Afghanistan: The Land Of A Thousand Factions


July 10, 2017: So far this year the violence is up 5-10 percent nationwide. Most of those killed are civilians, either caught in the crossfire or victims of violence by Islamic terrorists (mostly) Taliban or drug gang gunmen seeking to force locals to cooperate or at least stay out of the way. The Taliban (mostly) and drug gangs (who keep a low profile) suffer heavier losses than the security forces, largely because the outlaws are fighting each other as well as angry civilians and the unexpectedly (according to their leaders) army and police. All this violence is, unfortunately, not unusual for the region known to most as Afghanistan. For most people living here “Afghanistan” is a secondary name for where they live. The primary name relates more to tribe and very local geography. This whole nation thing was never widely accepted in this region and modern “Afghanistan” is something of a scam developed by many of the major tribes to deal with troublesome (and often heavily armed) foreigners. This time around the most dangerous foreign threat is chemical and financial. Heroin, made possible by a late 19 th century German chemical process enables locals to convert opium (laboriously obtained from poppy plants) into much more valuable (and portable) heroin. While a few Afghans benefit financially (some spectacularly) from the heroin trade nearly half the population in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran suffer the consequences of addiction, crime and social breakdown.

The drugs are winning as they usually do wherever they get established. Eventually they get crushed but eventually can last a long time. The only thing that nearly everyone in Afghanistan can agree on is that the opium and heroin are bad. Nearly ten percent of the population is addicted to drugs (mostly opiates) and another ten percent (there is some overlap) makes a living or gets rich from the drug trade. Most Afghans consider the biggest threat to be the drug gangs, which are largely run and staffed (like the Taliban) by Pushtun. The Taliban want to create a heroin producing Islamic terrorist and gangster sanctuary in Central Asia. If you want to know how that works, look at Chechnya in the late 1990s and Somalia during the last decade. No one has come up with any cheap, fast or easy solution for that. Meanwhile, Afghanistan's core problem is that there is no Afghanistan, merely a collection of tribes more concerned about tribal issues than anything else. Ten percent of the population, mostly living in the cities and often working with the foreigners, believes in Afghanistan the country. But beyond the city limits, it's a very different Afghanistan that is currently motivated by growing prosperity brought on by a decade relative peace and the persistent “traditional” violence. By Afghan standards, an unprecedented amount of cash has come into the country since the end of 2001.

Between economic growth, the growing heroin sales, and foreign aid, plus lower losses from violence, it's been something of a Golden Age. This despite decades of war. For example, it's often forgotten that the 1990s civil war was still active on September 11, 2001. The Taliban have been trying to make a comeback ever since. The key Taliban financial resource; heroin in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, remains the key to this war. Even many Pushtun do not like this development and more Taliban factions are negotiating some kind of settlement with the government or fighting within the organization to get their way. In other words, everything is pretty normal by Afghan standards.

Afghanistan has become politically unpopular in the West and the easiest way out (for Western politicians) is to get out and let their successors deal with the aftermath. Afghanistan has become another issue foreign leaders are “kicking down the road” for someone else to deal with. The traditional local strongmen have noticed and Iran, China, Russia, Pakistan and India are all trying to have some influence with their wild and erratic neighbor. The Taliban believed that the Afghan security forces would fall apart in 2015 because most of the foreign troops were gone and those that were left were not fighting. The expected Taliban victory did not happen but there was a lot more Taliban violence. The Afghan soldiers and police stood and fought, but took heavy casualties. The biggest losses are from so many young Afghans with some money (and often education and useful skills) want to get out of Afghanistan and go to somewhere less lethal than where they grew up. Many of those migrants left the security forces out of frustration at the corruption and generally poor performance of Afghan elected officials.

While Pakistan continues to support the Taliban (which it literally created in the early 1990s) the Pakistani military and intelligence service (ISI) promotes the idea that the cause of all the Islamic terrorism in the region is the United States, India, Israel and so on. Even most Pakistanis have a hard time with that explanation and elected officials in Pakistan are willing to work with their Afghan counterparts to better cope with Islamic terrorism throughout the region. The Pakistani politicians admit (usually privately) that their military is out of control and still supporting Islamic terrorist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Enemy Within The Enemy

In the east (Nangarhar province) various Islamic terrorist groups and local militias are fighting each other over who controls what portions of this border area. This has long been a hideout for bandits, smugglers and Islamic terrorists. This area includes the Tora Bora Mountains which Taliban leaders used as an escape route in late 2001 as their government in Afghanistan was collapsing around them. Now the Taliban are fighting ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), a formidable Afghan security force, Americans and increasingly numerous tribal militias in this part of Afghanistan that is normally only useful to smugglers. But since smuggling heroin into Pakistan (and thence to the world via the port of Karachi) developed in the 1990s this smugglers route became the most valuable (several billion dollars’ worth of drugs a year) in the world. Most outsiders are there for the money and the locals, who used to appreciate their small cut of the action are largely disillusioned and hostile to the Taliban and their drug smuggling partners. In addition ISIL attracts the most fanatic (and anti-drug) young men in the region (mostly from Pakistan but also Central Asia and so on) and they are here to destroy the Taliban and the drug trade. Some of the Taliban in the area are feuding with the Taliban leadership. Then there is the Haqqani Network, a pre-Taliban Afghan Islamic terror group that is now more gangster than jihadi and the most reliable enforcer for the ISIL in Afghanistan.

The security forces have a major edge in that many of them are experienced Afghan commandos and they have plenty of air support from the Americans and the Afghan Air Force.

A visible sign of all this occurred in April with the use of a large (9.8 ton) MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast) GPS guided smart bomb against an ISIL target. The impact of this is still being felt. This was the first time MOAB was used in combat and the immediate effect was to wipe out an ISIL base that had had made extensive use of a tunnel and cave complex. The underground portion was not destroyed but parts of it collapsed and the rest became unstable and too dangerous to use. On the surface the few visible structures were destroyed as were the hundreds of landmines and explosive traps that were triggered or shattered (and disabled). Several hundred of the Islamic terrorists were killed or wounded. Later analysis of ISIL post-attack communications indicated that a dozen or more known ISIL leaders may have been killed in this attack. Some stunned or wounded ISIL men managed to get out of the area before ground forces showed up and spread the word about what happened. In the days after this bombing local tribal leaders asked the Americans to use weapons like this more often. That hasn’t happened yet and ISIL hasn’t disappeared from the area either. The fighting because all these factions continues and it’s all being financed by the drugs and tribal rivalries.

The Other Enemy

Under pressure from the U.S. the Afghan Army recently completed the distribution of ID cards using biometric data to everyone in the Afghan Army. This use of biometric data in government ID has been available in Afghanistan for over a decade but corrupt politicians understood the impact of such an ID system and until 2015 prevented full implementation. In 2015 a newly elected government allowed these biometric ID efforts to proceed. While a lot less corrupt and more accommodating than the previous Karzai government the current Afghan government is still finding the bureaucracy paralyzed by the often conflicting demands by politicians representing a wide number of tribal, ethnic, religious and personal interests. It’s like herding cats, but cats with automatic weapons and very short tempers. The cats are also clever and adaptive. Unable to block or delay full implementation of the biometric system in the security forces most offenders shed their ghost soldiers before their troops received the cards. As a result only a few thousand ghost soldiers were actually discovered and 80 percent of them were not the result of corruption (there is still incompetence and administrative failures at work) and those that were offenses that could be prosecuted were of officers or individuals too dumb or unlucky when it came to adapting. Meanwhile there is still a lot of theft and bad behavior in the security forces that is the result of the traditional tolerance for corruption or bribes and intimidation by drug gangs.

Despite that continued corruption the United States has built a large and growing library of data on actual and suspected terrorists and supporters as well as the Afghan population in general. This has given the anti-corruption forces (both local and foreign) a powerful tool. This was all the result of some major technical innovations that made it easier to gather and use biometric (fingerprints, iris, facial recognition, DNA) identification. After 2003 the U.S. developed tools that enabled combat troops to use biometrics on the battlefield. The main tool was initially called SEEK (Secure Electronic Enrolment Kit). This is a portable electronic toolkit that collects biometrics from people anywhere and at any time. This included fingerprint scans, eye (iris) scans, and digital photos of suspects and later DNA samples. All this eventually ended up in a master database, which eventually contained data on millions of terrorists, suspected terrorists, their supporters, and other "persons of interest." Troops in the field can carry part of that database with them in their SEEK kits, so that wanted people can quickly be identified and captured. This is what the American commandos did on the 2011 Osama bin Laden raid. While DNA tests are the best form of ID, if you have fingerprints, iris scans, and a photo you are nearly as certain. Even just fingerprints and the face scan/photo is pretty convincing. But often all you have is DNA and that’s where the portable DNA analyzers come in. These began arriving after 2011 but the basic SEEK level biometrics are still the main tool.

In Afghanistan the government used SEEK kits to collect data on millions of Afghans so these people could be issued very secure (hard to fake) ID cards. For the government, this makes it more difficult for criminals, Taliban, and Islamic radicals in general to infiltrate the government or just operate with impunity. The U.S. has long been collecting biometrics from those they arrest or otherwise encounter and want to positively identify. This data makes it easier to figure out who is naughty and who is not. It only takes about two minutes per subject to use SEEK to take the biometric data, so any suspicious characters are quickly added to the master database. After several years of collecting data raiding parties knew to grab any guy who seems to panic at the sight of the biometrics equipment coming out. The terrorists know that biometrics is bad news for them and they fear it. Combat troops now get training on how to use the biometrics gear and everyone now accepts that this stuff is a powerful weapon in the war against terrorists. Adapting this expertise to creating very difficult-to-fake IDs is not a large leap but it's not one that will result in many press releases. But now the corrupt military and government officials have come to fear the biometrics as well.

Since the corrupt Karzai crew left office in 2015 there have been repeated anti-corruption efforts within the security forces. For a while there seemed to be more commanders, including senior ones, who were no longer tolerant (or involved in) the more common corrupt practices. This includes the ancient paper (or “ghost”) soldiers scam where you report more soldiers on duty than you actually have and pocket the money sent to pay and maintain these non-existent troops. Another popular angle is simply stealing equipment or money to buy supplies for your troops. More soldiers, and especially police (who are most often the victims) went public with the detailed reports of the damage this theft does. There was often no money for essentials, like fuel or spare parts for vehicles. Radios and other supplies “disappear” as commanders sell them and report them as stolen or damaged and disposed of. Subordinates reporting the details of these incidents is putting more heat on commanders to do right by their fighting men and the people they try to protect. But the corruption efforts of the drug gangs was relentless, as was pressure from family and tribe. More police and army commanders took the money and cooperated with the drug gangs and avoided the Taliban. But the corrupted government officials don’t want the Taliban running the government again, there are still vivid memories on how badly that worked for all concerned. So the Americans and other anti-corruption foreigners must be endured because even working in a clean government is preferable to letting the religious fanatics and wealthy drug lords be in charge.

July 8, 2017: In the east (Nangarhar province) the army, with American and Afghan air support, have clashed with ISIL forces several times today, leaving over fifty dead or wounded, most of them ISIL personnel. American UAVs have apparently been particularly useful as they are seen over the area constantly and many of them are using more powerful sensors that can detect people beneath trees and underbrush.

In the southeast (Paktia province, near the Pakistan border) an American UAVs used missiles to kill seven Islamic terrorists. It was not yet clear which group they belonged to as the Taliban and Haqqani Network are active in this area.

July 7, 2017: In the north (Kunduz province) there was a clash between two tribal militias that left six civilians wounded. Such clashes are not unusual, in fact they are more “normal” that the drug and religion inspired violence of the Taliban and other Islamic terror groups.

July 5, 2017: In the east (Nangarhar province) Taliban attacked a village mosque, killing three people, wounding another three and taking kidnapping another two. This is all about intimidating local religious leaders to stop criticizing the Taliban.

In Kabul someone fired two small rockets into the city. One hit a residential area killing two civilians and wounding another.

July 4, 2017: In the east (Nangarhar province) an airstrike killed three ISIL men, two of whom were later identified as Pakistani.

After two weeks of deliberation Afghan leaders agreed to a Pakistani proposal that the two nations run joint-military patrols along their common border and cooperate more closely in halting illegal cross-border activity. Afghanistan was wary of this proposal until assured by American officials that the U.S. was also skeptical and would be monitoring Pakistani compliance closely. Pakistan is facing increasing criticism by neighbors, including China, their major ally, about the continued duplicity of the Pakistani military in supporting many Islamic terrorist groups even while denying that was going on and blaming India, Afghanistan, the United States, Israel and so on for the Islamic terrorist violence inside Pakistan.

July 3, 2017: In the south (Helmand province) one American soldier was killed and two wounded by an enemy mortar shell. The U.S. troops were working with Afghan troops near an Afghan base.

Further north (Uruzgan province) a group of 18 Taliban surrendered to the police, after first killing their leader. This group surrendered their weapons as well as any information they had about Taliban operations.

July 2, 2017: In the north (Jawzjan province, on the Turkmenistan border) locals report that five notorious ISIL leaders were killed by missiles fired by an American UAV.

July 1, 2017: In the north (Balkh province) Taliban attacked a rural mosque and killed 13 people. It was later discovered that the dead included locals who used to be members of an Islamic terror group. Three of those killed were local militia leaders. The Taliban were apparently seeking to discourage locals from organized opposition to the Taliban or the drug gangs they work for.

In the east (Nangarhar province) a night operation involving airstrikes on Taliban hideouts followed by troops coming in to check the damage and search for information and perhaps a prisoner or two. Six Taliban were confirmed dead by these troops and others apparently survived and got away.

June 30, 2017: In the north (Jawzjan province, on the Turkmenistan border) there was yet another clash between ISIL and Taliban forces. In this case ISIL won and captured ten Taliban men. The captives were later beheaded and their bodies left where they could be found. This was over control of drug smuggling routes across the border.

Elsewhere in Jawzjan province an American airstrike destroyed a vehicle carrying five ISIL leaders to a meeting. All five of the ISIL men died.

In the east (Nangarhar province) Taliban captured and later killed fourteen former Taliban who had joined ISIL.

June 24, 2017: The Interior Ministry fired two of their security force commanders after some of their subordinates recently posted a video where troops provided details of how their commanders stole military supplies including food for the troops. After the videos appeared the commanders forced the troops who made it to post another one denying the accusations. But the public uproar had already prompted an investigation that verified the theft allegations.

In the west (Herat province) the Taliban attacked an army checkpoint 13 kilometers from a major dam. Ten soldiers died, three were wounded and the Taliban stole many weapons and other equipment from the checkpoint. Iran opposes the many new dams (which keep water in Afghanistan that used to flow into Iran) and is accused of supporting Islamic terrorists who will attack the dams.

June 22, 2017: In the south (Helmand province) a car bomb went off in front of a bank in the provincial capital as government employees (including soldiers and police) were there to get their pay. The major towns and cities in Helmand are among the few areas left in Helmand the government still controls.

June 17, 2017: In the east (Paktika province) an airstrike killed six Haqqani Network men, two of them senior leaders in both Haqqani and the Afghan Taliban. Later in the day two Taliban leaders were killed during a clash with security forces.

In the north (Balkh province) seven American soldiers were wounded at an Afghan military base outside the city of Mazar-e-Sharif. The shooter was an Afghan soldier, who was shot dead. This is the second such incident in the last week. The other one took place on the 11th in a base in eastern Afghanistan (Nangarhar province) that left three U.S. troops dead and one wounded. That makes eight American military personnel killed in the first half of 2017. In all of 2016 14 died compared to 22 in 2015 and 55 in 2014, the first year since 2006 that American deaths in Afghanistan were less than a hundred a year.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close