To understand why America and its allies are losing the war in Afghanistan, consider the story behind one deadly attack. On July 6, in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz, a powerful improvised explosive device, or IED, detonated under the wheels of a U.S. humvee. Four soldiers died, as did their translator and a bystander. The makeshift bomb was assembled with goods from the local bazaar. The man who placed it was probably paid the going rate of $750, according to government officials, or more if he captured video proof of dead soldiers. And though the local Taliban covered his expenses and fees, the cash very likely came from money donated by the international community to rebuild Afghanistan's roads, bridges, clinics and schools.
[...] "The Taliban obtains revenue from a variety of sources, including extortion of funds from both legitimate and unlawful activity," says David Cohen, the Treasury's assistant secretary for terrorist financing. Major General Michael Flynn, senior military intelligence official at NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan stresses Mafia-like activities such as extortion and kidnapping for ransom. "I would say that there is more money going into the pockets of local leaders [of the insurgency] from criminal activities than there is from narcotics money," he says.
It's important to remember that the Afghan insurgency is not a cohesive movement but rather a loose affiliation of groups united by a common goal: the expulsion of foreign troops. Provincial rebel leaders are left largely to make their own plans and find their own funding. Drug money is more likely to go to national leaders of the insurgency, like Mullah Omar, who provide guidance and training for local groups. Local commanders, on the other hand, "absolutely raise their own funds through criminal activities to pay for food, IEDs, weapons and salaries," says Flynn. The billions of dollars spent on reconstruction projects are far too tempting a target to pass up. As a result, the Taliban, once an organization of seminary students seeking to establish a caliphate, is embracing criminal elements that feed on insecurity for financial gain. Together with poor governance, ineffective policing and a weak justice system, the nexus between the Taliban and crime is becoming dangerously entrenched in Afghan society. "The Taliban are acting like a broad network of criminal gangs that enables them to utilize different sources of income," says Ahmad Nader Nadery of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Afghans are learning the hard way how difficult it is to deal with this level of criminality. The day after the American soldiers died in Kunduz, Jan's construction site was hit. A bulldozer and 12 trucks were torched and two of the drivers caught by the Taliban and held for ransom. Jan, 72, with closely cropped hair, a thick white beard and a string of amber prayer beads, claims he was targeted in retaliation for not paying off the Taliban, even though the provincial governor and district governor say he did. Not that Jan would have refused — he says the Taliban never asked. "If the Taliban had asked for $100,000, I would have gladly paid them," says Jan. "This equipment was worth $230,000." What probably happened, says Abdul Wahid Omerkhil, district governor of Char Dara, where the attack took place, is that Jan paid off the wrong people. "It usually happens like that. You pay one group and you don't pay the other, and they will burn you."
[...] "The problem is that the people here are demanding a school or a road or a bridge, and the foreigners want to help," Omer says. "If we don't build, the people complain, but if we do, this problem arises. Either way, the Taliban benefits." A foreign official in Kunduz who asked not to be identified says, "No one is going to come save these construction companies. The Taliban know that the international community is concerned about security, but they also know it wants to pursue development as much as possible. So extortion is the easiest crime."
It's not just the big foreign-aid projects that get hit. Local businesses are victims too. In Kandahar, says a businessman who asked for anonymity out of fear of Taliban retribution, even the smallest shops pay a "business license" to the Taliban. [...]
There is some disagreement about what to do about this or even if anything can be done, but they all miss the most obvious solution:
A 'Quote of the Day' from "Obama's Next Afghan Move" by Joe Klein in Time:
"Last week I spoke to a couple of Army Rangers who had just engaged the enemy," Mullen told me. "They said it was like fighting the Marines. The Taliban were well trained, better organized, much tougher fighters than they'd been in the past."
Rangers are tough bastards, but if they had fought the Marines they most likely wouldn't be in any shape to talk about it.
Dexter Filkins, NYT:
The situation on the battlefield is difficult on its own. But it is, of course, inevitably bound up with the political stalemate in Kabul. As American commanders and diplomats have said repeatedly here, no amount of troops can substitute for a lack of political consensus among ordinary Afghans.
In this way, the politics in Kabul and the fighting in the south feed off of each other, for better or worse.
“If people decide that we could not give them anything through the democratic process, then the insurgency will be strengthened,” Mr. Abdullah said. “And then the United States will need to bring more troops and more resources here — and for what?”
That’s a question that President Obama, General McChrystal and, ultimately, the American people, will have to decide.