Afghanistan: The Last Straw


November 6,2008:  Throughout the country, and especially in the south, Afghans are unhappy with the growing activity by bandits. This is an ancient Afghan problem, and is the norm. No one likes to say that out loud, but the historical record is rather clear on the matter. However,  for most of the time during the past few centuries, there were no journalists to report on the dangerous conditions on the roads and trails. But the few 19th century accounts of the unsafe conditions of the Afghan backcountry (the cities aren't much better), read remarkably like the situation today. While the drug gangs and the Taliban have added some gunmen to the mix, the basic problem remains.

The Afghan government is uncomfortable with having the spotlight of mass media attention on them as they fail, as all their predecessors did, to deal with the violence. Even the vaunted Taliban "law and order" period of the late 1990s was a myth. The Taliban shut down several major warlords, and dispersed their armies. But a lot of these gunmen went right back to banditry, and the Taliban were never able to cope with this violence. The Taliban could pacify an area for a while by sending in armed men to intimidate the tribes (who generally avoid battles they knew they could not win), but eventually the men with guns look around and note that the only work available is robbery.

Current government attempts to get tribes to police themselves have failed because the tribes know that any killings within the tribe just creates another blood feud, and more violence. The idea of stationing police out in the countryside is fine in theory, but the low literacy levels (under fifty percent) and large number of rifles and pistols among the population, has made the idea of a national police force more theory than practice. Moreover, the Taliban and drug gangs are particularly hostile to the national police. The drug gangs don't want interference in their illegal activities, and the Taliban don't want anyone trying to interfere with the terrorizing of the rural population into accepting Taliban rule.

The Taliban are very unpopular out in the countryside. While the drug gangs bring bribes, jobs and guys who have money to spend, the Taliban bring paranoia, persecution and murder. About twenty Afghans a week are being murdered, as suspected police informants,  by the Taliban. The Taliban demand that villagers pay "taxes" to support the them, and adhere to strict lifestyle rules (no music or videos, or trimmed beards or schools for girls and so on). These rules are unpopular with most rural Afghans, and it has gotten to the point where many tribes are forming self-defense militias to try and keep the Taliban out. The Pakistani Pushtun tribes are reporting that this can work, but only if the Taliban are weakened to the point where they cannot call in enough reinforcements to trash the militia.

In Pakistan, the army has been aggressively going after the villages that the Taliban come from, arresting Taliban leaders and killing any armed men who do not surrender. This allows the pro-government militias to burn down the homes of known Taliban, and drive the families away. This has forced many pro-Taliban families to back away from Islamic radicalism. This has also caused a growing split between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. The Afghan branch has lots of cash from the drug gangs, and their "taxes", while the Pakistan branch is basically broke. The Pakistani Taliban are in a fight for survival, and angry that they are not getting more support from the Afghan Taliban. After all, the Pakistani Taliban sheltered their Afghan brothers for years after 2001. The Afghan Taliban are feeling cocky, and don't seem to care if the Pakistani Taliban are wiped out. It's all that drug money, and maybe some of the drugs, talking.

Meanwhile, about a third of the Afghan population is facing starvation this Winter, and into the first half of 2009. A drought, higher food prices and Taliban efforts to chase foreign aid (including food aid) organizations out of the country, are leaving millions of Afghans with inadequate food supplies. The government, and NATO, is hoping that this will mobilize more of the tribes to organize and fight the Taliban. The tribes don't like do this. Forming a militia requires lots of sacrifice by a lot of people. The tribes don't have a lot of money, just a shared tradition (and kinship) and tribal elders who try to keep it all together. Historically, many tribes have been destroyed by too much organized violence. The main rule out in the countryside is survival, and that has never been easy. But the Taliban efforts to make the famine worse (not least by stealing food aid shipments), may be the last straw.

The Taliban carried out an attack on the Ministry of Culture in the capital, killing five people with a bomb and gunfire.

November 5, 2008:  Despite all the violence, over a quarter of a million Afghan refugees have returned from Pakistan so far this year. Many are simply fleeing the battles between the Taliban and army in Pakistan, but others see better economic opportunities in Afghanistan.

November 4, 2008:  An investigation has revealed that an attack on U.S. troops in Kunar province last July, that left nine American soldiers dead, was made possible largely because of the cooperation of a local police chief and the district leader (provinces are divided into up to a dozen or so districts). These two officials were apparently bribed or intimidated into cooperating with the Taliban.

November 3, 2008: A battle between Taliban and U.S. forces north of Kandahar led to the deaths of over fifty civilians. The Taliban promptly announced that it was the result of a U.S. airstrike. But many eyewitnesses report that the Taliban gunmen prevented over a hundred civilians from fleeing the scene of the battle (Taliban in buildings firing on U.S. troops on a nearby road), and used the civilians as human shields. This is a common Taliban tactic, using civilians alive as shields, and dead as anti-American propaganda.




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