September 25, 2009: One vital Taliban goal is to convince the rest of the world that Afghanistan is an unsafe place for foreigners. That's nothing new. The region has always been awash in outlaws and bandits. The only law, in most of the country, is tribal custom. And that can change at the whim of whatever strongman is running things in an area you are travelling through.
Running Afghanistan has always been all about getting the tribes to get along. That isn't happening now because several back the Taliban (which draw their manpower from all over the south), and several more back drug lords (and the enormous wealth that goes with that). Most of the tribes are content to back the government, as long as they have something to show for it. Everyone wants to get paid, and there are frequent squabbles over what constitutes a "fair share." The vast majority of Afghans can agree on keeping the Taliban from controlling the government once more. Foreigners tend to keep missing that, but the Taliban are well hated by the majority of tribes, and individual Afghans. The Taliban have already demonstrated, a decade ago, how they would run things. Despite Taliban promises to clean up their act the second time around, few believe it. That's because the Taliban are currently using terror and mass murder to coerce cooperation. The Taliban know how to make a mess, not clean up one.
The current Afghan government has made itself unpopular for a number of reasons. First, there is the ancient problem of not giving each faction what they believe they deserve. The government controls a lot of money (mostly foreign aid), and every tribe and war lord believes their deserve more than they are actually getting. Then there is the growing number of government officials bribed by the drug gangs, or becoming partners with them. In most of Afghanistan, there is no drug production, and the locals want no part of the heroin and opium. That's because Afghanistan, and its neighbors have a growing addict problem. Afghanistan is now the main source of the world heroin and opium supply. While most is smuggled out to more lucrative foreign markets (Persian Gulf, Europe and North America), some of it is sold off to the locals at bargain prices. The Taliban tolerated this in the 1990s (even as they persecuted addicts and local suppliers), and they tolerate it now. No one expects the Taliban to control the drug trade, but the government says it will, and doesn't. Finally, there's the recent presidential elections where, by current count, about a quarter of the votes were the result of government sponsored fraud. This makes the government another bunch of warlords, with no moral standing. Just another bunch of thugs, ruling by force, fraud and deception. The Taliban use this reality to demoralize those who still seek an alternative to another round of Taliban tyranny. And the Taliban have dropped all pretense of being anything but a bunch terrorists. They regularly use assassination, kidnapping and beatings to compel obedience and cooperation. So far this year, they have made about a hundred assassination attempts against government and tribal leaders. About half these attempts have succeeded, and many prominent Afghans have fled the country, or refused to participate in the government, because of it.
Despite the success of the Pakistani Army across the border, pro-Taliban tribes still control large areas. The Pakistani generals want the tribal leaders to allow the government to control the borders, but not run them. This is the compromise works that over there, but still allows Islamic terrorists to hide in obscure areas of the tribal territories. The Pakistani forces are not fighting to destroy al Qaeda and the Taliban, but to stop these radicals from making war on the Pakistani government. But the NATO forces in Afghanistan want Pakistan to stop being a refuge for Islamic terrorists, and this is not likely to happen. The Pakistani's will settle for a peace that will leave their side of the border a hiding place for Islamic terrorists. Thus the continued war against terrorist leaders in Pakistan, using a growing intelligence network, and UAVs firing missiles at the terrorist leaders when they are located. This has been remarkably successful, at least judging by how terrorized the terrorist leaders are.
U.S. commanders in Afghanistan want to increase the local military to 240,000 (three times its current size) and the national police to 160,000 (an increase of 73 percent). That's difficult to do, when most of the potential recruits are illiterate and commanders (particularly of police) have a tendency to turn their willing subordinates into uniformed bandits. Army and police commanders are easy to bribe, and only reliable when they want to be. It takes decades of effort to change this.
Iran is becoming a growing problem in western Afghanistan, where Iran has long been a large influence (and for many centuries actually ruled that area). The Iranian al Quds force (which specializes in supporting pro-Iranian terrorism in other Moslem nations) has been supplying weapons and other assistance to some Taliban factions there. Quds did the same sort of thing in Iraq, were several Quds officials were captured. This was very embarrassing for Iran, and apparently Quds are under orders to not let that happen in Afghanistan. Thus the Quds activities are low key, and growing slowly. Iran wants to be in a position to take advantage of any chaos in western Afghanistan, perhaps including the establishment of a breakaway, pro-Iran, satellite state .
The senior American commanders in Afghanistan include many with long Special Forces experience. What they face in Afghanistan is very familiar. The U.S. has successfully handled such situations many times in the last two centuries. And the plan takes advantage of Taliban weaknesses, and Afghan history. The Taliban are vulnerable because most of their gunmen are mercenaries. While these guys tend to believe in the Taliban goal of a religious dictatorship, most Afghans want nothing to do with this. But the Taliban have the cash to arm and pay these, largely young, unemployed and adventurous, men to go out and terrorize Afghans into cooperating. So the plan is to go after the money. The key Taliban financier is the drug gangs, and they operate in a small portion of the country (centered on Kandahar province). An additional 40,000 U.S. troops are believed sufficient to sit on enough of the population in heroin country, while mobile forces chase down and kill the key drug gang leaders and operatives. The Taliban will fight to resist this, as they know that, without the drug gang money, one of their other sources of income (extortion payments and outright theft) will largely disappear. In the last two decades, the heroin trade has already been chased out of Burma and Pakistan. That will leave the Taliban with contributions from fans in the region and overseas. But that will dry up once those supporters note the disappearance of the other income streams. At that point, the Taliban will be worse off than they were in early 2002, for at least then, they had many refuges in Pakistan. But lots of those hiding places are no longer as hospitable as they once were. Thus if the Taliban lose the drug money, they risk losing everything.
After that, a much expanded army and police force would try to reduce the rural crime (banditry, blood feuds and raiding) that has plagued the area for thousands of years. Many Afghans would like to see this happen, but making it so requires some serious attitude adjustment. The Special Forces officers know this, and see a chance of success. If Afghanistan is ever to climb out of the poverty and chaos, it will have to clean up the countryside crime problem, and allow economic progress. But, mainly, the U.S. is only interested in Afghanistan not being a base area for international terrorists. Same deal with the tribal territories in Pakistan. Not achieving this goal is not acceptable, because counter-terror operations continue to encounter too many people who leaned essential skills in training facilities that can only exist in regions that provide refuge for terrorists. This kind of security can be achieved by simply paying off the Afghan leadership (corrupt or not), but first you have to get rid of the competition (the drug gangs).