Afghanistan: "It's Business"

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October 28,2008:  Afghanistan has been a problem for thousands of years, and the main cause of the violence and instability has always been the same. The tribalism that rules the rural areas encourages groups of guys with weapons (once spears, swords and bows, now rifles and RPGs) to go hunting. Not after animals for eating, but after other tribes for whatever could be stolen (including women and children, and anything that could move under its own power or be carried.) This is not unique to Afghanistan, but it a common pattern with tribal societies the world over. The problem in Afghanistan is that this tribal culture is still alive and well. It may have weakened in the urban areas, but once you get out into the countryside, you shed several centuries when it comes to social relationships. Another annoying custom common throughout the country is the willingness to quickly switch sides, or make, and break, truces. The code of the hills here is very opportunistic. As the fictional tribal chieftain, Don Vito Corleone put it; "It's business."

The bandits will also wear labels if it suits them. Bandits love to identify themselves as Taliban, because that often sends the police or troops chasing after any real Taliban in the neighborhood. The drug gangs, which are wealthier, and more powerful (at least in terms of firepower) than the Taliban, also like to pretend they are something else (peaceful farmers, innocent merchants, concerned tribal elders, anything but what they really are).

In other words, most of the hostile gunmen out there are not Taliban, but bandits or hired guns protecting the drug business. And all of them are up for a little crime on the side. Highway robbery is a popular outdoor sport. It's not for nothing that most rural homes look like little forts. If you don't protect yourself, no one else will, and you'll lose everything.

The Taliban are seeking out and killing Christians who they suspect, or just accuse, of trying to convert Moslems to Christianity. The Taliban took credit for the recent murder of a British Christian in Kabul, with accusations of trying to spread Christianity. An Afghan court was also persuaded to withdraw the death sentence for a 24 year old Afghan college student accused of blasphemy (for writing on the Internet an article the judges considered critical of the Prophet Mohammed's views on women). The young man was sentenced to 20 years in prison instead.

The fighting across the border in Pakistan continues to have an impact on the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistani Taliban are being destroyed by the Pakistani army. The Pakistani Taliban are offering to surrender, in return for a ceasefire. The army demands disarmament first. Even reinforcements from the Afghan Taliban have not been able to save the Pakistani Taliban. But the army won't destroy the Pakistani Taliban, only damage it. The Pakistani Taliban will surrender, lose a lot of their weapons and some of their leadership. But the conservative religious ideas, and tribal attitudes that created the Taliban, will still be there. And the Taliban will rise again, as it long has under a lot of different names. Fanatic, and heavily armed,  tribesmen spouting scripture and killing anyone considered an "unbeliever", is an ancient problem in this part of the world.

UN and U.S. officials differ on how much drug production has declined in Afghanistan this year. The U.S. says it will drop 31 percent, the UN says it will drop only six percent. The drug gangs are under increasing pressure, because they are seen as a major financial backer of the Taliban, and the source of much corruption within the government. The population as a whole is growing more hostile to the drug lords, because more Afghans are becoming opium or heroin addicts. This is a pattern that appeared two decades ago in Pakistan, before the government there drove the drug business into Afghanistan.

Foreigners are finding that, while Afghanistan needs roads in order to build a stronger economy, it also needs an effective police force to keep the tribal bandits from plundering travelers along those new roads. The banditry is not new, but the roads are, and they don't go well together. Building a police force that can deal with the bandits can be done, the Pakistanis and Indians have done it during the last century. But the solution means police strong enough to take on tribal militias (who don't want to give up their traditional right to steal from strangers).

October 25, 2008: French officials said they were not concerned that the Taliban had captured a Milan anti-tank missile launcher, and two missiles. This happened during an operation in the Alasai Valley, north of Kabul, on the 18th. About a hundred Taliban attacked 300 French troops and the French withdrew, leaving behind the missiles in their haste. Smart bombs were used to kill at least 14 of the attackers. French officials said all the French troops got away, and that the Taliban would not be able to use the Milan missiles without special training.

October 24, 2008: Fifteen Afghans face the death penalty in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) for trying to smuggle in 450 pounds of heroin. Smuggling heroin is where the big money is, but it's also very risky. Saudi Arabia regularly beheads drug smugglers, and Iran has special police units that spend all their time roaming the Afghan border looking for drug smugglers. These police are under orders to shoot first and shoot to kill. That's mainly because the smugglers play by the same rules.

October 22, 2008: In the east, an Afghan army check point was hit by a smart bomb, after some confused communications between foreign and Afghan army commanders over who was firing on road traffic. Nine Afghan soldiers were killed. There have been a growing number of friendly fire incidents, mainly due to poor communications between Afghan and foreign troops. There are also problems with local tribesmen hired for security (for reconstruction workers or construction projects.) These guys have guns, but not much discipline. It is believed that the "Afghan soldiers" were actually local tribesmen wearing some kind of uniform, working as security guards and firing on U.S. troops (either deliberately or by mistake.)

October 21, 2008: The U.S. revealed that U.S. Army Special Forces had raided a Taliban camp last week and rescued an American who had been kidnapped two months ago about 50 kilometers west of Kabul. Afghan tribesmen are increasingly turning to kidnapping as a get-rich-quick scheme. The growing availability of cell phones makes it easier to make arrangements for collecting the ransom. This is a worldwide problem, and the most effective techniques (for grabbing someone and collecting a ransom without getting caught) have been quickly spread via the Internet. In Afghanistan, foreigners are the preferred prey, because there is less risk of a tribal vendetta. These feuds can get very nasty, especially if you are identified and your victim is from a stronger, and vengeance prone, tribe or clan.

 

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