Afghanistan: Getting Rich Doing God's Work

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: August 14, 2011: The area between Kabul and the Pakistani border has become a bloody battleground as Pakistani Taliban and Islamic terrorists cross the border in larger numbers. These foreign (mainly Pakistani, Arab and Chechen) gunmen have angered Pakistan with efforts to take control of the tribal territories, and the many resulting attacks on Pakistani officials and security forces. While a tiny portion of Pakistan (North Waziristan) is still a refuge, the place is constantly patrolled by American UAVs, which use their missiles to kill Islamic terrorists (especially leaders).  Thus Pakistan has become a much more dangerous place for Islamic radicals.

The Afghan Taliban has drug money, and a need for some help, so hundreds of foreign gunmen have crossed in Afghanistan during the past few months. The fighting has been intense, with the foreigners getting the worst of it. The new guys don’t know the territory, or how to cope with the American tactics (lots of UAVs, helicopters and smart bombs). A lucky RPG hit on an American CH-47 helicopter brought some attention to this area, and distracted from the fact that this part of the border has become a graveyard for foreign Islamic radicals. The enemy gets lucky once in a while, but is otherwise unlucky every day.

While the Taliban, and other Islamic radicals, make much of their religious goals (a worldwide religious dictatorship), it’s mostly about power and money. In the few countries where Islamic radicals have gained power (Iran, Sudan, 1990s Afghanistan) the pattern was the same. The leaders used Islamic law to terrorize their opponents, while stealing everything in sight. It’s a sweet deal, getting rich while doing God’s Work. While many of the lower ranking fighters are true-believers, not many of the leaders are. They all either rationalize getting rich, or just go for the gold. It’s the custom around here, as it is in most other places. It’s something worth dying for.

Even being out of power for the last decade has not weakened the Taliban’s larcenous ways. In any area they control, they run a protection scheme, where local businesses pay for “protection” (from the Taliban), or else. This includes foreign aid groups, who must either pay off the Taliban, or, all too often, the government security forces. Despite these deals, the Taliban will often steal foreign aid, or rob the foreigners of their SUVs, pickups and electronic gadgets. If you and your friends have guns, such things are possible and hard to resist.

But the foreign troops do offer things that most Afghans want. Law and order is popular, especially if the tribes are left to deal with internal crimes or feuds. Afghanistan has always been a violent place, even when technically at peace. One thing that keeps the region unstable is the tradition of the warlord. Any talented leader, able to organize a lot of gunmen to seize control of an area (and then get rich by “taxing” and exploiting it), is highly respected and admired. Even though these guys usually do not die in bed, the fact that they can have a few good years, or even decades, inspires others. While vilified in the West, becoming a warlord is still a popular career choice in this region.

Many of the people elected to run the Afghan government come into office with the attitudes of a warlord, not an honest civil servant. A senior job in the government enables you to steal from a lot more people. There are two large sources of incomes. The foreign aid is possibly the biggest one, as the main source of operating funds for the government is foreign aid. But there is a lot of friction between the foreign aid donors and Afghan officials. That’s because the foreigners are constantly making it more difficult (but never impossible) to steal. The most attractive source of income is the drug gangs. It was taxes on the heroin and opium production that financed the Taliban during the 1990s, and still does today. But the Taliban prefer to buy protection from government officials, and do so whenever they can. Often this is not possible, because of the NATO troops, who cannot be bribed. An increasing number of Afghan officials, especially police and army commanders, can’t be bribed either. These must be intimidated or killed, before their Western “clean government” heresy spreads.

One reason the security forces are becoming so professional is that you live longer that way. Learning how to fight like NATO troops, appeals to the warrior in Afghan men. But it’s learning all the communications and coordination procedures that are most difficult. Moving and shooting like NATO troops is useful, but equally important is learning how to work with NATO air power (warplanes with smart bombs and helicopter gunships). This is alien stuff for your average Afghan, but they quickly learn what “friendly fire” means.

This Summer, NATO forces have become more aggressive with their use of firepower. Partly that because more of the fighting is in the less densely populated east. Partly because the new American commander, who took over last month, is a marine. The number of air strikes has doubled (to about 20 a day) and there is more use of artillery, especially GPS guided rockets.

August 6, 2011: A night operation to reinforce some U.S. Army Rangers led to a lucky Taliban shot with an RPG, which brought down a SOCOM (Special Operations Command) MH-47 helicopter. All 38 on board were killed. These included eight Afghans (commandos and an interpreter) and 30 Americans (17 U.S. Navy SEALs and operators from army and air force SOCOM units.) In the long run, SOCOM troops take lower casualties than regular combat units. This type of incident is rare, but will occur if you fly enough night helicopter missions. This particular mission was more dangerous because there was only one way into the valley for the helicopter, and the Taliban had placed some men, armed with machine-guns and RPGs, at that spot. Sunni Arab terrorists in Iraq used similar tactics, and brought down several American helicopters (before the Iraqis were hunted down and killed, the same thing happened to the Taliban responsible for this incident.) 


 

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