Afghanistan: Problems For Everyone As Usual


July 6, 2016: So far this year the government has lost control of nine of the 407 districts (each of the 34 provinces is composed of districts) in the country. Four are in Helmand, two in the northeast (Badakhshan province to secure a key smuggling route), two are in Ghazni province near the Pakistan border and one in nearby Zabul province. Most of the fighting in 2016 has been concentrated in seven provinces. These include Helmand in the south, Nangarhar in the east, Ghazni in the southeast and Kunduz in the north. These nine lost districts contain about six percent of the Afghan population. In another fifty districts there is enough violence and civil disorder, often because of the Taliban and drug gangs, to limit government control. Such anarchy is not unusual for Afghanistan. What is new is the presence of a central government that can deploy forces all over the country. That is new and in contested districts that means which results in frequent clashes between security forces and the outlaws as well as fighting between non-government groups (Taliban factions or tribal rivals). Most of worst districts are in the south, mainly Helmand province. This is where most of the heroin and opium come from and where the major (and very wealthy) drug gangs are based. The elected government have never been able to control all of the districts in Helmand. When foreign troops left at the end of 2014 most Taliban activity was taking place in two (Kandahar and Helmand) of the 34 provinces. Some 40 percent of the Taliban violence was is in ten Kandahar and Helmand districts. Why that concentration of Taliban activity? It’s because of the heroin. The Taliban put most of their effort into protecting the districts where some 90 percent of the heroin in Afghanistan is produced. The other areas cursed with Taliban presence are ones that smuggling routes (to get the heroin to the outside world) go through. The Taliban don’t like to talk about this and they terrorize local media to stay away from it. International media avoid it as well, but on the ground it’s all about drugs and the huge amount of cash they provide for the drug gangs and their Taliban partners. Since 2014 the drug gangs have been fighting to gain footholds in key border areas in the east (for access to Pakistan) and the north (for access to Central Asia) as smuggling most of the heroin out of the country is what makes the drug gang leaders rich and keeps the Taliban operational. There is access to Pakistan in the south but that is mostly for smuggling in chemicals needed for turning opium into heroin.

Since foreign combat troops left continued fighting in Afghanistan has left over 30,000 dead in the last 18 months. Most (about two-thirds) of the dead have been Taliban and other outlaws. About 17 percent of the dead have been civilians with the rest (about 17 percent) being security forces and pro-government tribal militias. There is a lot of estimating because unlike the Middle East, where keeping records has been going on for thousands of years, there is no such tradition in Afghanistan.

In addition to the Taliban and drug gangs Afghanistan still has major problems with corruption and Pakistani interference. The Afghan Taliban still enjoy a sanctuary in southwest Pakistan (across the border from Helmand and Kandahar) just as the Islamic terrorists operating against India have sanctuaries throughout Pakistan and immunity from prosecution (although a few are arrested occasionally to placate foreigners like the United States or India enraged about a recent attack). The United States and India have joined Afghanistan in pressuring Pakistan to stop supporting Islamic terrorism against its neighbors but so far the Pakistani military (which invented and still handles this terrorism support program) refuses to cooperate and the elected Pakistani government admits they cannot overrule their own military. Inside Afghanistan there is more public discussion about the evils of corruption and how it is limiting economic growth. But progress in actually eliminating the corrupt practices is very slow. As a result American military advisors tell their Afghans, and the American government, that military aid must be limited because too much of its gets stolen and that causes political and media problems among the donor states, especially the United States.


While ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) gets most of the terrorist related media attention worldwide ISIL has largely been a failure in Afghanistan. In addition to regular American air attacks (usually via UAVs) ISIL has suffered most from hostile rivals and the security forces. Since late May these attacks have killed over 400 ISIL members. ISIL is not the only one suffering heavily in eastern Afghanistan. Since late 2015 the Taliban was fighting ISIL as well as some other “anti-Taliban” Islamic terrorists and a growing number of dissident Taliban factions, mainly in eastern Afghanistan. ISIL was a major problem for the Taliban because ISIL was able to persuade many very capable Taliban leaders to defect. Then there were the dissident (because of leadership disputes) Taliban factions tried to survive by making deals with a local drug gangs but that did not work in Afghanistan. It must be remembered that there is no one organization running the drug business in Afghanistan. There are dozens of drug gangs (many tribe or clan based) that tend to remain at peace with each other for business reasons and will hire the best mercenaries they can. Another disturbing, but not unexpected, trend is the growing number of Taliban factions that are largely dispensing with any pretense of religious fanaticism and acting more like the traditional Afghan bandit gangs. That means more use of kidnapping and extortion to raise money. By avoiding Islamic terrorism (using suicide bombers, hitting religious targets like Shia Afghans or shrines and openly taking credit) these rogue Taliban are blending into the normally violent and lawless atmosphere the usually prevails in much of the country. These secular Taliban maintain allegiance to senior Taliban leadership, if only to limit violence that would interfere with making money. ISIL does not get along with these secular Taliban either.

July 4, 2016: In the east (Khost province, near the Pakistan border) over 500 Islamic terrorists attacked an army base and were repulsed, losing at least 67 dead and even more wounded. Three known commanders of local Islamic terrorist groups were among the dead. Many of the attackers were Pakistanis or from other countries and were apparently in Afghanistan because of the two year old operation in nearby Pakistan to shut down the Islamic terrorist sanctuary in North Waziristan. These foreigners were known to be in Khost but were left along if they were peaceful. It is unclear what triggered the upsurge in violence.

June 30, 2016: In the east (Nangarhar province) an American UAV used missiles to attack a group of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) men and killed twelve. One of the dead was the leader of ISIL in Afghanistan. ISIL has lost over a hundred of their men in the last two weeks, mainly because of clashes with security forces, rival Islamic terrorist groups and hostile local tribal militias.

June 27, 2016: The Hekmatyar organization, a survivor of the 1990s civil war, refused at the last minute to make peace with the government. Apparently leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar thought he could get a better deal. Hekmatyar created and led an Islamic radical group that lost out to the Taliban in the late 1990s and has been trying to make a comeback ever since. Last heard from in 2010 when several days of fighting in northeastern Afghanistan between Taliban and followers of Hekmatyar left over fifty dead, the group has since been quiet. The Hekmatyar organization has been surviving as bandits in various areas of eastern Afghanistan.

June 25, 2016: In the north (Kunduz province) an American UAV used missiles to kill a Taliban leader. The missile apparently killed more than a dozen others and these were believed to be Taliban. Then rumors started circulating six or seven of the dead were locals who had been kidnapped by the Taliban on June 6th and being held captive at the Taliban base. The Taliban frequently seize people for ransom or to obtain cooperation from tribal or government leaders.

June 21, 2016: In the west (Herat) Taliban have been fighting each other for several days leaving at least 24 dead and many more wounded. This fatal feuding has been going on since late November 2015 when Mullah Mansour, leader of the OT (Original Taliban) ordered attacks against the forces of rival Taliban leader Mullah Rasool. This marks a major defeat for the Taliban as they have now lost a major asset; unity. Similar fighting has also occurred in Zabul and Farah provinces ever since.

June 18, 2016: In the east (Nangarhar province) the Torkham border crossing was reopened after a week of violence and government disagreements had kept it closed. The fighting was mainly between Afghan and Pakistani border guards and over several days of violence four were killed and several wounded. The two countries blamed each other for shooting first but this sort of violence has flared up before. Torkham is the main border crossing with Pakistan and where thousands of people and vehicles pass through each day. On the Pakistani side is the Khyber Pass which has always been the easiest way to get from northern Afghanistan to the lowlands (most of Pakistan and all of India) beyond. Most of the Afghan-Pakistani border is still called the “Durand Line.” This was an impromptu, pre-independence invention of British colonial authorities and was always considered temporary (or at least negotiable) by locals. This was mainly because the line often went right through Pushtun tribal territories. However, the Afghans are more inclined to accept the Durand Line, and fight to maintain it. Thus recent Pakistani efforts to build more fences and other structures on their side of the border as an attempt to make the Durand line permanent. Afghans who use the border are also angry at a new Pakistani visa policy, which requires regular users of the crossings to get a visa. Officially this is a security measure, but given the rampant corruption in Pakistan Afghans see this as another opportunity for Pakistani border officials to demand bribes.


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