Afghanistan: Not A Good Time To Be A Pushy Pushtun


August 27, 2009: The Western media reported numerous problems and much violence associated with the Afghan vote. But for those in touch with people in Afghanistan (email and blogs makes this pretty easy), the reports were far different. The Taliban huffed and puffed (mainly for the benefit of the foreign media) and generally did not deliver the violence and terror they promised. A lot of the reported "Taliban violence" in the south was the usual Pushtun tribal politics (which tends to be murderous even in the best of times). In most of the country, the only violence is the normal banditry and tribal type long typical of the region. The "vote fraud" was more common than in the West, but was mostly carried out by major politicians, not the Taliban. This form of corruption is endemic to Afghanistan and the region. That is not news, so it is not reported as it is, but embellished with tenuous Taliban connections. Makes for great headlines, but a false description of what is actually happening.

One of the more bizarre news angles is that Afghanistan will become America's new "Vietnam." This grossly misinterprets what went on in Vietnam (a civil war between equal populations, each backed by superpower patrons). Afghanistan is a tribal confederation, loosely defined (for the last few centuries) as a nation, where a religious movement (the Taliban) sponsored by few tribes in the south, are trying are trying to regain the power they had in the 1990s. The Taliban never conquered the entire country back then, and in late 2001 (aided by al Qaeda, local drug lords  and Pakistan) were still battling non-Pushtun tribes in the north. Actually, their key combat units were foreigners (the al Qaeda brigade) and Pakistani volunteers. That's how unpopular the Taliban had become. Now this "popular movement" is trying to regain power. While its al Qaeda and Pakistani support is greatly diminished, the drug gangs have tried to take up the slack. So the main battle now is between drug gang sponsored militias (who have the backing of about 10 percent of the population) and the rest of the country (aided by over 100,000 foreign troops). The Taliban "coalition from hell" is trying to terrorize their way back into power. Historically, this approach rarely works, especially given the long list of opponents the Taliban face this time around. The Taliban has no national constituency and most Afghans know exactly what they are, and hate them. The drug gangs are also widely hated, and must now restrict their operations to a small area of the south, concentrated in Helmand province. So while you're reading the news, don't lose sight of the reality.

The Taliban have tried to make their war one of "Pushtun Liberation" rather than "establishing a religious dictatorship." The Taliban have got some traction with this. While the Pushtun tribes are only 40 percent of the population, many insist that they are actually the majority (51-60 percent of the population), and should run the nation. In the past century or so, it has been customary for Pushtun tribal leaders to dominate the central government (the king was almost always a Pushtun). But the Pushtuns were often greedy, leaving the majority tribes with hardly any power in the central government. Since the Taliban defeat in 2001, this has been reversed, with the non-Pushtun tribes now having a majority of government posts (although the president, and many key officials, are still Pushtun). Many Pushtuns resent the additional clout the majority tribes have, and want a return to the days of Pushtun domination. The majority does not agree. In the past, the Pushtun tribes got their way because of the implicit threat of support from the Pushtuns in Pakistan. Some two-thirds of the Pushtuns in the region live in Pakistan, but those Pushtuns are, for the first time in their history, being invaded by the Pakistani army, and are asking for help from the Afghan Pushtuns. So it's not a good time to be a pushy Pushtun in Afghanistan.

A major defeat for the drug gangs is the Japanese crackdown on the export of acetic anhydride. This is the weak link of the heroin business. It's all a matter of upsetting the processing of the annual production of 10,000 tons of opium (worth about $45 a pound) to 1,300 tons of heroin (worth about $1,600 a pound). This requires 2,600 tons of acetic anhydride, an industrial chemical. This is a clear liquid that is flammable and poisonous if you inhale it. The key to crippling the Taliban money machine is intercepting the chemical needed to convert opium into heroin. Japan has been a major source of illegal exports of this chemical to Pakistan (where it is smuggled from Karachi to Afghanistan.) All industrial nations have problems with the growing flood of Afghan heroin, and thus have an incentive to help with the international crackdown on illegal acetic anhydride exports. While heroin is compact, and can be smuggled in a few kilograms ("keys") at a time, acetic anhydride is a bulk industrial product that is hazardous to handle and difficult to hide. There are dozens of smugglers active supplying over 200 tons of acetic anhydride a month to the Afghan drug lords. These entrepreneurs do not have their own private armies, and tend to operate in well policed areas. Despite the incentives drawing in many players, the acetic anhydride smugglers are a vulnerability for the Afghan drug lords, and their Taliban employees.

The votes are still being counted, and it appears that the incumbent president, Hamid Karzai, does not have a majority of the votes, and this will require a runoff election against Abdullah Abdullah (a Pushtun medical doctor, whose mother is Tajik and who supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, which defeated the Taliban, with American help, in late 2001). Abdullah Abdullah is seen as a reformer and less tainted (by Pushtun tribal politics and drug gang influence) than Karzai. The drug lords do not like Abdullah Abdullah. They do like Karzai.

Meanwhile, the fighting continues in the south, as U.S. and NATO forces go after drug gang facilities. The drug lords, and their Taliban foot soldiers, are fighting hard to keep the foreign (and Afghan) troops out. Since much of the fighting is in Helmand province, the locals have been largely uncooperative. That's because half the heroin production in Afghanistan (which produces over 80 percent of the global supply) is from Helmand. This is also where many of the drug lords themselves are headquartered, and where they spread their wealth around. This is their homeland, and they have much to lose if they are forced to abandon it. But that's exactly what the drug gangs are working on. They cannot defeat the foreign troops in combat, and the terrorist and roadside bomb attacks do not kill enough troops to disable the foreign combat units. Actually, casualty rates for foreign troops are a fraction (less than 30 percent) of previous wars (like Vietnam). The drug gangs can only hope that the foreign media will play up the foreign troops losses enough so that politicians will be forced to withdraw most of the foreign troops. Otherwise, the drug gangs face the same fate (elimination) of their predecessors in Pakistan and Burma. The heroin trade will then pop up somewhere else, but it won't be in Afghanistan. That's because most Afghans have rejected it. Only a minority of the Pushtuns in the south have embraced heroin, and now that is backfiring.

While Taliban anti-election violence was only a small fraction of what they promised, some really horrific attacks were carried out. The worst one was an August 25 truck bomb attack in Kandahar, which killed over 40 and wounded over a hundred. Although set off near where foreigners work and live, nearly all the victims were Afghans. When this became known, the Taliban uncharacteristically announced that they had nothing to do with this attack.

August 26, 2009:  The Pakistani Taliban have admitted that their leader, Baitullah Mehsud, is dead. But they say he was not killed outright by the August 5th American Hellfire missile attack, but badly wounded. Baitullah Mehsud thus lingered until August 23rd, before passing away. However, his followers knew he was mortally injured, and unlikely to recover. There was some violence among his followers before a new leader, Hakimullah Mehsud (no relation, Mehsud being a tribal name commonly used as a family name) was chosen. Hakimullah is in his late 20s and has been in charge of carrying out terrorist attacks. He is not as diplomatic, or adroit at keeping feuding leaders working together, as Baitullah.

August 21, 2009: The Afghan Independent Election Commission has conducted its first election, registering 17 million voters and seeing about half of them vote. Now the vote must be counted.




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