Afghanistan: Paper Victories


March 1, 2012:  For the last ten days Afghans have been rioting to protest the burning of Korans (Islamic scriptures) at Bagram air base outside Kabul. The Korans, and hundreds of other religious publications, were removed from a prison library when it was found that Taliban prisoners were writing in the publications (including defacing the Korans) as a way to exchange messages with prisoners they otherwise had no contact with. No one mentioned to the Americans in charge that Korans are disposed of by burying them, or tossing them into flowing waters, not by burning. But during the burning some Afghan workers noted the Korans were among the items burning and began the protests. Since then, at least 30 people have died and hundreds have been injured in the demonstrations. Nearly all the violence has taken place in areas where the Taliban or drug gangs are active. As with many earlier protests many of these are staged by the Taliban and Taliban members, often armed, have been observed running the demonstrations.

It's not hard to hire a mob in Afghanistan even if there is a risk of injury (from Afghan security personnel, who have inflicted all the injuries). Afghans just don't like outsiders and enjoy getting paid to express that. An early example of how the Taliban exploit this occurred six years ago when a traffic accident in Kabul, between U.S. military vehicles and Afghan civilians, turned into a typical outburst of Afghan xenophobia. For thousands of years Afghans have violently expressed their dislike for foreigners and several hours of rioting and looting in the wake of the traffic accident, which the typical rumors insisted was deliberate, left 14 dead. For Afghans who have gone abroad and returned this kind of behavior is still familiar and scary. The Afghan embrace of xenophobia, ignorance, and violence has left the country the poorest in the region and the most lawless as well. This is a dubious distinction that is only slowly changing.

While Afghans hate foreigners they are also quick to exploit outsiders. This is best exemplified by the "goat scam." When Afghans realized the foreign troops would pay compensation for civilians killed during battles between NATO and the Taliban rural civilians began to scam this system. It all begins when there is a report that civilians have been killed in some remote area, usually by smart bombs. It usually takes investigators more than a day to get to the scene of the aerial attack. Exact figures of the dead are difficult to obtain because, per Moslem custom, the dead are buried the same day and exhumation is not allowed. This led to widespread false reporting in order to get compensation payments for the families of the dead. A few thousand bucks is big money and in isolated villages the community can keep a secret about the phantom child buried in an empty grave (or one with a goat, to fool the corpse sniffing dogs). The Afghan government doesn't like to talk about this deception but foreign troops encounter it quite a lot out in the countryside. The word has gotten around and it's been a growing problem. That's because the Taliban and drug gangs have worked out a drill with local media (who are often on the payroll, a common arrangement in this part of the world) to look for, or create, civilian deaths whenever the foreign troops are involved in using a smart bomb. These stories are not checked at first and quickly put the Afghan government on the defensive. Many government officials are also on the drug gang payroll and often join the clamor. The easy way out is to accept the accusation that the foreigners killed innocent civilians. The follow up investigations that disprove these accusations rarely get much media attention.

The Taliban Information War has also gotten the Western media to buy into the fiction that the Pushtun terror organization is a lot larger and more powerful than it actually is. The Taliban are actually a terrorist group with the support of a minority of the Pushtuns (mostly in southern Afghanistan), who are in turn a minority (40 percent) of the Afghan population. Most Afghans, including most Pushtuns, hate the Taliban and were fighting them even before September 11, 2001. The Taliban thrive because they allied themselves with the drug gangs, who have grown rich producing heroin and opium. The majority of Afghans want nothing to do with the drug business, which is why most of the stuff is produced in Taliban Central; Helmand province. For the majority of Afghans the Taliban and their drug producing allies are a plague upon the land and the sooner they are destroyed the better. But in the meantime, the Taliban and drug gang influence (via bribes or terror) in the local media mean that any real, or imagined, misstep by foreign troops can quickly be exploited. But only in areas where the Taliban and drug gangs have people (mostly the Pushtun south) to dispense cash or threats to get some spontaneous anti-foreigner protests going.

All Afghans know that these protests put the foreigners on the defensive, making it easier to shake down the foreigners for more money or get the foreigners to back off on corruption investigations inside Afghanistan. Everyone benefits, except most Afghans and the foreigners who are paying for all this.

Attacks by "friendly" Afghans are increasing. In the last five years there have been 42 of these attacks, leaving 77 NATO personnel dead. Most of the killings have occurred in the last two years. This is largely a problem because many Afghans have serious anger management issues and the size of the Afghan security forces have expanded enormously in the last few years. Thus one should be careful about getting into an argument with an armed Afghan. Most of the incidents where Afghan police or soldiers shoot NATO personnel are not about Taliban infiltration but a recent argument, often over something trivial (at least to the Westerners). An Afghan will often open fire on armed NATO troops even though it's obvious that this is a suicidal action. Afghanistan is a very violent place, which fascinates, perplexes, and frustrates foreigners. But the violence is also at the root of the many social problems that keep Afghans poor, ignorant, and terrorized. It starts in childhood and never stops. Westerners who get to know the place are appalled to discover how violent Afghanistan is. It's not just men killing each other over minor matters but violence against women and children. Western doctors and nurses working in clinics see a lot of this, much more so than they would back home. The violence continues into adulthood. For example, it was concluded that the killing of president Hamid Karzai's brother (Ahmad, then governor of Kandahar province) last year was not the result of a Taliban assassination plot. The killer was a close personal aid of Ahmad Karzai who had screwed up and discovered that Ahmad was going to punish him in such a way that everyone in the household, and beyond, would know the details of the error and the punishment. This would mean public disgrace and rather than let that happen the man shot his boss to death and was then killed by Ahmad's bodyguards. This, by Afghan standards, was the honorable way to go. For those with few possessions and little education "honor" looms larger in the scheme of things.

February 29, 2012: In Helmand a suicide car bomb attacked a NATO convoy. Seven nearby civilians were wounded but no damage was done to the convoy.

February 28, 2012: In the east (Nangarhar province) Taliban attacked a NATO base. Six attackers were killed and no NATO troops were hurt.

February 27, 2012: In Helmand seven Taliban died as they were installing a bomb into a car. The device went off by accident. Elsewhere in Helmand there was an explosion in the home of a local Taliban commander. This killed seven people, including six women. This was believed to be another bomb-making mishap.

In the east (Jalalabad airport) a suicide car bomber tried to enter the base but was stopped by security personnel. The bomb went off, killing ten Afghans (the bomber, three security personnel and six civilians).

February 26, 2012: In the west (Badghis province) six Afghan soldiers were killed (and 16 wounded) as they tried to defuse a bomb.

February 25, 2012: Two American officers, working at the Interior Ministry headquarters, were shot to death by a police intelligence official. In response, all American personnel were withdrawn from ministry facilities in the capital.

February 24, 2012: In Helmand a suicide bomb attack on the provincial police headquarters killed the bomber and wounded six people.



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