Afghanistan: Looking For A Fair Loss

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April 8,2008: The Taliban has been defeated on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, but survive by living on one side of the border, while fighting on the other side. Money is still a problem. On the Afghan side, the drug trade provides a lot of cash, while wealthy religious conservatives (both local and foreign) sustain the effort on the Pakistani side. The cash quickly disappears because of the high pay that tribal gunmen demand. Fighting NATO and U.S. troops is near suicidal. It can be nearly that when going after Afghan security forces, if the foreign warplanes can be called into action. Unlike the Russians in the 1980s, the NATO and U.S. aircraft have much better sensors, and smart bombs. Death from above is more certain and accurate.

The war in Afghanistan is yet another tribal conflict. For thousands of the years, the tribes have fought to resist control by any central government. Determined occupiers have always managed to subdue the tribes. But NATO and the U.S. are not considered determined. They can be out-waited. Canada recently announced that they would be gone in three years, and several other national contingents are believed to have similar schedules. This is driven partly by the unwillingness of most NATO countries to get involved in combat. Most NATO troops are in Afghanistan for peacekeeping, not combat duty. This represents a split in NATO, an argument over strategy that will probably speed up the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Taliban and al Qaeda know this, and it heartens them.

Long term, the Islamic conservatives (Taliban, al Qaeda) will lose. Trying to bring back thousand year old social and religious customs, while selectively adopting modern ideas and technology, is a losing proposition (check world history for the last few centuries). But in the medium term, the Islamic conservatives are in a strong position. The Afghan and Pakistani governments both prefer to negotiate peace with the tribes. Time has been eroding tribal independence. That's why the urban population has been growing, and becoming more educated. These are tribal people who have rejected the traditional poverty, isolation and ignorance. But not all tribesmen who come to the cities are looking for jobs and education. Many come as tribal raiders, to live off raiding and loot. Being a bandit is a big deal in Afghan lore. As long as the victims are not from your tribe, the more loot you can bring back, the greater your stature. Cities like Kabul are a splendid opportunity for the loot minded country boy. Kidnapping, robbery, carjacking, extortion. There's so much to do in the big town. At the same time, there is no Afghan police tradition. What passed for "law and order" was achieved by a social code that stressed revenge and blood feuds. But this only worked in the tribal culture. In the cities, the wealthy either hire enough bodyguards, or get out. As kidnapping becomes more popular (because it is so lucrative), the government faces as crises. Many businessmen and professionals are fleeing, not willing to live and die by tribal rules. The government is under a lot of pressure from urban Afghans, and foreign governments, to improve policing. Government bureaucrats can hide behind their bodyguards and ignore all this. The foreigners won't leave as long as Islamic radicals are still out there. There is an incentive to do nothing about the police situation.

The continuing combat superiority of foreign troops is forcing the Taliban and al Qaeda to cooperate more. It's generally forgotten that both the Taliban and al Qaeda are comprised of many factions. These groups sometimes even fight each other. There's something about religious conservatism that breeds such fanatic factionalism. But the superior foreign troops, and their devastating, and all-seeing, air power, have forced the fanatics to forgo their usual factionalism. The cooperation is often clumsy, and requires more communication, which makes the terrorists more vulnerable to U.S. electronic reconnaissance.

The new Taliban border-jumping tactics are only a stopgap defensive maneuver. The only offensive punch the Taliban have left are suicide bombers. Until the last year, most Afghans disdained suicide bombing as cowardly, and the sort of thing only a loser would employ. But after another year of getting chewed up by the foreign troops, suicide doesn't look like such a lame tactic anymore. Then there's the Western media, which can be manipulated to make the Taliban look like victims, and put pressure on foreign governments to get their troops out. Then, the tribes can lose their war on modernity, on more even terms.

 

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