Afghanistan: Proud, Heavily Armed and Short-Tempered


November 16, 2013: The Taliban is less of a problem than generally thought. The idea of a Pushtun religious sect (which is what the Taliban is) taking over the country does not work. It was tried and failed in the 1990s. Back then the Taliban were still fighting other factions when the Americans showed up in October 2001 and the anti-Taliban factions quickly defeated the Taliban (with American help). But the Taliban did not disappear, the leaders and many followers simply fled to Pakistan, where the Pakistani government (technically American allies) quietly granted the Taliban (and al Qaeda) its leadership sanctuary. What brought the Taliban back to southern Afghanistan was the heroin business.

Western nations want the Afghan government to destroy the opium crops and shut down the heroin trade. Many Afghans were willing to do this because more and more Afghans were getting addicted to the cheaper opium (which is scrapped off the poppy plants and most is refined into heroin). Between 5 and 10 percent of the Afghan population is addicted, mainly to opium and heroin. Up to 40 percent of those in some police units were found to have been users. Far more people are users without becoming addicts but it’s the addicts that get the most attention because they are considered a major problem for families and neighbors. Addicts will steal or kill to feed their addiction and all that addiction makes the drug gangs and their Taliban allies very unpopular. As Afghanistan became more prosperous after 2002 (because of peace and lots of foreign aid), the number of addicts in Afghanistan grew. It’s now over a million, mostly in the south and in the large cities. Most Afghan religious, tribal, and political leaders (including the Taliban) are hostile to the drugs and what it does to so many Afghans. Only about ten percent of Afghans benefit directly from the drug trade and a nasty side effect is easy access to cheap opium and ending up with many addicts in your family. The Taliban technically forbids its members to use drugs but looks the other way at many young gunmen it hires who want to get high and will do so no matter what. The Taliban has been living off the drug gangs for two decades now and justify this by promising to return to the system they imposed during the 1990s, when the gangs were forced to export nearly all their production and were severely punished if any of the opium or heroin got out to the locals. That restriction disappeared along with the Taliban in late 2001. It only worked back then because the Taliban offered security for the drug gangs in return for cash and keeping the drugs away from Afghans. Some in the current Afghan government see that as a possible option once the Westerners are gone, even though the Western donors have made it clear that the aid will disappear (and the bombs will return) if Afghanistan turns into a “narco state” (the national government is on the drug gang payroll). Many current government officials are already bribed by the drug gangs and the Afghans will keep wheeling and dealing with drug lords and foreign diplomats in order to keep the cash, and not the bombs, coming. But the aid donors can still get some action against the drug gangs. A full blown narco state leaves the drug gangs alone and taxes them.

Although poppy production (measured by the area planted) increased 14 percent last year, the Afghan share of the worldwide heroin trade was only 75 percent and declining. Northern Burma is making a comeback (it was the main source until the 1980s, when production was forced out and moved to Pakistan and then Afghanistan). The Burmese competition is driving down prices and the drug gangs are trying to make up for the lost income. These Burmese tribes had once produced most of the world’s opium but had their operations shut down by a vigorous government offensive in the 1980s. Opium production shifted to the Pushtun tribes (first in Pakistan, then across the border to Afghanistan). By the 1990s 90 percent of opium and heroin was coming from Afghanistan. As a result of the Burmese resurgence, Afghanistan now has only 75 percent of the world heroin market. The producer income per kilo (2.2 pounds) for heroin has been declining and is likely to decline more as the Burmese tribes continue to increase production. Cash is the most effective weapon the drug gangs have and it is starting to weaken. But the gangs are not going away as long as they are profitable.

Government attacks and Taliban demands for more money are also hurting drug gang profits. The poppy farmers notice this most. Last year they could get $163 a kilogram for opium, but this year it’s only $143 a kilo. So farmers are increasing land used for growing poppy by 36 percent for next year’s crop. More of the land for growing poppy is outside the traditional growing areas in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. That’s where over 90 percent of the poppy used to be grown but now only 72 percent is. The rest has moved to other southern provinces where there is more hostility to the drug operations.

The government has been unable to sustain efforts to destroy poppy plants. This is dangerous work and 102 people were killed doing this last year and 143 so far this year. The growers offer bribes to local police to halt or sabotage the eradication efforts and that has led to a large reduction in province-level poppy eradication efforts. Meanwhile, the drug gangs are having other problems producing crops. In 2007, there were 193,000 hectares (483,000 acres) of land growing poppy. Eradication efforts reduced this to 154,000 hectares by 2012, but in the last year it has rebounded to 209,000 hectares. But more land used to grow poppy has not meant more opium. Last year 5,500 tons of opium were produced, compared to 3,700 tons in 2012. In 2007, 7,400 tons were produced. The reduction in actual opium production is the result of poor weather, plant diseases, eradication efforts, and farmers using marginal land for the poppy crops (so food could be grown on the more productive land). Threats from the drug gangs and Taliban only go so far. The farmers live or die depending on what they can grow (or buy locally) and having enough to eat is the primary goal. Income from poppy cultivation is down because the drug gangs in Afghanistan and northern Burma (and a few other areas) are producing so much heroin that the market is saturated and prices are dropping. There is no cartel organization to control worldwide heroin production like there is for oil so producers will keep turning out more opium and heroin until it becomes unprofitable. It’s a long way from that, but the reduced income produces disagreements among the various groups involved (farmers, refiners, smugglers, distributors) and more violence within the drug industry.

In the few districts where poppy is grown, it is very profitable for the growers and drug gangs. A hectare of poppy produces about 3.8 kg (8.3 pounds) of heroin. Farmers earn more per hectare of poppy plants than for any other crop grown in Afghanistan. Actually, the middlemen, often tribal leaders, make far more per hectare, and the farmers often end up in debt if the poppy crop fails (for any number of reasons, including government anti-drug efforts). When sold in a Western town or city, the heroin from that hectare of Afghan poppies brings in over ten times as much money. There's lots of money for the middlemen, including the Taliban. Most of the poppies are grown in Taliban country. The Taliban tax the farmers, and other middlemen, 10-20 percent. This is Big Money, which buys lots of guns, government officials, and other useful stuff.

At the consumer level heroin brings in about $70 billion a year. While only about 10 percent of that ends up in Afghanistan, that is a significant chunk of the GDP. But only about 15 percent of the drug income that stays in Afghanistan goes to the farmers who grow poppies. The rest goes to various middlemen who spread it around to ensure their survival. Two years ago the drug trade was 15 percent of GDP, but now that has fallen to under 10 percent. Part of the change was continued growth of the non-drug economy. In response to these business pressures, the drug gangs continue trying to establish poppy production closer to the borders, which makes it easier to smuggle the heroin out and makes it more difficult for the government to go after drug production. Nearly all drug production is still concentrated in a few districts of Kandahar and Helmand provinces down south. These areas have become battlegrounds and it gets harder and harder to keep production going. But the rest of Afghanistan is still quite hostile to drug production (and any more of their young men becoming addicts). Efforts to get poppy production going elsewhere tend to fail because local police and warlords respond violently to that sort of thing.

Drugs also determine where the Taliban are most dangerous. Most Taliban activity occurs in two (Kandahar and Helmand) of the 34 provinces. Some 40 percent of the Taliban violence is in 10 Kandahar and Helmand districts (out of 398 in the entire country). Why that concentration of Taliban activity? It’s because of the heroin. The Taliban put most of their effort into protecting the districts where some 90 percent of the heroin in Afghanistan is produced. The other areas cursed with Taliban presence are ones that smuggling routes (to get the heroin to the outside world) go through. The Taliban don’t like to talk about this and they terrorize local media to stay away from it. International media avoids it as well, but on the ground it’s all about drugs and the huge amount of cash they provide for the drug gangs and their Taliban partners.

Corruption and poor government continue to be a major problem which the drug trade is simply part of. The only battle that counts in Afghanistan is the struggle against corruption, but controlling the drug trade is part of that fight. It is the general dishonesty, larceny, and use of violent threats instead of consensus and persuasion that makes Afghanistan such a hellish place and allows the drug gangs to thrive. The Islamic conservatives promise that submission to Islam in all things (the religious dictatorship the Taliban ran in the late 1990s) will solve all these problems. The Taliban approach did not work and too many Afghans know it (many from personal experience). The failure of the Taliban to run the country effectively put the spotlight on another problem: a lack of enough people trained to actually operate a large government (or any other kind of organization). Efficiently running a large organization takes a lot of people with specific skills. Low education levels, and a general lack of large organizations, means Afghanistan simply doesn’t have enough people to effectively operate a national government and all the large bureaucracies that includes. This is a problem that is not quickly overcome, since you cannot govern Afghanistan with a lot of foreign bureaucrats (even if you just call them “advisors”). Afghans are very touchy about that sort of thing. Afghans may be poor and ill-educated but they are also proud, heavily armed, and short-tempered. So all that foreign aid is easier to steal (for your family and tribe) than to spend efficiently for the common good.  

Many Afghans are not willing to risk everything to try and establish civil society (rule of law), if only because they cannot see sufficient Afghans capable of operating that sort of government. A functioning democracy is essential to build a civil society but that requires a lot of people who know what they are doing and what to do in the first place. So instead there is a lot of cheating during elections, as local warlords and tribal chiefs ensure they do not lose any power. A lot of Afghans are not happy with that but the traditionalists are still the one type of social organization that works in Afghanistan. The existing tribal coalition system is threatened by democracy and is not quietly stepping aside. The ancient ways still find wide acceptance, especially in the countryside. Besides, those who are most eager to accept modern ways often simply migrate. Not every budding democrat has the cash or courage to leave and the democrats (or those seeking a better way) may be the majority in Afghanistan. But the traditionalists are heavily armed and determined to keep the old ways. This sustains the corruption (stealing is good, as long as it's not from family or tribe), tribalism (who else can you really trust), drug gangs (based on tribal and family ties), and the Taliban (the most traditionalist group).

It’s not all gloom and doom. The U.S. has had some success in driving Islamic terrorists out of Afghanistan. Several years of attacks by American and Afghan Special Forces, along with growing use of UAVs have hurt the Haqqani Network in eastern Afghanistan. It’s reached the point where one of the most powerful tribes in the area (the Zadran, which the Haqqani family belongs to) recently cut its ties with the Islamic terrorist group. There are very practical reasons for the split. For one thing, the Haqqani Network has become more bandit than Islamic radical defenders of Islam. That’s because the Haqqani Network is a large organization and there are bills to pay. The years of American pressure have cut income drastically and forced the organization to pay more attention to financial matters at the expense of everything else. So the Haqqani have become more gangster threat to the tribes who long supported them than a defender of the tribes from outside interference. This change was a long time coming, for it had been no secret that the Haqqani Network survived for decades because of Pakistani support and bases in Pakistan that were never attacked by the Pakistanis (the American UAVs were another matter). The Zadran switch was not a surprise in eastern Afghanistan, as many Zadrani already believed (and kept silent about) that the Haqqani Network had turned into gangsters. Many other tribes in eastern Afghanistan had already gone on record with that belief.

Starting in 2011, Haqqani came under unprecedented attack by NATO forces. That meant over 1,600 suspected Haqqani men (including 300 local leaders) were arrested during over 500 raids in that year alone. These operations killed or captured dozens of known Haqqani officials, often key people who were difficult to replace. Haqqani is being forced to risk its lucrative operations (and personnel) in eastern Afghanistan in order to carry out Pakistan ordered terror attacks in Kabul and elsewhere. While Haqqani has a sanctuary in Pakistan (North Waziristan), that area is subject to constant patrols by CIA UAVs and missile attacks on terrorist leaders and other key personnel. The area is monitored by electronic surveillance and a network of informers. In eastern Afghanistan, the growing number of NATO raids have cost Haqqani a lot of money and made it more expensive to carry out terrorist attacks. As bad as it was for Haqqani in 2011, it got worse in the next two years. An example of this is the growing tension with the Pakistani Taliban. This is largely because local disputes between Taliban and Haqqani have escalated and recently the Taliban apparently ordered the killing of a senior Haqqani official (Nasiruddin Haqqani) in Pakistan.

So far this year, casualties among foreign troops in Afghanistan have declined 59 percent while those for Afghan soldiers and police are up 79 percent. The Afghan security forces are beating the Taliban and drug gangs in combat but are losing the will to fight. That is largely caused by the bribes and threats (against families or the danger of commanders being assassinated). A growing number of police and army units have made lucrative (for the police and soldiers) peace deals with the bad guys. There are only 87,000 foreign troops left in the country and four times as many Afghan soldiers and police. The Afghans took over day-to-day security duties in most of the country this year and will have it all by this time next year.

November 13, 2013: The U.S. has cancelled a billion dollar order to buy 63 Mi-17 helicopters from Russia for Afghanistan. This is in response (by American politicians) to Russian support for the Assad dictatorship in the current Syrian civil war. It is unclear how the U.S. Department of Defense will obtain the helicopters the Afghan security forces need. It is possible to obtain used Mi-17s on the world aviation market and refurbish them. 




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