Afghanistan: The Perilous Pushtun Paradox


July 23, 2012: Over the last few years the Taliban have adopted a new strategy that emphasizes avoiding contact with foreign troops and concentrating attacks, and bribery efforts, on Afghan soldiers, police, and politicians. The latter includes senior tribal leaders and local strongmen in general. As they did in the 1990s, the Taliban use a carrot and stick approach to controlling the country. Those who are willing to make a deal, to share control, are accommodated, even if it includes bribes. Areas that refuse to submit are subjected to terror attacks, mainly directed at the local leadership. But ordinary civilians are victims as well, in order to generate popular pressure against the local leadership to make a deal with the Taliban. It's not working as well as it did in the 1990s, when the population was destitute and worn down by fifteen years of war with the Russians and after the Russians left in 1989, each other (civil war). The last decade has been one of growing prosperity fueled by more economic activity, foreign aid, and drug (heroin/opium) profits. In some parts of Afghanistan the new tactics have worked. That means the Taliban and drug gangs are left alone. The bribed/intimidated security forces and local leaders will still go after bandits and shake down local citizens who do not have powerful friends. That includes foreign aid operations, which have always been the target of thieves and corrupt officials.

The problem the Taliban has is that they lose all control in areas where foreign troops operate and have a very hard time in places occupied by non-Pushtuns (meaning most of Afghanistan) and the growing number of Pushtun tribes that are fed up with the Taliban and drug gangs and fighting back. The Taliban maintain the illusion of success (at least among themselves) by killing and bribing more Afghan police, soldiers, and leaders. Back in Pakistan (Quetta, Baluchistan, south of Helmand, and Kandahar) the Taliban leadership knows better.  Areas of Taliban influence are shrinking and the number of Afghans actively resisting or organizing militias and fighting the Taliban are increasing. Most Afghans do not see the Taliban as religiously inspired nationalists (as the Islamic radicals view themselves) but depraved hired guns for the drug gangs. Despite strict orders to behave, many Taliban use their power to loot and abuse the women (and young boys). The Taliban are not building support after two decades of effort but instead a more intense hatred.

Increasingly, Taliban leaders are questioning their chances of eventual victory. This is picked up, with increasing frequency, by electronic intelligence monitoring. Captured Taliban tell of security men for senior leaders passing on tidbits from that kind of talk by their bosses, in closely guarded meetings of senior Taliban. Some Taliban leaders are even talking to the media about this but confidentially. A growing number of Taliban want to make some kind of peace deal with the government but the Old Guard is still willing to go down fighting. That sort of thing is all-too-common in Afghanistan, especially among the Pushtun.

There is growing panic in eastern Afghanistan and among three million Afghan refugees across the border in Pakistan. That's because the Pakistanis plan to try and expel all Afghan refugees and illegal migrants from Pakistan by the end of the year. Some of these Afghans have been in Pakistan for 30 years (having fled the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1980). In the last decade some four million Afghan refugees have come home. Many of those remaining in Pakistan have put down roots and prospered and don't want to return (often to land that has been stolen or subject to some old family feud). The Afghans in Pakistan are living in communities full of fellow Pushtuns (most of the refugees are Pushtuns from southern Afghanistan), often people from the same tribe or extended family. The Afghan/Pakistan border was drawn (in 1893) without regard to the territorial integrity of Pushtun tribes. Only about 60 percent of the Afghans in Pakistan are registered as refugees and only about 600,000 still live in refugee camps (actually large towns administered, and supported, by foreign aid organizations). About a third of the Afghan refugees live in other parts of Pakistan, particularly the port city of Karachi. This is the largest metropolis in Pakistan and the Afghans there dominate the criminal underground. For that reason alone most Pakistanis would like to see the Afghan refugees forced to go back to Afghanistan. The Pakistanis will be able to expel some, maybe even half, of the refugees. The rest will resist, with bribes, violence, or just by hiding. But the effort will cause much violence on the Pakistani side of the border and turmoil on the Afghan side as the refugees seek to integrate themselves into an area they fled decades ago.

The U.S. has withdrawn about 11,000 troops so far this year and another 12,000 will go before the year ends. That will leave about 68,000 American troops. Afghan security forces (over 300,000 soldiers and police) are taking control of more of the country and by the end of the year the army and police should contain 350,000 armed men. The force is more tribal than anything else. The soldiers and police are often illiterate, poorly trained, and led by NCOs and officers who aren't much better. Foreign trainers are frequently confronted by violent, short tempered Afghans who do not take well to instruction or orders from foreigners.

July 22, 2012: Some Taliban publicly whipped two men in a village in eastern Pakistan. The two were caught trying to kidnap a ten year old boy and hold him for ransom. The Taliban like to publicize their law and order efforts. What the Taliban don't make public is the growing problem with their own men stealing and misbehaving. These fellows are sometimes executed, quietly, but most of the time the bad behavior is tolerated in order to keep Taliban gunmen on the job.

July 21, 2012: In the east (Kunar province) Pakistani troops fired over 300 rockets and artillery shells into Afghanistan over the last two days, apparently in an effort to hit Pakistani Taliban bases in Afghanistan. There were four known civilian casualties and no reports of Taliban losses. The Afghan government protested to Pakistan but these protests are usually ignored or dismissed with denials. Pakistan considers Afghanistan a client state. The Afghans are considered a collection of fractious tribes pretending to be a nation. With no access to the sea, most Afghan road connections to ports are with Pakistan. The Afghans resent this, especially since for thousands of years invasions of northern India (which, historically, lowland Pakistan is a part) came through Pakistan where many Pushtun tribesmen would join the invaders. Pakistan and India are well aware of this but still consider the Pushtuns a bunch of bloodthirsty savages from the mountains. Afghanistan has only been around for a few centuries, and Pakistan was carved out of British India in 1947 (before that it was a collection of feudal states and tribal territories). When you get right down to it, Pakistan's big problem is that it contains two-thirds of the Pushtun people (who are 15 percent of Pakistan's population) while Afghanistan contains the other third (who are 40 percent of Afghanistan's population). "Pushtunstan" is a nation of 30 million Pushtuns caught between Pakistan (still over 150 million people) and northern Afghanistan (with about 18 million non-Pushtuns). Without Pushtuns Afghanistan would become yet another Central Asian country with a small population (neighboring Tajikistan has 7.7 million and Uzbekistan has 30 million). But Pushtunstan is never going to happen because the Pushtuns have long been divided by tribal politics and cultural differences. When the Pushtun aren't fighting outsiders, they fight each other. The violent and fractious Pushtuns are a core problem in the region and have been for centuries. There is no easy solution to this.

July 18, 2012: In the north (Samangan Province) the Taliban made a rare attack on NATO supply trucks bringing fuel and other supplies from railroad depots just across the border from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The attack used bombs and gunfire to destroy or damage 22 trucks parked overnight. The Taliban attackers are in big trouble now because the northerners are making a lot of money from the trucking and security contracts. Most of the northerners are not Pushtun, while most Taliban are. A special attack team was probably sent north and now has to try and get back south in one piece.

July 14, 2012: In the north a Taliban suicide bomber got into a wedding reception and set off his bomb near a prominent (non-Pushtun) anti-Taliban politician, Ahmad Khan Samangani, killing him and 22 others (mostly civilians). This is supposed to intimidate northern leaders. It certainly scares many of them but the net result is for the northerners to call for even more aggressive action against the Pushtun Taliban.

July 13, 2012: In eastern Afghanistan the regional head of women’s affairs (Hanifa Safi) was killed by a Taliban bomb that had been attached to her car. The Taliban are violently opposed to education for girls or women working outside the home. Female government officials are seen as blasphemous by the Taliban.

July 8, 2012: In the east (Parwan Province), local officials began a major manhunt for a group of Taliban who had recently publicly executed a 22 year old woman for adultery. The killing, using an assault rifle, was captured in a cell-phone video and went viral. It later turned out that the killing was the resolution of a love triangle between the woman, who was married to a Taliban leader, and another Taliban leader. Rather than try to kill each other (as Afghan men usually do in such situations), the two openly accused the woman of adultery, held a quick trial, condemned her to death and executed her. All this took about an hour and locals were startled by the savagery and duplicity of it all.

Foreign donors have agreed to provide Afghanistan with $15 billion in aid through the end of 2015. The only catch is there will be vigorous efforts to control the corruption (mainly the outright theft of aid money or materials). Afghan officials protest such accusations and prepare to get around the latest anti-corruption efforts.





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