Afghanistan: Fighting For The Dry, Mountainous Nothing In The Middle Of Nowhere


December 15, 2009: American commanders believe the 30,000 additional U.S. troops, plus increases in Afghan and NATO forces, will enable the Taliban to be crushed within a year. But after that, Afghanistan will require economic and military assistance for at least twenty years, to bring sustained peace to the country. The plan is to turn over security to the central government within five years. Initially, through the middle of next year, there will be more violence. The Taliban and drug gangs will not go gently into the night. They will resist energetically, many choosing to fight to the death.

The basic problem with Afghanistan is that it's a place that has never had a central government in the Western sense, and has a long tradition of warlords scrambling to build temporary kingdoms, that are eventually brought down by tribal politics, other warlords or, more rarely, by foreign invaders. The foreigners don't come along very often, because there's not much worth conquering in Afghanistan. It's a dry, mountainous nothing in the middle of nowhere. The only thing that keeps Western nations interested is all the heroin coming out of the place, and the Islamic terrorists who would like to set up sanctuaries for training and preparing attacks against Western targets. If the drug gangs and Islamic terrorists went somewhere else, then Afghanistan would be a nowhere on the media and diplomatic landscape, just like its Central Asian neighbors are at the moment (when was the last time you saw headline news about Tajikistan or Uzbekistan?)

Increasing the size of Afghan security forces fifty percent (282,000)  in the next two years, and doubling their size in five years, is key for pacifying the country. Given the widespread poverty, the army and police are being turned into a huge make-work/education project, which also provides security from the bad guys (bandits, as well as Taliban and drug gangs). This effort is more about training, than anything else. Troops are not only being taught military and police skills, most of them are being taught to read and write, and do basic arithmetic. By entering a "pay race" with the drug gangs and Taliban, the Americans (who are paying for most of this) are offering the troops not just a higher monthly pay, but the kind a training program the country has never seen before. The main American weapons here are not guns and aircraft, but cash and classrooms. The new starting pay for army recruits is $240 a month. But the Taliban and drug gangs will pay up to $300. So more raises will have to be made, until the bad guys can't keep up. The big edge the military has is the educational program and, in theory, their policy of protecting, rather than persecuting (which the Taliban and drug gangs do as a matter of course) the civilians. It's all very strange for most Afghans. You have these invincible foreign warriors and all their magical weapons. Then you have a national army and police force, two things rarely seen in Afghanistan, that pay well and teach you to read and do other useful stuff. Then there is the opium and heroin, which more Afghans can now afford, and these Taliban fanatics, who want to take all this new stuff away and return to the old days of starvation, ignorance and wife beating. Strange days in Afghanistan.

The billions of dollars being poured into Afghanistan each year has created new wealth for many Afghans. That wealth tends to hang out in the cities, where it is safer to enjoy the good life. But the gangsters and Islamic radicals go where the money is, and Kabul has a growing crime problem. Afghanistan has a long tradition of admiring poor men who successfully steal from (or just kill) rich men. "Robin Hood" resonates with Afghans, big time. But the main reason Afghan Robin Hoods "steal from the rich and give to the poor" is because the poor have nothing to steal, and you want to share out some of your loot, because the poor do have weapons, and are inclined to do a Robin Hood on you if you become too fat and happy.

The Taliban have found it very hard to launch successful attacks on the foreign or Afghan troops. One thing the foreigners are very good at is security and intelligence. The old timers, who fought the Russians in the 1980s, are shocked at the differences. In response, the Taliban concentrate on assassination (to try to intimidate key security officials into cooperating, or at least not being too aggressive) and spectacular attacks designed to attract a lot of media attention. All this means that there must be fewer attacks, because each time the Taliban concentrate men or resources, they risk being spotted and killed. Some Taliban commanders ignore this advice, and this is usually the reason for those regular reports of dozens of Taliban being killed. Actually, those incidents don't get as much media attention as do urban bombing attacks, that usually kill fewer people, but can be heard and visited by Western journalists (who generally avoid trips into the countryside.) The Taliban also like to attack checkpoints on roads, although this can be very dangerous. The Americans often anticipate these operations, and set up a counter-ambush. It was so much simpler, and safer, with the Russians back in the 1980s.

December 11, 2009: The mayor of Kabul, Abdul Ahad Sayebi,  resigned from his job, as a result of being convicted of corruption last week (and sentenced to four years in prison). The mayor tried to ignore the conviction, apparently in the belief that during the appeals process, he could bribe enough people to make it all go away.  But Sayebi was under the spotlight, especially as he was one of the most blatant practitioners of corruption in the capital. There are many more like Sayebi, and clearing them all out will be very difficult. What Westerners call corruption, Afghans see as taking advantage of an opportunity. What Westerners see as a crime, Afghans see as common sense. There is a real failure to communicate here. And it's a big problem, because even the use of cash to fight the Taliban is hobbled by the corruption. Commander steal the pay for their troops, or sell food and equipment meant for their troops. That's assuming the cash for all this even gets past the politicians and bureaucrats in the Defense Ministry.

December 8, 2009: The U.S. Air Force admitted that it was operating a new, jet powered UAV out of Kandahar. They described the aircraft as the RQ-170. It has the same flying wing shape as the B-2 bomber. It's there for testing, and has been in development for over six years. It may be flying over Iran, which would be a real test for a stealthy UAV.




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