Afghanistan: The Really Ugly Stuff You Hear Little About


March 12, 2013: Despite Afghan president Karzai demanding that American Special Forces cease operations in Wardak province (is west of the capital) last month, the U.S. is still there and investigating the Karzai accusations that the Special Forces were responsible for mistreatment (kidnapping, torture, and murder) of Afghan civilians there. The Afghan government is demanding the investigations be completed in a few days but the Americans refuse to rush it. The Americans have already demonstrated that Afghan soldiers and police, which the Americans do not directly control, are often responsible for what Western media calls atrocities but are the sort of nasty stuff Afghans have been doing to each other for thousands of years. There’s definitely a culture clash going on here. Karzai has admitted as much with recent public calls for Afghan troops and police to handle civilians more gently and not go old-school on them so frequently.

The Wardak accusations (and similar ones) appear to be a Taliban Information War effort, in collusion with senior Afghan officials (including Karzai himself) to use false accusations of atrocities to generate media and diplomatic pressure to force American troops out of areas where the Taliban is taking a beating. This use of media manipulation and corrupt Afghan officials is one of the Taliban’s most promising tactics. The Taliban is trying this despite the fact that it’s widely known that 80 percent of civilian casualties and nearly all the acts that could be described as atrocities are carried out by the Taliban. This latest effort, involving president Karzai himself, is one of the boldest ever. In response the Americans are collecting a lot of evidence of who did what to whom. Karzai can (and may well) declare all of the American evidence lies. After that the Taliban Information War offensive will continue.

This incident is just one of many showing how much influence the drug gangs have in the government. Many senior members of the government have gotten rich off the drug trade, either via bribes or direct involvement. Karzai is also being loyal to the Pushtun tribes he came from and the drug gangs that have made the Karzai clan rich. This is not unusual behavior in Afghanistan, where getting ahead has often meant doing whatever you had to do. Tribal leaders will readily lie, cheat, and steal when dealing with outsiders (as in outside the tribe, not just outside Afghanistan).

Despite all this, most tribal leaders (including Pushtun ones) see the Afghan government, and their NATO allies, as a better deal than the Taliban and the drug gangs. The Taliban imposes seemingly random lifestyle rules on locals and even forces families to surrender daughters as wives for Taliban fighters (this built loyalty in the groom, but perpetual hostility from his new in-laws). The Taliban often act like bandits while the drug gangs were always gangsters and acted like it. The gangs have too much money, too much power, and have corrupted their young recruits with a gangster lifestyle, and over a million Afghans are now drug addicts (usually opium). While some of the locals were getting rich off the drug trade, the majority want it gone.

The Taliban has long used the heroin trade as a source of income, especially during the 1990s. The Taliban deny this when pressed but the facts on the ground say otherwise. While mass media likes to portray the Taliban as religious rebels seeking to free Afghanistan from foreign interference, the reality is more mundane. While many Taliban are religious conservatives or zealots, what motivates most of them is money and power. The drug gangs provide enough money to keep the Taliban going but that gives these religious gangsters the opportunity to steal or extort more. Religion is one thing but more important to Afghans is doing right by their family and tribe, and that means bringing home cash and power. If using a religious angle to get that done works, then so be it.

Karzai’s antics are a reflection of this tribal loyalty. The official position is that Karzai’s remarks about Wardak are a good sign that the Afghans are being more assertive and taking charge. Unofficially this is seen as another example of how the corrupt Karzai family is bought and paid for by the Taliban, which is putting more pressure on the Karzai clan to ease the NATO and Afghan security forces pressure on Taliban and drug gang operations. Karzai has done things like this before, and American threats to cut aid or take a closer look at Karzai family finances usually get him to back off. Some believe that the recent Karzai demands about Special Forces in Wardak and no NATO air strikes for Afghan forces are actually bargaining chips in an Afghan effort to keep the aid money coming directly to the government (where it can be stolen). Karzai likes the foreign aid but the providers of that aid do not threaten him and his family with death or injury if cooperation is not forthcoming like the Taliban. Karzai can play games with the foreign donors without getting killed, but the Taliban get more attention. Karzai is taking the long view, knowing that he cannot depend on the foreign troops in the long run. He must maintain good relationships with the other Pushtun tribes and warlords. The most powerful warlords tend to have a piece of the drug trade. The whole point of being a warlord is to have a cut of anything going on in your territory.

There has been a lot going on in Wardak lately, most of it going badly for the Taliban. The Islamic radicals are fighting back as best they can. For example, last month there was an explosion in a Wardak province mosque that left seven people dead. Locals blamed the Americans, who had been in the area a few hours earlier with a larger number of Afghan troops to capture a Taliban leader who was hiding out in the village. The Afghan soldiers got their man, after a brief firefight, and left. Locals are unsure what caused the explosion and the U.S. insists there was no artillery fire or air attacks in the area. It may have been a bomb the Taliban were assembling. Mosques are often used by the Taliban for storing weapons and assembling bombs and they almost always accuse the Americans of causing any unexplained deaths. Because of incidents like this the Taliban has been taking a beating in Wardak, mainly because of the American Special Forces and their Afghan counterparts.

Getting Special Forces out of Wardak would be a great victory for the Taliban, but what they really want help with is the growing American use of missile armed UAVs to hunt down and kill Taliban leaders. Last year such attacks went up 72 percent in Afghanistan (to about 500 missiles fired).

March 11, 2013: In Wardak province a man in an Afghan police uniform opened fire with a machine-gun on a meeting between U.S. Special Forces and Afghan soldiers and police, killing two Americans and five Afghans. The Taliban took responsibility for the attack.

March 10, 2013: In Kabul president Karzai met with the visiting American Secretary of Defense. Before that he openly accused the United States of collaborating with the Taliban to create more mayhem and persuade more Afghans to agree to allow more American troops to remain in Afghanistan after next year. Karzai also stated that he believed the U.S. was cooperating with the Taliban to overthrow the Afghan government. The American official cancelled a public event where he would meet with Karzai but still met with Karzai in private.

March 5, 2013: In the northern province of Badakhstan, 17 Afghan soldiers were found dead, executed by the Taliban after being taken prisoner at a checkpoint three days earlier.

Under enormous pressure from Western donor nations, Afghan courts have tried and convicted two senior bank managers of the Kabul Bank. The two were sentenced to five years in jail for stealing over $800 million. Late last year after a long (over a year) international investigation, the trial of some of the guilty got underway. This proved embarrassing for many senior officials. Most of the stolen money went to a few dozen people. Members of president Karzai’s family were named as participants in the looting of the bank. When asked about that, Karzai is evasive. He won’t talk about the process whereby he will find a way to keep his kin out of jail either. Already, Karzai’s brother has surrendered millions in stolen funds but is trying to hold on to a lot of it. Only two of the senior officials are headed for jail and most Afghans believe they will somehow avoid that. The investigation concluded that the fraud was carried out with the help of auditors from the Pakistani branch of a Western accounting firm (PricewaterhouseCooper). The Pakistani auditors are considered criminally liable, and this is likely to turn into an international legal crises. Foreign aid donors have been increasingly angry at the blatant theft of foreign aid and the government corruption that abets it. The donor nations are demanding less stealing or there will be less aid. Some countries are unable to halt the stealing and corruption and have sharply cut their aid for Afghanistan.

Two years ago foreign donors worked out yet another deal that allowed the resumption of much foreign aid after one of these halts. Money was being withheld because so much aid was being blatantly stolen by senior officials. The immediate cause of the aid freeze two years ago was the looting of the Kabul Bank. Three years ago it was discovered that Kabul Bank (a major financial institution) had been looted of a billion dollars. Only about ten percent of that billion has been recovered. Even threats to withhold aid have not persuaded the government to look for the rest of the missing money and those who ended up with it. This sort of corruption is widely regarded as a perfectly acceptable way to get rich. Just wait the foreigners out and keep taking their money. Life is good. In this case, the Afghans blinked. But it was not a complete surrender to the donor nations, although Afghans were forced to allow more controls over the aid cash. This makes the money more difficult to steal and the thieves easier to identify and punish (which is more likely only if the guilty parties travel to the West).

February 28, 2013: The Taliban are concentrating on scaring Afghan soldiers and police into inaction. This is being done using threats against the soldiers and policemen themselves, as well as against their families. Most attention is directed at commanders, at least those who will not take a bribe. 




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