Afghanistan: Bad Habits Are Hard To Break

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December 2, 2011: NATO has agreed to turn over all security responsibilities to Afghan forces by 2015. It's uncertain if the national security forces can maintain the peace throughout the country. That's because national governments in Afghanistan do not succeed at maintaining law and order throughout the country. The current government has also failed to disarm regional warlords, including drug gangs and the Taliban. Without Western air support, the local warlords will be better able to resist control from the national government. The worst case is a resumption of civil war, which has been common in Afghanistan for thousands of years. The drug gangs and Taliban urge their supporters (about ten percent of the population) to encourage media opposition and demonstrations against continued cooperation with foreigners (especially India and NATO). Foreigners are growing weary of persuading Afghans to get their act together. Too many Afghans prefer the old school way to fighting, stealing and, in general, acting against their own interests. Bad habits are hard to break.

Russia and Iran are increasingly angry at the lack of effort by Afghanistan to curb the flow of opium and heroin out of the country. Russia and Iran see themselves as major victims of this drug trade, and have millions of drug addicts each to prove it. Pakistan is also a victim of this, but is less vocal in its criticism. That's because Pakistan sees the Afghan drug gangs as a tool in helping Pakistan gain more control over Afghanistan. Moreover, many Pakistanis make a lot of money supplying the Afghan drug gangs with essential supplies (to refine the opium into heroin) and in transporting the heroin to the port of Karachi, where most Afghan heroin is shipped to foreign markets.

Pakistan is again playing deadly games with Afghanistan. Portraying itself as the victim on the border, Pakistan is demanding compensation for the recent air attack on a Pakistani border post. The air strike was called in by Afghan troops who were under fire from a Pakistani border guard compound. Such situations are quite common, and have been for decades. Pakistan tries to deny this, but the incidents are too numerous (hundreds) to be denied. Most of these attacks take place on Pakistan's Indian border, and there the Pakistani attacks are usually to distract Indian border guards while smugglers or terrorists cross the frontier into India. The same tactics are used on the Afghan border, with the addition of attacks to distract or chase away NATO and Afghan troops trying to stop border-crossers from Pakistan. Both Afghanistan and India are angry at Pakistan for these cynical attacks. This violence can get out of hand. In 1999, India and Pakistan kept escalating the fighting to the point where heavy artillery, air strikes and mobilization of major forces took place. Pakistan backed down before it all turned into a major war, but continues to frequently fire across the border and deny it.  

Pakistan claimed that two Pakistanis, collecting wood 30 kilometers inside Afghanistan, were killed by NATO forces. The Afghan/Pakistani border runs through Pushtun tribal lands, and the Pushtun never thought much of that border (created by British colonial officials over a century ago). The 1890s border agreement included allowing local tribesmen to cross the line freely. It's been difficult to police that privilege. Smuggling across this border is a respected profession among the Pushtun, and moving guns and ammo is considered a public service. Pushtuns have to be able to defend themselves.

The tribal and warlord traditions are a major obstacle to improving the lives of Afghans. As a result, Afghanistan is still the poorest nation in Eurasia, despite a decade of economic growth. The problem is that Afghanistan was so poor to begin with, and still suffers from widespread illiteracy (only about a third of the population can read, and many can just barely read) and limited economic activity. Over 80 percent of the GDP comes from foreign aid and the drug (opium/heroin/hashish) trade. Efforts to establish legitimate enterprises are attacked by the Taliban (who prefer their subjects poor and uneducated) and the drug gangs (who see roads as a threat to the isolation that protects the production of drugs). Afghanistan has enormous mineral wealth, and produces agricultural products with very profitable export markets. Even Afghan government officials describe their country as "beggars sleeping on a gold mine." It’s not just the drug gangs and Taliban that stand in the way. The corruption also scares off foreign investment, as does the pervasive lawlessness. Afghanistan is a hard country to help. Despite all this, a consortium of Indian firms plans to invest over $10 billion to develop iron ore mines in central Afghanistan. The ore would be exported out via Central Asia, and the area where the mines are located is free of drug gangs and very hostile to the Taliban. But most of southern and eastern Afghanistan is too dangerous for such undertakings.

December 1, 2011:  Turkish media reported that 18 Turks had recently been killed in Afghanistan while working for the Taliban.

November 29, 2011: Using the recent border incident, that left 24 Pakistani border guards dead, as an excuse, Pakistan has withdrawn from a December 5th conference on Afghanistan's future. The meeting is being held in Germany, but Pakistan has a different future in mind for Afghanistan, one that involves less peace and more Pakistani control. It was, after all, Pakistan that created the Taliban and supported the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the 1990s.  

November 27, 2011: The Pakistani government closed the two main supply routes carrying NATO supplies to Afghanistan and ordered the U.S. to leave a Pakistani air base (used for UAV operations against Islamic terrorists). All this has happened before, and eventually the supply routes are reopened. That's because moving NATO supplies is a big business in Pakistan, and much of that business is at risk. That is because of delays and thefts, which have caused most of that traffic to move to Central Asia. Eventually, nearly all the supplies will come in from the north. The more Pakistan messes with that traffic, the faster they will lose what little NATO trucking business they still have. Pakistan has ordered the U.S. out of those airbases in the past, but nothing ever happens. Nevertheless, the U.S. has been moving UAV operations to Afghanistan anyway. The Pakistanis cannot be trusted, especially along the border. Since the border guards and paramilitary police in the tribal territory are recruited from the tribes, the Taliban can also recruit, bribe or coerce these troops to fire on NATO and Afghan forces. Border patrol bases are often used for this, and NATO air strikes and artillery will be used to support the NATO and Afghan ground troops that are under attack. Since Pakistan officially denies that their paramilitary forces often work for the Taliban, they declare that the casualties from NATO forces defending themselves are "unprovoked attacks on Pakistan." That fiction works for a while in the Pakistani media, but the Afghans and Indians know better.

November 26, 2011: On the Pakistani border, Afghan commandos are fired on by men inside Pakistan. The fire appears to be coming from a Pakistani border compound, which is not unusual. So the Afghans call in an air strike and 24 Pakistani border guards are killed, according to Pakistan. More importantly, Pakistan denies that its troops were firing on the Afghans and calls the incident an attack on Pakistan. The Pakistani military is still angry over the May raid by American commandos into Pakistan, to kill Osama bin Laden (who had been living next to a Pakistani army base for years.) So the Pakistan military takes any opportunity (real or invented) to portray itself as the victim of foreign aggression, and an essential element in defending Pakistan from foreign enemies. Pakistan's neighbors consider this attitude a bad joke. Pakistan has long been the aggressor, but is unwilling to admit it.

 

 

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