Afghanistan: The Europeans Have Other Priorities

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February 11, 2008: A particularly cold Winter has shut down most Taliban and al Qaeda combat operations. The bad weather has killed nearly a thousand people so far, and injured thousands more with frostbite and disease. The Islamic terrorists are spending this time to get ready for more combat. That can be dangerous, as five Taliban terrorists were killed in southern Afghanistan this week, when a bomb they were assembling went off. The leader here was a local cleric, who died along with two of his sons. While religious zeal plays a role in the Taliban violence, a lot more of it is about tribal rivalry and money. The opium/heroin trade is bringing in unprecedented (for Afghanistan) amounts of money, and the drug gangs see the Taliban as more hospitable than the government and their foreign allies. The drug gangs pay a protection "tax" to the local Taliban, who then go fight the police army and foreign troops, in order to protect the drug production (poppy growing, chemical processing of the crop into opium or heroin, and smuggling most of that out of the country.)

The United States has failed to get more NATO countries to contribute combat troops to the Afghanistan effort. This is because many NATO nations prefer a less military approach to dealing with the Taliban and al Qaeda. These Europeans prefer bribery and negotiations with the terrorists, a tactic that has often worked in the past. They see the Americans as too enthusiastic about military action and overly agitated by the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Europeans believe the counter-terror effort should be mainly police and intelligence agencies, with minimal use of force. The U.S. believes that this approach will not always work, and point to the Taliban control of Afghanistan in the late 1990s, until driven out of power by the U.S. in late 2001. Many Europeans are willing to risk another 911, than to let their troops fight in Afghanistan or Iraq. These voter attitudes force most European governments to avoid sending their troops into combat, much to the disgust of those countries that are fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda, and taking a disproportionate number of casualties.

Although last years fighting left 6,500 dead, most of them Taliban fighters, it made a lot of pro-Taliban Afghans wealthier than they ever thought they'd be. The money from the drug gangs and al Qaeda not only provided fighters with up to several hundred dollars a month (a huge salary by local standards), but several thousand dollars to their families if they were killed. There are too many young men, and too few jobs, in southern Afghanistan. Sending off the younger sons to take their chances with the Taliban, while the older sons ran the family farm or business, or worked for a drug gang, is an approach which is making families wealthier than they have ever been before. Al Qaeda sees all this as a way to provide a safe refuge, if you don't mind living in a brick compound in a mountain village out near the corner of no and where. But most of the hundreds of al Qaeda hiding out in Pakistan are wanted back home, so it's either this exile, or jail. Wealthy Moslems in the Persian Gulf, and elsewhere, who have kept contributing to al Qaeda, are now seeing most of this cash headed for Pakistan, where the Taliban have undergone a change in leadership. The old 1990s crew has been replaced by a new, heroin-friendly generation. Two months ago, the pro-Taliban Pushtun tribes elected Baitullah Mehsud as their military leader. He will have the allegiance of most pro-Taliban tribes on both sides of the border. Old timers like Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden are still shown respect. But among the pro-Taliban Pushtun tribes, a new generation of leaders are in charge. Because of this, the Taliban is less popular in Pakistan. Part of this is because Taliban support for terror attacks (which kill mostly civilians). But part of it is traditional Pakistani fear of the Pushtun tribes, who have come down out of the hills and raided the lowlands (where most Pakistanis live) for thousands of years. There is much fragmentation among the pro-Taliban warlords, who are more concerned with near-term matters (avoiding smart bombs and getting paid by the drug gangs or al Qaeda), than by long-term stuff (Taliban running Pakistan or Afghanistan, and Islamic world domination.)

The government wants more foreign troops, fighting troops that is, because they believe with these they can sharply reduce the drug trade. The government points out how they have largely eliminated the heroin trade in most of the country. What remains is in the south, most of it in one province, pro-Taliban Helmand. With enough troops, the Taliban fighters that guard the drug operations, can be overwhelmed, and the drug trade crippled. The Taliban recognize their military inferiority, and are putting more emphasis on the use of suicide bomber operations (there were 140 in Afghanistan last year) and roadside bombs (which are much less effective in Afghanistan, because of lower levels of skill among bomb makers, and fewer opportunities to make attacks). With both types of attacks, most of the victims are civilians, which makes the terrorist even more unpopular. The Taliban seem to be aware of this PR problem, and have tried to throttle back the use of terror and dead civilians. But that's hard to do, as it is the traditional way of doing things up in the mountains.

The Taliban and al Qaeda, fresh from their recent defeat in Iraq, are getting ready for another warm weather season of terror and mayhem. The U.S. wants to take advantage of that with the same "surge" tactics that worked in Iraq. And it looks like the additional troops will have to be American, as the Europeans have other priorities.

 

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