Afghanistan: Fear Does Not Work Here

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April 7, 2013: Government attempts to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban are not working. President Karzai went to Qatar last week to meet with Taliban leaders, but the Taliban refused to talk. Ten Taliban leaders and their families have been allowed to live in Qatar since 2011, to help facilitate peace talks. Most Taliban leaders still have refuge in southwest Pakistan (Quetta) but the Taliban, like most Afghans, don’t trust the Pakistanis. The problem in Qatar is being blamed on Pakistan, which had been pretending to help persuade the Taliban to make peace with the Afghan government. But recently Pakistan added some new conditions for that cooperation that the Afghans would not accept. The Pakistanis now demand that Afghanistan cut all ties with India and send their army officers to Pakistan for advanced training (and indoctrination with the Islamic radicalism so popular among Pakistani officers). All this does not surprise most Afghans, who consider Pakistan a bully and very untrustworthy. Afghans have never forgotten that it was Pakistan that created the Taliban two decades ago and unleashed their religion inspired violence on Afghanistan.

In the face of all this, the U.S. is planning to ask Qatar to expel the Taliban and convince the Afghan government to be more forceful in their dealings with the Taliban. The U.S. is also letting Pakistan know that the Taliban sanctuary in Quetta should not be immune from U.S. UAV operations and that might change, whether the Pakistanis like it or not. Afghan Taliban are planning and carrying out terror attacks on Afghans and Americans from the Quetta sanctuary, and that is unacceptable to Americans. Pakistan has consistently lied about its efforts to shut down terrorist sanctuaries on its territory.

Meanwhile, pro-Taliban tribes in Afghanistan want to work out some kind of official peace deal. There are practical reasons for this. A disproportionate amount of the billions in foreign aid has gone to areas not threatened by the Taliban. A growing number of Pushtun tribes, or clans within tribes, have turned against the Taliban (who are seen as a bunch of gangsters and drug gang hired guns pretending to be Islamic heroes). These tribal leaders have watched the rest of the country grow wealthy while the Taliban keep many Pushtuns in righteous poverty. It’s time for a change. But many Taliban and their drug gang allies are getting rich from the current situation and are willing to fight to resist any change.

This unsettled situation has led many Afghans in Kabul and throughout the Pushtun south to make plans to flee the country after 2014 (when most foreign troops leave). The fear is that Afghan security forces will not be able to control the Taliban, drug gang, and bandit violence. Increased violence will halt economic growth and reduce opportunities for young Afghans (unless they want to carry a gun for some outlaw group). This, alas, is the norm in Afghanistan. It has always been an outlaw state, with the only safety in tribal areas (and only if you belonged to that tribe or were a recognized “guest”) or major cities (if you could afford to pay for protection or had nothing to steal). That changed when the Taliban were chased out after September 11, 2001. In the next few years nearly six million Afghans returned from refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran. Yet three million remain in exile, not believing that Afghanistan could ever be as safe as their exile in Pakistan and Iran. The bad old days have only been gone for 12 years and most Afghans remember. Thus the market for false passports and other travel documents is booming. While the south may not be a mess after 2014, optimism is too dangerous in Afghanistan. One must be prepared.

Meanwhile, there’s quite a lively war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. It’s not just the foreign troops who are fighting but the Afghan security forces and local militias. The Taliban are still on the defensive, which is why they are still using terror tactics (bombs and raids) to intimidate their foes and improve their own morale. That sort of thing often just makes the anti-Taliban forces angrier. This, after all, is Afghanistan, and that’s how violence usually works there. Revenge is considered a more worthy emotion than fear.

The Taliban middle-management (the guys who head operations in the hundred or so districts where the Taliban is most active) continues to suffer morale problems. The risks of getting killed or captured are high for these guys and the senior leadership has not been generous with pay or bonuses to compensate for the danger. All the Taliban bosses say is that after 2014, there will be less danger from the foreigners (because nearly all the ground troops will be gone, although UAVs and warplanes will remain). There are 398 districts in Afghanistan, and many of them are remote and sparsely populated. But if you can intimidate the district government, you have created a good hideout, and that ’ s what the Taliban strive to do via terror and bribes. Each of the 34 provinces is divided into districts, and only about a hundred of them have Taliban problems. Many that don’t rely on strong tribal militias to keep the Taliban out. The Taliban, like most Afghan outlaws, are practical and will go around areas where they would have to fight their way through.

The government has agreed to destroy 15,000 hectares (37,500 acres) of poppy plants, twice as many as last year and about ten percent of this year’s crop. This is dangerous work and 31 soldiers and police were killed doing this last year. In the few districts where poppy is grown it is very profitable for the growers and drug gangs. A hectare of poppy produces about 3.8 kg (8.3 pounds) of heroin. Farmers earn about $4,000 per hectare of poppy plants, which is the highest price for any crop grown in Afghanistan. Actually, the middlemen, often tribal leaders, make far more per hectare, and the farmers often end up in debt if the poppy crop fails (for any number of reasons, including government anti-drug efforts). When sold in a Western town or city, the heroin from that hectare of Afghan poppies brings in over a million dollars. There's a lot of money for the middlemen, including the Taliban. Most of the poppies are grown in Taliban country. The Taliban tax the farmers, and other middlemen, 10-20 percent. This is Big Money which buys lots of guns, government officials, and other useful stuff.

April 6, 2013: In the south (Zabul province) six Americans belonging to a PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) died when a roadside bomb hit their vehicle (as they were on their way to deliver books to a school). With these deaths 22 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan so far this year. That’s about a third of the losses suffered during the same period last year.

April 4, 2013: In the southwest (Farah province) nine Taliban dressed in army uniforms, attacked a judicial compound, and killed 46 people (including four judges, four lawyers, 28 other civilians, and ten security personnel) in a failed attempt to free Taliban prisoners held there. All nine attackers were killed. The assault began when three of the attackers detonated a truck bomb at the heavily guarded entrance to the compound. That enabled the other six to get into the compound, where they went room to room seeking the Taliban prisoners. In each room civilians would be fired on (leaving nearly a hundred wounded in addition to the 46 killed). Police and soldiers finally cornered the attackers and killed them, after eight hours of violence. Attacks like this are considered good for Taliban morale, even when they fail, because they show that the Taliban leadership will go to great (if unsuccessful) lengths to free captured terrorists. This suicidal devotion to fellow warriors resonates with most Afghans. It’s the old “a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do” but Afghan style.

April 3, 2013: In the east a group of Pakistani Taliban attacked a Pakistani border post in Kurram. Two Pakistani soldiers were wounded and four of the attackers killed.

 

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