Afghanistan: Who, Or What, Do You Trust?

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June 9, 2010: For most Afghans, the biggest change in the last decade has been the increase in economic opportunities. These come from the growing drug trade, a growing non-drug economy, and the growing presence of foreign aid money (including many jobs for building and maintaining foreign military bases and supporting those troops.) The Afghan government budget is heavily subsidized by foreign aid. While much of this money is stolen by politicians, a lot of that gets back into the local economy. There are thousands of new, quite impressive, residential compounds built each year, visible evidence of the economic boom (along with all the new roads, cell phones and schools). All this prosperity did not exist a decade ago, and most Afghans want it to last. But a lot of the foreign money will go away if the Taliban, and al Qaeda sanctuaries, are destroyed. On the plus side, the foreign troops would leave too, and so would a lot of the violence. But money, and the economy, are a lot more important to most Afghans than most foreigners realize.

Most (as in over 80 percent) of the Afghan civilians killed in the last decade were victims of Taliban, al Qaeda, warlord, drug gang or bandit violence. All those bad guys live here and aren't going anywhere unless destroyed. The Taliban can be destroyed, but not the religiously and socially conservative gunmen who currently staff Taliban militias. Al Qaeda can be crushed, because this is considered a foreign (mainly Arab) outfit that is not very popular in Afghanistan. That's mainly because of the Arab leadership, and the foreign thugs who tend to work for this terrorist organization. These foreigners kill lots of Afghan civilians, are arrogant and Afghans resent those attitudes and practices. Even Taliban militias are often forced to distance themselves from local al Qaeda because of the civilian deaths from roadside bombs and suicide bomber attacks.

The new American strategy goes straight for this money angle. It's what appeals to most Afghans, who have long lived in extreme poverty. Afghanistan is the poorest nation in Eurasia, and the most Afghans, because of more radio, TV and cell phone access, are now aware of this. Thus the strategy in Kandahar and Helmand is to come into pro-Taliban areas with reconstruction staff and money, as well as combat troops. The Taliban cannot withstand NATO troops, or even many Afghan Army units. Even the roadside bombs are becoming less effective, as new American technology and intelligence resources, and MRAP vehicles, arrive. All this is not a military offensive in the classic sense. NATO troops roll into a town that appears normal, but is under the control of pro-Taliban/drug gang leaders. The reconstruction officials begin negotiating with local leaders and businessmen. Pro-Taliban leaders are offered an opportunity to either fight (and possibly lose a lot, including their lives), or switch sides (and possibly getting wacked by the Taliban or drug lords). It's a tricky business, which does not always work out for the wealthy and mighty NATO forces.

This approach is a hard sell back home, but many senior American officials in Washington understand it, and back it. There are still serious risks. The economic warfare approach means getting involved with a lot of people who have dirty hands. Most everyone in Afghanistan is for sale (or, more accurately, rent) and some of the warlords and entrepreneurs being persuaded (for economic and military interests) to support NATO and the government have shady pasts (crime, corruption and crimes against humanity.) Things could get sticky, there might even be embarrassing headlines.

Poor training of police (especially) and soldiers continues to cause major problems. Illiterate and corrupt cops often became local gangsters. They prey on the locals, and will collaborate with the local Taliban and drug gangs as well. The best cure for this is better selection and training, but this requires more skilled trainers, and these can only be obtained from outside Afghanistan. But NATO has been unsuccessful in finding enough trainers. This shortage remains a major problem.

June 8, 2010: For the third time in the last two months, a group of teenage girls were poisoned at school. In this case, sixteen girls were hospitalized. This makes nearly a hundred girls injured. No one has been caught doing it, and the poison has not been identified.

June 7, 2010: The head of the National Intelligence Service (the Directorate of Security) and the Minister of the Interior (which controls the national police) were fired, ostensibly for a failed Taliban attack on the national peace conference last week. But the two "fired" officials actually quit over the goals of the peace conference. President Karzai, a prominent Pushtun tribal leader, is advocating a peace deal with the Taliban (or most of them), which would include amnesty, including freedom for known killers and leaders of terror groups. Amrullah Saleh, the recent head of the Directorate of Security, was very much opposed to this approach. As a Tajik (part of the anti-Pushtun alliance, representing 60 percent of the population, that defeated the Taliban in late 2001, with American assistance), Saleh sees this approach as unworkable, because too many of the Taliban cannot be trusted, and are obsessed with Pushtuns once more dominating the government, and the non-Pushtun Afghan majority. The former Minister of the Interior, Hanif Atmar, is a Pushtun whose family was connected with the royal family of Afghanistan (sort of an anti-Taliban Pushtun coalition), who was also opposed to making too many concessions to Taliban leaders. Atmar, like Saleh, do not believe the Taliban can be trusted. Atmar and Saleh were both respected by foreign military, political and intelligence leaders. Their resignations are seen as a major loss to the Afghan government.

The "Peace Jirga (conference)" in Kabul brought together 1,600 prominent Afghans from all over the country to hear president Karzai's plea for a peace deal with the Taliban. Most Afghans don't trust the Taliban (who they view as a bunch of religious radical Pushtuns determined to impose another Pushtun religious dictatorship). But many Pushtuns believe that many (half or more) of the Taliban would be willing to join the government had help destroy the hard core Taliban who won't make a deal. Karzai came away insisting he had support for his peace plan, but there were no details of what, if anything, was agreed on. It was all rather vague and very Afghan.

June 6, 2010: For the last two weeks, rail traffic (including NATO supplies) from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan have been halted. The given reason is Uzbekistan claiming that several kilometers of track are unsafe and must be repaired. But Uzbekistan won't do the repairs, and won't let Tajikistan do it. Uzbekistan is basically shaking down NATO nations for more money, and pressuring Tajikistan for concessions in economic disputes the two nations are having. Central Asian politics as usual.

 

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