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July 17, 2009 / jeni

The Dorronsoro Report on Afghanistan: But What About Criminality?

You should read Gilles’ Dorronsoro’s new Carnegie paper on The Taliban’s Winning Strategy in Afghanistan. It’s provocative, informed and does not shy away from tough recommendations. It’s gotten a lot of attention for two of its arguments: first, that the Taliban are not a loosely connected umbrella group but a coordinated revolutionary movement operating on a national basis; and second, the US should focus on preventing Taliban expansion in the north and around Kabul rather than reinforcing a more or less doomed mission in the south and east.

Dorronsoro doesn’t claim to address the sources of Taliban revenue or the role of criminality in the conflict so I suppose it’s a bit snarky to note the general lack of such information in the report — except that given his access and insights, and his refreshingly straightforward approach, it would be interesting to see his take on these issues included.

He does offer a few points relevant to our focus, while noting generally the problems of corruption and the lack of police and judicial processes. He also offers this pointed critique with respect to international aid:

International aid, which is part of a war economy, has created a rentier society where foreign money is considered an entitlement. In some places, people rely on foreign subsidies (of which a small part is directed to infrastructural development) distributed by the PRTs or other international bodies. Far from appeasing social tensions, this has created high expectations, growing discontent, and a great deal of local jealousy between communities. In addition, the insurgency has benefited as much as the population from the influx of money through extortion.

Interestingly, he disputes a claim we have often seen — that the Taliban rely heavily on paid fighters. Dorronsoro writes: “The insurgency accepts heavy losses, which contradicts the claim that a majority of the Taliban are motivated by money.”

I’m not sure about this. This logic might hold true if Taliban foot soldiers were more like traditional mercenaries — offering their services in a competitive marketplace, motivated mainly by profit and highly incentivised to participate in lower-risk situations. But from the accounts I have read, the men who fight with the Taliban for money do so precisely because they don’t have any other options (no jobs, no way of leaving the country, etc). If the choice is between occasionally working for the Taliban or starving, then the Taliban will seem a better option even with a high risk of death or injury.

Dorronsoro seems pretty confident in his assertion, so I’d be interested in seeing what others might think on this issue.

One Comment

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  1. Stephane / Jul 20 2009 09:13

    I am no specialist on this, but my intuitive feeling would be that one could obviously have different reasons (religious fanatism, hatred of “Occupying evil foreign forces”, a need for recognition, prestige or power, or/and a sense of duty to your nation/ethnic group.) for accepting a strong risk of death.

    And as Jeni said if desperate enough money could definetly be one reason.
    In peacetime in countries experiencing harsh economic and social conditions people accept for sometime very little money to work in high risk and horrendous enviroments, or engage in criminal activities, because of lack of other opportunities. And it seems to me “normal” that in Afghanistan which has very very limited opportunities for making a living, that people would choose to fight for money, even if it means risking your life.

    Saying that “The insurgency accepts heavy losses, which contradicts the claim that a majority of the Taliban are motivated by money.” seems a simplistic conclusion for me. But maybe that claim is backed up by interviews of Taliban fighters or any other data?

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