Afghanistan: Why They Fight


January 23, 2012: There has been an increase in Taliban groups surrendering. Local groups, numbering up to several dozen men, complete with weapons and their leader, will give up and accept amnesty benefits. In the middle of Winter and with the threat of NATO raids, this is a good move. Come spring the Taliban will be hiring again, as the drug gangs had a good year and have a lot of cash to arm and pay anyone who will help keep the police and soldiers away from heroin production and smuggling. Nevertheless, in the last two years life has become more difficult for the drug gangs and especially their hired guns (who are often Taliban members). There are a lot more police and army checkpoints on the few roads. These guys will sometimes refuse a bribe or demand more than you can pay. The foreign troops can't be bribed at all. Then there are the damn UAVs and jet fighters whose pilots can see everything on the ground. And if they do see a bunch of guys with guns, the next thing you know, there's a convoy of foreign troops coming into your valley or a helicopter delivering a couple dozen soldiers on a nearby ridge. Or maybe just a smart bomb, which is the worst outcome. You can't surrender to a smart bomb. Fortunately, arrest, not smart bombs, seems to be the favorite NATO tactic this last year. The foreign troops are supposed to be gone in two years, but some days it seems like the average Taliban gunman won’t be around to enjoy that happy day.  

Last year, over 30,000 Afghans applied for asylum worldwide. That does not include the illegal migrants who did not reveal themselves. The number of legal asylum seekers was up 25 percent over 2010. The Afghans getting to foreign countries are those with money. It costs over $10,000 per person to get smuggled to a Western nation. A lot more than 30,000 Afghans a year would like to leave, but you have to be one of the few with a way to make a lot of money. That explains why so many Afghans are always hustling, willing to do anything for a buck. Get your hands on enough cash and you can get out. A lot of Afghans are not fighting to save Afghanistan but to get out of Afghanistan. It's increasingly been that way over the last half century as more Afghans became aware of the outside world. At first they were incredulous. After centuries of just getting by in mountain valleys you are suddenly confronted with movies and then videos (now available on cell phones) showing a better life, a life that is not available in violent, tribal Afghanistan. That is followed by stories from Afghans who have made it to the West, where economic opportunity and peace are abundant. It's not just the foreign troops who are fed up with Afghanistan.

The Taliban and other Islamic radical groups are holding "exploratory peace talks" with NATO and the Afghan government. One reason for this is to find out just how connected to reality the Islamic radical leadership is. Most Afghans hate the Taliban, who ruled the country for most of the 1990s. The Taliban say they will be kinder and gentler the next time around, but no one believes them. That's because the Taliban still use terror to control the population. Taliban leaders in Pakistan have ordered their fighters in Afghanistan to go easy on civilians, but old habits are hard to break and these orders are largely ignored. Thus the combination of bitter memories and recent bad experiences keeps the Taliban number one on the "Most Hated" list. The Taliban has more problems, with some factions determined to rule all of Afghanistan again, while others point out that the Taliban never controlled all of Afghanistan in the 1990s and would not do so in any likely future. The "realist" faction wants to put the Taliban in control of the southern provinces, especially heroin producing Kandahar and Helmand, where the original Taliban came from. There, the Taliban can grow rich and powerful by taxing the heroin trade. Then, perhaps, the Taliban will become powerful enough to take other areas by force. The realists see the "absolutist" faction advocating an "all or nothing" policy that will only end in more violence and heavy Taliban losses.

The drug trade is at the heart of all this. Last year was a good one for the drug gangs. The UN estimates that heroin sales (mostly to foreigners via numerous smuggling networks) was 15 percent of Afghanistan's GDP. That's ten times as much as the cocaine trade was in Colombia, a country with similar problems (large groups of armed outlaws challenging government control). It gives you an idea of the scale of the problem. Moreover, there would be no Taliban comeback without the drug money. But the drug trade has an image problem. There are over a million addicts in Afghanistan and most of the country is hostile to heroin and opium production. The drug lords don't want to move operations to another country as that would take them out of Pushtun territory, and many of the Pushtun drug gangsters won't have an easy time of it operating with "foreigners" (anyone who is not a Pushtun). Before the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, they demonstrated their willingness to tolerate the heroin trade (as long as nearly all of the stuff was exported, because drug addiction was, even then, very unpopular). The Taliban needed the high "taxes" that the drug gangs could pay and still does. The drug gangs and the Taliban (basically Islamic conservatives with guns and attitude) need each other. The drug lords know they can bribe plenty of government officials to leave them alone, while the Taliban believe they can intimidate the government, and anti-Taliban tribes, to obey. The relationship between the drug gangs and the Taliban is an imperfect one. There is no unified command, just dozens of local arrangements that follow the same pattern (the drug gangs use bribes and Taliban violence to keep their poppy fields and refining operations safe from government interference).

While many NATO nations want to just pull their troops from Afghanistan and let matters take their natural course, most of Afghanistan's neighbors oppose that approach. Chief among the fans of NATO staying in Afghanistan is Russia. While no longer sharing a border with Afghanistan, Russia suffers from the plague of opium and heroin coming out of Afghanistan. The more immediate neighbors, especially Pakistan and Iran, each have millions of addicts and a growing social problem with these drugs. Iran is also concerned about growing Taliban power in Afghanistan because the Taliban are anti-Shia (Iran is almost all Shia Moslem) and killed thousands of Afghan Shia during the 1990s.

Another factor in the Afghan violence is a generational dispute within many tribes. One faction wants to change and adapt to the modern world. The other faction (supported by the Taliban) wants to keep things just as they are. But the Taliban add another angle by backing tribal leaders who will turn back the clock, shutting non-religious schools and imposing more lifestyle restrictions (no videos or music, or education or outside jobs for women). Thus the Taliban often find themselves fighting traditional tribal leaders who want girls in school and economic development. The winds of change are blowing through the Pushtun tribes and stirring up all sorts of unpleasantness. While the Taliban use modern technology (while rejecting the culture that creates it) they get nervous about how eager young Taliban are about their cell phones.

January 21, 2012:  France halted training activities (for Afghan troops) and threatened to pull its 3,600 troops out of Afghanistan. This is because an Afghan soldier killed four French troops and wounded eight. The Afghan soldier was then taken alive and arrested. The French are ignoring the fact that Afghanistan is a very violent place and always has been. When someone gets angry and has a weapon handy there will often be blood. The French government could consult their own medical aid teams, which treat Afghan civilians, and discover the extent of casualties among civilians. When it comes to the law and order Westerners take for granted back home, Afghanistan is a different world.

As part of the violence the Taliban continue to set off bombs around the country but mostly in the south. While the targets are Afghan security forces and foreign troops most of the dead are civilians. Official Taliban policy is to avoid civilian casualties, and the continued attacks that kill mostly civilians tells most Afghans that the Taliban is no longer a unified organization and that the senior leadership has lost control.  

January 11, 2012: The police chief of Kandahar province survived another assassination attempt (via a suicide bomber).




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