November 16, 2011:
Another Loya Jirga (great conference) in Kabul brought together 2,000 prominent Afghans (tribal leaders and politicians) from all over the country to discuss the future of the country. Big issues this year are how much longer to host foreign troops (most them are scheduled to leave by 2014.) Last year, the big topic was president Karzai's plea for a peace deal with the Taliban. This did not work out. Most Afghans don't trust the Taliban (who they view as a bunch of religious radical Pushtuns determined to impose another Pushtun religious dictatorship). But many Pushtuns believe that many (half or more) of the Taliban would be willing to join the government and help destroy the hard core Taliban who won't make a deal. Karzai came away insisting he had support for his peace plan, but there were no details of what, if anything was agreed on. It was all rather vague and very Afghan and nothing came of it. Similar results are expected this year. The main function of the Jirga is for leaders from around the country to get a sense of the attitudes of other tribes.
Loya Jirga is a Pushtun word, but it a common practice among the Indo-European tribes that have occupied the region for over 5,000 years. The purpose of the Loya Jirga has changed because of technology. Those attending have cell phones and access to international radio and TV news. Thus it is no longer a meeting of strangers. Local jirgas are meetings of people who are often distantly related to each other and are more frequent. Loya Jirgas used to be rare events, but now that are usually annual affairs and an opportunity to achieve some kind of national consensus.
This's years Loya Jirga was preceded by the revelation that the Taliban had obtained all or part of the security plan for the meeting. Since most Afghans are hostile to the Taliban (and vice versa), security from terror attack is essential for the Loya Jirga to work. But the incident said much about how Afghanistan works, and always has worked. Corruption is not new in this region, and the growth of the heroin trade in the last two decades has made the corruption worse. The Taliban were willing to pay for the security plans, and had the drug money to pay whatever it took to make some government official rich. Curbing corruption is never a popular topic, as it is considered part of the culture. Modern forms of government are still poorly understood here. But getting money, anyway you can, for your family, clan or tribe, is seen as not just admirable, but essential. Afghanistan is still a very poor country, and until the foreign armies and their foreign aid arrived a decade ago, poverty was the norm. Only the drug gangs were getting rich and before that, only a few percent of the population had any wealth and everyone else scraped by. The drug gangs and the foreign aid brought in unprecedented amounts of wealth. In the 1990s, opium and heroin sales made thousands of Pushtun tribesmen in the south unbelievably rich. Then came the foreign aid, which was spread around the country, because the Pushtun Taliban was overthrown, with American assistance, by the non-Pushtun majority from the north, who still dominate the government.
There is still a north-south, Pushtun-non Pushtun divide. There is a bigger problem with the drugs. A growing quantity of the opium (which can be refined into much more expensive, and compact, heroin) stays in Afghanistan, creating millions of addicts who can now afford to buy the stuff. To the conservative, family oriented Afghans, these addicts are shameful, painful and a huge problem. The addicts become something like zombies; alive, yet dead to their kin. Even the Taliban is technically against drugs, but tolerate some opium use among their fighters, to help maintain morale. The problem with the drug trade is that it only makes ten percent of the population rich, while tormenting over half of all Afghans with the curse of addiction. Both the money and drugs are an addiction. The Taliban brought yet another addiction; conservative Islam to solve all problems and create a spiritual paradise on earth. Most Afghans reject this as well, as they saw how the Taliban carried out their plans in the late 1990s (up to late 2001). But drug gang money and diehard Pushtuns keep the Taliban in business and the headlines. The Taliban are no longer a threat to the entire country, but the drugs, the drug money, and all the weapons and gunmen they can buy, are.
The latest Loya Jirga will try to determine how much longer foreign troops will be useful in ridding Afghanistan of its problems. Dealing with drug gangs will also be debated, especially with the southern tribal leaders who live with the problem (and often profit from it) full time. All this is a very serious business, because the worst case for Afghanistan is another civil war, between the drug financed Pushtun tribes of the south, and the more numerous (60 percent of the population) non-Pushtun tribesmen of the north. This benefits no one, and splits the country, perhaps forever. Pakistan could take the south, and drive the drugs out (as they did before, pushing the business into Afghanistan). Pakistan would do this in self-defense, as absorbing southern Afghanistan would put all the Pushtun tribes (and over 20 million Pushtuns) in one state. That could lead to Pushtun nationalism (for the establishment of an independent Pushtunstan). Another possibility is for Afghanistan to turn into another Somalia, a lawless swath of land in the middle of Eurasia where there is no law or government, only guns and sanctuary for anyone who can pay for it. There's no end of problems, real and potential, in this part of the world.
New polling data shows that Afghans are more interested in making some kind of peace deal with the Taliban. Some 82 percent of Afghans back this, while only 29 percent of Afghans support the Taliban or their goals. Last year, 40 percent of Afghans backed the Taliban, and in 2009, 56 percent did. The Taliban plan is based on the intrinsic cultural and religious conservatism of most Afghans. But the growing use of terror against Afghans has turned most Afghans against the Taliban. The Taliban dependence on drug gang financing (to provide muscle for the drug lords) is not popular either. While the foreign troops are seen as armed foreigners (never a popular sight in Afghanistan), the Taliban are seen as depraved men who have joined the forces of darkness.
November 15, 2011: Foreign donors have worked out yet another deal that allows the resumption of much foreign aid. Money was being withheld because so much aid was being blatantly stolen by senior officials. The immediate cause of the current aid freeze was the looting of a major Afghan bank by corrupt executives and government officials. Last year, it was discovered that Kabul Bank (a major financial institution) had been looted of a billion dollars. Yet no one was indicted and only ten percent of that billion has been recovered. Even threats to withhold aid have not persuaded the government to look for the missing money, and those who stole it. Corruption is widely regarded as a perfectly acceptable way to get rich. Just wait the foreigners out and keep taking their money. Life is good. In this case, the foreigners blinked. But it was not a complete surrender by the donor nations. The Afghans were forced to allow more controls over the aid cash. This makes the money more difficult to steal, and the thieves easier to identify and punish (which is more likely only if the guilty parties travel to the West). The new rules may allow up to half the money stolen from Kabul Bank to be recovered. Maybe.
November 12, 2011: Pakistan and the U.S. have agreed on how to cooperate to prevent Islamic terrorists from using the Afghan border to escape retribution. For decades the Afghan Haqqani clan operated criminal and terrorist operations from sanctuary in Pakistan's North Waziristan region. But since the Pakistani Taliban declared war on Pakistan several years ago, the Pakistan Army has driven many of the Pakistani Taliban into Afghanistan, where the Pakistani Taliban established bases for continued attacks into Pakistan. Pakistan has agreed to control Haqqani operations in Afghanistan, if the U.S. and Afghanistan will control the use of Afghanistan as a sanctuary for attacks into Pakistan.
November 8, 2011: In the east, hundreds of Taliban attacked an Afghan Army base and were repulsed. NATO air power quickly arrived, and the attackers suffered at least 70 dead and many wounded. The Afghan defenders suffered no casualties. This kind of outcome is increasingly common, the result of years of training by foreign instructors. Many Afghan units are competent and well led. All this has been demoralizing for the Taliban because once the foreign troops are gone the Afghan soldiers will still be around. The more competent the Afghan soldiers are, the more costly it will be to bribe them.