Afghanistan: Democracy To Die For


October 17, 2018: So far this year over 2,800 civilians have died from Islamic terrorist violence. Nearly five percent of those deaths have been election related and as it gets closer to the October 20 th national voting the violence increases. There are an average of ten candidates for each of the 249 seats in parliament and about 20 percent of the candidates are women. That is particularly annoying to the Taliban, who don’t believe in elections at all. The Taliban have made about ten percent of the 21,000 polling stations dangerous (but not impossible) to use. The drug gangs will often pay for certain candidates to be attacked to improve the chances of more “drug gang friendly” candidates winning. One positive change in Afghanistan since 2001 is most Afghans now accept elections as a practical way to choose local and national leaders. This shift in attitudes towards elections bothers the Taliban a great deal. Some provinces have suffered more Taliban election disruption than others but the elections keep being held.

More than half the Islamic terrorist deaths are caused by a small fraction of the Islamic terrorists. That is because of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). In addition to the Taliban (in Afghanistan and Pakistan) there is the smaller Afghan-Pakistan branch of ISIL (Wilayat e Khurasan or just “Khurasan”). This group has concentrated on attacking Moslems it considers heretics, or simply uncooperative. That means they mostly go after civilians. ISIL has about five percent the manpower of the Taliban yet accounts for about half the civilians killed Islamic terrorism in Afghanistan this year. ISIL is particularly eager to kill Shia Moslems. Since 2015 ISIL has carried out 25 major terror attacks against Afghan Shia. About half of these attacks occurred in the Shia neighborhoods of Kabul. Because of that these neighborhoods are largely deserted because of past and possible future ISIL attacks. The Taliban does more damage (death, destruction and disruption) in Afghanistan than ISIL but ISIL is more feared and hated. That is how ISIL prefers it. It helps with recruiting as most ISIL recruits are Taliban who got tired of being hired muscle for drug gangs. ISIL is more interested in the religious angle and being more Islamic than other Moslems.

ISIL and to a lesser extent 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. The Taliban and al Qaeda are less likely to attack Shia because both organizations rely on Iran for sanctuary and other support. 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.

Although more numerous and active in Afghanistan, ISIL has found it is possible to operate in Pakistan. First ISIL had to find existing groups that were at war with the Pakistani government and done so by successfully adapting to the military counter-terrorism efforts. The two most hospitable groups were the rebellions Baluchi tribesmen in Southwest Pakistan (Baluchistan). The second haven was urban areas in Sind and Punjab provinces. These two provinces contain most of Pakistan’s population and economic activity. This is also where most of the better educated (and often unemployed) ISIL recruits can be found. There were already some ISIL support networks in these urban areas and ISIL has learned how to use them for organizing attacks. While ISIL attacks in Baluchistan can be attributed (by the military) to Baluchi separatists or other Islamic terror groups that survive there, the attacks in Sind and Punjab are generally accepted as ISIL efforts and that embarrasses the military. Despite this most local ISIL activity occurs in Afghanistan and because of all those attacks on Afghan Shia, ISIL is apparently beginning to feel a backlash from Iran trained Afghan Shia mercenaries who fought in Syria.

Until recently there were over two million Afghans living in Iran, most of them Shia and refugees (or children of) fleeing recent (since the 1980s) wars in Afghanistan. While these Shia refugees feel some affinity with Iran they are still Afghan and many got involved with the lucrative drug smuggling business. This is dangerous as well as lucrative and has turned the Afghan-Iran border into a combat zone. Since the refugees tend to provide a lot of these smugglers, shelter them while profiting from money earned smuggling, the refugees are not very popular in Iran and it is difficult for Afghan refugees to become permanent residents. In 2012 Iran came up with a solution; allowing Afghan Shia in Iran to join an Iranian sponsored mercenary force in Syria. Iran was trying to keep the Syrian government in power against an uprising by the majority of Syrians (who are Sunni). The Shia minority has ruled Syria for over 40 years and since the 1980s done so with the financial and material support of Iran. After 2012 that support included more and more foreign Shia fighters recruited, trained (usually in only a few weeks), paid and led by Iranians. The key benefit for Afghan volunteers from Iran was that successful service (especially if killed or disabled) provided the volunteer and his family with permanent residency in Iran. Nearly 20,000 Afghans from Iran have volunteered so far and some 20 percent have been killed or wounded. Despite the losses, Afghans kept volunteering because the payoff was relatively large and real. The Iranians kept their end of the bargain. But some of the Afghan volunteers did desert and provided foreign journalists and intel analysts with details of how the system worked. For one thing Iranian recruiters stressed the religious angle and the need to protect fellow Shia in Syria. The reality was that Iran needed tough and fearless fighters to deal with Sunni Islamic terrorist groups (mostly al Qaeda and ISIL) who comprised most of the opposition. These Sunni fanatics were responsible for numerous (and ongoing) attacks on Afghan Shia and that was sufficient motivation for most of the Afghan volunteers who come from a warrior culture. In addition to keeping their end of the deal Iran has recently (since late 2016) been providing the Afghan volunteers more public praise in the Iranian media. Most of the Afghans killed in Syria are flown home for burial in Iran and photos or video of the funerals often show up in the media. The families of the “martyrs” are praised as well and often shown receiving their residency papers and other benefits as well (access to better housing, medical care and so on). All this angers many Afghans who see it as another Iranian scheme to exploit Afghanistan. It is, but the Afghan refugees keep volunteering. Even before the sanctions on Iran were revived earlier in 2018 the Iranian economy was having problems and a growing number of Afghan refugees in Iran were returning to Afghanistan. Among those refugees were many Hazara who had fought in Syria and had often fought ISIL forces there. Now the ISIL groups in Afghanistan have Hazara with combat experience against ISIL back in Afghanistan and organizing Shia militias to defend Afghan Shia from ISIL. This has already caused ISIL to be more careful while planning attacks on Shia.

Despite all that Taliban and ISIL violence if you put things into perspective you note that the current drought in northern and western Afghanistan has displaced more civilians, as well as caused more deaths, than the increased Islamic terrorist violence. The droughts are normal in this part of the world but have been made worse by the population growth (the result of less fighting, more economic activity and public health efforts). Drought relief (mainly food shipments) are often blocked or stolen by the Taliban.

Going For Ghazni

In the east ( Ghazni province) Pakistan has been reinforcing the Afghan Taliban since August in a continuing effort to gain control of the province. Currently the Taliban have been trying to avoid the government counteroffensive. Unable to assemble large forces for another attack on the provincial capital the remaining Taliban are fighting to hold onto their rural bases. Earlier in the month Taliban forces sought to halt traffic on the main road to Kabul and destroy bridges. Some of those efforts succeeded but the Taliban were eventually forced away from the roads and bridges. Two months of fighting in Ghazni cost the Taliban about a thousand dead. This is exceptionally high for the Taliban and led to some embarrassing consequences for Pakistan. Among the hundreds of Taliban dead Afghan security forces were able to examine many foreigners (Pakistani, Central Asian and Chechen) were identified. Since the 1990s the Pakistani ISI has sent reinforcements recruited in Pakistan to the Afghan Taliban. Officially the Pakistani denies this happens but occasionally evidence becomes so visible that it is difficult to ignore, or deny with any assurance of being believed. In addition to the foreign dead left behind the Afghan Taliban took some of their dead with them (as they always try to do to prevent identification) and those from Pakistan were smuggled across the border so their families in Pakistan could bury them. This practice is essential if the Afghan Taliban want to continue recruiting from Pushtun tribes across the border in Pakistan and maintain good relations with those tribes. A growing number of people in those tribes now have smart phones and access to social media sites where they post family news, like recent funerals and who the deceased was. A lot of deaths recently were young men who, gossip indicated, were working in Afghanistan. The pay was good but it was dangerous. But at least the family got the body back and a substantial cash payment.

In addition a lot of the Taliban casualties showed up in Pakistani hospitals and received treatment. That became news because it was rare for there to be so many casualties like this at once when, officially, there was nothing going on in Pakistan. Those casualties were result of unexpectedly prompt and effective resistance by Afghan security forces, armed locals and American air support in Ghazni province. This disrupted and defeated the large scale effort against the city and several rural areas nearby. Ghazni is near the Pakistani border and contains some major heroin smuggling routes into Pakistan. These routes are kept open by the Taliban. Ghazni has long been fought over, because of the heroin smuggling routes. Normally the drug gangs find it cheaper and more reliable to use bribes but because of the growing number of addicts inside Afghanistan the bribes sometimes don’t work and the national government often sends down commandos and NDS (Afghan intel) agents to carry out specific tasks which tend to be bribe proof. Massive intimidation attacks like this often fail, mainly because of the popular anger towards the drug gangs that keep supplying the local addicts. The fact that the Afghan Taliban has always been supported by Pakistan is another incentive to fight back.

Opposing Pakistani meddling in Afghan affairs is a popular issue among most Afghans. One reason Western troops are tolerated in Afghanistan, which has, for thousands of years been hostile to foreigners, is because the Westerners and Afghans are both eager to shut down the drug trade and keep the Pakistanis out. Pakistan sees battles like Ghazni as a success because over 600 Afghans (including security personnel and civilians) were killed and there was a degree of intimidation achieved. Operations like this cost Pakistan little as the Afghan drug gangs supply the cash required. They have no choice because the ISI can deny easy access to Pakistan for needed supplies (chemicals for converting opium in to heroin) and secure smuggling routes through Pakistan to the port city of Karachi. It was later discovered that most of the 500 (or more) foreign fighters ISI supplied for the Ghazni battle cane from three known Pakistan based Islamic terror groups known to work for ISI. The most prominent of those with a contingent in Ghazni was the Haqqani Network, whose leader currently runs the Afghan Taliban.

The Afghan prime minister is demanding that his newly elected Pakistani counterpart do something about what happened in Ghazni province. So far the official Pakistani response is; “it wasn’t us.” Pakistani prime minister Imran Kahn is more concerned with nations considered more important to Pakistan, like Saudi Arabia and China. To Pakistanis Afghanistan is more than of a potential problem than anything else. But to Afghanistan, and most of the world community, the biggest problem in Afghanistan is not the Taliban or the drug gangs, but Pakistan.

The Afghan Taliban is divided over the issue of being controlled by Pakistan and being held responsible for the growing number of Afghan drug addicts. Then there is the role of Pakistan in sustaining the chaos Afghanistan has suffered since the late 1970s (when Russian backed Afghan communists tried to start a revolution). The communists were followed by a Russian invasion, drug gangs, an Islamic revolution, civil war and Pakistan seeking to take control in the 1990s with their Taliban movement. Pakistan did serve as a base for millions of Afghan refugees and thousands of Afghan rebels during the 1980s but that led to Pakistan believing it could continue to support violence in Afghanistan if it was deemed to be serving Pakistani interests. The Pakistani created and supported Taliban had control of Afghanistan (or at least most of it) from the late 1990s until 2001. That led to the American invasion and Pakistan continuing to support the drug gangs and Taliban while assisting the U.S. in its “war on terror.” Many Americans want to just leave. The problem is just getting out leaves Afghanistan at the mercy of Pakistan, Iran and Russia, as well as all the drug gangs, Islamic terror groups and numerous Afghans who oppose the drugs and all the outside interference. The drugs and Islamic terrorism will still be major exports. The West can leave Afghanistan but the ills of Afghanistan won’t leave the West and that is just fine with Pakistan.

A growing number of Afghan Taliban leaders want peace and an end to being manipulated by the Pakistanis. Despite that the senior Afghan Taliban leader and the Pakistani generals are not inclined to consider peace talks because of all that money from the drug gangs as well as the ability to “control” (or at least disrupt) Afghanistan. The U.S. recently repeated its accusation that Pakistan had done nothing about the Pakistan sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network and several other Islamic terror groups that do the bidding of the Pakistani military.

Afghans note that the economic growth experienced after 2001 slowed down considerably after NATO withdrew most of its forces in 2014. The Taliban failed, as they long claimed they could, take control of the country after the foreign troops left. The rural population suffered the most after 2014 because that’s where the Taliban had the easiest time disrupting local security. After 2014 the majority (over 60 percent) of Afghans lost ground economically. Even the urban population, which tended to continue to see economic growth, were dismayed at the increasing control Pakistan was achieving via their proxies (Taliban and drug gangs). Despite growing international condemnation for this Pakistan maintained good relations with China, Iran and Saudi Arabia and got away with it.

October 15, 2018: In the east (Nangarhar Province) an American UAV used missiles to attack an ISIL camp and kill at least nine of the Islamic terrorists.

October 6, 2018: In Kabul two bombs went off leaving two dead and nine wounded.

October 4, 2018: In the south (Helmand province) an American soldier was killed while clearing additional explosives after a vehicle had been hit by a roadside bomb. So far this year eight American troops have died in Afghanistan, versus 15 for all of 2017. Currently the 15,000 or so foreign troops are suffering losses of about 70 per 100,000 (per year), down from 130 per 100,000 in 2017. That loss rate peaked at about 400 per 100,000 in 2012. At the peak of the fighting (2005-7) in Iraq, the losses were nearly 600 per 100,000. The rate for U.S. troops in Vietnam and World War II was about 1,500 per 100,000 troops. It was higher for German and Russian troops, more like what Afghan security forces have suffered since 2014. As high as this is, it’s higher (twice what the army and police lose) for the Taliban and such loss rates were always common in Afghanistan. When the tribal irregulars fought Russian troops in the 1980s they suffered even higher losses. During that period the invading Russians never suffered more than 1,000 per 100,000 dead per year and eventually left because they could not afford the financial cost of seemingly endless fighting in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union fell apart a few years later and nearly three decades later Afghanistan is still a mess.

September 30, 2018: In the east (Nangarhar Province) an American UAV used missiles to attack an ISIL camp and kill at least 21 of the Islamic terrorists including several ISIL leaders.

September 25, 2018: In the east (Khost province, adjacent to North Waziristan) the Pakistani government has ordered customs officials to strictly enforce import-export rules and block any Afghan imports that do not have the proper paperwork. That means an Electronic Import Form, which is available, for a fee. Many Afghans refuse to get the forms because they see it as a ploy by Pakistan to impose fees to get goods into Pakistan, particularly perishables (like fruit and vegetables). Pakistan didn’t demand the paperwork when they reopened the border to trade in May.

September 22, 2018: In the east (Khost province, adjacent to North Waziristan) a Pakistani army patrol clashed with a group of Islamic terrorists crossing the border from Afghanistan. Seven soldiers and nine of the intruders (apparently Pakistani Taliban) were killed during the battle. The surviving Islamic terrorists fled back into Afghanistan.




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