Afghanistan: It Gets Worse


March 26, 2010: Even UN officials, who spend all their time dealing with very different cultures, are often appalled by the customs of Afghanistan. For example, the Afghans passed an amnesty law that included some notorious (in the West) warlords, who had killed lots of people, including prisoners and civilians. While foreigners find this kind of forgiveness reprehensible, the Afghans see it as the only way to stop the fighting. It's traditional. And it doesn't last. There's no permanent peace in Afghanistan, only ceasefires. Foreigners don't even want to dwell on that.

It gets worse. Take the job of fighting the drug gangs. Nationwide, about three-quarters of Afghans are opposed to drugs. This is partly for religious reasons, and partly because of personal experience with addiction, and how it wrecks peoples' (and families) lives. But when it comes to actually shutting down drug operations in the south, especially in Helmand province (where most of the drugs are produced), no one wants to actually burn the poppy fields or destroy the drug labs. That's because many in Helmand have been getting rich off the drug trade, and will put up a determined fight to protect their income source. The drug business is so pervasive in Helmand, that nearly everyone is involved. So commanders of foreign troops ask that Afghan troops do the dirty work, so the local tribal leaders will still be willing to talk to foreigners and negotiate. But the Afghan troops don't want to burn the poppy fields and other drug facilities, because there will be a lot of fighting, and that is better handled using the military capabilities only the foreign troops possess. One solution has been joint operations, where the foreign troops mainly bring cash, to compensate the farmers (the largest group who suffer losses from drug production destruction), and the smart bombs. But foreign troops are not enthusiastic about working too closely with Afghan soldiers or police. That's because the Afghans have much lower standards and are often corrupt. Afghan leadership is usually equally inept and corrupt. Afghan civilians will often turn to the foreign troops for justice when Afghan security forces commit crimes (which can range from theft to rape and murder, plus widespread drug use). The only positive aspect of this is that the Taliban have the same problems. While the Taliban are supposed to be a religion based combat organization, young Afghans with guns all tend to act the same. Taliban leaders who try too hard to impose discipline and good behavior on their guys, sometimes have fatal accidents. Moreover, the Taliban are reluctant to crack down on opium and heroin use among their fighters. The drugs are great for morale, and discipline was never very good to begin with. No solutions in Afghanistan are simple, easy or universally effective.

The Taliban are concerned about their survival, especially once they realized that the American "surge offensive" has been taking place even though most of the 30,000 additional troops had not even arrived yet. So whatever hurt the Americans are inflicting now, will be getting worse for the rest of the year. Then there's the damn cell phones. For several years, the Taliban have been resisting the spread of cell phone service. Most Afghan adults now have cell phones. The Taliban know, from the experience in Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq and Gaza, that cell phones are a deadly menace.

Cell phones have radically changed the way warfare, counter-terrorism and peacekeeping, is conducted. This was most recently noticed in Iraq, where cell phone use went from nearly zero in 2003, to over a third of the adult population. Cell phones played key a role in crushing Islamic terrorism in Algeria. While cell phones gave the bad guys better communications, it also made them vulnerable to eavesdropping. It gets worse. Cell phones enabled people to express their dislike for terrorist violence by quickly and discreetly reporting the location and activity of local terrorists. The bad guys have found no countermeasure for this. Trying to collect all the cell phones in the vicinity, or blowing up cell phone towers, merely makes terrorists more hated, and drives more people to risk their lives fighting the terrorists.

This is what has been happening in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have made themselves even more unpopular by trying to halt the spread of cell phone service. It's been noted that, in areas where the Taliban are most powerful, there is the least cell phone service. So the government security forces strive to get cell phone service expanded in areas where they have recently driven the Taliban out. The problem is that people like cell phones, a lot. Moreover, while the Islamic radicals can make a religious point in trying to halt the use of music and video, there is no such excuse for going after cell phones. It's purely a matter of self-preservation. So far, the terrorist groups have been unable to stop the spread of cell phones, only slow it down.

Marjah, which the Taliban controlled for years, has proved to be the source of continuous defeats. After having their forces driven out of the city by foreign and Afghan troops last month, the Taliban sought to regain control via a terror campaign. But over the last few weeks, under heavy guard, cell phone service has been greatly expanded there. The Taliban are going after the cell phone companies with bribes and threats, hoping to get service restricted, without telling the Americans. But cell phones are too popular to be kept out. And once people have them, the tips on Taliban activity increase enormously. People are particularly eager to report roadside bombs or suicide bombers. These weapons kill mostly civilians, even though the Taliban goal is usually foreign troops. The Taliban are also fighting hard to keep any kind of economic aid efforts out of the city. That includes health care and education. The Taliban have a hard time accepting the fact that their program and goals have little popular support.





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