Afghanistan: Deal With The Devil

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February 21, 2009: Someone in the Taliban is convinced that large scale attacks on government ministries or foreign embassies is worth the effort. In the last year, there have been four of these attacks (Indian embassy last July, Culture Ministry last October, German embassy last month, and the recent simultaneous attacks against three ministries). All of these attacks resulted in arrests and interrogations of some of those involved. This led to finding a Pakistan connection for all the attacks.  The Pakistani government believes that the Taliban is trying to take over Pakistan and Afghanistan. This resonates in Pakistan, because, for thousands of years, the Pushtun tribesmen would come down out of the mountains and raid, or conquer (with the assistance of some foreign conqueror) the lowlands (the Pakistani heartland of Punjab and Sind, and then on to nearby areas in what is now northern India). This time, the "foreign conqueror" is cash from the manufacture of heroin in Afghanistan. The Pushtun tribes were never more than a nasty nuisance all by themselves. But with some extra help, the Pushtuns can be much more destructive.

British forces in Helmand province have begun concentrating on heroin production operations, and the Taliban are responding violently. As expected, the anti-drug efforts hit the Taliban in the wallet and got their attention. The Taliban are not strong enough to stop NATO raids on their drug labs and poppy fields, and the Taliban are expected to try and develop some Information War tactic, like creating NATO atrocities against civilians, to get the anti-drug operations halted. The Taliban may also try, if all else fails, to move heroin production to another province. This would be very difficult. Currently, about two-thirds of the Afghan heroin production (and about half the world production) is in Helmand. The government has been much more successful at eliminating heroin production in the rest of the country (and expects 22 of 34 provinces to be drug free by the end of the year). This happens because the drug operations in these other provinces are so small that local police and tribal militias can handle it. But the problem in Helmand is huge, with the drug business generating over a billion dollars a year, and paying for thousands of Taliban gunmen, and even more hired guns who just guard the drug operations themselves.

British troops have been collecting components from roadside bombs (as in Iraq, most are discovered and destroyed, or forced to go off prematurely by jammers in British vehicles) and are finding that some of the electronic components are British, apparently bought and shipped to Pakistan or Afghanistan by British pro-Taliban Moslems.

Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have agreed to allow U.S. supplies for troops in Afghanistan to travel by train through their territory. The trains are being loaded in Latvia, with shipping containers, and then cross into Russia and head for Central Asia. The Taliban have been unable to halt supplies coming through Pakistan, despite a few well publicized attacks on some trucks. The big problem with the Pakistan route is the price gouging. The rates keep going up, and the Central Asian route is expected to produce the kind of competition that will reduce transportation prices in Pakistan.

The Afghan government is eager to make peace deals with the pro-Taliban Pushtun tribes that are not deeply involved with the drug gangs. This is the way it has always worked in modern (the last few centuries) Afghanistan. The "king" (a tribal leader selected to represent Afghanistan to the outside world) must have the assent of the major tribes in order to "rule". This is a very personal process, because you are dealing with personalities, tribal histories and a few ongoing blood feuds, when working out these deals. The big issue these days is the way some tribes have sold out to the drug gangs. The religiously conservative Pushtuns consider heron haram (forbidden), and don't justify it under any circumstances. Those Pushtuns who have taken to the drug business, or are enjoying benefits from it (like the Taliban) are seen as sinners. The Afghan government can take advantage of this, but at the same time must cater to some of the conservative tastes (no electronic entertainment, no education for women) of the tribal leaders. This has to be done discreetly to avoid offending Western supporters. The U.S. and NATO will go along with these deals, because it will mean a weaker Taliban, and less likelihood of al Qaeda using Afghanistan as a base once more.

The U.S. has decided to send two more brigades (one army, one marine) to Afghanistan this year. The U.S. commanders were hoping for three brigades. Meanwhile, Canadian troops have been given responsibility for keeping the Taliban out of Kandahar, the southern city which has traditionally been seen as the "capital" of Pushtun Afghanistan, and the Taliban capital as well.

February 15, 2009: Near the Turkmenistan border, an American UAV launched missile killed a local Taliban commander, and a dozen of his followers. This Taliban commander had been captured last year, but local tribal leaders persuaded president Karzai to release the man, and that the tribal leaders would guarantee that the man would no longer work for the Taliban. But the fellow went right back to leading local pro-Taliban tribesmen, and was responsible for a sharp increase in violence in the area.

 

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