Most Afghans want peace but progress in achieving that has been blocked by the drug gangs, Pakistan and some troublesome traditions. Achieving peace requires all the help it can get and most Afghans understand that. For example, on June 4th the Afghan Ulema Council (the top religious authority in the country) met in Kabul. The 2,000 Islamic scholars and senior clerics rarely hold such large meetings but this one was considered urgent because of the continued damage being done by the drug gangs, their Taliban hired guns and the Pakistani support for all this. So the Council issued a fatwah (religious ruling) condemning suicide attacks and supporting peace talks. The council also called for a ceasefire.
This was the first time the council had supported peace talks and since the Council represents all parts of the country its announcements are considered a good gauge of public opinion. Hours after that decision was announced ten ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) terrorists attacked the meeting place. This attack failed but fourteen were killed and twenty wounded. The Taliban responded by denying any involvement in the attack and accusing those at the meeting of following orders from the Americans. ISIL wanted to send a more emphatic response and employed a very alien (to Afghans) tactic.
Suicide attacks were rare in Afghanistan until the 1990s, when al Qaeda moved its headquarters to Afghanistan and discovered that the locals displayed a cultural aversion to suicide attacks favored by al Qaeda and ISIL. Most Afghans saw this tactic as another Arab custom that would never become popular in Afghanistan. ISIL groups in Afghanistan have a large number of foreigners and many of the Afghan members are teenagers so ISIL carries out more suicide attacks and is disdained by Afghans because of all those foreigners and their strange ways. The ISIL force that attacked the Ulema meeting were wearing Afghan Army uniforms but they were not the type worn by army units in Kabul and the guards at the entrance to the compound noticed that and did not wave through the captured hummers carrying the ISIL attackers. Instead the ISIL men were ordered out of their hummers so IDs could be checked. The attackers had no IDs and got out and started shooting. The attack failed. The Afghan Ulema Council is which is widely respected throughout Afghanistan and that is why the Taliban would not attack the meeting but ISIL would.
The Taliban are not inclined to consider peace talks because of money (from the drug gangs) and sanctuary (on southwest Pakistan, particularly Quetta, capital of Baluchistan province). The existence of sanctuaries in Pakistan are denied by the Pakistani military but it is an open secret in Pakistan that the Pakistan military and its intelligence agency (the ISI, which literally created the Taliban 25 years ago) handles these sanctuaries. In Pakistan, the military is very much above the law and can usually do whatever it wants. That is not a secret because about half the time since Pakistan was created in 1947 the military has openly run the government (after a coup) until popular opposition forced the generals to allow elections again. The Pakistani interference in Afghan affairs is more unpopular than the presence of foreign troops (who at least bring economic benefits, have no interest in staying around forever and oppose, as do most Afghans, the drug gangs). Moreover, terrorism related deaths are overwhelmingly Islamic terrorists (Taliban and ISIL). These men die protecting the drug production that has turned millions of Afghans into addicts and crippled efforts to build the economy and educate the children.
Despite all the violence and subsequent damage to the economy, education and life, in general, most Afghans will not pass up an opportunity to take or offer a bribe or steal from the government, foreign aid groups or any group that presents an opportunity to obtain some “loot.” Stealing from foreigners (meaning anyone not from your family or tribe) is an ancient tradition in Afghanistan and often a matter of survival. Because of that, there is not much progress in reducing corruption and foreign aid donors, as well as potential investors, are less willing to provide cash for something useful only to find it has been stolen by some Afghanistan official because they had an opportunity to do so and just could not resist. Tradition and all that.
Loot is not the only national obsession, so is homicidal violence. Casualties are up among the security forces this year with about 1,500 policemen and soldiers killed or wounded each month. Losses are even greater among the Taliban, drug gangs and various Islamic terror groups but these are less willing to share casualty data. Prisoner interrogation, captured documents and data from aerial photography and electronic monitoring.
Nationwide casualties among civilian and security forces are up about eight percent so far this year compared to 2017. A lot of the increase has to do with more air support from NATO and Afghan air forces. The foreign air forces are providing over a hundred air strikes a week. The Afghan Air Force provides much less (about a quarter of what the foreigners provide) but the Afghan airstrikes increasingly use laser and GPS guided bombs. Afghan soldiers and police are big fans of the smart bombs and missiles because it means that if they have cornered the enemy one such smart bomb will cripple or destroy the opposition and enable the Afghan soldiers to advance without having to deal with much (if any) defensive fire from the enemy. Afghan soldiers and police are much bolder when they have air support and that leads to more combat operations and more casualties, especially among their opponents. For the Afghans, losses are more palatable if you know the enemy is far worse off. Moreover, the Afghan Air Force use of smart bombs means they can operate effectively at night. Finally, the air controller on the ground can talk to the pilot in Dari (the common language in Afghanistan) and this is a lot more effective and comfortable than doing it in English. Since the Afghan Air Force began using laser guided bombs in March they have been using about six a week with the number increasing as more bombs are available.
The U.S.-Afghan offensive in Helmand province is having an effect in that the Taliban now control fewer areas there. At the same time this is forcing the drug gangs, and the Taliban who provide them with security, to accelerate efforts to shift drug production operations to other parts of the country. For the drug gangs, this means a dip in profits because of relocation expenses. Additional losses are incurred because most of the opium and heroin production was in Helmand because it was on the Pakistani border and it was Pakistan that supplied illicit items (like chemicals to transform opium into heroin) and provided the main smuggling route to worldwide markets. Half of the opium and heroin leaves the country via Pakistan. Corruption is pretty rampant in Pakistan plus the Taliban and drug gangs have a decades’ old working relationship with the Pakistani military. Helmand is still the key to drug gang operations and the source of most Taliban income.
The additional American ground forces sent to Afghanistan in 2017 concentrated on Taliban logistics and that meant attacks on the drug gang infrastructure. There are thirteen drug gangs in Afghanistan and most rely on Helmand for something. Most of these gangs have a major part of their heroin production in Helmand and all depend on the Helmand access to Pakistan where the military has sufficient authority to make sure chemicals and lab equipment (required to turn the bulky opium into the more compact and much more valuable heroin) get across the border and into Helmand.
One side effect of the increased fighting in Helmand Province has been the frequent attacks on the improvised facilities where opium is turned into heroin. Most of these labs are in Helmand and usually in urban areas where it is easier to move the lab supplies in and the heroin out. But the Taliban leader for Helmand has convinced the drug gangs to move their drug labs to rural areas in order to avoid air strikes as well as lower civilian casualties from these attacks. An unmentioned reason for this order is that the labs are unpopular because they are a source of opium and heroin (often stolen) for local addicts. More addicts make the Taliban more unpopular and make it easier for the government to obtain information on lab locations from locals. There are sometimes explosions in the labs which causes civilian casualties and locals recruited to work in the labs often become addicts. While the growing number of American attacks on the labs does cause some civilian casualties there are few in number because the labs are heavily guarded and the Americans use guided bombs and missiles to attack the labs.
The Taliban are responsible for security over large areas (farms where poppies are grown, roads and border areas where drugs are smuggled out and chemicals for turning opium into heroin are smuggled in) and that provides more targets for the increased air support. Casualties are up for the security forces but are up even more for the Taliban and by Afghan custom, that’s a win. Afghanistan is a violent place in the best of times and the last four decades have not been good for Afghanistan in general. Afghan security forces lost about five percent of their strength in 2017 but if the successes against the Taliban continue desertions will decline and more recruits will join. The extent to which that will happen varies depending on the local situation, especially the quality of leadership in local police units. While the Afghan police are a national force recruiting is local and quality of leadership varies. The army has a similar situation but it is different because soldiers are not in regular contact with civilian and are more likely to be moved around the country (or region).
June 13, 2018: In the east (Kunar province) an American UAV attack left several Pakistani Taliban dead, including their supreme leader Mullah Maulana Fazlullah. This was according to local sources and everyone is waiting for the Pakistani to say something.
The three day Taliban ceasefire began today but was not observed by all Taliban factions. Fighting continued in at least six provinces leaver 30 soldiers and police dead and even higher casualties among the Taliban.
June 11, 2018: In Kabul, an ISIL suicide bomber attacked outside a government compound leaving 13 dead and 25 wounded.
June 10, 2018: In the east (Nangarhar province) near the Torkham border crossing police seized a Pakistani truck that was trying to smuggle nearly eight tons of explosives (Ammonium Nitrate fertilizer) into the country. The Pakistani driver was arrested and his truck, with vegetables covering the 156 bags of Ammonium Nitrate, was seized. 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 always been the easiest way to get from northern Afghanistan to the lowlands (most of Pakistan and all of India) beyond. Normally large bribes would get illegal cargoes like this across the border but since ammonium nitrate is the main ingredient in most Islamic terrorist bombs, sometimes bribes are not enough because many police have lost family to Islamic terror attacks and that sometimes results in border guards refusing to take the money and let the ammonium nitrate through. For a long time ammonium nitrate, a banned fertilizer, has been used to make roadside bombs. It takes 3-4 kg (6.6-8.8 pounds) of ammonium nitrate (mixed with some fuel oil) for an average roadside bomb. Pakistani officials have resisted pleas to crack down on the movement of excessive (for Pakistan’s needs) quantities of ammonium nitrate into Pakistan and then, via lots of bribes, into Afghanistan. A lot of the bribes are paid on the Afghan side of the border. In May the governor of Nangarhar province replaced because of the widespread corruption. His replacement was under pressure to reduce the use of bribes for activities that get a lot of Afghan civiliasn killed. That crackdown has made it more expensive and risky to rely on bribes to get contraband for Islamic terrorists across the border and delivered.
June 9, 2018: The Taliban responded to the government two week ceasefire by agreeing to a three day ceasefire for the first three days of the government ceasefire. This basically is a ceasefire for the first three days of the Eid celebrations that come at the end of Ramadan. For Moslem countries, Eid is similar to Christmas week in Christian ones or Chinese New Year among Chinese worldwide. The Taliban ceasefire only includes government forces, not foreign ones. The Taliban will also continue to fight back whenever attacked. This Taliban offer was in recognition of the widespread hatred of the Taliban for their violence and support of the drug gangs. The Taliban wants to be the good guys and the fact that their bitter enemy ISIL took credit for the recent attack on the Ulema Council meeting makes it clear that the Taliban did not agree with attacking the Ulema Council. According to the Afghan calendar, Eid begins over a two day period because it is marked by the first sighting of the moon at the end of Eid and that varies across large nations like Afghanistan. The most likely date for the ceasefire to start is the 15th.
June 8, 2018: One major Taliban faction, led by Mullah Rasool, declared it would adhere to a longer ceasefire that would begin tomorrow (the 9th) and match the eight day government ceasefire. The faction offering this is one of the ones produced by the Taliban civil war that broke out in 2015. This was all about disagreements over who should take over as Taliban leader after founder Mullah Omar was revealed in 2015 to have died in 2013 (in a Pakistani hospital). The information was kept to a few key Omar associates who were then accused of lying as part of a plot to install an Omar successor who was second-rate. The civil war began in late November 2015 when Mullah Mansour, leader of the OT (Original Taliban) ordered attacks against the forces of rival Taliban leader Mullah Rasool. This marked a major defeat for the Taliban as they have now lost a major asset; unity. Similar fighting has also occurred in Zabul province. By 2017 the Taliban infighting had diminished but not disappeared. The Pakistani ISI (intelligence service) intervened by having Haqqani Network leaders with Taliban ties take sides and eventually take over the senior Taliban leadership. This reduced but did not eliminate the feuding. As a result, the Taliban sought to regain territory they had lost to government forces in 2017, especially near the Iran and northern borders. This was important because these border areas were used for smuggling heroin and opium into Iran.
June 7, 2018: The government announced a week long unilateral ceasefire with the Taliban (but not other Islamic terror groups) that will begin at the end of the Moslem annual holy month of Ramadan. The ceasefire is part of an effort to get more Taliban factions to make peace with the government. The U.S. said it would intensify attacks on ISIL during that week. The ceasefire was inspired by a Fatwah issued by the Afghan Ulema Council three days ago.
June 6, 2018: Pakistani officials admitted that some elements of the Haqqani Network remain in Pakistan. Since 2015 Pakistan has insisted that Haqqani was gone from Pakistan but as the evidence continues to pile up that Haqqani was still in Pakistan the Pakistani military had to concede that or lose all credibility. Not that they have much left, especially with Afghanistan, India and the United States.
June 5, 2018: In the east (Kunar province) an American UAV attack left at least two ISIL gunmen dead.
June 4, 2018: In Kabul, the Afghan Ulema Council meeting was attacked by ISIL but the attack failed.
June 1, 2018: In the northeast (Badakhshan province) an Afghan Air Force C-208 aircraft carried out the first emergency airdrop. In this case, half a ton of ammunition was dropped by parachute to police and local militias fighting the Taliban. The Afghan air force has been training for this since 2016 and has already made pre-planned drops. In this case, Afghans handled all the details, including packaging the ammo and rigging the parachutes.
May 30, 2018: In the north (Takhar province) security forces were pushed out as the Taliban briefly took control of one of the district capitals. Within hours the Taliban were gone after police reinforcements arrived. This sort of rapid response makes it more difficult for the Taliban to claim control of more of the 407 districts. The Afghan security forces have learned how to quickly respond to Taliban efforts to occupy distract capitals (often small towns in areas with few roads). In addition to more airstrikes, the Americans have also brought in more UAVs for reconnaissance and surveillance as well as more access to the high-resolution photo satellites.
May 25, 2018: Across the border, there are some recent changes that will have an impact on Afghanistan, at least in the south where most of the Afghan Pushtun are. Pakistan finally abolished the colonial era administration of the FATA Pushtun tribal areas along the Afghan border. FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) are now merged into the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Until 2010 Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was known as NWFP (North-West Frontier Province) and largely consisted of tribal peoples who preferred to be treated as another province of Pakistan and not a tribal area. Despite that when the 2010 name change took effect the Pushtun majority in NWFP violently protested and demanded that the renamed NWFP be called just “Pakhtunkhwa” which means “Land of the Pushtuns.” The NWFP minority tribes wanted their own small provinces but all they got was a name change. The government compromised with the awkward name Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “Khyber” refers to the Khyber Pass near the Afghan border. For thousands of years, this has been the most convenient route for travelers, and invaders, coming from Central Asia to India. FATA increases the population of Khyber (the short term for the province) about 14 percent and nearly all of those new people are Pushtuns. Before the merger, Khyber was 74 percent Pushtun and after the merger that goes up to 78 percent. This is likely to encourage support for establishing “Pushtunstan” (a new nation combining the Pushtun populations of Pakistan and Afghanistan). That will never happen because Afghanistan and Pakistan oppose it and the Pushtuns have never been united enough to pull it off and that has not changed. The merger of FATA into Khyber is the latest of many recent changes for FATA and the Pushtuns on both sides of the Afghan border.
May 24, 2018: In the west (Farah province) Four GPS guided rockets were fired at a remote area where many (about 50) of the Taliban commanders in the province had gathered after several major defeats this month. Calling that many commanders together on short notice made it easier for American intel to detect what was going on and several HIMARS vehicles were within range and able to fire large rockets on short notice and do it so all four hit the target at the same time.
HIMARS carries only one MLRS rocket six pack container (instead of two in the original tracked MLRS vehicle). The 12 ton truck can fit into a C-130 transport (unlike the heavier, tracked MLRS) and is much cheaper to operate. The first HIMARS entered service in 2005, about a year after GPS guided rockets did. The GMLRS (guided multiple launch rocket system) missile is a GPS guided 227mm rocket that entered service in 2005. It was designed to land within meters of its intended target, at any range. This is possible because it uses GPS (plus a backup inertial guidance system) to find its target. In 2008 the army tested GMLRS at max range (about 85 kilometers) and found that it worked fine. The warhead has the explosive equivalent of a 500 pound (224 kg) aerial bomb. HIMARS proved to be an effective substitute for air strikes and one HIMARS vehicle could provide support over a large area. This recent attack was part of a ten day operation (May 17-26) that took advantage of the disarray the Farah Province Taliban were already suffering from.
This late May operation had been set up after Afghan and American forces, assisted by local defense militias defeated a major Taliban attack against Farah City (the provincial capital). The Taliban suffered many dead and wounded as they were forced to retreat. This attack was considered a desperate move, by local Taliban forces, to free many prisoners taken in other recent combat defeats. Taliban forces near Farah city were unable to organize another attack because of the constant UAV surveillance. After the failed May 15th attack the Taliban appeared to be organizing another attack and hit with airstrikes which disrupted those preparations. Around that time Taliban commanders in Farah were ordered to gather to sort out the situation and that led to the HIMARS attack on the assembled commanders. The ten days of fighting appears to have killed about 80 Taliban commanders, most of them low level but these men are essential for training and supervising new recruits, which the Taliban always has a lot of. The loss of these low level commanders also makes it more likely that fatal mistakes will be made carrying out attacks, especially when it comes to handling locally made bombs and making it easier for government forces to identify and locate Taliban camps. This leads to airstrikes or HIMARS attacks. While each HIMARS vehicle only carried six rockets that is often more than enough for most operations. Resupply is simple, just fly or truck in a container with rockets and take away the empty one.