Winning: When The Cure Turns Into The Disease


April 12, 2007: The Afghans believe they have won their war against the Taliban, and consider al Qaeda a bunch of murderous foreigners, with little local support. What we have their now is basically a civil war among the Pushtuns, the largest minority, and traditionally the one that controls the central government.

In Afghan terms, "Taliban" is synonymous for religiously conservative Pushtun tribes from the south. Those tribes were always "holier-than-thou," and when they got control of the government in the 1990s, they proved that they were also self-righteous morons. While the Pushtuns comprise about 40 percent of the population, the arch-conservative tribes make up less than a third of that. Unfortunately, there are twice as many Pushtuns across the border in Pakistan, and they tend to be as religiously intense as their south Afghan cousins.

Afghanistan is not a country in the normal sense. The regions, ethnic groups, and especially the three dozen major tribes, have more power than any central government. Historically, the central government was usually been a collection of Pushtun notables who are acceptable to the non-Pushtuns. The main function of the central government was to deal with the foreigners (and keep them out), and leave the tribes alone.

The current mess is the result of urban communists and other secular groups, trying to establish a modern central government back in the 1970s. The urban crowd had control of the foreign aid money, but were split into many factions. In 1979, the Russians came in to prevent the local communists from being overwhelmed by rural tribal militias that opposed any newfangled central government. The next decade saw a third of the population killed or driven into exile. The Russians finally decided that, while it was easy enough to kill and bully Afghans, it was too expensive and not really worth the effort. So the Russians just left.

The pro-Russian government that was left behind held off the tribes for three years. But once the tribal forces took Kabul, they fell to fighting each other. That went on until the Taliban, with money, guns and other support from Pakistan, defeated the tribes and imposed a religious dictatorship. That lasted five years, until the United States came to the assistance of the remaining tribal rebels, and the Taliban government collapsed. The Taliban were becoming increasingly unpopular because, basically, the Taliban represented the religiously conservative Pushtun tribes of southern Afghanistan. Unlike previous central governments, the Taliban were not interested in working out deals. You did things their way, or they sent their brigade of al Qaeda gunmen to straighten you out. The use of the foreigners as enforcers was the last straw for most Afghans. The Taliban could not gather enough Afghans to deal with rebellious tribes, so they struck a deal with al Qaeda, to supply a brigade for foreigners (mainly Arabs) to do this work. The Arabs were contemptuous of the Afghans, whom they viewed as a bunch of ignorant country bumpkins, and the Afghans picked up on this.

The Taliban leadership fled to Pakistan in late 2001. There they reorganized, regrouped, and raised lots of cash from wealthy Pakistanis, Persian Gulf Arabs, and Pushtun drug gangs back home. The Taliban had tolerated, and heavily taxed, the growth of the drug trade (growing poppies, that were refined into opium and heroin) during the 1990s. This drug industry used to be in Pakistan, but the government there, alarmed at the growing number of local addicts, and lawless drug lords, cracked down in the 1980s and early 1990s, driving the drug gangs out.

By aligning themselves with foreigners (especially Pakistanis, Pushtun and otherwise) and drug gangs, the Taliban have lost all moral authority in most of Afghanistan. Even the tribal ties some pro-Taliban Afghan Pushtuns have, are strained by the cooperation with Pakistan and the drug gangsters. When the Taliban arrived in the early 1990s, they were a force of law and order, promising to end fifteen years of war. But now, the Taliban are bringing back violence. The cure has turned into the disease. That's why most Afghans believe the Taliban have lost, and will never rise above the level of banditry and armed nuisance.




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