Afghanistan: Gang Bangers Buy Some Respect

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January 27, 2009: The war against the Taliban shifted, last year, to Pakistan, There, the movement of 120,000 troops into the tribal areas along the Afghan border, caused more deaths than the NATO/U.S. operations did in Afghanistan. But the Taliban cannot abandon Afghanistan, because that's where the money is. The drug gangs know that if the Taliban are shut down in Afghanistan, the next target will be the drug trade (the growing of poppies, refining the plants into opium and heroin, and smuggling the drugs out of the country.) The drug business has made hundreds of prominent Afghans in the south (nearly all Pushtun tribal leaders or warlords, plus several senior government officials, including members of president Karzais family) very rich. A lot of that money is spread around to politicians, journalists, police and military officers. That's why there is such an uproar in the Afghan media every time a civilian is killed during a NATO operation, but much less, or no, coverage for civilians killed by the Taliban (who account for the majority of civilian deaths). The bribes, and sometimes threats, are to keep the Taliban and drug trade out of the news. Buying journalists is common throughout the region, so most of those being offered the payments, don't feel terribly bad about it. It's the way business has always been conducted.

Buying journalists is useful for scaring the population into cooperating with the drug gangs and the Taliban. For example, a few Afghans have been killed or kidnapped for working for NATO or U.S. forces. This has gotten big coverage, as a way to send a message to all Afghans. It's actually more dangerous to work for the Taliban, but there is a tremendous disincentive to running with that kind of story (no bribe, and probably a death threat.)

The Taliban have also changed their media message. They now play down their aspirations to resume control of the government (which about 80 percent of Afghans oppose), and stress their desire to expel foreign troops from the country (something about 80 percent of Afghans agree with to one degree or another).

Attacks on supply routes through Pakistan (especially the Khyber Pass) have led the U.S. and NATO to bring in a larger amount of supplies via Russia and Central Asia. This has not been a disaster for the Pakistani trucking companies that move goods in and out of landlocked (and railroadless) Afghanistan. But growing prosperity in Afghanistan has led to more exports, and greater demand for imports. Plus there has been a large increase in smuggling (usually done by bribing, or deceiving, customs officials to truck in stuff, like over a million tons of sugar in the last few months).

The war continues, as it long has, with one Taliban defeat after another. But the drug business is largely intact, and producing enough cash to hire unemployed young men to carry rifles for the Taliban. These gangs of enforcers wander about, in pickup trucks and SUVs (another major way to spend drug profits), terrorizing Afghans who have not been cooperative. Later this year, the Taliban know more U.S. combat troops will show up, and they are not looking forward to that. On both sides of the border, the Taliban lost nearly 10,000 men last year. They killed fewer than a thousand of the enemy (most of them Pakistani troops and police.) Another year of fighting on both sides of the border will only increase the divisions among the pro-Taliban tribes. Some of these tribal leaders want to make deals with the government (Afghan or Pakistani, depending on which side of the border they are on.) While the drug money is good, this many dead men is not (for a population of about 10 million, that these guys are recruited from). Not that there is any shortage of recruits. Not that there is a shortage of fighters. In American cities, gangs recruit more young men from a smaller population, and suffer a higher death rate. It's even worse across the border in Mexico, where drug gangs fight each other, and the government, while having few problems recruiting more young men to take up a violent career.

 

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