Afghanistan: The Taliban And The Impossible Dream


July 31, 2011: In southern Afghanistan, as NATO turns over security responsibility to Afghan soldiers and police, the Taliban have increased their attacks and intimidation efforts. Suicide and roadside bombs are the favored weapons, because confronting Western-trained Afghan troops is nearly as dangerous as confronting the Western soldiers. For all their warrior tradition, the Afghans are not suicidal. But they do like to convince someone else to be suicidal. This is the job of the religious schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most of these schools are just that, but many seek to indoctrinate the young boys into the ways of Islamic radicalism, and suicide bombing. Most of the kids resist this, but enough succumb to provide plenty of bombers for the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. But as this bombing campaign increased, more parents became aware of the recruiting efforts and the effect it was having on their kids. The schools are being scrutinized more carefully by parents, and those that turn the kids into suicidal killers are avoided. The schools are still popular, because religious education, and education in general, is in demand. The religious schools are usually free, but now many of them in Pakistan are suspect. Thus the Taliban have been having more problems getting suicide bombers.

Suicide bombing is a relatively new tactic for Afghans. But if angry enough, Afghans will make suicidal attacks. This is often prompted by some (real or perceived) personal insult or injury. For example, the mayor of Kandahar was recently killed by a man angered at how the city destroyed his home (a shack in a new slum) and those of others. The city government efforts also killed two of the man's children, as his shack was demolished. When he complained, the city just blew him off. In an ancient Afghan tradition of revenge, the victim rigged explosives in his turban, approached the mayor, and blew them both away. This kind of violence is often caused by more mundane matters. NATO soldiers have learned that many Afghans have serious anger management issues. Thus one should be careful about getting into an argument with an armed Afghan. Most of the incidents where Afghan police or soldiers shoot NATO personnel is not about Taliban infiltration, but a recent argument, often over something trivial (at least to the Westerners). An Afghan will often open fire on armed NATO troops, even though it's obvious that this is a suicidal action.

There's a lot more of this violence among Afghans. Westerners are appalled to discover how violent Afghanistan is. It's not just men killing each other over minor matters, but violence against women and children. Western doctors and nurses working in clinics see a lot of this, much more so than they would back home.

But the Taliban use of suicide tactics is about terrorizing and persuasion.  Police and government officials are prime targets, as the Taliban don't want any interference when they terrorize civilians (into not informing on them, especially to NATO troops). The intimidation campaign goes beyond threats and bombs. One police officer recently has his eight year old son kidnapped by the Taliban (who wanted the father to steal a police vehicle for them, no doubt for another attack). The father refused, and the eight years old was killed (by hanging). In many similar cases, the father will do what the kidnappers ask, even if it is certain he will be caught and punished by his superiors later on. This aggressive use of terror is not unique to the Taliban, it's another ancient, and frequently used, tactic of warlords, and even tribal leaders. These days, even government officials will even resort to it (discreetly) to get their way.

Afghan police recently announced the arrest of three officials (including an army officer) who had been supplying the Taliban information (that had been critical in carrying out suicide attacks). The army officer has been bribed into cooperating. Bribery still works, but it's often cheaper to kidnap a kid.

The Taliban have largely given up hope of winning control of the country by defeating the government. Even without the foreign troops, the government has a much stronger police and military force. As long as foreign money pays to keep the 300,000 soldiers and police in business, the government is secure. Backing up the police and soldiers are the northern tribes (who account for 60 percent of the population), who openly threaten another civil war if the pro-Taliban Pushtun troops in the south take control of the national government. But what really makes a peace deal unlikely is the Taliban need to protect the heroin gangs. These outfits also come from Pushtun tribes in the south, mainly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. While the Taliban are, on religious grounds, opposed to heroin and opium, these two drugs are the key to prosperity for about ten percent of Afghans, most of them living and working (for the drug gangs) in those two provinces. For nearly two decades, the drug gangs have been the main source of income for the Taliban. But most Afghans, including Pushtuns in Helmand and Kandahar, are opposed to Pushtuns (or any Moslems) using these drugs. Their rationale is that the drugs are to be exported to non-Moslems in the West and India. The truth is that over ten million Moslems in and around Afghanistan are addicted to opium and heroin. Then there are many millions more outside the region.

A peace deal with the Taliban that included leaving the drug gangs alone would be a hard sell. More likely is a deal where the Taliban promise to turn on the drug gangs, pretend to do so, and later, bring the drug trade back. But this would trigger the dreaded resumption of the civil war (which American intervention interrupted ten years ago.) Moreover, the Taliban still talk about a single Islamic state, run by the Taliban, controlling most of Central Asia. That is not particularly popular, especially in light of how the Taliban acted when the ruled most of Afghanistan in the late 1990s. So peace talks are most realistically about a Taliban surrender, and how lenient and generous the terms will be. Many Taliban leaders would rather die before this happened. Arranging those deaths has to be part of any serious peace negotiations. Meanwhile, NATO forces, even as they begin to leave the country, are inflicting more and more damage on Taliban forces and the drug gangs. For these two groups, it's very much a fight to the death.

July 29, 2011:  In Helmand province, a bus hit a Taliban anti-vehicle mine planted in a road, and 18 civilians were killed. The Taliban usually just deny responsibility when civilians die from the anti-vehicle and anti-personnel mines the Islamic terrorists frequently use. But Afghans are aware of the fact that only the Taliban use these weapons. Afghans are also aware of the fact that the Taliban are responsible for 80 percent of the civilian deaths (from terrorism and combat operations) and that these deaths are up 15 percent this year.

July 21, 2011: In the eastern (Paktia province), on the Pakistan border, U.S. and Afghan troops attacked a large Taliban camp, killing at least 80 of the several hundred Taliban living there. This operation continued for several days, and the search continues for the fleeing Taliban (some of them dying from wounds, as they fled). Most of the dead Taliban were from Pakistan, where the government there continues to drive the Taliban out of the tribal territories (except for North Waziristan, which has turned into a refuge, or large outdoor prison, for Islamic radicals.) Most of the dead here were actually from a Taliban ally, the Haqqani Network. For many Pakistani Taliban, Afghanistan seemed safer. But this has not been the case. NATO air and electronic reconnaissance capabilities are much superior, and the Pakistani Taliban find themselves constantly under fire.

When Pakistani Islamic terrorists base themselves in Afghanistan, they sometimes cross the border to make attacks in Pakistan. But an increasingly attractive option is to work for the Afghan drug gangs, and operate almost exclusively in Afghanistan. Individual Pakistani gunmen have been coming to Afghanistan for years, but with the current situation over there, large groups are now seeking to relocate.





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