The fifth peace talks meeting between the Taliban and the Americans in Qatar were not expected to achieve a final deal, in part because the Taliban insisted the Afghan government not be involved because that government is considered a creation of the West and since that government was democratically elected it is seen, according to the Taliban, as an affront to Islam as the Koran says nothing about democracy. The Americans went along with that exclusion while making it clear that the Afghan government was being informed of all that went on in the negotiations. The sixteen days of talks ended with optimistic press releases and not much else except to meet again in a few weeks. There was some general agreement that U.S. forces would withdraw in return for Taliban assurances that Afghanistan would not become a sanctuary for international terrorism. There was no agreement on how this agreement would be implemented or what that would mean for the elected Afghan government or the majority of Afghans who oppose the Taliban and the drug gangs. The Taliban are vague about what they would do if a deal were signed and American troops left. If the U.S. cut military and economic aid to the government the Taliban would still have the payments it receives from the drug gangs (to protect drug production and smuggling). The Taliban say everything will be all right but they said that when they first arrived in the mid-1990s and that did not turn out well. Meanwhile, the Taliban is desperate to get rid of foreign troops, who are a major cause of Taliban casualties.
The Afghan government is crippled by corruption but so is Afghan culture as a whole. The Afghan government insists the foreign troops are necessary until the war is over. That means eliminating the drug gangs and that is difficult because the gangs have bribed or intimidated a large number of government officials to tolerate the drug gangs.
American, NATO and Afghan military leaders agree that the Taliban cannot win a battlefield victory as long as Afghan forces have training, air and financial support from NATO countries (mainly the U.S.). That is why the Taliban insisted that the discussions include the possibility of American (and all foreign) troop leaving the country. The Americans are proposing a withdrawal over a 3-5 year period. That Taliban insist it is done in a year or less. There is still no agreement on this.
With the troop withdrawal topic agreed to the Taliban were willing to discuss how to handle Islamic terrorism (not all of it caused by the Taliban), dealing with the many Afghan groups (in fact the majority of Afghans) who oppose the Taliban, and details relating to a ceasefire. It was quickly apparent that there would be difficulties agreeing on how to define “terrorism”. The Taliban consider ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) violence to be terrorism but not many of the attacks made by the Taliban and other Islamic terrorist groups. Most Taliban do not consider the September 11, 2001 attacks terrorism, nor do they regard many recent attacks in the West as terrorism, but rather righteous defense of Islam. Well, at least that is finally out in the open.
Other items will be equally difficult to agree on, like the common belief among Islamic terror groups that negotiations with the Infidels are merely a tactical means to defeat the non-believers. Lying to them is permitted, even encouraged if it will work. There are also problems with Pakistani control of the group and the majority of Afghans (and many fellow Pushtuns) opposing the Taliban. One reason for this is the fact that the majority (over 80 percent) of the civilian deaths are caused by the Taliban who consider such civilians “involuntary martyrs” and not victims of terrorism. Even more of an issue is that increased Taliban violence has increased civilian deaths 11 percent in 2018 (to 3,804). Then there is the economic impact of imposing Taliban practices on the current economy. Since 2001 Afghanistan has made a lot of progress in reducing illiteracy, raising educational levels and adding many women, especially those recently educated, to the workforce. The Taliban forbids all that (educating women and allowing women to work outside the home).
As a practical matter, the peace talks will serve a purpose in pushing all these issues into the spotlight. So far that is making a lot of Afghans angry. Pakistan and Iran see potential opportunities.
Fear And Factionalism
These negotiations are supported by most Afghan Taliban factions because all those factions do not agree on how to handle Afghans who oppose them and the Afghan government (which has a lot more popular support than the Taliban). Getting rid of the foreign troops would simplify matters and would serve to unite the increasingly factional Taliban. The peace talks serve a purpose in determining how united the Afghan Taliban is and whether the Afghan Taliban can agree on anything beyond making a lot of money, providing muscle for the drug gangs and using that power to sustain the idea that the Taliban can eventually regain a dominant position in Afghanistan.
The Taliban understand, from their experience after 2014 (when most foreign troops left) that NATO (mainly American) air power is the key element that prevents the Taliban from defeating the Afghan security forces. It’s not just the airstrikes, it’s also the American ability to airdrop supplies to areas that the Taliban have under siege. The Taliban take heavy losses to maintain those sieges and American supply drops enable Afghan forces to survive and win most of those siege situations. The Taliban learned this the hard way in 2018 when they saw many of their sieges fail because of the air delivered supplies. In 2017 the U.S. Air Force dropped 15 tons of supplies by parachute (often guided parachutes that can assure delivery in a small area.) In 2018 that increased to 304 tons and that, plus even more, airstrikes made sieges unpopular with Taliban fighters. Since 2014 there has been more hostility and often fighting, between Taliban factions. There is growing resentment over the continued Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban while slaughtering thousands of Pakistani Taliban. One thing Afghan and Pakistani Taliban can agree on is that Pakistan is no friend of the Pushtun tribes (who provide most of the manpower and leaders for both Talibans).
Promoting Polio For Islam
Polio is making a comeback among refugees on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. This comes after another major effort in 2017 to vaccinate vulnerable Afghan and Pakistani children against polio. In 2016 there were 20 cases of polio in Pakistan and 13 in Afghanistan. There were four in Nigeria, a country that is expected to be free of polio this year or next. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, there are still religious problems with vaccination. The Afghan Taliban have openly supported the vaccination program but there still some rural areas where local Moslem clerics or teachers still denounce the vaccinations. There is a similar situation in Pakistan, where some fringe Islamic groups will still try and kill members of the vaccination teams. Despite this continued resistance polio cases in both nations continues to decline, except in Afghanistan (where there were 14 cases in 2017 and 21 in 2018). In Pakistan, the situation is similar with 54 cases in 2015, 20 in 2016 and eight in 2017. But in 2018 there were a dozen cases, eleven of them on the Afghan border. The sharp drop in polio cases was largely a result of the four-year campaign to shut down Islamic terrorist groups who had long enjoyed sanctuaries in North Waziristan, which is on the border of eastern Afghanistan. That campaign lasted four years but had an impact on vaccination opponents after the first year because most civilians in North Waziristan fled (with encouragement from the Pakistani army) to refugee camps in Pakistan or to stay with kin across the border in Afghanistan. Either way, the refugee children could now be treated by the vaccination teams, especially those in Pakistani refugee camps. The Afghan side of the border is not the Islamic terrorist sanctuary North Waziristan was but it is a sparsely populated and little policed region where any outsider requires an invitation or an armed escort to enter safely.
It was easier to ensure vaccination at the major (and legal) border crossings. An example of Afghan-Pakistan cooperation was several vaccination teams stationed at the Khyber Pass (the Torkham border crossing), which is the busiest crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There the vaccination teams operated 24 hours a day to offer polio vaccinations for all children under age ten. This not only catches children who missed the regular vaccination teams in either country but prevents infected children from carrying polio from one country to another.
Despite problems like this in Pakistan and Afghanistan the global vaccination effort has worked. In the 1980s, when the polio elimination effort began there were 350,000 cases in 125 countries. For the last several years there have been fewer than a hundred cases worldwide. In the last decade, the main obstacle has been Islamic terror groups who ban polio vaccinations and attack anyone trying to deliver the vaccine to vulnerable children. Islamic terrorists, in general, tend to believe the vaccination teams are spying for the government and that the vaccinations are a plot to sterilize or otherwise harm Moslems. Once there are no more active cases of polio the disease, like smallpox before it, will be extinct.
The Pakistan Threat
Pakistan, in general, is not a threat to Afghanistan but the Pakistani military has long been and still is a problem on both sides of the border. In Pakistan, the military have pulled off a silent coup since 2017 and took control of the top elected leaders, the mass media and highest courts. The Pakistani military plans to keep this power by doing what they have done for decades; create foreign threats where none exist and use that to justify the continued power, prosperity and immunity from prosecution of Pakistani military leaders. To make this work Pakistani generals have to ensure that several volatile situations do not blow up. One of the more obvious examples of this is Afghanistan, which the Pakistani military sees as a potential problem that is best handled by establishing a degree of Pakistani control over who does what in Afghanistan. Thus Pakistan created the Taliban in the early 1990s to end the civil war in Afghanistan and that had unfortunate side effects. For Pakistan, Afghanistan seems to be nothing but unfortunate side effects, especially with the Pakistani military having its own foreign policy which is often at odds with what the Pakistan and Afghan governments want.
The Afghan Taliban insist Pakistan plays no role in the current peace negotiations yet the Pakistani media and military make it clear that Pakistan is a key player in all this and that Pakistani demands must be respected. While the Pakistani military continues to crack down on Islamic terrorist violence inside Pakistan they have increased their efforts to export such violence to India and Afghanistan. The neighbors also have issues with the Afghan drug gangs, who continue to produce, with Pakistani cooperation, the majority of the world’s supply of heroin in addition to the cheaper opium and hashish for local markets. This is unpopular with the civilian populations of all nations adjacent to landlocked Afghanistan. That’s because the exported heroin passes through all of these nations and creates millions of local addicts in the process. Then there is the violence on the borders as the Afghan drug smugglers are armed and, if bribes don’t work bullets come next. Bribes work best on the Pakistani border while the Iranian border has been a war zone for years.
The current effort to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan is not popular with Iranians. The Taliban are seen as inherently anti-Iranian. Iran also has issues with the Afghan drug gangs, who continue to produce, with Pakistani cooperation, all that heroin, opium and hashish.
As bad as the Taliban and Pushtun political pressure is, the threat of all Pushtuns in the region uniting is worse. This is complicated by the fact that Pakistan considers Afghanistan a client state and many Pakistanis support that attitude because of the ancient, and still potent Pushtun threat. That threat is getting worse inside Pakistan. The Afghans are considered a collection of fractious tribes pretending to be a nation. With no access to the sea, most Afghan road connections to ports are with Pakistan. The Afghans resent this, especially since for thousands of years invasions of northern India (which, historically, lowland Pakistan was a part of) came out of Afghanistan where many Pushtun tribesmen would join the invaders. Pakistan and India are well aware of this, and still consider the Pushtuns a bunch of bloodthirsty savages from the mountains. Afghanistan has only been around for a few centuries and Pakistan was carved out of British India in 1947. Before that, it was a collection of feudal states and tribal territories. When you get right down to it, Pakistan's big problem is that it contains two-thirds of the Pushtun people (who are 15 percent of Pakistan's population) while Afghanistan contains the other third (who are 40 percent of Afghanistan's population.) "Pushtunstan" is a nation of 30-40 million Pushtuns caught between Pakistan (still over 170 million people without the Pushtuns) and northern Afghanistan (with about 20 million non-Pushtuns) Without Pushtuns, Afghanistan would become yet another Central Asian country with a small population (neighboring Tajikistan has 7.7 million and Uzbekistan has 30 million).
Pushtunstan is never going to happen because the Pushtuns have long been divided by tribal politics and cultural differences. When the Pushtun aren't fighting outsiders, they fight each other. The violent and fractious Pushtuns are a core problem in the region and have been for centuries. There is no easy solution to this and now more Pushtuns are openly calling for the establishment of a Pushtunstan and are making common cause with the Baluchis to the south (in Baluchistan) who have long fought to establish an independent Baluchistan. Both tribal separatist groups want to be rid of the Pakistani military and the Islamic terrorist organizations the military supports.
March 12, 2019: The fifth meeting between American and Taliban representatives ended with a mention of another negotiating session within a few weeks.
March 11, 2019: In the west (Badghis province), Taliban forces surrounded a small army base near the Turkmenistan border and attacked. After hours of fighting and no reinforcements had arrived the soldiers surrendered. Half the 60 troops in the base were killed or wounded and the Taliban said they took 40 prisoners. The Turkmenistan border is an important smuggling route for drug gangs and the Taliban have been attacking army outposts and forward bases near the border for over a month.
March 7, 2019: In Kabul, someone fired ten mortar shells at a large gathering commemorating hundreds of Hazara (a Shia minority) who are often a target of Taliban and other Sunni Islamic terrorist groups. The ceremony was attended by many Sunni Moslems including politicians. ISIL took credit for the attack, which killed eleven and wounded twice as many. The attack effectively canceled the commemoration.
March 6, 2019: In the east (Nangarhar province), someone used a suicide bomber and several gunmen to attack a construction sites near the Jalalabad airport. The attack was repulsed but five people were wounded and several of the attackers killed.
March 5, 2019: In the east (Nangarhar province), a wanted Haqqani Network leader, Mullah Mirwais, was arrested in the provincial capital (Jalalabad). Mirwais was known to command about 50 men operating in the province.
March 1, 2019: In the south (Helmand province), the Taliban attacked Camp Shorabak, where several thousand Afghan and several hundred American troops are based. The attack was defeated but there were over 50 dead, most of them the attackers.
Because of the air battles between Pakistan and India in Kashmir Afghanistan air transports could not use Pakistani air space to reach India. For the first time Iran allowed Afghan transports to reach India via Iranian air space (to the Indian Ocean and then east to India.) This took a lot longer (and was more expensive in terms of fuel and other operating expenses). Via Pakistan, the flights take 90 minutes. Via Iran, the same flights take 300 minutes. Thus passengers had to pay $300 to fly to India versus the usual rate of $160. The air space closures lasted until late March.
February 26, 2019: Russia donated $9 million worth of military radar and command and control systems to Afghanistan’s northern neighbor Tajikistan. While second-hand, the equipment is modern and will improve the ability of Tajikistan to monitor and control its air space, especially along its border with Afghanistan. That border has long been a concern for both Tajikistan and Russia. In 2013 the Tajik parliament approved an extension of the military cooperation treaty with Russia to 2042. This included Russia continuing to station 6,000 troops there, mainly on the Afghan border to help keep out drugs and Islamic terrorists. All this required operating three Russian bases in Tajikistan. Russia also continues to train Tajik military personnel (mainly officers) and supply weapons and ammo at low cost or for free. The Russians also agreed to provide trainers to improve the skills of all Tajik soldiers. Tajikistan was part of the Soviet Union until 1991.
February 25, 2019: Another round of peace talks between American and Taliban negotiators began in Qatar.
February 24, 2019: The first shipment of Afghan exports for India departed via the newly rebuilt Iranian port of Chabahar and the Indian financed road and rail network from the Afghan border to Chabahar. Afghanistan has been using the Chabahar connection to export and import items that previously moved via Pakistan. Afghanistan has already received over a million tons of food from India. The Chabahar connection is but one of many reasons why most Afghans support India in any conflict with Pakistan. India has never harmed Afghanistan and since 2001 has provided quite a lot of foreign aid, which includes building the Afghan parliament building and most of the cash and tech assistance required to upgrade a major hydroelectric dam. India has also supplied military equipment and trainers. Many of the Indian civilian and military personnel working in Afghanistan are Indian Moslems who can confirm that Moslems have more economic and educational opportunities in India than they would in Pakistan or Afghanistan. That’s a major reason why Islamic terrorists have had little success recruiting Indian Moslems and learned that most Indian Moslems will report Islamic terrorist activity to the police rather than tolerate or support it.
February 22, 2019: The Afghan government has sent the UN a letter complaining about nearly a decade of Pakistani border violence. The Afghan letter details incidents since 2012 to the present in which Pakistani troops fired 28,849 rockets, mortar or artillery shells into eastern Afghanistan from just across the border in northwest Pakistan. Much of this firepower is directed at Kunar province and has been going on since 2010 in an effort to hit real or suspected Pakistani Taliban bases in Afghanistan. These incidents increased to the point where the Afghans began keeping track of them in 2012. Since 2012 this violence has killed 82 people and wounded 187 that the Afghan government knows about. The shelling occurs against rural areas that are often unpopulated so it is unclear if the Pakistanis have hit many Pakistani Taliban. The Pakistani government propaganda insists that these Taliban Islamic terrorists are based in eastern Afghanistan and regularly cross into Pakistan to carry out attacks. The letter details how the situation is getting worse and that since January 2018 there have been 161 of these incidents that involved at least 6,025 Pakistani projectiles landing in Afghanistan. The letter points out that several elected Pakistani leaders have pledged to halt these border violations but those pledges are ignored by the Pakistani military.