Afghanistan: Punishing the Sinners


January 23, 2008: The Taliban are putting more effort into targeted assassinations. The Islamic terrorists want to kill government and tribal officials who are working out peace and reconstruction deals. While the Taliban have some popular support, it is from a minority of the people in the south Afghan regions where the Islamic radicals operate.

The Taliban are also suffering from the increased anti-Taliban activity across the border in Pakistan. There, the Pakistani Taliban have literally gone to war with the government. That's something the Pakistani Taliban have avoided until now, because, for all their fierce reputation, the Pakistani Pushtun tribes are seriously outgunned by the Pakistani army and air force. It's not like the old days, where the wily tribal warriors could hit and run. The Pakistani troops now have helicopters, GPS and artillery. No more with the lowlander troops getting lost in the mountains and constantly ambushed by tribesmen. And when something interesting is found, these troops can call in artillery or helicopter gunships to do the dirty work.

The Pushtun tribes make a big deal about Pakistani troops refusing to fight "fellow Moslems." That's partly true, but it's not the religious angle that causes the problem, it's that Pushtuns comprise over 20 percent of the military. The hill tribes are poor, uneducated and in a region with few economic opportunities. So lots of the more capable young men join the army. When the find themselves back in the hills, facing a battle with their own tribe, they often express misgivings to their commander. In most cases, arrangements are made to avoid a family tragedy. The problem is real, the extent is limited, and it is not changing the bad battlefield odds the tribes face.

Similar problems are found in the Afghan army, but to a much lesser extent. The screening process in Afghanistan keeps out more of the recruits who might be conflicted if faced with hostile Taliban kinsmen. So while the Afghan army becomes more professional and skilled, the Taliban become less so. For example, this week, there was an explosion in a house in southern Afghanistan. It was the home of a "former" Taliban. Examination of the scene, where four people were found dead, revealed that a suicide bomb belt was involved. It apparently went off prematurely. According to informants, the local Taliban suicide squad was having recruiting and training problems. Skilled bomb technicians were in short supply.

One area where the Taliban have had some success is in shutting down schools. The Taliban insist that only religious schools, that teach mainly religion (namely their hard core brand of conservative Islam) should be allowed. State schools are also hated because they let girls attend. This is a big no-no to the Taliban. Most Afghans disagree. Outside of southern Afghanistan, 40 percent of students are girls. But in the south, the Taliban have prevented 300,000 children from attending school. That's about ten percent of the national school population. Mainly the Taliban threaten teachers with death, and burn down school buildings when they have the opportunity. This plays well to the Taliban core supporters, but these are only a small percentage of the south Afghan population. Most of the people down there are enraged at the school closings.

Taliban attacks killed about 2,000 civilians last year, but terrorized more than a hundred times more people. Police have never been a common sight in rural parts of the country, with disorder historically taken care of by tribal militias. But in this case, the Taliban are a tribal militia, representing one, of many, armed factions present in most tribes. The problem is that there are dozens of these Taliban groups throughout southern Afghanistan, and not enough Afghan army and police units to keep after all of them. The foreign troops don't speak the language, but can move through an area, with translators in tow, and kill or capture any Taliban they encounter. While some Taliban are smart enough to flee the approach of Western troops, many are not. They stick around, get spotted by UAVs, or given up by local villagers, and are killed by a smart bomb, or gun fire from the foreign troops.

The average Taliban despises the foreign troops for not being Afghan warriors. But in a gun battle, the foreign troops are more expert killers. Many Taliban warriors die without realizing this. While the warriors can scramble up and down the hills more quickly, and often know the neighborhood hills better, they are lousy fighters. But they make great bullies. In addition to shutting down schools, the Taliban are also trying to halt food headed for parts of the south suffering from shortages. The Taliban considers taking such aid from infidel (non-Moslem) foreigners as sinful.




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