Afghanistan: Mundane Matters The Media Misses


November 20,2008: The growing number of American troops with operating experience in Afghanistan has led to a style of war that is not fully appreciated by the brass back home (or sitting in Kabul). Thus we have silly situations where generals in Kabul and Washington insist that all U.S. troops (except, grudgingly,  the Special Forces) be clean shaven. But out in the hills, where American commanders on their second or third combat tour, now that Afghans are more comfortable dealing with bearded foreigners. It's just a cultural thing. So the captains and colonels ignore the beards, while their bosses don't.

In an unusual event in Afghan history, many Afghans want to work with the foreign soldiers, not kill and rob them. The ROE (Rules of Engagement) and reconstruction efforts have impressed Afghans. The former spares the lives of Afghan civilians, and the latter makes their lives better. Despite the Taliban skill at playing the media whenever an Afghan civilian is killed by foreign troops (usually while being used as a human shield by bandits or Taliban), most Afghans want peace and prosperity and to be left alone. While peace and prosperity are nice, they have been rare events in Afghan history. Being left alone is a more immediate survival skill. This is why, out in the hills, so many people appear to live in little fortresses, carry weapons, and be quick to use them against outsiders (anyone from outside the valley or tribe).

The terrorists are having major problem trying to apply al Qaeda bombing tactics in Afghanistan. There is much  more popular opposition to Islamic terrorism in Afghanistan. In Iraq, you had Sunni Arabs (15-20 percent of the population) and many Shia Arabs (perhaps a fifth of the 60 percent of the population that is Shia) who would provide some form of support for the terrorists. That 20-25 percent of the population shrank as the terrorists had more success killing lots of Iraqis with their bombs. The same pattern is playing out in Afghanistan, but with less than ten percent of the population supporting the terrorists, and that group is shrinking, Just like in Iraq. Although the terrorists in Afghanistan are killing fewer people overall (and most of them are still civilians), the media loves to cover explosions.

While the drug gangs are doing well (it's a high profit business, so you can absorb a lot of setbacks), the Taliban are taking a beating. NATO and U.S. forces are getting better at finding Taliban gunmen, and leaders, and killing or capturing them. As usual, the foreign troops, with their helicopters and warm clothes, are operating in the Winter. This is the time when Afghans like to hunker down. Poverty, poor diet, lack of adequate clothing and little medical care makes being outside in the Winter a dangerous proposition. Even though the Taliban is trying to supply it fighters with some modern winter gear and antibiotics, most of these guys head for the hills reluctantly, ill equipped, and with much foreboding. Nothing glorious about dying, shivering, of pneumonia in a cave, while NATO troops search for you (and often find you, even in caves.) What the foreign troops are searching for in Winter are weapons and terrorism gear (bomb materials, commo gear and laptops). With so many cell phone equipped civilians ready to give you up, it's hard to find somewhere to hide out in the Winter. Most of the Taliban can just hide their gun and go home for the Winter. But your key people have to watch over things, and equipment. These are the Winter targets for NATO operations, and the pickings are richer in the cold weather.

So far this year, there have been 25 attacks on food relief convoys, resulting in nearly a million dollars worth of food being lost. The UN, which administers most of the aid, is not sure how many of the attacks are from bandits, or Taliban. Sometimes the same armed gangs are both. The Taliban are also active in preventing farmers from rebuilding irrigation systems and roads, believing this sort of thing will make the rural farmers more likely to support the government.

Another trouble spot is the growing number of refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran, as well as the thousands who are now fleeing the army offensive against the Taliban in Pakistan. Over five million refugees have returned since late 2001, and several hundred thousand a year are still coming back. Often, these refugees cannot resume their lives as marginal farmers and migrate to the cities. There they face lots of crime and not a lot of jobs.

The average Afghan is not worried that much about the Taliban (which make up a tiny proportion of the population and largely operate in the south), terrorists (even more rare than the Taliban) or the drug gangs (again, most of it is in a ten percent of the provinces, mainly Helmand). What really bothers most Afghans is crime (as in robbery, theft and kidnapping) and government incompetence and corruption. The people want a crackdown on crime and corruption. That doesn't make exciting headlines for foreign journalists (except for lots of Afghans wanting to bring back public executions for criminals), but it's what Afghans worry about most of the time.

November 16, 2008: President Karzai has offered Taliban leader Mullah Omar safe conduct if he will meet for peace talks. Karzai realizes that, long term, a deal has to be made with the rebellious Pushtun tribes who are identified by the foreign media as "the Taliban." The U.S. wants to prosecute Mullah Omar, and several other senior Taliban leaders, for terrorist activities. Afghans are more inclined to forgive and forget. That's how you keep the peace in Afghanistan. Karzai is having a hard time with his foreign allies over that issue. Karzai has already negotiated peace deals with many tribal leaders who were once described as "Taliban." Sometimes these deals stick, sometimes they don't. For Afghans, that's normal, for foreigners, it's a source of anxiety.

November 15, 2008: In Eastern Afghanistan, a Taliban leader, responsible for many bombings and kidnappings, was captured with the help of local informants. Although Afghanistan is a rough neighborhood, Afghans don't like being labeled as outlaws and terrorists (if only because the great majority of them are neither). If a local bad guy is from a different clan or tribe, and you can tip off the cops anonymously (made much easier with the arrival of cell phones), you do it. This is why the Taliban and al Qaeda so often fall back on terror to protect themselves. Only the drug gangs have enough money to buy widespread loyalty. But even the drug gangs have to terrorize a lot of people to keep operations going.


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