Afghanistan: The Rules

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December 10, 2010:  The war in Afghanistan you don't hear much about is the culture clash. Afghanistan is largely defined by a tribal culture, not a national, elected, government. Individually, Afghans want to get ahead in life, to have more comforts and the respect of family and friends. But when it comes to government, the only thing most Afghans trust are family, clan and tribe (usually in that order). A cousin who is a murderous bandit is more trusted than foreigners who come in and build schools and clinics and drill new water wells. The thing is, cousin Ali and his bandit ways will be around for a long time, while the foreigners are strangers that will soon leave.

The old American saying that; "all politics is local," applies everywhere, and certainly in Afghanistan. But the politics is tribal and the tribes do not trust a national government. Moreover, it's traditional to view all strangers (including Afghans from another tribe, or even clan) as potential victims. Stealing from "others" is an ancient custom in Afghanistan, and those who can grab the most from foreigners gain lots of stature. This even applies to the current situation, where government officials are stealing billions of dollars of foreign aid. Yes, Afghans resent that these thefts often hurt them personally. But, as an Afghan, you gotta admire the guy. And if the big thief is a member of your tribe, you can pay him a respectful visit and ask for a handout. By custom, your newly wealthy fellow tribesman is expected to take care of his own. It's part of the cultural game. We all play one of those, but the Afghans play by rules that died out in the West centuries ago.

There's also a problem with the lack of educated Afghans. With one of the lowest literacy rates on the planet, along with a miniscule number of college educated professionals, all these billions in aid are being given to people who don't really know how to handle it. There are not enough Afghan planners, accountants, lawyers, engineers and construction managers to make the most of the money. So many Afghans do the next best thing, and grab as much of the money for themselves and their families. What really annoys the generous foreigners is that Afghans are hostile to the idea of foreign technical experts helping with the efficient spending of the aid bonanza. For all their strutting and bravado, Afghans are intimidated by their backwardness, and the numerous skills, and  technology, possessed by the foreigners. Even the foreign soldiers regularly kick the crap out of Afghan warriors. Since paranoia has long been recognized as a useful survival skill in Afghanistan, the foreigners should not be surprised that it is being directed at them.

It's Winter, and it's cold in Afghanistan, and there's snow and ice in the uplands. In the south, it's not so bad. It dips below freezing at night in the southern lowlands, and gets up into the 50s (12-15 Celsius) during the day. The south is hot and dry, while the north and east are mountainous and freezing. The Taliban and drug gangs are mostly in the warmer south, and the fighting is still hot and heavy. Many Taliban groups and drug gangs are giving up, for the moment, and fleeing across the border into Pakistan. More specifically, this is Baluchistan, the restless tribal territory of southwest Pakistan, where the Baluchi tribes are not fighting for independence (they already have lots of autonomy), but for a bigger share of natural gas revenues. The tribes already get a chunk of this, so they are not eager to shut down production on their lands. But the situation is so touchy that Pakistan has put Baluchistan off-limits to American UAV attacks on al Qaeda or Taliban leaders. Baluchistan is the last real sanctuary the Taliban have, and many more Islamic radicals are heading south, at least for a while.

December 9, 2010: In eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border, armed men kidnapped 18 deminers. Normally, Afghan deminers are left alone. But with so many armed men running around seeking a big jackpot, kidnapping the beloved deminers seems like a possible path to riches. Besides, the kidnappers may be from Pakistan, where pickings are slim with so many Pakistani soldiers now in the tribal territories.

December 6, 2010: U.S. and Canadian troops have provided training and back up for a force of Afghan troops that is attempting to clear the Taliban out of a long-held area west of Kandahar city. The Afghans have not got a lot of experience conducting modern military operations, and even the best of them do not operate at anywhere near the level of professionalism and effectiveness of NATO troops. But the Afghans are getting better. This worries some NATO commanders, because the Afghans have made more progress acquiring Western military capabilities, than Western political and civic methods. It's feared that better trained Afghan military units will simply force new Afghan warlords to pay more to hire these troops away from the government.

December 5, 2010:  Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed to shut down Taliban and drug gang sanctuaries on either side of the border. But Pakistan said nothing specific about shutting down Taliban and al Qaeda operations in Baluchistan (which border Kandahar and Helmand provinces). It's believed the new agreement only really covers the Pushtun tribal territories of northwest Pakistan. This area is already occupied by over 100,000 Pakistani troops.

December 4, 2010: The UN is trying to raise $678 million from international donors to send food and agricultural aid to Afghanistan. There, about a quarter of the population (over 7 million people) are having serious problems getting enough to eat. But donors are increasingly reluctant to work in Afghanistan, where the corruption is among the worst in the world. The country is also full of bandits (including drug gangs and the Taliban), that make it risky to supervise the distribution of the aid.

 

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