Afghanistan: Won't Be Fooled Yet Again

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May 29, 2012: While the Taliban and terrorism in Afghanistan get the most international media coverage, it's the corruption that weighs most heavily on the lives of most Afghans and the future of Afghanistan. International surveys identify Afghanistan and Somalia as the two most corrupt places on the planet. In Afghanistan this means that starting a business requires a powerful (and expensive) protector, who might be eliminated by a stronger rival at any time. The end result is that economic growth is stunted and the population is unhappy. No wonder so many Afghans want to get out.

In the next two years the foreign troops will leave and any law and order will rely on the Afghan army and national police. Both organizations are, by Western standards, poorly trained and led and very susceptible to corruption. The biggest corruption threat comes from the drug gangs, who generate enormous amounts of money. The UN believes that 15 percent of Afghanistan's GDP comes from the production of illegal drugs (mostly opium and heroin). Most Afghans, and all nations in the world, oppose the production and distribution of these drugs, but the drug gangs use their enormous drug profits to buy the assistance of the Taliban, the local media, and many government officials. Nearly all the drugs are produced in two provinces: Kandahar and Helmand. This is also where most Taliban come from. In late 2001, the Taliban fled across the border to the southwest Pakistan city of Quetta, where they have enjoyed sanctuary ever since. When the Afghan government talks of a "peace deal with the Taliban" they are talking of legalizing the presence of the drug gangs. That's because any such deal would acknowledge Taliban control of Kandahar and Helmand and leave the drug gangs to operate without impediment within Afghanistan. This is an arrangement most Afghans oppose but could live with if there was enough pressure.

The main opposition to the drug gangs are the tribal leaders, who recognize that the presence of so much opium and heroin have created over a million addicts in Afghanistan. This is a growing social problem, and most Afghans understand that the drug lords of Kandahar and Helmand are responsible for producing and distributing (mostly outside Afghanistan) these drugs. Only about ten percent of Afghans benefit from the drug income but the adroit use of all that money (to buy weapons and co-operation from government officials and tribal leaders) enables the drug gangs to survive. For the last decade the only real foe the drug gangs have had were the foreign troops, who could not be bribed. With the foreign troops gone, it will ultimately be up to the Afghans to decide if they will continue to tolerate the drug gangs. There will be continued pressure (from neighboring countries, as well as the West) to shut down the opium and heroin production in Helmand and Kandahar. The hostility to drugs has been so great that efforts to expand opium production to other provinces have failed. Opium production has been driven out of other countries in the last 60 years (Burma, then Pakistan) but it takes a lot of determination. Afghanistan is the poorest nation in Eurasia, and losing all that money will be a hard sell.

The Taliban are much less of a problem than the drug gangs. The Taliban are religious conservatives from the Pushtun south. They are ruthless terrorists who are hated and violently opposed by most Afghans. In effect, the Taliban are a minority within a minority (Pushtuns are 40 percent of the population). There are some Islamic radicals among the other ethnic minorities but the Pushtuns dominate the Taliban (in terms of leadership and numbers overall). The biggest asset the Taliban have is their alliance with the drug gangs. This is because the Taliban tolerated and taxed the drug gangs in the 1990s, and continue with that policy. This gives the Taliban the cash they need to keep their terror campaign going but this also associates the Islamic radicals with the hated drug gangs. Most Afghans will hold their nose and take a drug gang or Taliban bribe. Yet in the overall scheme of things, the majority (over 70 percent) of Afghans would prefer to see the Taliban and drug gangs dead and gone. With the foreign troops gone, that kind of civil war situation is likely to develop.

A few Taliban factions have surmised that the drug gangs would eventually be driven out and have adopted an anti-drug policy. This is a desperation move because without the drug gang cash the Taliban are reduced to kidnapping, robbery, and extortion to keep the organization going. These activities antagonize more of the people the Taliban are trying to convert to their retro (no entertainment, no education for women, lots more praying) way of life.  This is a hard sell in the best of circumstances. The Taliban have found that terror is the only sure way to get cooperation and that is only temporary. The Taliban also promise they will bring law and order and less corruption. But too many Afghans remember how that did not work out when the Taliban were running most of the country during the 1990s. The general attitude is "won't be fooled again."

The Taliban reinforce this popular attitude with continuing suicide bombing. While the Taliban have learned that they gain more by killing corrupt officials, and fewer civilians, it's still the civilians who get hurt the most.

Another problem the Taliban have is the Pakistanis, who consider it their right to interfere in Afghan affairs. At the moment, Pakistan is most intent on preventing Taliban factions from making peace with the Afghan government. The U.S. and Afghanistan have, for years, been negotiating such peace deals. For this to work on a large scale Pakistan, not the Taliban, must be the counterparty. And it's not Pakistan the country that must negotiate but the Pakistani Army and the ISI (the Pakistani ISI/military intelligence organization). These two organizations have been running their own foreign policy for decades. The army/ISI has gotten rich by gaining control over a large chunk of the Pakistani economy and government budget. It's all done with coercion, corruption, and constant anti-Indian/anti-American propaganda. The Pakistani Army cannot justify its privileged position unless they convince the Pakistani people that there is a major threat out there. So the army/ISI has created fearsome foes. This includes Afghanistan, which they portray as a puppet for India and America and a major threat to Pakistan. Most Afghans reject this and see the Taliban as a Pakistani tool. While many Afghans appreciate scattered Taliban efforts to reduce corruption, they mainly want less violence. The Taliban has been the major source of violence for nearly two decades, and most Afghans want peace. The Taliban want control, above all else. But now, facing severe combat losses, lower morale, and defections, increased terror attacks are believed more for internal purposes (to build Taliban morale) than to weaken the Afghan government.

 May 23, 2012:  In the northeast two foreign aid workers were kidnapped for ransom. This kind of crime has always been common in Afghanistan, especially with regard to foreigners (who do not have access to tribal organizations that can often get captives freed without ransom).

May 21, 2012:  NATO leaders met in the United States and agreed that Afghan troops and police would take over all security duties a year from now. Currently, this is the case in about two-thirds of the country. NATO also pledged to pay for the security forces (over 300,000 soldiers and police). This may prove difficult. The security forces are riddled with corruption and ensuring that Western money actually gets to the soldiers and cops will be very difficult.

 

 

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