Afghanistan: Taliban Face Killer Cash Flow Crises

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July 12, 2009: No Taliban Summer offensive this year. Instead, it's the government forces who are attacking, with the targets being Taliban resources (drug operations) and supplies (access to Pakistan for reinforcements and weapons). The main target is Helmand province, where most of the world's heroin is produced. This is where the Taliban make the money that fuels their terror campaign. The Taliban control the local population largely through terror. Unable to handle the foreign troops in battle, the Taliban flee them. The only way the Taliban can inflict acceptable (not losing too many of their own) casualties on foreign troops is with roadside and suicide bombs. But if the Taliban lose Helmand, they lose the cash they need to pay most of their gunmen (and the families of the thousands of these fighters who die each year). While the core Taliban membership (a few thousand men) would keep on fighting for nothing, most of these guys have families, who have to eat, so the money is essential for even the hardcore. In order to be more than a local nuisance, the Taliban require large quantities of cash, which only the drug business can provide. Meanwhile, the Taliban base areas in Pakistan are being occupied by the Pakistan army. The Taliban, as they are wont to do, went too far in Pakistan, and the population finally turned against them. So the Taliban are being squeezed on both sides of the border.

The Taliban publically say that they will fight the 4,000 (assisted by 600 Afghan troops) U.S. Marines in southern Helmand. So far, this has largely been just talk. There are already 9,000 British troops operating in northern Helmand. The American marines wanted an equal number of Afghan troops, but the Afghan army didn't that many available. The marines intend to leave small garrisons all over southern Helmand, and wait for the Taliban to try and reclaim their little heroin producing cash machine.

The Afghans have never had an effective army of national police force before, and recruiting and training these forces has turned out to be very difficult. The traditional way of handling national defense and local policing was for the king to call upon the tribes to provide militias ("lashkars") for a national threat, and to allow each tribe to use its own customs and manpower to deal with local crime. Afghans don't really trust anyone outside their tribe, or clan. There are dozens of tribes, and hundreds of clans, and a poorly developed  sense of nationalism. Thus rural Afghans tend to view the police as a bunch of armed foreigners come to steal from them (which the notoriously corrupt police often do). The Afghan army is also seen as a bunch of foreigners, but slightly more disciplined. Naturally, the Taliban are also disliked for the same reasons, unless the local Taliban crew is run or staffed by local guys. But in most cases, the Taliban are also considered outsiders, particularly the Pakistani members (who are also Pushtuns, but from different tribes and clans.)

The NATO and U.S. troops, especially the American Special Forces, have a better reputation with rural Afghans, and have passed their experiences on to other American forces.  In most cases, the American troops understand how local politics works, and will sit down with village, town and tribal leaders and negotiate (for intelligence, cooperation or permission to set up a small base.) The foreigners also bring gifts (free stuff, as well as reconstruction projects.) The Afghans can understand all that, and, if you continue to play by local rules, you will get some cooperation.

American commanders expect it to take a few more years to recruit and train more Afghan troops. There are currently 85,000 troops in the Afghan army, and the force is growing to an eventual size of 134,000. Some American commanders want to expand that to 270,000. But even the 85,000 man force is more than Afghanistan can afford on its own. After all, Afghanistan is the poorest nation in Eurasia. So the Afghan armed forces will have to be subsidized by foreigners for years to come, if one is to prevent drug lords and their Taliban allies from taking over the country again and turning it into and Islamic terrorist base.

While these Afghan soldiers are looked on as armed foreigners in most parts of Afghanistan, if they are disciplined and respectful around civilians, they will be tolerated by Afghans. The police are a different matter. Less disciplined and more corrupt than the soldiers, the cops tend to be regarded as thieves and lowlifes. Cleaning up the police force is very difficult. Part of the problem is that, even if the cops are clean, they are basically usurping tribal authority, Getting the cops to work with the tribal elders, and not against them, is very difficult. The police are often corrupt as well, taking bribes from the Taliban, selling their weapons and equipment,  and being generally untrustworthy.

The increased tempo of offensive operations has led to more casualties for foreign troops, but most of them are caused by roadside and suicide bombs. For the first six months of this year, U.S. forces suffered 103 dead (compared to 155 for all of last year), while other foreign troops have suffered 89 so far (compared to 139 for all of last year). The second half of 2009 is expected to be even bloodier than the first half, because more of the "campaigning months" fall into that half. U.S. troops have been suffering more casualties in Afghanistan, than in Iraq, over the last few months. Still, the U.S. casualty rate in Afghanistan is still about a third of what it was in Vietnam and World War II.

July 9, 2009:  A Taliban truck bomb had an accident just south of the capital, killing 25 people (including at least nine school children). The truck had run off the road and turned over, and when the police showed up, there was already a crowd of civilians gawking at the wreck. It was unclear if a suicide bomber was driving the truck, or if it was detonated by others in a car following the truck. Incidents like this are one of the reasons the Taliban are so hated by Afghans, who see the Islamic radicals as a bunch of homicidal religious zealots who don't really care for the welfare of Afghanistan.

July 4, 2009: In eastern Afghanistan, gunmen kidnapped 14 deminers. Normally, the deminers are left alone, since all those landmines and unexploded munitions, are a menace to everyone. But of late the Taliban have been recovering these weapons and reused the explosives for their bombs. In this case, the 14 deminers were freed after two days. It turns out that they were taken by a local gang of bandits (who are tolerated as long as they mainly prey on foreigners). The local tribal elders threatened the bandits with the tribal militia, and the deminers were released.

 

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