Afghanistan: The Only Battle That Counts


July 31, 2013: The only battle that counts in Afghanistan is the struggle against corruption. It is the general dishonesty, larceny, and use of violent threats instead of consensus and persuasion that make Afghanistan such a hellish place. The Islamic conservatives promise that submission to Islam in all things (the religious dictatorship the Taliban ran in the late 1990s) will solve all these problems. The Taliban approach did not work and too many Afghans know it (many from personal experience). But too many Afghans are not willing to risk everything to try and establish civil society (rule of law).

A functioning democracy is essential to build a civil society. There is a lot of cheating during elections, and a lot of Afghans are not happy with that. The existing tribal coalition system is threatened by democracy and is not quietly stepping aside. The ancient ways still find wide acceptance, especially in the countryside. Besides, those who are most eager to accept modern ways often simply migrate. Not every budding democrat has the cash or courage to leave and the democrats may be the majority. But the traditionalists are heavily armed and determined to keep the old ways. This sustains the corruption (stealing is good, as long as it's not from family or tribe), tribalism (who else can you really trust), drug gangs (based on tribal and family ties), and the Taliban (the most traditionalist group).

Tradition is fighting change to a standstill. Tradition means tribe is the primary loyalty, and everyone else is a potential victim or enemy. Change means civil society, where democracy and negotiation, not threats, bribes, and violence, are used to settle disputes. Old customs are hard to give up, and Afghanistan has been resisting change for over a century. Now, the central government has the military might to break the tribal power but in the short term it’s more profitable to just steal and take bribes. The drug gangs see the Taliban as tools, not a threat.  The Taliban like to puff themselves up, but most Afghans see them as a bunch of ignorant, vicious, and inept religious zealots. The drug gangs are another matter, because these guys have lots of money and more realistic goals. These gangs are the single most corrupting influence in the country. They are the beating heart of evil and Afghanistan will not prosper until the drug gangs are defeated.

The corruption is everywhere and even foreign aid organizations are constantly confronted by thieves and liars who make threats and demand bribes. A classic example of this is the government effort to establish a monopoly for private security in the country. This began two years ago when private security firms were banned. The immediate effect of the Afghan governments ban on private security firms was to stall $6 billion worth of aid projects. The security firm ban was not directed against foreign guards, as much as it was against Afghan ones. Any armed group in Afghanistan was suspect, and some of the Afghan security firms used their ability to move around openly with guns to engage in crime (often in the pay of drug gangs or some provincial strongman). The security firms also recruited the best police and army commanders, offering higher pay for a legal job. The government did not appreciate this.

The disbanded Afghan security firms were to be replaced by special police units. But the key to the security firms was good leadership (usually a bunch of sharp guys from the same tribe or clan). The police discourages that kind of leadership, as it often leads to corruption. The supply of dependable commanders in the police is small, as there are too many safer, and more lucrative, ways for a smart guy to make money in Afghanistan. The low literacy rate, and education levels in general, means there are few qualified men to be police or military commanders. These jobs require literacy and a high degree of loyalty to the central government. Most of the sharp guys aren't literate and are loyal to their tribe, not some foreigner (someone from another tribe) in Kabul. So two years later the government has only been able to organize 60 percent of the promised security police. Since aid firms will (and some have) shut down operations if denied sufficient security, the government still allows (for the payment of a bribe) independent security operations. Most government officials understand that if an aid group leaves there is no way to steal from them. But beyond that too many Afghans see it as their natural right to extort, rob, and even murder foreigners. It’s an old tradition in Afghanistan and still widely admired.

Self-destructive behavior is widely accepted in Afghanistan, which is another barrier to prosperity and economic behavior. Examples are many. One crucial one involves negotiating terms for remaining U.S. troops after all other NATO forces have left after 2014. The politicians have been playing hardball with the Americans on this, refusing to agree to continue American immunity from the corrupt Afghan justice system after 2014. The U.S. has told the Afghans that if they don’t get a Status of Forces (immunity) agreement by the end of 2014, then the U.S. will withdraw all their forces. Such “Status Of Forces” agreements are standard practice for foreign troops overseas and, in the case of Afghanistan, are necessary to protect American troops from abuse by corrupt Afghan judges and prosecutors. If the U.S. withdraws completely, a lot of the foreign aid might stop coming as well as well as essential logistical, training, and air support for Afghan security forces. The implication here is that if the Afghans prove unable to govern themselves and the country once more becomes a terrorist haven, the bombers and commandoes will come back and the Afghan leaders responsible will be primary targets. That threat carries more weight since Osama bin laden was finally taken down two years ago. So far this threat has not persuaded the Afghan leaders to compromise. They know they can do that at the last minute and in the meantime their stubbornness costs them nothing and is, by Afghan standards, entertaining.

The Afghan Army is suffering several hundred casualties (including 100-150 dead) a month so far this year. There are twice as many civilian casualties. Nearly a quarter of the army casualties are from mines and roadside bombs. As with NATO forces, most of the action is in the south, especially Helmand province (the source of most of the opium and heroin). Civilian losses are up over twenty percent this year, and 80 percent of that is still because of the Taliban, usually roadside bombs and mines. While trained Afghan bomb experts are good at dealing with these bombs, they are often hurt by the corruption. For example, millions of dollars was paid to contractors to seal off culverts so they could not be used to hide bombs. Most of that money was simply stolen and no work was done.

About ten percent of the Afghan population is addicted, mainly to opium and heroin. Up to 40 percent of those in some police units were found to have been users. Far more people are users without becoming addicts but it’s the addicts that get the most attention because they are considered a major problem for families and neighbors. Addicts will steal or kill to feed their addiction and all that addiction makes the drug gangs and their Taliban allies very unpopular.

The U.S. believes that there are less than a hundred al Qaeda members left in Afghanistan, with most of the terrorist attacks coming from the Taliban (whose leadership is across the border in Pakistan) and the Haqqani Network (operating from across the border in Pakistan). Haqqani is further along in the process of evolving into a criminal gang while the Taliban continues to try and impose lifestyle rules on populations it dominates.

July 28, 2013: In the east (Logar and Nangarhar provinces) a week of army operations in the mountains left at least 83 Taliban and other hostile gunmen dead.  

July 27, 2013: In the northeast (Baghlan province) a Taliban roadside bomb failed to kill the provincial police chief. In the north (Samangan province) a similar attack failed to kill the provincial governor. Although Afghan troops are taking over the task of dealing with roadside bombs, they require a lot more training in how to do it right. They want to do it right but they need the foreign trainers to drill in the most effective techniques.

In the south (Helmand province) a large force of Taliban, returning from an attack in neighboring Nimroz province, were caught in the open and attacked by NATO air forces and Afghan ground forces. At least 45 of the Taliban were killed. This was largely the result of poor Taliban leadership, as the smart thing to do is disperse after a massed attack and return to base in small groups to prevent being such a large and easy to spot target. Taliban commanders keep making mistakes like this, largely because there is no training school for Taliban commanders, it’s all OJT (on-the-job training). Deaths among Taliban leaders is also high because NATO tactics involve concentrating on identifying and going after leaders and technical specialists.  




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