Afghanistan: Hidden Battles And Secret Victories


August 22,2008:  The Taliban are taking advantage of the unwillingness of many NATO contingents to fight. Groups of Taliban gunmen are being sent to the vicinity of Kabul, where many of these less warlike NATO operate, and have launched attacks. They got lucky and  killed ten French troops in one of these operations, in an action that highlighted the degree to which these troops, and their leaders, were unprepared for combat. By attacking, and inflicting losses, on these troops, the Taliban stir up political controversy back in Europe, leading, the Taliban hope, to withdrawal of the NATO troops from Afghanistan.

A major problem with this strategy is that the Taliban have the support of less than a quarter of the Afghan population. Most of Afghanistan is at peace, but that is not considered news and is rarely reported on. Most of Afghanistan has always hated the Taliban, and resisted them violently. Again, this is not news and rarely reported. But the Taliban know that every suicide bomber attack is considered news, and will be reported. This gives the Taliban power, because they know that if you feed the press corps the right kinds of press releases, the foreign media will publish what amounts to a pro-Taliban view of the situation. So while most Afghans view the Taliban and al Qaeda as a foreign backed, and heroin funded, rebellion by a few Pushtun tribes in the south, the world sees the situation as the Taliban on the verge of retaking control of the country. This, of course, ignores the fact that the Taliban never controlled the entire country. When the U.S. intervened after September 11, 2001, the Taliban were still fighting non-Pushtun tribes in the north, who had no intention of submitting to Taliban control.

Another much ignored story is the role drug money plays in the persistence of Taliban violence. The heroin trade is a major part of the Afghan economy. Entire tribes, especially in the south, and particularly in Kandahar province, are involved in growing poppies, refining it into heroin and smuggling the drugs out of the country. This is bringing unprecedented wealth into the region, and you can see it in the numerous new vehicles and fortified compounds. The money also buys muscle, and the drug gangs back the Taliban, who have, in the past, tolerated and simply taxed the heroin trade. The Taliban officially deny this, and point to how they had banned the heroin trade just before September 11, 2001. But even back then, that was seen as a scam, an attempt to get foreign aid by going through the motions of banning the heroin production. The reality was that the drug gangs had produced so much heroin in the late 1990s that the price they were getting was falling. So the Taliban, acting as something of a heroin OPEC, sought to control the supply, and the price, while also scamming the West out of free food and other goodies.

Many Afghans have noted that, while the Westerners can be deadly fighters, they do have their vulnerabilities. It's something of a competition among the tribes, to outdo each other in hustling the Westerners. The biggest hustle is obtaining foreign aid, while resisting anti-corruption efforts that seek to prevent crooked officials from stealing much of that aid. This is the real war in Afghanistan, for it takes place throughout the country.

The Taliban are relying more on suicidal attacks. The suicide bombers are obvious, but sending groups of gunmen away from Kandahar or the Pakistani border is also suicidal. The group that ambushed the French patrol outside Kabul two days ago, were soon found and attacked as they headed back to the border. About half of them were killed, wounded or captured. The Afghan "way of the warrior" does not endorse suicide attacks, so al Qaeda and their local allies have a hard time recruiting suicide bombers. Roadside bombs, and the prospect of loot from the victims of ambushes, is seen as respectable. There are more Afghan police and soldiers out there, and these are easier to kill and loot than the foreign troops. But, basically, if you have enough cash available, you can entice experienced fighters to accompany the ill-prepared religious school students recruited in Pakistan. The Taliban effort is more about religious faith and media manipulation, than it is a conventional military campaign. This is all a baffling mystery to most Westerners, because the mindset is so different. Afghanistan is a gun culture with a warrior mentality and a tribal society influenced by extreme religious ideas, greed and opportunism. Try and make a snappy headline out of all that.




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