The most fearsome weapon in Afghanistan is cash. For while many Afghans will fight for tribal or religious reasons, the easiest way to recruit is with money. There's a catch, though, as Afghans are easy to rent, but hard to buy. Family and tribal loyalties come first, and religion is not as powerful a force as most outsiders think. Religious fanaticism was never a big deal among the Pushtun, and was largely introduced by Saudi missionaries in the 1980s. By now, most Afghans are through with these crazy Arab preachers and their suicidal followers. But the Taliban rallying cry still resonates with some, especially when it is accompanied by a fat payday every month (or day, hiring rules are flexible in this part of the world). The loose loyalty rules mean that the Afghan government and security forces are full of people who can be rented. The Taliban and drug gangs know it, as do government officials. It's something Afghans expect, and cope with. This flexible loyalty is more of a problem with foreigners.
Combat deaths of foreign troops were down again in September, to 59. The peak was in June, with 103, but that steadily declined in the next two months (to 88 and 79). The main reason for the decline is the arrival of more MRAP (bomb protected vehicles) and increased success against roadside bombs and those responsible for making and placing them. While the foreign troops are protected against roadside bombs, local civilians are not. Some 76 percent of civilian deaths so far this year are from these bombs, making the Taliban a much hated organization.
Another cause of Taliban distress is cash flow problems in the drug gangs. About half the poppy crop was lost to a fungus this year, and foreign troops have been finding and destroying drug gang drugs and heroin processing labs. The drug gangs have less cash to pay their Taliban hired guns.
Then there is the decapitation campaign. The CIA says its missile attacks on the Pakistani side of the border, mostly in the Taliban heartland of Waziristan, have killed over 500 Taliban and al Qaeda so far this year. The main target of these attacks are terrorist leaders, but lots of followers and bodyguards are caught in the missile blasts. This has hurt the morale of the terrorist leadership, and crippled their ability to move and operate. These attacks have intensified in the last two weeks, with over a hundred enemy terrorist deaths from American missile attacks in Pakistan during that period. These attacks also take place on the Afghan side of the border, and do so with increasing frequency. Taliban and al Qaeda leaders are under much greater threat of attack than they were a year ago. This decapitation strategy has been very disruptive to the Taliban leadership on both sides of the border.
All this bad news for the Taliban has led to both the Afghan and Pakistani branches seeking peace negotiations with their respective governments. In both countries, the key issue is continued support for international terrorists. This is what brought foreign troops in, and convincingly eliminating the al Qaeda presence will send the foreign troops home. This means giving up guys like Osama Bin Laden, which hard core Taliban are reluctant to do. Pakistan has already separated the less devoted Taliban tribesmen from the hardcore, which has barricaded itself in North Waziristan (right on the Afghan border). Pakistan has bigger problems with the Afghan Taliban taking refuge in the southwest (Baluchistan), where the Baluch tribes are fighting the government for a bigger share of gas and oil revenues (from local wells), and willing to shelter al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban, for a price. In Afghanistan, it's all about money (a share of all that aid money pouring in) and tribal autonomy.
So far this year, 100,000 of the 1.7 million Afghan refugees still in Pakistan have returned home. In the last nine years, 3.7 million Afghan refugees have come home. Many of those remaining in Pakistan have put down roots and prospered, and don't want to go back to Afghanistan (often to land that has been stolen, or some old family feud). But at the moment, the Afghan side of the border is seen as a safer bet than the Pakistani side.
As reports from most of the voting places come in, it turns out that in many areas, the local politicians or warlords committed blatant fraud, to insure that their candidates were "elected." The national government assured foreign donors that the recent parliamentary vote would be clean. It wasn't. The basic activity in Afghanistan is gaining power and money. Democracy is nice, but bullying your way to power is a popular local tradition that still thrives. The sad fact of the matter is that most Afghans are out to improve their, often wretched, lives anyway they can, not establish a Western style democracy. Afghanistan is still the poorest nation in the region, and lots of those poor people have guns, an urge to live better, and few moral constraints on how they go about it.
In the south, NATO military operations, particularly in Kandahar, led to over 400 arrests and 114 dead Taliban and terrorists in September. The emphasis has been on catching or killing leaders. The operations in Kandahar were meant to shut down Taliban safe houses and staging areas for attacks. Since the Taliban can't stand up to foreign troops, and are increasingly being betrayed by the general public, it's been a bad month for them.
October 2, 2010: The government has ordered eight of the 52 security companies in Afghanistan disbanded. That will be difficult to do, as some of these companies provide security for diplomats, and others supply security on main highways. The government says it wants to provide these services, but the government does not have the personnel who can do this. At best, the national police set up numerous checkpoints on highways and extort payments from drivers. The government considers the security firms as potential foes, as these collections of trained and heavily armed men are for hire, possibly by enemies of government officials.