May 27, 2009:
This year's Summer offensive has started off with the Taliban on the defense, and no talk of a Taliban offensive. This is a big comedown from the last few years, when the Taliban always made a big deal about the years "offensive." This year, the Taliban are finding themselves scrambling to defend their bases and stocks of weapons. Better intelligence, and more cooperative informants among the population, have led to more successful raids. A recent Dutch, Australian and Afghan operation in Uruzgan province found Taliban military supplies hidden in 31 percent of the 70 homes that were suspected of holding such contraband.
The main raids are in Helmand province, where most of the world's heroin is produced, and where the Taliban produces most of its income, by guarding the drug trade from outside interference. This year, the troops are going straight for the drug operations. In past years, NATO and U.S. troops stayed away from the drug operations, at the behest of Afghan officials in the pay of the drug gangs. The Afghan leaders, and Afghan media also in the pay of the drug gangs, insisted that attacks on the drug business would just anger the average Afghan. The reality is that a minority of Afghans in Helmand benefit from the drug business. Most Afghans in the south suffer from the drug addiction and the thuggish behavior of the Taliban and the drug gang gunmen.
In the last few weeks, the raids in Helmand have led to the capture of over a hundred tons of drugs and chemicals used to convert opium into heroin. Heroin is worth $3.5 million a ton, while the opium it is made from is worth only about $100,000 a ton. There's another big crop in Helmand (and the entire region), is hashish (the concentrated paste containing the active ingredient of marijuana), which is worth about $1.1 million a ton. There are thousands of tons of drugs and related chemicals in Helmand, and it's difficult to hide much of the drug activity from U.S. intelligence (UAVs, spy satellites, electronic eavesdropping and a vast network of informers). Now the drug gangs have to spend more time and money trying to avoid the American eyes and ears. The damage is already done for this year, as major labs (where the chemical conversion of opium to heroin and morphine is done), markets (where drug producers sell to smugglers and local distributors) and safe houses are known, are difficult to move in secret, and are going to be hit over the next few months.
The Taliban is faced with twin disasters this Summer. The NATO offensive is going after their cash, while across the border, the Pakistani army has mobilized to fight all Summer to crush the pro-Taliban tribes in the tribal territories along the border. The situations are quite different in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both countries have problems with pro-Taliban factions in some of their Pushtun tribes. But Afghanistan is a nation that is run by the tribes (where the Pushtun are 40 percent of the population, and dominant). But in Pakistan, the Pushtun tribes are a minority. Over 80 percent of the population lives in the lowlands, and consider the tribes to be a bunch of uncivilized roughnecks, who have to be pummeled from time to time to keep them in check. This is nothing new. The Pushtun tribes have been threatening, and attacking, the lowlanders for thousands of years. But now the lowlanders have helicopter gunships, artillery and an army with a military tradition inherited from Britain. But for over sixty years, Pakistan has respected the ancient "agreement", whereby the tribes were left alone to govern themselves, in return for not raiding into the lowlands. But the Taliban tried to march on the lowlands this year, and the majority of Pakistanis got behind the government decision to break the "agreement" and make war on the tribes. The war is succeeding, with the Taliban taking heavy casualties, and proving unable to hold any position against the better armed and trained soldiers. It's gotten so bad that Afghan Taliban are increasingly crossing the border to help their Pakistani cousins. The Pakistani Taliban are the source of over a third of the Taliban gunmen in Afghanistan. Pakistan also provides base areas for the Afghan Taliban. The Taliban need both the Afghan drug money, and the Pakistan manpower (most Pushtuns live in Pakistan) to remain a threat. This year, both of these resources are under heavy attack.
The growing influence of al Qaeda operatives, many fresh from their defeat in Iraq, is having a bad impact on the Taliban image. Afghans, and Pakistanis, don't admire the devotion of suicide bombers as much as Arabs. Moreover, religious leaders on both sides of the Pakistan border are openly condemning the suicide bomber tactics. The Taliban have responded by killing and threatening Islamic scholars. This tactic has also backfired, making the Taliban look like a bunch of irreligious thugs (which is a pretty accurate description). The offensive against schools is also backfiring. Only the most extreme Pushtun tribesmen, mostly in the area around the southern city of Kandahar, really believe in this. Yet the Taliban now go out of their way to announce that they will start killing schoolgirls who persist in attending school. This does not go over well with most Afghans.
May 18, 2009: Afghanistan is still trying to get its ambassador to Pakistan freed from Taliban kidnappers. The ambassador was seized last September in Peshawar, the largest city in the Pakistani tribal territories. The kidnappers are demanding $300,000 in ransom and the release of several jailed Taliban.