Afghanistan: The Gold Standard


November 23, 2016: While the current (since 2014) president Ashraf Ghani is seen as a reformer he is also Pushtun and has a hard time getting along with non-Pushtun leaders. As a result the non-Pushtun majority (and some dissident Pushtuns) in parliament are exercising their constitutional right to dismiss government ministers for whatever cause. The president is trying to get the Supreme Court to help him out. The government is being criticized by the non-Pushtun groups (wh0 comprise about 60 percent of the population) for trying to deal with the main problems facing the country (Islamic terrorists and the drug gangs) without making the best use of the non-Pushtun majority. The Islamic terrorists and the drug gangs are both mainly Pushtun. The drug operations and Taliban were founded by Pushtuns and continue to be comprised mainly of Pushtun. It took Ghani over a year to select the 25 cabinet ministers. All had to get past all the factional fighting in parliament, where the non-Pushtun majority has some control.

The problem with democracy in Afghanistan is that, like many pre-industrial countries there is no tradition of compromise on a national scale. Agreeing on having a “king” to deal with foreigners is what created modern Afghanistan two centuries ago, but agreement on much else at the national level didn’t happen often and only after years of haggling and perhaps some major combat as well. Since 2005 (when the new parliament was first elected) there has also been violence within parliament itself with some of the debates turning into very physical brawls. This is nothing new. In the early 19th century such behavior was common in the American Congress and more modern democracies, like those post World War II ones in East Asia (Taiwan and South Korea) have had problems with legislators getting physical. It’s a learning process and everyone has to go through the stages. There are also problems with disagreements over what exactly the key problems are in Afghanistan. Many Afghans, for example, believe the drug trade is mainly for the benefit of foreigners, who make over $100 billion a year from it while sending only $4 billion a year to poor Afghanistan. This ignores the fact that those foreign countries suffer the same opium related addiction and crime problems as Afghanistan.

Narco State Math

While the drug gangs are thriving and bribing a growing number of government and security officials the Taliban are using that weakening of government control to reduce areas where the government (national or local) can interfere with Taliban or drug gang operations. For the Taliban the bad news is that the growth of drug gang power and income has turned all the neighbors, including most Pakistanis, against them. As much as Pakistan (or at least the Pakistani military) wants the Taliban to control, or at least disrupt, Afghanistan the majority of Pakistanis see Afghan Islamic terrorists and opium as a major threat. All the other neighbors (Iran, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) see nothing good coming from Afghanistan becoming a narco-state guarded by Islamic terrorists. That didn’t work in the late 1990s and there is no reason to believe it will work now. But there is so much drug money involved (the Taliban alone are believed to receive over $2 billion a year) that the problem persists, even within the Taliban itself.

Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of trying to manage the drug problem by continuing to provide sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban leadership and that this leadership uses that safe haven to control about 70 percent of the drug operations in Afghanistan. This is a subject few politicians in Afghanistan or Pakistan want to get into because much of the money the drug gangs receive goes to bribes to ensure cooperation from the government and security forces in both nations. The majority of people in Afghanistan and Pakistan want the drugs gone but both nations have long traditions of corruption and the drug gangs take advantage of that to survive and thrive.

One example of this is how Afghanistan has been unable to sustain efforts to destroy poppy plants. This is dangerous work and 102 people were killed carrying out this work during 2012, 156 in 2013 and it just got worse after that to the point where the eradication effort essentially disappeared in 2016. The growers offer bribes to local police to halt or sabotage the eradication efforts and that has led to a large reduction in province-level poppy eradication efforts.

Meanwhile the drug gangs have solved their worst problems (result of poor weather, plant diseases) with producing poppy crops by importing genetically modified poppy seed from China. This, in addition to better irrigation and fertilization techniques, now allows farmers to produce two or three poppy crops a year. In the past one crop had been the norm. But with the new seed you not only bet more harvests per hear but the plants are more numerous (per hectare) and contain more opium. The poppy yield per hectare went from 18 kg in 2015 to 23 kg in 2016. Thus more farmers are tempted to grow some poppies on the side and this is made possible by the bribery that neutralizes government anti-drug efforts in more parts of the country.

But that’s not all. The endemic corruption is destroying the new (since 2002) road network. Money for maintenance is stolen. The U.S. provided $3 billion to build 2,600 kilometers of roads but now most are becoming unusable because of poor, or no, maintenance. The government admits that it is aware that about $100 million a year should be spent on road maintenance but at most a quarter of that is allocated and most of that is stolen or wasted. For example, a lot of the reconstruction work, especially road-building, uses corrupt, and stupid, practices that are considered traditional by the locals. The most common one is to give all the contracts on a job to whoever offered the biggest bribe, or simply to someone in your family, who will pay you back later on. The guy who got the contract will not provide further bribes to local tribal leaders in the area where the road, or structures, are being built. This offends the locals, who are then more likely to cooperate with the Taliban to attack the interlopers. Another example of “acceptable” local corruption is how truckers ignore weight limits and overload their trucks. This not only shortens the life span of the vehicle but has ruined the newly built roads in many Afghan cities. Most of these roads were built to handle much less weight (typically 25 tons) than the highways between the cities (which can handle up to 100 tons). The police are supposed to enforce these rules but the cops saw this as another bribe opportunity because the roads seemed fine and this was just another silly rule the Westerners tried to impose on Afghans. Again, short-term thinking with long term consequences, keeping Afghanistan the poorest nation in Eurasia, a status is has maintained for a long time.

Another damaging side effect of the corruption is to perpetuate ancient problems. For example there are now 30 million Afghans, but 70 percent of them still live in the countryside. That means it is difficult to safely promote education for everyone. Despite over a decade of building schools (currently nine million Afghans are in school) the illiteracy rate is still 60 percent. Since 2002 over six million Afghans have received at least a basic education and 60 percent of those have been female, despite vigorous Taliban efforts to block that. Nearly all the newly literate are young, creating a growing problem as now there is one more item dividing the younger and older Afghans. But in the rural areas 90 percent of women are still illiterate. That has become less of an issue because since 2002 cell phone service has become available for 90 percent of the population. For a largely illiterate population this is a big deal. At the same time half the population has access to the Internet but unlike cell phones the Internet is most useful to those who are literate. By increasing literacy efforts, especially among adults, the government hopes to speed up economic growth. More literacy means more economic growth and while most children are growing up literate, without more literacy among adults economic progress will be limited until more of those kids are adults.

Pakistan Seeks To Have It All

Pakistan has received an offer they are trying to take advantage of. It goes like this. If the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan are shut down Afghanistan says it will cooperate (and the U.S. will finance) the expulsion of several million Afghan refugees from Pakistan. The Americans will no longer threaten airstrikes on Islamic terrorists based in Pakistan, something that the Pakistani military can’t even attempt to stop with risking even more embarrassment. Pakistan has reportedly told Afghan Taliban leaders to either begin serious peace talks with the Afghan government or face eviction from their Quetta sanctuary. Meanwhile there is growing pressure from an informal coalition (of the United States, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India) demanding Pakistan stop lying about its support for Islamic terrorists that are allowed sanctuary in Pakistan as long as they only carry out attacks elsewhere (especially in Afghanistan and India).

Pakistan has been doing this since the 1980s and always denied it. This began in the 1980s when Pakistan provided a refuge for Afghans fleeing the Russian violence (similar to what the Russians are now doing in Syria) following a 1979 invasion. Pakistan, with cash and weapons from oil rich Arabian countries and America providing protection from Russian retaliation, allowed Afghan rebels to maintain bases alongside Afghan refugee camps. The problem was that after the Russians left in 1989 Pakistan has never stopped supporting Afghan rebels and interfering in Afghan affairs. Pakistan also encouraged Islamic terrorist attacks inside India. Pakistan admits they created the Taliban, but only to stop the 1990s civil war in Afghanistan. All the rest they have always denied.

The truth was that Pakistan expected the Taliban to ensure that whatever government was running Afghanistan would do whatever Pakistan needed done. That meant tolerance for the Afghan drug trade (which made many Pakistanis rich), no contacts with India and no criticism of the Pakistani military or its intelligence branch (the ISI). It was of little concern to Pakistan that the Taliban and the drug gangs have been tearing Afghanistan apart ever since. Only about ten percent of Afghans got any economic benefit out of the drug business and millions of Afghans, Pakistanis and people throughout the region have become drug addicts. Pakistan has been using Islamic terrorist groups against India as well and this turned India and Afghanistan into allies. It is telling that while Pakistan supports terror against India every other Moslem nation in the region (especially Iran and Bangladesh) regards non-Moslem India as someone they can get along with. Pakistan, despite sharing a long border with Iran, is considered more troublesome and less reliable than India.

November 22, 2016: In Kabul a suicide bomber attacked a Shia mosque and killed 32 people and wounded over fifty. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) took credit and the government promptly fired several senior security officials for not preventing attacks like this..

November 20, 2016: Afghan police arrested three Haqqani Network operatives seeking to cross the border pretending to be returning refugees. The three were carrying smart phones, laptop computers and flash drives containing enormous amounts of data on Haqqani Network operations and that data indicated the three were part of an effort to expand Haqqani operations in eastern Afghanistan. Pakistan claimed that this incident was proof that they were driving Haqqani out of Pakistan but the Afghan intel officials pointed out that earlier this year Haqqani leaders had taken control of the Afghan Taliban and were bringing in experienced Haqqani operatives in from Pakistan to help with that. Afghan police have reported more known Haqqani personnel showing up in eastern Afghanistan. Some of this was apparently to deal with rebellious Haqqani factions in eastern Afghanistan and there have been reports of gun battles between some Haqqani groups as a result. This is connected with the Afghan Taliban internal problems. Many Taliban want to concentrate on getting rich (by working with the drug gangs) while other point out that the strict form of Islam the Taliban (in theory) adhere to forbids the use of opium and heroin or profiting from the production and distribution of this stuff. The Taliban has long tolerated the drug gangs because they were a source of needed cash. But now many Taliban factions are seeing that relationship as a permanent one and that has contributed to the current disagreements over who should run the Taliban. Many of these conservative dissidents are joining ISIL, which is uncompromisingly anti-drug. Many Afghan Taliban factions are willing to fight other Taliban over the decision to allow the organization to be run by the head of the Haqqani Network. Since 2014 the Afghan Taliban has been unable to agree on who should run the organization and that has led to more of the factions going into business for themselves. The several dozen factions have territories and different Pushtun tribes and clans they depend on for recruits. To maintain those tribal connections the Taliban need cash to pay full time staff and attract new recruits each year. The tribal leaders and local officials also have to be bribed. The faction leaders have been sending less (increasingly no) cash to the senior leadership in Quetta. More of the faction leaders are responding to family needs and many of those kin want to get out of Afghanistan. That costs money and there is but one major source.

November 18, 2016: In the east (Nangarhar province) an American UAV used missiles to kill seven ISIL men including a local commander. There’s not much ISIL presence in Afghanistan but the radical groups still attracts recruits from other Islamic terrorist groups that are seen as not sufficiently dedicated to the cause of world domination, defending Islam and generally being self-righteous outlaws. Another reason for joining ISIL is the uncompromising attitude towards opium and heroin. While most Taliban justify working for drug cartels (for the money) ISIL makes no exceptions.

November 15, 2016: The government revealed that so far this year over 900,000 Afghan refugees have returned home, most from Pakistan and about a third from Iran. Not all of these returning refugees went voluntarily. Since 2014 there has been increasing anti-Afghan feelings in Pakistan. This led to another effort to persecute and expel several million Afghans living (often illegally) in Pakistan. Many refugees returning from Pakistan complain of being forced out. Since 2002 over four million of refugees in Pakistan have returned to Afghanistan. There are still about two million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and only about half of these are registered (there legally). There are nearly as many Afghans in Iran, most of them economic refugees but some of them from the 1980s who fled the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Most Iranians want the refugees gone as the refugee camps are a base (and source) for Afghan drug smugglers and other criminals. Much of the drug problem in Iran is because of Afghan drug smugglers and dealers. Iran has over two million drug addicts as a result. The Afghan refugees complain of persecution and discrimination, but still find it preferable to live outside Afghanistan. Iran takes advantage of this by offering free education in Iran and there are currently over 300,000 Afghans attending Iranian schools. All of the subjects are taught with a very pro-Iran vibe. The Afghan refugees have also been kept rather more peaceful than in Pakistan by offering the many Shia ones high pay and permanent permission to stay in Iran for your family for those who volunteer to fight for Iran in Syria. This strikes many Afghans as a good deal, and some in Afghanistan also accept it (even though such recruiting by foreigners is illegal). Afghan intelligence officials believe that Iran is also quietly providing sanctuary for some Taliban factions as part of an effort to gain intel on drug Afghan drug smuggling operations and the increasingly violent war between ISIL and the Taliban inside Afghanistan.

November 10, 2016: In the north (Kunduz province) a suicide car bomber got to the front of the German consulate compound in Mazar-e-Sharif and exploded. Six people were killed and 129 wounded. The consulate was wrecked and subsequently abandoned. Another suicide bomber who was to have participated on foot during the attack was captured and admitted he was trained for two months by Pakistani officials in northwest Pakistan (Peshawar) and he was told that the attack had been planned back in May 2016.

November 8, 2016: Near Kabul an Islamic terrorist suicide bomber got into the Bagram Air Base for the first time and his explosives killed two American soldiers, two American contractors and wounded 16 other American troops and one from Poland. The Taliban have been trying for years to make an attack like this. In late 2015 six U.S. air force personnel patrolling outside the base were killed when attacked by a suicide bomber on a motorcycle. This time the attacker was identified as a base employee and a former member of the Taliban who had participated in an American funded program to rehabilitate former Taliban. That program did not work and was cancelled and now all of the “successful” rehabilitations have to be reexamined. The real culprit here is the growing use of bribes by the Taliban and drug gangs. The bribes will erode the best defenses eventually.

November 3, 2016: In the north (Kunduz province) the army, with some American advisors and air support, attacked a Taliban gathering in order to capture or kill two Taliban leaders and has many other of the Islamic terrorists as possible. Initial reports were that 62 members of the Taliban were killed, along with the two Taliban leaders. Three Afghan and two American soldiers were also killed during the intense operation that included gun battles on the ground and multiple airstrikes. Local Afghans later complained that 32 civilians died and this became a major media item in Afghanistan despite the fact that such events are rare and the Taliban account for over 80 percent of civilian deaths, nearly all of them deliberate. This is another example of how the Taliban use of threats and drug money (for bribes) can control the local media and a growing number of officials and prominent leaders.

October 30, 2016: In the east (Kunar province) an airstrike killed 19 members of Pakistani Islamic terror group LET (Lashkar-e-Taiba) and wounded six. Since 2009 LET, a group that had long concentrated on attacks against Indian Kashmir, has been trying to establish a presence in Afghanistan. This is because the Indians have largely crushed LET efforts in Kashmir and the Pakistani government has been putting a lot more pressure on the group inside Pakistan to make itself useful or lose its covert government support. So many LET members have fled to Afghanistan, seeking a less stressful (and lethal) work environment.




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