Afghanistan: The Taliban Really Need A Win Here


April 23, 2010: The U.S. is having problems getting the German government to allow German troops in the north to work with U.S. and Afghan troops to clear the Taliban out of the area. While the Germans have been more aggressive against the Taliban in the last year, most Germans want their troops out of Afghanistan. It's believed that Afghanistan is an American problem and that the Americans can take care of it without German involvement. German troops see it differently, believing that the Taliban have to be confronted and stopped. Most German politicians realize that the NATO alliance only works if the members help each other (thus if Germany leaves the U.S. to deal with Afghanistan by themselves, Americans will be less likely to come to Germany's aid in a future crises.) But German popular opinion is, "not our problem, bring the troops home." This attitude is common throughout Europe. After all, the Americans showed up the last three times Europe needed help (World War I, World War II and the Cold War, plus the reconstruction period after World War II), and many Europeans take it for granted that the Yanks will show up again if needed.

American military commanders want to bring in more electrical generators, and fuel to run them, to temporarily cure the chronic power shortages in Kandahar. But reconstruction officials, mainly officials from the U.S. State Department, oppose this, as the Afghans will be angry when the additional fuel and generators are taken away in less than a year. The military believes that the short term boost in Afghan morale will be worth it, as it will help clear the Taliban out of Kandahar. At the same time, the American and NATO trainers and reconstruction staff are trying to reduce the incidence of corruption and incompetence among Afghan government officials. That is a very difficult job, as there is a long tradition of both in the region.

The Taliban are moving more people into Kandahar, determined to maintain a presence in what they consider their capital. The Taliban and drug gangs are jointly making a last stand. If they cannot keep the drug business going in Kandahar and Helmand, the Taliban are, well, not finished, but greatly diminished. Already, cash shortages have forced the Taliban to pay most of their fighters piecework (by the job). The Taliban use of terror, and the growing number of drug addicts, has made the Islamic radicals even more hated throughout Afghanistan. The Taliban really need a win here.

The Taliban, with the backing of the drug gangs in Kandahar and Helmand, are also still trying to expand their power. Thus the increasing Taliban violence in northern and eastern Afghanistan. But these two provinces have always been the core of Taliban support, and heroin production. While the Taliban originally (in the early 1990s) pitched themselves as a new and improved type of Afghan warlord, they proved to be as bad as the people they sought to replace. Thus their quick fall in late 2001.

Most of Afghanistan has been at peace, or at least what passes for peace in this part of the world, since 2002. But most of the adult male population is armed (the majority of those just for self-defense). The chronically high unemployment makes it easy for warlords (usually ambitious tribal leaders, actually anyone with access to cash and guns) to recruit and to head off looking for power (intimidating other tribes) or loot (stealing whatever they can).

This ancient warrior tradition has been revived big time in the "Pushtun belt" (the Pushtun tribal territories on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border) by the establishment of the heroin trade in Helmand province. Most of the poppies are grown here, and processed into opium and heroin, mostly for export. The trade once flourished across the border in Pakistan, but two decades ago the government shut it down, after experiencing a sharp increase in drug addiction throughout Pakistan.

Now the new addicts are Afghan, and most of the country is hostile to heroin and opium production. But the drug lords don't want to move on again, as the next move will take them out of Pushtun territory, and many of the Pushtun drug gangsters won't have an easy time of it operating with "foreigners" (anyone who is not a Pushtun). Before the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, they demonstrated their willingness to tolerate the heroin trade (as long as nearly all of the stuff was exported, because drug addiction was, even then, very unpopular). The Taliban needed the high "taxes" that the drug gangs could pay, and still does. The drug gangs and the Taliban (basically Islamic conservatives with guns and attitude) need each other. The drug lords know they can bribe plenty of government officials to leave them alone, while the Taliban believe they can intimidate the government, and anti-Taliban tribes, to obey.

The relationship between the drug gangs and the Taliban is an imperfect one. There is no unified command, just dozens of local arrangements that follow the same pattern (the drug gangs use bribes and Taliban violence to keep their poppy fields and refining operations safe from government interference).

In terms of casualties, the Taliban are losing. The NATO forces are losing about four men per thousand per year. The Afghan police and army are suffering 2-3 times that casualty rate. The Taliban are losing three or four times as many as the Afghan security forces. But the Afghan war is not so much about casualties as it is about tribal politics. As long as some of the tribes, or tribal factions, support the Taliban, the fighting will continue. This kind of violence has been endemic in Afghanistan for thousands of years. These wars end either through a threat of extermination (the old Mongol approach, which is no longer acceptable), or negotiation. The big difference between the Afghan government, and NATO, is over the importance of negotiation, and what can be given up. Many in the government are willing to tolerate some degree of heroin production and Taliban autonomy, in order to achieve more peace. NATO and the U.S. do not go along with that option.  

A major problem is the fact that Afghanistan has never had an effective national government. Afghanistan is basically a federation of tribes, with a weak, figurehead, "ruler" whose main job is to deal with foreigners, and mediate a tribal dispute occasionally. But the current Afghan government, encouraged by its Western backers, is trying to impose a national government, and Afghans are not sure what to make of it. Since many national government officials are in the pay of the drug gangs, and most officials are pretty corrupt by Western standards, expectations have to be kept low.

April 22, 2010: In Kandahar, Taliban death squads have become more active, killing a government official and a pro-government tribal chief today.

April 20, 2010: Taliban death squads killed the deputy mayor of Kandahar, Azizullah Yarmal, as he prayed in a major city mosque.

April 18, 2010: The government released three Italian medical aid officials, who had been arrested eight days earlier and accused to working with the Taliban to kill a provincial governor. It's unlikely that the Italians actively supported the assassination plot, but they have been cooperating with the Taliban, who have free access to the hospital. This kind of involvement is common in areas where armed groups are active, and NGOs (foreign aid groups) have no perfect solution for it.



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