22 April 2018

The Latest on the Forgotten War in Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Changing Attitudes And Alliances

Peace talks with the Taliban are still on the agenda, as are similar negotiations with the Haqqani Network. There have always been peace talks going on between the government and some Taliban factions and over the last decade, the Taliban has lost the support of many Pushtun tribes because of this. But now factions within the Taliban senior leadership are considering a peace deal. Even Haqqani Network factions are interested. The reason for this growing interest in peace deals is the realization that the Taliban did not, as leaders had assured everyone, roll to victory after the foreign troops left in 2014. That was four years ago and the Afghan government and most Afghans put up a lot more resistance than the Taliban expected. Another problem was the drug gangs, who continue to thrive but produce a product that is hated by most Afghans and regularly denounced by tribal leaders and Moslem clergy for the way the drugs turn so many young Afghans in addicts and a disgrace to their families. Can’t blame this one on the Americans. It is also obvious who is getting rich from the drug trade. Afghans making a lot of money in the drug trade are not shy about showing it off.

While the Taliban have tried to improve their relationships with the Afghan civilians the Taliban tendency to shut down schools and cell phone service while putting a heavy “tax” on local commerce heavily. All this is not popular. It’s gotten to the point where more tribes are simply mobilizing their armed men into self-defense militias and telling the Taliban to stay away. In times past the Taliban would have sent in some enforcers (often foreigners) to kidnap or murder some key people and dismantle the resistance. This no longer works (the news gets around, which is who most Afghans want their cell phones and the Taliban resist that). In short, it’s no longer fashionable to be associated with the Taliban. This is not something that happened overnight, it’s been going on for a long time and has reached the point where the Taliban are seen more as part of the problem than part of any solution.

All this is reinforced by a growing Pushtun nationalist movement in Pakistan. That is where most Pushtuns live but the Pushtuns are a small minority while in Afghanistan half as many Pushtuns are the largest minority in the country and a force to be reckoned with. Pushtuns on both sides of the border also agree that India is more of a friend than the Moslem majority of Pakistan who likes to treat India as an enemy (which Indians insist they are not) and Afghanistan as a subordinate nation (which the Afghans do not like at all). India can now trade freely with Afghanistan via a new sea/rail link in Iran and most Afghans prefer this to dependency on Pakistan for access to the rest of the world. Attitudes and alliances are changing and Pakistan and the Taliban they created are the big losers.

The Shame Of Afghanistan

For Afghanistan the internal threat of Islamic terrorism and drug gangs gets most of the headlines while the third major threat; corruption is doing most of the damage. To put in in perspective Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. According to international surveys of corruption, Afghanistan ranks 177 out of 180 countries (166 out of 176 last year). Progress, or lack thereof, can be seen in the annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index where countries are measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Syria/14, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/9) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85.

The current Afghan score is 15 (15 in 2016) compared to 32 (32) for Pakistan, 28 (26) for Bangladesh, 38 (36) for Sri Lanka, 40 (40) for India, 30 (28) for Burma, 29 (29) for Russia, 41 (40) for China, 14 (13) for Syria, 62 (64) for Israel, 18 (17) for Iraq, 40 (41) for Turkey, 49 (46) for Saudi Arabia, 28 (28) for Lebanon, 33 (36) for the Maldives, 17 (14) for Libya, 71 (66) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 75 (74) for the United States, 27 (28) for Nigeria, 43 (45) for South Africa, 73 (72) for Japan, 37 (37) for Indonesia and 54 (53) for South Korea. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble and problems dealing with Islamic terrorism and crime in general. Afghanistan’s corruption score has improved since 2012 when it was 8. But Afghanistan is still near the bottom, although in 2012 Afghanistan was the bottom.

At the moment the high levels of corruption, made worse by all the bribes paid by drug gangs to produce and move their heroin out of the country has crippled economic growth. With the population growing at three percent a year economic growth is stuck at about two percent a year. There is little foreign investment because of the corruption and the constant fighting with the drug gangs and their Taliban allies. The Taliban have their own agenda which is hostile to economic growth. The Taliban forbid non-religious education and any education for girls. Without better economic growth Afghanistan will continue to be the poorest nation in Eurasia and most Afghans are actually not happy about that.

In addition to the corruption survey, Afghanistan did a little better in the UN sponsored World Happiness Index, coming in at number 145 (of 156). The top ten are all the usual suspects (Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia) and then comes Israel, the happiest country in the Middle East as well as being the most powerful militarily and one of the least corrupt. The rest of the rankings are similar to the corruption survey. The U.S. is at 18th place, UAE at 2o, Saudi Arabia at 33, Kuwait at 45, Russia at 59, Japan at 54, South Korea at 57, Libya at 70, Turkey at 74, Jordan at 90, China at 86, Pakistan at 75, Venezuela at 102, Lebanon at 88, Somalia at 98, Palestinian Territories at 104, Egypt at 122, Iran at 106, Iraq at 117, Bangladesh at 115, Burma at 130, India at 133, Yemen at 152, Syria at 150 and at 156 (last place) Burundi. Communist dictatorships like North Korea and Cuba block access to data needed for the survey and were not rated.

Afghan Air Power

The Afghan Air Force reported that its dozen or so A-29 aircraft now account for a third of the 15 airstrikes carried out by the Afghans each day (on average). The A-29 Super Tucano is a five ton single engine turbo-prop two-seat trainer/attack aircraft that is used by over a dozen nations. A-29s are armed with two internal 12.7mm (.50 caliber) machine-guns along with 1.5 tons of bombs and rockets. It can stay in the air for 6.5 hours at a time. It is rugged, easy to maintain and cheap. Eighteen A-29s will be in service with Afghanistan by the end of 2018 with an additional six arriving in 2019. The first A-29s entered service in Afghanistan during early 2016. These aircraft can use laser guided bombs as well as unguided ones in addition to Hellfire missiles.

Meanwhile, the Americans have greatly increased their number of airstrikes, which now average about fifteen a day. The Afghan Air Force airstrikes are often small-scale, like an armed helicopter firing machine-guns and unguided rockets at ground targets. The Americans can deliver larger bombs as well as laser guided missiles from UAVs. The Afghan Air Force air support has a greater morale impact because the Afghan forces on the ground are talking to Afghan pilots. That means a lot. The main thing is the Afghan security forces now have available about 30 airstrikes a day and that level of support has not been available since before the Americans left in 2014.

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