Afghanistan: Give The Future a Chance

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November 8, 2007: The war in Afghanistan is all about a few Pushtun tribes trying to maintain their independence, retain lost powers or gain control of the national government. While that sounds contradictory, it makes sense in Afghanistan. The term "Taliban" has come to be the term for the several million Pushtun tribesmen who oppose the current national government. Such tribal coalitions, and their rebellious behavior, are nothing new in Afghan history. This is normal for Afghanistan, although the current round of violence is also part of a long term trend to curb tribal power. And "long term" is not what the current allies (NATO and the U.S.) of the national government want to hear. But without the foreign troops, Afghan would be partitioned, and embroiled in a civil war between the Pushtun tribes, with the non-Pushtun tribes standing aside, or taking part, as their own internal politics dictated. All this would be paid for by the sale of heroin. That would irritate Afghanistan's neighbors (particularly Iran and Pakistan, which already have a serious drug addiction problem), as well as the rest of the world. You either take care of it now, or deal with it later.

Tribal warfare in Afghanistan is "slow and easy" compared to the Western way of war. For the tribes, going off to fight for a bit is a major social and financial activity for young men with little education (most tribesmen are illiterate) and high unemployment. Tribal warfare is all about getting a little less poor. Loot is a major attraction, and war stories emphasize what you came away with after the battle. Tribal warfare is also about population control, especially because, after Western medicines and such showed during the last three centuries, the population has skyrocketed from about two million (where is stayed for thousands of years) to over 25 million. Facing a life of poverty and boredom, the Taliban have no trouble recruiting young guys. A hundred bucks a month, a gun and the prospects of loot are a big deal. Getting killed, not so much. The battle dead are talked about in respectful terms. These young guys know what they are getting into, and as long as tribal politics encourages it, you got an endless supply of recruits for low level warfare. Do the math. Three million pro-Taliban Pushtun tribesmen gives you several hundred thousand young guys (late teens to late 20s) to make your recruiting pitch to. The Taliban attract about five percent of those, add in Islamic radical foreigners and likeminded Pushtun guys from across the border in Pakistan, and you're good to go.

But go where? Stealing from the UN has been a major source of loot. You get the trucks, you get the food (meant for starving Afghans, but from another tribe, so screw 'em) and maybe ransom for captured UN workers (mostly local Afghans). Raiding district capitals is another good source of goodies. Afghanistan has 398 districts (belonging to 34 provinces). Each district capital is usually the largest town in a region containing 40,000-100,000 people. There are government offices, and not a whole lot of police. Those "Taliban capturing district capitals" stories you hear about are actually raids, usually at night. A hundred or so Taliban come rolling in on trucks and motorbikes, shoot up the police station (and pin down or drive away the cops) and intimidate armed civilians long enough to grab whatever you can and get away before the Afghan and foreign troops show up.

While the Taliban make enough ruckus to keep foreign journalists happy, they are a major irritation to the other tribes. The pro-Taliban tribes are united by a desire to respect religious and cultural traditions, as well as tribal power (versus national government and elected officials who might be from another tribe.) To the conservative tribesmen, the toys of modernity are entertaining, and sometimes useful, trinkets. But economic development that upsets too many of the old ways (like women working outside the home) are not welcome. Which is why the Taliban are so hostile to economic reconstruction efforts, and schools for girls. These guys like their women illiterate, dependant and obedient.

The pro-Taliban tribes are fighting a lost war, because most Afghans, including most Pushtuns (who make up 40 percent of the population) are inclined to give the future a chance. But the old ways will not go quietly, and the violent response to new ideas will go on, in a violent way, for at least another generation. For the fighters, your chances of getting killed are high (over 20 percent in the last year), but your chances of coming back less poor are higher. These guys may be illiterate, but they can count. It will be a long war. Nothing happens quickly in Afghanistan.

 

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