Afghanistan: Violence, Followed By More Violence

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August 28, 2011: While suicide bombers get most of the headlines, corruption in the government and throughout Afghan society is less newsworthy, but far more important. Thousands of Afghan officials and businessmen stealing billions of dollars doesn’t make for exciting news, but it’s more of an obstacle to peace than the murderous mayhem of the Taliban. In theory, the Taliban are fighting to eliminate corruption, but few Afghans believe that. When the Taliban were in charge during the 1990s, they were corrupt. The Islamic conservative politicians in Iran (where they run the place) and Pakistan (where they run parts of the tribal territories) are notoriously corrupt. All this stealing and general dishonesty has made Afghanistan a very unpleasant place. Afghanistan ranks at or near the bottom in every survey of living standards. For example, a recent global survey on motherhood found Norway was the best place to be a mother, and Afghanistan was the worst. Aid groups that specialize in medical care are finding out the gruesome details. One American Special Forces medic, who was also a history buff, noted that old (healed) wounds and injuries he found on many Afghans were identical to 19th century medical photos he had studied. This made sense, as most Afghans had no access to modern medical care.  More do these days, but most still live without much modern technology or amenities. For most Afghans, a cell phone is magic, and something they can aspire too. Honest government and a civil society (rule of law) is considered a fantasy that may come true someday.

Next to their personal security (assassination has long been popular in Afghanistan), the local politicians are most concerned about American and NATO efforts to halt, or at least reduce, the amount of aid money being stolen. Senior members of the government are also worried about what will happen when this torrent of cash is sharply reduced. Noting the financial problems the United States is having, and the popular frustration with the Afghanistan operation, Afghan politicians fear that the flood of cash and military equipment will soon end. That creates several serious problems. First, Afghanistan is left with a huge security force that it cannot afford to maintain or pay. Thus there is little enthusiasm for obtaining jet fighters or large number of tanks (a few would be nice). But the 300,000 trained soldiers and police now in service are the envy of warlords all over the country. Moreover, a disproportionate number of these trained men are not Pushtun. Long the dominant minority (40 percent of the population), they are under-represented in the military and police leadership. Most of the Pushtuns in the tanks are from the northern tribes. The southern areas where most of the Taliban come from, contain ten percent of the population, but get only about two percent of the recruits for the army and police. If the government cannot pay the troops and police, many of these men will look for other employers. These would be warlords, and the wealthiest war lords in the country are those running the drug trade in the south. Thus while those Pushtuns have only ten percent of the population, they could hire a lot more gunmen. But the northern tribes, including a lot of Pushtun up there, would have a larger, if less-well-paid, force. The drug gangs would probably lose, but such a civil war would do a lot of damage, and the drug business would survive. The ethnic tensions would remain as well. Afghanistan has always been an ethnic and economic mess. Fixing it is a very long term project. Even basic problems have to be dealt with. For example, only 14 percent of army and police recruits are literate. You can’t have a lot of economic growth with such a low literacy rate. In most of the country, literacy rates are rapidly raising, but it will take at least a decade to get the educational levels to the point where Afghanistan will be competitive in the world economy. Aid donors don’t like to deal with aid efforts that last for decades, but that’s what Afghanistan is.

And then there are the religious problems. Faith is important in Afghanistan, and it’s not all the Taliban brand of Islam. A more practical reaction to all the misery in the country is another form of Islam. Afghan Islam has long been influenced by Sufism. That can be a problem for Sunni hard liners, as Sufi has some elements of Shia Islam, plus a strong mystical streak and a tradition of poetry, music, and spiritual dance. This is quite at variance with the hardline Sunni version of the faith being pushed by the Taliban. While open practitioners of Sufism have been persecuted by the Taliban in the past, now many Sufis are fighting back. Open practice of Sufism is more common, and if the Taliban come after the Sufis, the Sufis fight back. Actually, more Afghans, of all persuasions, are fighting back. Especially at the village level, Taliban threats no longer carry as much weight as they used to, and Taliban enforcers are simply disappearing more frequently. It’s a trend borne more out of desperation than any willingness to help destroy the Taliban. At the village level, the Taliban are seen as just another bunch of thugs who have come along to make a hard life intolerable. The Taliban leadership has noted the push-back, and have issued a new, kinder and gentler, “ROE” (Rules Of Engagement) for dealing with civilians. But many Taliban ignore the new rules, and continue their thuggish ways. This includes continuing bombing attacks that kill women and children. The Taliban continue to cause 80 percent of the war-related civilian deaths, and while most Afghans can’t read, they can count. They know that if the Taliban are around, there is danger. If foreign troops are around, there’s a lot less danger. Afghans would like all the danger from this war to go away, but at least it’s now clear that the Taliban are the most destructive aspect of the conflict.

Another source of violence in Afghan society, that doesn’t get covered much, is the generational battle going on at the tribe level. The younger generations are seeking to update tribal leadership. They want less corruption and more democracy. This offends the traditionalists, who are still powerful. Some Taliban factions represent this tribal “new deal” attitude, but all Taliban accept the need for Islamic law and religious dictatorship as a way to solve the corruption and economic problems. This is very much a minority attitude throughout Afghanistan. Most Afghans do whatever they have to do to survive, in a country with the lowest life expectancy in Eurasia. Eliminating corruption is admired as a goal, but surviving another year is a necessity.

Corruption in Pakistan is a big problem for Afghanistan as well. A recent example of this can be seen in growing American pressure on Pakistani officials to help curb illegal chemicals from being smuggled into Afghanistan. These include ammonium nitrate, a banned fertilizer used to make roadside bombs. It takes 3-4 kg (6.6-8.8 pounds) of ammonium nitrate for an average roadside bomb. These days, the same smugglers who bring in chemicals needed to refine opium into heroin (especially mainly acetic anhydride), also bring in ammonium nitrate. Pakistani officials have resisted pleas to crack down on the movement of excessive (for Pakistan’s needs) quantities of ammonium nitrate and acetic anhydride into Pakistan and then, via lots of bribes, into Afghanistan. A lot of the bribes are paid on the Afghan side of the border.

The government is using an increasing number of its security forces to guard construction projects (roads, dams, communications, electrical power) that had been stalled by Taliban violence. The economy has been growing in most of Afghanistan for the last decade, but most of the growth in the south has come from the heroin trade. The drug trade only benefitted a minority of the population down south, but the construction projects benefit all. So even those who make some money off opium and heroin production favor new roads and water sources. The drug gangs and Taliban have opposed these projects, but even in the most pro-Taliban areas, the “no-development” policy has been unpopular.

These construction projects, like everything else in Afghanistan, are subject to corruption. But while the new army and police can be bought, so can the Taliban. Everyone is on the take, and each construction project has to budget for bribes. It’s not just an expedient to get the job done; it’s often a matter of life and death. If a man with a gun asks for a bribe, the prudent thing to do is to pay.

August 24, 2011: President Karzai pardoned twenty boys, aged 10-16, who had been Taliban suicide bombers. The children has been indoctrinated or coerced into being suicide bombers, but all twenty had been captured or surrendered before they could carry out their attacks. For kids like this, the Taliban often have a remote detonator on their bomb vests, so when the children are close enough to the target, the explosives can be set off by the nearby (at a safe distance) handler.

 

 

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