Afghanistan: The Closing of the West


December 12, 2007: In the south, the Taliban made a big show of holding on to the town of Musa Qala. Located 130 kilometers northeast of the city of Kandahar, British forces chased out the Taliban a year and a half ago. Then the Brits made a deal with the local tribal leaders, who promised to keep the Taliban out, if British and Afghan troops kept their distance (so the town was not fought over). The was a power struggle going on in the area, between the tribes and the Taliban. The British decided to let the tribes sort it out, and agreed to the proposal. The British and Afghan forces withdrew in October, 2006. But four months later, the Taliban defeated the tribal forces (mainly through intimidation, which is the way it usually works in tribal warfare here) and occupied the town. NATO forces spent most of this year going after more urgent targets, but last month Musa Qala's turn came. Afghan troops took the lead, and Taliban forces fled the town beforehand, despite boasting that they had 2,000 fighters there who would defeat whatever NATO threw at them. Over a hundred Taliban were killed or wounded as they fled the town on vehicles. Before they left, they killed several dozen civilians, most of them executed, often in grisly fashion, as spies. One recent murder was particularly gruesome, a teenage boy roasted to death.

Tribal wars in this part of the world don't usually get that nasty, but the drug gangs and Taliban have raised the stakes. Cash from the drug trade, and Islamic "charities" has bought the services of many tribesmen, who would not normally be inclined to terrorize and torture fellow Afghans. The money, and greed, are more of a factor here than religion. The Taliban make a big deal of protecting Pushtun traditions, but most Afghans see that for the lie it is. The Taliban are about power, a dictatorship in the name of religion, backed by money from the sale of heroin and opium. While the foreign and Afghan troops are unbeatable, there are not enough of them to take down the Taliban quickly. So the war will go on for years, as they usually do in this part of the world.

The government is trying to effect some permanent change, through economic development and education. The Taliban and drug gangs see that as a threat. Better job opportunities mean more difficulty hiring illiterate young tribesmen as armed enforcers. In many parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban, or similar warlord groups, have found that the traditional scams no longer work, because of economic development and education. This is the kind of culture shock some Afghans encounter when they move to Western countries, where you can no longer grab your gun, collect some tribal buddies, and go settle disputes the old fashioned way.

Think of many parts of Afghanistan as the classic "Wild West," where the guns were many and the rule of law intermittent. The American "Wild West" was "closed" a century ago. But in many parts of the world it still exists. This is usually ignored by the industrialized countries, as it's a thankless and expensive task trying to clean up those places. If it weren't for the terrorists bases and training camps, NATO and American troops would not be here. But the foreign troops did come, the terrorist operations were shut down, and the foreign troops have to stay until Islamic terrorism is no longer fashionable. That could take another 5-10 years. That's how much time the Afghans have to use this foreign help to bring an end to their own Wild West era, and move out of the 19th century.


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