In the last year, the Taliban have been hit where it really hurts, in the purse. Several hundred million dollars worth of opium and heroin have been destroyed, and for the second year in a row, the amount of land planted with poppies has declined. Now, the anti-drug effort has received an unexpected boost, in the form of a plant disease that is destroying poppy crops. In some areas of Helmand province, 75 percent of the crop is being lost. Overall, the plant disease is expected to cut poppy production by 25 percent this year. This is convincing more farmers to switch to other crops, like wheat. This has already been going on, because the price of wheat has been going up, and growing food means not having to deal with the drug gangs, or the police poppy crop destruction teams (who would sometimes demand a bribe, so they would move on to destroy someone else's poppy fields). The reduction in opium and heroin means fewer drug gang and Taliban gunmen, and fewer bribes for government and tribal officials. Thus the enemy will be weaker over the next year. Locals appreciate the poppy disease, because the shortage has driven opium prices up about fifty percent so far, and an increasing number of local junkies have been priced out of their addiction.
Civilian deaths, most caused by Taliban action, are up so far this year. Foreign troops killed 90 civilians in the first four months of the year, compared to 51 in the same period last year. The Taliban have been more aggressively using civilians as human shields, and this is becoming more of a problem for foreign troops. Not so much for Afghan troops, who will fire at the civilians the Taliban are hiding behind, so the Taliban usually don't even try the human shield tactic when confronted by Afghan troops (unless there are Western journalists present).
But the Taliban are not the only enemy. The worst one is the tribalism. This produces an attitude that encourages attacks on those who do not belong to your tribe, admiration for warriors, and the use of bribes on anyone. The non-violent aspects of this are called corruption. But combined with the fondness for weapons, warriors and violence, it produces the mess that is Afghanistan. This is not a unique situation, and is commonly found in the most chaotic and violent areas in the world (Somalia, the Balkans, eastern Congo).
The Pakistani Army's war on their Taliban over the last year, and the worldwide recession, have cut Afghanistan's exports by over a quarter. At the same time, Western nations are spending more money there, as more troops and reconstruction projects are brought in. While Western troops attract suicide and roadside bombs, the most frequent threat is, well, crime. There are far more Afghan criminals out there, seeking to steal from you, than people wanting commit jihad. More Afghans are concerned with money, rather than what happens in the mosque. Troops often find that the "Taliban" they are fighting is actually a gang of heavily armed bandits. But killing these bandits is appreciated by the locals, because there is little difference between an attack from Taliban or bandits, and both are feared.
America's Moslem allies, especially those from cultures that still have lots of tribalism and corruption, counsel that the use of bribes, force and amnesty deals is necessary to achieve any kind of "victory" (a reduction in religious violence) in Afghanistan. This advice isn't always welcome, as it includes actions that make Western politicians vulnerable to a politically correct and self-righteous mass media. This is what makes Afghanistan seem like a no-win situation.
A lot of the reform effort is concentrated on the security forces. Here, it's possible to attack illiteracy (most Afghans are unable to read or write) and general ignorance (of how things are done in the modern world). Troops and officers get a lot of education, but a lot of it doesn't stick. Old habits really do die hard. The police are particularly hard to tame, because the cops are in contact with civilians more frequently, and these contacts often end badly. Corruption and incompetence are common in both the army and police, but most Afghans are more familiar with police inadequacies. Serving in the police is also seen, by too many Afghans, as a license to steal (or even murder). Changing that attitude has also proved difficult.
The "Afghan Solution" involves buying off as many tribes and clans as possible, and ruthlessly (off stage, if possible) crushing the diehards. This is not an easy sell in the West, and senior officials (military and political) there carefully avoid discussing these options openly, or in too much detail. Afghan leaders are less reluctant, and that produces all the talk of "negotiating with the Taliban." But in the field, most military commanders will "negotiate with the Taliban," and the current military commander of all American operations in Afghanistan encourages this. But it's best not to let journalists know too much about the details.
No one wants to admit that Afghanistan is not a country, never has been, and will continue, for a while, to be a collection of tribes that use the fiction of a national government mainly to deal with outsiders. While nation building is a worthy goal, Western countries need only look at their own history to see how long it took (generations) to build an acceptable form of government, to understand that good things are not going to happen quickly in Afghanistan.
There are two different wars being fought in Afghanistan. In the north, where drugs, and Pushtuns, are less prevalent, it's easier to identify and hunt down Taliban and pro-Taliban groups and destroy them. The Taliban activity up north are a drug gang financed effort to make it easier to grow poppies (or other drug crops, like cannabis) there, and for smugglers to move through the area unmolested. The northerners have long been hostile to drug crops, but will tolerate the drug smugglers (as long as they pay well for safe passage, and take all their drugs with them across the frontier.) Drug addiction is a growing problem in the region, and everyone knows most of the hard stuff (opium and heroin) comes from southern Afghanistan, and is protected by those Taliban religious fanatics.
May 11, 2010: To demonstrate its efforts to curb corruption, the government announced that it dissolved 172 NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations) that were pretending to be charities, but were actually scams. All but twenty of them were local (Afghan). There are over a thousand NGOs operating in Afghanistan, and the government has been fighting NGO corruption for years.