Afghanistan: Follow The Money

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March 11, 2009:  The Taliban are losing their war. The number of Afghans willing to die for the Old Ways is declining. Most young Afghans want cell phones, education, health care and roads. The Taliban is against all of these things, and the only thing they have to offer is money. The cash usually comes from a drug gang, who agrees with the Taliban that the police and foreign soldiers should be driven out. That's because one of the most revered Old Ways is to be left alone. Young Afghans take the $300 a month to shoot at the foreigners or plant roadside bombs, and use the money to buy a cell phone. The Taliban tolerate that, it's cell phones in the hands of Afghans they don't know that is not allowed. There are spies and traitors everywhere, people who do not revere the Old Ways. Civilians with cell phones can get you killed. A furtive call to the police, or a cousin who might call the Americans, and next thing you know, a smart bomb kills more Taliban, or a bunch of bulletproof foreign soldiers show up and arrest you, take away your weapons and, worst of all, your cell phone.

The Taliban, like Afghanistan itself, is not a single entity, but a collection of factions with separate agendas. The national government is only important to all the tribes and clans if they have a man in the government or parliament who can obtain (by any means available) some goodies for his people. If a local drug lord is more generous than your politician in Kabul, the drug lord gets more respect, and attention. Most villages and neighborhoods don't have someone in Kabul, or even the provincial government, who is looking after them. So they are receptive to anyone who comes bearing gifts. Even foreigners are welcome. Aid efforts are particularly welcome, especially if they bring medical care, roads, education or, in many drought afflicted areas, food.

The current fighting is a continuation of a war between the Old Ways and the modern world, that began over three decades ago. The fighting has persisted largely because the country was never united as a country. For most of the 20th century, there was a truce between most tribes, which allowed literacy rates to reach nearly 40 percent, and life expectancy to slowly rise towards 50 years. But that forward momentum halted in the 1980s, as modernists and tribalists fought, and turning things around has been difficult. Not so much because of the Taliban, but largely because of the customary corruption, tribalism and ethnic rivalries. The corruption and tribalism has allowed the heroin trade to flourish, and that has propped up the Taliban (who are recognized by most Afghans as a nice idea that had obviously failed even before September 11, 2001.)

The government has a budget of about a billion dollars a year to work with. But the foreign aid organizations control about the same amount of money (although over a third of that goes to pay the foreign staff of these NGO, or non-governmental aid groups), and the drug gangs have a bit more. The Taliban live off theft, bribes (from the drug gangs) and charity (from foreign and local believers in the Old Ways). All this money provides jobs, and people tend to listen to their paymaster. Without the money from the drug gangs, the Taliban would be history, or at worst a minor nuisance in parts of the Pushtun south.

The low level of literacy, and high unemployment, makes a job with the police or army an attractive proposition. But the foreign trainers are finding that it takes years, not months, to instill modern policing and military skills into Afghans. Ancient customs die hard, especially when over half your applicants are illiterate, and many more quit simply because they are homesick and suffering from culture shock. Most Afghans come from a world where you were born, lived and died in a small village. That was your entire world, and going outside it is still a scary prospect for many.

A little money goes a long way in a country of 29 million, with an unemployment rate of over 40 percent. Afghanistan has always been a place where you just scraped by, and died young from violence or disease. Afghanistan was always isolated, but that has changed. Young Afghans know of another world out there, and the cell phone is tangible evidence of that better place they can aspire to. Several hundred thousand Afghans a month are getting cell phones, and loving it.

Then there's the foreigners with the medicine and magical procedures which cure afflictions that have cursed Afghans for centuries. Magic pills and injections, and videos of what appears to be a fantasy world, but the cell phone millions of Afghans hold in their hands, assures them really exists. The Old Ways haven't got a chance. But the drug gangs are willing to subsidize the Taliban in order to keep the cash coming. Heroin is the most lucrative thing to happen to Afghanistan since the Silk Road disappeared 500 years ago. Because of that, heroin is worth dying for.

Many foreign governments have a hard time wrapping their heads around the alien culture of Afghanistan. This is a medieval place, where realities that disappeared in the West centuries ago, still thrive. But one thing unites these two solitudes; cash. For thousands of years, Afghans have been attracted by the promise of wealth. So many joined conquering armies passing through on their way to fabulously wealthy India, that the Indians took to calling all these invaders "Afghans." Follow the money, like the Afghans do.

The drug gang money has bought the Taliban, and large chunks of the government. Above all, the drug gangs want to be left alone, to grow the poppies, extract the sap (opium) and import the industrial chemicals needed to refine the opium into heroin and morphine. Finally, the drug gangs don't want police or soldiers stopping shipments of drugs (especially heroin) headed out of the country, to more lucrative foreign markets. Bribes usually work to neutralize Afghan police or soldiers, but the foreign troops are largely incorruptible. That's why the drug gangs subsidize the Taliban, or any other group, that will fight against the foreign troops. Naturally, the Afghans can't win against the better equipped and trained foreigners. Afghans are brave warriors, not trained soldiers, and the Afghan warriors die quickly when they come up against the foreign troops. But the drug lords take the long view, as they have access to satellite news and know of the debates in foreign countries over the "War in Afghanistan." They know that time is on their side, and even a few casualties among the foreign soldiers is demoralizing to the voters back home. But the drug lords also know that the heroin they export, and grow rich on, has consequences on the user end. Ultimately, it will be heroin, more than Islamic terrorism, that will keep the foreigners involved in Afghanistan. Thus the need to put as many Afghan government officials as possible, on the drug gang payroll.

 

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