Winning: The Afghan Rules


February 27, 2013: Victory in Afghanistan is a many faceted thing. That’s because Afghanistan is not a country in the Western sense but more a tribal and ethnic coalition where each group has its own way of determining who is successful. The last four decades of extraordinary violence was triggered by urban Afghans trying to impose central rule and modernization on Afghanistan. This began in 1964, when reform minded members of the wealthy urban families forced the king to accept a new constitution, which turned Afghanistan into a constitutional monarchy. In 1973, a cousin of the king (who was out of the country at the time) seized power, with the help of local communists, and declared a republic. That lasted until 1978, when one faction of the local communists murdered the king’s cousin and took power. That government could not agree on how to proceed. The communists split between those who believed the tribes had to be handled carefully and those who did not agree. The more radical faction tried to take power but was opposed by the more moderate (and respectful of tribal power) faction. The communist radicals wanted to establish a dictatorship and force the tribes to submit to central rule. This had never worked in the past and the Russian intervention in 1979 was mainly to rescue the beleaguered radicals (who had long been encouraged and supported by the Russians). That led to a decade of warfare that killed 15,000 Russians and over 500,000 Afghans. The Russians left in 1989, as the war had taken too long and Russia was suffering growing economic and political problems. The pro-Russian Afghan government survived until 1992, but the end of Russian support after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 gave the various tribal factions an edge. That resulted in another civil war, which was largely ended when the Taliban (Afghan exiles from refugee camps in Pakistan, supported by Pakistan) arrived in late 1994. For the rest of the decade the Taliban defeated or assimilated most of the other warlord factions. By late 2001, the Taliban were close to defeating the non-Pushtun Northern Alliance. But after September 11, 2001 the Americans intervened and the hated (by most Afghans) Taliban government was overthrown. The Taliban leadership fled to Pakistan and planned a comeback (still supported by Pakistan). This involved Taliban who stayed in Afghanistan going to work for the drug gangs, who had largely financed Taliban rule (by paying a portion of their profits to the Taliban). The drug gangs continued that arrangement.

 The Americans helped set up a new government and a Pushtun president was elected. Otherwise the government was dominated by non-Pushtuns, much to the disgust of the Pushtun minority (40 percent of the population) that had traditionally dominated the monarchy (which had little power inside the country and was there mainly to deal with foreigners). Most of the drug gangs and Taliban were Pushtun and the Taliban saw that as an opportunity to regain power. That opportunity was always a false hope because most of the population hated the Taliban and the drug gangs.

The fighting in the 1990s killed another few hundred thousand Afghans and most Afghans blamed the Taliban for this. Only about ten percent of the population (nearly all of them Pushtun) benefitted from the drug business. These people also supported, or at least tolerated, the Taliban out of economic interest. This was enough to keep the Taliban going but not enough to enable the Taliban to take control again. But the Taliban kept trying. Thus, since 2001, another 60,000 Afghans have been killed, about half of them were men fighting for the Taliban and drug gangs. Nearly 20,000 civilians were killed, mostly by the Taliban. Another 10,000 were killed fighting against the Taliban, along with 4,300 foreign troops. The violence peaked in 2010 (with 11,000 dead), when NATO led a major offensive against the Taliban and drug gangs. This offensive worked as Taliban capabilities had declined every year since then (9,000 dead in 2011 and 5,200 last year). But most Afghans realize that the foreign troops were key in crippling the Taliban. When most of the foreign troops are gone by the end of 2014, many Afghans expect the Taliban to try again. This will be another pointless effort because most of the tribes oppose the Taliban. The Pushtun are not happy about this because another round of civil war will take place, mostly in the Pushtun south. Even the Pushtun tribes are not united and many will try to remain neutral.

Afghans do not want a fifth decade of violence but since the Taliban are on a Mission From God, there is no negotiation possible. Many Pushtuns would like to make a deal to stop all the bloodshed. The tribal leaders keep trying, but so far the Taliban radicals persist in attacking (and often killing) any Pushtun who gets too loud or determined about a peace deal.

Meanwhile most of Afghanistan has benefitted from the relative peace, and massive amounts of foreign aid, in the last decade. Because of the widespread corruption, most of the foreign aid is wasted and stolen by one tribal faction or another. A lot of that aid leaves the country for foreign bank accounts belonging to warlords and tribal leaders. Despite that, the economy has grown enormously and many Afghans have prospered. But knowing how Afghanistan works, they know that this prosperity is a fragile thing and liable to disappear quickly in another bout of tribal warfare.

For the Taliban and the drug gangs (who finance the Taliban), this is all working for them. The drug gangs are getting rich producing and exporting heroin, opium, and hashish. While NATO troops destroy a lot of these drugs, and the Taliban costs over $100 million a year to subsidize, that’s just a cost of doing business. The drug trade is still profitable with these losses. When nearly all the foreign troops are gone, by the end of next year, the drug gangs can use the money they threw at largely ineffective IED attacks to bribe the Afghan police and army, which is cheaper. There’s always been some of that going on but with all those foreign troops around, you could not always rely on the bribes to work. With the foreign troops no longer around to interfere, the bribes will make it much easier for drug gangs to do business.

The Taliban have always presented themselves as the solution to the crime and disorder that is, actually, quite normal in Afghanistan. When the Taliban were running most of the country in the late 1990s, their idea of law and order was to declare Taliban misbehavior (taxation in the form of extortion and theft) legal and acceptable. Women were abducted (to provide “wives” for young Taliban gunmen) and people killed (for unIslamic behavior) and most Afghans saw it for what it was. With the foreign troops gone Afghanistan will revert to its usual coalition of tribal and warlord militias providing security in return for a license to steal. Afghans have long learned to cope by either joining in, getting out of the country, or just making the best of a bad situation.

The Western aid workers point out that the country could be rich with law and order and education. But the forces of tradition and the culture of violence and tribalism are difficult to overcome. Anyone with education and skills finds it more practical to just get out. Those who remain keep the ancient culture of poverty and violence going.




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