Winning: Deja Vu All Over Again

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December 14, 2011: Largely unnoticed in the media over a year of hard fighting by foreign troops in Afghanistan has done some serious damage to the drug gangs and their Taliban allies. While the drug gangs have the resources (enormous profits) to rebuild and bounce back, the Taliban do not. The drug gangs are generally playing defense, just trying to keep opium and heroin production and exports going. But the Taliban, who help guard the drug operations, have an infrastructure of supporters in most provinces and these people have been under heavy attack. With less cash from the drug gangs the Taliban members have been having a very hard time. In the last year these provincial and district "shadow governments" have been heavily damaged by the death, capture, desertion, or firing of key leaders. This last item, being fired, is rare. But increasingly the Taliban high command in Pakistan is removing senior leaders who seem unable to cope. More Taliban commanders are being dismissed because the heavy casualties of the last few years have depleted the pool of good candidates. Working as a Taliban leader used to be a well-paid, fairly safe occupation. No longer, and the Taliban is going broke paying death benefits to the families of dead leaders. These payments are made for morale purposes, to let the leaders know that even if they are killed ("martyred") their families will be looked after. But the high death rate among leaders is discouraging the most capable candidates from even considering it.

The main reason Afghan violence is down 15 percent this year is because of the damage to the Taliban. Some 80 percent of civilian combat/terror deaths are the result of Taliban action. The same with casualties to Afghan security forces and foreign troops is Taliban related. Thus if you want to reduce violence you have to reduce Taliban capabilities. The Taliban are betting on the withdrawal of foreign troops after 2014 to rescue them from this death spiral. While foreign aid is supposed to continue paying for the 300,000 Afghan troops and police after 2014 the Taliban believe they can bribe or intimidate the security forces into inactivity and allow another Taliban takeover of the country.

What the Taliban leadership conveniently forgets is what happened last time. Back in 1996 the Taliban captured the capital and soon controlled some 80 percent of Afghanistan. But the Taliban are mainly from the Pushtun ethnic group (38% of the population and historically the dominant group), while many of the minorities in Afghanistan (Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, and Turkmen) backed an opposition called the Northern Alliance. The Tajik are 25% of the population and the Hazara (Mongols, a reminder of the medieval Mongolian invasions) 19%. Both groups are wary of the Pushtuns, but will work with them if they do not feel threatened. The Taliban began making annual attacks into northern, non-Pushtun, areas in 1997. These attacks were repeated each year, despite a UN and American embargo to protest Taliban providing refuge for Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda terrorist organization. The rest of the world wasn't happy with the Taliban tolerating a thriving heroin trade in Afghanistan either. By 2001 most Afghans were no longer happy with the Taliban. It seems the Taliban represented religious conservatives from a few of the Pushtun tribes. The rest of the tribes didn't want to be forced to abide by the customs of those tribes. But the Taliban insisted and used of thousands of foreigners, recruited and trained by al Qaeda, as enforcers. Then came September 11, 2001, followed a month later by a few hundred U.S. Army Special Forces troops and CIA agents, supported by a few hundred air force and navy bombers, to help out the Northern Alliance. By November the Taliban were out of power and al Qaeda was smashed and scattered.

The Northern Alliance is still around, at least in spirit. After 2014, members of the Northern Alliance are just as likely to take control of army and police units and resume the war against the Taliban. It would be déjà vu all over again.

 


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