Much to the discomfort of his foreign allies, president Karzai is playing to his Afghan audience, even if it causes media and political problems for the foreigners defending and subsidizing him. To appreciate this, one has to remember that, for Afghans, Karzai is yet another Pushtun tribal leader sitting on the precarious throne as the first among equals. Karzai sees the Taliban as yet another tribal power grab (this time by Pushtun tribes in Helmand and Kandahar.) As always, the king of Afghanistan is mainly concerned with keeping all the Afghan tribes at peace (or something close to it). The "Taliban problem" is complicated by the Taliban alliance with the heroin gangs. Production and export of this drug is the single biggest economic activity in Afghanistan, and only benefits about ten percent of the population (most of them in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, and among politicians in the capital). The foreign allies know that Karzai's family is in business with the heroin gangs, but find it prudent to look the other way. Karzai weakens the Taliban by playing on their weaknesses. Karzai frequently condemns the Taliban for destroying schools (something an increasing number of Taliban leaders admit is counterproductive.) At the same time, Karzai throws the Taliban a bone by protesting the death of civilians by foreign troops, despite the fact that 75 percent of these deaths are at the hands of the Taliban. Karzai also promotes amnesty for Taliban members, and making peace deals with pro-Taliban tribes and clans. This is all traditional Afghan politics, it's how the king of Afghanistan keeps the peace.
But one of the most popular things Karzai has done recently (at least inside Afghanistan) is to call for all foreign troops to leave and go invade Pakistan, but keep sending us lots of money. Pakistan has been seen as an enemy of Afghanistan since Pakistan was formed in 1947. The animosity was tempered a bit in the 1980s when millions of Afghans fled the Russian army, but most of those refugees ended up in the Pakistani tribal territories, where Afghans often had cousins and the Pushtuns ran things. In the 1990s, the Pakistanis were back to their bad old ways, by organizing and subsidizing the Taliban, as this Pushtun faction conquered most of the country, and tried to impose a religious dictatorship (with very close ties to Pakistan). This was very unpopular, which was the main reason the Taliban government collapsed in less than two months after the U.S. invaded in late 2001 (with 300 Special Forces operators and CIA agents, plus a few dozen smart bomb equipped warplanes overhead).
Heroin and foreign aid have brought unprecedented prosperity to Afghanistan in the last decade. Actually, the heroin trade as has been around since the 1990s, but it has been matched by the amount of foreign money coming in since 2001 to "rebuild Afghanistan." What the foreigners don't realize is that the huge cultural differences between most Afghans and well-meaning Westerners, are better understood by the Afghans than the Westerners. While some educated Afghans will talk of "rebuilding and transforming" Afghanistan, most Afghans have a decidedly short term outlook. If money from heroin smuggling, or working for an NGO, gets the family through another year, that's all that counts. Building roads and schools is seen by many Afghans as the best way to give the kids a chance to get out of Afghanistan. As the poorest and most violent country in Eurasia, migration is a common career goal among the young. While there has been progress in the last decade, living in Afghanistan still sucks. Since 2001, the number of kids in school has gone from one million to six million (despite the Taliban). Cell phone ownership has gone from zero to over 30 percent of the population. The economy is booming and most Afghans are optimistic. While Westerners make much of the Taliban violence, the presence of foreign and Afghan troops has greatly reduced the banditry and tribal wars that have long killed so many Afghans. The overall death rate is thus lower than it's been at any time in the last half century. But there's still no there there. Afghanistan is located at the corner of no and where, and most Afghans want to be somewhere else. Westerners, and some Afghans, believe that an attractive degree of prosperity can be developed in Afghanistan. But that will take a decade or more. Foreign aid donors are not likely to be that patient or generous. Afghans have a lot to be pessimistic about.
March 23, 2011: The U.S. command in Afghanistan announced that nearly 5,000 Taliban fighters have been persuaded to accept amnesty and stop fighting during the last year. The amnesty program is a popular tool for the Afghan government to use when persuading Taliban leaders switch sides. These leaders usually bring hundreds, or over a thousand, armed followers with them.
March 22, 2011: The government announced that they would take control of all security in three provinces and four cities, including the capital of Helmand province, starting in July. This means foreign troops would either be gone, or in the area as advisors only. While there are foreign troops in the north, there are so few of them that Afghan forces have, for all practical purposes, been in charge of security up there for years.
The Taliban ordered all cell phone operations in Helmand to shut down. This was unusual, as the Taliban have normally only ordered the cell towers to be shut off at night, so Taliban can move around without being tracked by the Americans. The Taliban have some satellite phones, for emergencies, during these night moves. But there is increased fear, and paranoia, among the Taliban as the frequency, and accuracy, of NATO raids and air attacks grows. Few of the Taliban understand, or comprehend, the extensive range of NATO surveillance and intelligence activities. It's not just the cell phones, it's also heat and other sensors, plus informant networks and software that can accurately predict what the Taliban will do before the Taliban have decided to do it. So shutting off the cell phones for a long time just makes the Taliban more hated by local Afghans, and just as vulnerable to being found and attacked. This is fine by Karzai, who wants these crazy, self-destructive Taliban religious fanatics put out of business. It's fine if other Pushtun zealots (for Pushtun control of Afghanistan) call themselves Taliban, as long as they play nice.
March 20, 2011: German media have published photos of American troops standing over the bodies of dead Afghans, and abusing naked prisoners. This will cause a big stink in the Western media. But in Afghanistan, the Taliban have had the anti-American media heat turned on high (via bribes and threats) for years. The new pictures will save the Taliban some bribe money for a while. U.S. officials apologized for the photos, and said they were collected as part of an investigation into misconduct by soldiers. It's not known how the German magazine got hold of them.
March 15, 2011: At an army recruiting center in the north, a Taliban suicide bomber killed himself and 34 others. The Taliban took credit, which did more to increase anger at the Taliban than it did to intimidate the non-Pushtun tribes up there.
March 11, 2011: In the western city of Jalalabad, NATO forces intercepted a Taliban ambush operation, kill three terrorists and the local Taliban leader. Attacks like this are increasingly common, partly because the skill levels of the Taliban leadership has declined greatly in the past year or so. This is because so many experienced Taliban leaders have been killed, and replaced by inexperienced, if eager, men. A lot of Taliban leaders have been deserting the cause, fed up with the lack of progress, and the increasing chances of getting killed.
WHO WINS: The