Afghanistan: Changes


October 2,2008:  Banditry has always been a big problem in Afghanistan. There has never been an effective national police force, and army operations merely caused the bandits to scatter back to their villages. The basic problem is that there is not one Afghanistan, but hundreds. Each tribe and warlord has its own army which polices its neighborhood. Everything outside that area is considered potentially hostile territory. Men are free to go outside the tribal area and become bandits. Loot taken in battle (or armed robbery) has always been a big deal in Pushtun tribal culture. So while most Afghans can understand the usefulness of keeping the main road from Kabul to Kandahar open, many of those same Afghans condone their kinsmen robbing people on that highway, as long as it's done to "strangers" (not from our tribe or, even better, foreigners.) While a lot of Afghans, especially those living in urban areas, try to get away from these medieval attitudes, the majority of those in the countryside are more traditional in their attitudes. This is where a lot of the violence comes from. Journalists tend to blame it all on the "Taliban," but in fact, most of it is just those gun totting country boys doing what they've always done. More are on the payroll of some drug gang, than a Taliban outfit. Life would be so much easier, so the conventional wisdom goes,  if peace could be obtained by just destroying the "Taliban." But the real enemy is a set of cultural attitudes that aid and abet the lawlessness. It's a much more elusive target.

Cities like Kabul have become very different parts of Afghanistan. You see lots of women without veils (even as Western media report "Taliban terror creeping into Kabul"), and men without beards. Videos and music are freely available, as are alcoholic drinks. A lot of these city slickers are fresh from the country, where the restrictive lifestyle of "tradition" continues to drive the more adventurous away. This is the sort of thing that offends tribal and religious leaders. These guys don't want change, because it tends to mean less power and money for them. That's why the Taliban has such a following in the countryside, and not in the cities.

News reports about Pakistani troops exchanging fire with NATO and U.S. helicopters at the border appear to be more stories than news. Many of the border guards (a force recruited from local tribes) are pro-Taliban (or on the Taliban payroll), and quick to fire on aircraft and any armed men they are not familiar with. That's been going on for decades, and was the cause of tension with the Russians in the 1980s. Real violence between Pakistan and the United States is unlikely, because the U.S. is the major financial and military supplier for Pakistan. Thus without U.S. support, military upgrades don't happen and the economy tanks. Religion is one thing, defense and economics are something else (that is more important to more Pakistanis). Meanwhile, the government makes the right noises about "defending Pakistan's borders" while doing nothing to actually interfere with American operations on either side of the border.

Over 20,000 Pushtuns have fled from Pakistan into Afghanistan to avoid the violence between Taliban gunmen and the Pakistani army. The Pakistani Taliban are under attack in several areas (Waziristan, Swat Valley and Bajaur) and losing in all of them. The head of the Pakistani Taliban has just died, after being ill for several months, leaving behind a power struggle. The Pakistani Taliban is in disarray and falling apart. This is being felt in Afghanistan, where fewer "volunteers" are coming across to help out the Taliban there. In the face of this, the Afghan Taliban say they will keep fighting throughout the Winter. NATO responds by announcing another Winter offensive. This will get interesting, because NATO forces are more mobile in Winter. Traditionally, Afghans stay indoors during the Winter. Getting a chill can be fatal, and the rain, snow and ice make it difficult to get around.

The government has again openly called for Taliban leader Mullah Omar to come negotiate with the government. This comes in the wake of several years worth of successful negotiations with lower level Taliban leaders. Many of these guys have left the Taliban as a result. There are also reports, denied by the government, that Saudi Arabia is sponsoring secret peace talks between the government and the Taliban. One has to ask, why would the Taliban want to negotiate? Put simply, while the drug gangs are doing well (despite heroin production falling 20 percent from last year), the Taliban are on everyone's hit list, and are taking a lot of hits. Now defeated al Qaeda operatives are moving in from Iraq and elsewhere, and blowing people up. That generates more hostility than support, and this hurts the Taliban as well. Within the Taliban, a debate is on over how to deal with the lack of progress. The Taliban have been able to generate more violence, and dire headlines in the West, but not much else. True believers are getting discouraged.

U.S. and NATO commanders believe they can largely shut down the Taliban and al Qaeda if they have some more troops. The U.S. has agreed to send three more brigades next year. NATO nations, urged on by France, are trying to muster more troops for Afghanistan. By next year, changes in Pakistan, and growing attacks on Afghan drug gangs are expected to weaken the Taliban even more. The new government in Pakistan is behind the recent army offensives against the Taliban, and has just replaced the head of their intelligence agency, the ISI, which originally invented the Taliban back in the 1990s. The ISI has long been full of Islamic conservatives, but the new head is different. How different will become apparent by early next year.

September 30, 2008: The Taliban hampered recent polio vaccinations, despite promises that they would not. This hurt a world-wide effort to eliminate polio completely. This campaign has been hampered in several parts of the world by paranoid Islamic clerics, who believe the vaccinations are part of a Western campaign to poison Moslems.

September 28, 2008: In Kandahar, a Taliban death squad killed the head of the local police forces female squad. Lieutenant Colonel Malalai Kakar was the most senior female police officer in the country, and long a target of the Taliban (who do not want women working outside the home, and definitely not working as a cop). Colonel Kakar pioneered the use of women police as detectives, who were very successful because of their ability to get information from women witnesses and victims. The Taliban didn't like that either.




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