Afghanistan: This Is Insane, But Normal


June 3,2008: The ceasefire across the border in Pakistan has led to a resumption of Taliban recruiting over there, and sending the gunmen into Afghanistan to terrorize people into supporting the Taliban. In Pakistan, the Taliban have 10,000-20,000 armed tribesmen at their disposal. The Pakistani has about 100,000 soldiers and locally recruited (and thus of dubious loyalty) border guards who are withdrawing from tribal territory as part of a peace deal (that will, hopefully, reduce Islamic terror attacks inside Pakistan). The Pakistani Taliban get paid for fighting in Afghanistan, mainly to protect the heroin production and shipping operations. This is becoming more difficult, because groups of Taliban large enough to be effective (at intimidating groups of armed tribesmen they might encounter in villages or towns) are also large enough to be spotted, and set upon by foreign UAVs (with missiles) or aircraft (with smart bombs). The Taliban still have not come up with tactics to counter this reconnaissance/precision bombing combination, and it is literally killing them. Resorting to suicide bombings (carried out by al Qaeda cells, for the most part), just angers more Afghans because so many of the casualties are civilians.

The sharp increase in world food prices has hit Afghanistan, with the price of wheat going up 400 percent so far this year. This has hurt the Taliban, because many farmers now find it more profitable (and less of a hassle) to grow wheat instead of poppies (used to create opium and heroin.) This has also led to more raids on food convoys (headed for parts of the country suffering famine).

Afghan intelligence officials say that Osama Bin Laden and other senior al Qaeda leaders are hiding out in the highlands of northern Pakistan, and, gee, wouldn't it be swell if American and NATO troops went after those murdering bastards and did the world a favor by killing or capturing them. This is basically the official line of the Afghan government, which has, for over half a century, blamed Pakistan for much of Afghanistan's internal problems. Some of that criticism is true, but U.S. troops invading Pakistan is a fantasy that only plays well in Afghanistan. Thus Afghan president Karzai blames Pakistan for all the Taliban violence in Afghanistan, and, at the same time, criticizes the foreign troops for killing Afghan civilians while fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, instead of doing the smart (but diplomatically insane) thing by moving the fighting into Pakistan. Karzai only cares about Afghan politics, which depends on corruption (to keep the right people paid off) and not hurting anyone's feelings. Yes, this sounds very strange, but don't forget where it is all taking place. Afghanistan has never had a "government" in the Western sense. The tribes and provincial warlords still control most of the country. The central government is tolerated only so long as it keeps the foreigners under control, and has some money to pass around. The central government can use its military and police muscle locally not to acquire power for itself, but to back a different faction in a local power struggle. All this is so alien to most Westerners that many have not a clue about what's really going on.

American intelligence agrees with the Afghans on some points. The U.S. sees the Afghan Taliban as on the ropes. The Taliban have had some 7,000 fighters killed in the last two years, and at least twice as many wounded and able to return home with physical evidence of their defeat. That's more than ten times as many casualties suffered by Afghan and foreign security forces. Worse for the Taliban, U.S. intelligence has gotten better at locating and tracking Taliban leaders, and an increasing number of those are being killed (usually by a smart bomb or missile) or captured. The U.S. is going after the Taliban brass in Pakistan, but only with Hellfire missiles launched from UAVs. The Pakistan government won't tolerate foreign troops over their territory, but robots are OK. The Afghans don't appreciate this distinction. As the Afghans see it, if the Pakistani government can tolerate Pakistani tribesmen joining the Taliban and invading Afghanistan, what's wrong with Afghan, U.S. and NATO troops returning the favor. This issue continues to be a major disagreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan, not to mention NATO and the U.S.

Meanwhile, the Taliban really believe they are on a Mission From God and cannot fail. More practical Taliban leaders believe that the foreign troops will eventually get tired of mucking about in this part of the world, and go home. At that point, the Taliban will be on more even terms with the Afghan government and will be able, in typical Afghan fashion, to negotiate some concessions. The Taliban leadership still sees al Qaeda as a dangerous ally. Not just because these foreign fanatics attract powerful Western forces into Afghanistan, but because al Qaeda is too bloodthirsty, even by Afghan standards. Yet the shared belief in radical Islam makes it difficult for the Taliban to disown or expel al Qaeda. This doesn't stop some tribes from running al Qaeda out of their territory. But there are dozens of tribes along the border, and some are always hospitable to homicidal foreigners of a proper Islamic radical persuasion.




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