Afghanistan: Exit Strategy Facts And Fiction

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June 19, 2014: The runoff election result is in doubt because of fraud allegations. The two candidates are Abdullah Abdullah (a long time Karzai rival and believed to have lost the 2009 vote because of fraud) who had 45 percent of the votes in the first (April) election and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (a former finance minister and World Bank official) who had 31.5 percent. Abdullah Abdullah is part Tajik and backed the Northern Alliance against the Taliban during the 1990s. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai is a Pushtun from a powerful tribe. He was attending college in the U.S. when the civil wars and subsequent Russian occurred in the late 1970s. He was in exile until 2001. His family suffered many losses during this period, both because of the Russians and the civil wars. To Puhstuns Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai is the more acceptable candidate because he is all Pushtun and the Pushtuns have traditionally been the kinds or leaders of Afghanistan, even though they are a minority (although the largest one at 40 percent of the population). Abdullah Abdullah was the victim of Pushtun voting fraud in 2009 when president Karzai was running for reelection and sees it happening again. This is a major political crises and its outcome will be in doubt for weeks or longer. There were a lot of foreign observers who reported that there was some fraud but not a lot more than the first election in April. There were nearly 600 formal complaints of fraud and there was an effort by Pushtun leaders to get out more votes for Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. 

Taliban election violence left at least 60 Islamic terrorists dead and about half as many civilians and security personnel. There were over a hundred voters and voting staff wounded by the Taliban attacks. The Taliban had ordered everyone to stay away from the voting and that was a spectacular failure for the second time this year. Over the last decade the Taliban have generally failed in their efforts to disrupt elections. Such delusional behavior is nothing new for the Taliban as many Taliban leaders now believe that things will change and they will triumph once the foreign troops leave. This ignores the fact that an even higher proportion of Afghans hate the Taliban now than did before September 11, 2001. Moreover the northern tribes who were still fighting the Taliban on September 11, 2001 are now stronger and better organized to oppose any future Taliban attempts to gain control of the country. But these Taliban dreams have teeth and tend to generate a high body count before they fade.

Now all Taliban are dreamers and the Taliban are having discipline problems as more and more members and mid-level commanders lose their enthusiasm for the job. To inspire more dedication the Taliban have apparently turned loose a group of Pakistani Islamic terrorist “enforcers” who are wandering around eastern Afghanistan executing (via videotaped hangings) Taliban accused of behaving badly. Some of the recent victims were accused of not doing enough to disrupt the presidential elections.

The one bright spot for the Taliban has been the recent deal whereby the U.S. released five senior Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo Bay (since 2002) in exchange for a U.S. Army deserter (PFC Bowe Bergdahl) who was, technically, the only American military prisoner the Taliban held. Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers accuse him of deserting and villagers around the base Bergdahl walked away from in 2009 reported that this deranged and unarmed American soldier had come through asking how to get in contact with the Taliban. The Taliban eventually got the message and took Bergdahl prisoner. The U.S. Army was in an embarrassing position here and tried to suppress the views of soldiers who knew Bergdahl while pretending Bergdahl was a legitimate prisoner of war. That all fell apart when Bergdahl was released and foreign journalists heard the complaints in Afghanistan (at all levels) about the absurdity of freeing five dangerous Taliban leaders in exchange for a deranged deserter. Meanwhile the Taliban declared the exchange a great victory and urged their men to kidnap more Americans so that the Taliban could push for more such trades. Foreigners working in Afghanistan complained that the Bergdahl exchange put them all in more danger.

There are currently about 33,000 troops in Afghanistan (down from 60,000 a year ago and 100,000 in 2011). The United States recently announced that it was declaring victory and pulling its troops out of Afghanistan. NATO had already decided to be gone by the end of 2014 and the Americans are now planning to be gone by the end of 2016. The thousand or so “residual forces” (trainers and advisors) have no announced exit date yet.

Both candidates in the recent presidential elections indicate that whoever wins is eager to sign a Status of Forces agreement by the end of 2014. 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. Meanwhile the U.S. Army and the Afghan security forces are not happy about how the CIA is shutting down most of its operations in Afghanistan. In 2013 the CIA began shutting down facilities and reducing its personnel in Afghanistan. From a peak strength of over a thousand agency employees in 2011 (and several times that many in contractors and local hires), the agency is shrinking its Afghan presence down to about a third of its peak. About half the dozen (or so) CIA bases in Afghanistan are being closed. What bothers the Afghans the most is the fact that as the CIA pulls out of an area they take with them the payroll and other support they provided to local militias that helped with security (for the CIA base as well as local civilians). The Afghans have also come to value the intelligence work the CIA does, using a combination of local informants, electronic/aerial surveillance and analysis. While the U.S. Army is unhappy about the CIA (and their local militias) going away the CIA points out that this is often because the American army is shutting down bases that the CIA shared. The CIA doesn’t have the manpower or budget to build and staff (especially with security) purely CIA bases. Moreover the CIA is much in demand worldwide and more CIA personnel are needed elsewhere, especially in Africa, Syria and Yemen.

Afghanistan is facing a lot of problems with the departure of most Western troops by the end of 2014. But the Afghan police and army are not missing the Western combat troops as much as they are the Western combat support. Right now over 90 percent of the combat operations against the Taliban are being handled by Afghan police and soldiers. But most of the support functions are still being supplied by the Western forces and nearly all those logistical, medical, communications and intelligence troops are being withdrawn. This will hurt the Afghans particularly hard because they have not got enough Afghans with technical skills to replace all those support goodies. Medical support will be particularly missed, as will air support (using smart bombs). This will hurt the morale of Afghan security forces, many of them veterans who have gotten used to the availability of Western levels of medical care for those wounded in combat. The Western air support will also be missed, and will result in more Afghan casualties. One or two smart bombs is often decisive when fighting the Taliban, warlords or bandits. The air surveillance capabilities of the Westerners is also a great help in defeating the enemy and limiting friendly casualties. All the other Western support services have a similar impact and all will be gone. Western military advisors and trainers are aware of this looming shortage and are advising their bosses to see about keeping some of those services in Afghanistan or helping the Afghans to replace them using Afghan or foreign contractors.  Afghanistan has not got enough qualified people to provide a lot of those services and that is despite the fact that Afghanistan gone through a lot of changes since 2001. For example, life-expectancy had increased from 45 years in 2001 to 63 years now. This, plus the rapid economic growth since 2001 means Afghanistan is no longer the poorest country in Eurasia. The increased life expectancy is largely the result to improved sanitation and medical care, especially for newborns and children under five. One reason for the growing hostility towards the Taliban is the continuing efforts of these Islamic radicals to limit the spread of better health care and economic improvements in general. The most obvious example of this is the continuing Taliban opposition to vaccination programs, which the Taliban consider a Western effort to poison Moslem children. Then there is education, which has rapidly increased, despite constant, and often fatal, Taliban resistance.  Better educated children are healthier because they learn about how to keep healthy in addition of how to read and count. Taliban insist that education concentrate mainly on religious matters and that girls be excluded. Islamic educators stress the importance of living like the original 7th century Moslems and avoiding modern technology. This is not popular with most Afghans. The problem with all this progress is that it encourages people to seek better paying and safer jobs in the civilian economy or overseas. No one wants to work for the government, which is seen as corrupt and dangerous.

In the east (Nangarhar province) three suicide bombers attacked a truck stop near the Pakistan border. This was apparently a Taliban attempt to interfere with NATO supply trucks. The Taliban has been having a difficult time doing that but they keep trying. 

June 18, 2014: Southeast of the capital (Ghazni province) police detected a Taliban bomb building operation and seized a completed truck bomb before it could reach Kabul and be used. The Afghans have been pretty good at detecting and disrupting these attacks, in large part because most of the victims are civilians.

June 17, 2014: The Pakistani president called his Afghan counterpart and asked for Afghan cooperation with the recent Pakistani offensive into the long-time Islamic terrorist sanctuary of North Waziristan. The Afghans had asked for this offensive for a long time and the Pakistanis want the Afghans to put more troops on the border North Waziristan shares with Afghanistan to catch or kill any Islamic terrorists fleeing into Afghanistan.

June 14, 2014: The presidential runoff election was conducted without any of the interference the Taliban had promised. There were a lot of complaints about efforts to cheat.

June 7, 2014: In the east (Kunar province) 32 rockets fired from Pakistan landed near a populated area but there were no casualties. A similar attack in January killed four children and there have been several other such attacks this year. In May Pakistani F-16s attacked targets in the area. The Afghan government complains to Pakistan but the attacks keep happening. That is because Pakistan accuses Afghanistan of doing nothing about the anti-Pakistan Islamic terrorists who take shelter in Afghanistan and regularly cross the border to carry out attacks in Pakistan. This time around it is all about Pakistan, which complains that there have been three attacks across the border since May 25th, causing dozens of casualties and it must stop. 

June 6, 2014: In Kabul a Taliban attack (with a roadside bomb and a suicide bomber) on a convoy carrying presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah left twelve dead but the candidate was unharmed. Police investigators uncovered evidence that this was another attack organized by ISI (the Pakistani CIA) but the Pakistanis denied it (they always do). Abdullah Abdullah, because he is part Tajik and backed the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, is seen as the candidate who could do the most damage to the Taliban and Pushtun interests in general. The ISI has always backed the Pushtuns in order to exercise maximum influence over Afghan affairs.

June 4, 2014: Pakistan complained that rockets fired from Afghanistan had killed two soldiers on the Pakistani side of the border.

June 1, 2014: In the east (Kunar province) at least 18 Taliban were killed by an American UAV missile attack and at least six wounded. While there have been fewer of these attacks in Pakistan in the last year there has been a big increase in such missile strikes and UAV surveillance in Afghanistan.

May 31, 2014: Pakistan launched some air strikes into Afghanistan after Pakistani Islamic terrorists based in Afghanistan crossed the border and attacked in Pakistan. Afghanistan complained about this invasion while Pakistan complained about Afghanistan ignoring the terrorists camped out on the Afghan side of the border. Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of doing the same for far longer and more extensively but Pakistan refuses to acknowledge that problem.

May 28, 2014: In the north (Faryab province) three Turkmenistan border guards were killed by an armed group coming from Afghanistan. The intruders took the weapons of the dead Turkmen border guards and returned to Afghanistan. This is the second time in three months this has happened.

May 27, 2014: The U.S. informed Afghanistan of plans for the withdrawal of American personnel and aid money. After this year there will only be 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan, and in 2016 only 5,000. After that there will be only about a thousand, plus some contractors, to advise, train and monitor how aid money is spent. After 2018 the U.S. will start to cut financial aid (currently nearly $5 billion a year) that supports the 325,000 Afghan soldiers and police. The U.S. is concerned that a lot of this aid is being stolen and that theft will increase once most American troops are gone. If that does happen, despite new efforts to detect and disrupt corruption, the U.S. will simply cut the aid and let the larcenous Afghan leaders decide how they want to proceed. The U.S. has found that increased American efforts to curb theft of aid is seen as a challenge by most Afghan officials who are often quite imaginative in finding new ways to steal.

 

 

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