Counter-Terrorism: Culture Shock

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August 31, 2010: The UN is upset that the Afghan government is giving arms, money and a license to kill to tribal militias. Some 10,000 armed tribesmen, mainly in the south, will be enrolled as local defense militia for the Afghan Army. This works against an seven year effort by the UN to disarm many Afghans. The UN DIAG (Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups) effort basically ended three years ago. This effort involved collecting 12,248 heavy weapons (including 4,322 anti-aircraft guns, 1,147 artillery, 1,501 anti-tank weapons, 1,329 multi-barrel rocket launchers, 2,821 mortars), over a thousand armored vehicles, half a million landmines and over 20,000 tons of ammunition. Removing these weapons and ammo insured that any warlords would not be better armed than the Afghan Army. But this left several million Afghans still armed with rifles, assault rifles and RPGs. The Taliban and drug gangs have over 20,000 of these guys on the payroll. The new effort to organize tribal gunmen to defend their villages and valleys from the Taliban is seen by the UN as encouraging more warlords to appear. But that view seems to ignore some of the realities of Afghan life and culture.

First of all, there's a lot less political power in Kabul, the national capital, than one would expect. Afghanistan has always been a tribal confederacy, with a weak "king" in Kabul, to deal with foreigners. The king is now an elected president, but his relationship with the tribes has not changed. Tribal leadership is changing, though. A new generation of tribal leaders are more attuned to technology, Western culture, media manipulation and, for some, Islamic radicalism. Tribal leadership is sort of hereditary (wealthier families tend to produce most of the leaders and "tribal elders"), and for those who don't become the head of one of dozens of major tribes in Afghanistan, there's always the option of becoming, for want of a better name, a "warlord." These guys are basically entrepreneurs, who use money, guns and tribal connections (usually in that order) to amass power.

The most powerful warlords these days are in the south, where they dominate the heroin trade, and subsidize the Taliban to keep the government and foreign troops from interfering with the growing of poppies, chemically transforming the poppy juice into opium and heroin, and exporting most of the drugs. There is an ongoing debate in the U.S. and NATO countries over whether their troops should direct more of their efforts against the drug gangs, rather than just the Taliban. The drug gangs, for the most part, don't really care if the Taliban run the country, as long as Taliban rule, as it did in the late 1990s, does not interfere with the drug business. Some military planners point out that, if you "follow the money", you'll find that the heart of the Taliban resistance is the cash from drug gangs that enables them to hire so many (over 15,000 a year) young men with guns. The drug lords think; so what if half of them get killed or crippled, as long as they keep the foreign soldiers busy? NATO planners believe that if the drug lords, and their assets, were attacked directly, the Taliban might fight like hell initially, but would be much weaker the following year. But many U.S. and NATO politicians see that strategy as vulnerable to media attack for "misusing forces in Afghanistan". There are also political problems in Afghanistan, as the drug lords have lots of Afghan politicians, not to mention journalists (including some foreign ones), on the payroll, and these would be deployed to defend drug gang interests. It could get messy, and politicians hate messy, especially when it involves a lot of bad press. 

The Taliban and drug gangs are losing over 5,000 men a year. Most of the civilian deaths (1,000-2,000) are caused by the Taliban. About the same number of soldiers and police are dying, most of them Afghan. There are currently 200,000 Afghan police and soldiers and 140,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. There are up to 50,000 men serving full or part time for the warlords, tribal militias and outfits like the Taliban (who account for about a third of these). The Afghan government is more interested in defending itself (as in the capital), and is forming an elite (more reliable) security force for that purpose. Outside the capital, the central government is more interested in not upsetting tribal chiefs, than it is in destroying the Taliban (who represent a few Pushtun tribes and their drug gang allies, down south). The government has been pretty successful at protecting itself in Kabul. Taliban attempts to disrupt the capital with lots of suicide bombings failed. There were few suicide bombings because Afghan intelligence and national police found and arrested many of those planning and supervising the suicide bombing operations. They did that because most civilians are hostile to the suicide bombing gangs (who are considered "foreign," because the tactic is believed alien to Afghan culture, and favored by the despised Arabs). Most of the people killed by suicide bombs are civilians, so lots of civilians are willing to flip open their cell phone and call the cops if they spot suicide bombing activity.

Meanwhile, some members of the Afghan government are calling for NATO to agree to kill no more Afghan civilians, and to coordinate all military plans with the Afghan government. This shows you how corrupt the Afghan government is, for this proposal would enable the drug gangs to buy immunity from attack (something they can already purchase regarding the Afghan army and police). The government could then direct NATO/U.S. efforts against those Taliban groups that do not work with the drug gangs, or are the greatest threat to the central government. Privately, NATO leaders tell the Afghan government that none of this Afghan control will ever happen. But publically the NATO and U.S. leaders have to deal with an Afghan media and government that is full of people bought and paid for by the drug gangs.

Not only does Afghanistan lack an effective national police force, it has never had one before. Moreover, the tribes have evolved a crude justice system over the centuries, and where that system is in force (many areas of the country are just plain "lawless"), there is hostility, often armed hostility, to outsiders (Afghan national police) trying to come in and displace tribal power. All the tribes want from the central government is autonomy, and a share of any money foreign governments are giving to "Afghanistan". This has always been a sore point with the tribes. In dealing with the foreigners, large bribes or gifts (it's often difficult to tell the difference) are often given to the leaders of the country, in return for some favor (like assisting in fighting international Islamic terrorism). The tribes, even when they have some of their own people in the national government (the current Afghan president comes from a family that has long produced many tribal leaders), don't trust those guys in Kabul to share the foreign loot fairly. This is a reminder that the politics within tribes can get pretty nasty. That's why some tribes have pro and anti Taliban factions.

But it's mostly about money. After several decades of civil war and invasion, Afghanistan is prospering. The drug trade is making thousands of Afghans fabulously rich (by local standards, and for a few, by international standards). But the foreign aid, and large numbers of people hired to support the foreign troops, have also spread the wealth around. Even the Taliban pays well, and many country boys who faced a lifetime of subsistence farming or herding, can now earn a thousand bucks a year (a fortune in rural Afghanistan) by carrying a gun for the Taliban. Sure, you can get killed, but Afghanistan has long had the lowest life expectancy in Asia (Afghans over age 50 are rare). The country is now full of opportunities, and people sense it. What most people don't sense is the big picture. For most Afghans, the world doesn't extend much beyond family and tribe. Foreign media is popular, but the music is just stirring, and the videos, often in an incomprehensible language, is entertaining fantasy. People don't really live like that? Do they?

The Afghan drug lords are having serious problems with their own success, and the weather. There's been a drought in the south for over a year. Overproduction has caused prices for opium (the bulkier drug that is further refined to create heroin) to drop for the last two years. Drug gangs tried to force poppy farmers to absorb most of the loss, but that didn't work. Mainly because of a drought, which drive up the price of wheat. Suddenly, it became more attractive to grow wheat than poppies, so this year, there's going to be less opium and heroin. That won't put the drug gangs out of business, but it just reminds everyone that there are a lot more players out there than anyone can control.

 

 


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