Afghanistan: Whose Money Will Talk Loudest


November 9, 2014: Afghan security forces (army and police) are suffering higher combat losses this year; about 2,400 dead per 100,000 troops. In 2013 it was about 1,890 dead per 100,000 troops. This is a big increase from 2007, when the Afghan rate was about 700 dead per 100,000. The increase is due to Afghan forces being responsible for security throughout the country, the foreign troops having withdrawn from that task. Foreign troops in Afghanistan have had much lower losses since 2001. That loss rate peaked at about 400 in 2012. At the peak of the fighting (2005-7) in Iraq, the losses were nearly 600 per 100,000. The rate for U.S. troops in Vietnam and World War II was about 1,500 per 100,000 troops. It was higher for German and Russian troops. As high as this is, it’s higher for the Taliban and such loss rates were common in Afghanistan, when the tribal irregulars fighting Russian troops in the 1980s suffered even higher losses. During the 1980s Russian invasion the Russians never suffered more than 1,000 per 100,000 dead per year and eventually left because they could not afford the fiscal cost of fighting in Afghanistan. Thus victory in Afghanistan is an endurance contest. Afghans will endure high loss rates if they have good leadership. Today this means the government forces have to get the troops paid on time and use tactics that keep the Taliban casualty rate higher. The Taliban are backed by the drug gangs who have more money to operate with than the government and can survive a Taliban defeat. The drug gangs will deal with anyone who will take a bribe to allow the drug production and smuggling to go on.

The Afghan security forces, despite corruption and occasional poor leadership, have outfought the Taliban in the last two years. Taliban attacks have actually decreased this year because of the effectiveness of the Afghan security forces. The fighting is concentrated in the east, near the Waziristan region of the Pakistani tribal territories and in the south in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where nearly all the heroin comes from. Across the border in Pakistani (Quetta) the Taliban have the most secure sanctuary in Pakistan, because the Pakistanis will not allow American UAVs to operate there. There is more fighting in the north, where the drug gangs seek to secure their smuggling routes through Central Asia and get opium cultivation going. The latter effort is meeting a lot of local opposition.

NATO has agreed to provide the $4.1 billion a year needed to support the 230,000 men in the army and police. Without these security forces, which Afghanistan cannot afford on its own, the warlords and drug gangs will take over and the central government will become extinct, or confined to a small area around Kabul. Without the central government the economy will shrink because foreign investment will stay away, foreign aid will shrink and many Afghan businessmen and entrepreneurs will flee. Many already have left and more will go if the government does not maintain order. That means reducing the power of the drug gangs and warlords (including the Taliban and other Islamic terrorist groups). The Taliban and drug gangs have gone to great lengths to try and survive all that has been thrown at them. The most successful weapon has been money, not violence. Bribing government officials (often quite senior ones) and Afghan media has created a steady call from the Afghan government and media to halt the night raids and get foreign troops out of the countryside (where the drug operations are). Fewer than ten percent of Afghans benefits from the drug production, so most Afghans appreciate the efforts of the foreign troops and the government to take down the drug gangs and Islamic radical groups (especially the Taliban). Over 80 percent of the civilians killed in this battle are victims of Taliban or drug gang violence, usually deliberate attacks intended to intimidate civilians to do whatever the Taliban and drug gangs want. The war in Afghanistan, at least in terms of who is getting killed, is largely a battle between the drug gangs and Taliban against the Afghan population. The drug gangs and the Taliban want to control the government, to return things to the way they were in the late 1990s (until 2001), when the Taliban ran most of the country and the drug gangs did whatever they wanted by simply paying the Taliban taxes. Most Afghans suffered during this period and don't want to go back.

Although poppy production (measured by the area planted) increased this year, the Afghan share of the worldwide heroin trade was only 75 percent, and declining. Northern Burma is making a comeback (it was the main source until the 1980s, when production was forced out and moved to Pakistan and then Afghanistan). The Burmese competition is driving down prices and the drug gangs are trying to make up for the lost income. These Burmese tribes had once produced most of the world’s opium, but had their operations shut down by a vigorous government offensive in the 1980s. Opium production shifted to the Pushtun tribes (first in Pakistan, then across the border to Afghanistan). By the 1990s 90 percent of opium and heroin was coming from Afghanistan. As a result of the Burmese resurgence Afghanistan now has only 75 percent of the world heroin market. The producer income per kilo (2.2 pounds) for heroin has been declining and is likely to decline more as the Burmese tribes continue to increase production. Cash is the most effective weapon the drug gangs have and it is starting to weaken. But the gangs are not going away as long as they are profitable.

Afghanistan has long been the poorest area in Eurasia because so many Afghans tolerated chaos and resisted modern concepts of government. It’s all about the culture and the prevailing one in Afghanistan is brutal, corrupt and tolerant of anarchy and an attitude that only the strong survive and prosper. The drug trade has provided a path to riches, or at least a good (by local standards) living for ten percent of the population. The rest will depend on tribal warlords for security and leadership. It has been this way for thousands of years, except for those periods when nearby empires (usually Iranian or Indian) moved in to rule (by force) areas needed to sustain the valuable trade routes between China, India and the West (Middle East and Europe). Those trade routes were put out of business centuries ago by the appearance of cheaper and more efficient European ship designs that moved the goods by sea.

In addition to regular pay for the troops, the Afghan government has also paid death benefits for nearly 20,000 soldiers and policemen killed since the new security forces were organized in 2002. Given the culture of corruption and how often money for salaries and support of troops is stolen, this number is probably an exaggeration of the actual number killed. While that averages about a thousand dead per year it’s actually been much higher in the last few years as the size of the security forces grew and Afghans took over security responsibility for more of the country. Thus most of those death benefits were paid out in the last five years. The Taliban don’t release data like this and it’s been U.S. and NATO practice to not make public intelligence estimates of enemy losses. But from data that has leaked out it appears that the Taliban has lost at least five as many men as Afghan and foreign forces have lost. In other words over 80,000 since September 11, 2001. This is not particularly high by Afghan standards, even after you add in the 15,000 or so civilian dead. Most of these civilian losses were the result of Taliban terror, which was limited by the fact that there were many civilians the Taliban could not attack because the potential victims were well armed or well connected (belonged to a tribe that was capable of hitting back vigorously). While the Russians killed over 100,000 civilians a year during the 1980s, the Western forces were much less lethal because most civilians sided with the foreigners and the widespread use of precision weapons. Afghans are more concerned with what happens when all, or nearly all, of the foreign troops are gone at the end of the year. By early 2015 there will only be about 12,000 foreign troops left in Afghanistan and they will provide essential (air support, logistics, intelligence and training) support for the security forces. About a thousand of the foreign troops will fight, largely in counter-terror operations. The foreign troops also reassure many of the foreign aid workers in Afghanistan. If the violence increases after 2014 the foreign aid workers, and most of the money they bring in, will leave. Thus the war in Afghanistan is a struggle between the savage past and a more promising future. The old ways have always had a lot more support in Afghanistan than in other parts of the world and that means the bloody minded conservatives are still contenders.

The newly elected Afghan government is not seeking a peace deal with the Taliban and does not consider the Taliban a “political opposition.” The Taliban is seen as a terrorist organization with strong ties to the drug gangs and Pakistan. The drug gangs are seen as a more dangerous long-term threat to the government than the Taliban because the drug gangs have access to more resources, especially cash. The drug gangs already have lots of influence throughout the country because of their ability to bribe officials. This works much better than the Taliban use of threats (of assassination or kidnapping family members). The government also has a brief opportunity to try something different. That’s who president Ashraf Ghani received an 84 percent approval rating in a late-October poll. Even in the heartland of the Taliban and the drug gangs (Kandahar and Helmand) the approval rate was 76 percent. Ghani has been in power less than four months but has made the right moves so far.

One of the major tasks Ghani faces is doing something about the low evaluations American advisors have given to many Afghan army and police units. These are always the result of poor leadership and that is often caused by a politically connected officers avoiding punishment because they have politicians providing protection. This is usually part of a corruption scheme, whereby the officer steals from the military or police and shares that with his political mentor. This sort of thing is common throughout the region and difficult to suppress. The U.S. has been keeping the evaluations secret so that the dirty officers will not know they have been found out. Many don’t care, believing that their plundering is hard to miss and that their mentor will do his job.

Trade between Iran and Afghanistan is currently $4 billion a year, while trade with Pakistan is only $2.5 billion. Illegal trade, mainly opium and heroin, nearly matches legal trade in Pakistan because the major conduit for Afghan drug exports if the Pakistani port of Karachi. The lower level of drug exports through Iran mainly serves the Iranian and Middle Eastern markets. Total drug exports are valued at about $4 billion for 2014. Despite all the economic sanctions, Iran has more trade potential for Afghanistan than Pakistan. A lot of that has to do with the constant attempts by Pakistan to control Afghan politics. This is much resented in Afghanistan and has led to decades of border violence. On the Iranian border the violence is largely on the Iranian side as the government there tries or halt, or at least reduce, the drug smuggling. This violence does not interfere with legal trade as much as it does on the Pakistani border. Iran does support the Shia in Afghanistan. Only 15 percent of Afghans are Shia and these Shia are a particular target for Sunni Islamic terrorists (like the Taliban). Most of these Shia are the Hazara, who are ten percent of the population and the descendants of the hated Mongols who conducted several invasions during the 13th and 14th centuries and destroyed more of the country and its population than any other conquerors. Iran will still support some Sunni Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan if it suits their interests. But the Iranians are minor supporters of Sunni terrorism. Pakistan is a major supporter of groups like the Taliban, which Pakistan created in the early 1990s.

In Kabul a suicide bomber got into police headquarters, apparently in an attempt to kill the chief of police. The attack failed, killing another senior officer and wounding seven people. The chief of police has lots of enemies and it is not clear who made this attempt. More disturbing is the fact that the attacker made it into the most heavily guarded building in Kabul. An investigation will try to determine who was behind this and what methods they used to penetrate so much security.   

The withdrawal of foreign troops continues on schedule. A year ago there were 840 bases used by foreign troops, now there are less than 30. Most of those bases have been turned over to the Afghan security forces.

October 27, 2014: The last British troops left Afghanistan after twelve years of operations. At its peak, in 2009, there were nearly 10,000 British troops in Afghanistan. Throughout this most British forces were in in Helmand province, where had as many as 137 bases. British commandoes operated throughout the country while soldiers and marines handled Helmand. British troops suffered 453 dead and many more wounded. American marines were also frequently stationed in Helmand and often worked with the British.

October 17, 2014: In the east (Kunar province) three Islamic terrorists were killed by an American UAV missile attack. While there have been fewer of these attacks in Pakistan in the last year there has been a big increase in such missile strikes and UAV surveillance in Afghanistan. In the last month these attacks have killed dozens of Islamic terrorists, mostly in and around Kunar. This is where a lot of the Islamic terrorists, fleeing the Pakistani offensive in North Waziristan, are fleeing to.        





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