Afghanistan: Pay To Play


October 16, 2009: Cash kills. NATO commanders are becoming more and more aware of how vital money is to keeping the violence growing. This past Summer, NATO forces rampaged through Helmand province, where Pushtun warlords had set up a heroin production operation that is largely responsible for the recent growth of heroin use in the West. The drug gangs paid thousands of armed Afghans to protect all this, and subsidized a Taliban revival, to help keep the growing government security forces out of Helmand, and away from heroin smuggling routes.

The damage in Helmand has caused the drug gangs to try and expand their operations to provinces in the north, closer to the "Russian Route" that moves heroin through Central Asia, Russia and to Europe and North America. Russia is also an increasingly important source of the chemicals needed to refine opium into heroin. These conditions are the cause of all the sudden Taliban activity in the north. The call for more U.S. and NATO troops is to counter the drug gangs attempt to find a place to set up show elsewhere in Afghanistan. Without the drug money, the drug gang gunmen disappear, as do most of the Taliban fighters. Suddenly, Afghanistan becomes a much less violent place. There is still tribal politics, particularly among the Pushtun tribes in the south. There are always little wars over who controls which pasture or mountain valley. Sometimes a real, or perceived, personal insult will spark some raids, and the beginnings of a multi-generation blood feud. Afghanistan will never be peaceful in the Western sense, at least not in the immediate future.

Afghanistan is not a rich country. In fact, it's the poorest nation in Eurasia. People have a hard time staying alive, and Afghanistan also has the lowest life-expectancy in Eurasia. So if an Afghan wants to do anything, there has to be a payoff, or they risk death from starvation or exposure. Just staying alive is a challenge. Men don't go off with their gun, or often without one, unless there is a good prospect of getting paid. The drug business has provided a lot of cash incentives to fight, and enough to motivate many Afghans to take the risks that keep that life expectancy low.

While the strategy is to protect the Afghan people, there are not enough Afghan or foreign troops to do that on a wide scale. So the real work is done by using increased intelligence resources, and go after leadership. This is the Israeli style, which takes advantage of the fact that without the leadership, technical specialists and cash, terror organizations become impotent (although not destroyed, but at that point, their only weapon is propaganda and opportunistic journalists.) So many of the raids and patrols concentrate on finding these high value targets. Capturing them is a bonus, because that yields more information on potential targets.

These military operations are also fighting crime. The Taliban do not depend just on the drug gangs for money, but undertake a wide range of criminal activities, ranging from extortion and outright theft and kidnapping, to illegal mining and lumbering operations. As the Taliban become richer, they can become bigger. Their victims want to see the Taliban gangsters taken down, but such a large, and brutal, criminal organization is widely dispersed and set-up to survive the loss of leaders and assets to NATO raids. But these attacks weaken the Taliban, which will collapse, as it has done before, when enough damage is done to it.

Another weapon against the Taliban is the acceptance of corruption (particularly bribes) in Afghan society. It's perfectly acceptable for a war lord or gang leader to take a bribe and switch sides. Even during the 1980s, the Russians successfully used bribes to neutralize some of the Afghan tribes. But this means that whoever has the most money to spread around, and knows how to use it effectively, will be the most powerful. The U.S. and NATO forces officially look down on bribes and such. But the drug gangs and Taliban relish this form of warfare. Thus while the Americans complain about the corruption, the Taliban and drug lords thrive on it.

The increasing violence against the Pakistanis Taliban, but the Pakistani Army, has increased belief that the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda leadership are hiding out in Baluchistan (across the southern Afghan border, in southwest Pakistan.) There, the Taliban are sheltered by the hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees (from the 1980s war) that still live there. There, the big money bin Laden and his associates can spread around, buys a lot of loyalty and discretion. But the U.S. is ignoring Pakistani protests and moving UAV patrols into Baluchistan.  

European NATO forces are being pressured to send more troops to Afghanistan, but nearly all are declining to do so. None will admit that the main reason for this is that they don't have the combat ready troops to send, or the money and equipment to sustain them. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, all European nations have sharply cut defense spending, and many have turned their armed forces into jobs programs, often wiping out most of the military capabilities in the process.

October 15, 2009: The Italian government is furious at charges they paid bribes to the Taliban to avoid attacks on Italian troops deployed in Afghanistan. But Italy, and other European nations, have long been willing to make deals with terrorist organizations, in order to avoid attacks. It's an ancient, if not very respected, custom in Europe, and a national pastime in Afghanistan.

October 11, 2009: The UN finally admitted that there was a lot of fraud in the recent presidential elections. That resulted in incumbent Hamid Karzai leading with about 55 percent, versus his nearest rival Abdullah Abdullah, with just 28 percent. If Karzai accepts a recount, or a new vote, Abdullah could win. The UN is pressuring Karzai to accept a runoff election, and do it with a lot less fraud.

October 10, 2009: Afghan government officials claim that the Taliban has been reinforced by 4,000 foreign fighters (mainly fellow Pushtuns from Pakistan, but also Arabs and Chechens). The Pakistani Pushtuns are more attracted by the pay, while the few hundred Arabs, Central Asians and Chechens, are really into a little Holy War.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contribute. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   contribute   Close