December 27, 2012: Afghans are well aware of the fact that most foreign troops will be gone by the end of 2013, and that might be followed by a breakdown in law and order. Most of Afghanistan is peaceful (by Afghan standards) and the economy has been booming. The Afghan GDP has increased more than seven times since the Taliban government was overthrown in late 2001. Except for Taliban violence in parts of the Pushtun south, most of the country has gotten wealthier and the prospect of another civil war between the drug backed Taliban Pushtuns and the rest of the country has made people nervous. Thus the price of assault rifles (especially the AK-47) has tripled in the last year as more people buy weapons for home defense (or just to scare off bandits). The government has tried to control the sale of these weapons but this is not much of an obstacle for Afghans. If you have about $1,200 you can get an AK-47 and about $3,000 will get you a light machine-gun.
While most Afghans maintain a tribal allegiance, over a decade of growing prosperity has sent a lot of people outside their tribal territory in search of economic opportunities. When the chips are down, you can depend on immediate family and assault rifles more than you can neighbors who aren’t from your tribe. While Afghanistan now has over 300,000 security personnel (police and soldiers), most of these are acutely aware of their tribal/ethnic/religious loyalties, which tend to be supreme in stressful times. Assault rifles are always loyal to whoever is holding them.
That said, the tribal and warlord traditions of the region have long been a major obstacle to improving the lives of Afghans. As a result, Afghanistan is still the poorest nation in Eurasia, despite a decade of economic growth. The problem is that Afghanistan was so poor to begin with, and still suffers from widespread illiteracy (only about a third of the population can read and many just barely) and limited economic activity. Over 80 percent of the GDP comes from foreign aid and the drug (opium/heroin/hashish) trade (which directly benefits only about ten percent of the population). For example, efforts to build roads are attacked by the Taliban (who prefer their subjects poor and uneducated) and the drug gangs (who see roads as a threat to the isolation that protects the production of drugs). Afghanistan has enormous mineral wealth and produces agricultural products with very profitable export markets. But these opportunities cannot be realized without roads. Even Afghan government officials describe their country as "beggars sleeping on a gold mine." It’s not just the drug gangs and Taliban that stand in the way. The corruption also scares off foreign investment, as does the pervasive lawlessness. Afghanistan is a hard country to help. Despite all this, a consortium of Indian firms plans to invest over $10 billion to develop iron ore mines in central Afghanistan. The ore would be exported out via Central Asia, and the area where the mines are located is free of drug gangs and very hostile to the Taliban. But most of southern and eastern Afghanistan is too dangerous for such undertakings.
Drug operations in the southwest (Helmand and Kandahar provinces) produce most of the cash that keeps the Taliban going. The drug gangs are, next to the government, the wealthiest and most powerful organization in the country. About a quarter of GDP is derived from drug (heroin and opium) production and sale. The drug gangs are a major source of corruption (preferring to bribe officials and tribal leaders, rather than terrorize or kill them). While corrupt officials and tribal leaders like the money, the drugs have created several million addicts, and much family tragedy, within Afghanistan. Thus the drug gangs are seen, overall, as an evil that must be destroyed. In most of the country drug dealers are under constant attack and drug production is banned. Most of the drugs come from Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where drugs are a key component of the local economy. In short, the war against the drug gangs is popular with most Afghans. NATO operations in Kandahar and Helmand this year have cost the drug gangs billions of dollars and sharply cut Taliban income from the gangs.
With the foreign troops leaving, and uncertainty about how effective the security forces will be in maintaining order, Afghans are doing what they have always done, armed themselves and prepared for the worst.