Afghanistan: It's The (Drug) Economy, Stupid

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September 18, 2009: You don't have to spend too much time in Afghanistan to realize that there is plenty of evidence why this is the poorest nation in Eurasia. The next thing you realize is that most Afghans are desperate to escape poverty, or the country. The poverty in Afghanistan is of the "life or death" variety. Life expectancy is among the lowest (Afghans over age 50 are rare, compared to the West) in the world, and it's easy to die in Afghanistan. This is a tremendous motivator, and corruption is not seen as a sin, but more as a cure for early death. But corruption in Afghanistan has its own flavor. The traditional elites, the families that have long dominated tribal and economic leadership, tend to be the most corrupt, and the most successful at it. This is how they increase, or just preserve, their power. The rich, via corrupt or legitimate means, spread the money around. You need lots of friends and followers to survive in Afghanistan.

The tribal culture includes features like tribal warriors, tribal feuds, tribal rivalries and tribal wars. Some of these conflicts, or "intense rivalries" go back centuries, and it frequently turns into fatal violence. This is normal. It rarely makes the news in the West, unless some Western visitor gets caught in the crossfire and killed, or kidnapped. No politician in Afghanistan can ignore their tribal responsibilities. Not only their own tribe by blood, but the tribes that have become their clients. These tribes expect to be taken care of, because this kind of loyal is unto death. Betraying those who follow you is a big deal, and something that has major consequences. Afghans living in exile are often where they are because they burned too many bridges back home.

The foreigners don't understand that it's perfectly OK, by Afghan rules,  to buy an election. That's what incumbent president Karzai has done, with about a third of the votes deemed (by election monitors) tainted. Afghans don't like having their votes cancelled or bought, but Afghanistan is a dangerous place, and you learn when to back off to survive. Karzai is now declaring that he has over 50 percent of the vote, and that a runoff is not needed. A runoff might see Karzai defeated, but his successor will have to play by the same rules. While Afghanistan is changing, those changes come very slowly by Western standards. For example, Karzai's main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, had about a fifth of the tainted votes detected so far.

The U.S. has been in Afghanistan for eight years now, and intensely involved with Afghanistan for decades. There are many American officials who speak the languages and have established personal ties. These guys (mostly, they are guys, dealing with a very guy-centric Afghan culture) know what works and what doesn't.  "What makes Afghanistan tick",  is no secret to the American leadership, although the media myths have to be dealt with. To pacify Afghanistan, you have to buy a coalition that will do what you want. The British learned this over a century ago, when the bribed the most powerful tribes to keep the other tribes in line (and out of British India, where Afghans deem it their right to periodically raid and plunder). British India is now Pakistan and northern India and the "Afghans" actually live astride the Afghan/Pakistani border in the form of over 30 million Pushtun people. Because of the social and health problems at home, the U.S. cannot support the Afghan leaders who are getting rich on the heroin trade. This is the major problem the U.S. has, because the drug lords are using the Taliban (who have a very small following in Afghanistan) as hired guns and troublemakers. The U.S. leadership has made it quite clear that the drug gangs have to be destroyed, and Afghans have to be presented with more economic opportunities (to replace those currently enjoyed by producing heroin and opium). Many American military commanders believe that a "surge" of U.S. troops is needed to break the drug economy and put the drug lords on the run. Without the heroin income, the Taliban could not afford to hire (at several times what Afghan soldiers and cops make) all the tribal gunman they use to attack foreign troops. But the second part of that, is greatly improving the Afghan economy. This is not a trivial task.

In addition to money, another major motivator of the Taliban is the news from the West, as more people call for the withdrawal of their troops from Afghanistan, after a few of the troops from a Western nation are killed. The Taliban are well aware of the fact that the foreign troops cannot be beaten in combat. But the Western media tends to slant the news to favor the Taliban, and persuade politicians, in the West, to claim that the Taliban are winning, cannot be beaten and that getting out of Afghanistan is the wise thing to do. The Taliban love this stuff, and radio commentators (largely illiterate Afghanistan is too poor for lots of TV, but nearly everyone has a radio, and there are dozens of illegal Taliban radio stations) make much of it.

All politics is local. No matter what the tribal loyalties are, and who is into a blood (to the death) feud with who, Afghans appreciate help. However, the Afghans you tend to notice the most are the hustlers who take advantage of helpful foreigners, or Afghans, and stealing what they can. Afghans constantly make this decision when faced with an opportunity; do I thank this guy, or scam him for all he's got. Gratitude is seen as a needless luxury when used on foreigners. Being grateful to another Afghan can be the basis of a long term relationship. Moreover, the foreign soldiers, as lethal as they are, do not operate as ruthlessly as Afghan fighters do. Part of this has to do with the way the Western media handle death, but mostly it's all about the fact that an Afghan with a gun is not likely to leave, but will stick around and keep gunning for you.

September 13, 2009: In the last two days, nearly a hundred people died across the country from Taliban and drug gang violence. A third of the dead were civilians, most were Taliban. The attacks included economic targets, both reconstruction projects and deliveries of humanitarian aid.

 

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