June 29, 2013: The major change to Afghanistan during the twelve years of American presence has been to make many more Afghans aware of how screwed up their country is. Back in 2001, most Afghans only had a dim knowledge of how different (and usually much better) life was in the rest of the world. But since 2001, Afghan attitudes have been revolutionized by an improved economy (most of Afghanistan has been at peace, by local standards, for over a decade and economic growth has given most people a lot more cash) and a flood of electronic media. First came cheap TVs and CD players on which pirated copies of Indian and Western movies could be played. For many Afghans this was the first tangible evidence that there was a very different world out there. Gossip and radio descriptions were one thing but now they could see it. For the younger generation (because of the short life span and high birth rate, most Afghans have always been young) this made staying in Afghanistan a much less viable proposition. One thing young Afghans quickly learned from all that video was that educational and economic opportunities were much greater outside Afghanistan, as were the chances of living a longer and happier life. Even the millions of refugees (from the 1980s war with the Russians) in Pakistan and Iran were reluctant to return and many refuse to (despite increasing pressure from their host countries). While many did return, they often regretted it (and often went back to the refugee camps) because the corruption and violence so common to Afghanistan were still there. Pakistan and Iran were much safer and comfortable, even though both these nations are pretty low on the global rankings of good places to live. The problem is that Afghanistan is near the bottom of those lists, along with hell holes like Somalia.
Those who run Afghanistan, and make a good living from the corrupt practices they prop up, are scrambling to adapt to the departure of most Western troops next year. The biggest change will be the loss of Western logistics and intelligence services (which are essential to the success of Afghan soldiers and police), along with 24/7 availability of aircraft that can quickly use missiles or smart bombs against anyone (like the Taliban) trying to take control of the government. The Afghan leaders would prefer that the West leave behind lightly armed soldiers to take care of these missing services. The Western nations are telling the Afghans that they will have to do what many other nations in similar situations do, hire foreign (often Western) civilian contractors to do the work. This approach is used throughout the world where poor nations with inadequate education systems need skilled people to keep modern infrastructure going. The contractor approach is not attractive to Afghan rulers because the contractors have to be paid and will not tolerate any of the local corruption messing with their contracts. These contractor firms have a lot of experience dealing with corrupt governments and do not tolerate bad behavior. The Afghans are becoming aware of this and don’t like the idea of having to spend a lot of their foreign aid on foreign contractors. Negotiations over what Western (mostly American) forces will remain after 2014, hinge largely on how willing the Americans are to provide troops (or American supervised and paid-for contractors).
The Taliban is less of a problem than generally thought. The idea of a Pushtun religious sect (which is what the Taliban is) taking over the country already failed in the 1990s (the Taliban were still fighting other factions when the Americans showed up in October 2001), and the anti-Taliban factions quickly defeated the Taliban (with American help) but the Taliban did not disappear, it fled to Pakistan, where the Pakistani government (technically American allies) quietly granted the Taliban (and al Qaeda) leaders sanctuary. What brought the Taliban back to southern Afghanistan was the heroin business. Western nations wanted the Afghan government to destroy the opium crops and shut down the heroin trade. Many Afghans were willing to do this because more and more Afghans were getting addicted to the cheaper opium (which is scrapped off the poppy plants and most is refined into heroin). As Afghanistan became more prosperous after 2002 (because of peace and lots of foreign aid), the number of addicts in Afghanistan grew. It’s now over a million, mostly in the south and in the large cities. Most Afghan religious, tribal, and political leaders (including the Taliban) are hostile to the drugs and what it does to so many Afghans. Only about ten percent of Afghans benefit directly from the drug trade, and a nasty side effect is easy access to cheap opium and ending up with many addicts in your family. The Taliban technically forbids its members to use drugs but looks the other way at many young gunmen it hires who want to get high and will do so no matter what. The Taliban has been living off the drug gangs for two decades now and justify this by promising to return to the system they imposed during the 1990s, when the gangs were forced to export nearly all their production and were severely punished if any of the opium or heroin got out to the locals. That restriction disappeared along with the Taliban in late 2001. It only worked back then because the Taliban offered security for the drug gangs in return for cash and keeping the drugs away from Afghans. Some in the current Afghan government see that as a possible option once the Westerners are gone, even though the Western donors have made it clear that the aid will disappear (and the bombs will return) if Afghanistan turns into a “narco state” (the national government is on the drug gang payroll). Many current government officials are already bribed by the drug gangs and the Afghans will keep wheeling and dealing with drug lords and foreign diplomats in order to keep the cash, and not the bombs, coming. But the aid donors can still get some action against the drug gangs. A full blown narco state leaves the drug gangs alone and taxes them.
The current “peace negotiations” with the Taliban are an Afghan effort to split and weaken the Taliban, mostly at the expense of the true-believer faction led by Mullah Omar (the leader in the 1990s) sitting across the border in Quetta, safe from American UAV missiles because of his Pakistani patrons. The role of Pakistan in creating the Taliban and using these fanatics and similar groups to influence Afghan affairs is much resented in Afghanistan. Pakistan considers the “backward Afghans” as incompetent and occasionally dangerous neighbors in need of guidance. Afghans tend to remember the dozens of major invasions of Pakistan and India that have come out of Afghanistan in the last few thousand years. The Pakistanis remember that as well, but don’t dwell on it.
The Afghan government is offering the pro-Taliban Afghan tribal leaders cash and autonomy if they will renounce their allegiance to (and cooperation with) Mullah Omar and the Taliban drug militias in Afghanistan. Omar has reacted to this and the Afghan government is upset with the recent establishment of a Taliban headquarters in the Persian Gulf (Qatar). This is a Pakistani and Mullah Omar ploy to keep the pro-Taliban Afghan tribal leaders in line. This Taliban “embassy” (called by the Taliban a part of “Islamic Emirate Of Afghanistan”) may get shut down, but it won’t end Afghan government efforts to make deals with pro-Taliban tribal leaders. In the 1990s, the Taliban trying to run most of Afghanistan called their government “Islamic Emirate Of Afghanistan.” The Afghan government (and most Afghans) do not want the “Emirate” back and believe that deals with pro-Taliban tribal chiefs does work, as it has been going on for a decade. To the dismay of Western governments these deals often come with immunity for drug operations some tribal leaders depend on for income. While religious fanaticism has always been a factor in Afghan life, getting rich and gaining power have always been more important. The Taliban and the drug gangs understand that and each other. So does the rest of Afghanistan, who are willing to tax the drugs (as long as distribution is banned in Afghanistan), suppress the Taliban, and live well. Nothing is simple in Afghanistan, and too many people are willing to kill for any little advantage that it will get them.
Although poppy production (measured by the area planted) increased 14 percent last year, the Afghan share of the worldwide heroin trade was only 75 percent and declining. Northern Burma is making a comeback (it was the main source until the 1980s, when production moved to Pakistan and then Afghanistan). The Burmese competition is driving down prices and the drug gangs are trying to make up for the lost income. Government attacks and Taliban demands for more money are also hurting drug gang profits.
June 27, 2013: In an unusual incident, the appointed (as all governors are) ruler of Herat province resigned because the national government would not support efforts to curb corruption in the province. Such corruption is no secret and it is very unpopular with most of those living in Herat. A growing number of prominent Afghans are trying to fight the corruption. The way corruption works in Afghanistan, those operating illegally and wishing to avoid prosecution or retribution, bribe as many people as necessary. This often includes local and national government officials as well as local warlords and tribal leaders if needed. The corruption often takes the form of stealing foreign aid without having to worry about the foreigner complaints leading to the thieves being punished or deprived of their loot.
June 25, 2013: Five armed members of the Haqqani Network got into the high security area of Kabul (where most foreign embassies and government headquarters are) and attacked a hotel. The terrorists were killed but they did make the news, which was apparently the point of the operation. Haqqani is an Afghan operation (run by the Haqqani family) based in Pakistan (where it has sanctuary as long as it only makes attacks in Afghanistan). Haqqani supports itself with various criminal activities.
June 24, 2013: In the north (Kunduz province) three Taliban blew themselves up when a roadside bomb they were planting was accidentally set off. The Taliban maintains some armed groups in the north to protect drug gang smuggling operations (most of the heroin is exported like this).
June 19, 2013: President Karzai cancelled negotiations with the U.S. over security plans because he was not included in upcoming American talks with Taliban representatives. The U.S. has decided to try direct negotiations with the senior Taliban leadership (Mullah Omar and his crew). Karzai and most other Afghan officials believe this is stupid because Omar wants the Taliban running Afghanistan again and has shown a willingness to tell anyone anything in order to achieve that impossible dream.
June 18, 2013: The Taliban surprised everyone by offering to begin peace talks, especially with the United States. As an incentive the Taliban offered to negotiate the release of the only American soldiers they were able to capture.