The Associated Press discovered this month that residents of Helmand province -- and presumably elsewhere in Afghanistan -- are “afraid to go out after dark because of marauding bands of thieves.” The key word is bands. This means organized gangs are harassing civilians in attempts to steal money and goods. This criminal activity is reportedly to be the result of a failure of the Americans and their allies to keep the Afghan populace safe from what is referred to as “crime and corruption.” At least that’s the AP’s reading of the situation.
Ah, for the good old days of the Taliban who cut off the hands of thieves they captured. At least, according to AP, that’s supposedly what one hears when visiting Helmand these days. These and other news sources report the local police are running protection rackets, taking bribes for minor offenses, and stealing when they can’t coerce voluntary payments. And this is all supposedly an indication of the futility of eleven years of war. The problem is that in many parts of Afghanistan it’s not far from the truth.
What is most disturbing is that none of this is new. It’s certainly not the fault of ISAF troops’ inadequacy in policing. That was never their primary job. NATO civilian leaders, however -- especially in the U.S. and UK -- tried hard to create the impression that the billions spent on war fighting also had a target of providing a framework of “civil improvement.” From the outset Afghanistan was seen as suffering from either strict Sharia justice by the Taliban and/or local law enforcement by warlords exploiting the population in exchange for keeping the peace.
The truth is that justice and policing were always a matter primarily in the hands of tribal councils; the Americans and British first arriving in 2001 well knew this. Punishments were meted out consistent with traditional guidelines by these local councils. Today this historic system has been disrupted by the growth of power and authority of policing mechanisms that begin with a corrupt central government and stretches down to the provinces and villages.
Power tends to be returned to the local authorities when they are backed by warlords with the strength to dominate their region and defy corrupt higher level official government interests. It’s simply a question of which “sovereign” can demand the fealty of each community. As this has been well reported on in the past, why is it that journalists are now “discovering” that it has been the inadequate efforts of the Americans and NATO that have not kept the ordinary citizens safe from crime and corruption?
The Taliban faced the same problems of law and order when they ruled, but they had the strict guidance and drastic punishments of their Islamic belief system to reduce the potential for unauthorized corruption. For those living on the lower rungs of the Afghan social order there is an expected price for an ordered life. It is traditional to pay a tax (zagat) to a tribal headman. In the same sense, it is accepted that profits from illegal opium poppy production are shared with political leaders in a farmer’s region.
It is no wonder production of poppies is favored over cotton or wheat, however. Cotton and other exportable products do not bring a return competitive with the acreage of opium poppies. The U.S./ NATO- subsidized government compensation for the difference then is “taxed” by the local authorities. The final sum is less than it is with the poppy crop. It is a matter of simple economics -- and hardly new.
Depending on the market at a given time, the return on poppy versus wheat production, for example, is in some estimates as high as four times in favor of the opium source. Helmand province produces about 60% of the product that is transformed into heroin and exported from Afghanistan. And according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), 90% of the world’s heroin is derived from Afghan production.
Journalists reporting on studies this year have conveniently decided to rediscover that Helmand is “the most dangerous and violent Afghan province.” (Statement by Ryan Evans of the Center for National Policy as quoted by AP.) Of course, the Taliban would fight the hardest to keep itself dominant there. And what is going to happen after 2014 that will change any of this when all combat capable U.S./NATO forces depart?
President Hamid Karzai must have been well aware of this when he was interviewed by NBC News on December 6 and said, “Part of the insecurity is coming from the structures that NATO and America created in Afghanistan.” He knows his assassinated brother, Wali, was one of those key contractors protecting NATO supply shipments through Taliban-infested territory. The Karzai family had well benefited from that particular “structure.”
The violent feudal environment in which most of Afghanistan exists is a truth that can not be ignored. To suggest that there is American/NATO culpability for the societal wilderness that is Afghanistan is an exercise of political convenience. Karzai is quite knowledgeable of his own inability to govern. As with most politicians, any fault or failure is someone else’s responsibility. He’ll certainly talk about that with President Obama in January at their White House meeting.
Perhaps Afghanistan was explained best by Karl Ernest Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac when they titled their excellent book on the “great game” in Central Asia, Tournament of Shadows. There is not much difference between today and what existed in the 19th century except that the killing in the shadows may be more easily seen. As has been said of other times and other places, only the names have changed.