Afghanistan: There Is No Law

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November 2, 2013: The 2013 fighting season in Afghanistan has come to an end and the Taliban have failed to overwhelm the Afghan security forces, who took over security responsibility for most of the country this year. The Taliban have failed year after year to make much progress in their annual “offensives” but they are still in business, as the main chore of the Afghan is to keep local and foreign forces busy while the drug gangs go about their business. Afghan soldiers and police proved capable in defending themselves and, more importantly, going after the Taliban. Using their own intelligence, and that provided by NATO and the U.S., raids were regularly carried out. But the drug gangs paid the Taliban to take the heat and drug production and smuggling continued.

The “fighting season” begins in April or May when the snow melts in the highlands. Fighting ends in November when the snows return. The snow makes cross-country travel, and survival out in the open, much more difficult. The Afghan police were the main targets of Afghanistan attacks. These Taliban operations amounted to 1,700 attacks on police and 6,600 overall (mostly against civilians) this year. Thus, this year, 1,273 national and 779 local (or tribal) police were killed, along with 858 civilians. Nearly 6,000 police and civilians were wounded. 

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).

With the withdrawal of most foreign troops by the end of 2014, foreign aid officials estimate that foreign civilian aid inspectors will be able to safely visit aid projects in only 21 percent of the country (compared to 47 percent now). For Afghans security is much improved but foreigners (of all types) are always prime victims for robbers and kidnappers. The law of the jungle still prevails in much of Afghanistan, with local warlords and tribal chiefs having their own private armies and the ability to do as they please. Often these armed groups belong to drug gangs or the Taliban (which is basically a political organization allied with many drug gangs to limit the reach of national or provincial law enforcement). For most of Afghanistan there is no law in the Western sense, just local traditions and customs backed by armed locals. Afghans see the foreign aid as a gift, not an attempt to build a stronger national economy. For most Afghans there is no “national economy,” just local opportunities. Thus the high incidence of theft from economic development projects paid for by foreigners.

Even though many foreign aid projects (education, medical, water, and agricultural) are popular, few are expected to survive the withdrawal of foreign troops at the end of 2014. In some parts of the country (the north and many of the major cities) there is more of a “civil society” (willingness to cooperate on a wide scale for the greater good) atmosphere than in the traditionalist tribal Pushtun south. But in much of the country the ancient tribalism (every family for itself) attitude prevails, making joint efforts very difficult. A major barrier to economic growth is education, as most Afghans are still illiterate and possess few marketable skills. That is slowly changing, but in the Pushtun south where the Taliban and tribal traditionalism are stronger, the departure of foreign troops is expected to result in many schools, especially those for girls, being closed or converted to religious schools (where few economically useful skills are taught).

Taking down the Taliban nationwide is not an option because the drug gangs employ most Taliban groups at least some of the time and the drug gangs have most of the senior government officials (or members of their families) on the payroll. This does not get the Taliban complete protection from the security forces because in most parts of the country the population is hostile to the drugs and those who deal in them. Ideally the Afghan leaders taking drug gang bribes would prefer that all the drugs produced in Afghanistan (especially the opium and heroin) be exported. Most of it is but a growing fraction is diverted to the domestic market. For too many drug gangs this local trade is easy money and difficult to give up. But it has created over a million addicts and the many friends and kin of the addicts become very mad at the suppliers of this poison. This is something the drug gangs have to be careful with because the opium trade has been ejected from other countries (first northern Burma then northwest Pakistan) in the past few decades. Make enough Afghans sufficiently angry and it could happen again in Afghanistan. Production will pop up somewhere else (it is already making a comeback in Burma) but the good times for the Afghan drug lords will be over and the families of the Afghan addicts (especially the ones who died from their addiction) will seek revenge for a long, long time. That’s the Afghan way. That’s why local opposition to the drug trade is more dangerous to the drug gangs than international pressure on the Afghan government.

The corruption is everywhere and even foreign aid organizations are constantly confronted by thieves, kidnappers, 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 as an opportunity 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.

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 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 in 2011. 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. Some Afghan officials contend that this is all a misunderstanding with many Afghans confusing “immunity from prosecution” (which is not what the Status of Forces agreement calls for) with simply using a more dependable foreign justice system for crimes committed by foreign troops. More Afghans are coming to realize that all the U.S. is asking for is the same deal it has received from dozens of countries for over half a century with no problems. Getting most Afghans to understand this has been difficult and may be impossible. Afghans prefer to believe the worst case, which is how life usually plays out in Afghanistan.

The withdrawal of most (or all) NATO troops after 2014 will cripple Afghanistan’s educational system for police and soldiers. This extends from basic training to specialist training (like the bomb disposal school and the training for combat medics). Reducing the effectiveness of these schools will increase Afghan casualties and make the security forces less aggressive and effective. 

The U.S. has quietly restored $1.6 billion worth of economic and military aid for Pakistan that had been blocked over the last two years. This aid had been resumed over the last few months as Pakistan allowed NATO truck traffic in and out of Afghanistan to move again. All this is an aftereffect of the 2011 American raid into Pakistan that killed Osama Bin Laden. The Pakistani military was particularly unhappy with how the raid made it clear that the military had been lying about not knowing where bin Laden was hiding and unable to detect or stop the American raid. Defending lies and incompetence is growing more difficult in Pakistan, but if you have enough guns and determination you can hang on for a long time.

The three U.S. Marine Corps special operations battalions (MSOBs) are being moved out of Afghanistan and assigned to SOCOM (Special Operations Command) commands. The 1st MSOB will be assigned to SOCOM Pacific, while the 3rd MSOB will be assigned to MSOB Africa and the 2nd MSOB will be assigned to SOCOM headquarters for use wherever the need is the greatest. Each MSOB has three or four companies, each with four 15 man special operations teams. With support personnel each battalion has 400-500 men. The Special Operations Battalions provide a combination of services roughly equal to what the U.S. Army Special Forces and Rangers do, as well as some of the functions of the Force Recon units. Many other SOCOM troops are leaving, mostly to give SOCOM operators a break from the constant overseas deployments they have endured since September 11, 2001. Some operators are going to other terrorism hotspots, but most are getting some “dwell time” with their families.

November 1, 2013: The U.S. has agreed to buy another 30 Russian Mi-17V5 helicopters next year for the Afghan Army. That makes 63 helicopters of this type that the U.S. has bought so far. The U.S. has bought over a hundred older models of the Mi-17 for the Afghans, who prefer these simpler and more robust Russian models to the more expensive (to buy, operate, and maintain) Western helicopters.

October 27, 2013: In the north (Ghazni province) a roadside bomb hit a bus full of women and children headed for a wedding, killing 18 civilians. Locals found and killed (by stoning and gunfire) a Taliban member they believed responsible for the bombing.

October 24, 2013: In the Pakistani tribal territories (South Waziristan) 9 civilians were wounded when at least a dozen mortar shells and rockets were fired at a village from Afghanistan. This was apparently a tribal feud that may have involved an Islamic terrorist group based in Afghanistan. There has been growing animosity and violence between Afghan and Pakistani Taliban groups. This is largely the result of Pakistani Taliban taking refuge inside Afghanistan and not getting along with the locals.

In the east (Paktika province) four Islamic terrorists died when a roadside bomb they were placing went off accidentally.

October 22, 2013: The intelligence service announced that they had dismissed 65 officers who had been found to be opium or heroin addicts. An investigation had been ordered after senior leaders noted some officers seemed to be acting odd.  

October 21, 2013: In the east (Kunar province) a local Taliban leader and three followers were killed by a UAV missile strike.

October 20, 2013: In the Pakistani tribal territories (Peshawar) gunmen from Afghanistan attacked a police checkpoint, killing four policemen.

October 19, 2013: Afghanistan is suffering further economic damage because Turkey and Iran are arguing over transit fees and other diplomatic disputes. Thus, despite transit agreements, Iran is delaying or prohibiting Turkish trucks from travelling through Iran to Afghanistan. The Turkish connection was doing much for the economy in western and northern Afghanistan.

October 18, 2013: Germany temporarily closed its embassy because of the threat of a terrorist attack. In Kabul terrorists did attempt to get a suicide car bomb into the international compound (the “Green Village”) but the attack failed and killed two Afghan civilians.

 

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