Afghanistan: Blame The Pushtuns


January 10, 2014: In 2012 127 Americans died in Afghanistan, down 59 percent from 310 in 2012. Other foreign troop losses (33 last year) followed a similar pattern. In the last 13 years 2,105 Americans have died in Afghanistan. Another hundred died in other parts of the region, or from wounds after being flown out of Afghanistan. The loss rate (per 100,000 troops per year) is 70 percent less than in Vietnam. Still, the length of time U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan is very unpopular in the United States with only about 14 percent of Americans support continued efforts. Historically (going back to the American Revolution) Americans start losing their willingness to support a war after about three years.

The Afghan security forces lost 2,767 dead in 2013, up 48 percent from 2012. In 2012 Afghan soldiers and police suffered nearly 700 combat dead per 100,000 troops. That’s up to 900 this year compared to 200 for foreign troops. The major source of losses are still from desertion, which costs the security forces many times more troops than combat deaths.

With nearly all foreign troops departing by the end of the 2014, the last year was one of big changes. The government kept trying to negotiate a deal with pro-Taliban Pushtun tribes and clans in the south. The Taliban leadership (most of them live in the Pakistan sanctuary of Quetta) and their Pakistani sponsors oppose this sort of thing, as they have done for years. Some clan and tribal leaders do make deals and this further splinters the Taliban and lessens the risk of another civil war between Pushtuns (and among Pushtun factions) and the other ethnic groups (who are 60 percent of the population but much less violent than the Pushtuns). In 2013 the Afghan army and police took over responsibility for security in most of the country. As a result foreign troops suffered 60 percent fewer casualties than in 2012 while losses among Afghan security forces doubled early in the year but came down after that. By the end of 2013 more police and army commanders were accepting bribes from drug gangs to stand down.

What most Afghans consider the biggest threat, the drug gangs and their paid-for Taliban allies are depending on this departure of foreign troops for long-term survival.  But that could create a heroin producing, Islamic terrorist and gangster sanctuary in Central Asia. Probably not all of Afghanistan, but at least two or three provinces in the south (where most of the drugs are currently produced.) If you want to know how that works out, look at Chechnya in the late 1990s and Somalia during the last decade.  No one has come up with any cheap, fast or easy solution for that.

Afghanistan's core problem is that there is no Afghanistan, merely a collection of tribes more concerned about tribal issues than anything else. Ten percent of the population, mostly living in the cities and often working with the foreigners, believes in Afghanistan the country. But beyond the city limits, it's a very different Afghanistan that is currently motivated by growing prosperity brought on by a decade relative peace.  By Afghan standards, an unprecedented amount of cash has come into the country since September 11, 2001. Between economic growth, the growing heroin sales, and foreign aid, plus lower losses from violence, it's been something of a Golden Age.

Unfortunately Afghanistan has a long history of civil war and endemic tribal violence. For example, it's often forgotten that the 1990s civil war was still active on September 11, 2001. The Taliban (or, more accurately, Pushtun nationalists from the southwest) have been trying to make a comeback ever since. Meanwhile most Afghans are more interested in grabbing a chunk of the new economic opportunities. Despite a decline in civilian deaths and the fact that most of them are caused by the Taliban, the Afghan government plays up every civilian death caused foreign troops as a bargaining chip in the effort to cripple NATO anti-corruption efforts.

There hasn't been a real "Taliban Spring Offensive" for nearly a decade and that’s partly because of cash flow problems. The key Taliban financial resource; heroin in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, has been under heavy attack for over five years now. The poppy (the source of opium and heroin) crop has been hammered by drought and disease, growing competition from Burmese heroin and drug gang income has suffered. The Taliban expected drug gang profits, al Qaeda assistance, and Pakistani reinforcements to help them out. But al Qaeda is a very junior, and unpopular, partner, and the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011 was a big blow to morale. Pakistani Taliban are mostly sending refugees, not reinforcements. For the last two years the Taliban have been suffering and that means their attacks down and casualties are up.

Losses for foreign troops were also down 77 percent from the peak year of 2010 (711 dead). Foreign troop deaths began to rapidly decline in the second half of 2011, with casualties among Afghan police and soldiers rising as Afghans took control of security in more of the country.  The higher foreign troop casualties in 2010 were because there were more foreign troops in action during that year, and those troops were much more aggressive. The Taliban roadside bomb weapon has lost its punch because of more MRAPs, and specialized intel and engineer troops moved in from Iraq. Thus the proportion of foreign troop deaths from roadside bombs declined from a peak of 61 percent in 2009 to 40 percent in the last two years. This has not helped civilians, who suffer far more deaths from Taliban action. In fact, independent minded tribes, warlords, corruption and drug gangs remain a greater threat to peace,  prosperity and true national unity than the Taliban (on both sides of the Pakistan border). Newly wealthy civilians are buying rifles and pistols for self-defense. There is more crime because there is more to steal and getting money any way you can is more respected in Afghanistan than in the West.

There are other factors that don’t get much attention outside Afghanistan. For example the "Taliban" are not an organization, but a Pushtun movement that is active on both sides of the border and supported by less than ten percent of the 40 million Pushtun in the region. In 2007 the Pakistani government finally agreed to take on the pro-Taliban tribes and various Islamic terrorist organizations, although the intensity of the fighting diminished greatly after two years. That put pressure on Taliban on both sides of the border. There are fewer safe havens for the Taliban. The foreign nations fighting their war on terror in Afghanistan have finally realized that there has never been an Afghan national government that was not corrupt and changing that is going to be more difficult than fighting the Taliban. NATO is now fully aware of the trans-national nature of the Pushtun tribes and the Taliban movement. The "war in Afghanistan" is more of a "Pushtun Tribal Rebellion," and is being handled as such. Most NATO nations with troops in Afghanistan are willing to just walk away and deal with the fallout later. Afghanistan has become politically unpopular and the easiest way out (for Western politicians) is to get out and let their successors deal with the aftermath. Afghanistan has become another can foreign leaders are “kicking down the road.” Russia is acutely aware of this and while Russia strongly opposes any foreign troops in Syria they are openly calling for foreign troops to remain in Afghanistan. That’s mainly because of the drugs, which are a major problem in Russia, and Islamic terrorists, which are more of a potential threat if Afghanistan ever again becomes a terrorist sanctuary.

This Pushtun unrest has become the major source of terrorist related deaths on the planet. For most of the last decade the majority (54 percent recently) of terrorist activity has occurred in three countries; Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. What these three nations have in common is a powerful minority (Sunni Arabs in Iraq, Pushtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan). The violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan is linked by the presence of Pushtuns in both countries. But Pushtuns are a large minority (40 percent) in Afghanistan while in Pakistan Pushtuns are only 15 percent of the population. In some respects the Pushtun sponsored terrorist violence is yet another attempt by the Pushtuns to carve out their own state. These efforts have failed for thousands of years but the Pushtuns keep trying.

Worldwide nearly half (47 percent) of the terrorist deaths were caused by just six organizations and nearly half of that was caused by the Pushtuns. Thus last year 22.4 percent of terrorist deaths were caused by Pushtuns (16.2 percent from the Afghan Taliban and 6.2 percent by the Pakistani Taliban). Al Qaeda in Arabia (mainly Yemen) caused 6.2 percent of terrorist deaths while Al Qaeda in Iraq caused another six percent. In Africa the Somali al Shabaab caused 4.7 percent while Boko Haram in Nigeria accounted for 7.8 percent. Most (52.9 percent) of terrorist deaths are caused by over a hundred organizations, many of them operating in the same area (and sometimes against) the “Big Six”.

Speaking of Pushtuns, the Pushtun president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, continues to stall on signing the Status of Forces agreement that would allow 8,000 American troops to remain after 2014. Most Afghans want the Americans to stay, but the Pushtuns, including the corrupt Karzai clan, have different goals.

January 9, 2014: In the north (Takhar province) security forces seized a major Taliban bomb stockpile, containing nearly 300 bombs and landmines. Two men were also arrested. These weapons were meant to be used in an attempt disrupt upcoming elections.

January 8, 2014: Last year mining revenue declined 40 percent from 2012 (from $90 million to $50 million). This decline is largely because of corruption. Small, private mines increased production, as did illegal mines. Since 2010 there have been efforts to get mining operations going. While there are believed to be over a trillion dollars of minerals underground, you need a stable government before foreign firms will invest tens of billions to set up the mines and build roads and railroads to get the goodies out, and equipment in. That won't happen as long as the drug gangs dominate the south. This is actually old news, as there have been several surveys of the country since World War II and the mineral deposits were, at least among geologists, common knowledge. Some have tried to get large scale operations going and all, so far, have failed. But because of American encouragement in 2010 the Afghan government called for foreign firms to make offers. There was some interest but the mining companies soon encountered the same fate of past efforts (corruption and lack of infrastructure).

January 4, 2014: In Kabul a Taliban attack on an American base failed, with the bomb going off outside the entrance and causing no American casualties. In the east (Nangarhar province) a Taliban on an American base killed one American, the first U.S. fatality of the year. The attack used five suicide bombers but failed.

January 3, 2014: The government collected 20 percent less tax revenue than planned, although the $1.8 billion collected was up 15 percent over last year. Taxes are only 28 percent of the budget, with the rest coming from foreign aid. Collecting taxes as well as using foreign aid is crippled by the widespread corruption. Meanwhile the drug business in the south put over a billion dollars into the economy. Most (over 70 percent) went to the drug gangs and their Taliban allies. The Taliban could not survive without this cash and the drug gangs are using bribes to cripple the effectiveness of the security forces.

January 2, 2014: The government is under pressure (from the media and members of parliament) to explain why three men sentenced to death for terrorist attacks were released from prison. The government is in the process of releasing 650 prisoners, including 88 the U.S. claims are without any doubt hard-core terrorists. The government admitted that over 500 more prisoners are being considered for early release because the government does not believe it can prosecute them. It is believed that government officials have been paid large bribes to get these terrorists out of prison. Paying cash to atone for a murder is an ancient Afghan custom, which makes it easier for officials to take the bribes and risk exposure and punishment.

December 28, 2013: In the Pakistani tribal territories (Bajaur) three mortar shells fired from Afghanistan landed and killed one civilian. Pakistan complained to Afghanistan which in turn accuses Pakistan of being far more frequently the aggressor by firing into Afghanistan. 

In the east (Nangarhar province) a Pakistani Taliban leader (Ikramullah) was arrested by coalition forces as he travelled to meet Afghan Taliban leaders.

December 27, 2013: In southwest Pakistan (Quetta) a gunman shot dead an Afghan Taliban commander. Quetta has, for over a decade, been a sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan will not even allow American UAV attacks in this area. The Taliban blamed Afghanistan for the killing, insisting that Afghan Army intelligence had organized a network of spies and assassins in Quetta. No one took credit for the hit.

December 25, 2013: The Taliban fired two rockets into Kabul, apparently at an American base (where Christmas was being celebrated) and missed. The rockets landed in uninhabited areas and there were no casualties.        

December 23, 2013: In late 2013 the U.S. Army completed $20 million worth of repairs to the Salang tunnel in Afghanistan. This tunnel makes the Salang pass useable when deep snow usually makes it impossible for wheeled traffic to get over the Hindu Kush Mountains. The 2,560 meter (1.6 mile) long Salang tunnel is at an altitude of 3,385 meters (11,000 feet).



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