Afghanistan: Nowhere To Run


September 4, 2009: The new U.S. strategy, of interrupting the drug gangs business (manufacturing and shipping heroin), and providing poppy farmers with a legal alternative crop, is a kinder and gentler alternative to older methods for stopping the drug trade ("anyone involved in the drug trade dies"). The Taliban play up the Robin Hood angle (with the higher profit poppy crops, and jobs as gunmen or workers in the manufacturing and transportation of heroin and drug related cargoes.) As the poorest nation in Eurasia, a little economic activity goes a long way. On the down side, the Taliban insistence on a stricter Islamic lifestyle (and no school for girls), annoys people a lot. The drug lords themselves are immune to the lifestyle stuff (even the hyper-religious Taliban know not to bite the hand that feeds them). Few drug lords believe the Taliban have any chance of regaining control of the national government. It's no secret that most Afghans hate the Taliban (because of current mayhem, as well as bitter memories of Taliban abuses in the 1990s). But the Taliban are fanatic and ruthless, two characteristics the drug lords find useful.

The drug lords are exploiting two pillars of Afghan culture; greed (to survive) and autonomy (to avoid getting ripped off by other tribes, foreigners or a national government). Many of the drug lords realize that this heroin gravy train won't last forever. Now is the time to make a fortune that will change things for a long time. Sooner or later, it will end. More powerful nations are determined to cut the heroin supply (which has been done several times in the last few decades) and thus limit the damage to their own populations. But in the meantime, there is lots of money to be made.

Foreigners have to learn that most Afghans, while acknowledging the existence of "Afghanistan", depend more on tribe, family and warlord (or drug lord) for the important things (protection, a job, opportunity). This is all rather strange to outsiders, but it is the way our ancestors lived for thousands of years. Tribalism only completely died out in Europe within the last few centuries. How soon we forget.

Going after the drug gang infrastructure is the easy part, changing the local economy so that growing poppies falls out of favor, is going to be hard. The culture of corruption makes it difficult to sustain programs at the grassroots level. Too many people there, who are liable to say one thing, do something else, and steal you blind at the same time. The traditional mistrust of foreigners, and sticky fingers (a survival instinct), make it a real challenge to persuade farmers to  drop poppies for more traditional (and much less profitable) crops. It's certainly a noble goal, for without the poppies, there's no opium or heroin.

The votes for the recent presidential election are still being counted, and argued about. Over 40 percent of the voters participated, despite aggressive Taliban efforts in the south to discourage voting. For the candidates, being president of the country gives one access to billions in foreign aid, and ample opportunity to divert some of that to yourself, as well as family and friends. At the same time, there are large bribes from the drug gangs, and smaller ones from provincial governors and other officials seeking favors. Building a nation on the Western model is a more distant goal, although you can't say that to the foreigners. Stick to things like killing Taliban and cutting the heroin supply, which are goals most Afghans can agree with. Afghanistan will remain a loose federation of tribes and ethnic groups, for some time to come. It was situations like this that prompted 19th century colonial bureaucrats to notice that, "you can't hustle the east." The foreign commanders who realize this, have a hard time convincing their bosses back home of the otherworldly conditions in Afghanistan.

The response will probably be more troops, to continue doing damage to the heroin business. More aggressive and persuasive diplomats will be needed to tussle with the president and senior officials. This is tricky, as these guys are not only getting paid by the foreigners (via a percentage of the foreign aid), but also by the drug lords. Some hardnosed and persuasive diplomacy is necessary to ensure that the senior leaders realize that, long term, good relations with the world community are what's best.

One thing the people on the spot agree on is that you cannot just walk away. The heroin trade alone will quickly become a domestic crises in most Western nations. But the use of Afghanistan as a base for international terrorists is also guaranteed to become an unavoidable problem. There are too many groups in Afghanistan willing to shelter Islamic terrorists (for a price, or just for the hell of it). The quasi-secure bases the terrorists already have just across the border in Pakistan has been causing some pretty obvious problems around the world. You want this sort of thing to get worse? Didn't think so.

A lot of Afghans, from poor farmers to wealthy tribal chiefs, are angry at president Karzai for cheating during the recent election. Karzai had additional votes created, destroyed votes from districts that were heavily against him, and generally seemed to go along with whatever schemes his craven subordinates could come up with. It's all about greed. Karzai and his followers have gotten rich at the top, and don't want to be replaced. While Karzai believes a lot of what he says about making Afghanistan a modern nation, it's in the daily details that he realizes he is still running a tribal federation that is still a long way from the modern definition of "nation."

Meanwhile, the drug lords have some more mundane problems. Over the last few years, too many greedy bastards got into the heroin business. Thus there's more heroin available than the market can absorb. The fact is that only a small percentage of the world population will indulge in heroin, no matter how cheap it is. The Afghan drug gangs ran into this problem before, in the late 1990s. The Taliban, who were then running the country, responded by shutting down heroin production for a year, to get rid of the surplus and make prices go up again. This time, there is no one with that kind of control over heroin production. So for the second year in a row, production of opium (and the heroin made from it) has fallen (22 percent this year). Some of the decline was the result of increased anti-drug gang efforts in Helmand province, and many other parts of the country. But mostly it's supply and demand. Prices for heroin and opium are very low. That's bad for the drug lords, although not for the Taliban (who still get paid to fight, and are considered a minor expense.) UN experts estimate that the export value of Afghan narcotics (mostly heroin) is about $3.4 billion. The Taliban end up getting 2-3 percent of that to help with security in the heroin producing areas.

In the north, a Taliban group hijacked two fuel tanker trucks, and were later hit with a smart bomb, leaving over 90 dead. About half those killed were Taliban. The rest were apparently local villagers, attracted by Taliban offers to get the fuel for free, or at a very low price. A local Taliban leader, and several foreign gunmen were killed by the explosion.

Even in Helmand province, police and foreign troops are getting cooperation in finding where roadside bombs and landmines are buried, as well as information on who is making or planting these devices (which mostly kill civilians.)

September 2, 2009:  The Taliban are carefully choosing their targets. A suicide bomber killed the deputy director of National Directorate of Security, near a mosque in a quiet part of the country. This was the assassination of someone who was doing the Taliban and drug gangs some harm.

September 1, 2009: Fighting last month killed 63 foreign troops (78 percent of them American).


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