Afghanistan: The Merchants of Misery

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January 7, 2009: The Taliban are a lot of things, but the one thing that annoys most Afghans is the Taliban hostility to education. Since the Taliban were drive out of power eight years ago, the number of children in schools has gone from 900,000 to over six million. Only about 35 percent of the students are girls. In the Pushtun south, the Taliban use violence against schools for girls, and in many areas, schools in general (because the Taliban only accept religious schools, that concentrate on studying the Koran). Thus in each of the past three years, the Taliban shut down 500-700 schools, killing or wounding several hundred students and teachers as well. But that was out of over 8,500 schools in the country. Moreover, the lower number of girls in school is largely a matter of limited resources. Only about half the eligible children are going to school, and the boys are given preference, because they will be the main earners for families. The destroyed schools are rebuilt, the closed ones reopen as soon as the government can get police stationed in the area, or the local tribe organizes a militia large enough to keep the teachers and students safe.

It's this kind of local desire that is behind the U.S. plan to "arm tribal militias." The Taliban don't just close schools, they also close businesses that don't conform to the extreme Taliban view of Islam. Women are not allowed outside the home (even widows who must in order to feed their children) and everyone is forced to pay taxes and supply sons for the Taliban militia, or suicide bombing missions. Across the border in Pakistan, the Taliban are demanding daughters as brides for Taliban warriors. To most Afghans, the arrival of the Taliban is an invasion of hostile foreigners (someone from the next valley over is a "foreigner" in Afghanistan) who take your money and your children and demand that you change the way you live.

The other foreign troops (NATO/U.S. or central government) don't mess with the kids or lifestyle and usually bring gifts. Some Afghans believe that religion is everything, and follow the Taliban line. But most Afghans are just trying to scrape together a living in the poorest country in Asia, and raise their families. The U.S. strategy is to appeal to Afghan needs for livelihood, family security and freedom from interference. The Taliban are at a big disadvantage since they are now using the same strategy that failed in the 1990s. Back then, they alienated so much of the population that they lost control of the country in a two month campaign that saw most of the tribes desert them as soon as the opportunity (a few hundred armed Americans and their smart bombs) presented itself.

This time around, the main asset the Taliban have is the corruption and ineptness of the central government. That is nothing new. It is, if you check your Afghan history, "traditional." With a population that is largely illiterate and just scraping by economically, it's tough to recruit competent civil servants, and even harder to stop them from stealing. This is not unique to Afghanistan, it's just worse here.

Since 2002, Afghanistan's population has gone up 20 percent just from over five million refugees returning from camps in Pakistan and Iran. Many returned to burned out homes and villages, or to find someone else has taken over their lands. Dealing with this has caused lots of problems for the government and foreign aid agencies. It has also provided recruiting opportunities for the Taliban, who can offer cash for young men to come fight for a few months. Those refugee camps, in Pakistan, were where the original Taliban were recruited fifteen years ago. For this reason, the Taliban oppose too much prosperity and economic growth. This sort of thing eliminates the despair the Taliban feed on. The Taliban are Merchants of Misery, offering war and violence in this life, and a payoff in the next.

The Taliban tactics of terrorizing villages and towns into subservience is something most Afghans can understand, because that's the way it's been for thousands of years. For the victims, it's another example of the "if you bend, you won't break" approach to dealing with armed strangers coming into your life. Getting more government officials to realize that success is more a matter of governing more effectively and stealing less, is not easy. "Grabbing all you can when you can" is an old and successful tactic for government officials. Change does not come easily or quickly to this part of the world.

The foreign troops can kill the Taliban whenever they go looking for them, and the arrival of 30,000 more American troops in the next year or so means more dead Taliban out there. There will also be another 30,000 Afghan troops available (for a total of 100,000). In the last few years, the Taliban have been having a harder time recruiting and raising money. The drug gangs are not as generous as the Taliban would like, and are too powerful for the Taliban to try and dominate. Consumption of opium and heroin by Afghans is forbidden (although not always enforced) by the Taliban. Exporting the stuff for foreign consumption is OK. The Taliban see that as weakening the infidels (non-Moslems) in preparation for the coming world domination of Islam. The Taliban ignore the fact that about a third of the drugs they export are consumed by fellow Moslems in nearby countries. This is especially true of the cheaper, and bulkier, opium, which has long been used in the region. More of it is now available, and more of it is being used. The government agrees that the drug gangs are a bad thing (despite the large number of officials getting bribes from the gangs) and that the heroin business should be shut down. Doing that requires more guys with guns. That may take several years. With the drug money gone, the Taliban will have lost a major source of income. If the Taliban depended just on unpaid volunteers, they would disappear within a year. As any cop can tell you, to eliminate a gang, just follow the money.

Unable to kill foreign troops in direct combat, the Taliban are putting more effort into roadside bombs, suicide bombers and snipers. This isn't working either, and is more expensive. Worse, the bombs kill lots of civilians, increasing the popular dislike for the Taliban. Dealing with this image problem is proving to be impossible.

Increasing attacks on truck traffic coming through Pakistan has NATO and the U.S. arranging for two other supply lines. One comes through Russia and Uzbekistan by rail to the Afghan border, then by truck south. This is the old Soviet military supply line, which is still largely intact (the railroads and highways). The other line comes into the Caucasus via the Black Sea, across Georgia and Azerbaijan, they via the Caspian sea to Turkmenistan, then by rail to Afghanistan. Trucks and railroad equipment have to be found to handle moving several hundred shipping containers a week via each of these routes. All three routes would operate at once, taking a lot of business away from the Pakistanis (who are not happy about this, and are suddenly much more active in improving the security along the roads into Afghanistan.)

 

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