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The Really Ugly Stuff You Hear Little About
by James Dunnigan
March 25, 2013

Despite Afghan president Karzai demanding that American Special Forces cease operations in Wardak province (is west of the capital) last month, the U.S. is still there and investigating the Karzai accusations that the Special Forces were responsible for mistreatment (kidnapping, torture, and murder) of Afghan civilians there. The Afghan government is demanding the investigations be completed in a few days but the Americans refuse to rush it. The Americans have already demonstrated that Afghan soldiers and police, which the Americans do not directly control, are often responsible for what Western media calls atrocities but are the sort of nasty stuff Afghans have been doing to each other for thousands of years. There’s definitely a culture clash going on here. Karzai has admitted as much with recent public calls for Afghan troops and police to handle civilians more gently and not go old-school on them so frequently.

The Wardak accusations (and similar ones) appear to be a Taliban Information War effort, in collusion with senior Afghan officials (including Karzai himself) to use false accusations of atrocities to generate media and diplomatic pressure to force American troops out of areas where the Taliban is taking a beating. This use of media manipulation and corrupt Afghan officials is one of the Taliban’s most promising tactics. The Taliban is trying this despite the fact that it’s widely known that 80 percent of civilian casualties and nearly all the acts that could be described as atrocities are carried out by the Taliban. This latest effort, involving president Karzai himself, is one of the boldest ever. In response the Americans are collecting a lot of evidence of who did what to whom. Karzai can (and may well) declare all of the American evidence lies. After that the Taliban Information War offensive will continue.

This incident is just one of many showing how much influence the drug gangs have in the government. Many senior members of the government have gotten rich off the drug trade, either via bribes or direct involvement. Karzai is also being loyal to the Pushtun tribes he came from and the drug gangs that have made the Karzai clan rich. This is not unusual behavior in Afghanistan, where getting ahead has often meant doing whatever you had to do. Tribal leaders will readily lie, cheat, and steal when dealing with outsiders (as in outside the tribe, not just outside Afghanistan).

Despite all this, most tribal leaders (including Pushtun ones) see the Afghan government, and their NATO allies, as a better deal than the Taliban and the drug gangs. The Taliban imposes seemingly random lifestyle rules on locals and even forcesfamiliestosurrenderdaughtersaswivesforTalibanfighters(thisbuiltloyaltyinthegroom,butperpetualhostilityfromhisnewin-laws). The Taliban often act like bandits while thedruggangswere always gangsters andactedlikeit.The gangshavetoomuchmoney,toomuchpower,and have corruptedtheir young recruitswithagangsterlifestyle,and over a million Afghans are now drugaddicts(usuallyopium).Whilesomeofthelocalsweregettingrichoffthedrugtrade,themajoritywantitgone.

The Taliban has long used the heroin trade as a source of income, especially during the 1990s. The Taliban deny this when pressed but the facts on the ground say otherwise. While mass media likes to portray the Taliban as religious rebels seeking to free Afghanistan from foreign interference, the reality is more mundane. While many Taliban are religious conservatives or zealots, what motivates most of them is money and power. The drug gangs provide enough money to keep the Taliban going but that gives these religious gangsters the opportunity to steal or extort more. Religion is one thing but more important to Afghans is doing right by their family and tribe, and that means bringing home cash and power. If using a religious angle to get that done works, then so be it.

Karzai’s antics are a reflection of this tribal loyalty. The official position is that Karzai’s remarks about Wardak are a good sign that the Afghans are being more assertive and taking charge. Unofficially this is seen as another example of how the corrupt Karzai family is bought and paid for by the Taliban, which is putting more pressure on the Karzai clan to ease the NATO and Afghan security forces pressure on Taliban and drug gang operations. Karzai has done things like this before, and American threats to cut aid or take a closer look at Karzai family finances usually get him to back off. Some believe that the recent Karzai demands about Special Forces in Wardak and no NATO air strikes for Afghan forces are actually bargaining chips in an Afghan effort to keep the aid money coming directly to the government (where it can be stolen). Karzai likes the foreign aid but the providers of that aid do not threaten him and his family with death or injury if cooperation is not forthcoming like the Taliban. Karzai can play games with the foreign donors without getting killed, but the Taliban get more attention. Karzai is taking the long view, knowing that he cannot depend on the foreign troops in the long run. He must maintain good relationships with the other Pushtun tribes and warlords. The most powerful warlords tend to have a piece of the drug trade. The whole point of being a warlord is to have a cut of anything going on in your territory.

There has been a lot going on in Wardak lately, most of it going badly for the Taliban. The Islamic radicals are fighting back as best they can. For example, last month there was an explosion in a Wardak province mosque that left seven people dead. Locals blamed the Americans, who had been in the area a few hours earlier with a larger number of Afghan troops to capture a Taliban leader who was hiding out in the village. The Afghan soldiers got their man, after a brief firefight, and left. Locals are unsure what caused the explosion and the U.S. insists there was no artillery fire or air attacks in the area. It may have been a bomb the Taliban were assembling. Mosques are often used by the Taliban for storing weapons and assembling bombs and they almost always accuse the Americans of causing any unexplained deaths. Because of incidents like this the Taliban has been taking a beating in Wardak, mainly because of the American Special Forces and their Afghan counterparts.

Getting Special Forces out of Wardak would be a great victory for the Taliban, but what they really want help with is the growing American use of missile armed UAVs to hunt down and kill Taliban leaders. Last year such attacks went up 72 percent in Afghanistan (to about 500 missiles fired).

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