Counter-Terrorism: How To Hustle Naughty Tribesmen


January 3, 2008: Afghanistan presents a unique counter-terrorism problem, and it's being dealt with via a classic carrot and stick technique. While Afghanistan is currently producing 90 percent of the world's heroin, 87 percent of it is coming from just five of the nation's 34 provinces. Several of the Pushtun tribes in that area are basically in rebellion against the government over their drug production activities. While the Taliban wails on about defending Islam, the tribes are really all about several billion dollars a year in income from the production of opium, and the heroin that is derived from it. Greed, guns and tribal loyalties have long been a lethal combination in Afghanistan.

In the rest of the country, where the other 13 percent of the poppies (the plant that yields opium) are grow, the government is succeeding in persuading (with cash incentives) farmers to switch away from growing poppies. In the five southern provinces, the Taliban and drug gangs don't allow the farmers that choice. Moreover, that bit of terrorism extends to any efforts by the government or foreign aid agencies, to improve anything. The gangs, and the Taliban, want to "own" the poppy farmers, and will attack anyone (either the farmers, or anyone helping them) that tries to intervene.

The southern tribes are in a difficult situation. Many of the tribal elders believe that, in the long run, the drug gangs can't win. They know that the Pakistani succeeded in driving the drug trade out of the Pakistani tribal areas (and some know that Burma shut down the decades old heroin trade in its China border area as well). If the Afghan government didn't have NATO as an ally, the drug rich tribes might have a chance (of cutting a deal with the Kabul crowd). But against smart bombs and those Western commandos, it's a lost cause. Alas, the elders don't always have the last word. The younger guys have gotten rich off this drug business, and have never had it so good. No way are they going to give up the good life, at least not without a considerable amount of persuasion.

The Afghan government, dominated by Pushtuns (who are the largest minority, at 40 percent of the 30 million population), have been trying to negotiate deals with the southern tribes, to stem the spread of Taliban and drug gang power. This is a typical carrot and stick deal. The government plays up the fact that the NATO troops are welcome guests, and the Taliban are disliked for their totalitarian and terroristic ways. The drugs gangs act like arrogant thugs, flaunting their wealth and generally making most everyone miserable. While the farmers should be making a lot of money, the drug gangs pay as little as they can get away with. Since the gangs are better armed than even a large valley full of farmers, the bad guys get away with this. The heroin business is making a few hundred people very rich, and a lot of other Afghans miserable, or dead.

So while NATO is the stick, the Afghan government plays the good cop, and keeps offering carrots. This has worked, even in areas of the south that are thick with Taliban. The people running the Afghan government may be as corrupt as the Kabul politicians have ever been, but they know their own history, and they know how to hustle tribesmen who are behaving badly.


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