Winning: Watching the Right Game in Afghanistan

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July 15, 2006: The current Taliban offensive in Afghanistan has attracted a lot of media attention. It's also generated a lot of confusing punditry about who is winning, and losing. The Taliban is losing. Although they came on stronger this year, that's got more to do with tribal politics across the border in Pakistan, and Arab money, than for any growth in Taliban support among Afghans. Several thousand armed Taliban are running around southern Afghanistan, full or part time. Facing them are two divisions of foreigners (one American, the other NATO), and twice as many Afghan police and soldiers. That's over 80,000 troops. So it's not surprising that the Taliban have lost ten men for each Afghan or Coalition solider that dies in combat. The Taliban try to spin all this as some kind of victory, or prelude to a victory. But what the Taliban won't admit is that this is tribal politics writ large. It's a battle between the old ways, which have made Afghanistan the poorest, and most unsafe, nation in Central Asia, and the new. The Taliban don't much like education, the Internet, women in school and foreigners in general. Most Afghans disagree with the Taliban, but when you have a violent, determined minority to deal with, there will be casualties. However, the Taliban have taken such a beating that tribal leaders have appealed to president Karzai for mercy. While the tribal chiefs can't keep all their young men from running off with the Taliban (who pay well), they can appeal to Karzai to ask the Americans to take more prisoners and ease up on their generous use of smart bombs.
Afghanistan has been the winner so far. In five years, the country has held several rounds of elections, it has an elected government for the first time in its history. Thousands of schools have opened, over four millions refugees have returned. Irrigation systems destroyed over two decades ago, have been repaired. Economic activity has been booming and a new army and national police force has been created.
There is bad news, but it has little to do with the Taliban. There are many Islamic conservatives, and old school types, in the government. For all practical purposes, Islamic law still applies in many parts of the country, and for many situations. And then there's the biggest problem of all, drugs. Some, 3-4 percent of the population are dope addicts, and about a third of the GDP is drug related. Farmers can make five times more growing poppies (which produce opium and heroin) than wheat. A pound of heroin in Afghanistan sells for $1200. In the United States, it goes for 30-40 times as much. The drug trade is tearing the country apart, not the Taliban.
The drug lords can be defeated. That was the case in Pakistan next door, and in Burma, China and Peru. What most worries Afghans is a situation like Colombia, where a violent political faction (the FARC) joined forces with the drug (mainly cocaine) lords and spent several decades trashing the country. Colombia finally got it together, and took back most of their country. But Afghanistan doesn't want to see its reactionary tribal and religious groups get energized by drug money. The drug gangs are the real enemy, and they are doing a lot better than the Taliban. However, the drug lords are not exactly winning. Drug production was cut by nearly half in the past year. While the new national police has been relatively easy for the drug gangs to buy off, the army has been more resistant (but not immune) to such corruption. The government is arresting and prosecuting corrupt officials, well, some of them. That's big progress for Afghanistan.
But the war is with corrupt Afghans, not religious ones. When you're keeping score in Afghanistan, make sure you're watching the right game.

 


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