Afghanistan: The Easy Way Out

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June 11,2008: There are several wars going on in Afghanistan, and that's a big part of the problem. There is the war between independent minded tribes and provincial governors. That's because central government was never a popular idea in the region called Afghanistan. Fans of central government are still a minority, and many of those simply want to get their hands on more loot for their family and tribe by controlling part of the government.

Out in the countryside, there's a war between the Taliban, and everyone else. The Taliban represent a religious movement, one that doesn't just advocate a particular belief system, but insists that the Taliban lifestyle be accepted, under pain of death. This has split families and tribes, as it is a civil war between modernity, and the past. Islam is involved on both sides, and these two different interpretations of Islam are deemed worth fighting to the death for, at least by the Taliban. Many less religious Afghans are willing to just go along, rather than risk death at the hands of Taliban fanatics. But most Afghans would rather just try to improve their lives and tend to their families without the Taliban busting their chops.

Into all this has come the foreigners (troops and aid workers). The Taliban hate the foreigners because, obviously, these infidels represent the heretical present, and an even worse future. The aid workers bring evil ideas and practices (like education for girls and rights for women), not to mention moral pollution in the form of music and videos. Afghans who assist modernization must be threatened and, if they do not change their ways, killed. Now normally, the foreigners would not care what the locals thought about the past, or the present, or what was going on in Afghanistan (and Central Asia in general). But since al Qaeda decided to go international with its religious terrorism, and chose the Pushtun tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border as their sanctuary, this woe begotten patch of Central Asia has become a battlefield. The foreigners have superior weapons, and skilled soldiers that the tribal warriors cannot defeat one-on-one. So the Taliban are trying to use terror attacks, and the effect of this on the foreign media, to cause the foreign troops to be withdrawn. The Taliban also see themselves as on a Mission From God, as well as Defenders Of Traditional Values, and thus morally superior to the foreigners (and Afghans who don't agree with the Taliban.)

On a more practical level, the Taliban are willing to continue their violence for as long as it takes. The foreign troops, in turn, have done their math and realize that the Taliban are a minority which can be crushed, if there are enough foreign troops on the ground to shut down enough Taliban war bands at once. Actually, the Afghan government, and anti-Taliban tribes, could do it, but that would take longer. The basic tactic for defeating the Taliban is to put government troops and police in all the towns and villages where there is a large pro-Taliban minority (one large enough to effectively bully the majority). In many towns and villages the Taliban has already been defeated, because there are not enough Taliban to control the majority, even though these Taliban also have guns and a Mission From God.

NATO commanders believe that if they had 10,000 more troops, they could clear out the centers of Taliban support, at least in Afghanistan, in a few years, and enable the aid workers to do their magic (build roads and schools, which gets the economy going and gives people better opportunities than trying to impose a seventh century lifestyle on everyone.) Alas, NATO isn't getting those 10,000 troops, and there is much argument and name-calling between the NATO members that send troops to fight, and those (especially Germany) that send troops to just be there, and stay out of trouble.

There's another war, just across the border in Pakistan. This one is similar to the tribal and Taliban wars in Afghanistan, except that the Pakistani government has control over most of the Pakistani population, and most of the real estate. But the Pakistani government is not willing to get involved with tribal rivalries (which is what the Taliban is on the Pakistani side of the border). The Pakistanis are currently trying to work out a deal with the local Taliban. Basic terms are that the Taliban will expel foreign terrorists and not make terror attacks in the rest of Pakistan. In return, the government will withdraw its troops and allow the Taliban to do what they wish (as long as Pakistani government officials were not molested.) For centuries, this was how one dealt with the Pushtun tribes. Find the strongest tribe, and bribe them to keep the violence in the tribal areas.

The Pakistanis also don't care if the Taliban continue to send volunteers across the border to aid their beleaguered fellow Taliban in Afghanistan. This, obviously, is a major source of dispute between the Afghan and Pakistani governments, as well as between the U.S. and NATO, and the Pakistani government. Meanwhile, U.S. armed UAVs, and CIA agents Special Forces troops, are going after terrorist leaders in Pakistan, and the Pakistani government is generally ignoring this effort. The CIA and Special Forces operators have established an informant network in the Pakistani tribal areas. That region contains lots of people willing to be informants, either because of hatred of the Taliban, and/or because of the big payday for working as an American spy. When terrorists are located, a UAV rolls in and fires a missile or two. There have been five of these attacks so far this year, leaving dozens of Taliban and al Qaeda members dead.

NATO and the Americans continue to put lots of diplomatic and economic pressure on Pakistan to go after their Taliban. So far, this effort is deadlocked. So is the war against the Taliban, mainly because so many are seeking an easy way out. Some NATO commanders believe that, after five or ten years of the current kind of operations, the Taliban will be wiped out, and the Afghans can get back to their traditional pursuits (tribal feuds and massive corruption among government officials at the provincial and national level.)

 

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