Afghanistan: The Real Enemy Stays In The Shadows

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July 30, 2008: The thing you have to understand about the violence in Afghanistan is that it isn't all, or even mostly, about the Taliban. The religious zealots of the Taliban grab all the headlines abroad, but the real causes are a long list of tribal feuds, plus a lot of greedy people hustling for drug money (the the proceeds of many other criminal scams.) Welcome to Afghanistan, being what it has always been, for thousands of years. In that respect, you could say that tradition is important in this part of the world. People like to do things in familiar ways.

The most familiar cause of anxiety and reputations here is the tribal feud. This keeps people jumping in the Summer, and talking round the fire in the Winter. But journalists are mesmerized by the Taliban angle, because they know the folks back home would not understand, much less appreciate, the intricacies of the tribal feuds that drive most of the violence. Equally unpopular are stories of Afghan government officials (from local cops, right to the top) taking payoffs to lay off the drug trade. The drug lords don't want to fight and, like everyone else in Afghanistan, consider bribes as a cost of doing business. So the Taliban are paid off as well, in addition to tribal chiefs where the poppies are grown, and through which the processed opium and heroin are moved out of the country.

U.S. and NATO forces try to avoid the tribal feuds and drug gangs, while concentrating on the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies. But this is difficult. The Afghan gunmen don't wear uniforms are carry flags identifying themselves as Taliban, al Qaeda, tribal war parties or hired guns protecting drug operations.

What really runs things in Afghanistan are the drug gangs. They pull more strings than the Taliban, and have more firepower. The drug gangs use the Taliban to distract the armed foreigners who, if they wanted to, could shut down much of the drug business. So could the Afghan government, but too many officials have a financial interest in leaving the heroin production alone. The drugs have brought unprecedented prosperity to those in positions of power. The few hundred people who run the drug business are also getting rich, but not insanely so. Most of the money is spread around to insure that heroin production and exporting is not interfered with.

Meanwhile, the Taliban are mainly all about getting themselves killed. The Taliban have to operate in large groups (a hundred or more gunmen) in order to be able to intimidate locals into working with them. But groups this large can be detected by NATO air and electronic reconnaissance. When the Taliban get too close to a town or major road, out come the smart bombs and ground troops. Great slaughter follows, with dozens of dead Taliban, plus others captured. The prisoners increasingly tell the same story (recruited in Pakistani religious schools for holy war, or brought into Pakistan by al Qaeda to fight infidel invaders.)

The Afghan media is bribed to play up real or imagined stories of foreign troops killing Afghan civilians. Afghan troops and police kill far more civilians, but that's not news, because that's been going on forever. The important things is that the Taliban and drug gangs will pay journalists for "foreigner kills Afghans" stories, with a bonus if the Western press picks it up (and they do grab some of the better done fabrications).

No one likes to talk about it, but there is a reluctance by NATO and U.S. commanders to go after the drug gangs. This would mean, at least for a while, a lot more armed and hostile Afghans to deal with. There would be less cooperation from many Afghan officials, who would not be happy to see their bribes disappear. The foreign military commanders believe they can get rid of the Taliban first, then go after the drug gangs. The Taliban has many enemies along the Pakistani-Afghan borders. It's not news outside of Afghanistan, but many Pushtun tribes on both sides of the border are openly at war with the Taliban and al Qaeda. When sneaking into Afghanistan from Pakistan, the Taliban have to be careful which valley they move through, because if they run into the wrong tribe, they will have to fight, and a tribal foe will use his cell phone to call for foreign troops and their smart bombs, and then it's all over.

 

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