Afghanistan: A Violent And Primitive Place

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October 1, 2020: Nearly twenty years of building infrastructure is going to waste because of corruption. Building these road, sanitation and electrical power projects was crippled by corruption and efforts to maintain the new infrastructure suffered the same fate. The corruption was a combination of construction, operating and maintenance funds stolen, often resulting in substandard work, in addition to extortion demands from local tribal leaders, the Taliban or both. The inability to overcome this ancient culture of corruption and extortion is causing decades of progress to visibly crumble and disappear. This is why in the 21 st century Afghanistan still has no railroads and few highways. All of the neighbors have had such modern amenities for over a century but for numerous social and political reasons Afghanistan remains a more violent and primitive place.

Plague and Panic

The covid19 related recession is expected to shrink GDP by 5-6 percent. This is down from estimates made a few months earlier for a 5-7 percent decline . Neighbor Pakistan is also seen as suffering less damage with 2-3 percent reduction in GDP for 2020. There is less economic activity in Afghanistan because of uncertainty, especially regarding the Taliban peace talks. Many Afghans fear any such peace deal will make the situation worse and lead to more chaos and another civil war.

Most urban and many rural Afghans support the current stability, provided by American removal of the Taliban government in 2001. That was followed with billions a year in American financial aid. Since 2001 the economy continues to grow and corruption slowly declines. The reality is that getting Afghanistan into the 20th century, much less the 21st, will take several decades of effort and since 2001 there have been barely two decades of changes. Continued progress is uncertain because of the drug gangs and Pakistan. The most harmful foreign influence is the Pakistani backed Afghan Taliban. There is also a Pakistan Taliban that is trying to impose a religious dictatorship on Pakistan. The security forces and political parties in Pakistan exert much more control than their counterparts in Afghanistan

Most Afghans are well aware that in many ways their lives are much better since the Americans arrived and the Taliban were deposed. GDP has grown continuously since 2001 with average family income increasing noticeably each year. GDP grew 2.9 percent in 2019 and was expected to do 3.3 percent in 2020, unless the civil war broke out. No Taliban related civil war yet but the unexpected covid19 did some damage.

In early 2001 only a million children were in school, all of them boys. Now there are over nine million in school and 40 percent are girls. Back then there were only 10,000 phones in the country, all very expensive land lines in cities. Now there are over 22 million inexpensive cell phones with access even in remote rural areas. Back then less than ten percent of the population had access to any health care, now a least 80 percent do and life expectancy has risen from 47 years (the lowest in Eurasia) to 62 (leaving Bangladesh to occupy last place). This is apparently the highest life expectancy has ever been in Afghanistan and the UN noted it was the highest one decade increase ever recorded. Afghans have noticed this even if the rest of the world has not.

All this progress was accompanied by more corruption because now there was more to steal. Recently that included money allocated to deal with covid19. This is no surprise to many Afghans who feel the corruption situation won’t show significant improvements, at least in their lifetimes, so many Afghans leave if they can.

More economic growth leads to more rural Afghans arming and defending themselves against Taliban and bandit threats. During 2019 there were 18 percent fewer civilians killed by terrorist violence. The Taliban was responsible for 71 percent, the security forces 14 percent, five percent by ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and nine percent by unknown perpetrators. For most of 2019 it looked like the annual total would be higher but Taliban violence against civilians (and in general) greatly declined in the last three months of the year. The Taliban concentrated on hurting Americans, which was a lot more dangerous for the Taliban. In 2020 civilian casualties continued to decline, mainly because the Taliban were concentrating their attacks on the Afghan security forces and foreign troops. The Taliban continued to cause most of the civilian casualties.

The Usual Suspects

There are significant regional differences in many respects. The Taliban is a largely Pushtun organization and the Pushtuns, about 36 percent of the 31 million Afghans, dominate the south. Most of the exiles to Iran and Pakistan during the 1980s were Pushtun. As a result of this, and less violence in the north and west, the Tajiks now comprise the same percent of the population as the Pushtuns. During the late 1990s civil war, after the Pakistan armed and recruited the Taliban, the one part of Afghanistan the Taliban could never conquer was the Tajik northeast. If there is another civil war the Tajiks will again be the main opponent for the Pushtun Taliban. The Tajiks have allies including other minorities, especially Turkmen, Uzbeks and Mongols (Hazara). The Tajik and Pushtun are often called “eastern Iranians” because they are, like the Iranians, also Indo-European, as are most people in northern India and Pakistan. The Tajiks differ from the Pushtun in being less warlike, less religiously fanatic and more amenable to education and progress in general. Perhaps even more important is that the Tajiks have largely abandoned the use of tribes as a political organization. The Pushtun are still very much into tribal power.

One major complication with the peace negotiations is that a major faction, Pakistan, cannot officially be acknowledged. Pakistan officially maintains that this is not true. Technically that is correct because it’s not the government of Pakistan but the Pakistani military and its ISI intelligence service that supports and maintains Pakistani interference in Afghan affairs. It is important to note that when Britain dissolved its Indian (including what is now Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka) colonial government, the new nations emerged as quite different. One major difference was how these new nations handled their armed forces. India ensured that the military remained subservient to the elected government. That did not happen in Pakistan or Burma and that meant the military frequently took control of the government. While Pakistan is technically run by an elected government, that government cannot do anything the military disagrees with. With regard to Afghanistan the Pakistani military has a foreign policy towards Afghanistan that supersedes anything the politicians come up with or agree to.

The Pakistani military have always seen Afghanistan has an unstable region that posed a potential threat to Pakistan. Historically this was true. Massive invasions and tribal raids have been coming out of Afghanistan and into India (and Iran) for thousands of years. While India was always a potential (and unlikely) invader,  the threat from Afghanistan was real and constant. Most Pakistanis recognized this threat and there was never a lot of popular opposition towards the Pakistani military’s actions towards Afghanistan. That continues to the present. For the Afghan Taliban it means they are very dependent on the good will of the Pakistani military to survive. In fact, it was the Pakistani ISI that created the Afghan Taliban in the mid-1990s as a way to end the civil war that had been going on since the Russians left in the late 1980s.

The ISI found that it did not have enough control over the Taliban to prevent the September 11, 2001 attacks and the unwanted American intervention in Afghan and Pakistani affairs. The Americans and the Afghan Northern Alliance chased he Taliban out of Afghanistan by the end of 2001. The ISI made the best of the situation and provided the Afghan Taliban with a sanctuary in northwest Pakistan, just across the border from Helmand and Kandahar provinces, which was where most of the world’s heroin was produced and where most of the original Taliban (recruited in Pakistan refugee camps) came from. The drug gangs, which had provided the Taliban with most of their income during the late 1990s, continued to pay the Taliban after 2001 as both the drug gangs and Taliban survived because of support from the Pakistani military. That support included allowing essential chemicals (for converting opium into heroin) into Afghanistan and allowing most of the heroin to be exported via Pakistani ports (naval and air) to world markets. The exiled Taliban provided the muscle while Taliban leaders maintained their 1990s relationships with the drug gang leaders and the Pushtun tribes.

Pakistan sees itself as the main beneficiary of the ongoing Afghan peace talks between the Pakistan-controlled Taliban, the United States and the elected Afghan government. The stated objective of the Taliban is to replace the current government with a Taliban controlled religious dictatorship. That means there will be no peace and any Pakistanis with knowledge of what has gone on in Afghanistan since the 1970s can see how this will end. Worst case is all foreign troops leaving and foreign aid is withdrawn because of the corruption. In that situation Afghanistan returns to its traditional (over the last few thousand years) condition. That means the country/region we call Afghanistan gets picked apart by more powerful neighboring states. Traditionally this has meant Persians and Indians. Now it is Iranians and Pakistanis, who are basically Indian Moslems who demanded their own Moslem state when India was created in 1947. Pakistan is broke and economically dependent on China. The Chinese don’t want their numerous investments in Pakistan attacked by Islamic terrorists, tribal separatists or anyone else. Pakistan justifies (to China) the expense of meddling in Afghanistan because it is necessary to control the Pushtun minority in Pakistan. There are twice as many Pushtun in Pakistan as in Afghanistan but Pakistan has a much larger non-Tribal (Punjabi and Sindi) population so the Pushtuns are only 15 percent of all Pakistanis. The Baluchi tribes account for another four percent. That makes about 19 percent of Pakistanis tribal and not particularly happy with the Chinese presence or the brutal treatment of tribal people in Pakistan. Extending that brutal control to Afghanistan won’t improve anything in Pakistan.

Iran, which historically controlled, when it was profitable to do so, much of western Afghanistan did so at the same times the northern Indians controlled eastern Afghanistan and Kabul. This foreign occupation was expensive because the tribes were constantly fighting the foreigners and each other. When the once lucrative Silk Road trade route between China and the Middle East/Europe fell out of use by the 1700s because of cheaper travel via European ships, Afghanistan went back to being a region without a unifying government. That changed in the 18th century when the various tribes agreed to declare a kingdom of Afghanistan mainly to keep the foreigners out. A Pushtun king in Kabul justified his job by negotiating with foreigners and providing a neutral space for quarreling tribes to send leaders to try and negotiate an end to a mutually destructive tribal feuds. Taliban leaders say they want to unite Afghanistan as a caliphate (Islamic religious dictatorship). That fact that caliphates have never worked well or maintained any unity for long is seen as irrelevant. To the Taliban it is God’s Will that Afghanistan become a caliphate. It’s one of those non-negotiable things that kaffirs (non-Moslems) simply cannot comprehend.

Neither Pakistan nor Iran see any profit in annexing adjacent portions of Afghanistan. While Pakistan, or at least the Pakistani military, is content to “tax” Afghan drug operations that need access to Pakistan, the Iranians, like most civilians in the region, see the opium and heroin coming out if Afghanistan as something evil that much be fought. That means the Afghan/Iran border has long been a combat zone between Iranian security forces and armed Afghan drug smugglers.

Americans want to be done with the military and economic costs of having troops in Afghanistan. The problem with that attitude is that Americans can leave Afghanistan but Afghanistan won’t leave America. The heroin production will continue and major Islamic terrorist groups will have a sanctuary from which to plan attacks on the West, especially the United States.

Golden Opportunities

While the government is restricted by laws, mainly foreign and international, when seeking revenue, the Taliban and other outlaw organizations profit from all those laws by ignoring them. While the major source of Taliban revenue is money from drug gangs for protecting production and distribution (to foreign markets) of heroin, the Taliban seeks similar “protection for pay” arrangements wherever there is a profitable enterprise. It does not matter if the enterprise is legal or not, they all need protection from the ever-present violence that is an ancient Afghan tradition. As a result the warlords and gangsters collect more in “taxes” from Afghans and foreigners than the government does. About $5-6 billion a year is collected throughout the country and the government gets about 40 percent of it. The rest goes to various gangsters and warlords, with the Taliban taking the majority of the illegal taxes.

Pakistan plays a key role in the Afghan illegal mining operations, providing a reliable source of equipment and a means of exporting the gems and ores. Despite over a decade of Afghan government efforts to introduce large scale commercial mining operations, local politics and lack of law and order in the countryside ensured that all of these efforts failed.

The lack of government support has not prevented mining activity in Afghanistan to grow. From very little in 2001, mining now produces nearly a billion dollars of sales a year. Nearly all of it is illegal and similar to the outlaw mining so common in much of Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. Criminals and legitimate businesses in Pakistan make the illegal mining profitable for all concerned, except the Afghan government.

There is little foreign economic investment because of the violence and corruption. Even China, which is very active in illegal mining and logging activities in central Africa and southeast Asia, is dissuaded by the hostile atmosphere in Afghanistan.

The government initially made it possible for foreign firms to establish mining operations in areas that were long known to have gold deposits. It takes expertise and a lot of money to build commercial mining operations that can extract the gold profitably. But these commercial mines attract enterprising locals who realize the foreigners have located a major gold deposit and the locals will often dig tunnels near the commercial operation and extract what gold they can. This is profitable enough, especially during the cold weather when other work is not available, to attract a lot of rural Afghans. In the last decade hundreds of illegal miners were killed or injured when their the poorly built tunnels collapsed. These legal and illegal mining operations also attract the Taliban who try to extort payments to protect the miners from Taliban attacks or government interference.

The mining potential for Afghanistan was enormous and a 2015 study of the new and booming mining industry revealed that the biggest obstacle to making this effort grow was corruption. Most of the contracts for foreign investment in massive mining projects have gone to well-connected government and tribal officials. This includes a few people with Taliban connections. That means these enterprises will be poorly run and constantly plundered by special interests. In the meantime, there is a lot of illegal mining going on. There are over 2,000 illegal mines operating throughout Afghanistan and these have grown so numerous that legal mining has declined. The major problem legal mining encounters is poor security and infrastructure which is sustained by lots of corruption. Small, private mines increased production, as did illegal mines. Since 2010 there have been efforts to get large-scale legal mining operations going. While there are believed to be over a trillion dollars of minerals underground, you need an honest and efficient government before foreign firms will invest tens of billions to set up the large mines and build roads and railroads to get the goodies out, and equipment in. These mines would generate tremendous revenue for the government and lots of good jobs. That won't happen as long as the drug gangs dominate the south and corruption is the norm.

This is actually old news, as there have been several surveys of the country since World War II and the mineral deposits were, at least among geologists, common knowledge. Some have tried to get large scale operations going and all, so far, have failed. But because of American encouragement in 2010 the Afghan government called for foreign firms to make offers. There was some interest but the mining companies soon encountered the same fate of past efforts (corruption and lack of infrastructure). Meanwhile the small-scale mines continue with the expensive assistance of the criminal underground.

While a few large gangs and warlords control the heroin business, there are other illegal enterprises available to local hustlers. Illegal mining has proved to be the most popular alternative to illegal drug production and smuggling. Most Afghans disapprove of the opium and heroin production because it has created over two million addicts in Afghanistan and even more in Pakistan and Iran. While illegal mining entails some risk of death, that is considered much less a problem than drug addiction and misery and shame this brings to the family of the addicts.

September 22, 2020: About 81,000 Afghan refugees returned from Iran in July. Far fewer returned from Pakistan. In the last year half a million refugees returned, over 9o percent of them from Iran, with a small but growing number from Turkey and Western nations deporting illegal migrants. About half the returnees from Iran are being forced out.

 

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