Afghanistan: Putting On A Show


May 24, 2010: Although the Taliban claim to be the enemy of corruption and violence, they cannot exist without either. Most Afghans recognize this, which is why the Taliban are so unpopular, and really only a threat in one small part of the country (Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where most Taliban come from). The Taliban bribe who they can, and terrorize the rest. These are classic Afghan tactics, and everyone from warlords to bandits uses them. What makes the Taliban unique is the religious angle, and the use of a drug gang alliance to raise cash. The Taliban use religion as another form of terror. Threatening people for not being Islamic enough is easy to do in Afghanistan, where religion has always been worn lightly, but not ignored entirely. Yet the Taliban are generally perceived as thuggish hypocrites. They turn teenagers into suicide bombers and protect the drug trade that has turned millions of Afghans (and even more Pakistanis and Iranians) into opium or heroin addicts.

While the Taliban may be perceived as loathsome losers at the ground level, their leaders are clever enough to play the Western media. The Taliban face a major problem with Western troops, who are unbeatable on the battlefield and very hard to kill in general. So the Taliban strive to make every foreigner death a news event. Thus the preference for suicide bomb attacks in urban areas, where foreign journalists can easily cover the event. Outside the cities, the Taliban consider foreign journalists as sources of ransom, and to be kidnapped on sight. So most foreign journalists stay in the cities, waiting for whatever media events the Taliban will bring to them.

The only "fighting" the Taliban do is against people they cannot bribe or coerce. Taliban death squads go after these people, who are usually uncomfortably effective police commanders or local leaders (elected or tribal). The Taliban don't want a lot of international publicity for this, but do want Afghans to know what happens to those who do not cooperate. The Taliban do have the most effective assassination capability in the country. But the Taliban can really only use these killers effectively in the south, where Pushtuns are the majority. Occasional hits outside the south usually fail. The Taliban have, in effect, revived the ancient civil war between themselves (about 40 percent of the population) and the non-Pushtun (Tajik, Hazara, Turkic) majority. The Pushtuns were always more united than their opponents, and able to get the majority to let Pushtuns dominate what is now known as "Afghanistan." But because of the American intervention in late 2001, the Northern Alliance (of non-Pushtuns) were able to defeat the (Pushtun) Taliban, and grab a majority of senior government jobs. This has caused resentment among the Pushtuns, and even less willingness to work with the national government. It helps the Taliban recruit, even though most Pushtuns want the Taliban to go away.  

Reducing the corruption in Afghanistan has proved to be very difficult. Afghans simply have too small a circle of people they will be honest with. Beyond that small circle of trust, anything goes. Taking "loot" from "strangers" is an ancient and admired custom that is difficult to stamp out. Then there is the widespread knowledge that so many Afghans have gotten rich plundering the American and European foreigners, with all their reconstruction aid and contracts for supporting the troops.

A recent suicide bombing sent the American death toll in Afghanistan, since 2001, to over a thousand. This made the news. What was not reported is that the death rate among American troops in Afghanistan has been less than a third of what it was in previous wars. The Taliban are well aware of this, as are local journalists. Foreign journalists tend to ignore this angle, which the Taliban appreciate.

May 22, 2010: Police disrupted a Taliban plot to fire 300 rockets into Kabul, to disrupt a high-profile conference of local leaders, to discuss ways to deal with the Taliban and other problems.

May 21, 2010:  The U.S. announced plans to upgrade Shindand air base, in the southwest. The base is only 30 kilometers from the Iranian border. Iran believes that the United States runs air and ground recon missions, into Iran, from this base. Iran is not happy with this upgrade.

May 19, 2010: The Taliban attacked Bagram air base, outside Kabul. This seemed to be more of a publicity stunt, as a few rockets were fired into the huge (5,000 acres, 2,000 hectares) have little chance of doing any damage, and most of the several dozen Taliban who attacked on the ground were killed or wounded (and repulsed). But the Western media were all over this, as another indicator of the growing Taliban threat.





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