Afghanistan: The Land Of A Thousand Scams



September 7, 2008: Rumors that Afghan president Karzai is on the drug gangs payroll has become more obvious, as he pushes for getting veto power over U.S. and NATO military operations. This came to a head recently, because of a battle in western Afghanistan two weeks ago. There, a U.S./Afghan raid on a village was met with fire from several dozen Taliban who had taken shelter there. Smart bombs were used, the U.S. and Afghan troops went in to search the ruins for Taliban documents and to count the bodies. There were 25 Taliban and five civilians dead. After the troops left, the Taliban began pushing the story that 70, or more, civilians, including fifty children, were killed. The number constantly changed. The reason was that, since the Moslem custom is to bury the dead immediately, and forbid exhuming bodies for any kind of examination, you can pull off this kind of scam if you have the locals terrified into keeping quiet. Then there's the "compensation" scam angle. Foreign troops will pay thousands of dollars (often over $5,000) in compensation for loss, per civilian killed during military operations. So Afghans have an incentive to claim as many dead as they can get away with. Afghan culture puts a premium on scamming foreigners. Any Afghan who doesn't try to hustle an outsider is looked down on. It's the ancient "us versus them" mentality, which applies even of the outsider is helping you. Afghans were quick to pick up on how all this plays in the West, and have learned how to manipulate foreign journalists and NGOs (who are often adjuncts of Western media).

President Karzai knows of these scams and how Afghans regard foreigners, but he is under pressure to get the military heat off the drug gangs. Foreign troops, particularly British and Canadian, have done lots of damage to heroin production in Helmand province (where most Afghan heroin is produced), and the gangs are putting pressure on the senior Afghan officials on the payroll to do something. Karzai was told by his top military commander in the west, and the local commando commander, that the claim of 50 dead children was a scam, and Karzai reacted by relieving the two men and ordering them to Kabul for questioning. Kabul is not a safe place for those who oppose the drug gangs, as judge who could not be bribed was recently murdered there, as he was in the midst of dealing with drug cases.

The drug gangs are hurting. In addition to increasing foreign military action in Helmand province, there has been a drought. This has cut this year's heroin production by about a fifth. Some serious money is being lost, and the drug warlords and tribal leaders who took the losses are intent on fixing the problem. Even with the drop, U.S. anti-drug experts expect the Taliban to net $70 million from their participation in the drug trade. This is three or four times the take in the second most popular Taliban money maker-kidnapping.

Meanwhile, in areas, like Helmand, where the drug gangs are strong, the police either go along or get out. This means bandits are free to operate with few restrictions. This has led to an increase in highway robbery (often via a fake police checkpoint) and kidnapping. It's gotten so bad that deminers are again being grabbed, and being held for ransom. For over two decades, most Afghans have agreed to leave the deminers (who are largely Afghans by now) alone. But now that most of the mines have been cleared, the outlaws feel deminers are fair game.

While the drug gangs are complaining of Western military pressure, the Taliban have more headaches across the border in Pakistan. There, a new government, and a new commander of the Pakistani army, have turned up the heat on the Taliban. Over a thousand Pakistani Taliban have been  killed or wounded in the last few weeks, and Afghan Taliban leaders who are based in Pakistan, are no longer safe. Some have already been arrested, and most others are fleeing for the uncertain safety of Afghanistan.

The Afghan Army currently has 68,000 troops, but 12 percent are in training. Current plans call for a 90,000 man force by the end of next year. New plans will expand that to 134,000 two or three years after that. Afghanistan can't afford an army much larger than 70-80,000 men, if paying the bills itself. The additional troops are being paid for by NATO and the United States, and when those subsidies go away, Afghan will have to shrink its force.

September 4, 2008: The Taliban were heartened by a recent Canadian poll showing that 61 percent of Canadians believe the expense, in money and the lives of Canadian troops, is not worth it in Afghanistan. The Taliban have been concentrating on killing Canadian troops, for the purpose of influencing public opinion back home. The Taliban believe that this public opinion will cause Canadian troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan. Current Canadian public opinion is still willing to keep troops in Afghanistan through 2011, but not after that. The Taliban believe time is on their side.

September 2, 2008: U.S. and Afghan troops killed 220 Taliban in Helmand province in the last week, and shut down more drug operations. What caused most of the Taliban losses was an elaborate British operation to truck in a 200 ton turbine, and other equipment, for a dam power plant in Helmand province. The Taliban have been trying to shut down this dam, and its partly completed power plant, for years. The Taliban believe that the electricity from the expanded power plant will give Afghans in the area less reason to support the Taliban.





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