This month the Taliban declared the start of a Spring Offensive. This one is supposed to be different as for the last six years. The Spring Offensive usually means five months of the Taliban killing civilians and the security forces and foreign troops killing lots of Taliban. This year the Taliban boasts that it will be different, with fewer civilians and more Afghan police and soldiers killed. So far it’s more of the same, with even more civilian casualties from Taliban attacks. These civilian losses were up about 30 percent this year over last year. So far the Taliban have killed more police, but have in turned suffered more losses themselves. It appears that this year’s Spring Offensive will be as much of a flop as the last six were.
Most Afghans ignore the Taliban and their talk of another Spring Offensive. That’s because most of the Taliban activity occurs in two (Kandahar and Helmand) of the 34 provinces. Some 40 percent of the Taliban violence is in ten Kandahar and Helmand districts (out of 398 in the entire country). Why that concentration of Taliban activity? It’s because of the heroin. The Taliban put most of their effort into protecting the districts where some 90 percent of the heroin in Afghanistan is produced. The other areas cursed with Taliban presence are ones that smuggling routes (to get the heroin to the outside world) go through. The Taliban don’t like to talk about this and they terrorize local media to stay away from it. International media avoid it as well, but on the ground it’s all about drugs and the huge amount of cash they provide for the drug gangs and their Taliban partners.
In the rest of Afghanistan people notice the differences since the Taliban were driven out in late 2001. In early 2001 only a million children were in school, all of them boys. Now there are eight million in school, and 40 percent are girls. Back then there were only 10,000 phones in the country, all land lines in cities. Now there are 17 million cell phones, with access even in remote rural areas. Back then less than ten percent of the population had access to any health care, now 85 percent do and life expectancy is rising. The GDP and average income has been increasing every year since 2002 and has more than doubled on a per-person basis since the Taliban days. This has been an unprecedented period of economic growth for Afghanistan. The drug trade only benefits about ten percent of the population, mainly in those few districts where the drugs are produced and moved to the border for export. The Taliban, and some other Islamic terrorists (like the Haqqani Network) survive only because Pakistan provides them with sanctuaries and the drug gangs provide lots of cash to hire new gunmen each year to replace the thousands who get killed. Young men still join the Taliban because of the high unemployment in many rural areas and thousands of years of tradition (once the crops are planted many men are free to go raiding).
The battle is mainly between the Taliban and the Afghan security forces. Foreign troops have largely withdrawn from combat and their casualties are down over 70 percent compared to last year. Most foreign troops deaths now come from accidents, or the occasional loss while advising or training Afghans. The Afghans are not as efficient at killing the Taliban, losing about one policeman or soldier for every two Taliban killed. Foreign troops generally kill ten for every one they lose. The security forces advantage is numbers, there are over 300,000 police and soldiers, which is more than ten times the size of the Taliban force. In the areas where the Taliban are most active the security forces only have four or five times as many men. This is because the security forces are needed in the rest of the country to deal with the endemic banditry, tribal feuds and high level of violence that has been common in Afghanistan for centuries.
Over the last few years the security forces have been more active, going out and finding the Taliban and attacking them. They do this with the help of American UAV surveillance and intelligence troops (with all their monitoring and analysis capabilities). Another important U.S. contribution is air support (smart bombs and helicopter gunships). How much of that will remain after most foreign troops leave by the end of next year is still being negotiated. Without the air support and intel assistance Afghan police and troops will suffer more casualties. NATO is sending the Afghan Army more mortars and artillery, but these weapons are not as accurate as smart bombs nor will it always be available.
The intel aid is particularly useful in finding and capturing or killing Taliban leaders. For that reason the Taliban are keen on getting senior government officials (there are a lot of them) on the drug gang payroll to not make an effort to keep any of those valuable resources in Afghanistan after 2014. The Taliban and drug gangs also use a lot of that cash to bribe police commanders, or individual cops to assist in a specific attack. Corruption remains a more serious problem in Afghanistan than violence and terrorism. Since reporting on corruption makes for dull reading, more media attention is directed at the Taliban violence (which is less than the total number of people killed by the “normal” violence in Afghan society.)
While NATO has been bringing in supplies and equipment over the NDN (Northern Distribution Network) for years, sending equipment out of Afghanistan via the railroad links in the north has proved to be more of a problem. That’s because the northern neighbors are trying to prevent these shipments via Russia from being used to smuggle drugs. It could also be a scam to extract some bribes out of NATO to go easy on the inspections, which are severely limiting the amount of stuff that can be shipped out via the north.
This northern route is the result of NATO and the U.S. negotiating agreements with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Russia to move all sorts of supplies and equipment over the NDN. Four years ago nearly all land movement of supplies came in via Pakistan. But that changed after Pakistan closed its border to NATO supplies in late 2011 26 because of a friendly fire incident on the Afghan border that left 24 Pakistani troops dead. The plan was always to completely replace Pakistan, but that has happened sooner, rather than later, at least when it comes to bringing stuff in. Now Pakistan has to worry about losing some of the transport business for Afghan civilian goods. That's a major industry in Pakistan, because nearly all (save air freight) cargo enters and leaves Afghanistan by truck. But now Afghanistan is building its first railroad system, connecting it with the Central Asian rail network terminal on the Uzbek border. Even with the longer distances, moving cargo would eventually be competitive coming and going via rail through Central Asia, compared to going via truck through Pakistan. The NDN makes for a fundamental change in Afghan-Pakistan relations. Now Afghanistan can look north for economic, cultural and political alliances, rather than just with Pakistan and Iran, two countries that have not always been kind to Afghanistan.
May 2, 2013: In the east (Nangarhar province) border police fought their Pakistani counterparts and captured and burned down a Pakistani border post. One Afghan policeman was killed and then was hailed as a hero in nearby towns and cities. This violence was all about an ongoing dispute about exactly where the international border is. Recently Pakistan built some new border posts forward of previous ones but still, according to Pakistan, on Pakistani territory. This has led to shooting between Afghan and Pakistani border guards. There’s also a tribal rivalry element to all this. Most of the Afghan-Pakistani border is occupied by Pushtun tribes. This frontier, still called the “Durand Line” (an impromptu, pre-independence invention of British colonial authorities) was always considered artificial by locals, because the line often went right through Pushtun tribal territories. However, the Afghans are more inclined to accept the Durand Line, and fight to maintain it. The Pakistanis believe absolute control of the border is impossible, and attempts to stop illegal crossings cause additional trouble (as tribesmen do not like excessive attention at border crossing posts). This recent violence is also linked to years of anger over Afghan Taliban and other terrorists hiding out in Pakistan and Islamic terrorists (fighting the Pakistani government) hiding out in Afghanistan. This has led to regular Pakistani shelling of suspected terrorist camps in Afghanistan, which often kills innocent (or semi-innocent) Afghan civilians. The Afghans protest and the Pakistanis refuse to halt the shelling and rocket fire.
May 1, 2013: The Taliban began this year’s Spring Offensive by making several attacks on police, most of which failed. One roadside bomb did kill three police, including a local commander. But in the next 48 hours the police struck back killing or capturing over a hundred Taliban.