Winning: The Lasting Lure Of Loot


March 22, 2011: In Afghanistan, the Taliban are recruiting for their annual "Spring Offensive." Because of the damage done to their drug gang allies last year, there's less money for payroll. So more and more recruits are hired under "loot rules". That means these guys get little or no pay, but are sent into parts of the country where the Taliban are basically operating like bandits. There's a lot of looting going on, and these recruits live off the loot.

In the past, most Taliban gunmen were paid as much as, if not more, than Afghan police and soldiers, and were discouraged from looting. But much of that money is no longer available. The drug gangs pay the Taliban to provide security for growing poppies (from which opium is obtained) and for the improvised labs where opium is converted into heroin. The Taliban also provide security for the smugglers who bring in chemicals needed for the labs, and for getting the heroin and opium safely to the border. The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban collaborate in getting drugs smuggled to the Pakistani port of Karachi, from whence it is shipped around the world. About half the Afghan heroin leaves via Karachi, and the money the Taliban earn is crucial to their ability to make the payroll. But a lot of that drug-related activity has been disrupted by NATO and Pakistani army and police in the past year. The gangs have much less cash to spread around.

Faced with the inability to pay their gunmen, many hired guns this year will only have a license of steal. By Afghan standards, this isn't a bad deal. But it does make it less likely that the Taliban will achieve their ultimate goal, of once more ruling the country. That's never been easy, for anyone. That's because Afghanistan is a tribal confederation, loosely defined (for the last few centuries) as a nation. Currently, a religious movement (the Taliban) sponsored by few tribes in the south (originally organized and subsidized by Pakistan in the early 1990s), are trying to regain the power they had in the 1990s. The Taliban never conquered the entire country back then, and in late 2001 (aided by al Qaeda, local drug lords and Pakistan) were still battling non-Pushtun tribes in the north. Actually, the key Taliban combat units were foreigners (the al Qaeda brigade) and Pakistani volunteers. That's how unpopular the Taliban had become.

Ever since they were chased out in November, 2001, the Taliban have been trying to create a "popular movement" that would put them back in power. With its al Qaeda and Pakistani support greatly diminished, the drug gangs have taken up the slack. So the main battle now is between drug gang sponsored militias (who have the backing of about 10 percent of the population) and the rest of the country (aided by over 150,000 foreign troops).

A major goal of the Taliban is the elimination of corruption, by the imposition of Sharia (Islamic law). Few Afghans believe that will work, because when the Taliban controlled most of the country in the 1990s, the Islamic Republic quickly became corrupt and tyrannical. The drug gangs still exist now because they can bribe and intimidate enough people to allow drugs to be produced and exported. The corruption is part of the cultural fabric. The taking of "loot" is generally seen as an admirable act, and a bribe is seen as the equivalent of an ancient warrior trashing a neighboring valley, and carrying away chickens, horses and women.

Changing this attitude has proved difficult, particularly because most Afghans are illiterate and don't know much about the rest of the world. Those Afghans who do know about how things work in the West (or the booming East, for that matter), realize and accept that clean and efficient government is the key to economic prosperity. Knowing this, and making it happen, are two very different things. Meanwhile, the illiteracy, corruption crippled economy, and resulting poverty, provides a steady supply of angry young men with guns. Breaking this cycle is very difficult, which is why no one has done it yet. The cycle can be broken, because it has been done, many times, all over the world. A thousand years ago, Europe was a lot like Afghanistan, but none of the current donor (of troops and money) nations are going to wait that long for Afghanistan to clean up its act. Results are sought in years, not centuries.





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