Afghanistan: What's Worth Dying For


December 26, 2007: President Karzai believes that foreign troops will have to stay in the country for ten years, before the unrest is eliminated. That's optimistic. Anarchy in the backcountry is customary, and a tradition going back thousands of years. Among the many rural customs that contribute to the current state of war, is the "right" to raise and maintain private armies. Europeans have not experienced this sort of thing for centuries, but it's an everyday reality for most Afghans. As early 20th century communist revolutionaries observed; "power comes out of the barrel of a gun." This is practiced enthusiastically in Afghanistan, and quite openly. It is supported by a web of tribal, religious and cultural customs. These traditions also tolerate bribery of government officials, and switching sides as easily as you would change your clothes.

The Taliban are best understood in terms of tribal warfare, which is, and has been, endemic in Afghanistan for thousands of years. The Taliban represent the tribal and religious customs of a number of Pushtun tribes on both sides of the Pakistani border. The Pushtun tribes have long dominated Afghan politics, because 40 percent of the population is Pushtun (they are a troublesome minority in Pakistan). But the Pushtuns are rarely united, and this is what the "Taliban Wars" are all about. To further complicate the situation, tribal customs differ considerably, and there are many tribal feuds going back generations. Ironically, the introduction of modern technology has made the situation worse. Pickup trucks and motorcycles make it easier to get around. Raiding people who do not belong to your tribe has been a popular entertainment for thousands of years. Now you can motor to the territory of a distant tribe, commit some profitable mayhem, and be home for a late night snack and a round of boasting. The Internet and satellite telephones (cell phone service is only available in a few large cities) make it possible for likeminded tribal leaders to connect, plan and carry out more mischief. The SUV and pickup truck make it possible to rapidly mobilize gunmen. The drug money makes it possible to buy guns, SUVs, sat phones and the loyalty of thousands of young gunmen. You can see where this is going.

What makes the Taliban a really dangerous group is their belief that God has commanded them to conquer the other tribes. This worked temporarily in the 1990s, but the rapid collapse of Taliban power in late 2001 showed how unpopular they were with most Afghans. That has not changed, but neither has the Taliban. Normally, the supply of fanatic leaders would run our (assassinated or killed in battle) in a few years. But the drug trade has given the Taliban a lifeline, which is why the Afghan government is so desperate to shut down the drug business. That, however, incurs the wrath of more tribes, who have never before had access to this kind of wealth. The increasing truck traffic from Pakistan, carrying consumer goods to the drug rich tribes, is something the tribesmen see as worth dying for.

December 25, 2007: This year's poppy harvest is believed to have yielded over 8,000 tons of drugs. Iran believes that about 30 percent of that ended up in Iran. There, police manage to confiscate about 20 percent of the drugs, but 30 percent is consumed in Iran, and the rest smuggled on to the Middle East and Europe. It's a big business, and that attracts an unlimited supply of smugglers, organizers and gunmen. It also creates a growing number of opium and heroin addicts in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. The dope is cheaper in its country of origin, which matches the lower income of the addicts. But, as in the West, the addicts steal, and sometimes murder, to feed their need for drugs. This, more than foreign troops, is what most motivates nations to crack down on drug production. Drug addiction is particularly likely in wealthier families, including those making their money from the drug trade. This drama, however, takes more than ten years to play out, and Karzai probably knows it. He lived through the demise of the drug trade in western Pakistan, where it was crushed and forced across the border into Afghanistan in the 1980s. Unfortunately, Afghanistan hasn't got a disorganized neighbor to push the drug business into, and those making all that money from opium and heroin are willing to fight, or bribe, to hold on to it. That brings up another ancient and popular tradition in Afghanistan; bribery. Too many Afghans see nothing wrong with taking a bribe to look the other way. It's not considered a source of angst, but rather a stroke of luck. This makes it difficult to stamp out.

Afghan is more about changing fundamental, and ancient, traditions, than it is about shooting people and blowing things up.




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