Afghanistan: Young Guns Ruin The Taliban Plan

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October 5, 2021: The new government prefers to be called the IEA (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) to differentiate itself from the elected government it recently replaced. That government now prefers to use its official name; IRA (Islamic Republic of Afghanistan). IEA formally requested that they be acknowledged by the UN as the government of Afghanistan and entitled to replace the IRA overseas ambassadors and diplomatic staff. The IRA government has now established itself in Tajikistan and is led by the senior vice president in the IRA Amrullah Saleh. Currently only Pakistan, China and Russia are still maintaining their embassies in Afghanistan. All the Afghan ambassadors, including the one in the UN, remain loyal to the IRA government the Taliban overthrew. Pakistan is counting on China and Russia to use their influence to change minds.

It’s not just foreign diplomats that have to be convinced, so do all the commercial firms that do business in or with Afghanistan. The Afghan economy has collapsed and is embarrassing for Pakistan, because most foreign trade with Afghanistan travels through two major border crossings in Pakistan. Traffic had dropped by more than half compared to the same time last year. The value of trade has declined even more. Part of the problem is that the Afghan banking system has collapsed and most foreign firms doing business in Afghanistan have shut down because of the banking collapse and the loss of many employees who are trying to flee Afghanistan to escape a purge of Afghans suspected of working for foreign governments. The Taliban cannot control many of its irregulars, young gunmen from the countryside who now claim the traditional Afghan reward of loot for the conqueror. The importance of loot in Afghan tribal tradition is often not appreciated by foreigners. The loot tradition is still alive and well. For example, during the initial 1979 Russian invasion of Afghanistan, which initially faced little armed opposition, urban Afghans were surprised at the attitude of many “defeated” Afghan tribesmen. As Russian armored vehicles rolled through Kabul in 1979, each one full of well-equipped, especially by Afghan standards, Russian troops, one tribesman from the countryside was heard (by a Western educated Afghan who soon got out and went to work in the U.S.) muttering, “look at all that loot.” The American Special Forces and CIA understood how this worked and expected many of the rural tribesmen hired to serve as hired guns for the Taliban and drug cartels are now looting wherever there is loot to be had. Foreign businesses and the homes of known IRA officials are prime targets. Taliban leaders ordered a halt to the looting, especially if it included attacks on women, which often involved forced marriages. The Taliban leaders are also trying to prevent attacks on Afghan Shia, which Iran has warned will not be tolerated. Getting the victorious young guns to comply will be difficult. Threatening or using lethal force will be difficult. Proper Islamic trials, no matter how brief and expedient, may still trigger a mutiny.

Despite early assurances that education would not be disrupted, the Taliban soon banned women from attending higher education (high school and university). Women were banned from working outside the home without the presence of a male family member as a guardian. Those early assurances proved impossible to enforce because many Taliban gunmen, and the mid-level leaders who directly commanded them, enforced old school rules on women.

A Poisonous Patron

Another problem more visible now is the complicity of Pakistan in the drug trade and Taliban violence in Afghanistan. Currently many key Taliban leaders are recognized by the UN as sponsors of international terrorism. Pakistan is also widely recognized as a terrorism supporter. Pakistan believes there are as many as 9,000 foreign Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan and is willing to help the Taliban eliminate those terror groups. That will be difficult because the majority (about 6,000) of these foreign terrorists are Pakistanis belonging to the TTP (Pakistani Taliban) who seek to impose a Taliban-like government in Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban, despite their dependence on Pakistani support, are, like the TTP, composed of Pushtun tribesmen who have a long history of avoiding war with each other. Moreover, many Afghan Taliban believe Pakistan should have a religious dictatorship like Afghanistan now does. Pakistanis and Afghan understand how and why this absurd situation exists but many foreign nations do not. Those operating the Pakistani, Russian and Chinese embassies in Afghanistan appear to appreciate this problem and are seeking ways to make it less visible to the rest of the world. China, Russia and Pakistan believe they can make Afghanistan work to their advantage but understand this is not a sure thing. Russia got burned in the 1980s when they tried to support a communist government in Afghanistan that triggered a massive backlash from most Afghans. China sees economic potential in Afghanistan but has had a hard time doing business in Pakistan, where most of the hostile Islamic terrorists and rebel groups are kept under control. Afghanistan has no history of doing that but China sees a potential opportunity and pursues until it becomes obvious it won’t work. At that point China will declare the Taliban hostile and concentrate on keeping their influence out of China and nations with heavy Chinese investments.

Russia reacted by organizing and announcing joint military exercises between Russian forces and those of the three nations Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, that were part of the Soviet Union until 1991 and now border Afghanistan. There is also Kyrgyzstan, which borders China and Tajikistan. Russia has maintained close military, economic and diplomatic ties with the “stans”, who are suffering from the Afghan drug cartels that used their countries as markets for the drugs as well as a smuggling route to other parts of Eurasia. Now more Islamic terrorists from Taliban Afghanistan will be added. Russia and the stans also stand ready to support the armed opposition to the Taliban, just like before. That cooperation has apparently already begun, without any official announcements or consultation with China. Tajikistan allowed the IRA “government in exile” to base itself in the Tajik capital.

In 2001, when the Americans intervened, they did so to assist the NA (Northern Alliance), which was largely Afghan Tajiks, Hazar and Uzbeks still holding out in the north on September 11, 2001. While Pushtuns, mainly in the south, are 40 percent of the population, Tajiks are 24 percent, Hazara ten percent, Uzbek nine percent and various other non-Pushtun minorities in the north are the majority in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance contained some northern Pushtuns, but most of the combat leaders were Uzbek and Tajik. The NA was the only ones trying to protect the Hazara, who comprise most of the Shia Afghans and are considered heretics by the Taliban.

Taliban members are frequently being attacked and killed by ISIL or Afghans who oppose the Taliban lifestyle and economic rule that are destroying jobs and the economy. This is the Afghan way of letting outsiders know they are not welcome. For most Afghans the Taliban takeover has been an economic disaster. Two decades of no Taliban rule has led to enormous growth in GDP, health, and longevity. Now the Taliban are destroying it all and assuring everyone that current “difficulties” will soon be fixed.

October 4, 2021: The number of Afghans fleeing to Iran is increasing and many of them are Afghan Shia who offer personal accounts of how the Taliban attacks on Afghan Shia have resumed. Iran has kept its criticisms of the Taliban misrule to the Taliban private so far. But the renewed violence against Afghan Shia and collapse of the Afghan economy have put the Iranian support for the IEA government in danger.

October 3, 2021: Outside Kabul a bomb went off at a Mosque entrance as people left a memorial service for the mother of a senior Taliban official. At least five were killed and 11 wounded. The casualties included Taliban and civilians. The IEA immediately sent its special forces to arrest the usual suspects in Kabul which resulted in gun battles at three homes where the inhabitants apparently believed arrest by the Taliban gunmen would not end well for them. Later ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) took credit for the attack.

The IEA declared that Kabul international airport is again ready to handle international flights. There has already been some traffic from Qatar, Pakistan, and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). The IEA has made it a lot more expensive to fly in and out of the country. Airport used fees, as well as the cost of obtaining a visa or an airline ticket have gone up enormously. The IEA needs the money and this is one the few ways to get it,

October 2, 2021: In the east some TTP crossed the Pakistani border into North Waziristan and ambushed a Pakistani patrol, killing four soldiers and one policeman. The TTP gunmen then fled back into Afghanistan. These attacks despite Pakistani and IEA efforts to work out a peace deal with the TTP.

Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan repeated his belief that foreign nations, including the United States, would eventually have to recognize the Taliban IEA government and resume diplomatic and economic relations with Afghanistan. That’s a minority opinion in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kahn is taking a lot of heat from Pakistanis who have seen their incomes fall or disappear because of the collapse of the Afghan economy. Khan has been a longtime fan of the Taliban, earning him the nickname; Taliban Khan.

October 1, 2021: Tajikistan confirmed that they had sharply reduced exports of electricity to Afghanistan and shifted those exports to neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which is suffering a power shortage because a drought has provided less water for hydroelectric power plants. The IEA government in Afghanistan is unwilling or unable to pay for power imports from Tajikistan. The IEA is encountering similar problems throughout the country where many key personnel who operate and maintain new power, water supply, sanitation and medical infrastructure built in the last two decades leave their jobs or, in the case of women, are banned from continuing their work. Many of the male technicians fled because they feared being arrested as “collaborators.” The Taliban has declared the secular education system that produced all these managers and technical specialists was a waste and must be replaced by religious schools. Many Taliban officials disagree with this as it will hinder the IEA ability to function and the breakdown of this infrastructure is very unpopular with most Afghans. The Taliban conservatives currently have sufficient influence within the IEA leadership to enforce the policies that are damaging the economy. The NRF (National Resistance Front), the largest organized resistance force, is based in the north and is seeing the impact of these destructive Taliban policies and expects this to benefit the NRF while weakening the Taliban. This is similar to what happened in the late 1990s as the original Taliban, imposed similar policies which angered many Afghans and generated popular support for the Northern Alliance that drove the Taliban from the country after September 11, 2001 and the American intervention. Defeating the Taliban may take a little longer this time because the Taliban are financially stronger and better organized than last time and the Americans are not likely to intervene again unless future major terror attacks in the West are traced back to Islamic terrorists based in Afghanistan.

September 30, 2021: The recent return of the Afghan Taliban to power in Afghanistan is also having an impact on the Syrian Civil War. Afghan refugee resettlement is a major domestic political issue in Turkey, which already has too many Syrian refugees. Economic stress from hosting Syrian refugees is a major reason for getting directly involved in the Syrian civil war since 2016. More Afghan refugees would bring more violence, from cultural differences and the threat of Islamic terrorists using refugee status as a cover. Turkey currently hosts over four million refugees. About 92 percent of them are Syrian. Over 200,000 Afghans were already living in Turkey when the Taliban returned to power in August. Many of the current refugees have been in Turkey since mid-2011. Refugees, legal and illegal, have put a major stress on the Turkish economy and many individual Turks. Over 500,000 Syrian school children attend Turkish schools and will get worse if more Afghan refugees get in. Some Turkish provinces are feeling the stress more than others. In southern Turkey, on the Syrian border, Kilis province has a population of 140,000 Turks and provides refuge for 105,000 Syrians. Fear of Islamic terrorism is another reason Turks are concerned about an Afghan refugee influx. Al Qaeda and ISIL have launched attacks within Turkey for years. Turkey is seen by smugglers as a gateway to Europe, especially for the lucrative business of smuggling people. Often the refugees fail to get into Europe and end up stuck in Turkey. All this puts more pressure on the Turks to end the Syrian Civil War and give many of the refugees an incentive to go home.

September 29, 2021: In the United States senior military commanders were ordered to appear before the SASC (Senate Armed Services Committee). This is the only part of the legislature that can compel government officials to appear and testify about what advice the military gave the president. The military always insisted that their advice remained the same; keep a residual force of 2,500 troops to reassure Afghans and the elected government that they would have continued support if the Taliban made another major attack to overthrow the government. The Taliban tried that after all, except a residual U.S. force, foreign troops had left Afghanistan. After the Taliban suddenly overthrew the Afghan government in mid-August questions were asked and the answer from Afghans (including the Taliban) and Americans in or recently in Afghanistan was that they were always told the Americans would keep a residual force. Then the U.S. ordered a change in early 2021, apparently ignoring the advice of senior military commanders. In mid-April the May 1 departure date sent by the previous president, that included leaving the residual force, was changed to September 11, 2021. This new departure date was symbolic as it is two decades after the al Qaeda terror attacks in the United States that triggered the invasion of Afghanistan and hunt for al Qaeda leaders and Islamic terrorists in general. The departure might still be delayed or cancelled but it has been underway for over a year and it was noted that a residual force of 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan was also preparing to leave. The remaining American troops closed their bases and were living in Afghan bases until they left. After the mid-August Taliban takeover, the American president was asked if he had been told that his military advisors had informed about the need to keep the residual force. The president said he had never been told that. That raised questions about whether the military let the president known that withdrawing the residual force was not a good idea. None of those senior officials, including the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the American commander of all U.S. forces in the region (CENTCOM) would contradict the president unless called before something like the SASC, where lying is a crime. All three senior officials confirmed that the president had been told personally about the need to keep the residual force. In response to the SASC testimony the president said he didn’t remember.

September 28, 2021: The Taliban have finally formed a government and appointed those who will head government ministries. Two of those ministers; Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, were among those found to be Taliban leaders directly involved in running the heroin cartels. By 2012 the American Justice Department was ready to present the evidence in a court and call for indictments. Part of their case was that this approach had worked against the FARC (a similar rebel group in Colombia) in 2006 and the evidence against the Taliban was even stronger. The president put the indictments on hold because of his efforts to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban. Reminders that the same strategy and been tried and failed against FARC did not help, the peace talk efforts continued but never worked. FARC was defeated and ceased to exist because of the indictments. It’s unclear if the Taliban learned anything from that.

September 18, 2021: Chinese media claim recent American actions make it clear that China is now dominant in East Asia and that its power is spreading worldwide. China is openly dismissive of the ability of foreign governments, especially the Americans, to defy Chinese demands. China is flaunting its power in places like Afghanistan where everyone is discovering that China has the final say over who does what there now that the Americans have withdrawn. That is a dubious achievement as far as everyone else in the region is concerned. China is disrupting an ancient rivalry between Persians and Indians over who gets what inside Afghanistan. The economic basis of that rivalry was control over portions of the Silk Road trade routes between China and points west. The Silk Road was replaced by more efficient European ships, and their firepower, six centuries ago. In the 21st century China is reviving the Silk Road as an overland and maritime network through nations friendly towards trade with and investments from China. Iran and India see this as a threat while Pakistan sees it as an economic lifeline as well as an obligation to do what China wants. In Afghanistan China is willing to do business with whoever can provide a safe environment for Chinese investments and trade. There are doubts that anyone can do that and China is waiting to see what Iran and Pakistan can do about it. India and Russia are also cautious about doing business in Afghanistan; both currently consider the IEA a threat. Because of Pakistani control of the IEA, India is now banned from Afghanistan but still has valuable trade relationships with Iran that Iran does not want to lose. China and India are currently archenemies of each other. Finally, there are the Afghan-based drug cartels that supply most of the heroin to the entire planet. While universally hated throughout the region, cartel money is a major source of income for the Taliban and the Pakistan military, which is currently running the government in Pakistan.

Although everyone regards China as a potential wealthy benefactor, the Chinese themselves are less confident. For a decade China has faced the growing prospect of a major financial disaster because of growing bad debts, a property bubble and corruption. Now a major Chinese real estate firm, sitting on over $300 billion of bonds that are as toxic as they come, threatens to trigger the long-feared financial crisis. China can avoid the bankruptcy of the real estate firm, but only for so long. As problems go, this one puts the Chinese interest in Afghanistan into perspective.

September 15, 2021: The safety of Afghan Shia, now that the Taliban are back in control of Afghanistan, has become a major issue in Iran, a minor one for Syria and an uncertain one in the new Taliban controlled Afghanistan. The new IEA government, now more openly controlled by Pakistan, is not seen as an improvement by most Iranians or the 20 percent of Afghans that are Shia. Many of those Afghans served as Iranian mercenaries in Syria and some are still in Syria because they are the best, and most expensive, mercs. The new hardline Iranian government regards “defending all Shia” as one of its core functions. Doing that in Afghanistan and Pakistan, two nations that have been notorious for persistent anti-Shia violence, has been difficult, producing more empty promises and real solutions. Initially the IEA banned attacks on Afghan Shia. Iran believed that could change quickly and it did. The centuries old Sunni animosity towards Shia remains. As in the past, Iran will try to get what it can from the Taliban while remembering that many Taliban factions and individuals see tolerance for Shia as bad for Afghanistan.

September 14, 2021: Afghan refugee resettlement is a major domestic political issue in Turkey, more so than in many other Western, Asian, and African nations. Economic stress from hosting Syrian refugees is a major reason. Afghan refugees would bring more violence, from cultural differences and the threat of Islamic terrorists using refugee status as a cover. Turkey currently assists over four million refugees. An estimated 3.7 million are Syrian refugees. Over 200,000 Afghans are living in Turkey. Many of them have been in Turkey since mid-2011. Over 500,000 Syrian school children attend Turkish schools. Some smaller Turkish provinces are particularly strained. In the south, on the Syrian border, Kilis province has a population of 140,000 Turks and it provides refuge for 105,000 Syrians. Fear of Islamic terrorism is another reason Turks are concerned about an Afghan refugee influx. Moslem majority nations have long been reluctant to accept Moslem refugees, much more so than any Western nations. Many of these refugees prefer to go to a non-Moslem country and Turkey has made a profit on that by demanding large payments from the EU (European Union) to keep Moslem refugees on the Turkish side of the border. During and after the Russian invasion most Afghan refugees ended up in Pakistan. Most of these refugees were Pushtuns and most of the Pakistani border with Afghanistan has Pushtuns on both sides of the border. This was not the case in Iran, which took far fewer Afghan refugees. This time Pakistan does not want any Afghan refugees but that is difficult to enforce because Pushtuns still live on both sides of the border and a new Pushtun movement calls for all Pushtun to oppose Pakistani oppression. Two-thirds of Pushtun live in Pakistan while most of the rest are in Afghanistan.

September 8, 2021: The Russian national security advisor arrived in India to confer with his Indian counterpart and later announced that both countries agreed on the danger Taliban control of Afghanistan is to the region and called on Pakistan to halt its support for the Taliban and halt its support for other Islamic terrorist groups. Russia had tried to improve its relations with Pakistan but found China had a veto on who Pakistan could play with. China is better insulated from any Islamic terrorism the Taliban seek to export. China has also been more successful at keeping the Afghan heroin and opium out.

The Taliban need support from Pakistan and especially China. Pakistan has become an economic vassal of China and gains powerful support in the UN and against international criticism for supporting Islamic terrorism. China is offering the same arrangement to the Taliban government but most Taliban factions oppose being in the pay of the Chinese. Up until now China had accepted Pakistani assurances that Pakistan would continue to control the Taliban leadership after the Taliban replaced the elected government. China was aware of the Taliban disunity over Pakistani influence and Pakistan sent the head of ISI to Kabul to deal with how this was interfering with the formation of a Taliban government. Pakistan needs a clear win in Afghanistan and they are not getting it. The ISI plan has become a shaky house of cards but the new Taliban government was dominated by pro-Pakistan Taliban. The anti-Pakistan Taliban leaders were denied positions in the government they believed they were entitled to. That risks the anti-Taliban factions resuming their violence against Pakistani interests in Afghanistan. If that happens, Chinese investments are not going to happen.

 

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