June 15, 2012: In Afghanistan the Taliban are desperately counting the days until January 1, 2015. By the end of 2014, most of the foreign troops should be gone. It's no secret in Afghanistan that the Taliban are having a very hard time of it. For example, in the last year over 3,000 Taliban fighters have turned themselves into the police or army and accepted an amnesty deal. More have simply walked away, either because they weren't getting paid or because they wanted to avoid seemingly certain death. Fighting the foreign troops is invariably fatal.
The basic problem is that most Afghans hate the Taliban, so the Islamic radicals must resort to terror to keep civilians in line. A contributing problem is the Taliban alliance with the drug gangs (which produce 90 percent of the worlds' opium and heroin). These drugs are hated by most Afghans because so many families have someone who has become addicted to these powerful opiates and become a burden and a disgrace. Many of these addicts, fearing punishment (or even death) at the hands of their kin, flee to the cities, where there are large concentrations of addicts. These drugs are powerful and lead many users to become criminals. The drug gangs get rich off these drugs, most of which are smuggled out of the country. While most of this stuff ends up in the West, a lot of it contributes to a growing addiction problem in all neighboring countries. We're talking millions of addicts. Any country with a decent economy will find someone offering Afghan opium and heroin. In Afghanistan only about ten percent of the population makes any money off the heroin trade, and most of these are in the south, in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, which, not coincidentally, is the homeland of the Taliban. Back in the 1990s, when the Taliban nearly took control of the entire country, they were largely financed by the drug gangs (in return for freedom to operate).
The foreign troops have increasingly gone after the drug operations, costing the gangs, and the Taliban, a lot of money. Cash shortages means the Taliban can't pay many of their gunmen. While some of the active Taliban are in it for the religious angle, many are just there for the pay and adventure. As the poorest nation in Eurasia, there are not a lot of economic opportunities for young men. The Taliban have lower standards than the army and police and often pay better. But with the drug gangs suffering heavy losses from NATO raids and interdicting smuggling routes.
Taliban casualties are up, and NATO's are down 16 percent, and civilian casualties are down even more. Over 80 percent of the civilian dead are still due to the Taliban and that doesn't go unnoticed, even though the Taliban encourage the local media to play down Taliban caused civilian deaths and play up the much smaller numbers killed by foreign troops.
To cope with this ongoing disaster, the Taliban have ordered their gunmen to avoid foreign troops as much as possible and stick to attacks on the Afghan security forces. Even this must be undertaken with care, as the Afghan troops and police usually have access to NATO air power and support by foreign ground troops as well. More effort is being placed on roadside bombs and suicide bombers. Even this is not risk-free because NATO has become very good at spotting, and attacking, those planting the bombs at night. Local Afghans, who suffer most of the casualties when these bombs go off, are increasingly using their new cell phones to report Taliban bombs. In areas where they are strong the Taliban try to get cell phone systems shut down, at least at night. This just makes the Taliban more hated, and they can, at best, get the cell phone towers turned off in some areas for part of the evening.
The Taliban, and the drug gangs, believe that with the foreign troops, or at least most of them, gone the government forces will be an easy mark. The drug gangs have more money for bribes, which was useless against the foreign troops, who could not be bribed. Not so with Afghan political and military officials. Without the foreign troops to come to the rescue, Taliban terror tactics will be more effective. While this risks a civil war, the Taliban dosen't see that as a major problem as long as they concentrate their terror efforts on the Pushtun south. That is unlikely, but the Pushtun south turning into a chaotic no-man's land is more likely, given as that is a normal state for this region. But would the world tolerate such a situation, in which southern Afghanistan becomes a sanctuary for heroin production and Islamic terrorists?