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Afghanistan: The Bottom Of The Barrel Is In Sight
by James Dunnigan
September 19, 2011

Efforts to talk to the Taliban leadership have been complicated by the fact that no one knows who is actually in charge of the Afghan Taliban. This is the result of the CIA UAV campaign against terrorist leaders in Pakistan. These attacks have been very successful, and have killed most of the senior leadership of the Pakistani Taliban. For the moment, Pakistan will not allow the CIA UAVs to operate in Baluchistan (southwest Pakistan) where the Afghan Taliban leaders live and work (around the provincial capital, Quetta, which is just across the border from the two most pro-Taliban provinces of Kandahar and Helmand). This could change in an instant, so the Taliban have managed to keep secret who the key senior leaders are. Some of the older leaders, who fled Afghanistan in late 2001, are known. But these guys are no longer running the show. American intelligence believes they know who most of the middle-management commanders are, and these have been killed or captured regularly in Afghanistan. Some of these fellows, who were successful in Afghanistan, survived, and went back to Quetta, where they are believed to be the senior Taliban officials now. But these guys keep very quiet and out of the limelight, lest the CIA UAVs comes looking. The May 2nd raid into Pakistan, to kill Osama bin Laden, has also made the Taliban leaders in Quetta nervous. Now there is real fear that the American commandos will head south to Quetta, and take down the Taliban leadership. All the more reason to keep the Americans confused about exactly who those leaders are. U.S. intelligence does have a pretty good idea of who the key people are, but keep that information secret, lest sources or methods be compromised.

All this makes negotiations with the “Taliban leaders” difficult. Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban are content to continue their campaign of attacking NATO troops with ambushes (usually with roadside bombs) and assassinating Afghan officials and tribal leaders who refuse to follow orders from the Taliban. Meanwhile, there’s no question about what the Taliban want, which is to run Afghanistan as a religious dictatorship once more. The problem is that most Afghans oppose the Taliban, and their conservative Pushtun social and religious ideas. The Taliban represent a minority of the Pushtun, and the Pushtun are already (although a big one, with 40 percent of the population) a minority.

NATO is helping to weaken the Taliban, in anticipation of a civil war after foreign troops leave, by concentrating on Taliban leaders. These guys are usually talented, usually belong to influential families, and are in short supply. Several years of sending Special Forces and commandos after Taliban middle management have had an impact. Many of the current ones are decidedly inferior. The bottom of the barrel is in sight.

The Taliban have taken a beating from NATO forces in the last few years, especially since the foreign troops began concentrating on drug operations (the source of most Taliban funding.) But the Taliban also note that NATO and American forces have set themselves a withdrawal deadline of 2014. So the Taliban believe that all they have to do is hang on until the foreign troops are gone, and then resume their march to reconquest. NATO hopes to leave the Afghan government, and its 300,000 strong security forces, capable of keeping the Taliban from taking over. The problem here is that the Afghan government, like most Afghan leaders, is corrupt. Too many people are for sale and cannot be trusted to use foreign aid for its intended purpose. The Afghan leaders consider this anti-corruption talk a form of cultural insensitivity. Afghan leaders see no benefit, to themselves, their families or tribes, in curbing corruption. While many Afghans would like to see the corruption go, that attitude usually disappears when someone offers a bribe or a share of some plundered foreign aid. For Afghans, this love of larceny is seen as a necessary survival trait, even though many understand that it also prevents the formation of an effective national government.

An increasing number of foreign donors are withholding, or threatening to withhold their aid unless something is done about the corruption. The Afghans believe that the foreigners will not withhold all aid, as this will risk a collapse of the national government and chaos in many parts of the country. The Afghans believe that the West will continue propping up the national government with cash, if not troops, to prevent al Qaeda or other Islamic terror groups from establishing large bases in the country.

Meanwhile, there are other realities to consider. It’s not that difficult to keep the Taliban out of most of Afghanistan, because in non-Pushtun areas, the local tribes are willing to take on the largely Pushtun Taliban and their drug gang allies. The opium and heroin is probably more hated than the Taliban, and most provinces forbid growing poppies, and actually make that rule stick.

NATO has stopped transferring prisoners to some Afghan jails because these jails are suspected of using torture to get information from suspects. While torture is a widely accepted (and ancient) practice throughout the region, most Western nations have decided it does not work, is barbaric and should not be used. Afghans are perplexed by this, as they know it works. It has always worked. In fact, some Western nations secretly hand over suspects to Afghans for torture, when obtaining information is particularly important.

There are a lot of cultural clashes going on. Take, for example, enlistment contracts. In the West, when someone joins the military, they enter into an employment contract. Leaving before that contract with the military is up is called desertion, and in wartime can be punished by death. Even in peacetime, desertion can result in a jail sentence. While this arrangement has been used in the West for centuries, it is alien to Afghanistan, where tribesmen join a militia or warlord force, and serve as long as they like, leaving anytime they want. The Afghan government insisted on using these rules for Afghan army and police recruits. As a result, there is no penalty for just leaving, and there is a high desertion rate (over ten percent a year.) Western commanders have been unable to convince Afghan leaders that the Western model is more effective, and necessary for the maintenance of Afghan security forces. Since Western nations are paying for training and maintaining these security forces, there is no incentive for the Afghans to change current policies. Moreover, corrupt police and military commanders prefer the current rules, as this makes it easier to steal money. That’s because the deserters can be kept on the books for a while, with their commanders taking the pay of the missing men.

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