Afghanistan: The Pushtun Problem Persists


July 8, 2011: The nations supplying the most combat troops are beginning to withdraw them this year. The U.S. will reduces its forces by 10,000, Britain by 500 by the end of the year, and more after that. All 3,000 Canadians are gone. Afghanistan is supposed to have 300,000 soldiers and police by the end of October. But this does not replace the departing foreign troops. The Afghan security forces are less professional, largely illiterate and poorly led and equipped compared to foreign troops. Worst of all, the Afghan forces can be bribed, and this has always been a problem. Worse, tribal rivalries and animosities still exist among uniformed personnel. These are mostly between the Pushtun (40 percent of the national population and dominant in the south) and everyone else (the tribes dominant in the north). Because of these ancient rivalries, and Pushtun dominance in the Taliban and the heroin trade, most of the security troops, and an even higher proportion of the officers, are non-Pushtun. In some respects, this is good. Non-Pushtun officers and troops are more difficult (but not impossible) for the Pushtuns (Taliban and drug gangsters) to bribe or intimidate.  Local and tribal loyalties remain stronger than national ones. Most northern police and soldiers are not eager to die trying to bring law and order to the Pushtun south, but they are more willing to kill, rob or just annoy, Pushtuns.

To understand Afghanistan, you have to look at the situation from the point of view of Afghans. That means appreciating the fact that since September 11, 2001. Afghanistan has been going through a burst of unprecedented prosperity (from foreign aid and heroin exports) and peace. American intervention ended the north-south civil war. Until the Pakistani created Taliban intervened in 1995, it had been a multi-front civil war, with one of the factions being the communist government the Russians left behind when they departed in 1989. The drug gangs flourished in the 1990s, because there was no law at all and tribal warlords could be bought (or, more accurately, rented). The Taliban taxed the (largely Pushtun) drug gangs, and this became the main source of income for the Islamic zealots. The civil war between Taliban and northerners was still going on by September 11, 2001. After the Taliban were defeated, they didn't give up (trying to rule the entire country). The Taliban leaders fled to Pakistan (where they were given sanctuary in the southeast, in Baluchistan, right across the border from the Taliban heartland in Helmand and Kandahar provinces) and pro-Taliban Pushtun tribesmen slowly rebuilt their power.

The current fighting in Afghanistan is the continuation of a war that has been going on for centuries. The collection of tribes that came to be known as Afghanistan over the last three centuries, has always been dominated by its Pushtun minority. That’s because the Pushtun are the most aggressive and warlike people in the region. Today, the Pushtun are also the poorest and most illiterate people in the region, and most likely to support Islamic radicalism. The Pushtun are a problem, but dealing with them is also the solution.

In the last few months, feuds by Pushtun tribes has led to rockets and mortar shells being fired across the border, from both sides. The Taliban and other Islamic terror groups are involved, as are Afghan police and troops. The Afghan government is very upset about this, because they believe the Pakistanis feel no remorse for such transgressions. Pakistan has long viewed Afghanistan as a lawless source of tribal raiders, and that the border was an artificial impediment to Pakistani peacekeeping efforts. But since Pakistan created the Taliban in the early 1990s, and encouraged the spread of Islamic radicalism in the 1990s, the border unrest has become more about Islamic terrorism. But Pakistanis still do not take the Afghan border as seriously as the Afghans do, and the Afghans resent it. But recently, some of these tribal and terrorist feuds have led to gunmen hiding out in Afghanistan, and crossing the nearby border to conduct raids into Pakistan. The Pakistani government is not happy with this.  

The increased violence in eastern Afghanistan is partly the result of the successful campaign (of foreign and Afghan troops) in southern Afghanistan over the last year. The damage done to the Taliban and drug gangs there has enabled the Afghan police and army to install a degree of control that the government has never had before. The big question is, can the government forces maintain that control against hostile tribes and drug gangs. Heroin production and smuggling are under a great deal of pressure, and the drug gangs have been suffering huge losses. Thus, over the last year, the share of world heroin production in northern Burma has nearly doubled, to 12 percent. Increased tribal unrest in northern Burma is one reason for the return of the heroin trade, but growing demand in neighboring China is another along with a growing shortage of Afghan opium and heroin.

Losses for foreign troops were lower the first six months of the year, versus the same period last year. Civilian losses are much higher (several hundred dead a month) and 80 percent of them are caused by the Taliban. Note that losses to the "non-Islamic terrorist related" causes (crime, tribal violence) are much higher still. Afghanistan is, and has long been, a very violent place. Afghans are amused at how upset the foreigners get over the small losses their troops take. Afghans also admire that, but take perverse pride in the ability of Afghans to take higher losses, and just keep going. An increasing number of Afghans are fed up with that, and a lot of the new wealth to be had in Afghanistan is paid to people smugglers, who will get Afghans to the kinder, gentler and far more prosperous West (or even India, which is booming these days.)

July 5, 2011: Under growing pressure from foreign aid donors, police arrested two former officials of the Kabul Bank (which was hit by a huge corruption scandal last year). Western auditors estimate that Kabul Bank insiders stole about $850 million. Last week, the former head of the Afghan central bank (Abdul Qadir Fitrat) fled to the United States, in fear for his life. Fitrat exposed a lot of the details of the Kabul Bank scandal, and openly complained of the government's unwillingness to prosecute those responsible. Unofficially, that's because no one carries out a theft that large unless a lot of the loot is shared with some very high ranking government officials. The two men arrested were the two highest officials of the bank and each owned 28 percent of the bank.

June 28, 2011: Nine heavily armed suicide bombers attacked a modern hotel in Kabul. The well planned assault, believed to involve the Taliban and Haqqani Network, left all the attackers dead, along with nine police and two policemen. The attack was primarily for the publicity.  Given the extent to which anyone can be bribed, attacks on any Afghan target, except the most powerful government officials (and their enormous, and well paid, personal security forces) are possible.

June 25, 2011:  A car bomb demolished a small rural hospital in eastern Afghanistan. The Islamic terrorists know that medical aid, economic growth and education are popular with most Afghans, and attack it whenever possible, so as to eliminate these un-Islamic Western influences.






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