The Taliban as Mafia

Here’s what I wrote the other day:

Now they [The Taliban] are more like a mafia, in which case syndicate is a better term, but one that works against the grain of the US’ own policy in the region.  [i.e. You usually don’t send aerial bombardments and tanks against The Cosa Nostra].

I’d like to flesh this out.

The Taliban–both Afghani and Pakistani versions thereof–are now bankrolled by opium production.  The Taliban run protection rackets and control the narcotics trade as their primary source of income. Supplanted in spots by kidnappings and the selling of human beings as well as the gun trade.  Just like the mafia.

The Taliban claim to protect an ethnic minority from imposition by a national government–whether Sicilians against the Italian state or Italians in NYC.  The Taliban hold up the banner of the Pashtun peoples.  Yet at the same time they terrorize the population they claim to defend.   Their “protection” comes at a steep price.

In order to claim legitimacy among the populace, they not only defend the ethnic group, they claim to defend the religious commitments of those people.  Think of the Italian Mafia’s relationship to Roman Catholicism here.  In the Taliban’s case, it is a virulent, extremist Sunni version of Islam.

The Italian (particularly Sicilian) Mafia began in many ways as a revolt against the landed aristocracy/tribal traditions.  Their early leaders may not have come from original aristocratic circles, and bought/bribed/fought their way into the local power structure diminishing the power of the old guard.  In the process they usually ended up becoming another form of aristocracy/hierarchy–i.e. dons.  Think of Vito Corleone killing and taking over the extortion ring of Don Fanucci in Godfather II.

The reported head of the Pakistani Taliban Beitullah Mehsud is not from an aristocratic family in the FATA. He was lower class and has rose to power by executing traditional tribal leaders who won’t succumb to his rule a little like Vito’s son Michael.  [Remember that Vito was born to a lower-class family and had to make a name for himsef].

What we call The Taliban is in reality a loose federation of families, clans, tribes, in a dense network of alliances and blood feuds, with a very complicated hierarchy dependent on power/prestige.  Again see the wiki on the structure of the Mafia for the obvious parallel.

The Mafia usually did not take frontal power but would simply buy off (through threats, bribes) local politicans.  Read Nicholas Schmidle’s brilliant account of the FATA region in the Af-Pak border area.  Sound familiar?  Whatever formal government/police/judicial system exists, the real power lies with this more informal and usually criminal form of practice.  “Some day you will do a favor for me.”

Very intriguingly the Mafia wiki tells me that after the Allied Invasion of Sicily, the Mafia sprang back to life after having been ruthlessly (though successfully) crusheed by The Fascists. In the language of Thoams Barnett, the war was won but not the peace, leading to a loss of local governance, exploited by criminal networks. Sound familiar in Afghanistan or the tribal regions?

Not to mention when public funding does come to an area (like Sicily in the 50s) the construction business is co-opted/run by guess who?  See Jersey (New), state in America for the answer.

If the US is going to give money to Pakistan for them to use on civilian projects in the Northwest Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas who do you think they are going to have to deal with? You’ve seen GoodFellas–you don’t make the payment on time, an “accident” happens and your restaurant burns down.

The Sicilian mafia when faced with coordinated government opposition retailiated with urban terror attacks, just as the Pakistani Taliban (and its ally al-Qaeda) have done with attacks on military installations, convoys, in addition to government political targets (the assassination of Benazir Bhutto), as well as civilian targets like the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.

The scene in FATA is (as Schmidle says) right out of the US Wild West of the 19th century–exactly the point at which the Mafia formalized in Italy by the way.  The approach of the US to train/equip the Pakistani Army for counterinsurgency is meant to “pacify” the region on the analogy of the US Army fighting the Native Indians in the West after the Civil War complete with “military outposts” and “population-centric warfare–gotta protect those covered wagons.  [In the case  of Pakistan there are no migrants to follow up the “civilization” after the genoicdal slaughter.  This is a recipe for intended Pashtun “pacification” which I’m worried has some serious potential blowback attached to it however much The Taliban are not liked in the region.]

The money set up for tribal region infrastructure, governance,and construction would be along the lines of the urbanization projects of the 20th century.  In each of those cases, Mafia were able to shift from rural to urban contexts.  Presumably in today’s globalized economic environments, those distinctions are less of importantce (rural/urban).

Over time a buildup of governance takes place and the only way to deal with Mafia is through anti-crime procedures (i.e. RICO, Witness Protection).  So long as we are still in the 19th century in FATA this won’t be the case.  It will still basically just be war and the consequences will be bloody and move in fits and starts. At some point a good number of these Taliban dudes will have to be worked with however unsavory an idea that is.

The Pakistani government had a deal with the Pashtun tribal chiefs, but that has largely broken down.   Nothing has yet replaced it in the back and forth that has been army incursions into the region (earlier resutling in serious losses but now with more advanced US backing some more tactical victories though no real strategic followup), periodic ad hoc treaties with the Taliban (only to be usually quickly broken), and the like.

The Mafia analogy is both disheartening and yet in some ways I think more hopeful.  On the depressing side, the fight against Mafia is a long term one, in fact one that is never ever completed.  On the plus side, over that long period there can be successes in limiting their influence or the spread of their violence to civilian population.  And moreover, this fight has been done before.  Again this helps reduce the fear of this as some alien Muslim ideological reality and see it (structurally) as something very familiar in our history.  Not extremely difficult, even horrific for the people involved, but not unknown in history.  Not unbeatable by any stretch.

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5 thoughts on “The Taliban as Mafia

  1. Legalize Poppies.

    This can be the A+ #1 thing that the US could do in the region to generate good will among the population. The US wouldn’t even need to buy the poppies, just allow Bayer or whomever to purchase them (if the price is a hair high (exceptionally unlikely) then a small subsidy wouldn’t be in appropriate as an anti-Taliban measure).

    Give the folks a legit outlet for making money with a legit corporation rather than with Mafia types and see what happens.

    Saying “hey, while we’re over there, we should fight the War on Drugs too!” was one of the stupidest (though, sadly, not *THE* stupidest) things we’ve done in the last decade.

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  2. Could FARC be a similar comparison? Colombia’s military campaign against them (along with political measures aimed at allowing commanders for FARC and the AUC to return to civilian life) has been largely successful, even though before Uribe was elected, many experts thought it had no chance.

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  3. Zak,

    I think the FARC is a good analogy. It’s one Peter Bergen uses. The question is whether over time, like the FARC which started as a theoretically Marxist ideological group, whether the Taliban go completely post-ideological and only crime. The FARC is not any way Marxist anymore. But perhaps the hanging on to the roots (like the Italian RC Mafia connection) is a longer lasting play?

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