Afghanistan: The Long Hot Summer

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April 20, 2013: U.S. officials are becoming alarmed at the extent that the Taliban and drug gangs control senior members of the Afghan government. These are men who are often literally partners in drug operations, receiving a share of drug profits in return for looking after the interests of the drug gangs. The most notable of these is Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan. Karzai represents his clan and tribe in this because many members of his family have long grown rich from serving drug gangs. Karzai is not shy about supporting his interests. Currently Karzai is trying to disband CIA counter-terrorism and anti-drug operations in southern Afghanistan. Two of the most effective forces the Taliban and drug gangs face are the pro-government tribal militias organized by the CIA and U.S. Army Special Forces. Both of these are under attack by Karzai, who wants to shut down CIA and Special Forces operations. Karzai uses any civilian losses suffered during operations involving the CIA and Special Forces to call for expelling the “American killers.”  Karzai never gets this exercised about the 80 percent of civilian deaths caused by the Taliban and drug gangs, so you can see where he is going with this.

Karzai faces a lot of push-back from Afghans, who do not want to be ruled by a bunch of gangsters and religious fanatics. Only about ten percent of the population (mostly in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar) sees any benefit from the drug trade. A few hundred men have become quite rich from this, but about ten percent of the population has become addicted to the opium and other drugs. That is happening throughout the country, and most Afghans are hostile to the drug gangs and their Taliban allies. The Taliban has always been mainly a Pushtun thing and most of the drug gangs are Pushtun. A growing number of Pushtun tribes, or clans within tribes, have turned against the Taliban (who are seen as a bunch of gangsters and drug gang hired guns pretending to be Islamic heroes). In part this is revulsion against the drugs and chaos they bring but these tribal leaders have watched the rest of the country grow wealthy while the Taliban keep many Pushtuns in righteous poverty (by chasing away aid operations or any new business that might interfere with drug production and smuggling). It’s time for a change. But many Taliban and their drug gang allies have gotten used to that affluence and are willing to fight to resist any change. They have powerful government officials on their payroll and are not shy about using them.

With the Afghan army and police now in charge of security in most of the country (with American and NATO forces in a backup role) the Taliban appear to be launching a major offensive, their first in five years, to test the ability of the Afghan forces to actually provide protection against a major Taliban move to seize control of more territory. The Taliban have not been able to launch a warm weather offensive in five years and in that time have lost control of a lot of territory where they could once roam freely and do as they pleased. The Afghans refuse to say how much more Taliban violence there is, but other sources (aid organizations and NGOs) indicate that Taliban attacks are up over 40 percent compared to last year.

So far the Afghan security forces are holding their own, reporting that they have killed over 4,700 Taliban and captured over 6,500 so far this year, but the campaigning season doesn’t really wind down until September, and that’s when you can see how successful the Taliban offensive was. It’s going to be a Long Hot Summer. Army and police losses are a third of what the Taliban and drug gangs are suffering. But such is the poverty in the country side that the Taliban can always hire more young men who have few other options and are attracted to the promise of cash and adventure. While the Taliban offer more money, they don’t get the best recruits. Afghans know it’s safer and more advantageous to be in the security forces, and that’s where the more capable guys go. There you can learn to read and write (most rural Afghans are illiterate) and obtain other useful skills (like vehicle repair, first aid, electronics operation and maintenance, and so on). Tribal leaders back joining the security forces and discourage going with the Taliban or drug gangs. The CIA and Special Forces have provided cash to hire thousands of rural men to serve in tribal militias to keep the Taliban away. This is increasingly popular because the Taliban tend to act like bandits and do as they please. But the drug gangs still have all that money, which can be a very powerful weapon in the poorest country in Eurasia.

The violence takes the form of more roadside bombs, attacks on checkpoints (a major obstacle to Taliban and drug gang mobility), and death squads (to kill military and government leaders who refuse to be bought). The Taliban are always on the lookout for a checkpoint (which often resembles a small fort on the side of the road) that is led by sloppy commanders. Attacks on checkpoints usually fail, with many casualties to the attacker and few for the defender. But the Taliban regularly find a checkpoint where leadership is lax and see an opportunity to kill the defenders while they all are asleep (especially those who are supposed to be awake and on guard). In other cases it’s possible to buy a few of the men staffing the checkpoint, which can be the key to a successful attack. These checkpoint losses are more likely to make the news than the failed attacks.

The Taliban have good reason to fear the security forces. Both the army and police have created commando battalions, which are very good at planning and carrying out raids (often to capture or kill Taliban or drug gang leaders). These guys are a particular target of attacks and bribery. But the American and NATO trainers are constantly improving the skills of all soldiers and police, especially army personnel. The soldiers are big admirers of NATO troops, who are all professional soldiers that untrained Afghan gunmen cannot stand up to in combat. Afghan soldiers want to be like that, and a growing number of them are. Afghanistan is a nation that still admires warriors, and soldiers trained to fight like the Western troops are the most formidable warriors ever seen in Afghanistan.

The only thing that keeps Karzai and his corrupt cronies from going completely off the rails is the foreign aid. Next to drug profits, that is the biggest source of income for corrupt officials. The threat of cuts to this aid does have a persuasive effect. Karzai must also pay attention to the leaders of the provinces that are not benefitting from drug profits but are suffering from drug violence and addiction. These guys are not offering bribes to Karzai but threats. Karzai has to deal with the fact that most Afghans are hostile to his alliance with the drug gangs. The main reason Karzai remains in power is because, for centuries, civil war has been avoided by an agreement that a Pushtun (like Karzai) would be “king” and share any income from foreigners or highly profitable natural resources (like the opium and heroin). Karzai does make a lot of cash gifts, using his drug money as well as stolen aid, to non-Pushtun leaders. It’s a balancing act that is constantly at risk of becoming undone.

The U.S. has still not settled on a number for how many troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014. This will be decided over the next year, and especially over the next six months, as Afghan security forces are carefully evaluated. Currently there are 63,000 American troops there and most will be gone in the next 20 months.

The drug gangs are having some other problems. While the acreage devoted to growing poppies (from which opium is derived) has increased for three years in a row, the Afghans are facing increasing pressure from opium production in northern Burma. These Burmese tribes had once produced most of the world’s opium but had their operations shut down by a vigorous government offensive in the 1980s. Opium production shifted to the Pushtun tribes (first in Pakistan, then across the border to Afghanistan). By the 1990s 90 percent of opium and heroin was coming from Afghanistan. As a result of the Burmese resurgence, Afghanistan now has only 75 percent of the world heroin market. The producer income per kilo (2.2 pounds) for heroin has been declining and is likely to decline more as the Burmese tribes continue to increase production. Cash is the most effective weapon the drug gangs have and it is starting to weaken.

April 18, 2013: In the east (Jalalabad) police arrested four men and a woman who were planning several suicide bomb attacks. Explosive vests and other weapons were seized as well. The accused were trained in Pakistan to make attacks during the April 27-28 celebrations of the overthrow of the pro-Russian Afghan government (that remained in power after the Russians left in 1989) in 1992.

April 13, 2013: In the east (Jalalabad) Taliban fired three rockets at the airport outside the city and this time actually hit something. A helicopter was damaged. Most of the time these attacks hit nothing but do force work to halt for at least a few minutes as everyone ducks for cover. The city of Jalalabad is a particular target because it is close to the Pakistan border and some Islamic terrorists have bases in Pakistan where they can plot and prepare for attacks inside Afghanistan. Jalalabad is the first major city encountered when the border is crossed and a tempting target. The city of 200,000 has long been a base area for American and Afghan troops. Many of the bases are around the airport.

 

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