Afghanistan: The Russians Return


September 15, 2013: Afghanistan has over 300,000 soldiers and police for a population of 30 million. That’s about the same as the United States, which has ten times as many military and police personnel for a population that is ten times as large. The big difference is that the U.S. forces are better trained, educated, and competent. They are also much less corrupt. The violence rates are also much different, with Afghanistan having a higher murder rate and many areas that are basically controlled by gangs, warlords, and the Taliban (usually in conjunction with a drug gang). The Afghan forces consider themselves successful because they have been able to keep the Taliban out of the cities and large towns and put the Islamic terrorists on the defensive in rural areas where the Taliban does its recruiting and maintains base camps and terrorist training and support facilities.

Western trainers and advisors report that the Afghan security forces are more effective than their opponents (gangsters and the Taliban) but still less effective than their foreign counterparts. Then there is the problem with corruption and bad attitudes by many Afghan leaders (civilian and military) who seem more interested in stealing foreign aid than in using such assistance to improve the security forces or Afghanistan in general. This is a constant source of disappointment for foreigners (military trainers and aid workers).

For all these reasons it’s no surprise that Afghan officials are getting a lot more military aid and cooperation from Russia. Despite the brutal Russian invasion (in 1979) and occupation (until 1989), Russians are no longer regarded so bitterly by many Afghans. That’s because the Russian occupation was but one part of a civil war that 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 departed a decade 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 because it was an expense they could no longer afford.

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. The Russian departure led to more than two decades of more violence and oppression (by Taliban, warlords, and wealthy drug gang leaders). The Russians have been neighbors since the 19th century and, despite losing their Central Asian provinces in 1991 (when the Soviet Union dissolved), the Russians maintained close relations with the new Central Asian states that are now Afghanistan’s northern border. The Russians are still there and over time have come to be seen as more of a potential friend than a former foe.

After September 11, 2001, Russia initially declined to provide much assistance for the NATO and U.S. effort in Afghanistan. Part of this was jealousy. The U.S. has been much more successful against the Afghans than the Russians were in the 1980s. Not just militarily but also in terms of logistics. One of the big limitations on the Russian military effort in the 1980s was the lack of roads and railroads in Afghanistan. The Soviet General Staff calculated, even before Russian troops went in, that the sparse transportation net would prevent Russia from supporting more than 134,000 troops there. Actually, the Russians generally had no more than 110,000 troops in Afghanistan through most of the 1980s. But NATO and the U.S. built up a force that was nearly twice that size. There are a few more roads in Afghanistan these days, and railroad construction only recently got underway. Western troops required far more supplies than their 1980s Russian counterparts ever got. The U.S. has achieved all this by developing ways to make better use of existing roads and flying more material in. Despite their silence on the matter, the Russians have been watching this logistical effort intently and taking notes. Russia also noted that Russian customs (more tolerant of bribes and shady behavior in general) was more in tune with Afghan culture. Russian businessmen and diplomats began to arrive in Afghanistan in 2002. Many Afghans were glad to see this happen and welcome more cooperation with their northern neighbor.

The northern Afghan tribes remember that on September 11, 2001, they were still fighting the Taliban government that had not yet gained control over all of Afghanistan. The "Northern Alliance" of non-Pushtun tribes was still holding out. The United States sent in a few hundred Special Forces and CIA operators, a hundred million dollars in cash, and a few thousand smart bombs to help the Northern Alliance out and the Taliban were broken and fleeing the country within two months. The northern tribes didn't mind Pushtuns getting the top jobs in the new government but were no longer willing to meekly follow the Pushtun lead blindly. The Pushtun see it differently, claiming (with some truth) that they did most of the fighting against the Russians in the 1980s, and that many of the northern tribes cut deals with the Russians (as did some Pushtun tribes, something the Pushtuns don't like to talk about). That had more to do with Afghan politics (the northern and southern tribes disagreed on how to deal with Russia and modernization) than with anything else. Then came the Taliban (a cynical invention of the Pakistanis, created from Pushtun refugees convinced that a Holy War would bring peace to Afghanistan). Meanwhile, the heroin trade (growing poppies and using a chemical process to turn the sap from these plants into opium and heroin) moved from Pakistan (where the government saw it as a curse) to Afghanistan. Many of the same tribes that produced the refugees who became the Taliban also produced the most successful drug lords. The Pushtun are many things, including well organized and ambitious, and Russia has always been a willing ally of the northern tribes. The Taliban today are basically a faction of the Pushtun tribes and the drug trade is basically run by Pushtuns. For most Afghans, the Pushtuns (40 percent of the population) are the enemy and Russia is a neighbor that has more often than not been a useful friend. The Russians are also interested in stopping the Pushtun drug trade, and this gives the northern tribes and Russia a common goal to work towards. Expect to see more of Russia in Afghanistan after NATO forces depart next year.

As the Afghan security forces take over from foreign troops they are suffering more casualties (over a thousand a month, including about 300 dead). They are inflicting even more casualties on the enemy, as are the growing number of pro-government militias organized to keep the Taliban out of rural areas. This is making recruiting more difficult for the Taliban because most of their recruits may be illiterate but they notice that an increasing number of local guys who went off to work for the Taliban didn’t come back, or came back suffering from combat wounds or having spent a long time in a jail. So the Taliban have lowered their standards and increased pay and benefits. But this has led to less capable and reliable Taliban foot soldiers. 

September 14, 2013: In the south (Kandahar) a suicide car bomber, attempting to attack a military convoy, detonated his explosives before he could reach his target and killed three civilians instead. The foreign troops were unharmed.

September 13, 2013: In the west (Herat) nine Taliban were killed when they attempted to get into the U.S. consulate. Two Afghan security guards and an Afghan contractor died defending the place.

September 8, 2013: The Taliban attempted to get into an intelligence facility outside the capital. The attack failed with six attackers and four Afghan soldiers killed.

September 7, 2013: In Pakistan seven Taliban leaders were released from prison in an effort to encourage the Afghan Taliban to negotiate a peace deal. Afghan officials doubt this will do any good and are more frequently claiming  that Pakistan is doing this to win favor with the Taliban and don’t really want the Taliban to make peace.

September 5, 2013: In the east (Paktika province) an Indian woman was shot dead by the Taliban who claimed she was a spy for India. The woman, Sushmita Banerjee, was a foreign aid worker who had married an Afghan in 1988 and later escaped Afghanistan and the harsh rule of the Taliban. She wrote a book about her experiences which was made into a popular 2003 Indian movie. But the Taliban denounced the book and movie and threatened revenge. Sushmita Banerjee was well liked in Afghanistan for her work in bringing medical care to women.   

September 4, 2013: A female member of parliament was released after being held prisoner by the Taliban for three weeks. This was negotiated, with the government releasing six prisoners the Taliban wanted.

September 3, 2013: In the northeast (Kunar province) local officials said a U.S. UAV missile strike killed eleven civilians and five Islamic terrorists. The federal government agreed with this but NATO officials said no civilians were killed, only ten Islamic terrorists and that this was double checked. It’s suspected that this is another of the “dead goat” scams. This occurs when the locals lie about dead civilians in order to get NATO compensation money (and to avoid Taliban retribution). Anytime a missile or smart bomb is used on an isolated location (which describes most of Afghanistan), and there is any chance of civilian casualties, the locals sometimes attempt this scam. Typically local tribal elders or government officials insist that outsiders stay away during this trying time. Even the foreign soldiers and Afghan police are put off (after the search for Taliban bodies, documents, and equipment is completed). Being good Moslems, the locals bury the dead before sunset of the same day. The next day, the elders will claim as many civilian dead, killed by smart bombs, as they think they can get away with. Sometimes additional graves get a dead goat or other animal, so the proper stench permeates the mound of earth. Digging up graves is also against Islamic law, so the elders know the foreign troops have to take their word for it. The elders also know that the foreign troops, depending on nationality, will pay $1,000-$5,000 compensation per dead civilian. Not only is there a big payday but the Taliban appreciate the bad publicity directed at the foreigners and usually show their appreciation by cutting this village or valley some slack in the future. NATO has been running into this scam for years and has learned to be determined about documenting what went on during an air strike to make it impossible for a scam to succeed.

August 31, 2013: In the south (Helmand province) a suicide car bomber detonated his explosives when he found himself trapped in a line of vehicles in front of an army checkpoint. Six people died and twenty were wounded, almost all of them civilians.

August 30, 2013: In the south (Helmand province) a roadside bomb killed twelve civilians. In the north (Kunduz province) a Taliban death squad went after a district (subdivision of the province) leader and killed him using a suicide bomber. The victim was exiting a mosque and eight others were killed and eleven wounded, most of them innocent civilians. The Taliban calls such victims “involuntary martyrs.” Few Afghans agree with this description.

August 29, 2013: In the west (Farah province) the Taliban ambushed a police convoy and killed fifteen policemen.

India is sending seventy-nine more police commandos to increase security around its Afghan embassy and consulates throughout the country. 




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