Afghanistan: The Arrangement


August 6, 2008: India's success at containing Islamic terrorists from entering northwest India (Kashmir), has caused some of those terrorists to shift operations to Afghanistan. These Pakistanis are not border tribesmen (Pushtuns) but men recruited from more populous parts of the country (like the Punjab). They are being found among the dead and captured Taliban in those few parts of Afghanistan that are sort of at war. Most of Afghanistan has been at peace, or at least what passes for peace in this part of the world, since 2002. But most of the adult male population is armed (the majority of those just for self-defense). The chronically high unemployment makes it easy for warlords (usually ambitious tribal leaders, actually anyone with access to cash and guns) to recruit and to head off looking for power (intimidating other tribes) or loot (stealing whatever they can).

This ancient warrior tradition has been revived big time in the "Pushtun belt" (the Pushtun tribal territories on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border) by the establishment of the heroin trade in Helmand province. Most of the poppies are grown here, and processed into opium and heroin, mostly for export. The trade once flourished across the border in Pakistan, but two decades ago the government shut it down, after experiencing a sharp increase in drug addiction throughout Pakistan.

Now the new addicts are Afghan, and most of the country is hostile to heroin and opium production. But the drug lords don't want to move on again, as the next move will take them out of Pushtun territory, and many of the Pushtun drug gangsters won't have an easy time of it operating with "foreigners" (anyone who is not a Pushtun). Before the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, they demonstrated their willingness to tolerate the heroin trade (as long as nearly all of the stuff was exported, because the Koran, by implication, forbids these drugs, along with alcohol). The Taliban needed the high "taxes" that the drug gangs could pay, and still does. The drug gangs and the Taliban (basically Islamic conservatives with guns and attitude) need each other. The drug lords know they can bribe plenty of government officials to leave them alone, while the Taliban believe they can intimidate the government, and anti-Taliban tribes, to obey.

The relationship between the drug gangs and the Taliban is an imperfect one. There is no unified command, just dozens of local arrangements that follow the same pattern (the drug gangs use bribes and Taliban violence to keep their poppy fields and refining operations safe from government interference).

In terms of casualties, the Taliban are losing. The NATO forces are losing about six men per thousand per year. The Afghan police and army are suffering about twice that casualty rate. The Taliban are losing three or four times as many as the Afghan security forces. But the Afghan war is not so much about casualties as it is about tribal politics. As long as some of the tribes, or tribal factions, support the Taliban, the fighting will continue. This kind of violence has been endemic in Afghanistan for thousands of years. These wars end either through a threat of extermination (the old Mongol approach, which is no longer acceptable), or negotiation. The big difference between the Afghan government, and NATO, is over the importance of negotiation, and what can be given up. Many in the government are willing to tolerate some degree of heroin production and Taliban autonomy, in order to achieve more peace. NATO and the U.S. do not go along with that option.

August 1, 2008: Publicly, Pakistan denies U.S. charges that the Pakistani intelligence agency (the ISI) helped plan and carry out the July 7th terror attack on the Indian embassy in Afghanistan. Privately, Pakistan promises to root out Islamic conservatives and pro-Taliban operatives in the ISI. This has been a problem with the ISI since the 1980s, and no one has been willing to do the deed because the ISI could provide accurate information on Islamic terrorists (as when al Qaeda and the Taliban make terror attacks in Pakistan outside of the tribal territories.) But the Islamic conservatives in Pakistan are not united, and some factions are now openly at war with the government. The factionalism extends to the ISI, making more difficult any attempt to clean up the organization. Unfortunately, it's not just the ISI. There are Islamic militants (or their fans) throughout the military and government. But nowhere are they as thick as in the ISI, and it's becoming a public embarrassment. Expect to see some fireworks in this department.




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