Attrition: Afghanistan Adjusts To Loss

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August 3, 2015: In Afghanistan the Taliban are heading for a major defeat and it has little to do with their recent admission that their leader, Mullah Omar, had died in 2013 while in a Pakistani hospital. Instead consider the trends. In 2009 and 2010 the Taliban made a major effort seize control of territory. This failed and in those two years the Taliban suffered nearly 10,000 dead. About half as many civilians were killed, mostly by the Taliban. During all this Afghan security forces lost about 2,500 soldiers and police while foreign troops lost about 1,200 dead. For the next two years (2011-12) the Taliban backed off and lost about 2,700 in each year. Civilian losses increased to about 3,000 each year as the Taliban paid more attention to trying to coerce their traditional tribal allies to remain loyal. That did not work. As the Afghan security forces took responsibility for safeguarding more of the country their losses went up (2,000 in 2011 and 3,400 in 2012). Foreign troops saw their losses decline (566 in 2011 and 402 in 2012) mainly because foreign forces were beginning to leave.

The Taliban leaders told their troops they would triumph by 2015 as the last foreign combat forces left. That didn’t happen. In 2014 the Taliban lost about 6,000 men, up from 2,700 in 2014. But during the first half of 2015 the Taliban lost as many men as all of 2014. Then came news that Mullah Omar, the supreme Taliban leaders (since the mid-1990s), died in 2013. Pakistan would never admit that they had granted Omar sanctuary in Quetta (southwestern Pakistan) in 2002 and have protected him from American UAV surveillance and attacks ever since. Until a few years ago there were occasional reports of seeing Omar in Quetta or some other senior Islamic terrorist visiting him there. But since 2012 Omar was not heard from. Now we know why. But even if Omar is not dead the reports of his demise is demoralizing to his followers in Afghanistan. That, plus the years of battlefield defeats and growing number of Pushtun tribes turning against the Taliban has resulted in a major morale problem for the Taliban. 

Most Afghans are fed up with the decades of violence. Millions have died since the late 1970s. Then came 2007, when the Taliban began their offensive to take back control of the country. So far that effort has left some 77,000 Afghans dead (plus about 3,000 foreign troops). Most (53 percent) of the Afghan losses were among the Taliban and other Islamic terror groups. About 30 percent of the losses were civilians, including pro-government tribal militias. About 16 percent of the dead were Afghan soldiers and police.

In recognition of the decline of the Afghan Taliban in early 2015 Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States agreed to cooperate on finding and killing Mullah Fazlullah, the head of the Pakistan Taliban, who is believed to operate from a hideout in Kunar province (eastern Afghanistan on the Pakistan border). All three countries pooled their intel on Fazlullah while the Americans will stood ready to kill Fazlullah as soon as he is found (before he can find another hiding place) using missile armed UAVs. This sudden cooperation over Fazlullah is the result of Pakistanis capturing radio messages in which Fazlullah can be heard directing the December Taliban attack on a Pakistani school that left 132 children dead.  It is believed that this intel sharing deal brought out the admission that Mullah Omar had died in 2013.

Meanwhile Afghanistan has survived, for the moment, the loss of all those foreign troops by the end of 2014. The most serious problem is that the foreign troops and contractors that helped keep complex equipment going for the Afghan military had left and the Afghan troops were on their own. Things soon began breaking down and there was no one was available to fix them until deals could be made to hire new contractors to replace the departed American and NATO contractors. The Afghan police and army are not missing the Western combat troops as much as they are the Western tech support. By the end of 2014 all combat operations against the Taliban were being handled by Afghan police and soldiers. But most of the support functions long handled by the Western forces were not being taken care because nearly all those foreign logistical, medical, communications and intelligence troops and civilian contractors had gone. This hurts the Afghans particularly hard because they have not got enough Afghans with technical skills to replace all those techs. Medical support is particularly missed, as is the once abundant and timely air support (using smart bombs). This loss is already hurting the morale of Afghan security forces, many of them veterans who had gotten used to the availability of Western levels of medical care for those wounded in combat and smart bombs to get them out of hopeless situations. The missing Western air support resulted in more Afghan casualties but the Afghans adapted. One or two smart bombs is often decisive when fighting the Taliban, warlords or bandits and the United States quietly moved some more warplanes back to Afghanistan to increase the air support. The air surveillance capabilities of the Westerners was also a great help in defeating the enemy and limiting friendly casualties. This was also quietly increased in 2015. All the other Western support services had a similar impact and most are now gone. There is still some air and medical support but much less than before and intended mainly to support the 20,000 foreign troops and contractors who remain as military advisors and trainers. In practice more of these resources have been allocated to the Afghans, rather than have them stand idle.

The remaining foreigners were well aware of these shortage and advised their bosses to see about keeping some more of those services in Afghanistan or helping the Afghans to replace them using Afghan or foreign contractors.  Afghan leaders also asked for this, as they get reports of the growing problems created by the withdrawal of all those foreign technicians. Many of those appeals are being quietly answered.

The Afghan security forces, despite corruption and occasional poor leadership, have outfought the Taliban since they took control of security in 2012. Considering the internal problems the Taliban have, the Afghan security forces might actually win this war. The new Taliban leader has urged his followers to keep fighting, but many of those followers are not doing so and just walking away.

 

 


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