Afghanistan and Pakistan are increasing their joint efforts to track down and kill members of the growing local branch of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). This group is attracting many of the most fanatic Islamic terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan and is believed to have as many as 3,000 members in Afghanistan. These men are attracted to the ISIL view of the world. For example ISIL insists that the Pakistani military controls the Afghan Taliban as well as Islamic terrorist groups based in Pakistan that mainly operate inside India. These accusations are nothing new but they are the reason ISIL considers Pakistan un-Islamic and worthy of some lethal retribution delivered by ISIL. To underscore that ISIL has been carrying out suicide bomber attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So far there have been few such attacks because ISIL is under attack by Afghan and Pakistani security forces as well as rival Islamic terrorist groups. For most of 2015 ISIL has been trying to establish a base area in eastern Afghanistan (mainly Nangarhar Province) but that has led to constant skirmishing with Pakistani Taliban hiding out there. The local tribes are also largely hostile to ISIL and all this has provided better intel for the security forces on what ISIL is up to and exactly where they are. This has led to more effective and frequent American air strikes and raids by Afghan troops and American commandos. ISIL is hanging on but not growing rapidly. There are some ISIL members operating in Pakistan, which is an even more hostile environment for them because of widespread hostility towards ISIL tactics by most Pakistanis. Since ISIL considers all other Islamic terror groups enemies the group has to become large enough to crush the local Islamic terrorist competition before it can become a major threat. So far that is not happening.
What makes Afghanistan such a difficult situation to follow is the fact that there are several wars going on at once that often, but not always, intertwine. First there is the centuries old hostility between major tribes. The most visible aspect of this is the efforts by the Pushtun tribes (the largest minority) to dominate the other tribes (who actually are 60 percent of the population.) Up to the 1970s there was an agreement that largely kept the peace. In this deal Afghanistan was a constitutional monarchy presided over by a Pushtun king who largely dealt with foreigners and left the tribes to negotiate their differences. At that point Afghanistan was still largely medieval as far as cultural norms and economic activity were concerned. But the 20th century was making an impression and the educated urban minority was calling for radical change. This was tempting to many leading Afghans but the vast majority of Afghans were still in the countryside ruled by tribal leaders. Most of these opposed any radical change. The reform factions (mainly the pro-communist ones) got violent, tried to overthrow the monarchy, failed and in 1979 Russia intervened to rescue their fellow communists. That led to a civil war that is still going on. The Russians left in frustration (not defeat) in 1989 and continued to supply the communist (or at least pro-Soviet) Afghan government with weapons and cash until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. By 1993 the pro-Russian government was gone and the violence evolved into a multi-faction civil war. Pakistan then created the Taliban to establish a pro-Pakistan religious dictatorship which lasted September 2001. At that point the U.S. intervened on the side of the non-Pushtun tribes that were still fighting the Taliban. Even then the Taliban had antagonized most Afghans and by the end of 2001 the Taliban government was gone.
While the non-Pushtun tribes were able to organize a working coalition with the Pushtun tribes there was a new complication. During the 1980s the heroin production business was driven out of Pakistan (where it was, and still is not welcome) into nearby southern (Pushtun) Afghanistan. There it remains, centered on Helmand province, which is right next to Kandahar province, where the founders of the Taliban came from. In 2002 the defeated Taliban got a sanctuary across the border in Pakistan (in an area bordering Helmand and Kandahar). The sanctuary remains active although Pakistan never admitted it.
What most Westerners don’t notice is that one thing all the tribes in Afghanistan, along with most everyone in Pakistan, Iran and other neighbors, is that the opium/heroin gangs are bad. While most of these drugs are exported the production in Helmand (where over 80 percent of the world supply of opium and heroin comes from) has made cheap drugs available throughout the region creating over five million addicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran alone. The drug business provides income for about ten percent of Afghans and large fortunes for a few hundred families, but for most people the drugs are a curse. But money buys weapons, politicians and unemployed country boys seeking a gun and a job. Since the 1990s the Taliban and other Islamic terror groups have financed their operations by working with the drug gangs. That arrangement continues and has proven very difficult to overcome.
All this is nothing new. Similar situations existed in the Golden Triangle (centered on Burma and the China border) the original source of most opium in the world as well as Colombia, the source of most cocaine. In the Golden Triangle the alliance is between tribal rebels and the drug gangs while in Colombia it is between leftist rebels and the drug gangs. There were successful campaigns against the alliances in Burma and Colombia, although the drug trade persisted. Heroin production was forced to move from Burma to Pakistan and then Afghanistan. Cocaine can move to nations neighboring Colombia, but in both these cases the drug gang coalition never came as close to conquering an entire nation as it has in Afghanistan. While much is made about the Islamic terrorist angle and religion in general it is mainly about money and power. This is how it has always been in Afghanistan, where Islam has been for over a thousand years but wealth and tribal politics have existed for far longer.
The drug gangs are willing to subsidize the Taliban in order to keep the cash coming. Heroin is the most lucrative thing to happen to Afghanistan since the Silk Road disappeared 500 years ago. Because of that, heroin is worth dying for. The Silk Road was an ancient trade route between China, the Middle East and India which ran through western Afghanistan. When it disappeared so did interest in Afghanistan. Iranian and Indian empires used to control large parts of Afghanistan but after the Silk Road money was gone so were the foreigners. Now the foreigners are back, but only as long as the drug trade exists and enough Afghans have a financial interest in that to keep the violence going. You can see how this works today in Helmand where the government is having a major problem with police and soldiers being bought with drug money. So far these traitors are being sought, caught and killed or imprisoned. Afghan leaders, even those receiving drug money, know that long-term the drug gangs will keep the country in turmoil and must eventually be suppressed. There is general agreement on that goal but no easy method for achieving it. Nevertheless the anti-drug forces are often succeeding, even in drug strongholds like Helmand and Kandahar where Afghan intelligence finds lots of locals willing to inform on the drug gangs.
For most Afghans the primary impact of the drug gangs and Taliban is the chaos the two groups create and sustain. This hurts the economy nationwide and this has been a growing problem since the drug gangs and Taliban started their effort to regain control of the country in 2014. The withdrawal of most Western troops by late 2014 caused panic inside Afghanistan and that crippled economic growth (which went from 14 percent in 2012 to less than two percent in 2014.) Most Afghan military and police commanders believe that more (as in two or three times more) Western air power would do tremendous damage to the enemy. The reason is that the Taliban and drug gangs always believed that the bad guys would triumph once the foreign troops were gone. It didn’t exactly work out that way and the Taliban have become sloppy. The enemy no longer fears and respects aerial reconnaissance as they once did and now more much more freely. An increase in air power would initially kill a lot of Taliban and force the enemy to move more slowly and cautiously. Taliban attacks would not be as massive and bold. All that air power made a huge difference and both sides know it. Foreign troops had a peak strength of 140,000 in 2010 versus 10,000 now. But the Afghans don’t want a lot of foreign combat troops, just lots of aircraft and support forces. The Western powers, especially the United States, is now in agreement with this and more air power and support forces have been arriving.
Afghanistan now has problems with two Taliban organizations. The Pakistan Taliban continue to make attacks in Pakistan and most of these efforts can be traced back to bases in eastern Afghanistan. These attacks tend to take place in the tribal territories of the northwest and southwest but not across the border in Waziristan, where Pakistani troops are still involved in a major anti-terrorist campaign they began in mid-2014 and won’t officially complete until late 2016. The Pakistani Taliban are not as numerous as their Afghan counterparts and that is largely because the Pakistani Taliban do not have as much money. While Pakistani Taliban make some money from providing security for drug smuggling they have to depend on a lot of other criminal activities to maintain operations. Both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are also suffering internal problem and both have broken up into mutually hostile factions. The rise of ISIL in the region is part of this. The drug gangs don’t really care as long as their hired guns protect the drug production and smuggling.
March 1, 2016: In the north (Faryab province) the army continues its offensive against Taliban forces, killing over a hundred in the past few days and capturing or wounding even more. The Taliban have been a major threat in this area since early 2015 as part of a major effort to make the north safer for smuggling heroin out of the country. An effort to seize the city of Kunduz in September 2015 was unusual, because it was an expensive operation that got a lot of Taliban fighters killed or captured and was soon undone once the security forces sent enough reinforcements to the city. It got worse when several more similar attacks failed to get into the city. Such spectacular attacks are mainly for terrorizing the local population, especially politicians and business owners, into being more cooperative. The basic problem for the Taliban and the drug gangs they work for is that they don’t want to run the country but do need free access to keep the drug business going. This is especially true of the north, where the locals have always been more anti-drugs and hostile to the Talban.
February 29, 2016: China announced it will provide Afghanistan with $70 million in military aid. This is a continuation of increasingly close relations with China. For example in early 2015 Afghanistan admitted that it had an arrangement with China whereby Afghanistan would seize and turn over to China any Chinese Moslems (especially Turkic Uighurs) found in Afghanistan. In return China increased the diplomatic and economic pressure on Pakistan to stop supporting Islamic terrorists attacking Afghanistan. China is the largest foreign investor in Pakistan as well as the main source of modern weapons, so when China talks Pakistan must listen and at least pretend to act. China is also becoming a major source of foreign aid and military assistance for Afghanistan.
February 28, 2016: In the east (Paktika province) a U.S. UAV used missiles to kill seven Islamic terrorists including several wanted ISIL leaders. In the last 90 days the U.S. has carried out at least twenty airstrikes against ISIL targets in this area.
In the north (Faryab province) 130 local Taliban surrendered and accepted amnesty. Only a third of them turned in their weapons, or had weapons to surrender. Over 10,000 Afghan men have accepted the amnesty program since 2010. Many were simply let go by the Taliban, which often has to downsize when money is short or because strategy has changed and it does not need as many people in a region. The Taliban prefer to recruit locally because local men know the languages, customs and terrain. The Taliban will also seek to get local tribal leaders on the payroll as well so as not to get into feuds with local tribes. Another problem is the presence of Pushtun tribes in the north. The Taliban is largely a Pushtun operation and was founded by Pushtin from Kandahar in the south. Pushtun are 40 percent of the population and most live in the south. In other parts of the country the non-Pushtun tribes are often quite hostile to the Taliban, drugs and Pushtun in general. In areas like the north, where the Pushtun are a minority, it is more expensive and politically difficult for the Taliban to maintain large numbers of gunmen. The heavy fighting in the north since early 2015 have not gone well for the Taliban and surrenders like this indicate that they are turning their attention elsewhere, like the south where the Taliban has had more success in driving security forces out of key drug producing areas.
February 26, 2016: In the east (Paktika province) a U.S. UAV used missiles to kill three al Qaeda Islamic terrorists who were riding motorcycles. Afghan special operations forces provided the location. Al Qaeda and Haqqani Network are active in Paktika province and both are prime targets for U.S. and Afghan forces.
February 24, 2016: In the east (Nangarhar Province) ten ISIL members surrendered and accused Pakistan of supplying ISIL forces in Afghanistan with weapons. Pakistan denies such charges but then Pakistan has long denied any connections with the Afghan Taliban despite the ample evidence that ISI (the Pakistani CIA) created the Taliban in the early 1990s and Pakistan has been supporting Islamic terrorism since the late 1970s. Since 2001 more and more evidence of this Pakistani perfidy has come to light. For example, officially Pakistan still denies that they sheltered Osama bin Laden, but it’s no secret that Pakistan still tolerates sanctuaries for all manner of Islamic terrorists who operate inside Afghanistan. So even if Pakistan is not supporting ISIL, a lot of people on both sides of the border have no problem believing otherwise.
February 23, 2016: In the east (Nangarhar Province) American UAVs missile attacks and Afghan security forces have killed at least 43 ISIL fighters in the last two days. At least half the dead were victims of UAV missiles.
February 22, 2016: In the east (Nangarhar Province) Taliban gunmen shot dead an ISIL suicide bomber who was trying to reach and kill a local Taliban commander. Some of his followers spotted the ISIL man, noted he was wearing an explosive vest and shot the bomber dead before he could detonate.