August 13, 2009: With the U.S. commander in Afghanistan being a former career Special Forces guy, you can expect some new thinking. The first major change was to listen to the troops, especially the brigade and battalion level intel specialists, who collect local information and pass it up the line. For years, the word has been that the "Taliban resurgence" is nothing more than another drug gang ploy to keep anyone from interfering with the manufacture and shipment of heroin (plus some opium and morphine) out of the country. Bribes, the preferred defensive weapon, only go so far. The foreign troops are nearly impossible to bribe, and they train Afghans to resist bribes. For the drug gangs, this is painful, and dangerous. So subsidizing the Taliban, to the tune of $50-100 million a year, is seen as a prudent investment. This money goes a long way, because you can hire lots of $10 a day tribal gunmen with that. Actually, you usually give lump sums to tribal big shots, and tell them they can keep whatever they don't spend, as long as they get a certain number of armed guys out there to support the Taliban agenda (worldwide Islamic domination.)
Meanwhile, senior government officials, and journalists on the drug payroll, have been ordered to say unkind things about the foreigners, and play down the drug business. But now the U.S. has blown that cover, and the drug gangs are in the cross hairs.
This is very bad news for the drug gangs. They know, from what happened to the heroin business in Pakistan two decades ago, that a determined government can chase the heroin trade out of the country. In the last half century, that's been done in Burma and Pakistan, and the U.S., and many Afghans, want Afghanistan to be the next name on that list. The Afghan drug lords, who never imagined they'd become so rich from drugs, know that it will all disappear if they can no longer grow the poppies, extract the opium from them, and then turn that into heroin. Moreover, in most of Afghanistan, the drug gangs cannot operate. Opium and heroin are seen as addictive poisons throughout the country, which is why nearly all the heroin is produced in the south, and most of that in one province; Helmand. That's where the drug gangs, and the Taliban, are strongest. And that's where Afghan and foreign troops are massing for a final battle.
This province is overflowing with heroin, cash, guns and Taliban gunmen. Not only are the foreign troops now going after the drugs, but have compiled a list of the fifty most powerful drug lords. Men on this list are to be arrested, or killed, as soon as possible. This is the type of attack that drove the heroin trade out of Burma and Pakistan. The Afghan drug lords, however, are not going to just roll over. More can be demanded from the national government officials who have been taking bribes. But there are limits to what these politicians can do. First of all, many of them are not Pushtuns, and don't really care if a bunch of new Pushtun millionaires get killed or turned into paupers. Pushtun politicians have to pay closer attention to what happens to the largely Pushtun drug lords, because a lot of Pushtun tribesmen will be angrily marching off into poverty along with their bosses. But it gets worse. Most Pushtuns are not benefitting from the drug business, but are suffering from it as family members become addicts, or get killed by the increasing Taliban violence.
While Westerners complain that "warlords" have taken control of top jobs in the provinces, and the central government, this is what most Afghans prefer. While democracy is popular in Afghanistan, so is preference for "strong men" with a proven track record of getting things done. That more often means using force, rather than a bunch of lawyers. The justice system in Afghanistan is still basically tribal, with warlords and tribal elders sitting in judgment of whatever has to be decided. A major accomplishment of Western diplomats and military commanders in Afghanistan was to convince the war lords that, as tempting as the heroin business might be, it was best to stay away from it. Most warlords needed little convincing. They had already seen the tragedy of addiction in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They had seen how upstart drug lords would use their money to hire large numbers of gunmen and try to upset the existing political relationships. Saying no to heroin was not too difficult. The Pakistani warlords had done so, and even many Pushtun tribal leaders down south were hostile to the heroin trade.
So the new U.S./NATO strategy is to go after the real enemy; heroin. Once that is taken care of, the Taliban will return to their has-been status.