Afghanistan: It Is All Just Business


May 21, 2015: The “Taliban peace talks” are not just about eliminating Islamic terrorist violence but legitimizing the drug business that religious zealots (the Taliban and others) and a few tribes (mainly Pushtuns in the south) depend on. Most Afghans are aghast at the corrupting influence of all the drug money but are not surprised that those getting most of the cash want to keep getting it. The Taliban also take advantage of the fact that Afghanistan has no tradition of a strong (or very capable) central government. By concentrating forces in a few key (to the drug trade) areas the drug gangs can fight the much larger security forces on more even terms and at least intimidate most of the locals into letting the drug gangs go about their business unmolested (despite the anger of those families with addict problems).  Meanwhile the government has begun a new round of peace talks (in Qatar) with some Taliban factions. Less publicized is the growing incidence of unofficial negotiations. That’s another way of describing the growing number of politicians who take money from drug gangs. It’s had to be an honest government employee in Afghanistan. If bribes don’t work there’s also intimidation or assassination. The “gold (bribe) or lead (a bullet)” offer is also applied to journalists, businessmen and anyone else the drug gangs feel they need some cooperation from.  

While the rest of the world and most Afghans want peace and prosperity for Afghanistan, every nation (and most Afghans) also want the Afghan government to destroy the opium crops and shut down the heroin trade. Many Afghans were willing to do this because more and more Afghans were getting addicted to the cheaper opium (which is scrapped off the poppy plants and most is refined into heroin). About ten percent of the Afghan population is addicted, mainly to opium and heroin. Up to 40 percent of those in some police units were found to have been users. Anyone with money to spend in Afghanistan, and that number is growing every year, are tempted to try some opium or heroin.

Far more people are users without becoming addicts but it’s the addicts that get the most attention because they are considered a major problem for families and neighbors. Addicts will steal or kill to feed their addiction and all that addiction makes the drug gangs and their Taliban allies very unpopular. As Afghanistan became more prosperous after 2002 (because of peace and lots of foreign aid) the number of addicts in Afghanistan grew. It’s now nearly three million, mostly in the south and in the large cities. Most Afghan religious, tribal and political leaders (including the Taliban) are hostile to the drugs and what drugs do to so many Afghans. Only about ten percent of Afghans benefit directly from the drug trade, and a nasty side effect is easy access to cheap opium and ending up with many addicts in your family. The Taliban technically forbids its members to use drugs, but looks the other way at many young gunmen it hires who want to get high, and will do so no matter what. The Taliban has been living off the drug gangs since the late 1990s and justify this by promising to return to the system they imposed during the 1990s, when the gangs were forced to export nearly all their production and were severely punished if any of the opium or heroin got out to the locals. That restriction disappeared along with the Taliban in late 2001. It only worked back then because the Taliban offered security for the drug gangs in return for cash and keeping the drugs away from Afghans. Some in the current Afghan government see that as a possible option now that the Westerners are gone, even though the Western donors have made it clear that the aid will disappear (and the bombs will return) if Afghanistan turns into a “narco state” (the national government is on the drug gang payroll). Many current government officials are already bribed by the drug gangs and the Afghans will keep wheeling and dealing with drug lords and foreign diplomats in order to keep the cash, but not the bombs, coming.

The Taliban and their violence get most of the headlines, but that’s not the only reason for some 90 percent of Afghans (according to many opinion polls) disliking or hating the Taliban. The big reason is drug addiction among Afghans. This has nearly doubled (to three million) since 2012. That is the result of more opium and heroin being produced and the growing economy (making it possible for more Afghans to buy drugs).

The Taliban violence is also an issue but this is only a big deal in about ten percent of the country. The Taliban, or local drug gangs assuming the name only have a lot of control in a few of the 373 districts (each province is composed of districts). The Taliban are very active in over ten percent of districts, mainly in the south (Helmand and Kandahar, where most of the heroin is produced) and the east (where many Pakistan/ISI supported Islamic terrorist groups operate). Eastern Afghanistan is also the main transit route for drug exports and those drugs (heroin, opium and a few others) generates the cash that keeps the Taliban a major problem. There is also significant Taliban activity in the north, where another major drug smuggling route goes through Central Asia. But the main route is in the east, which goes to the Pakistani port of Karachi and thence the world. While the Taliban related violence is usually described as the Taliban on the attack the reality is that the Taliban are trying to defend their drug production areas and the territory through which the drug exports go. Over 90 percent of the drugs produced in Afghanistan are exported because that’s where the money is. The Afghan addicts cannot afford to pay much for their opium or heroin. It’s the foreign users who pay the most.  Follow the money if you want to find out what is wrong in Afghanistan and why.

As promised the Taliban are making a major military effort against the Afghan security forces now that that foreign troops are no longer doing any of the fighting. That role ended in late 2014. As a result the 170,000 troops of the Afghan Army have, so far this year, suffered 70 percent more casualties than the same period last year. Taliban losses have also been very high, but they have lower recruiting standards and can offer drugs as well as money for those young tribesmen willing to take a chance during the “fighting season” (the annual warm weather period between the time crops are planted and harvested). Going off to try and gain some glory and loot at this time of year is an ancient tradition in Afghanistan. Being part of an organized army is not.

It’s not just the locals who are causing all the violence. The mid-2014 Pakistani Army offensive against the Taliban (and other Islamic terror groups) in North Waziristan continues and by the end of 2014 had sent thousands of hardcore Islamic terrorists across the border into Afghanistan seeking sanctuary. That did not happen because the local Afghans in the border area adjacent to North Waziristan did not want a huge influx of heavily armed religious zealots moving in. Many of these invaders had carried out terror attacks in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan and were wanted on both sides of the border. So these armed refugees didn’t find sanctuary just less intense violence from the local security forces.

While the government’s problems with terrorism gets most of the headlines, there is another war going on that is crucial to the survival that gets little media attention. In addition to the many internal feuds the Taliban has had to contend with there is now an outright civil war between the Taliban and former Taliban (including most of the non-Afghans, mainly from Central Asia and Chechnya) who have left to form a local branch of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).  This is a big problem for everyone in Afghanistan because ISIL is basically Islamic terrorists who have become even more violent and uncompromising. In 2014 the defections began when a few Taliban leaders (especially field commanders who have armed followers and know how to fight) defected to ISIL and were soon at war with a Taliban they see as sell-outs and reactionary Islamic radical pretenders. Since then most of these new ISIL groups appear to have modified their stance on the drug trade as even ISIL fanatics have operating expenses and have replaced the Taliban as drug gang hired guns in some parts of the country. The drug gangs aren’t taking sides in the Taliban/ISIL feud because for a drug lord it is all just business.

Most worrisome is the way ISIL tends to attract non-Afghans, who have always tended to be more brutal than Afghans. Even before ISIL showed up there were violent clashes between the Taliban and groups of foreign Islamic terrorists who were deemed too violent against Afghan civilians and disrespectful to Afghanistan in general. Some of these groups were completely wiped out, even though some had married local women and tried to blend in. That is not the Afghan way and it takes centuries for some new group to be accepted as “locals”. The traditional Afghan attitude towards foreigners is hostility. There have been a growing number of clashes between ISIL and Taliban in eastern and southern Afghanistan. ISIL has also attracted recruits from the Pakistani Taliban. The newly established ISIL branch in the region includes new ISIL cells in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Afghan factions have the edge because they have access to more cash as they displace the Taliban as hired muscle for the drug gangs. Unlike the Taliban (who are mainly interested in ruling Afghanistan) and al Qaeda (which wants to conquer the world and attack the West), ISIL puts its priority on first purifying Islam by finding and killing heretical or otherwise flawed Moslems. Thus ISIL tends to come after the Taliban and al Qaeda first. But that has not happened all the time, apparently because even the new ISIL recruits can count and note that they are vastly outnumbered by Taliban gunmen.

Some of the new ISIL factions appear to be going after a favorite target of all Sunni Islamic terrorists; Shia Moslems and non-Moslems in general. Despite that, these new ISIL groups do proclaim that they are morally superior to the Taliban and al Qaeda and apparently will take on local Taliban fighters if there seems to be a chance of victory. Meanwhile Afghan Shia see ISIL as just another bunch of Sunni fanatics out to kill Shia. Most Afghan Shia have another strike against them because they are Hazara, a group in central Afghanistan that is descended from Mongols who invaded and devastated much of southern Afghanistan centuries ago. Those bitter memories still linger among the Pushtun tribes, who comprise most of the Taliban. Meanwhile the clashes between ISIL and Taliban are part of a trend, because other Islamic terrorist groups have come to consider the Taliban a bunch of drug gang lackeys and sellouts to the cause of radical Islam. The Taliban has a growing list of enemies including the security forces, tribal militias (especially in the north) and competing Islamic terror organizations.

While the foreign troops are gone foreign air support is not. There is not as much American air support (about two attacks a day compared to over ten a day in 2014) but it is still available. Afghan aircraft (firing Hellfire missiles) and helicopters (firing rockets, machine-guns and some guided missiles) are providing air support in some areas. At its peak in 2011 foreign warplanes flew an average of 364 sorties a day over Afghanistan and a quarter of those were making attacks in support of ground forces. At the end almost all those air attacks were in support of Afghan soldiers and police. Now the Afghans have to depend on the Afghan Air Force which, in 2014, flew only 19 sorties a day and only two or three were to attack anything on the ground. The Afghan Air Force has less than a hundred aircraft, most of them for transport and recon. Some aircraft and helicopters are armed (with machine-guns and unguided rockets) but they cannot provide the quality of air attacks the Americans (with their smart bombs and guided missiles) can. There are only enough American warplanes still in Afghanistan to deal with emergencies involving the 10,600 American troops (and several thousand civilian contractors) still in the country as well as more than 5,000 foreign troops and officials from American allies. 

While the army and police are taking higher casualties this year they are also inflicting even higher losses on the Islamic terrorists and drug gangs. Opinion polls make it clear that most Afghans oppose the Taliban and drug gangs and many more Afghans are using the new prosperity (annual GDP growth since 2002 has averaged over 10 percent) to buy guns and join local self-defense militias. While the Taliban are trying to make the country less safe since the departure of the foreign troops the growth of rival factions (ISIL) and local defense militias, plus the surprisingly lethal security forces, has made Afghanistan a lot more unsafe for the Taliban.

May 19, 2015: In Kabul a Taliban suicide car bomber forced his way into the parking lot of the Justice Ministry and detonated, killing six people. This was the fifth attack on the justice system this this month. The Taliban know that key judges and prosecutors can be intimidated by threats of violence if bribes don’t work.

May 17, 2015: Outside of Kabul a Taliban effort to use a suicide car bomber to kill members of the EU (European Union) police training mission failed and instead killed three civilians (including one from Britain) and wounding 18.

May 14, 2015: Afghanistan and Pakistan signed an intelligence cooperation agreement. Some senior Afghan officials did not agree with this deal because they believe the Pakistanis cannot be trusted. The Afghans are most upset at the continued Pakistani refusal to shut down the Taliban sanctuary in Baluchistan (just across the border from Kandahar and Helmand provinces). The U.S. has been instrumental in persuading (some say bribing or coercing) both sides into these cooperation deals. Pakistan has also been pressuring Afghanistan to either go after Pakistani Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah, who has moved his headquarters to eastern Afghanistan (Nuristan Province, northeast of Kabul), or allow Pakistani troops to do it. Afghanistan is still  debating what to do. Mullah Fazlullah has tribal allies in eastern Afghanistan (where many tribes straddle the Pakistani border) and making a major effort to get him might cause long-term problems between the national government and the tribes in Nuristan Province. This area is remote and thinly populated (130,000). It has long suffered a large Taliban presence. Mullah Fazlullah has been active in the area for several years and has lots of allies. Afghanistan is also reluctant to go after Mullah Fazlullah with Afghan troops because the Americans are already seeking to kill the Taliban leader via a UAV air strike. American Special Forces have also been active in this area for a long time, at least in terms of intelligence work (reconnaissance and recruiting informants) because Nuristan has long been a favorite smugglers route.

Afghanistan is also not happy with the current Pakistani propaganda campaign that accuses India of supporting the Taliban (all factions) and the tribal separatists in southwest Pakistan (Baluchistan). Most Afghans accept the fact that the Pakistanis created the Taliban in the early 1990s. The Pakistani branch was appeared in 2007 when a coalition of Pakistani Islamic terrorist groups formed to destroy the Pakistani government and replace it with a religious dictatorship. The Afghan branch has been headquartered in Baluchistan since late 2001 in a sanctuary that has always been off limits to American UAV missile attacks. Afghanistan might be interested in going after Mullah Fazlullah if Pakistan would shut down the Baluchistan sanctuary but Pakistan refuses to even consider that. This confirms Afghan suspicions that all this “India backs Islamic terrorists” talk is just another part of the long-term Pakistani effort to extend its control over Afghanistan.

May 13, 2015: In Kabul three (or more) Taliban attacked a heavily guarded hotel popular with foreigners. Their target was apparently the Indian ambassador to Afghanistan. The ambassador was unharmed but four Indians were killed along with five other foreigners. All the attackers were killed after several hours of shooting. The security forces managed to get 54 people safely out of the hotel while the soldiers and police went in to hunt down the attackers.

May 10, 2015: Up north several thousand Taliban gunmen have been trying to fight their way into Kunduz City since April 24th. In the first five days the Islamic terrorists took over 500 casualties and got no further than the outskirts. They are still trying. Taliban efforts to establish base areas outside the south have not gone so well but they keep trying because control of border areas, and routes to them, in the north (to Central Asia) and east (to Pakistan, the port of Karachi and then the world) are essential for the drug gangs. Most drug sales are outside of Afghanistan and these smuggling routes are essential and must be safe enough to get most of the drugs out without being seized and destroyed. Bribes do most of the work with force being applied as needed. This explains the constant battles in northern and eastern Afghanistan. The fighting in the south is easier to understand because that is where the opium and heroin are produces. The problem in the north is that the Pushtun tribes up there are minorities, and are more concerned about angering non-Pushtun neighbors than in cooperating with Pushtun-run drug gangs from the south. As a result in the north more people are providing information on Taliban movements, and more Taliban are getting caught or killed up there. Kunduz Province has always been the key to the northern smuggling route and Kunduz City (the provincial capital) is the key to controlling the province. Trying to seize control of Kunduz City is risky but a bold move nonetheless.

Hatred of the drug gangs and the Taliban is most intense in the north, where the non-Pushtun tribes (who are 60 percent of the Afghan population) are very hostile to any Pushtun “invasion”. The battle for Kunduz City is a test of whether dug gang money and hired guns (the Taliban) can overwhelm local hostility. Drug gang bribes have already bought temporary loyalty of many northerners, but can guns and money control the entire province? So far it’s a standoff with Taliban gunmen blocking most roads around the city while the government and local tribes send more reinforcements. ISIL is also active in Kunduz Province and apparently also employed by at least one drug gang. So far over 100,000 civilians have fled the area, fearing that the fighting will escalate before it is over.

May 9, 2015: In the east (Nangarhar province) missiles from several American UAV attacks in the last ten days have killed over 40 Islamic terrorists, including (according to local police) several local Taliban leaders. The police and many civilians in the area supply useful information for UAV operations.

May 7, 2015: Commercial flights to the northern city of Kunduz have been suspended because of increased Taliban activity near the airport.





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