February 18, 2013: When nearly all NATO forces leave Afghanistan (by the end of 2014) it will mean the departure of NATO warplanes (bombers, armed UAVs, and helicopter gunships as well). These will be missed by the Afghan security forces. Last year NATO combat aircraft flew 78 ground support missions a day, most of them in support of Afghan forces. Only 14 percent of those missions resulted in weapons actually being used, and UAVs were responsible for 11 percent of the weapons use. The Afghan air Force is only capable of supplying a fraction (under ten percent right now) of this air support and not as well as the experienced NATO pilots. To remedy this situation the Afghans hope to arm some of their single engine transports (with laser designators and Hellfire or other small missiles) and are expecting the Americans to supply them with twenty or so armed trainers (which could carry small GPS guided bombs). More helicopters can be armed as well and more of them purchased. But even if the Afghans get a lot of these guided missiles and smart bombs and a lot more aircraft to deliver them, their security forces will see most of their current air support (delivered by NATO) disappear by 2015.
It gets worse. President Karzai recently ordered his security forces to not use air support when in a residential area, because ten civilians were recently killed by air support called in by Afghan ground troops. For Afghan soldiers and police this was an unpopular decision, as it means the Taliban will increase their use of human shields and the practice of heading for residential areas when pursued by NATO or Afghan forces. In most cases the Taliban are caught out in an area where there are no civilians to hide behind and that usually means the Taliban must surrender or die, with few losses to the Afghan forces. That will change once the Afghan forces can no longer depend on air support.
All this is largely the result of a Taliban and drug gang effort to play the foreign and local media to exploit the traditional Afghan hostility to foreigners. While most Afghans welcome, or tolerate, the foreign troops (especially in non-Pushtun areas), by buying or intimidating local media into playing up any civilian deaths or damage caused by the foreign troops (and playing down Taliban and drug gang crimes) the foreign media is induced to run with stories that hammer the foreign troops and largely ignore the drug gang operations. The Taliban account for over 80 percent of civilian deaths but are unresponsive to media criticism.
Playing the foreign media is something the Taliban learned the hard way, while they ran the country in the late 90s. Al Qaeda has also honed their media manipulation skills. While local media can be bribed or bullied into cooperating, you have to manipulate the foreign journalists. This is not hard to do. The Western media largely consists of commercial operations that are very competitive in a crowded market place. A newsworthy story is one that attracts the most eyeballs, not the one that most accurately describes what is actually going on in Afghanistan. So the Taliban provides witnesses to atrocities. Bribes and threats take care of this and a little stage craft sometimes produces staged photographic evidence. This stuff does not stand up to much scrutiny but the Taliban do this in areas where they have a lot of gunmen and there are not enough security forces to guard journalists conducting extensive investigations. Great visuals and tragic tales result from these operations.
The U.S. might be persuaded to leave some American warplanes and helicopter gunships behind, if the Afghan politicians would make some progress in curbing the corruption. No one is holding their breath for that to happen. The result will be a lot more Afghan soldiers, police, and civilians killed by Taliban, warlord, and drug gang gunmen.