Afghanistan 30 July 2018.

After toppling the Taliban in 2001-2002, the Americans determined to hold Afghanistan against any return by the Taliban.[1]  To this end, they established a host of outposts in the countryside and began training-up a new Afghan national army.  This policy began under President George W. Bush and continued during the first term of President Barack Obama.

Thus, in 2006, the American created a network of posts in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan.  Offensive operations against the Taliban would launch from these bases.  By 2009 the Americans were re-thinking this plan.[2]  In 2010, their effort shifted toward protecting the major population centers.  Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south became major battlegrounds.

In 2014, the coalition of American, Afghan, and NATO troops fighting the Taliban declared an end to major combat operations.  The Western troops withdrew to a few major urban areas.  Kabul, Kandahar, Kunduz, Jalalabad, and Mazar-i-Sharif have become heavily defended centers.  Everywhere else, on-going defense responsibilities fell to the Afghan army.  In 2015, the American began urging the Afghans to give up trying to garrison or control areas far from the major cities.

For its part, the Taliban has concentrated its efforts at capturing the little outposts in rural areas.  Frequent attacks on isolated posts have inflicted hundreds of casualties on Afghan soldiers every week in recent months.  Afghan government forces have been reduced by about 5 percent since Summer 2017.  Along the way, the Taliban picked up not only momentum, but also a good deal of arms and equipment.

Afghanistan is divided into 407 administrative districts.  By the most recent estimate, the government controls 229 of them, while the Taliban controls only 59.  That leaves 119 districts that are considered “contested.”  The thing is that almost three-quarters of Afghans live in rural areas.  Little more than a quarter live in heavily fortified big cities.  Falling back on the cities abandons most Afghans to the Taliban.

Initially, President Trump followed the advice of Secretary of Defense James Mattis Recently, the United States has pressed the Afghan government to follow the Western lead.  Afghan army troops are falling back on the cities, leaving the country-side districts to the Taliban.  That suggests that the Taliban could soon control almost 180 districts.  This would give them near-parity with the government.

People offer the conventional excuses: we’re just regrouping in the cities in order to counter-attack into the rural districts at some point in the future.  More honestly stated, falling back on the cities “is a rational approach to secure the cities, and provide the Afghanistan government the political opportunity to work with the Taliban.”  That seems to mean that the government has to hold the cities in order to have some valuable chips in negotiations for a “compromise peace.”  The Trump administration is trying to begin talks with the Taliban.  What can the Afghan government get in such negotiations?  What will they have to give?  Will the Taliban be content to negotiate on the emerging balance of forces or will they try to erode the security of the cities by attacks?  Who will be aboard the last helicopter out of Kabul?

[1] Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Helene Cooper, “New U.S. Tactic in Afghanistan Urges Retreat,” NYT, 29 July 2018.

[2] For some sense of why this happened, see Sebastian Junger’s film “Restrepo” (2010) and book War (2010).

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Ammo 2.

Back in 2007, at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, American soldiers were firing a billion rounds a year. That’s a lot of bullets, even by my standards. About 1,500 Iraqis were killed by US and coalition forces in 2007.[1] About 4,500 enemy fighters were killed in Afghanistan in 2007.[2] So, that would end up totaling about 6,000 enemy combatants killed in 2007 in the two wars taken together. In theory, that means that American soldiers fired a billion rounds to kill 6,000 enemies. That makes it sound like they’re just spraying around on full-auto at the first sign of trouble. Except that it isn’t true. American soldiers and Marines fire a lot, probably most, of their rounds in training. Still, that leaves us with the question of how many rounds American soldiers did fire in combat. I haven’t figured out how to track that yet. It is worth doing because it is one way of measuring what may have been the experience of Afghans and Iraqis with American soldiers. Do they just shoot up any place that gives them guff or are they obviously discriminating in their use of force? This has implications for our relationships with these people going forward.

Then, bullets are a commodity just like, say, eggs. At any given moment, production is limited to some level. When demand goes up, prices rise until production expands. The federal government can always run a deficit and just print the money it needs. In contrast, state and local governments are required to live within their means. What this meant was that the federal government came to dominate the bullet market at the expense of both hunters and police departments. I don’t know what hunters did. Maybe there are a lot more deer and bear wandering around as a result of our wars. However, faced with a shortage of bullets, police departments responded by reducing the amount of live-fire target practice and training.[3] Apparently, this began back in 2007 at the latest. How long did the training reduction continue? For that matter, is it still in effect? Administrative systems develop a certain momentum that can be difficult to change. The point here is to ask if that training reduction is in any way connected to the recent high-profile cases of police officers shooting unarmed people? Or perhaps this is just an example of “apophenia” (seeing patterns where none actually exist).[4]

Over-lapping this ammunition shortage was another associated with events of the first Obama administration. Many gun-owners were deeply suspicious of the new president on the matter of the Second Amendment.[5] This led to the buying of guns and ammunition, just as my father-in-law’s own father bought several casks of brandy as Prohibition approached. In December 2012, the massacre at Sandy Hook school led to calls[6] for much tighter regulations of guns. Lots of people bought ammunition (and probably receivers). For example, the FBI reported 2.8 million background checks in December 2012, most coming after the Sandy Hook shootings. The price of .22-cal. Long Rifle went from 5 cents a round to 12 cents a round.[7]

Little things can be made to tell you a lot. Or, at least, raise questions.

[1] See: https://www.iraqbodycount.org/analysis/numbers/2011/

[2]See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilian_casualties_in_the_war_in_Afghanistan_%282001%E2%80%93present%29#Civilian_and_overall_casualties_.282006.29

[3] “Noted,” The Week, 7 September 2007, p. 20.

[4] See: William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (2003). Amazing book. My students hate it.

[5] His derisive comments about people “holding on to their God and their guns” didn’t win him any friends among gun-owners. See: “Stuff My President Says.”

[6] Including my own e-mailed appeal to one of my two idiot Senators.

[7] This is the ammunition fired by the very popular Ruger 22-10 semi-automatic rifle. Really sweet piece of work.