Less snow in southern Afghanistan this year has made it easier for NATO troops to get around, and resulted in more raids on Taliban and drug gang targets. There's been more NATO activity in general during the past year, driving the Taliban out of many areas. In the first week of January, there were 700 violent incidents (these include roadside bombs found and disabled) in the first week of January, compared to 400 last January, 200 in 2009 and 100 in 2008. The peak in the past year was one week near the September elections, when there were 1,700 incidents. During the Summer, as operations to shut down drug production and smuggling operations peaked, there were several weeks when there were about a thousand incidents. Most of these were defeats for the gangs (bombs discovered or ambushes that went wrong, as most of them do for the Afghans). The drug gangs are depending on time (and NATO patience) and bribes (to keep Afghan forces at bay) to help them survive. The violence is expected to be higher this year, as the drug gangs have nothing to lose by fighting on to preserve their lucrative drug operations.
The locals enjoy seeing the bad boys take a beating, and NATO troops have learned to exploit this by offering goodies (schools, including building, books and furnishings, are a favorite) in return for cooperation. As the old saying goes, "all politics is local," and the troops take advantage of this. The gangsters and Taliban keep saying that the foreigners will tire of Afghanistan and leave in a few years, but the locals figure that getting aid from the foreign troops in the meantime isn't a bad deal. Life is short in Afghanistan anyway (one of the lowest life expectancies in the world), so there's not a lot to lose. Moreover, the Taliban finally realized that their anti-school fixation was counter-productive, and they now (well, most of them) will tolerate schools (even for girls, although grudgingly).
Most wealthy Afghans do not pay much in taxes, and the government has told the U.S. that it would make an effort to increase tax receipts. But this has caused a diplomatic crises when Afghanistan tried to tax American companies providing services for American forces. Such taxes are illegal according to U.S. law (as would be Afghans taxing American troops in Afghanistan). The Afghans said they would reconsider, while the U.S. threatened to cut off aid for the government.
Iran, unlike Pakistan, does not have its own Taliban trying to establish autonomous rule along the Afghan border. But Iran does have three million Afghan refugees and illegal migrants who do not want to go home. Iran believes these Afghans send over three billion dollars (in Iranian currency) a year to Afghanistan. One thing that sustains the Iranian Afghan community is the lucrative opium and heroin trade. Coming out of southern Afghanistan, the drugs are sold to Iranian addicts, and then on to the lucrative markets among oil-rich Gulf Arabs and foreign workers there. Iranian efforts to halt the smugglers has turned portions of the border into a war zone.
Iran has struck back at the United States, and the West, for economic sanctions placed on Iran (to try and halt Iran's nuclear weapons program), by halting fuel (for vehicles and homes) shipments to Afghanistan for the last month. Normally, these shipments account for about half the petroleum imports into Afghanistan. But the Iranian cutoff has caused fuel costs to increase 50 percent in southern and western Afghanistan. This has caused much anger and unrest. Negotiations have failed to end the embargo, and many suffering Afghans blame Karzai, who is known to receive bribes from the Iranian government. Iranian says it cut the fuel trade because some of the fuel was going to NATO troops (which is not true, that fuel comes from Pakistan). The fuel trucks began to move again when Afghan importers threatened to look elsewhere for suppliers (Iran exports nearly a billion dollars worth of stuff to Afghanistan each year, 16 times as much as Afghanistan ships to Iran.) The fuel stoppage was believed to involve other Iranian demands, like Afghanistan doing more to interfere with the opium smuggled into Iran.
January 19, 2011: President Karzai has enraged Pushtun tribes by delaying the opening of parliament by another 30 days. Elections were held four months ago, and Pushtuns (40 percent of the population) are outraged at rigged voting that reduced their percentage of seats in parliament from 48 to 38 percent. Afghanistan has always been ruled by the better organized and more violent Pushtun minority. Modern Afghanistan (only a few centuries old) came about when non-Pushtun tribes to the north (Uzbek, Hazara, Tajik) agreed to become allies with the Pushtuns in order to keep foreigners (Russians, Iranians, British) out of their little piece of the world. Although the Pushtuns were the minority, they were the largest minority, and it was understood that the Pushtuns would take the lead. So the king of Afghanistan, has almost always been a Pushtun. So is the current president of Afghanistan. But the Pushtuns believe that president Karzai is too generous to the "lesser (non-Pushtun) tribes" who backed Karzai in the elections (and political bargaining) in becoming president. The Pushtun resent the presence of foreign troops because these heavily armed outlanders threaten Pushtun domination of the northern tribes. In many ways, the current war in Afghanistan is a struggle between the northern (non-Pushtun) tribes and the Pushtun. Many of the Afghan soldiers and police are from the north, and very few of the foreign troops are of Pushtun ancestry. The Taliban is further weakened by the fact that most Pushtun tribes do not back the Taliban (on most days, such attitudes seem to change with the weather in Afghanistan.) But Katzai's manipulating the recent elections, and unwillingness to crack down on corruption (which benefits only close allies of Karzai), has caused many Pushtun tribes to consider an alliance with pro-Taliban tribes to establish a new Pushtun government for Afghanistan. It's either that, or a partition of the country into the Pushtun south and the non-Pushtun north. However, this could be very ugly, as in many provinces there are still minorities (Pushtun tribes in the north and non-Pushtuns in the south.)
While the Taliban get most of the headlines outside of Afghanistan, its the gangsters and bandits who create most of the mayhem. Stealing from other tribes has long been a respected way to get rich (or killed in a memorable fashion). A less dangerous criminal endeavor is making opium and heroin and exporting it. Aside from bullying poppy farmers and subordinates (a form of discipline that is sometimes fatal), the drug gangs are considered kinder, gentler and more generous than your usual Afghan gang leader or warlord. Corrupt government officials are considered just another form of gangster, although ones that lies more than other criminals.
January 18, 2011: In the northwest, a dozen Taliban, including two local leaders, when a roadside bomb they were building went off. A shortage of qualified bomb builders (because NATO forces target leaders and specialists) has led to more accidents like this. In addition to poorly made bombs (and accidental explosions), more of the victims are civilians. The Taliban (or local tribesmen hired for the job) who set off the bombs increasingly make mistakes, and kill civilians. Part of the problem is that American and NATO troops are getting better at avoiding the bombs (better tactics, detection gear and jammers), while civilian drivers are not. This hurts the Taliban, who get blamed for the deaths and cannot spin their way out of it. The Taliban are having a hard time establishing themselves in the north, where Pushtuns are a minority. Many of the Pushtun up there take the drug gang money, then surrender to the government (where surrender payments are sometimes involved).