In some ways Afghanistan resembles a gang war. It's a bit like a Crips versus Bloods sort of thing only with the cops siding with one gang against the other. A battle between gangs wearing reversible clothes, one side red, the other side blue.
From everything I've managed to read, Afghanistan was and remains a warlord society. Safely-retired general Rick Hillier spoke warmly of these warlords even calling them some of the finest fighters he'd ever met. That's Rick for you, always looking on the bright side.
There are plenty of lesser warlords but the big ones you could count on two hands. Karzai is one. Others include Gul Agha Shirzai, Dostum, Fahim, Hekmatyar and Haqqani. Some are Crips, some are Bloods. The trick is figuring out which is which at any given time. There are a couple of traits that appear common to Afghan warlords - cruelty and treachery. They keep one eye on which way the wind is blowing and they have a habit of changing sides on whim. It is said there doesn't exist a major warlord in Afghanistan who hasn't, at one time or another, been allied with or at war with every other warlord.
The point I'm trying to make is that you're not going to find a lot of clean hands in Afghanistan. Finding an ally over there often is very much a "my enemy's enemy" sort of thing. You can't be too picky or you might wind up allied with nobody and, when you're babysitting a civil war, that's not a good thing.
There's a fascinating article in this month's Harper's magazine entitled The Master of Spin Boldak, undercover with Afghanistan's drug trafficking Border Police, by Canadian freelance writer Matthieu Aikins. It relates Aikins travels from Pakistan into Afghanistan and his meeting with Colonel Abdul Razik, the leader of a tribal militia and head of the border police in a region spanning Kandahar and Helmand provinces. Just 30-years old, Colonel Razik is the most powerful Afghan Border Police commander in the two provinces that produce 80% of Afghanistan's opium crop that, in turn, furnishes 90% of the world market for illicit opiads.
With the collapse of the central government in the early 1990s, Kandahar descended into anarchy. Local warlords divided up and pillaged the province. Even the city of Kandahar itself was split among several commanders, and throughout the province roads were strangled by hundreds of checkpoints at which theft, rape, and murder were common.
It was in reaction to such depredations by the warlords that the Taliban emerged, in 1994, from the districts around Kandahar city. Their first major victory was the capture of Spin Boldak on October 12, 1994, an event encouraged by the Pakistani trucking mafia, who saw the group as a means of clearing the roads north to Central Asia.
Canadian forces have been active in Spin Boldak since they arrived in Kandahar province. As Aiken points out, ISAF commanders have come to rely on Colonel Razik despite his involvement in smuggling and drug trafficking because he opposes the Taliban. They go along to get along but, it may be a short-sighted policy.
A grim irony of the rising pro-Taliban sentiments in the south is that the United States and its allies often returned to power the same forces responsible for the worst period in southerners’ memory—the post–Soviet “mujahideen nights.” In the case of Gul Agha Shirzai (now governor of Nangarhar but still a major force in Kandahar), the same man occupied the exact same position; in the case of Razik, nephew of the notorious Mansour, it is the restoration of an heir. By installing these characters and then protecting them by force of arms, the ISAF has come to be associated, in the minds of many Afghans, with their criminality and abuses. “We’re doing the Taliban’s work for them,” said one international official with years of experience in counternarcotics here....
“We were facing the worst-case scenario in 2006—a conventional takeover by Taliban forces,” said Brigadier General Jonathan Vance, the Canadian commander of ISAF forces in Kandahar Province. He was proud that his country’s small contingent had been able to hold the insurgency more or less at bay. But he admitted that the life of the average Kandahari had become less secure as the Taliban began to tighten their grip on Kandahar city. “I don’t have the capacity to make sure someone doesn’t rip their guts out at night.”
Military officers like General Vance find themselves in a peculiar fix when confronted with characters like Abdul Razik. These entrenched figures hold posts or wear uniforms whose legitimacy must be respected. But many of those who maintain their power through corruption and coercion were originally installed by the U.S. military—a fact not lost on Afghans, who tend to have longer memories than Westerners here on nine- or twelve-month rotations.
I asked General Vance if he was aware that Razik was directly involved in the drug trade. “Yes,” he said. “We are completely aware that there are a number of illicit activities being run out of that border station.” He had few illusions about Razik, with whom he interacts directly. “He runs effective security ops that are designed to make sure that the business end of his life runs smoothly, and there is a collateral effect on public order,” he told me. “Ideally, it should be the other way around. The tragedy of Kandahar is that it’s hard to find that paragon of civic virtue.”
The irony of our "mission" to Afghanistan is that we truly cannot defend the ordinary people and the people we can defend, the corrupt and criminal class, aren't worth it.
When he announced the mission to Kandahar, the Big Cod, Rick Hillier, puffed himself up and said our soldiers were going to "kill scumbags." He left out the part about only killing the scumbags on one side while backing the scumbags on the other.