A few thoughts here, relating to this article in the Sunday Herald (detailing problems in Wardak province, running through which you find a section of the Kabul-Kandahar road). In fact I'm reflecting for a start here on an AP report mentioned there, that came out in the previous days (it's just more convenient for me to link to the SH piece than to the AP one which I won't try to look up now). It's also a good occasion to touch upon some rather well-known phenomena in general (WRT corruption, the insurgency and road security), after which I'll still come back to the Sunday Herald in the end.
"News agency AP reported several days ago that checkpoint police in Wardak sometimes wear traditional robes so they can pass themselves off as civilians at the first sign of trouble."
These sort of issues are being discussed all the time - usually under the overarching theme of Afghan police corruption, fitting into a wider set of issues related to corruption in Afghanistan. What I see missing from assessments in general, which may, however, be read out from this excerpt above, is the causal connection between the insurgency and corruption itself. The usual underlying statements of the discussion are that insurgents just do what they do, while the Afghan government in general and the Afghan police in particular are making the error of behaving in a corrupt manner, in a kind of suicidal way, short-sightedly, in circumstances in which they act to the insurgents' advantage. Not without a basis, one theory of the geographical spread of the insurgency (the contagion of new areas) rests on the assumption that weak governance creates the grievances that subsequently provide ample ground for the intrusion of insurgents into a district. There is much empirical evidence one can offer here, but still I will argue that the picture is more complex. Contrary to the logic that the insurgency in many places appears partly because of corruption, I would say that sometimes, to a degree, corruption is generated directly or indirectly by the insurgency.
Of course, by far not all that's corrupt in Afghanistan nowadays is because of the insurgency. No way would I try to make such a naive statement. But the climate of fear generated in insurgency-struck areas doesn't encourage much else than looking to secure oneself as much as one can, in the short run. For an official, this can include taking bribes or asking for a protection racket. Also, since the local economy just cannot start to function normally, with bombs and assassinations keeping NGOs, aid officials and government out of a lot of areas, the generally bad prospects are also an incentive for trying to earn as much as you can - the rainy days are here, and it seems they are not going to be over soon.
Getting back to the excerpt from the SH piece, in this case you see policemen working "under cover," well, sort of, at a checkpoint, mostly in order to protect themselves from being killed as policemen. This opens up the opportunity for a "less benign" form of corruption for them (talking about less benign corruption does not entail that "benign corruption" or rather the "not purely and simply selfish, greedy corruption" of any kind is less destructive or less harmful for its victims.) A policeman can transform himself into a robber much more easily in conditions like those. And the security situation guarantees that there won't be many who could expose informal toll-taking (by bandits or policemen) easily.
As Graeme Smith noted in an article in The Globe and Mail:
"People who work for the government, or have any association with the foreign presence, now travel covertly on the main highways of southern, central, and eastern Afghanistan. They disguise themselves as rural peasants, carry no identification cards, and erase numbers from their cellphones that might connect them with the government."
The Taliban thus create an opportunity for themselves. They can capitalise on the context resulting partly from their actions. They can do things like this, when convenient:
"As an example of the rough justice meted out, he cited a robbery in late summer when eight trucks of wheat disappeared. The Taliban investigated, found the trucks and returned them to their owners. Militants shot the leader of the robbers in the head, and let the others go with severe beatings and after extracting promises that there would be no repeat offence. Other Taliban punishments include parading criminals with their faces daubed black or amputating the hands of robbers. "
The public perception that emerges as a result?
"One of the ways the Taliban are trying to broaden their appeal is by proving themselves better than the government at providing road security. It's a propaganda move aimed at people such as Del Aga, 40, a bus driver, who says the police have robbed him more often than bandits or insurgents. He usually doesn't slow his bus for men with guns because he's afraid of criminals, he said, but he feels obligated to stop for uniformed police with marked police trucks. “I stop for the police, and they rob my passengers,” he said.
Even when the police aren't directly implicated in the shakedowns, Afghans often blame the government forces for failing to stop them."
The impact of robberies can be dreadful on the lives of people who have to take huge risks if they want to join up with a working economy somewhere away from their home and then come back home with their earnings:
"Mohammed Amin, 52, a shopkeeper, said he was driving on a winter morning toward Kabul from Kandahar in a convoy of five buses when they were stopped by a roadblock. Criminals searched all the buses, he said, taking money, cellphones, and other valuables from the passengers. A man sitting beside him lost all the money he'd saved from working six months in Pakistani coal mines."
That is why the Taliban are playing the roads as one of their royal options. It's a particulary good opportunity for them to make the Afghan security forces look powerless at best.
Any downsides to this approach for them? There actually are some. When the Taliban look to aggravate the choking effect on ISAF logistics in the south, they have to break the road connections, and that holds harsh consequences regarding hearts and minds they look to win:
"“We had the infrastructure attacked – which was a first, you know, the insurgents had not destroyed bridges before,” he (Brigadier-General Richard Blanchette - P.M.) said. “The farmers couldn't bring their products any more, and it choked the economy.”"
Also, the insurgents' vigilance is not reassuring for people who fear they may be mistakenly executed (still with Graeme Smith here):
"Taliban checkpoints also terrify many travellers, if they have the slightest connection with the government or reason to worry that the insurgents might get suspicious.
A man who identified himself only as “Matin” said he was riding a bus to Kabul from Kandahar with friends when the vehicle was pulled over by insurgents.
“My friend looked like a military guy, because he was tall and clean-shaven,” the young man said.
“The Taliban pulled me aside with my friend. When the bus was driving away, I slipped back into the crowd and got inside the vehicle. My friend was captured.” His friend worked for a logistics company and the Taliban eventually released him, after local notables petitioned for his freedom."
Meanwhile, other sources indicate that the Taliban are not generally against the idea of toll-taking. They just do it in a politicised fashion. They don't always look to destroy or attack convoys that supply ISAF troops from Pakistan. Sometimes they just take money for protection, which of course also plays into their hand. Below is what an unnamed fuel supplier told the London Times (Note that the Taliban are not the only ones taking money from subcontractors, i.e. truck drivers. About 75% is anybody else that might stand in your way along the road.)
"We estimate that approximately 25 per cent of the money we pay for security to get the fuel in goes into the pockets of the Taleban,"
is what the fuel supplier said.
Now, before closing off, I'll add just one more excerpt from the SH article, describing the Taliban's road intelligence network in Kabul, as an aside, providing some context regarding why a brigade of the US 10th Mountain Division is now being sent to Wardak and Logar provinces:
"A key part of the Taliban's success in Wardak is its network of informants. Gulbuddin, another young Taliban fighter, said there were around 70 spies in Kabul on the Taliban's payroll, providing information about convoy movements, individuals visiting the province, and their families. At roadblocks, which can vary from a handful of militants waving down traffic to as many as 40, the insurgents have the registration numbers of approaching vehicles and descriptions of the passengers they carry.
"When my cousin was arrested, making a visit home, there were 40 men who came to get him," said Hakimi. "All private taxis to Wardak leave from one specific location. That's why it's simple for them to know who is coming." "