December 24, 2012:
The heart of darkness these days is where the most warfare and terrorist mayhem takes place and does so despite mighty, and expensive, international efforts to calm things down. There are two areas where this is happening. The Congo (formerly Zaire) has been in chaos for nearly two decades, leaving over five million dead, and the unrest has spread to other nations in northern Africa. The other heart of darkness is Pakistan and its neighbor Afghanistan. Over four decades of this violence can be tracked back to Pakistani leaders deciding, in the late 1970s, to use Islamic terrorism as a matter of national policy, to manipulate and pressure neighbors without admitting sponsoring and directing terrorism. This has turned Pakistan and Afghanistan into sanctuaries and magnets for Islamic terrorists. All of this is financed by various forms of crime, most of it by the drug trade. Most of the world’s heroin supply comes from two provinces in southern Afghanistan.
In Africa there is a different kind of magnet for mayhem. Since moving from being a colony to independence nearly half a century ago, Congo has been unable to get away from being a one party dictatorship based on corruption and exploiting ethnic divisions. Multiple tribal and political militias, plus an increasing number of bandits, continue to roam the eastern border area, perpetuating the bloodiest (and least reported) war of the last decade. This is all financed by illegal (or semi-legal) mining and logging. Peacekeeper and army action have reduced the size of these violent groups but not eliminated them. Moreover, there are now fewer places where the bad guys can roam freely. Attempts to absorb rebels into the army have not worked well. The fighting continues, as it has since the late 1990s.
One of the key problems is a Tutsi militia which will not disarm until the government destroys Hutu militias, organized by Hutu mass murderers who fled neighboring Rwanda in the 1990s. The Congolese government finds it cannot (and to a certain extent, will not) cope with this. The reason is money, the millions of dollars available each year to whoever has gunmen controlling the mines that extract valuable ores and allow the stuff out of the country.
UN peacekeepers are criticized for not fighting more but that’s not their job. The Congolese army is not up to it yet either, so there it simmers, with the rebels slowly losing strength, month by month. Meanwhile, the inept and corrupt government creates more anger than contentment, setting the stage for another civil war. But the population is not eager for more violence, not after two decades of it.
What’s happening in Congo is not unique in Africa. Tribalism has long been a major problem, mainly because there are over 500 ethnic groups in Africa. After World War II there were over a thousand but migration, urbanization, and mass use of radio have killed off a lot of languages and unique ethnic customs. This is a trend that goes back to the 19th century, when many tribes sought to adopt Western ways when the Europeans moved inland. This had not happened before because the Europeans had not yet developed medicines to deal with the many deadly tropical African diseases. While many of the initial encounters were violent, many Africans saw opportunity in Western culture and technology. One group that did not was the Moslems, converted by Arabs who had come in looking for trade, and slaves, over a thousand years earlier. The Arabs died from the diseases but they also married local women and created Arabized Africans who resisted Western culture and ideas. Thus the African Moslems gradually fell behind Christian Africans in terms of education and economic power. This caused friction, and eventually many of the Moslem Africans supported Islamic terrorism. So in addition to chaos in Congo, you have major Islamic terrorist groups in Mali, Somalia, Nigeria, Sudan, and West African countries north of Nigeria.
And then there’s Afghanistan. For thousands of years the area now known as Afghanistan was actually divided into tribal areas, and each tribe considered itself a "nation" (with borders, laws, and an armed force of adult males ready to fight). Parts of Afghanistan often came under the control of nearby empires. Western Afghanistan was subject to Iranian control, eastern Afghanistan to Indian rule, while the north saw Chinese and Turks holding valuable trade routes (the Silk Road) between East Asia and the Middle East. Two centuries ago "Afghanistan" appeared as British controlled India established borders that defined the extent of eastern and southern Afghanistan. The Iranian (or "Persian") empire shrank, leaving us with the current western border of Afghanistan. In the north the Mongol and Turkic empires disappeared, replaced by Russian conquests in Central Asia, giving us the northern border. Within Afghanistan there were dozens of tribes, dominated by those speaking Pushtun. In the south it was almost all Pushtun but there were Pushtun tribes in the north as well, where they were surrounded by more numerous Tajik (Indo-European, like north India and Iran), Turkish (mainly Uzbek), and Mongol (Hazara) tribes. Hemmed in like this, these tribes, in the middle of nowhere, formed a loose alliance, nominally led by a Pushtun king. The king really just presided over the tribes, helping to settle disputes and deal with outsiders (mainly the British controlled Indians, Russians, and Iranians).
The introduction of Western technology (more productive agricultural methods, medicine, and better sanitation) eventually caused a population explosion. For over a thousand years Afghanistan had supported no more than about 2.5 million people. But in the 19th century that changed, and by 1900 population had doubled to five million. Fifty years later it had more than tripled, to 16 million. It has since doubled again. Even with more productive agricultural methods, there was eventually a land and water shortage and more disputes between the tribes. Communism and other Western political ideas had come to Afghanistan as well, and the Russian invasion in 1979, was triggered by a tribal rebellion against urban Afghans trying to impose a central government and more alien ideas on a still very medieval mindset in the countryside. While the Russians left (more because of impatience than military defeat) in 1989, that war between the traditional tribes and the urban reformers continues.
In the meantime, another element was introduced, warlords who were becoming fabulously rich (by Afghan standards) making (via poppy plants and refined opium) heroin and exporting it to the world. Another troublesome import was Islamic radicalism. This came from Arabia, where Saudi Arabia caused a real mess by introducing their ultra conservative brand of Islam (Wahhabism) to Pakistan in the 1980s, while supporting the Holy War against the atheist communists (Russians and their urban Afghan allies). Pakistan had also adopted Islamic conservatism in the 1970s (as an attempt to eliminate the corruption and misgovernment that was crippling the country). Pakistan allowed the Saudis to set up religious schools in the Afghan refugee camps, and from these the first Taliban were recruited and, armed by the Pakistanis, sent into Afghanistan to halt the civil war that broke out after the Russians left. This led to al Qaeda obtaining sanctuary in the 1990s (after being chased out of several other Moslem countries). Then came September 11, 2001, and here we are.
Without al Qaeda and its terror campaign against the West, Afghanistan would still be a mess. If the Russians had not invaded to protect the local communists, Afghanistan would still be a collection of tribes presided over by a Pushtun king and eventually corrupted by drug lords. The heroin trade was going to be driven out of Burma (the Golden Triangle) eventually, and Pakistan was the likely place for it to move to. The Pakistanis were pretty united in driving out the heroin trade, which they did, and it moved into Afghanistan, where it naturally thrived in the largely lawless tribal confederation that has existed there for centuries. Even without Islamic terrorists and Western troops in Afghanistan, there would still be an "Afghan Problem," but it would mainly be about the place being the source of the world's heroin supply. Modernization would still be taking place (the largely illiterate Afghans quickly came to love TV, cell phones, and SUVs) and causing friction with traditionalists. The end of the Cold War would have brought a flood of cheap Cold War surplus weapons (mainly from the former communist states, and including millions of AK-47s selling for as little as twenty dollars each).
The "Afghan Problem" would still consist of drug lords, a largely illiterate tribal population, torn by those seeking to preserve the old ways and a minority seeking reform or a way to escape to the West (or anywhere else). The "enemy" in Afghanistan is a lot more than the Taliban, and victory won't come quickly or cheaply. As in Africa, peacekeepers aren’t enough. You need peacemakers. But that’s a nasty job and you get little respect or thanks for sacrificing so many of your soldiers to calm things down in the midst of madness.