Afghanistan: Long Memories

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June 4, 2009: The Taliban cannot compete in combat. They are completely outclassed by Western troops, and even the Western trained Afghan soldiers and police are better fighters. So, in classic guerilla fashion, they seek to "attack where the enemy is weak". On the battlefield, this expresses itself in the use of suicide and roadside bombs, as well as civilians employed as human shields. This last tactic also helps with Taliban propaganda efforts. The Taliban, like al Qaeda, have learned how to work the Western media. While the Afghan media can be bribed or intimidated into cooperating, you have to give the Western reporters what they need. What they need is scandal, something that is plausible and headline worthy. The Taliban have found that dead civilians fit the bill best, and these can be supplied by using civilians as human shields, and depending on the Western journalists to be ignorant of the history of civilian casualties in warfare. The reality is that in the late 20th century there was a sharp decline in the number of civilians killed by Western troops during combat. Part of this was due to technology (more precision weapons), and partly to new ROEs (Rules of Engagement), made possible by better trained and led troops. All that is not news, because it is good news, and good news does not sell. How the media goes about its business is not news either, but any dead civilians are considered news. As the saying goes, "if it bleeds it leads."

Campaigning is under way for the August elections, which will elect the president of Afghanistan, as well as those who will sit on provincial councils for the 34 provinces. Politics is a blood sport in Afghanistan, and assassinations and intimidation violence is common. The Taliban is involved as well, wanting to get pro-Taliban candidates elected, or at least make sure the more anti-Taliban (or less corrupt) candidates don't.

The Taliban, meanwhile, have had to increasingly rely on terror to control populations and territory. This is a bad long term strategy, because in the tribal culture, memories are long and grudges are passed on from generation to generation. The Taliban tactics must either win fast, or be dragged down by the growing weight of popular hatred. The foreign troops will eventually leave, but the Taliban live here, and will have to deal with their transgressions for a long time.

The U.S. has been winning wars, like the one in Afghanistan, for centuries. One of the keys to this success is recruiting and training local troops to deal with the local problems. In Afghanistan this is difficult because the country is so poor, and can normally only afford a tiny army (under 50,000 ill equipped troops) and few police (the tribes police themselves). But now the Afghan National Army has 86,000 troops, trained and equipped to Western standards. The national police have 81,000 personnel, but are not as well trained as the army. The current plan is to expand the Army to 134,000 and the police to 82,000 over the next three years. The problem is that this force costs over $4 billion a year to maintain, which is more than ten times what the Afghans can afford on their own. But that's what happens when you deal with the poorest and most ungovernable nation in Asia.

U.S. and NATO forces lost 27 dead last month, which was about the same for May in the two previous years (23 in 2008 and 25 in 2007). The U.S./NATO casualty rate in Afghanistan is still lower than any other war in the last century, running at a third the rate of wars like Vietnam and World War II.

June 2, 2009:  Acting on a request from the U.S., NATO agreed to send another 5,000 troops to Afghanistan by next month, to help with security before the August elections.

May 31, 2009: Ten days of operations by several thousand Afghan soldiers and police, in eastern and southern Afghanistan, have killed 248 Taliban, along with 17 soldiers (57 were wounded and four are missing).

May 30, 2009: In the northern Kunduz province, a roadside bomb wounded the provincial governor. It's uncertain if the attackers were the Taliban, or some other enemies the governor had.

May 28, 2009: In the east, U.S. and Afghan troops raided a terrorist training camp. Among the 34 dead were 22 Arabs and Pakistanis. In the course of the fighting, six of the terrorists detonated their explosives vests, in an attempt to kill the attacking troops. The attacking troops suffered only one casualty (non-fatal).

 

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