Afghanistan: November 21, 2001


The UN has arranged unity talks (in Berlin, Germany) among Afghan factions (Northern Alliance, Pushtuns and Taliban) for next week. Tajik leader Rabbani insists this meeting is merely cosmetic (to get the UN off his back) and that any real discussions will take place in Afghanistan. The basic problem is that there are so many factions in Afghanistan, and they are all heavily armed and not hesitant about using force. Burhanuddin Rabbani is a capable fellow, which is how he got where he is. Rabbani is a Tajik, a professor of sociology, a religious conservative and an Islamic scholar as well as a politician. He was a major player in the civil war of the early 1990s. But this led to a non-Pushtun coalition (the current Northern Alliance) entering Kabul in 1992 and trying to establish a national government. That didn't work. The Pushtuns were angry at not being in charge and the Northern Alliance troops were not able to deliver law and order. This led to increasing banditry, looting, rape and so on. Rabbani is trying to deal with the law and order issue this time around. But there are other problems. Rabbani is a religious conservative. Not quite as strict as the Taliban, but close enough to upset a lot of Afghans (especially women and more liberal city dwellers). And then there are the Pushtuns. For centuries, the arrangement between the Pushtuns (40 percent of the population) and the other ethnic groups was that a Pushtun would be the king (or president, or whatever). The Pushtuns, in return, would not do anything to enrage the other groups. Rabbani has two big strikes against him (being a Tajik and head of the early 1990s government) and several minor ones (a religious conservative, in his 70s, hungry for power and not very charismatic.) Rabbani knows that he would probably get voted out by a Loya Jirga (grand council of tribal chiefs). So he is delaying that to give him time to do what he does best; cut deals. Meanwhile, the country is doing what it usually does, running itself. There's no danger of Afghanistan breaking up into many ministates. That's the normal state of affairs. The provincial governors are usually locals who, in the past, would get a nod from the king (who "appointed" them), which was another way of saying that the king thought that this governor could get along with the other governors. A king, or any other "ruler" of Afghanistan, who tried to appoint governors without consulting the locals was asking for trouble, and usually got it. So the local strongmen are appointing themselves governor (after working out deals with the local chiefs.) In some provinces, a king is needed to settle a stand off between two equally powerful candidates. Aside from that, the main problem with the lack of a legitimate head of state is the loss of an arbitrator of disputes in the provinces. And that's about all the central government does, aside from skimming off a bit of any taxes or foreign aid that pass through the capital. That isn't really useful, but it's another ancient tradition that will be difficult to discard.

The two remaining centers of Taliban power continue to hold out (Kunduz and Kandahar). Kunduz, besieged by Northern Alliance troops, is particularly tricky. Many of the Taliban soldiers (mainly foreigners) are with bin Laden brigades and do not want to surrender. The Afghan Taliban do want to surrender, and this includes the leader of the Taliban troops inside Kunduz. While some Afghan Taliban are reported to be trying to sell their weapons so they can sneak out of the city, foreigner Taliban are still arresting and killing Afghan Taliban they suspect of disloyalty. The U.S. says that the foreigner Taliban must be arrested, and the Northern Alliance has shown more willingness to do this. But the Taliban, especially the foreigners, don't want to surrender to the Northern Alliance (retribution could get ugly). The foreigner's don't want to surrender to Americans either. Both the Northern Alliance and the U.S. have said they will screen the prisoners, find the terrorists and war criminals, and prosecute them. The Taliban want to surrender to the UN. Oops, the UN doesn't have any troops or personnel to handle the surrender of over 10,000 troops. And they want to give up to the UN so they can take advantage of the anger many Arab and Moslem states have expressed against American operations in Afghanistan. This would allow the terrorists among the Taliban troops to delay, and even escape, prosecution. The UN is basically a debating society and the Moslem nations would be under a lot of pressure from their restive populations. So a debate would ensue while the accused took it easy in a UN detention camp. Meanwhile, there's also the possibility that a large sum of money will change hands and many, or all, of the foreigner Taliban will be allowed to slip away.

One of the larger long terms problems with Afghanistan has not gotten much attention; the drug lords and the popularity of poppy cultivation among Afghan farmers. The leaders of the drug gangs are usually local chiefs or warlords who have gone into the drug business. Nothing unusual about this. Many tribes have run lucrative smuggling rackets for generations. All very organized and everyone in the tribe benefits. In typical Afghan fashion, deals are made with the provincial governor and border guards to get the drugs out of the country. Where the border guards could not be bribed (as on the Afghan and Tajik borders), you went armed and fought your way through. Afghanistan is the principal source of opium and heroin, at least as long as the drug operations are allowed to function. The main reason the drug problem is being put aside is because many of the drug lords have led their men against the Taliban. But when things settle down, it will be different.

A reinforced battalion of U.S. marines are preparing to join the search for Osama bin Laden in southern Afghanistan. The marines are on amphibious ships off the coast of Pakistan. The marines have their own transport helicopters to move them in and keep them supplied. The British have not been allowed to land over a thousand of their marines at Bagram airport (outside Kabul) because the Northern Alliance do not want a lot of foreign troops in the country. But the U.S. marines will be going to a part of southern Afghanistan where there are not any Northern Alliance troops, or anyone else for that matter. The British marines may join them there, if supply arrangements can be made (the Royal Marines don't have nearly as many helicopters as their U.S. brethren. 

The $25 million U.S. reward for the capture of bin Laden has not attracted many takers because bin Laden is known to be guarded by several hundred devoted followers. Even getting within a few miles of bin Laden could get you killed by one of the guards. While the money would do a lot for any tribe, Afghans are not accustomed to risking the high losses such an operation would entail. The reward offer has been modified to include a payoff just for "information leading to the capture of bin Laden." This has apparently led to a least a few groups of armed local Afghans seen wandering about looking for something that could turn into $25 million. 


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