Afghanistan: The Price Of Victory


August 30, 2010: According to data released by the Afghan government, war related deaths are running at the rate of 40 per 100,000 population (about 12,000 dead a year). Two thirds of the dead (at least in the last month) have been Taliban. About a quarter of the dead were civilians (mostly killed by the Taliban) and the remaining twelve percent security forces. Afghan casualties are unchanged, if you leave out Taliban losses, over the last few years. Two years ago, civilian and security force losses were 15 per 100,000. They are still at that level. The NATO effort keep civilian losses down has had an impact here. The economy continues to grow, and the number of Afghan refugees returning from Pakistan is 100,000 (so far this year), twice what it was last year. This is partly because of the growing violence across the border, as the Pakistani Army goes after their local Taliban.

The 140,000 foreign troops appear headed for 700 dead this year. Combat casualties among foreign troops are up. In 2007-8, foreign troops in Afghanistan lost about 300-400 dead per 100,000 troops. That went up to nearly 500 last year and will probably be the same rate this year (mainly because there are more foreign troops in Afghanistan). In Iraq, from 2004-7, the deaths among foreign troops ran at 500-600 per 100,000 per year. Since al Qaeda admitted defeat there two years ago, the U.S. death rate in Iraq has dropped to less than 100 dead per 100,000 troops per year.

For Afghan troops and police, the death rate is 700-800 dead per 100,000. The death rate for U.S. troops during Vietnam, Korea and World War II, was over 1,500. Better body armor, tactics, training, weapons and medical care have all contributed to a sharp reduction in fatal losses. Last year, IED (improvised explosive devices) accounted for over 60 percent of foreign troops deaths, but this year that is under 60 percent and falling. In the last year, the Taliban have doubled the number of IEDs employed, but have not been able to overcome better countermeasures.

The hammering the Taliban are receiving (over 7,000 dead this year) is largely due to more foreign (especially American) troops, and the movement of air recon and intel resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. So far this year, recon sorties (by manned and unmanned aircraft) over Afghanistan have nearly tripled. There have always been more than enough aircraft up there with smart bombs, but the recon missions are the ones that find and track the enemy for you. The Taliban have struggled to come up with new tactics to avoid observation from the air (as did their Iraqi counterparts), but without much success.

The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, general David Petraeus, openly proclaims that the Taliban are being beaten. But the real problem in the country is the corruption and the drug gangs. Petraeus is going after the drug gangs, but the corruption requires more effort from U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan and officials back in the United States.

The Taliban have killed or wounded dozens of candidates and campaign workers in the past month. Elections will be held on September 18th.  The Taliban have also increased their attempts to destroy or disrupt economic improvement projects (new roads or building economic improvements in rural areas). The Taliban don't seem to care if they are hated more by the rural population, as long as they are also feared.

Corruption in the Afghan government, a key factor the war, remains out of control. Senior U.S. officials recently pressured Afghan president Karzai to increase efforts to reduce the thefts. He said he would. But within the month he had fired his chief anti-corruption prosecutor (after refusing to allow the prosecution of dozens of flagrantly corrupt senior officials) and suggested that the foreign troops change their strategy, and not do so much damage to the Taliban (and, by extension, their drug gang allies.) It's all about money. Not just the foreign aid being plundered, but also the even larger pot of gold coming from the heroin trade. Karzai's own brother has long been known as a key player in the drug trade. The central government in Afghanistan is kept together by the promise of wealth for those who participate. Eliminating the drug business and plundering of foreign aid would remove this incentive, and require a lot of new government officials (accustomed to different, and much less expensive, incentives).

Illiteracy (about 80 percent of the population cannot read) and tribalism (everyone belongs to one) are making it very difficult to recruit and train effective soldiers and police. Afghanistan is the poorest area in Eurasia, and the population has adapted by sticking close to family and distrusting strangers (anyone not from their clan or tribe). Illiteracy makes it difficult to use the very effective screening tests Western governments have developed to determine which young men are suitable for the military or police work. Verbal interview techniques have been developed, but these are time consuming, and less accurate (because of the large range of cultural differences). The end result is that the Afghans have to recruit and try to train three men, for each one that actually succeeds. This takes more time, and money. Moreover, the quality of the troops, and especially the police, is still low. The troops aren't too bad, because fighting (as warriors not soldiers) is an old Afghan tradition. But "police" is an alien concept, and Afghans are having a hard time getting their heads around it.

August 27, 2010: East of the capital, U.S., Afghan and French troops raided a bomb making workshop, seizing large quantities of explosives and other bomb making materials and making eight arrests. Another 40 Taliban were killed in nearby fighting. These kinds of operations are usually the result of improved intelligence capabilities (lots of new air recon and intel analysts to quickly sort out all the data).

August 26, 2010: In the south, Taliban attacked a road building crew, killing about 30 civilians. This was a typical Taliban effort to halt reconstruction efforts. But the attackers often get tracked down and killed themselves, making these operations very expensive for the Taliban. Roads are an important target for the Taliban, because they make it easier for locals to export surplus crops, and for new goods to get in. The Taliban are against this kind of progress.

Gunmen attacked a police checkpoint near the northern city of Kunduz, killing eight policemen. The Taliban have been trying to secure drug smuggling routes via the north. There are Pushtun tribes up there they can recruit from, but most of the population are non-Pushtun (Hazara, Tajik and various kinds of Turks). These non Pushtuns are very hostile to the Taliban, but if the money is right, they can sometimes be persuaded to help move the heroin north. But the Pushtun drug gangs would prefer to have an all-Pushtun operations, thus the growing violence in the north.




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