Afghan drug trade (the major world producer of opium and heroin) has produced millions of addicts in Pakistan (and even more in Afghanistan's other neighbors).

May 12, 2012: The long (over a year) international investigation into a major act of corruption, involving the Kabul Bank and the theft of nearly a billion dollars, has concluded that it was carried out with the help of auditors from the Pakistani branch of a Western accounting firm (PricewaterhouseCooper). The Pakistani auditors are considered criminally liable, and this is likely to turn into an international legal crises. Foreign aid donors have been increasingly angry at the blatant theft of foreign aid and the government corruption that abets it. The donor nations are demanding less stealing or less aid. Some countries are unable to halt the stealing and corruption and see their aid sharply cut.

May 5, 2012: An Afghan working for the Iranian Fars news agency has been arrested and accused of spying for Iran.

 

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