Afghanistan: Two Wars, One Enemy

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January 9, 2008: The Taliban offensive, that has been going on for nearly a year now, is transnational. About 40 percent of the action takes place across the border in Pakistan. Thus while the fighting has killed about 6,500 in the past year (two-thirds of them Taliban) in Afghanistan, 3,600 have died just across the border in Pakistan (40 percent of them Taliban). Civilians are more likely to be the victims in Pakistan, where they are 42 percent of the dead, compared to Afghanistan, where civilians are only 14 percent of those killed in the fighting. NATO is better at killing Taliban, and avoiding civilian casualties.

While the Taliban managed to take control of the Afghanistan in the late 1990s, the movement has its origins in Pakistan, where it still has lots of support. But the Taliban faces a different kind of war on each side of the border. In Afghanistan, the government does not have a lot of military manpower, but does have foreign allies who have aircraft and smart bombs. That means Taliban fighters are more likely to be killed, but that there is not enough manpower to halt the production of dangerous drugs (opium and heroin). The drugs provide more cash to the Taliban on the Afghanistan side of the war. One Taliban leader recently boasted of paying a $15,000 bribe to get out of jail, and this was the third time he had done that. Not a wise move, as he will end up in a U.S. or NATO run jail next time around. But you get the picture.

Pakistan also has a problem with many of its troops, who are not eager to fight the tribesmen. For thousands of years, the fierce, and fearless, tribesmen have terrified the lowlanders. Not so in Afghanistan, where everyone is a badass tribal warrior. Most of the foreign troops in Afghanistan are also ready for a fight, and regularly beat the Taliban fighters at their own game. Indeed, there is currently a British Gurkha battalion serving in Afghanistan, whose reputation has preceded it. Taliban fighters are avoiding the Gurkhas, which is hard to do. The Gurkhas come from a similar mountainous region to the east, and are noticeably faster, than the British and Canadian troops they work with, when moving cross country.

Gurkhas were the least of the Taliban's troubles in 2007. Playing the bad guy has hurt morale. The Taliban were ordered to attack aid and reconstruction projects. As a result, at least a hundred aid workers were killed or kidnapped in 2007, and 55 relief convoys looted or destroyed. That has meant some remote areas are facing starvation this Winter because those convoys could not get through before snow closed the passes. For the Taliban, it's "God's will." For the starving villagers, it's all about not being pro-Taliban enough to please the Islamic terrorists. The Taliban leadership is openly feuding over these tactics, with loud accusations of "traitor" and "butcher" being tossed about.

In Pakistan, the security forces are numerous enough to literally seal off the tribal areas, making it uneconomical to run major drug operations. That's why the heroin business moved across the border to Afghanistan two decades ago. But the Taliban have not gone anywhere, and more of their al Qaeda allies have moved in. The Pakistanis are bucking thousands of years of tradition by putting the pressure on the tribes. But there isn't much choice. Unlike in the past, the tribesmen aren't moving raiding parties down into the lowlands. They are sending terrorists instead, who use suicide bombers and other forms of assassination to go after the national leadership. That makes it kind of personal for the big shots. Self-preservation will motivate a politician as well as anyone else. The war on the Pakistani side of the border is heating up. You can tell by the flow of refugees. Many more are moving from Pakistan into Afghanistan. In the last week or so, over 5,000 have been counted entering Afghanistan to avoid the fighting.

The Pushtun tribes are always ready to make deals, and negotiations continue on both sides of the border. But because the Pushtuns are 40 percent of the population in Afghanistan, and only 15 percent in Pakistan, the demands are more compelling on the Afghan side. There, the government has managed to pry many conservative tribes from the Taliban. But in the process, the government has lots more influential Islamic conservative clerics and tribal leaders demanding new laws, for things like outlawing racy (by Islamic standards) media (especially television) and banning Christian missionaries (even if they are delivering vital aid and reconstruction.)

Afghanistan would like to move more of the fighting into Pakistan, and NATO forces are eager to do that, even if only for raids. Basically, NATO troops can go anywhere in Afghanistan. Any Taliban base in Afghanistan is essentially temporary, until it is discovered, and NATO troops decide to visit. In Pakistan, there are large areas where Pakistani troops do not go, or go rarely and only with great effort. Here the Taliban and al Qaeda can rest and train. Here Osama bin Laden and Taliban leaders have been hiding out for the past seven years. Here, the NATO commandos are planning to come in and look around on the ground.

 

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