Desertion and a lack of recruits, not combat losses, remains the biggest problems for the Afghan Army. The army says it has reduced desertions, early discharges (for disability or personal problems), and other losses (combat and accidents) from eight percent of strength last year to 4.5 percent this year. That means the overall loss rate had gone from 8,000 per 100,000 troops to 4,500. Last year Afghan soldiers and police suffered nearly 700 combat dead per 100,000 troops. That’s up this year but the major source of losses is still desertion, which costs the security forces many times more troops than combat deaths.
The highest casualty rate for foreign troops in Afghanistan was 474 per 100,000 in 2010, which was lower than losses in Iraq during the peak years. Traditionally, Afghans do not fight to the death. If one group sees itself at a battlefield disadvantage, they will retreat or make a deal with the foe. This is why the Taliban have increasingly avoided confronting NATO troops, preferring to attack Afghan civilians or security forces. Once the foreign troops are gone, the Afghan security forces can be bribed or intimidated into inaction in some areas. Or at least that’s the Taliban plan. The army also has to worry about morale and corruption problems, which cause most of the desertion and recruiting problems.
The current strength of the army is 190,000, and maintaining that strength is largely dependent on the quality of leadership. There continues to be a shortage of officers and NCOs troops are willing to follow. This is because of shortages of trained and experienced leaders, as well as corruption and ethnic animosities. These last two items are the biggest problems for the military. The corruption is pervasive and newly arrived leaders have to convince their subordinates that the new boss will not sell them out. There is also corruption outside the unit and the unit commander’s control. The government and army is full of senior people who steal money meant to buy things the troops need, like food, fuel, weapons, equipment, ammo, medical care, and sometimes even their pay.
Gaining the trust and loyalty of your troops is easier if everyone is from the same ethnic group or, better yet, tribe. The army has a lot of battalions that are organized that way, but that can cause problems with political reliability and intimidation. Each ethnic group has its own collection of warlords, tribal, and elected leaders. These guys are accustomed to doing whatever it takes to get their way and military leaders must pay attention to these strongmen because they know where the families of officers and NCOs live and can get really nasty and vindictive if crossed. The army tries to avoid this by sending the ethnic battalions to serve in another part of the country, but this causes morale problems because the troops don’t like being away from family for a long time. There is a particular problem with the Pushtun troops because most of the Taliban and drug gang members are Pushtun and these two outlaw organizations are especially keen on threatening families in order to get cooperation from soldiers or police.
These loyalty and leadership problems are the root cause of the poverty and violence that have for so long defined Afghanistan (and tribal cultures in general). This sort of thing doesn’t get much media coverage because it’s a difficult story to report on and, frankly, is very discouraging because progress has been so slow. Corruption, family politics, and domestic violence are never popular sources for news stories. Headlines, yes, but getting into the details, especially on a continuing basis, is not a good move if you are in the news business. American diplomats and military leaders have a hard time monitoring this sort of thing as well. The U.S. Army does have an edge with its Special Forces. These are troops who know the languages of Afghanistan and the local customs. More so than diplomats, Special Forces know the local family and tribal politics. But reporters find that asking a Special Forces operator to discuss these subjects brings forth a mind-numbing tale of intricate family and tribal intrigue and the sort of thing Afghans revel in but foreigners blank on. The cultural ignorance is present on both sides of the table when foreigners and Afghans sit down to discuss what to do.
The foreigners believe that one form of tangible anti-corruption activity is Afghanistan passing laws that make it more difficult for corrupt officials and army officers to operate. Afghans are reluctant to do even this, in part because they know that existing laws can be defied via corrupt judges and prosecutors. The foreigners see that as a separate problem that cannot really be addressed until there are laws in place to subvert. The foreigners expect to use the threat of withholding foreign aid to persuade Afghan officials to help curb corruption. Afghans consider that a sporting proposition, not an offer they can’t refuse.
Foreigners find that dealing with the corruption in Afghanistan is extremely difficult. Their Afghan counterparts will do anything to get to aid money they can plunder. This ranges from lots of lying to death threats (and worse) for auditors who get too close to identifying who stole what. When cornered on a corruption matter, Afghan officials will scramble to throw up a smokescreen of accusations and other distractions. Stealing from foreigners has traditionally been a very popular Afghan activity. The classic example of this was an incident during the initial 1979 Russian invasion of Afghanistan. As Russian armored vehicles rolled through Kabul, each one full of well-equipped (especially by Afghan standards) Russian troops, one tribesmen from the countryside was heard (by a Western educated Afghan who later got out and went to work in the U.S. for the American government) muttering, “look at all that loot.”
August 13, 2013: In central Afghanistan (Ghazni province) local officials admitted that a female member of parliament had recently been kidnapped by the Taliban and the ransom demand included freeing several Taliban from prison. Foreigners had forced the government to implement quotas for female legislators and there were women willing and able to run for these elected positions. But in many cases the female legislators found that their husband and other male relatives insisted on making key decisions, not all of them legal. This led to many women getting out of politics, or getting beaten by their husband and harassed by other male kin. Some of the female legislators have acted independently, usually to try and curb the very high (by Western, and even international, standards) domestic violence in the country. These female legislators were also big supporters of female education. This last item particularly irritates the Taliban, who consider female political leaders heresy and the Taliban is particularly vicious when it comes to heretics.
August 11, 2013: The casualties among educators has more than doubled this year, as the Taliban increased their efforts to shut down non-religious schools. The government revealed that Taliban attacks on the education system is leaving 5-10 teachers and other school staff dead a week. This is to point out that working in a school, particularly one for girls in a Pushtun area, can be very dangerous. This Taliban policy is unpopular with most Afghans but the Taliban ignore that and keep at it. The Taliban used to be able to get past this by cracking down on corruption and banditry. But that was in the 1990s, and these days the Taliban encourage corruption and often behave like bandits. This goes on despite admonitions from Taliban leaders that this behavior harms the Taliban cause. The Taliban have financial support from the drug gangs and that enables them to hire all the unemployed young men they need to enforce Taliban and drug gang goals. Public opinion is not an issue, as long as the public fears the Taliban. This means that in the two provinces where the drug business is concentrated (Kandahar and Helmand) it’s who you know, not the law, that determines what gets done.
August 9, 2013: The army reported that it had killed over 200 Islamic terrorists (many of them Chechens, Pakistanis, and Arabs) since July 25th in Logar province (southeast of Kabul). The area has long been a Taliban stronghold, largely because of the Pushtun majority, proximity to Pakistan, and use as a drug smuggling route. The current army operation has also captured 20 Taliban and cost eleven soldiers their lives. The Afghan troops are doing this largely on their own, with the help of American air power. Because the drug smuggling route is so valuable, the Taliban will not abandon the area easily. There’s plenty of money to hire more gunmen and bribe army and police commanders.
What gives the Afghan Army its biggest edge, aside from incorruptible commanders, is the use of American intelligence capabilities. It is American hardware, software, and mushware (the experienced analysts) that provide the Afghan troops with a superior (to what the Taliban have) view of the battlefield and the enemy. That is likely to disappear after 2014, because the government, under pressure from the Taliban and the drug gangs, will not agree to a Status of Forces treaty (that will protect American troops from corrupt Afghan courts). Without American airpower and intelligence aid the bad guys will suffer fewer casualties and have an easier time terrorizing Afghans into subservience. It’s feared that the drug gangs own enough senior politicians to prevent a Status of Forces deal.
August 8, 2013: In the east (Nangarhar province) the Taliban planted the bomb at the grave of a village elder they had killed last year and detonated it when family members arrived to pay their respects. The remote control explosion killed 14 women and children.
August 7, 2013: Outside Kabul the Taliban used a roadside bomb to try and kill a female senator. The bomb only wounded the senator, but killed one of her bodyguards and her eight year old daughter. The senator was driving to her home in the southwest (Nimroz province).
August 6, 2013: The U.S. placed sanctions on a terrorist leader (Bahawal Khan) who recently took command of the Commander Nazir Group (CNG), a terrorist gang operating out of the Pakistani terrorist sanctuary of North Waziristan. The CNG is one of several Pakistani terrorist organizations operating out of North Waziristan. Outfits like CNG are at war with Pakistan as well as the Afghan government but earn their sanctuary by limiting their attacks on Pakistani targets. CNG has been around since 2006, and has managed to survive and grow since then. That put it on the U.S. target list. The CNG itself was designated an international terrorist organization in February and American UAV missile attacks have killed several of its leaders in the last year. Bahawal Khan has now earned himself a prominent position on the UAV target list.
August 3, 2013: In the east (Nangarhar province) three Taliban used guns and a suicide car bomb to try and get into an Indian government compound. The three attackers died, along with nine other Afghans. Another 24 Afghans were wounded, including several children. The Taliban are very hostile to India, which is becoming a major source of foreign aid for Afghanistan. The Taliban did not openly take credit for this attack because it failed and children were hurt. But the evidence left behind linked the operation to local Taliban.
August 1, 2013: In the east (Nangarhar province) Taliban ambushed a police convoy and killed 22 policemen. This ambush was actually an extension of a Taliban attack yesterday that killed a local tribal leader. The dead man’s supporters grabbed their weapons and fought back, killing several Taliban. This in turn led to both sides calling in reinforcements. The dead policemen were part of this force, which drove the Taliban off. The two days of fighting left over 60 Taliban dead, along with over 30 police and pro-government tribesmen. Five of the policemen were killed by an American airstrike that was called in on the wrong target.
Afghan customs officials backed off on their attempt to scam the U.S. government out of over $70 million. This was basically an organized extortion effort carried out by customs officials. It first appeared in June when American equipment (vehicles and cargo containers) leaving the country were halted at the Afghan border by demands for a document proving the equipment had entered Afghanistan. If this document was not available (and it never was), payment of a $1,000 fine (per violation) would allow the item to pass. This in itself was absurd because a 2002 agreement between Afghanistan and the United States exempted American military equipment from anything of this nature. Senior customs officials replied that the 2002 agreement was unfair and no longer applied. At this point the situation was becoming surreal and negotiations continued as U.S. officials climbed the Afghan government chain of command, finding that the original scammers had, as is usually the case, promised all their superiors a piece of the action and all were doing their best to make the extortion plan work. Finally the U.S. agreed but with the understanding that these fines could be paid but that the amount would be deducted from foreign aid, plus large processing fees and fines. Sensing the game was up, the scam collapsed.