Afghanistan Between Opium and Taliban
Yes, there still is a war in Afghanistan. Seven were killed in it on Sunday, and over 40 on Saturday. Accusations against the US are swirling of having killed innocent civilians. Meanwhile, a suicide bomber wounded 3 British troops.
There has been much less trouble in post-war Afghanistan than in post-war Iraq. This result comes in large part because most Afghans, including a lot of Pushtuns, despised the Taliban. It turns out that the Iraqi Baathist Socialist Party had more grass roots, at least among Sunni Arabs. In contrast, the large Pushtun Taliban were not liked by a lot of Pushtuns. A city like Qandahar was relatively cosmopolitan and chafed under the restrictions of the mostly rural Taliban fighters, with their almost Monty Python puritanism.
But there were districts, tribes, and regions where the Taliban were in fact popular, and these have not gone away. Indeed, over time some of the Taliban (and perhaps other disgruntled local forces) have regrouped.
This minor revival does not matter in most of the country. The Tajiks (who speak a form of Persian) were always die hard opposed to Talibanism, as were the Hazara Shiites for their own reasons. And as for the 10 percent of the population in the north that is Uzbek, well, they massacred thousands of Taliban in Mazar when the unwary seminarians took the city and let their guard down.
So the Taliban revival is a mostly Pushtun phenomenon, affecting places like Hhost and Qandahar, old al-Qaeda stomping grounds. A US base near Khost gets so much enemy fire that it is called Rocket City.
The British are doubling their forces in that area and planning to do search and destroy missions against the Taliban. It seems pretty clear that they are hoping that this move will allow them to draw down their forces in southern Iraq, who are in constant danger of being massacred by millions of angry Shiites. The question is whether they are jumping from the ffrying pan into the fire. Are the US forces in Afghanistan hoping to withdraw in favor fo the British and the Canadians (yes)?
Warlordism and a revived poppy trade are intertwined with the problems in the south. The small Taliban revival is being funded by opium and heroin. Half of Afghanistan’s GDP is probably from the drug trade, and there is danger of narco-terrorism on a Colombian scale. Some of the clashes we’ve heard about may be in reaction to poppy eradication campaigns, which are deeply unpopular with farmers, who are seldom properly compensated. Eradication efforts are not going well.
Afghanistan could be an important route for revived overland Asian trade. You could theoretically drive a truck from New Delhi to Beijing via Kabul and Tashkent. But India charges that Pakistan is blocking this development.
If the US had not run off to the Iraq quagmire, and had stayed the course in Afghanistan and properly rebuilt it, we could have completely uprooted al-Qaeda and the Taliban, put an end to the poppy trade, and created an economic efflorescence that linked major Asian powers in the kind of trade networks that discourage war and instability.
Instead, Afghanistan is still a mess, and Iraq is ever more of one. Bush has the opposite of the Midas touch– everything he touches turns to rubble.