Merchant of Death
Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

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Afghanistan's Difficult Counterinsurgency
It is clear that the counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan (only now seriously beginning as a counterinsurgency effort) is in serious difficulty. As the New York Times reports, there is little actual support from the central government's police or military forces outside of Kabul.

Support for the war is dropping at home and among key allies, particularly Britain. The most optimistic assessment that the commanding general there, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, can come up with is that the situation is serious but salvageable. Hardly the rose colored glasses.

But the underlying problem, as McChrystal and others know, is not the military, but the complete and utter incompetence of the Karzi regime, to which we are so tightly wedded.

The corrosive corruption and unwillingness/inability/blindness of the Karzi is what will be the ultimate demise of that war. A foreign fighting force cannot win unless a host government, viewed as legitimate by its people, is fighting the war as well. That is not the case in Afghanistan.

History should not be forgotten. What propelled the Taliban to power in 1996 was the public disgust with the corruption and state violence of that time. Transportation was impossible because of the multiple road blocks. Constant bribes made it impossible to rebuild the country or attract anything like foreign investment. Warlords fighting over poppy revenues and ethnic interests left the country a wreck.

The Taliban's appeal then, as now, is rooted in the promise of restoring order and eliminating corruption. It is a sad measure of how bad things are currently that the fact that the Taliban utterly failed at this the first time around is often ignored or that their reign of religious terror is viewed as preferable to the current situation.

The public knowledge that his close family members are among the largest heroin traffickers in the country make any pretense of eradication or a successful "kingpin" strategy (knocking off the top traffickers to break up large criminal organizations) a bad joke.

I am not an Afghanistan expert but have covered and studied numerous insurgencies and counter insurgencies over more than two decades and that is the one lesson I take away as a universal.

The unfettered power of local, regional and national officials to make people pay for basic services, the administration of "justice," or any other basic transaction, is the most destructive force that gives insurgents the oxygen they need to thrive.

The impunity granted officials who steal, rape and pillage their own population will undercut any "clear and hold" strategy because the people do not want the government to come in behind. And the government, if it does come in behind, comes to loot and pillage.

This is the fundamental dynamic that more troops, no matter how well they fight and what sacrifices they make, cannot address. It is the result, in part, of the neglect of Afghanistan during the previous administration, coupled with the general unwillingness of NATO troops to view the situation as a war. The exploding poppy trade has made all the worst elements, from the Taliban to Karzi-allied warlords, rich enough to finance their conflict for years to come.

All this adds up to the fact that changing tactics on the ground for U.S. troops fighting in hostile conditions, or even a major strategic initiative to win hearts and minds, will ultimately fail. Only the Afghan people and their frightfully short-sighted and greedy leadership, can make the changes necessary. If you can make the Taliban look good, you are not really fit to govern.
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