Afghanistan: Another Finale


February 14, 2011: The Taliban broadcast a call for Afghans to rise up like Egyptians and overthrow their corrupt government. This was mostly for the foreigners. Egyptians feel Egyptian and had a real government to overthrow. Afghanistan has none of that. The national government is supported by foreign money. Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations on earth, and could support only a fraction (less than a fifth) of the 350,000 soldiers and police now in uniform. Most Afghans are loyal to their tribal leaders, more than to any national politicians in Afghanistan, or the governors the president in Kabul appoints. Not allowing voters to elect their own governors is supposed to help prevent regional warlords from becoming too powerful, and starting another civil war. Afghan history is full of battles and wars between the tribes, often described by foreigners as "civil wars."  Each province is dominated by one or more tribe. Power within a tribe comes largely from being able to provide cash, food or other goodies for key clans or families, and the tribal population in general. These days, the money either comes from foreign aid (military or economic), or crime (mostly the drug trade, but also the traditional methods like robbery, kidnapping and extortion).

Sustained by drug money, many Pushtun tribes in southern Afghanistan  continue to support the Taliban. But to most Afghans, the Taliban are another bunch of "foreigners" trying to dominate them. The Taliban came close to controlling all of Afghanistan in the 1990s, but never quite managed to finish the job when American cash and smart bombs arrived in late 2001 to reinforce the anti-Taliban coalition. The Taliban were shattered in weeks and forced to flee to Pakistan. While the Taliban were run out of the country, the more discreet and apolitical drug gangs kept their heads down and kept business going. Even the Taliban was willing to tolerate the drug gangs, as long as the Taliban got paid. During the 1990s, these drug profits were the main source of income for the Taliban.

The NATO strategy for the last two years has been to hurt the drug gangs, and the Taliban groups that protect the production of opium (scraped from poppy plants) and heroin (refined from opium). Hashish has become a big crop as well, partly because growing marijuana attracts less attention than poppies. This strategy has pushed the Taliban out of their key base areas, and destroyed a lot of drug gang assets (the improvised laboratories that refined the opium into heroin, stocks of lab supplies, opium and heroin, as well as vehicles, safe houses and weapons.) The drug gangs have lots of cash, but income is falling and the Taliban is getting paid less. Hard times in southern Afghanistan.

The Taliban is fighting back and the drug gangs are scrambling to rebuild their operations. The key weapon is not spectacular suicide bombings or mass attacks by dozens of gunmen. No, the most effective weapons are the death squads, killing the police and army commanders, village and tribal leaders and government officials who will not cooperate. The U.S. drive to increase police recruitment and training is largely to shut down these assassins, and the bandits in general. It can work. In many parts of southern Afghanistan, the police checkpoints make it difficult, often impossible, for assassins to get to their targets. But cops who can be bribed or bullied are still in the majority. Effective national police are still a work in progress. When the warm weather arrives in the south, the Taliban will make some major efforts to regain control of villages, valleys and city neighborhoods. NATO and U.S. forces are preparing to take on this Taliban effort. For the last few years, the once feared "Taliban Spring Offensive" has been a bust. But this year there's a do-or-die air about it. The Taliban and drug gangs have had a bad year, and need some relief.

Most Afghans are tired of the decades of fighting. The war that began in 1979 has never stopped, and an increasing number of Afghans are willing to try anything for peace. In most of Afghanistan, the war is over, but in the south, remnants of the Taliban and their drug gang partners keep at it. Even in the south, NATO has found that villages and valleys are willing to openly defy the Taliban, if provided with some weapons, and backup from NATO (especially air power). This has made it more difficult for the Taliban to get around, and made success in the coming Spring Offensive even more urgent.

The Afghan governments ban on private security firms has stalled $6 billion worth of aid projects. The security firm ban was not directed against foreign guards, as much as it was against Afghan ones. Any armed group in Afghanistan is suspect, and some of the Afghan security firms used their ability to move around openly with guns to engage in crime (often in the pay of drug gangs or some provincial strongman). The security firms also recruited the best police and army commanders, offering higher pay for a legal job. The government did not appreciate this. The disbanded Afghan security firms were to be replaced by special police units. But the key to the security firms was good leadership (usually a bunch of sharp guys from the same tribe or clan). The police discourages that kind of leadership, as it often leads to corruption. The supply of dependable commanders in the police is small, as there are too many safer, and more lucrative, ways for a smart guy to make money in Afghanistan. The low literacy rate, and education levels in general, means there are few qualified men to be police or military commanders. These jobs require literacy, and a high degree of loyalty to the central government. Most of the sharp guys aren't literate and are loyal to tribe, not some foreigner (someone from another tribe) in Kabul.

The policing works most effectively where the cops are recruited from local tribes. The cops are protecting their own people, and this makes a big difference. That's why the Taliban have made little headway in northern Afghanistan. In fact, many of the Taliban groups raised up there (with drug money) have collapsed. The Pushtun tribes (nearly all Taliban are Pushtun) are a minority in the north, and rather than risk tribal wars they would lose, many Pushtun tribes turned against the Taliban up there. The remaining Taliban are fighting back, trying to intimidate the pro-government Pushtun tribal leaders into changing their minds. But as long as the Taliban down south do not appear to be winning, the northern Pushtun leaders calculate that it's better to oppose the few Taliban in their neighborhood.

But not all the violence has anything to do with the Taliban or the drug gangs. There's always a lot of tribal and personal feuds going on. Then there's always lots of criminal activity, especially banditry (a respected way for  daring fellows to make money, as long as they do not rob their own tribe).  

And then there are foreign affairs. Afghan officials and tribal leaders see Pakistan as the greater foreign threat. Iran is also a problem, but the Iranians are more interested in economic opportunities, and hurting Sunni extremists (like the Taliban and al Qaeda) than they are in causing mayhem in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis see Afghanistan as an area that Pakistan should have a lot of control over, lest it be turned into an Indian base. The Pakistanis are obsessed with the idea that India is out to destroy them. The reality is that India is more concerned with China, and internal problems. But because of long Pakistani support of the Taliban (which the Pakistanis actually created), and of Islamic terror groups attacking India, Afghanistan and India have become increasingly cooperative in working against Pakistani backed Islamic terrorists. Pakistan's actions have brought about the ultimate Pakistani nightmare.

February 12, 2011: In Kandahar city, several groups of Taliban attacked police targets. At least 16 people died.


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