The United States recently agreed to allow American forces in Afghanistan to work more closely with Afghan forces against the Taliban and other Islamic terror groups. Now local American commanders can decide when to use American air power or ground forces to assist Afghan forces rather than having to try and convince lawyers and politicians back in the U.S. that it was a matter of life or death. That approach left a lot of Afghan soldiers, police and civilians dead and other Afghans have noticed. Afghan political and military leaders have been increasingly critical, often publically, about the earlier, more restrictive, American policy. The U.S. has not yet agreed to maintain or increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. Currently there are 9,800 U.S. troops there and that is supposed to be cut 44 percent by the end of 2016. The Afghans are asking for an increase, not a decrease.
Afghan political and security officials insist they can defeat the drug gangs and Taliban if they again have the responsive U.S. air support that was available before 2015. Many American politicians have long refused to believe what was really going on in Afghanistan. The reality is tribal politics amped up by radical Islam and lots of drug money drives the corruption and violence. That is a lot more obvious in 2016 because the Taliban and drug gangs have concentrated their violence in a few areas most important to drug production and movement (to foreign markets). Thus fighting has been heaviest in the south where the Taliban are trying to regain control of Helmand province. At this point over a third of Helmand is under Taliban control and the government wants more American air power (bombers and surveillance) to enable the reinforced Afghan forces to push the Taliban out. It’s the drug gangs that finance all the mayhem in Helmand, as well they might because Helmand is where most of the opium poppies are grown and where the portable labs use chemicals smuggled in from bordering Pakistan to convert the sap of the poppies into heroin. The drug gangs would prefer to bribe the army and police to stay away but that has not worked because the heroin (and much cheaper opium) is hated in most of the country. That’s because over five percent of the population has become addicted to the stuff. So the troops and police from other parts of the country face disgrace back home if they do not attack the drug operations when they have a chance.
Most Afghans don’t care if some tribes produce and export illegal drugs, they do care of the drugs are sold inside Afghanistan to Afghans. The Taliban understand this and have been living off the drug gangs since the late 1990s and justify this by promising to return to the system they imposed during the 1990s where the gangs were forced to export nearly all their production and were severely punished if any of the opium or heroin got out to the locals. That restriction disappeared along with Taliban control of most of Afghanistan in late 2001. It only worked back then because the Taliban offered security for the drug gangs in return for a large share of the profits and keeping the drugs away from Afghans. Some in the current Afghan government see that as a possible option now that the Westerners are gone. The Western donors have made it clear that the aid will disappear (and the bombs will return) if Afghanistan turns into a “narco state” (the national government is on the drug gang payroll). A majority of Afghan, including nearly all non-Pushtn Afghans refuse to allow the Taliban and drug gangs (which are mainly Pushtun operations) to run the country.
The drug angle has made most of the tribes hostile to the Taliban and the drug gangs. Westerners often lose sight of the fact that most of the violence in Afghanistan is all about the drugs and the disruption they causes to Afghan society and culture. Most of the 3,500 Afghan civilians killed in 2015 were caught up in this war against the drug lords and their hired guns (mainly the Taliban). The Afghan countryside has always been a dangerous place but it has become more dangerous because all that drug money has equipped many tribesmen with automatic weapons and fast vehicles. The violence against civilians continues in 2016 as more and more tribes mobilize their militias to halt Taliban expansion efforts, which are mainly to secure drug smuggling routes. Thus there are now about half a million armed Afghans fighting the Taliban and drug gangs, Nearly a third of this force are the tribal militias resisting the drugs and Islamic fanaticism many Taliban use to justify the violence.
Let Them Kill Each Other
Another largely ignored (outside the region) element is the growing number of casualties suffered by Islamic terror groups because of factionalism, feuds and infighting. By the end of 2015 the Taliban was fighting ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) as well as some other “anti-Taliban” Islamic terrorists and a growing number of dissident Taliban factions. ISIL and factionalism continue to be a problem because ISIL tends to persuade many very capable Taliban leaders to defect. The dissident Taliban factions tried to survive by making deals with a local drug gangs but that did not work in Afghanistan. It must be remembered that there is no one organization running the drug business in Afghanistan. There are dozens of drug gangs (many tribe or clan based) that tend to remain at peace with each other for business reasons and will hire the best mercenaries they can. Another disturbing, but not unexpected, trend is the growing number of Taliban factions that are largely dispensing with any pretense of religious fanaticism and acting more like the traditional Afghan bandit gangs. That means more use of kidnapping and extortion to raise money. By avoiding Islamic terrorism (using suicide bombers, hitting religious targets like Shia Afghans or shrines and openly taking credit) these rogue Taliban are blending into the normally violent and lawless atmosphere the prevails in much of the country.
One reason most Afghans want more foreign troops is because that gives Afghans (in uniform or pro-government militias) a major edge over the Taliban and other terrorists and warlords. Even with NATO air support, Afghan security forces suffered casualties at six times the rate of foreign troops but they inflicted even higher losses on the Taliban. Once the foreign troops withdrew from combat at the end of 2014, Afghan losses (among security forces and civilians) went up. For the soldiers and police losses were 20 percent higher in 2015 and that has not diminished in 2016. For Afghan soldiers and police, plus civilians in areas where the Taliban is active, more American air support is a matter of life and death.
So far this year five foreign troops (three American) have died in Afghanistan. During 2015 only 27 foreign soldiers died (22 American, two British and thee from other countries). In 2014 75 foreign troops died in Afghanistan and the peak year was 2010 when 710 died. Since late 2001 over 3,500 foreign troops (68 percent American) have died in Afghanistan. During the 1980s over 15,000 Russian troops died in an attempt to gain control of the country.
India, Afghanistan and the United States have become increasingly aggressive in demanding that Pakistan end the sanctuary it has provided the Afghan Taliban since 2002 and other Islamic terrorists since the 1980s. Pakistan has agreed, several times since 2001, to shut down all Islamic terrorist sanctuaries. It never gets done and the Afghan Taliban continue of operate openly in southwest Pakistan. In northwest Pakistan Islamic terrorist camps continue to train Pakistanis (and a few Indians) to become effective terrorists and cross the border into India to kill and terrorize.
Afghan officials also accuse Pakistan of controlling much of what the Afghan Taliban does, including ordering terror attacks inside Afghanistan. If Pakistan continues to deny any involvement with all this Afghanistan is threatening to take the matter to the UN and other international tribunals. Meanwhile the main Afghan Taliban sanctuary remains in Quetta. This is the capital of Baluchistan and just south of the Taliban homeland in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. Quetta was always off limits to the American UAVs and remained a sanctuary despite constant and increasingly angry calls from the United States and Afghanistan to shut down the sanctuaries.
The recent American UAV attack in Baluchistan that killed the head of the Afghan Taliban shook up Pakistani leaders because it means the possibility of escalation of tensions with the United States that could create a situation Pakistan could not handle. The reality is that Pakistan considers Afghanistan a client state. The Afghans are considered a collection of fractious tribes pretending to be a nation. Many Pakistanis believe Afghanistan must be controlled by Pakistan, one way or another. This is why Pakistan created the Taliban in the mid-1990s. Then there is the economic dependence. With no access to the sea, most Afghan road connections to ports are via Pakistan. The Afghans have long resented this.
With another Taliban leader dead there is fear that the Afghan Taliban, weakened by internal divisions and the hatred of most Afghans, is increasingly turning to the Haqqani Network for help in planning and carrying out attacks. Apparently the current head of the Haqqani Network became (sometime before the end of 2015) the number two leader of the Afghan Taliban and put in charge of all military operations. The Haqqani Network has survived since the 1980s by being very much an obedient servant of Pakistan. That meant no terror attacks in Pakistan and, when called on, carrying out specific attacks that Pakistani intelligence (ISI) wanted (usually in Afghanistan). Unlike the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani keeps most of its operations in Pakistan and operates in Afghanistan (mainly between the border and Kabul) to carry out attacks and run their various criminal activities (for raising cash). Founder Jalaluddin Haqqani died in 2o14 and his successor (Siraj Haqqani) continued to cooperate with the Taliban and maintain subservience to ISI. Because Jalaluddin Haqqani helped Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders escape Afghanistan in 2001 there has always been a sense of mutual dependence. For that reason Haqqani leaders were able to help fix the mid-2015 power struggle within the Taliban and thwart the recruiting efforts of ISIL. Given that Haqqani works for ISI (Pakistani CIA), Pakistan is believed to have played a role in this new arrangement. The Afghan government protested to Pakistan about this but, as usual, Pakistan insisted it had nothing to do with Haqqani, the Taliban or supporting Islamic terrorism of any kind. The Taliban reconciliation deal appears to have involved an understanding that if anything happened to Monsour a powerless figurehead would be appointed the new leader and Siraj Haqqani would officially run the Haqqani Network and unofficially call the shots for the Afghan Taliban. That’s what happened in late May after Monsour was killed by an American UAV missile attack.
June 12, 2016: In the east (Nangarhar province) Afghan and Pakistani border guards fired at each other at the Torkham border crossing. One Afghan soldier was killed and several on both sides were wounded before it all stopped just before dawn on the 13th. The two countries blamed each other for shooting first but this sort of violence has flared up before. Torkham is the main border crossing with Pakistan and where thousands of people and vehicles pass through each day. On the Pakistani side is the Khyber Pass which has long been the easiest way to get from northern Afghanistan to the lowlands (most of Pakistan and all of India) beyond. Most of the Afghan-Pakistani border is still called the “Durand Line.” This was an impromptu, pre-independence invention of British colonial authorities and was always considered temporary (or at least negotiable) by locals. This was mainly because the line often went right through Pushtun tribal territories. However, the Afghans are more inclined to accept the Durand Line, and fight to maintain it. Thus recent Pakistani efforts to build more fences and other structures on their side of the border as an attempt to make the Durand line permanent. Afghans who use the border are also angry at a new Pakistani visa policy, which requires regular users of the crossings to get a visa. Officially this is a security measure, but given the rampant corruption in Pakistan Afghans see this as another opportunity for Pakistani border officials to demand bribes.
June 10, 2016: In the east (Nangarhar province) an American UAV used missiles to attack a Taliban convoy. This also killed at least eight Taliban gunmen. Elsewhere in the province police ambushed a vehicle carrying two local Taliban leaders and killed them both.
June 8, 2016: In the east (Paktika province) an American UAV used missiles to destroy vehicles carrying weapons smuggled in from Pakistan for the Haqqani Network. This attack also killed Sirajuddin Khadmi, the head of logistics (supplies of everything) for Haqqani, who is believed to be the main target of the attack. Khadmi was a major supplier of smuggled weapons and other contraband and worked under the protection of the Haqqani Network.
June 5, 2016: In Kabul a member of parliament was killed by a Taliban bomb hidden in front of his home. These assassinations are how the Taliban and drug gangs persuade political and military leaders to cooperate.
June 1, 2016:
After over a week of denying the event took place Pakistan is now admitting that an American UAV did indeed kill Afghan Taliban supreme leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour and did so in southwest Pakistan, an area that has always been off-limits to U.S. UAVs. A Pakistani general called this a violation of Pakistani sovereignty that must stop.
May 28, 2016: In the east (Nangarhar province) an American UAV used missiles to kill the leader of the local ISIL branch along with five of his followers. ISIL attempts to establish a base area in eastern Afghanistan have largely failed because of the violent opposition from the many other Islamic terrorists operating in the area. This include Pakistani and Afghan Taliban as well as al Qaeda and Haqqani Network. The local tribes are also largely hostile to ISIL and all this has provided better intel for the security forces on what ISIL is up to and exactly where they are. Some of the tribes used their own militias to fight ISIL but more often just helped the worst hit villages set up defenses to keep ISIL out. This cooperation (and information) led to more effective and frequent American air strikes and raids by Afghan troops and American commandos and most of the ISIL men in the area have been killed, wounded, surrendered or deserted in the last year. There are fewer new volunteers. ISIL is not dead in Afghanistan but it isn’t growing much either. Eastern Afghanistan has become no-go zone for ISIL. It is now believed ISIL has fewer than a thousand members in Afghanistan, versus over 3,000 in 2015.
May 23, 2016: The Taliban announced that Islamic cleric Haibatullah Akhundzada would be the new leader of the Afghan Taliban. The previous leader, Mullah Mansour, was killed two days earlier by an American UAV attack. Akhundzada has no leadership experience and is believed to be a figurehead as leader. This new arrangement was ok with the drug gangs and about two weeks later Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahri hailed the appointment of Akhundzada. Al Qaeda is trying to reestablish itself in Afghanistan and needs Taliban support to do that. It is expected that Akhundzada will continue most policies Mansour followed, including doing dirty work for Pakistan and working with Iran to prevent the expansion of ISIL in Afghanistan. It was that last item Mansour was believed to have discussed with Iranian officials during his recent (May 20) visit to Iran.
Meanwhile there was some good news for Afghanistan as Indian and Iranian leaders finally signed the contract to jointly pay for expanding the port of Chabahar in southeastern Iran. This new contract includes a $150 million loan from India and India supplying over $400 million worth of steel for the 1,300 kilometers long rail line from the port to the Afghan border in the north. Ultimately the Indians will provide over two billions dollars’ worth of investments for this project. That includes work on the port and new roads and railroads to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Because of the 2015 treaty that lifted economic sanctions on Iran India could now legally become a major investor. This project obviously helps Afghanistan but also hurts Pakistan, which currently monopolizes the movement of most Afghan imports and exports. This new agreement means a lot for India which is spending over $100 million to extend an Afghan highway to the Iranian border where the new rail link from Chabahar will end. This link will make possible Indian trade with Afghanistan, something long blocked by Pakistan. The port of Chabahar and its links to Afghanistan are to be operational by the end of the decade.
May 21, 2016: in southwest Pakistan (Baluchistan) an American UAV missile killed the head of the Afghan Taliban (Mullah Mansour) as he travelled in a taxi from the Iran border to Taliban headquarters in Quetta (the capital of Baluchistan and near the border with Helmand province). At first Pakistan and Iran denied that Mansour was illegally visiting Iran. That is where many Islamic terrorist leaders send family members to keep them safe. Despite the initial demials Pakistani police soon arrested two Interior Ministry officials and accused them of securing false Pakistani ID documents for the second wife and children he was visiting in Iran. Mansour was also using fake Pakistani ID but everyone in the area knew who he really was. At the same time Pakistan allowed the family of the taxi driver killed with Mansour to file a lawsuit against unnamed American officials who authorized the UAV strike. In other words Pakistan is continuing the fiction that there is no Afghan Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan.