Afghanistan: The Pushtun Civil War


October 24, 2007: While the Taliban are seen as the major problem in Afghanistan, that is not really the case. The big problems are poppies, corruption and Pushtun tribal politics. All three of these combine to produce the Taliban. But to eliminate the Taliban, you have to destroy the highly profitable drug business, curb the corruption and deal with the Pushtun problem. None of these solutions are easy to implement.

First, there's the poppy crop, and the opium and heroin produced from the plants. These drugs produce three billion dollars a year, much of which is used to buy politicians, tribal leaders and thousands of gunmen. But, most importantly, about half of that goes to the farmers growing the poppies. This brings instant riches, because poppies yield 30 times more income than traditional food crops like wheat. The Taliban are the product of Pushtun tribal politics, and represent the extremist (even by Afghan standards) religious and social views held by a few Pushtun tribes in the south, along (and across) the Pakistan border. The Taliban feed on the ancient Afghan distrust, and violence against, foreigners. Outlanders are seen as actual or potential enemies, and sources of loot. A few foreigners are guests, many foreigners are sources of income in the form of loot, payoffs or ransom.

The corruption is another ancient custom, and seen as a practical way to survive in the midst of poverty and violence. Tribal leaders and politicians take for granted that they can be bought, or at least rented, if the price is right. The drug lords know the prices, and spend heavily.

Not all the drug lords are Pushtuns, but most of them are, and nearly all the Taliban are. The Taliban represent one side in a long standing feud among the Pushtun tribes. The Taliban represent religious conservatism and the preference for ancient custom, versus the needs of a modern society. Thus the Taliban denounce education for women, and many other pillars of modern life. The Taliban like the expensive gadgets, like SUVs and satellite phones, but don't want the modern economy that would destroy the ancient Pushtun tribal culture. This battle is more advanced across the border in Pakistan, where two-thirds of the Pushtuns live. But the Pushtuns in Afghanistan feel the winds of change, and many have rallied to the Taliban cause, to halt the 20th century, and return everyone to the ancient ways. This sort of thing never works, but the Taliban are on a mission from God, and fueled by drug money. That will keep things going for a while.

Attacking the drug business, which provides at least half the Taliban's budget, means getting past the bought politicians, and implementing a campaign against poppy production. This can be done. In the last three decades it's been done in Pakistan (just across the border), and in Burma (along the Chinese border). But all the people involved will not easily surrender the vast sums of drug money they are getting. You're talking of sending people who have known poverty, back to it after having prospered for a few years. Many of the Pakistani Pushtun are still steamed about losing their poppy profits.

Then there's the corruption at the bottom. The national police have never been regarded as a professional, impartial, force. To that end, the U.S. is undertaking a massive ($2.5 billion) retraining of the 72,000 members of the Afghan national police. As part of that process, 2,350 American and European police advisors will be stationed in police stations all over the country. In addition to advice, these foreigners will provide a day-by-day assessment of what shape the cops are in. Past training programs had been too short (a few weeks, at most) and had not changed the average Afghan's view that being a cop meant having a license to steal and take bribes. Meanwhile, the police face daily threats from the Taliban, and some 600 policemen have died so far this year in fighting the Islamic militants, drug gangs and bandits. The biggest threat is the Taliban, who use roadside bombs and mass attacks against remote police stations. In contrast, the drug gangs and bandits try to avoid the police.

Many, if not most, Pushtuns, want to absorb the lessons, and changes, of the 20th century, and get moving into the 21st. That's a daring attitude by Pushtun standards, but there's a lot of support for it. To that end, a cross border Pushtun council is holding more meetings, to form a cross-national Pushtun movement that will deal with the social and military aspects of corruption, religious conservatism and the outlaw mentality that makes the region such a dangerous place.

Put another way, Afghanistan is just part of a tribal civil war in the Pushtun community. The Taliban are a small part of all that, supported by a few million of the 40 million Pushtuns in the region.


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