In late June the United States revealed that it had ordered American forces in Afghanistan to go after all Islamic terrorists and do so with few restrictions. An easing of restrictions was noted earlier in the year but there was no official announcement until June. By then U.S. Air Force admitted that during the first five months of 2016 American warplanes used 451 missiles and smart bombs against ground targets in Afghanistan. That’s nearly twice as many as during the same period in 2015. That is still less than a quarter of the activity during 2011 and less than half the number of missiles and smart bombs used per month in 2014 (the last year American combat troops were in Afghanistan). The change in 2016 came after the Afghans finally convinced the American political leaders that more air support for Afghan forces would make a major difference. In early 2016 the United States agreed to allow American forces in Afghanistan to work more closely with Afghan forces against the Taliban and other Islamic terror groups. That change included more American air support and relaxed ROE (Rules of Engagement). Now local American commanders could 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 this particular attack was a matter of life or death. That cautious approach left a lot of Afghan soldiers, police and civilians dead and other Afghans noticed why. 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 was supposed to be cut 44 percent by the end of 2016. The Afghans made a case for keeping more American troops in Afghanistan and now the reduction will only be 14 percent. Meanwhile more air support will be provided and fewer restrictions will be placed on the use of those aircraft.
The Taliban have noticed the changes and recently threatened retaliation against the United States for becoming more active against the Taliban. This very public threat was prompted by the degree of loss the Taliban has suffered this year. The efforts of American and Afghan commandos coupled with more American air and intelligence support has led to heavier losses among the Taliban leadership (currently at least a dozen senior leaders a month) and declining morale among Taliban gunmen. The government has had an amnesty program for Taliban since 2009 and since 2010 over 10,000 Taliban have surrendered. This year those defections are increasing and there are more incidents of several hundred Taliban surrendering at the same time. Word gets around and makes it more difficult to recruit. A lot of the more capable Taliban leaders are quitting, often by fleeing the country with their families. While the Afghan security forces (army and police) continue to take heavy casualties (about 550 dead a month in 2015 and a little less in 2016) Taliban losses have increased this year, largely because of more air support for Afghan forces. The Afghan Air Force is contributing more, but the American still account for over 80 percent of air strikes.
Another sign of decline in the Taliban is the growing number of accidents among Taliban members building or using roadside bombs or suicide vests and vehicles. This is a side effect of a deliberate effort to kill the most skilled bomb builders and trainers of bomb users. This campaign against the key Taliban personnel has been going on since 2006. The U.S. noted the Israeli success with this approach against Palestinian terrorists earlier in the decade, and successfully applied it in Iraq. After 2006 the Taliban were on the receiving end of the decapitation (kill the leaders and tech experts) attacks and they did not like it. When the Americans left the Taliban thought the decapitation attacks would cease. There was a decline but that was only for as long as it took the newly formed Afghan commando and intelligence units to get up to speed. Now, working with their American mentors, the decapitation campaign is more effective than ever. Many Afghans have scores to settle with the Taliban and going after the leaders and bomb experts is the most satisfying way to close the books.
A lot of Afghans have a need to strike back at the Taliban. This is largely because of two decades of Taliban violence against Afghans. Many of the victims have been (and continue to be) civilians. Nearly 10,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan since 2009 and the Taliban were responsible for over 80 percent of those deaths. In the first six months of 2016 1,600 civilians were killed and the Taliban, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and Haqqani were responsible for over 90 percent of those deaths. As foreign troops withdrew in 2013-14 the Taliban violence against civilians increased as did the number of civilian deaths. All these victims had surviving kin and many of those survivors joined the army and police.
The recent ISIL suicide bombing in Kabul is seen by Afghan leaders as made possible by Pakistani support for ISIL. Afghanistan now believes Pakistan is the biggest threat to Afghanistan because Pakistan makes the drug trade possible and supports Islamic terror groups, in addition to the Taliban, inside Afghanistan. Pakistan denies all this but most Afghans and a growing number of Pakistanis believe the accusations are true.
The Afghan government had long been complaining to Pakistan about the continued presence of Islamic terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan. These complaints were largely ignored and since 2014 the Pakistanis have been boasting about their military operation to eliminate the sanctuary in the northwest (North Waziristan). But the Afghans knew that the operation in North Waziristan was mainly about Islamic terrorists who carried out attacks against the Pakistani government. The Islamic terrorists who operated against Afghanistan were largely untouched. In early 2016 there were more and more spectacular attacks inside Afghanistan by Islamic terrorists who could be traced back to Pakistan. A lot of the evidence was collected by Afghan special operations troops. Pakistan continued to deny responsibility and the Afghan government quietly agreed to an American plan that would go after the Taliban and other Islamic terrorists operating against Afghanistan where they were. This led to the first American UAV missile attack in southwest Pakistan, which killed the head of the Afghan Taliban. Less publicity was given to the growing number of key Taliban leaders and specialists inside Afghanistan who were being killed or captured by Afghan special operations forces. More importantly the Taliban no longer threaten traffic on many main roads. This was very popular with the locals, who depend on those roads for commerce and just getting around. Using the side roads or cross-country takes a lot longer and is often not practical for vehicles.
Afghanistan has other ways of showing its displeasure with Pakistan. The most noticeable is the continued loss of business for Pakistani firms that export to Afghanistan. These exports are being replaced by goods from Iran and Central Asia. This trend is accelerating because the Afghans can often get higher quality goods at lower prices and much less risk of shipments being delayed for political reasons (closing the border to pressure the Afghan government to do something). Soon goods from India will become a major factor Indian firms are spending over two billions dollars to expand a port on the Iranian coast (near the Pakistani border) and build new roads and railroads through Iran to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Iran is also a major investor.
July 25, 2016: In the east (Nangarhar province) Afghan commandos found and killed (because he refused to surrender) Sad Emirati, the ISIL deputy military commander for Afghanistan. Sad Emirati used to be a Taliban commander but left for ISIL during the Taliban succession battle of late 2015.
July 24, 2016: In the east (Khost province, near the Pakistan border) soldiers clashed with a group of Haqqani Network gunmen and killed one, wounded two and captured another. The dead man was later identified as Kernel, a notorious Haqqani commander who was born in Khost but spent much of his time across the border in North Waziristan.
July 23, 2016: In Kabul two ISIL suicide bombers attacked a large demonstration of Hazara Afghans who were protesting government inability to provide Hazara communities with their promised share of economic development projects. Over 80 (mostly Kazara) died and more than 200 were wounded. As ISIL expected, the attack in the Afghan capital received lots of media coverage and most Afghans were appalled and angry. ISIL and the Taliban have attacked the Hazara frequently because of religious and ethnic differences. Shia Afghans (15 percent of the population) are a particular target for Sunni Islamic terrorists like ISIL, Taliban and al Qaeda. Most of the Afghan Shia are Hazara, who are ten percent of the population and the descendants of the hated Mongols who conducted several invasions during the 13th and 14th centuries. These Mongol attacks destroyed more of the country and its population than any other conquerors. For centuries Hazara have suffered a lot of discrimination and actual violence in Afghanistan. But Iran is seen as an ally (at least against Pakistan) by most Afghans and Iran is mostly Shia and sees itself as the defender of all Shia. Afghan leaders accused Pakistan of providing support for attacks like this because ISIL has taken heavy losses in the few areas of eastern Afghanistan where they operate. ISIL would need support and Haqqani Network or other ISI operatives could easily provide it.
July 22, 2016: In the east (near the Pakistan border) a Pakistani Islamic terrorist leader, Mangal Bagh, was killed by an American missile fired from a UAV. Pakistan offered a reward of $190,000 for the death or capture of Bagh, who was responsible for numerous attacks in northwest Pakistan (Khyber) and was believed to be in Afghanistan to avoid intensified Pakistani counter-terror operations in northwest Pakistan. Bagh is the second major Pakistani Islamic terrorist leader killed this month in eastern Afghanistan. Pakistan is supposed to show some gratitude (by curbing its support for anti-Afghanistan Islamic terror groups) but that does not seem to be happening and the Afghans and Americans are not pleased by this ingratitude.
July 18, 2016: In the east (Nangarhar province) local security officials report that most of the dead ISIL members they have identified appear to come from one area (Orakzai) in northwest Pakistan. Since 2015 ISIL has been trying to establish a base area in eastern Afghanistan (mainly in Nangarhar) but that has led to constant skirmishing with Pakistani Taliban hiding out there. 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 and who they are. Some of the tribes used their own militias to fight ISIL but more often just helped 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 hundreds of ISIL men have been killed and many more wounded. Many of the wounded desert and there are fewer new volunteers. Cut off from Afghan recruits it makes sense that many of the current ISIL personnel in Nangarhar are from Pakistan. So are many other Islamic terrorists who operate in eastern Afghanistan. But Afghan intelligence believes the Pakistani intelligence (ISI) is now deliberately helping ISIL recruit in Pakistan as long as the recruits go to Afghanistan. ISIL is barely hanging on in Afghanistan and is largely absent in Pakistan. ISIL is not dead in Afghanistan but it isn’t growing much either. A growing number of former Taliban are abandoning ISIL. The remaining ISIL get little sympathy from the locals, many of whom have bitter stories to tell of harsh ISIL rule that included beheadings of those who resisted and imposition of strict lifestyle rules. This included closing all secular schools as well as religious schools and mosques that did not enthusiastically support ISIL. These lurid (and often true) stories are circulating throughout eastern Afghanistan making the region a no-go zone for ISIL.
July 14, 2016:
Rahmatullah Nabil, the head of Afghan intelligence until late 2015 released copies of letters showing Pakistani intelligence officials supporting Haqqani Network and Afghan Taliban operations inside Afghanistan. Nabil resigned as head of intel at the end of 2015 because president Ghani insisted on including Pakistan in peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. President Ghani has since become a lot more critical of Pakistan for its support of Islamic terrorism inside Afghanistan. Back in December 2015 Ghani was the new president and was criticized by many Afghans for trying to use Pakistan to help get peace talks with the Taliban going. The head of Afghan intelligence (Rahmatullah Nabil), who the Pakistanis openly criticized, resigned over the issue and many in parliament back the departed intel chief in this matter. But the president had a point in that there cannot be real peace in Afghanistan without cooperation from Pakistan. Such cooperation may be an impossible goal, but that’s life in Afghanistan. By late July 2016 Nabil and Ghani are in agreement that Pakistan is the main problem.
July 13, 2016:
The United States confirmed to Pakistan that a July 9th UAV attack in eastern Afghanistan had killed Pakistani Taliban commander Omar Mansoor. This is a big deal in Pakistan because this Mansoor was the one who planned the December 2014 terror attack on a school in a military base that killed 144 children. Mansoor continued to plan major attacks in Pakistan, the latest one in early 2016 that killed 21 students and teachers on a Pakistani university campus. The Pushtun Mansoor clan is prominent in both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.
July 6, 2016:
Pakistan ordered troops guarding the border to not allow anyone to enter Afghanistan if it appeared they were going to commit or support violence there. In return the Pakistani military wants Afghanistan to do more to eliminate anti-Pakistan Islamic terrorists who operate from bases in Afghanistan. Announcements like this anger most Afghans because it implies that before the order Islamic terrorists based in Pakistan were allowed to cross into Afghanistan to carry out attacks. The Afghans have always gone after all Islamic terrorists hiding out near the 2,400 kilometer long border with Pakistan.