Afghanistan: The Terminal Phase

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August 11, 2015: The Taliban have been particularly active lately with suicide bomb attacks. Less frequent are attacks meant to take control of territory. This is a sign of frustration, and defeat. The Taliban no longer have the numbers (of gunmen) and cohesion (many factions want to make peace) to fight for territory. Moreover the Taliban found that the post-NATO departure (in 2014) Afghan security forces were more formidable than predicted. That should not have been a surprise, but that is the downside to believing your own propaganda. After all the Afghan security forces consist of Afghans who think like Afghans, can fight like Afghans but have had Western combat training and know how to outfight Afghans. Worst of all, years of terrorizing civilians and the spread of cell phone service have resulted in a situation where the Taliban are much hated and very vulnerable to a telephone call to the local police, army unit or tribal militia leader (out to kill some Taliban for some past atrocity). With the Americans and other foreigners officially gone the most frequently mentioned “foreign enemy” is Pakistan not some Western nation. The Americans are seen as useful allies, although they are too obsessed with curbing corruption and other traditional forms of Afghan hospitality and self-help (like domestic violence and sex with children).

To further complicate matters there are a growing number of Islamic terror groups switching allegiance to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and becoming even more violent and reckless. This is particularly true of some Taliban and al Qaeda groups who feel restrained by defeat or growing calls for peace from many long-time Islamic terrorists. Going ISIL means more suicidal violence and less regard for killing Moslem women and children (traditionally something Afghan warriors avoided). If Islamic terrorism is a disease ISIL appears to be the terminal phase.

The Afghan leadership, from the newly elected president on down, is more frequently accusing Pakistan of continuing to provide sanctuary and support for Islamic terrorists operating inside Afghanistan. This is particularly embarrassing since Afghanistan and Pakistan recently announced an Islamic terrorist intelligence sharing agreement to deal with groups operating on both sides of the border. Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of cheating on this deal and continuing to support anti-Afghan groups like the Haqqani Network. Publicly Pakistan denies this, privately senior officials plead for patience because Pakistan has a well-known problem with its powerful and independent minded military and the traditionally pro-Islamic terrorist intelligence organization (the ISI). Afghan officials understand all that but Afghans in general want some action on the part of the Pakistan government. Something must be done about decades of anti-Afghan terrorism coming out of Pakistan. This desire influences attitudes towards Pakistan as most Afghans see all Islamic terrorists as pro-Pakistan thugs intent on going bad things to Afghanistan and Afghans. It’s a toxic situation that Pakistan created and seems unable to undo.

Adding to the Taliban troubles is the fact that most American UAV operations have shifted from Pakistan to Afghanistan and apparently a lot of the UAVs remained in Afghanistan even as many manned warplanes left. The Afghan population is a lot more pro-UAV than Pakistanis and will phone in tips and cooperate with Afghan soldiers and police on the ground who often arrive after a UAV attack to collect intelligence data and prisoners. Afghans see the UAVs as the cure for the thugs who abuse them and the UAVs do their work with a minimal amount of damage to nearby civilians. This constant threat from above makes it difficult for Islamic terrorists to move freely or without fear of detection. It’s not as bad in the warm weather, when there is lots of foliage, but there are also lots more civilians with cell phones wandering around. Being too aggressive with local civilians, especially in taking their cell phones, risks bringing out a local tribal militia against you. The locals don’t like to do this as it takes them away from their work, risks their lives and longer term violence with Islamic terrorists. But if you abuse the locals too much, it leads to more violence than the Taliban can handle while still taking care of their usual activities.   

All this adds up to the Taliban heading for a major defeat and it has little to do with their recent admission that their leader, Mullah Omar, had died in 2013 while in a Pakistani hospital. Instead consider the trends. In 2009 and 2010 the Taliban made a major effort seize control of territory. That failed and in those two years the Taliban suffered nearly 10,000 dead. About half as many civilians were killed, mostly victims of the Taliban. During all this Afghan security forces lost about 2,500 soldiers and police while foreign troops lost about 1,200 dead. For the next two years (2011-12) the Taliban backed off and cut their losses to about 2,700 a year. Civilian losses increased to about 3,000 each year as the Taliban spent more time trying to coerce their traditional tribal allies into remaining loyal.

Meanwhile foreign troops were preparing to leave as the Afghan security forces grew more numerous and began taking responsibility for safeguarding more of the country. Army and police losses went up (2,000 in 2011 and 3,400 in 2012). Foreign troops saw their losses decline (566 in 2011 and 402 in 2012) mainly because foreign forces were beginning to leave. The Taliban leaders told their troops they would triumph by 2015 as the last foreign combat forces left. That didn’t happen. In 2014 the Taliban lost about 6,000 men, up from 2,700 in 2014. But during the first half of 2015 the Taliban lost as many men as all of 2014. Then came news that Mullah Omar, the supreme Taliban leaders (since the mid-1990s), had died in 2013. This tore the Afghan Taliban apart as long-held suspicions became reality.

Pakistan would never admit that they had granted Omar sanctuary in Quetta (southwestern Pakistan) in 2002 and had protected him from American UAV surveillance and attacks ever since. Until a few years ago there were occasional reports of seeing Omar in Quetta or some other senior Islamic terrorist visiting him there. But since 2012 Omar was not heard from. Now we know why. But even if Omar was not dead the reports of his demise was demoralizing to his followers in Afghanistan. That, plus the years of battlefield defeats and the growing number of Pushtun tribes turning against the Taliban had created major morale problems.  Most Afghans were fed up with the decades of violence. Millions have died since the late 1970s from all this civil war, Russian invasion, more civil war, American invasion then Islamic terrorism. The most recent catastrophe came in 2007 when the Taliban began their offensive to take back control of the country. So far that effort has left some 77,000 Afghans dead (plus about 3,000 foreign troops). Most (53 percent) of the Afghan losses were among the Taliban and other Islamic terror groups. About 30 percent of the losses were civilians, including pro-government tribal militias. About 16 percent of the dead were Afghan soldiers and police. Most of the Taliban losses were from Pushtun tribes in southern Afghanistan that had always supported the Taliban. But such heavy losses caused a change in attitude. Many tribes were not becoming anti-Taliban as much as they were inclined to accept government offers of peace in return for amnesty and some cash and access to the foreign aid that had benefitted other parts of the country (especially the north) where there were few Taliban. For these Pushtun tribes it was not defeat it was simply realignment. Not all the Pushtun want peace, but it’s always been like that.

August 10, 2015: Outside Kabul a Taliban suicide car bomber was forced to detonate at the entrance to the airport because security would not let him through. Five civilians were killed although the Taliban claimed, as they usually do, that all or most of the casualties were military and there were a lot more dead. At this point most Afghans know better.  This annoys the Taliban, who do not like getting sneered at and mocked.

August 9, 2015: ISIL released a video, said to be from Afghanistan, showing ISIL executing ten men from an anti-terrorist tribal militia by using explosives. The video shows the explosives being buried and wired and then the victims being forced to kneel over there the buried explosives. Then there is an explosion in which the victim can be seen being dismembered and blown into the air. ISIL considers this great for recruiting and for scaring potential victims.

August 8, 2015: In the east (Nangarhar province) an American UAV missile attack killed ten Islamic terrorists. In the past two months such air attacks have killed over 200 Islamic terrorists in eastern Afghanistan and wounded many more. In addition thousands of Taliban in the area live in fear and move very carefully, if at all.

August 7, 2015: In Kabul a Taliban attack force got into an American base by using a vehicle bomb to blast through the fence that allowed several gunmen to get in. The attackers did not get far and all four were killed after about 30 minutes of gunfire. One American and eight Afghans were killed and twenty other people of various nationalities wounded. The U.S. pointed out that Islamic terrorist violence in Afghanistan was down nine percent compared to last year. Yet the attack on the American base was but one of three Islamic terror attacks in Kabul today that killed fifty people altogether.

July 31, 2015: In the wake of revelations that Afghan Taliban founder and leader Mullah Omar died in 2013 come similar stories circulated that Haqqani Network founder and leader Jalaluddin Haqqani had died over a year ago. Jalaluddin Haqqani was once a follower of Omar and a senior Taliban leader. Jalaluddin Haqqani helped Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders escape Afghanistan in 2001 and then went back to running the Haqqani Network as a separate organization that developed a very close and loyal relationship with Pakistani intelligence (ISI) and is still protected by the Pakistani military.

July 23, 2015: Afghanistan complained that 53 rockets were fired from Pakistan into eastern Afghanistan (Nangarhar and Kunar provinces). Although most of the rockets landed in remote areas they still managed to kill four civilians and wound two others. These rocket, mortar and artillery attacks from Pakistan have been particularly heavy since 2013. Pakistan usually refuses to admit they are even happening but because of the recent cooperation deal (mainly against Islamic terrorists) Pakistan is more receptive to these complaints.

 

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