March 27, 2012:
President Karzai wants U.S. troops to withdraw from their small rural bases, in order to avoid civilian casualties. But rural Afghans like having the troops around because they keep bandits and Taliban terrorism away. Karzai is trying to placate his tribal allies who are deep into the drug business. The NATO troops have cost the drug gangs a lot of money in the past two years, and the American strategy of putting troops "in the villages" is one of the most troublesome tactics of all (next to night raids). Karzai and his family have long been on the drug gangs' payroll, as have many Pushtun tribal leaders. It's an easy way to get rich, although you have to put up with Westerners and Afghans complaining about all the drug addicts. Karzai's effort to hold peace talks with the Taliban fell apart when it became apparent that NATO and the United States were not going to free imprisoned senior Taliban leaders as a precursor to the talks.
The NATO campaign against the Taliban continues, concentrating on Taliban leaders and technical experts. This has put the Taliban under a lot of pressure because the NATO "decapitation" (find and kill the leaders) strategy makes it all very personal for the key people in the Taliban. This is the main motivator for the Taliban to "make peace."
U.S. combat deaths continue their downward trend. Deaths last year were 16 percent less than 2010. So far this year combat deaths are down 30 percent from the same period last year. Deaths in March are down by more than 50 percent.
While Afghan public opinion still overwhelmingly supports the 2001 American invasion (and expulsion of the Taliban), approval of continued fighting has declined from 83 percent in 2005 to 43 percent today. Most of the drop in support comes from the Pushtun south, where nearly all the drug production takes place and where most of the continued fighting occurs. More importantly, most Afghans do not believe the Taliban can regain control of the country and that if most of the foreign troops leave, the non-Pushtun majority (plus a few Pushtun allies) can deal with the Taliban threat. Most Afghans also want the billions in foreign aid to continue. Although much of that is stolen, a lot does get down to the village level. For most Afghans life has gotten better in the last decade. But the Taliban terrorism campaign against foreign troops, mainly in the south, has mostly targeted Afghans and that is not popular. With the foreign troops gone more traditional Afghan methods (torture, massacre, taking families of wanted men hostage) can be used to deal with the Taliban. This will create outrage in the West but most Afghans really don't care what the West thinks.
NATO and the U.S. have negotiated agreements with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Russia to move all sorts of supplies and equipment over the
Three years ago nearly all land movement of supplies came in via Pakistan. But that changed after
26 because of a friendly fire incident on the Afghan border that left 24 Pakistani troops dead. The NDN
Now Pakistan has to worry about losing some of the transport business for Afghan civilian goods. That's a major industry in Pakistan because nearly all (save air freight) cargo enters and leaves Afghanistan by truck. But now Afghanistan is building its first railroad system, connecting it with the Central Asian rail network terminal on the Uzbek border. Even with the longer distances, moving cargo would be competitive coming and going via rail through Central Asia compared to going via truck through Pakistan. The NDN makes for a fundamental change in Afghan-Pakistan relations. Now Afghanistan can look north for economic, cultural, and political alliances, rather than just with Pakistan and Iran, two countries that have not always been kind to Afghanistan.
Meanwhile Pakistan, which created the Taliban (in Afghan refugee camps) two decades ago now really, really regrets that decision. The Taliban was basically Pushtun tribesmen taught the more fanatical brand of Wahhabi Islam by Saudi missionaries (that Pakistan allowed in during the 1980s, along with billions of dollars-worth of Saudi aid for Afghan refugees from the Russian invasion of Afghanistan) and recruited from religious schools in Pakistan's tribal territories. Armed, advised, and supported by members of ISI (Pakistani military intelligence), this was to be a cheap way to end the civil war raging in Afghanistan ever since the Russians left in 1989. The Afghan Taliban ended most of the civil war but were still fighting the Northern Alliance (non-Pushtun groups from northern Afghanistan) when the U.S. entered in late 2001. Forced to flee back to Pakistan the Taliban organized a Pakistan branch, which became a major force in the tribal territories (that cover the northern and northwestern Pakistan border). Since the Taliban on both sides of the border are Pushtun tribesmen, this created a monster long feared by non-Pushtun Pakistanis and Afghans alike. While a large (40 percent) minority in Afghanistan, twice as many Pushtun live in Pakistan, where they are a much smaller minority (under 10 percent). Fortunately for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Pushtuns, and now the Taliban, are divided by all sorts of issues (tribal, political, religious, personal). Despite the divisions the Taliban share a common belief in Islamic conservatism and domination (of the entire region, then the world). Most Afghans and Pakistanis do not want to be ruled by a Pushtun religious dictatorship but the Taliban also share an enthusiasm for terrorism and assassination of military and civilian leaders who oppose them. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan thought they could negotiate an end to the Taliban but that approach is not working. Sustained by drug gang money and extortion from businesses and foreign aid organizations, the Taliban have money for payroll and weapons. That, combined with the traditional Pushtun love of killing and plundering their neighbors, has created a mess that just won't go away. Long term, though, most Afghans believe they can cope with this latest Pushtun threat.
Another problem is Iran. Earlier this month the United States openly accused the commander of the Iranian Quds Force (a terrorist support organization) units in southeastern Iran of working with Afghanistan drug gangs to smuggle heroin and opium through Iran. More importantly, Quds Force sees to it that the drug gangs get chemicals needed to convert opium into heroin and morphine. Quds Force also supplies the Taliban and drug gang gunmen with weapons and training. Although Iran has a big problem with drug addiction (to Afghan heroin and opium), Quds Force justifies its involvement with drug smuggling by insisting that the stuff they let in goes straight through Iran on its way to poison Iran's enemies in the Persian Gulf and the West.
March 26, 2012: At the Ministry of Defense headquarters in Kabul, 11 suicide bomb vests were found, apparently part of preparations for a mass attack from the inside and outside. While the Taliban and drug gangs are able to take advantage of the culture of corruption to do things like smuggle these vests into a heavily guarded compound, most Afghans are hostile to these terrorist operations. That's because most of the victims are Afghans, usually Afghan civilians. Some 80 percent of the terrorism and war-related deaths in Afghanistan are caused by the Taliban and other Islamic terror organizations.
March 25, 2012: The U.S. paid $900,000 in compensation to the families of the 17 civilians killed by an American soldier on March 10th. That's a large fortune in Afghan terms because the average Afghan family gets by on less than a thousand dollars a year. Much of the compensation money will go to tribal chiefs, who will ensure that bandits and local Taliban do not steal the rest of it from the families of the dead.