Afghanistan: The Not-So-Obvious Problems

One of the pervading myths about Afghanistan under Western occupation is that the northern part of the country — once controlled by the Northern Alliance — is peaceful, settled, and developing. To see this in more detail, Afghanistanica takes us to Taloqan, the capital of Takhar Province, which borders Tajikistan:

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting just published an article on the “peace” in a recent article subtitled “For residents of the northern province of Takhar, there are worse things than the Taliban.” Apparently, the things that are worse than the Taliban are their local armed commanders and their elected representative.

He goes on to quote a news story about how the local governor, Piram Qul, who was elected and enjoys good relations with Kabul, abducts the wives of dissidents, and occasionally murders and rapes their children. It is all a holdover from the local militias and warlords who once ruled the area as a part of the Northern Alliance. When confronted, Qul claimed he was only going after the Taliban and their organizers. Afghanistanica responds:

That’s right, Piram Qul is a brave Mujahid fighting against the Taliban and their local sympathizers, who, inexplicably, are ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks…

I remember a story about some low-rent village mullah who supposedly started his rise to power by killing a local commander who was fond of raping the locals. He started some sort of group. What was it called? Oh yeah, I remember. It was called the “Taliban.”

Indeed, the real Taliban doesn't seem to care much for the North, seeing as to how Taloqan was the closest it ever came to full domination of the country. The corruption on display in the north, however, is a problem throughout the countryFurther south, in the east between Kabul and Pakistan, the Taliban remains as pervasive as ever, and they rely on this corruption to get things done:

So Al-Jazeera embeds a reporter with the 50 Talibs who roam around Kapisa (yup, Kapisa), buy guns from the National Police, and feel the love from the locals…

So the locals warmly greet 50 armed men? To be honest, if 50 well-armed soldiers walked up to my house I would greet them warmly as well, whatever their affiliation. NATO troops now understand this very well. I have heard numerous soldiers remark about the smiling villagers who are probably cooperating with the Taliban. And then there are the times where villagers “warmly greet” the Taliban and then gladly tell Captain America all about where the Talibs are hiding.

These village folks have both the hospitality and deception down to a fine art. It’s a survival tactic that has surely served them well for the last few hundred years or so.

However, pointing out these sorts of problems got Governor Murad fired. Corruption and ethnic favoritism is a serious problem, however: Fahim Khairy claims the Afghan Mellat, a powerful Pashtun nationalist party run by Finance Minister Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi, is on nothing less than a mission of ethnic cleansing:

Anwar Ul-Haq Ahady, who heads the Afghan Mellat and current Finance Minister of Afghanistan, has been in a position to influence the Karzai administration in general as well as Karzai himself to take an increasingly blatant and adamant ethno-racist shift toward the ethnic domination of Afghanistan by the Pashtun people…

Though originally designated to highlight a specific range of Pashtuns, the idea of the Afghan Mellat has, over time, developed into a dangerous, over-encompassing ideal, a socio-political phenomenon that extends beyond an organized entity and no longer limited by the structural definitions of a political party. This Afghan Mellat mentality that is prevalent among Pashtuns defines their atrocious ideals and promotes their perceptions on the socio-political status of Afghanistan which has essentially proven to be hypocritical, diabolic, immoral, destructive as well as violent as depicted by its history.

Those are strong words. I'm frankly not in any position to mediate an ethnic dispute like this, but the frustration Khairy feels is certainly widespread, and spreading. This frustration isn't limited to Afghans; Westerners as well have become frustrated both with how slow and stilting the progress, and even with how support seems to be drying up at home. A police adviser on tour somewhere in the countryside (he cannot say where, as his operation is ongoing), related the following anecdote:

I've sat in Shuras as the village elders pled their case, insisting that they hadn't seen any Taliban in months, only to have a citizen on the outer reaches of the circle stand up and throw the “bullshit flag,” recounting a recent event. That changed the song… it became, “What are we to do? They will kill us if we tell you anything about them.” Lying is an art form in Afghanistan. At times it seems as if everyone is lying about at least some part of what they are telling you. Even the estimates of enemy strength are basically lies…

There is a lot of work to do, and some of my counterparts on another PMT gave their lives recently while doing it. The entire team. When you are out there all alone and things go bad, they have a tendency to go horribly bad… there is still a war here. I think that we are winning the war, but we haven't won it yet.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing movement to further draw down the piddling force in Afghanistan. Peter Marton reports that there is actually doubt that the UK's withdrawal from Iraq was a good move:

In The Times Online Iain Duncan Smith (former Tory leader) has come up with an article telling readers: “Don't leave Iraq: Quit Afghanistan instead.” I have an instinctive answer to suggestions like that, but I actually kind of like that when someone takes up the challenge to try and, using rational arguments, convince me, as well as people in general, of something that seems wrong, in the sense of countering whatever is claimed to be self-evident at a point in time, and I admire those who then point to arguments I never would have thought of… to say that “It is strange that, at the moment General Petraeus is demonstrating that the surge in US forces is yielding results in Baghdad and beyond, the British seem to quit the field. It sends all the wrong signals to the insurgents and Iran,” well… I never knew Britain was fighting al-Qaida in Southern Iraq.

Meanwhile, over in Canada, there is a fierce debate raging over whether or not their troops—which have picked up an out-sized proportion of the fighting near Kandahar—should stay of leave. Peter highlights one of the warlords who has allied himself with the Canadian forces, but may lose out big time should domestic political concerns force the Canadians to pull out. As he put it:

it might be difficult to get people to decisively ally with you if your support to them hinges on by-elections in a small town they'll only have a chance to see in person if they persuade you to evacuate them and the surviving part of their family once you decide to leave their homeland behind.

Ouch. But the U.S. doesn't have its head on straight either: whether it's starving the already-shortchanged troops of the men they need or finally waking up to the shortfalls caused by the Iraq war, merican doesn't seem any more reliable than the Europeans at this point. Which is too bad, as Afghanistan really does deserve a chance to succeed and thrive apart from the petty criminals that, for the time being at least, serve only to drag it back to the stone age it is so desperately trying to escape.


  • There is another problem in Afghanistan that is undermining stability; opium. Your article mentions corruption in the Afghan government but opium seems to be fueling the chaos in the region.
    Poppy cultivation has increased almost 50 percent between 2005 and 2006, according to a UN study. Strangely enough, the Taliban wiped out almost all opium production from 2000 – 2001. But now after coalition bombings and occupation, the opium fields are back and corrupt officials, smugglers, and the Taliban all stand to benefit.
    Jon Lee Anderson wrote an article for the New Yorker about how the government has implemented its own drug eradication program but have met resistance from the remnants of the Taliban which is slowly rebuilding itself. The Taliban is working with opium traders and farmers, offering protection in exchange for cash. President Hamid Karzai said opium trade is one of the factors for the Taliban’s resurgence in power.
    I would argue that the opium trade is the biggest not-so-obvious problem, simply because it is not widely mentioned in the media, but the rebirth of the Taliban is reported.
    The Afghan government is becoming weakened with corruption fueled from the drug trade. The Taliban can enjoy a large income for their organization as well as growing support from Pakistan, whose weakening secular government may tilt the balance in the Taliban’s or even Bin Laden’s favor.

  • You’re absolutely right that opium is a serious problem in the country (I’ve written a ton about it on my other blog and in a few articles). I don’t know that I would consider it a so-called driving problem, however. I tend to see opium cultivation as a symptom–of poor governance, poor economic prospects, lousy security, and corruption–rather than a cause.

    But you really can argue it either way, so I also don’t think you’re wrong.

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