Afghanistan: Come, Let Us Steal Together


February 8, 2010: Some government officials want to bring back conscription (which disappeared, along with nearly fifteen years of communist government, in 1992). The government wants to expand the security forces (army and police) to 300,000 in the next two years. Conscription didn't work too well, as troops compelled to serve were quick to desert. A volunteer force was not much better, because too many troops saw nothing wrong with walking away if they felt like it, or were summoned home by some family crises. Despite that, even the communists were able to train and form some very effective units. But most Afghans have other loyalties. It's also an ancient tradition to quickly shift loyalties (for cash, to survive or whim). The key problem in the security forces is leadership. With half the population illiterate, and many of the rest barely able to read, there is not a large pool of potential sergeants and officers. It's the leaders that are crucial, and these take years to train and develop (get them practical experience). Eight years of effort has created thousands of skilled and reliable NCOs and officers. But many of these have left for safer, and better paying, civilian jobs. More who have stayed have been crippled by corruption. Doubling the security forces to 300,000 means creating a force that is, on average, less reliable and effective because the thin leadership pool is even more diluted. If that weren't enough of a problem, NATO nations have, for the most part, been unable to produce the number of army and police trainers they have pledged. Your average European does not want to go to Afghanistan to train uncooperative, and often quite hostile, locals.

The widely publicized NATO attack on the Taliban held town of Marjah has had the desired effect, with about half the 80,000 civilians fleeing. At least a thousand determined Taliban in the town are preparing to fight to the death. The town is a center of the heroin and opium trade, which has been disrupted simply because NATO announced they were coming.

While the battle for Marjah worries the Taliban, of even greater concern is the deteriorating situation of their Pakistani brethren across the border. The Pakistani Taliban recently admitted that, for the second time in seven months, their supreme leader had been killed by American missiles. Hundreds of lower ranking Pakistani Taliban died as well in that time, and the leadership pool is getting thin. But on a more practical level, the Pakistani army is taking control of towns and villages on the Pakistani side that have long been places where Afghan Taliban could run to, and rest for a bit before returning to the fight. There are still places like that, but there are fewer of them, and this has caused a dip in Taliban morale on both sides of the border.

The greatly increased American intelligence effort, mainly directed at crippling the Taliban roadside bombing campaign (which causes most foreign troop casualties) has had a bonus in identifying many corrupt government officials. The intel work involves a lot of electronic monitoring (cell phones, radio, Internet). Of particular interest were the local officials, including police, who were on the Taliban payroll. These guys often don't have much choice. It's either join or die (and we know where you and your extended family live). The Taliban, and especially the drug gangs, prefer to buy local police and officials, rather than fight them. When their bought officials are arrested, it disrupts, at the very least, Taliban activities in an area. Another disruption, caused by the growing amount of information on the Taliban, is the location of hidden weapons and explosives. Afghans love to hide stuff away, especially weapons and munitions. More hiding places are being revealed to the police or foreign troops. In some areas, higher rewards for tips has increased the number of tips. In many places, people just don't want the Taliban setting off bombs in the neighborhood, and will inform. There's a lot more disruption these days.

The intel effort is mainly directed against the roadside bombing, and the Taliban are having a harder time preparing attacks (because of a growing shortage of explosives and key personnel) and more of the bombs are being spotted and destroyed. Less affected are the bombing efforts against civilians, which are mainly used to terrorize tribes into supporting, or simply not opposing, the Taliban. Afghans don't appreciate intimidation, and the Taliban are disliked for relying on it so much.

These setbacks have caused more disagreements within the Afghan Taliban leadership. The Taliban has always had its factions; divided by religion, tribe and enthusiasm for al Qaeda. The government wants to cut deals with some of the hard core Taliban leaders, to bring them into the government. This is opposed by non-Pushtun members of the government, and foreign allies, who have a hard time cozying up to men with blood on their hands. The old-school Taliban were murderously harsh dealing with non-Pushtun (the majority) Afghans, and have been directing a lot of efforts towards killing foreign soldiers. But the government is full of Afghans who, like their Taliban counterparts, believe that victories are more cheaply won with bribes than bullets. The government is led by a Pushtun, but most of the key ministries are controlled by non-Pushtuns, and they are only willing to give Pushtuns more if a lot of the Taliban violence and illegal drugs go away. These negotiations are a bitter pill for the Pushtuns, who, for generations, have been accustomed to having a majority of the government largess to themselves. But, as the current government likes to point out, the nervous (about Islamic terrorism) foreigners are pouring billions of month into the country, much of which can be diverted to government officials private accounts. Come join us, and share in the bounty. Let us steal together. Even a deeply religious Taliban has a hard time rejecting this, especially since the government promises to leave the Taliban to torment their own tribe with religious restrictions as much as they want, as long as they don't annoy their neighbors. The government explains to foreigners that the Taliban are an ancient (sort of) part of some Pushtun tribal cultures, and won't go away any time soon. And many Taliban leaders are more than happy to denounce al Qaeda (which, after Iraq, is seen as the "butcher of Moslems") and international Islamic terrorism. To an Afghan, this all sounds like win-win. To many foreign officials is sounds like trouble.

February 6, 2010: In the south, near the Pakistani border, police shot and killed seven Afghan civilians, out collecting firewood. The police believed that local Taliban were sneaking up on them, and opened fire.

February 3, 2010: The government has cancelled the award of development rights on a huge (1.8 billion tons) iron ore deposit north of the capital. It was discovered that officials involved in granting the development rights had accepted a $20 million bribe to make sure that a Chinese firm got the ore. Such corruption has long prevented the development of natural resources in Afghanistan. Not only are their bribes needed to get development rights, but then there are ongoing demands from locals for more bribes to prevent violence against your mine, factory, or whatever. All this makes it very hard to do business in Afghanistan. It's this mercenary attitude, and inability to understand how economic development works, that's made Afghanistan the poorest nation in Eurasia. While many Afghans understand what is happening here, most don't, or don't care. Ancient traditions say you can plunder foreigners, and most Afghans are all about respecting tradition.

President Hamid Karzai's brother, Ahmed, long believed to be the conduit for drug gang bribes, is now active in using his connections to seize valuable land and sell it for big profits. This is the sort of thing that causes so much unrest throughout the region (especially in China). But it only happens when the economy is growing, which it has been doing in Afghanistan since 2001. The stealing does not help the economy, and the involvement of presidential kin does little for national unity.




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