Afghanistan: Players You Don't Hear About


September17, 2008:  The war here is described as "complicated," which is another way of saying that there are several different factions fighting, sometimes as allies and sometimes against each other. The major players are;

The Taliban. With up to 10,000 gunmen wandering around the border area, these are religious fanatics fighting for drug money, tribal power, cultural domination and personal gain. Some fight for free, but most of these are the Pakistani volunteers (who tend to be looked down on as ignorant children by the Afghans). The Taliban are waging war against tribes and clans that do not agree with them running things. They earn their pay from the drug gangs by intimidating tribal militias and police from interfering with drug production or smuggling. These guys are more smoke than fire.

The drug gangs. Drug production accounts for about half the Afghan GDP of about  $8 billion.  This money is not taxed, and is generally controlled by men who have little interest in supporting a national government. The drug lords tend to remain loyal to their tribes, thus increasing the power of the tribes against the central government. Only about a third of the population is involved in the drug trade. About 90 percent of those people (mainly the farmers) receive 25 percent of that drug income. That's several times what they would make with traditional endeavors (growing wheat). The other 75 percent goes to the government and tribal officials (for bribes) and the drug operation leadership. As a result, thousands of Afghans are getting very rich, but illegally. These guys consider themselves above the law, and have the guns, cash and loyal followers to make that happen. In the key drug production areas, like Helmand province, the drug gangs pay "taxes" to the Taliban, in return for keeping the government and foreign troops busy.  The drug gangs are the most formidable force in the country.

The warlords. The Taliban is not the only private army in the country. Most provincial governors have large (sometimes very large, as in hundreds) of armed "bodyguards." They can also muster national police and soldiers they might have on their payroll. In the south, some governors take money from the drug gangs, for varying degrees of "cooperation." Warlords are an ancient tradition that is not going to go away easily, or soon.

The national government is controlled by big shots from the Tajik (another Indo-European tribe that dominates the north and comprise about a quarter of the population) and Pushtun (40 percent of the population) tribes. The main goal of the Tajiks is to make sure the Pushtuns don't push them around (as the Taliban tried to do), while the Pushtuns are out to make as much money as they can (usually via embezzlement and  bribes), while remaining top dogs. The government controls much of the foreign aid, and the national police and army. But this is not a lot of money, and governors, warlords and drug gangs are always trying (and often succeeding) in buying the loyalty of police and troops operating in their locality. Several senior officials in the national government are believed to be on the payroll for drug gangs. It's easy money and hard to resist, especially when the alternative is constant assassination attempts.

Al Qaeda is a convenient name for Islamic religious fanatics who wish to establish clerical dictatorships in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most of the people in both these countries do not want to be ruled by religious leaders, and are willing to fight against this. The majority also dislikes the terror bombings and lifestyle police (shutting down video and music shops and most sources of entertainment and education and employment for women.) Bur homicidal and suicidal religious fanatics have power far larger than their small numbers would indicate. That's what terrorism is all about.

Pakistan considers Afghanistan a potential problem that has to be neutralized. Westerners must keep in mind that "Afghanistan" (as a region) is where several waves of invaders have poured into South Asia and upset many apple carts. The tribal areas on the Pakistani side of the border are part of this historical "Afghanistan". Most of the 40 million Pushtun tribal peoples live on the Pakistani side of the border. Pakistani government officials are always coming up with new schemes to keep the tribes busy with each other, and not planning mischief against the lowlanders (the majority of Pakistan's population). The Taliban was one of these schemes, which got out of control. Some with Islamic radicalism in general.

The foreign forces. Nearly 100,000 people, with two-thirds troops and the rest aid workers, bureaucrats and mercenaries. These folks are in Afghanistan to prevent the country from turning into a criminal/terrorist hideout again. Civil war, or its kid brother, civil disorder, is the usual state of Afghanistan. For thousands of years, this was tolerated as long as the Afghans did not export their violence. When they did, better organized neighbors would raid right back ("punitive expeditions") to calm the Afghans down (by killing lots of them). But with air travel and instant global communications, Afghan violence can be exported farther, faster. Keeping the peace in Afghanistan has acquired a new urgency. The foreigners are having a hard time of it, but cannot afford to fail.

Both the Taliban and al Qaeda have found success with suicide tactics. This is nothing new in the region, and has gone in and out of fashion over the past few thousand years. But the Islamic radicals have invented a clever angle, "involuntary martyrs,"  which is increasingly effective in defeating the superior firepower of the foreign troops. "Involuntary martyrs" is an al Qaeda doctrine, also adopted by many Taliban, that justifies the use of civilians as human shields. If the civilians are killed when a smart bomb hits a compound the Taliban are hiding out in, these civilians are considered Islamic martyrs, even though the civilians had to be forcibly prevented from fleeing the building. Another problem is informers providing false information to get NATO or U.S. troops to attack someone the informant is feuding with. This is an old problem, and tips have to be checked for this. But several times a year, the bad tip gets acted on, usually with tragic results. The Afghan government demands a solution, but there is none, other than giving anti-government forces (Taliban, bandits, terrorists, drug gangs) immunity from attack as long as they have some civilians with them. Civilian casualties in Afghanistan are at a historical low, but that isn't news. The majority of dead civilians are killed by Taliban and terrorists, and that has always been the pattern.

September 13, 2008: For the second time in the last two years, the Taliban have killed a provincial governor. A roadside bomb was used. Governors, especially in the south, are always approached by drug gangs and the Taliban, with threats, or bribes, to obtain cooperation.


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