Afghanistan: Follow The Money


October 17, 2007: While religion is a major factor in the Afghan unrest, the biggest cause of violence is money, or the lack of it. The booming heroin trade is doing more to keep the violence going, than anything else. This is the poorest country in Asia, and one of the most heavily armed. The Taliban arose in the 1990s to halt a civil war over money. The Taliban believed religion was more important. But that didn't last long, and the Taliban fell within two months of the U.S. attacking in 2001, with smart bombs and suitcases full of hundred dollar bills. Now it's the drug lords hauling around the fat stacks of hundreds. This cash enables the Taliban to hire gunmen (at several times what police and soldiers get paid). These lads try to protect poppy fields, and the labs where the poppies are refined into opium and heroin. The money also pays for the Taliban and al Qaeda suicide bomber teams. Technically, the Taliban are fighting for political power, but they cannot ignore what their paymasters want.

The Taliban also have their own sources of income, mainly from extortion and kidnapping. The Taliban group that got $10 million for 21 Korean hostages recently, is now a local legend. The leaders of that group are openly boasting of all the weapons they are buying to fight the British and American troops. Most of the money, however, is going into appliances, housing, vehicles and communications equipment. Satellite phones are expensive, and every Afghan wants one.

Most Afghans want a better life, and the battle with the Taliban comes in second. For example, Canada had to shut down a training program for Afghan officers, because too many of the students, sent to Canada for English language training, quit and applied for asylum instead. For many Afghans, their country is worth leaving, more than it is worth dying for.

The Taliban are faced with the same dilemma as al Qaeda in Iraq. Unable to stand up to foreign, or even Afghan, troops, more effort is put into suicide bombings. There were only 17 of these in 2005, but that rose to 123 last year. For the first eight months of 2007, there were 103 suicide bombings, which killed over 200. The major Taliban problem is that 80 percent of the victims are civilians. That increases general dislike of al Qaeda and the Taliban. But these two organizations don't care, because they goal is to establish (or re-establish) a religious dictatorship. Afghan's don't want that either. But mainly they don't want the suicide bombings. A recent example saw a bomber detonate his vest in his home, killing his mother and several siblings. The bomber had just returned from Pakistan, where time in a religious school had convinced him that suicide bombing (and a payoff to his family) was the way to go. His mother and siblings disagreed, an argument ensued and, for reasons unclear (the neighbors could hear but not see the argument), the bomb went off. There is another neighborhood going against the Taliban. In a separate incident. another bomber had second thoughts, and approached police to surrender. But his vest went off was he tried to take it off.

An increasing number of Afghans are turning on the Taliban, even if they agree with the Islamic conservative approach to life. This means more tips about who is Taliban or al Qaeda, or where weapons are hidden. This trend is encouraged by the wider use of cash rewards. This approach works better the more the Taliban anger Afghans with indiscriminate terror tactics.

But ultimately, control of Afghanistan goes to those with the most money. In ages past this was the tribes with the access to the most valuable resources. A thousand years ago, it was the trade route from China to Europe, that passed through. Today it's the heroin trade. Whoever controls that, or eliminates it, will control Afghanistan.




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