Afghanistan: Looking For Quick Solutions

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May 5, 2014: Most Afghans blame the Pakistanis for any successes the Taliban have. There is some truth to this as it is no secret that ISI (the Pakistani CIA) created the Taliban in the early 1990s and Pakistan has been supporting Islamic terrorism since the late 1970s. In the last few years more evidence of this Pakistani perfidy has come to light. For example, officially Pakistan still denies that they sheltered Osama bin Laden, but it’s no secret that Pakistan still tolerates sanctuaries for all manner of Islamic terrorists who operate inside Afghanistan. One of the biggest complaints Afghans have against the Americans is that the Americans are not more forceful in persuading Pakistan to shut down these sanctuaries. Pakistan insists it is innocent and the civilian government in Pakistan will, at most, admit that it cannot control its own military, which is most responsible for providing support to Islamic terrorists. The sad fact is that this is all self-inflicted. Over three decades of government sponsored propaganda supporting Islamic terrorists has left a lot of Pakistanis still willing to accept excuses for all the terrorist violence. Many Taliban insist that they are not terrorists but simply “angry brothers” of fellow Pakistanis and trying to make Pakistan a better place. A growing number of Pakistanis see the flaws in this approach, but the Islamic terrorists and their supporters are still able to threaten critics with violence and that keeps many anti-terrorism Pakistanis quiet.

In Afghanistan the increased popular (and often violent) opposition to the Taliban and Islamic terrorists in general has forced the Taliban to depend more on bases and support from Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban are particularly dependent on the Islamic terrorist sanctuary in North Waziristan, where many of the bombs used in Afghanistan are made and many of the suicide bombers are trained. The Afghan security forces have responded by increasing efforts to block Taliban efforts to get bombs, weapons and Islamic terrorists into Afghanistan.

The Pakistani and Afghan Taliban have become a lot closer in the last few years because both groups are encountering more opposition, heavier losses and more problems raising money. Both groups have lots of factions that don’t agree with each other and despite all that is threatening them, the factions, especially in Pakistan, will still fight each other. Despite all these troubles there are still a lot of broke, uneducated and aimless young men willing to join up. That often ends up in an early death, but along the way these guys get a little respect (as a byproduct of fear) and, for a short while, the feeling that they are someone important.

The Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban continues to frustrate Afghan government efforts to make peace deals with pro-Taliban tribal leaders and lower ranking or retired Taliban leaders. Pakistan does not want the Afghan Taliban making peace. Pakistan sees a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan or, failing that, continued Taliban terrorism, as in the best interests of Pakistan.

In the east (Kunar province) Pakistan claims that gunfire from the Afghan side of the border killed a Pakistani soldier. That gunfire (as well as rockets, mortar and artillery shells) goes both ways with each side accusing the other of being at fault. Many of the Pushtun tribes that live astride the border do not recognize the border and regularly go back and forth without bothering with the border police on either side. On either side of the frontier soldiers or police are considered foreign invaders by the local tribesmen, most of whom are armed.

 

Corruption

The latest international corruption rankings put Somalia, Afghanistan and North Korea at the bottom of the list, as the most corrupt countries on the planet. In Afghanistan the corruption is encouraged by the intense tribal loyalties and the desire of high level officials to look out for their family and tribe first and Afghanistan later, maybe. The inability of government officials to leave tribal politics out of their decision making and halt the theft of government funds (nearly all if from foreign donors) has made unity and economic growth nearly impossible. The donor nations warn that without a crackdown on the corruption the foreign aid will be reduced and what does arrive will have a lot more conditions attached. These include bringing in more foreigners to supervise the spending of the aid. If the foreign aid supervisors are unable to work because of threats and violence the aid will stop. Most Afghan leaders don’t believe the donor nations will completely withdraw and that the donors can be manipulated via media exploitation of Afghans suffering from famine, Taliban violence and disease.

In the last few years several national opinion surveys found that Afghans believed the biggest problem was corruption (dishonest officials and lack of business ethnics) not unemployment or security. Most Afghans understand that the corruption makes the Taliban and drug gangs possible. A major goal of the Taliban is the elimination of corruption via the imposition of Sharia (Islamic law). Few Afghans believe that will work, because when the Taliban controlled most of the country in the 1990s, the Islamic Republic quickly became corrupt and tyrannical.

The drug gangs exist because they can bribe and intimidate enough people to allow drugs to be produced and exported. This even worked on the Taliban in the 1990s. The corruption is part of the cultural fabric. The taking of "loot" is generally seen as an admirable act, and a bribe is seen as the equivalent of an ancient warrior trashing a neighboring valley, and carrying away chickens, horses and women. Changing this attitude has proved difficult, particularly because most Afghans are illiterate and don't know much about the rest of the world. Those Afghans who do know about how things work in the West (or booming East Asia, for that matter) realize and accept that clean and efficient government is the key to economic prosperity. Knowing this, and making it happen, are two very different things. Meanwhile, the illiteracy, corruption crippled economy, and resulting poverty provides a steady supply of angry young men with guns. Breaking this cycle is very difficult, which is why no one has done it yet. The cycle can be broken, because it has been done, many times, all over the world. A thousand years ago, Europe was a lot like Afghanistan, but none of the current donor (of troops and money) nations are going to wait that long for Afghanistan to clean up its act. Results are sought in years, not centuries.

The government has been unable to sustain efforts to destroy poppy plants. This is dangerous work and over a hundred soldiers or police are killed each year because of armed resistance. The growers offer bribes to local police to halt or sabotage the eradication efforts and that has led to a large reduction in province-level poppy eradication efforts. The farmers live or die depending on what they can grow (or buy locally) and having enough to eat is the primary goal. 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 more per hectare of poppy plants than for any other 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 ten times as much money. There's lots 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 M oney which buys lots of guns, government officials and other useful stuff.

At the consumer level heroin brings in about $70 billion a year. While only about ten percent of that ends up in Afghanistan that is a significant chunk of the GDP. But only about 15 percent of the drug income that stays in Afghanistan goes to the farmers who grow poppies. The rest goes to various middlemen who spread it around to ensure their survival. Nearly all drug production is still concentrated in a few districts of Kandahar and Helmand provinces down south. These areas have become battlegrounds and it gets harder and harder to keep production going. But the rest of Afghanistan is still quite hostile to drug production (and any more of their young men becoming addicts). Efforts to get poppy production going elsewhere tend to fail because local police and warlords respond violently to that sort of thing.

Drugs also determine where the Taliban are most dangerous. Most Taliban activity occurs in two (Kandahar and Helmand) of the 34 provinces. Some 40 percent of the Taliban violence is in ten Kandahar and Helmand districts (out of 398 in the entire country). Why that concentration of Taliban activity? It’s because of the heroin. The Taliban put most of their effort into protecting the districts where some 90 percent of the heroin in Afghanistan is produced. The other areas cursed with Taliban presence are ones that smuggling routes (to get the heroin to the outside world) go through. The Taliban don’t like to talk about this and they terrorize local media to stay away from it. International media avoid it as well, but on the ground it’s all about drugs and the huge amount of cash they provide for the drug gangs and their Taliban partners.

Corruption and poor government continue to be a major problem which the drug trade is simply part of. The only battle that counts in Afghanistan is the struggle against corruption, but controlling the drug trade is part of that fight. It is the general dishonesty, larceny and use of violent threats instead of consensus and persuasion that make Afghanistan such a hellish place and allow the drug gangs to thrive. The Islamic conservatives promise that submission to Islam in all things (the religious dictatorship the Taliban ran in the late 1990s) will solve all these problems. The Taliban approach did not work and too many Afghans know it (many from personal experience). The failure of the Taliban to run the country effectively put the spotlight on another problem; a lack of enough people trained to actually operate a large government (or any other kind of organization). Efficiently running a large organization takes a lot of people with specific skills. Low education levels, and a general lack of large organizations, means Afghanistan simply doesn’t have enough people to effectively operate a national government and all the large bureaucracies that includes. This is a problem that is not quickly overcome since you cannot govern Afghanistan with a lot of foreign bureaucrats (even if you just call them “advisors”). Afghans are very touchy about that sort of thing. Afghans may be poor and ill-educated, but they are also proud, heavily armed and short-tempered. So all that foreign aid is easier to steal (for your family and tribe) than to spend efficiently for the common good. 

May 3, 2014: In Kabul police, acting on an intel report, arrested Qari Abdul Latif, a Taliban leader long active in central Afghanistan (Bamiyan province) along with three of his subordinates. The Taliban have always had a hard time outside of the Pushtun south and most of the Taliban operating outside the south are from the south and often return south to visit or to stay and let someone else deal with the greater risks up north.

In the north (Faryab province) someone (drug gangs or Taliban) kidnapped a local intelligence official and killed their hostage the next day. This is part of terror campaign to persuade the security forces to back off and leave drug smuggling (across the nearby Turkmenistan border) alone.

In the east (Logar province) a suicide bomb vest exploded while being prepared for use, killing three Islamic terrorists. Two of the dead men were Pakistanis. Such accidents are increasingly common because of the deliberate American strategy of identifying and hunting down technical experts, like bomb builders who spend a lot of their time training more Taliban to build bombs. Less and less of this training takes place because there are so few experienced bomb builders left. Poorly trained bomb builders make mistakes. Most often this is seen in bombs that don’t go off or don’t do as much damage as expected. But poorly built bombs also tend to go off while under construction.

May 1, 2014: India has signed a deal with Russia to supply Afghanistan with Russian weapons paid for by India. This arrangement gets around the difficulty sending Indian made arms to landlocked Afghanistan. Russia will supply a full line of weapons, from assault rifles to artillery and armored vehicles. India, like Afghanistan, has been using Russian weapons for a long time.

In the north (Kunduz province) a Taliban commander and two of his subordinates died when they encountered a police patrol.

April 28, 2014: In the east (Paktika province) a force of some 300 Haqqani Network gunmen attacked an Afghan army base. The soldiers were prepared and held off the assault and soon NATO warplanes showed up. About half the attackers were killed or wounded and the survivors fled across the nearby Pakistani border. The attackers suffered at least sixty dead trying to achieve a media-worthy victory. Haqqani has suffered nothing but defeats lately and is disappointed that the Afghan Army, which has taken over security in the border are during the last year, tends to be as steadfast as the foreign troops they replaced. Haqqani and the Taliban are hoping that when foreign troops leave at the end of the year they will take all their airpower with them. That is less likely now that the recent presidential elections produced two runoff candidates, both of whom are willing to sign a Status of Forces agreement that will keep some U.S. combat aircraft in Afghanistan indefinitely. Despite that prospect the Pakistani Taliban have negotiated a ceasefire with the Pakistani government so that they can assist the Afghan Taliban in defeating the Afghan security forces in preparation for a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. That is pure fantasy, as the security are largely staffed by non-Pushtuns who will do anything to prevent the Pushtun dominated Taliban from taking over the country as happened in the 1990s. Most Afghan Taliban have noted that Afghan soldiers and police are nearly as lethal as the foreign troops, even without air support.

April 27, 2014: The senior Taliban military leader, Mullah Qayum Zakir, has resigned because of ill health. Zakir had been captured shortly after the American attack in late 2001 and was sent off to Guantanamo. Corrupt Afghan officials persuaded the U.S. to transfer Zakir back to an Afghan prison in 2007, where he could be interrogated more thoroughly. Instead the Afghans freed Zakir, who resumed his leadership role in the Taliban from the safety of the Pakistani city of Quetta (where Pakistan provided sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban and even forbid American UAV missile attacks). 

April 26, 2014: All of the votes for the presidential election have been counted and no candidate received more than fifty percent so there will be a runoff between the top two candidates on June 7th. Abdullah Abdullah (a long time Karzai rival and believed to have lost the 2009 vote because of fraud) had 45 percent of the votes in the recent election and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (a former finance minister and World Bank official) had 31.5 percent. Hamid Karzai, the incumbent, backed Zalmai Rassoul, who received only 11.5 percent. Despite strenuous efforts the Taliban once again failed to keep many people from voting. International observers detected some voting fraud, but far less than in 2009.

In Pakistan the Afghan Taliban helped arrange a ceasefire between two factions of the Pakistani Taliban that have been fighting for several weeks. This caused several hundred casualties and over 60 dead. The ceasefire runs through August 12th and is to provide an opportunity for negotiating a permanent peace. That is unlikely as the Pakistani Taliban, unlike their Afghan counterparts have long suffered from internal feuds that frequently turn violent.  

April 24, 2014: In Kabul a security guard opened fire and killed three American doctors who worked there. Incidents like this are distressingly common and the government seems unable to halt this sort of thing. Afghans are not as mystified by these attacks as are foreigners, especially foreign journalists. The main problem here is that Afghanistan is a very alien place for Westerners. It's also a much more violent place, with men, especially, quick to react violently to real or perceived slights. In the last few years foreign troops and have been ordered to learn a longer list of things that could anger an Afghan (certain facial expressions or pointing a gun in the general direction of an Afghan, even if unintentionally). Some of these actions are unavoidable, but foreign troops have to understand that even unintentional social gaffes can have fatal consequences. Foreign aid workers are also advised to learn this sort of stuff. It's not that all Afghan men are suicidal (which is what firing on foreign troops often is) but many are prone to losing their cool in a big way. If they are holding a loaded weapon when this happens, things can get ugly. The casual violence in Afghanistan is many times what it is in the West, which can be seen by the high number of wives and children who show up at clinics (run by foreign aid workers) to have injuries (not from accidents) treated. Afghans don't try to hide the source of these injuries, as beating wives and children (and each other) is considered the Afghan way of maintaining order at home.

April 22, 2014: In the north (Baghlan province) police arrested two local Taliban leaders based on intelligence that Afghan and foreign intel services had developed.  

April 19, 2014: In the north (Ghazni province) five Taliban, including a local leader, died when a bomb they were building in a mosque went off accidentally.

April 15, 2014: Taliban violence dropped sharply after the April 5th elections. The Taliban had made a major effort to disrupt the elections and when that failed the Taliban had to let the surviving Taliban forces rest and recuperate. There was also the problem with low morale. Taliban leadership had boasted that the elections would be disrupted by a maximum Taliban effort and when that failed the average Taliban, and many of the leaders, were demoralized by the failure.

 

 

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