Afghanistan: Where ISIL Is Vulnerable To Destruction Or Corruption


July 2, 2015: In early April the Taliban announced their first “Summer Offensive” since 2001 in which foreign troops are not present. Actually there are still 20,000 foreign troops and contractors in the country. Technically these foreigners are only supposed to be trainers, advisers and technical support. In reality hundreds of special operations troops are still conducting raids and combat patrols while American UAVs continue searching for and attacking Islamic terrorist leaders. This is done using a clause in the Status of Forces agreement (regulating what foreign troops can do in Afghanistan) that allows foreign troops to act when threatened and Afghan security forces are unable to deal with the problem. The cause of this inaction is often corruption or incompetence but Afghan spokesmen don’t like to admit that and simply blame the foreigners. Islamic terrorists are not the only targets for these foreign forces. Independent (and illegal) militias are also a target, at least when they threaten foreign troops. This often happens when a warlord demands protection money from the foreigners and is turned down. When the warlord attacks (usually by ambushing convoys or firing rockets into a base used by foreigners) the response ranges from a night time raid (and the destruction of stores of ammo, weapons, drugs or whatever) or a UAV missile attack on the warlord, which often announced as another action against Islamic terrorist leadership. In this case the dead leader is not an Islamic terrorist but he often commits the same crimes as the Taliban. One difference is that the warlords are technically not Islamic terrorists but in practice they often operate like bandits, and Afghan bandits use terror regularly. But warlords are sometimes local politicians and often have legitimate links (family, business, friends) with local and national politicians. Faced with the Taliban and drug gangs most Afghans consider the warlords (especially the ones who provide protection, for a price, to locals) as the lesser evil. Thus many of the protests against foreign troops are warlord supporters backing their boss to gain some favorable media attention or locals willing to accept some violence against useful, but very wealthy, foreigners.  

The Summer Offensive has caused high casualties in the security forces, and higher losses for the Taliban. In response the Taliban have been turning their efforts towards gaining more media attention. That is done via bombings in urban areas where there is likely to be foreign media to notice. Another attention-getter is seizing control of a remote district capital. The remoteness of some of these towns means it takes a few days, or weeks, for the security forces to get enough troops into the area to chase the Taliban out. “Capturing a district capital” is always good for a headline in foreign media because the foreigners don’t really understand that a lot of these district capitals are small towns in remote areas that few Afghans care about. The Taliban, or local drug gangs only have a lot of control in a few of the 373 districts (each province is composed of districts). The Taliban are active in 10-15 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. Populous or heavily trafficked districts usually have enough police, soldiers or pro-government militias nearby to keep the Taliban out of the towns that serve as district capitals. But in remote, thinly populated districts it is different and a Taliban force can sneak in and take over for a while, grabbing some media attention along the way.

Taliban problems with former Taliban (including most of the non-Afghans, mainly from Central Asia and Chechnya) who have left to form local branches of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) have gotten worse because these groups are using tactics aimed at making the Taliban look bad. For example the ISIL men do not terrorize local villagers and pay for any supplies or services they need. The ISIL men point out that the Taliban have become corrupted by working with drug gangs and are no better than bandits. This resonates with the Pushtun tribesmen, but there is fear that ISIL will soon turn to enforcing strict lifestyle rules, something the Taliban have backed away from (because of sustained popular resistance). That has not happened yet and currently ISIL concentrates on staying alive in the face of Taliban and government attacks. Much of the ISIL action is taking place in the east (Nangarhar province) were the ISIL battles with Taliban groups has left dozens dead or wounded since May. The Taliban tries to keep this war with ISIL a secret but the news gets out (often via cell phone) and spreads. ISIL has openly declared war on the Taliban and gains some traction with accusations that the Taliban were created and still work for Pakistan. This is largely true, but the Taliban also work for local drug gangs. ISIL is aware of that but knows that the Pakistani connection is more of an issue to most Afghans. Yet the growing presence of ISIL in Afghanistan is also bad news to many Afghans because ISIL is basically Islamic terrorists who have become even more violent and uncompromising. For the Taliban ISIL is worse they are more religious and less likely to abuse local civilians.

In 2014 the defections to ISIL began when a few Taliban leaders (especially field commanders who have armed followers and know how to fight) defecting to ISIL and were soon at war with a Taliban they see as sell-outs and reactionary Islamic radical pretenders. Some of these new ISIL groups appear to have modified their stance on the drug trade as even ISIL fanatics have operating expenses and in a few cases ISIL has replaced the Taliban as drug gang hired guns. ISIL leadership in Syria opposes this and has created a cash pipeline to provide money for operating expenses and make it unnecessary to have any friendly dealings with criminal gangs of any sort. The drug gangs aren’t taking sides in the Taliban/ISIL feud because for a drug lord it is all just business. Now ISIL is using more direct attacks on nearby Taliban factions in what appears to be a sustained effort to replace the Taliban. If the local ISIL can maintain other sources of income they could eventually become a threat to the drug gangs. The drug lords don’t believe it will ever come to that because ISIL in Syria is under growing attack and most governments (and many rival Islamic terror groups) are constantly attacking these ISIL cash pipelines and will eventually cut off the money supply. At that point the Afghan ISIL groups will be vulnerable to destruction or corruption.

One thing warlords, the Taliban, drug gangs and ISIL can agree on is the need to halt the American UAV operations. Not only do these persistent aircraft constantly search for, and often find, people they are looking for but often fire very accurate and effective missiles. This has become a major problem for leaders of all these criminal or Islamic terror groups. Even if you manage to avoid the missiles you do so by severely restricting your movement, communications and other activities. Because the UAV operations are run solely by the Americans bribes don’t work. Worse, Afghan officials who are not on the payroll often provide the Americans with tips about where potential targets are. In response more cash and threats are used against vulnerable officials to obtain some public protests against the UAV operations. This does not impress locals, most of whom back the UAV operations, but the protests connect with some foreign media and politicians.

Another problem the drug gangs currently have is a global heroin price war caused by too much heroin coming out of Afghanistan, Burma and other new sources. Heroin is a lucrative business and more people want market share. This means Afghan drug gangs have to produce and move more opium and heroin in return for less money. That is bad for business on many levels, especially on the retail end (where a lot more users overdose and that discourages potential new users). Afghanistan is still the major (over 80 percent of the market) producer but tribal rebels in northern Burma are expanding production and currently account for about ten percent of the global heroin supply. Other significant (and growing) producers are in in Pakistan, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico.

While a few large gangs and warlords control the heroin business, there are other illegal enterprises available to local hustlers. One of the most popular of these is illegal mining. There are over 2,000 illegal mines operating throughout Afghanistan and these have grown so numerous that legal mining has declined. The major problem legal mining encounters is poor security and infrastructure which is sustained by lots of corruption. Small, private mines increased production, as did illegal mines. Since 2010 there have been efforts to get large-scale legal mining operations going. While there are believed to be over a trillion dollars of minerals underground, you need a honest and efficient government before foreign firms will invest tens of billions to set up the large mines and build roads and railroads to get the goodies out, and equipment in. These mines generate tremendous revenue for the government and lots of good jobs. That won't happen as long as the drug gangs dominate the south. This is actually old news, as there have been several surveys of the country since World War II and the mineral deposits were, at least among geologists, common knowledge. Some have tried to get large scale operations going and all, so far, have failed. But because of American encouragement in 2010 the Afghan government called for foreign firms to make offers. There was some interest but the mining companies soon encountered the same fate of past efforts (corruption and lack of infrastructure). Meanwhile the small scale mines continue with the expensive assistance of the criminal underground.

Peace talks with the Taliban are going nowhere, at least as far as the national government is concerned. The Taliban demand the removal of all foreign troops and elimination of any security agreements with non-Moslem nations. This includes taking the Taliban off the list of international terrorist organization and the release of all convicted Taliban from prison. This last item is very unpopular with most Afghans, who have long memories of the many friends and family killed by these Islamic terrorists. Taliban leaders are talking with local officials, warlords and anyone interested in seeing the Taliban stop fighting and return to political life. The catch is that the Taliban need money and their only reliable source of cash (since the 1990s) has been the drug gangs.

July 1, 2015: In the east (Paktika Province) a battle broke out between Afghan and Pakistani border guards. Both sides blamed the other for starting it. One Afghan was killed and two Pakistanis wounded. Relationships between border security personnel are often tense for a number of reasons. The main ones are historical. For centuries the people in what is now Pakistan have felt a need to have some control over what went on in what is now eastern Afghanistan. That’s because the Pushtun tribes along the current border between Afghanistan and Pakistan have, for thousands of years, raided into Pakistan and northern India. The last major invasion was in 1919 although many Pakistanis consider the current Islamic terrorist situation in the border area another “invasion”. Naturally, the Afghans resent the continued interference in their affairs by Pakistan, especially the way Pakistani intelligence (ISI) uses Islamic terrorists to keep Afghanistan in chaos. Pakistan denies the charges, but it’s no secret that the ISI invented the Taliban in the early 1990s and have long sponsored many Islamic terrorist groups.

June 30, 2015: In the north (Baghlan province) an army general was arrested when he was caught with 19 kg (40 pounds) of heroin in his vehicle. The general was in a convoy headed for Nangarhar province and his vehicle would not be searched at the various checkpoints the convoy would pass along the way.

In the east (Nangarhar province) an American UAV used missiles to kill 14 Taliban near the Pakistani border.

June 26, 2015: In the east (Nuristan province) an American UAV used missiles to kill six Taliban.

June 18, 2015: In the east (Nangarhar province) an American UAV used missiles to kill eight Taliban.

June 16, 2015: In the east, on the Pakistan border Pakistani medics responded to a call from Afghan troops to provide emergency aid for an Afghan soldier badly wounded in a battle with Islamic terrorists just across the border. Pakistan and Afghan have a new agreement to coordinate military operations near the border so the Afghan commanders were in touch with their Pakistani counterparts because this fighting (within a kilometer of the border) might result in bullets or explosives landing in Pakistan. In this case the Pakistanis quickly sent a medical team 600 meters into Afghanistan and treated the Afghan soldier. This incident got lots of publicity on both sides of the border because it was a rare incidence of good will between the two countries, which since 2001 have tended towards violence and harsh rhetoric when it came to what happened on the border. 

June 15, 2015: Yet another casualty of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is supply lines for Western troops in Afghanistan. In response to sanctions Russia has shut down railroad access to Afghanistan via Central Asia and Russia. This move is not popular with the other nations involved because everyone along the route, including Russia, got paid. But Russia has few options as it seeks to fight back against Western economic sanctions (in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine).

June 12, 2015: In the east, on the Pakistan border near the Khyber Pass a bomb in a pushcart killed one person and wounded six others. The bomb was placed near the main crossing with Afghanistan.

June 10, 2015: In Kabul a suicide car bomb went off outside parliament, killing two people and wounding thirty. A police analysis of the bomb and car debris identified Pakistan as the source of the car bomb. Later evidence was obtained showing Pakistani intelligence (ISI) involvement.





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