Terrorism: September 27, 2001


The Dirt in a Dirty War- Any war in Afghanistan is going to be a dirty one, no matter what you do. The chief sources of the dirt are the drug gangs, tribal politics, the terrorist trainees and Pakistani intelligence.

Drugs are the one really dirty aspect of the Afghan situation which has not been getting much attention of late. The drug trade still thrives, with dozens of shoot outs on the Tajik and Iranian borders each month as heavily armed drug smugglers get caught trying to cross. Tons of opium are seized each year, but more gets through. In the first half of this year, there were 363 such incidents on the Iranian border alone, with 221 drug smugglers killed and another 1,489 arrested. The Tajik border, guarded by two divisions of Russians, was not quite as lively. But this was mainly because the Taliban and Northern Alliance have been fighting near the border, discouraging smuggling there. While the Taliban has stopped a lot of the drug production (poppy growing) in their territory, it is still allowed in Northern Alliance territory. This is how the Northern Alliance gets the money to keep their war effort going. In Western Afghanistan, Taliban control has always been shaky. This is where many of the drug gangs are based. Many of the local Taliban make money for the cause by taxing the drug operations. The Dari (a dialect of Iranian) speaking people of this area have quietly resisted the Taliban, but armed resistance is increasing (backed by Iran.) If Bin Laden and his hundreds of bodyguards ever move into Western Afghanistan (unlikely) he will have to worry about the drug gangs coming after him, attracted by the large reward (nearly $30 million) on his head. 

Tribal politics in Afghanistan has always been a major problem for invaders. You can buy off some of the tribes, but you have to deal with the fact many do not stay bought. When not united against a foreign invader, the tribes fight each other. Centuries of old grudges and blood feuds keep the pot boiling. Beyond the tribes, there are the purely ethnic differences. The largest such group, the Pushtuns, comprise about 38 percent of the population. Think of the Pushtuns as the Serbs of Afghanistan, for the Pushtuns are the largest and toughest group in the region. They have always dominated local politics, much to the annoyance of the other groups. In addition to the seven million Pushtuns in Afghanistan, there are another ten million in Pakistan. While many of the Pakistani Pushtuns are loyal to Pakistan, others will cross the border if they feel their Afghan kinsmen are in big trouble. The second largest group in Afghanistan are the Tajiks (about 25 percent of the population.) In addition to the four million Afghan Tajiks, there are another four million across the border in Tajikistan. Blame all these sloppy borders on 19th century British and Russian diplomats drawing lines on maps without paying much attention to where the tribes were. There are also over three million Hazaras in Afghanistan, who, being a religious minority (Shia Moslems), tend to go with whoever seems to be the strongest at the moment. The remaining groups are largely Turkish tribes, who also ally with whoever appears to be a winner. Afghanistan is a diplomatic nightmare, for successful diplomacy is not just negotiating with one country, but with dozens of the major tribes. This is further complicated by divisions within some tribes, with large families or clans developing their own independent foreign policy. 

Injected into the normal turbulence of Afghan politics are the terrorist trainees and graduates of the Bin Laden camps. Before the current crises, there were 13-14,000 of these. The largest single group, about 7,000 armed men, were at an Afghan army base south of Kabul. Many were Pakistanis (and a majority of these were thought to be Pakistani soldiers.) Around this camp were smaller ones run by trainers from all over the Arab world. According to the Russians, there are 55 terrorist camps and bases in eastern Afghanistan. Among the trainees there are said to be over 2,000 Chechens, even more Uzbeks, plus smaller contingents from places like Indonesia, the Philippines and China. Some of these guys may not be as formidable as the Afghans on the battlefield, but they will be determined. Moreover, the thousands of armed terrorists form the core of the Taliban armed forces, giving the terrorists a major say in whatever the Taliban government says or does.

And then there's Pakistani intelligence (the Inter Services Intelligence agency, or ISI), which has been a major player in the region for decades. Founded soon after Pakistan itself, ISI soon became a political instrument for the army (which soon began a series of government takeovers that continues to this day.) The senior commanders of the Pakistani military have always recognized the importance of information and the ISI has developed networks of informers throughout the nation, and in neighboring countries. When Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1989, the ISI increased it's network of spies in Afghanistan. When millions of Afghan refugees fled to Pakistan, ISI put hundreds of agents into the camps. When the Taliban formed in the early 1990s, ISI agents noted it early on and this information enabled ISI to quickly provide weapons and money to speed up the growth of the Taliban. ISI agents also noted the arrival of Bin Laden and the many foreign fanatics Bin Laden attracted. ISI's influence over the Taliban waned during the late 1990s and that of Bin Laden increased. Bin Laden's organization openly provided money and trained administrators to help run the government. Meanwhile, Pakistan, as a foreign country, was regarded suspiciously by the Taliban, and for good reason. Hundreds of ISI agents are members of the Taliban, and the Taliban don't like it. Still, hundreds of Pakistani government advisers and civilian volunteers openly work with the Taliban (some of them, of course, are also working for the ISI.) Whatever is going on in Afghanistan, the ISI wants to know about it. So you will find ISI agents among the drug gangs, the Northern Alliance and any other faction that appears to have potential. ISI is not out there to specifically do dirty work, but ISI agents will do whatever needed to be done to serve the interests, not of Pakistan, but the Pakistani armed forces. 

Anyone wanting to get anything done in Afghanistan has to deal with these folks, and that will make for some interesting headlines. 


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