Afghanistan: Cell Phone Warfare


October 3, 2016: The Taliban again made a surprise attack on the northern city of Kunduz. Coming from four directions last night and using the cell phone network to coordinate operations (and call ahead to checkpoints to tell previously bribed troops to step aside for a bit or warn unaware troops that they could make a deal or die) it took about five hours to get some Taliban gunmen into parts of the city. At that point it was dawn and resistance was being organized. The Taliban will probably be driven out soon but this operation is more about sending a message than seizing territory. Most Westerners forget that the Taliban always puts most of its efforts into keeping the drug business safe. Thus in the north (Kunduz province) officials admit that the Taliban still control areas outside Kunduz city in order to maintain drug smuggling routes to Central Asia. .

A year ago the Taliban launched a similar attack on Kunduz and by the end of September 2015 were in control of the city center. Police and soldiers arrived and drove them out by mid-October. By the end of 2015 over 1,500 more Islamic terrorists were killed in the city and Kunduz province. The September 2015 Taliban attack on Kunduz left 289 civilians dead and 559 wounded and many local officials expected another attack eventually.

The Taliban have been increasingly active in Kunduz province, in large part because more locals refused (despite bribes and threats) to cooperate with the drug smugglers. Most Afghans see the Taliban and the drug operations as a major threat, not an economic opportunity. The growing Taliban presence could be seen in the areas where cell phone companies complied with Taliban demands to turn off cell phone service at night (so locals cannot alert police to Taliban activity). If the companies did not comply the Taliban would attack the cell phone towers and company personnel. The cell phone companies eventually reached informal and illegal agreements with the Taliban. Because of the culture of corruption local officials will be bribed/threatened to look the other way if they can get away with it. Thus in 2016 the Taliban used the cell phone service to their advantage. There was a similar attack a month ago in central Afghanistan (Uruzgan Province, just north of Helmand and Kandahar) where Taliban gunmen went through the motions of trying capture the provincial capital but were driven out when army reinforcements arrived.

Surprise attacks on towns and cities are mainly a publicity stunt. Taking control of a rural district is also a popular attention-getter. Seizing control of a remote district or just the district capital is not that hard for anyone with a few hundred well-armed and mobile warriors. 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 meaningful amount of control in a few of the 373 districts (each of the 34 provinces is composed of districts). The Taliban are active mainly in the south (Helmand and Kandahar, where most of the heroin is produced), the east (where many Pakistan/ISI supported Islamic terrorist groups operate) and the ancient northern trade routes (that go through Kunduz).

One of the most difficult aspects of the fighting in Afghanistan is that, even more so than in many other conflict zones, everything is for sale and buying your way out of trouble is an ancient custom. Thus captured terrorists are often able to bribe their way out of jail. In Afghanistan that is considered a cost of doing business. Despite trying to pin a religious motivation on all the violence, most of the Islamic terrorist activities (as in planting bombs and shooting at security forces or fellow Afghans) were carried out by Afghans doing it for the money. Moreover Afghans, in particular, have a warrior culture that includes an acceptance of fighting a powerful force that is not harming your tribe. This has led to some behavior that is misinterpreted in the West. Traditionally, Afghans do not fight to the death. If one group sees itself at a battlefield disadvantage, they will retreat or make a deal with the foe. "Run away and fight another day" is another rule Afghan warriors respect, and practice regularly. But with an economic incentive, Afghans will get involved, despite the horrendous losses. In the past it was an opportunity to invade wealthier nearby areas (what is now Pakistan and northern India). Now the wealth is local, in the form of the opium/heroin business. Or, for a growing number of Afghans who have some money, moving to the West, no matter what the personal risk.

This fatalistic opportunism can best be demonstrated by an incident that took place during the 1979 Russian invasion of Afghanistan, which initially faced little armed opposition. As Russian armored vehicles rolled through Kabul, each one full of well-equipped (especially by Afghan standards) Russian troops, one tribesmen from the countryside was heard (by a Western educated Afghan who soon got out and went to work in the U.S.) muttering, “look at all that loot.”

Despite continued aid from drug gangs and Pakistan most Afghans are not willing to surrender to Taliban control. One side effect of this is it shows how decades of Pakistani efforts to gain a degree of control over Afghanistan have backfired, especially inside Afghanistan. There the primary Pakistani allies are drug gangs, corrupt politicians and Islamic terrorists. Not surprisingly these three groups are the most hated inside Afghanistan and despite death threats and bribes the Afghan media and a growing number of usually quiet (out of fear) politicians, prominent preachers and tribal leaders are speaking out. This was mostly out of self-interest as most of Afghanistan’s worst problems could be traced back to Pakistan. The biggest problem is illegal drugs, mainly opium and heroin. Pakistan drove the drug gangs out of its own tribal territories in the 1980s but the drug business simply moved to Afghanistan and both countries now suffer from widespread addiction and the growing financial and political (via bribes) power of gangsters thriving on drug profits. Afghanistan is the largest producer of heroin in the world and drugs are a major part of the economy, especially in the south. This is where most of the Taliban leadership and manpower came (and still come) from.

Guilty Neighbors

The foreign country Afghans hate most is not the United States or even ancient foes like Iran or Russia. No, the most hated neighbor is Pakistan. Despite the fact that Pakistan stood up to Russian threats in the 1980s (with a lot of help from the threat of American intervention against Russia) and provided a refuge for Afghans fleeing the Russian violence (similar to what the Russians are now doing in Syria) and allowing Afghan rebels to maintain bases among the refugee camps, Pakistan has never stopped supporting Afghan rebels and interfering in Afghan affairs. Pakistan admits they created the Taliban, but only to stop the 1990s civil war in Afghanistan. That wasn’t true. Pakistan expected the Taliban to ensure that whatever government was running Afghanistan, Pakistani needs would be tended to. That meant tolerance for the drug trade (which made many Pakistanis rich), no contacts with India and no criticism of the Pakistani military or its intelligence branch (the ISI). But the Taliban and the drug gangs have been tearing Afghanistan apart ever since. Only about ten percent of Afghans got any economic benefit out of the drug business and millions of Afghans, Pakistanis and people throughout the region have become drug addicts. Pakistan has been using Islamic terrorist groups against India as well and this turned India and Afghanistan into allies. It is telling that while Pakistan supports terror against India Iran, even while run by a religious dictatorship, sees largely non-Moslem India as someone they can get along with. Pakistan, which shares a long border with Iran, is considered more troublesome and less reliable. All this came to a head recently in the UN where many nations, especially Afghanistan, and India, openly demanded that Pakistan stop supporting Islamic terrorist groups, especially those that specialize in terrorizing neighbors. The Pakistan military, which always portrays itself as a victim, responded up increasing violence along the Indian border, blaming it all on India, and risking a nuclear war because India, unlike Afghanistan, has nukes. Meanwhile Afghanistan, Iran and India are developing new trade routes that will ignore Pakistan.

While Pakistan has always (since it was created, along with modern India, in 1947) been a democracy, it did not ensure that its military would always be subservient to civilian control. Thus the Pakistani military has come to be known as “an army with a country” instead of the other way around. The elected leaders of Pakistan have not been able to gain control over their own military despite increasingly vigorous efforts to do so.

The Cost

In Afghanistan the cost of preventing a takeover by the drug gangs and their largely Islamic terrorist enforcers (Taliban, Haqqani and so on) has been high. So far Afghans have been willing to pay it because they have recent (the 1990s) and very costly experience with what happens when the Taliban and drug gangs take over. Thus Afghan security forces (190,000 soldiers and 150,000 police) have suffered nearly a thousand dead a month since July. This indicates that losses for 2016 will be at least 20 percent higher than 2015.

Losses on both sides have been heavier since the foreign troops left. By the end of 2014 some 300,000 Afghan police and soldiers had assumed responsibility for security all over the country and as a result took a lot more casualties getting that done. At least 5,000 soldiers and police died in 2014. That produced a loss rate of about 2,400 dead per 100,000 troops per year. In 2013 it was about 1,890 which was a big increase from 2007, when the Afghan rate was about 700 dead per 100,000. The rate for 2015 was over 3,000 dead per 100,000, the first full year after most foreign troops had withdrawn. This loss rate was about twice that suffered by American troops during World War II but not unusual for recent Afghan history. The Taliban and drug gangs proclaimed this to be an opportunity. Most Afghans saw it differently and since 2014 the security forces have had help from a lot more tribal militias. These are usually part-timers but get organized in times when there is a local threat, like regular harassment by the Taliban or drug gang gunmen. The security forces value the tribal militias not so much for their firepower as for the information they possess about the local area and who is doing what for who at the moment.

Most of the country does not suffer from the drug gang and Islamic terrorist violence. The fighting is concentrated in a few of the 34 provinces that are, not coincidentally, key to the drug gang operations. These provinces include Badakhshan in the northeast, Ghazni in the southeast (near the Pakistan border), nearby Zabul, Helmand in the south, Nangarhar in the east and Kunduz in the north. Helmand is key because that is where most of the opium and heroin is produced. The other provinces are important because they provide key smuggling routes for getting the drugs out and essential supplies (weapons, chemicals and cash) in. American advisors believe that the drug gangs now control about ten percent of the country and are present in over a quarter of the country. The Taliban propaganda is mostly about defending Islam but on the ground Afghans (and any foreigners who pay attention) know it is mostly about money and tribal loyalty.

The security forces are more effective than the tribesmen and tribal militias the drug gangs and Islamic terrorists hire. This is a unique situation for Afghanistan, which never had an effective armed forces or national police before. The effectiveness (by local, not international, standards) of these Afghan soldiers and police can be seen in the fact that the Taliban and other traditional fighters avoid direct confrontations. Thus nearly 60 percent of the security forces losses are from roadside bombs and other IED (improvised explosive devices). Foreign troops have suffered about one dead a month so far this year. That’s less than half the rate of 2015. The 30,000 foreign troops and contractors avoid combat and the Islamic terrorists avoid attacking them. Afghan troops have been fighting like the departed Western forces and with similar success. But the Afghan forces don’t have as much air support, artillery and access to medical care as the Western forces. Afghan commanders point out, accurately, that if more of that support is provided it will not result in any more Western combat deaths and will lower Afghan army and police losses and boost morale as well. The Islamic terrorists are mainly attacking morale and that means terror attacks that mainly kill civilians.

Over 250,000 civilians have been displaced by the fighting so far in 2016. That number may more than triple by the end of the year. Over three million people are cut off from regular food supplies by the fighting to the extent that there is visible malnutrition, especially among children. This is also part of the Taliban plan to defeat the government.

Frontier Politics

Pakistan continues building new security fences and fortified checkpoints along its side of the 2,600 kilometer long Afghan border. Pakistan has been at this since 2013 and admits it has only completed about 20 percent of the work. But now Pakistan is accelerating construction. A growing number of clashes along the border are local civilians holding peaceful demonstrations against Pakistani border policies or armed confrontations between Afghan and Pakistani border guards. This is all about an ongoing dispute about exactly where the international border is. The main cause of violence is Pakistan building some new border posts or fences forward of previous ones but still, according to Pakistan, on Pakistani territory. This often generates a violent response from Afghans. There’s also a tribal rivalry element to all this. Most of the Afghan-Pakistani border is occupied by Pushtun tribes. This frontier, still called the “Durand Line” (an impromptu, pre-independence invention of British colonial authorities) was always considered artificial by locals, 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. The Pakistanis believe absolute control of the border is impossible, and attempts to stop illegal crossings cause additional trouble (as tribesmen do not like excessive attention at border crossing posts). This recent violence is also linked to years of anger over Afghan Taliban and other terrorists hiding out in Pakistan and Islamic terrorists (fighting the Pakistani government) hiding out in Afghanistan. This has led to regular Pakistani shelling of suspected terrorist camps in Afghanistan, which often kills innocent (or semi-innocent) Afghan civilians. The Afghans protest and the Pakistanis refuse to halt the shelling and rocket fire.

September 30, 2016: Pro-government Islamic radical group Hezb I Islami began a ceasefire, which was a condition of the recently signed peace agreement.

September 29, 2016: Indian, Afghan and Iranian officials met in India to begin the process of speeding up the completion of the new trade route though Iran. The will free India and Afghanistan from dependence on Pakistan for a trade route and will also open up Central Asian markets for everyone since the new rail and road network goes from the northern border of Afghanistan to an enlarged Iranian port on the Indian Ocean. Everyone involved, except Pakistan and its ally China, is enthusiastic about this economic development project.

What got this project going was Pakistan becoming more hostile to Afghanistan and India and making it increasingly difficult for landlocked Afghanistan to use Pakistani roads and ports to access the rest of the world. That led to years of negotiations and planning to create an alternate route via Iran. In early 2016 India, Afghanistan and Iran agreed on all financing, customs and access details required make the project a reality. This route will enable foreign cargo delivered to the port of Chabahar (in southeastern Iran) to enter Afghanistan by rail or road without any additional tax problems or other restrictions. Iran and India are building the 1,300 kilometer long rail line from the port to the Afghan border (near Herat) in the north. Ultimately the Indians will provide over two billions dollars’ worth of investments for this project. That includes work on the port and new roads and railroads to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Because of the 2015 treaty that lifted economic sanctions on Iran India was able to legally become a major investor. This project obviously helps Afghanistan but also hurts Pakistan, which currently monopolizes the movement of most Afghan imports and exports. This new agreement means a lot for India because will make possible Indian trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia, something long blocked by Pakistan. The Chabahar route was originally set to be operational by 2020 but now the three nations want to get some access a year or two earlier than planned.

September 28, 2016: In central Afghanistan (Wardak Province) Haqqani network gunmen attacked some locals who refused to support the Taliban or Haqqani network. The attack failed and the Haqqani force lost at least ten dead and even more wounded. The locals were reinforced by gunmen from Islamic radical group Hezb I Islami, which has long been fighting Haqqani..

In the east (Ghazni province) at least ten men died while building a bomb for use against a local mosque (where pro-government Afghans prayed). Making and placing these bombs has become big business in the eastern provinces near the Pakistan border. While some of the bomb builders and those who emplace them belong to specific Islamic terrorist groups, many are basically mercenaries. This business has become so profitable (because of the drug profits) that many inexperienced men get involved and that is why there are more and more deaths among people building or placing these weapons.

September 27, 2016: Afghan and American security officials agree that Pakistan has not made any effective efforts to end its decade’s long support and control over the Haqqani network.

September 26, 2016: In the north (Kunduz province) two soldiers standing night watch at a checkpoint killed the other 12 soldiers there while they slept. The two killers then fled. This appeared to be another case where the Taliban found someone willing to take a large bribe to change sides. The Taliban are always on the lookout for a checkpoint (which often resembles a small fort on the side of the road) that is led by sloppy commanders who would not detect attack preparations or subordinates vulnerable to a bribe. Conventional attacks on checkpoints usually fail with many casualties to the attacker and few for the defender. But the Taliban regularly find a checkpoint where leadership is lax and see an opportunity to kill the defenders while they all are asleep (especially those who are supposed to be awake and on guard). In other cases it’s possible to buy a few of the men staffing the checkpoint, which can be the key to a successful attack. These checkpoint losses are more likely to make the news than the failed attacks.

September 24, 2016: In the east (Paktia province) airstrikes and ground fighting killed at least eleven al Qaeda, Haqqani network, and Pakistani Taliban members including Raees Khan Mehsud, a leader of major faction of the Pakistani Taliban. For the last few months the U.S. and Afghanistan have concentrated on clearing Islamic terrorist groups out of eastern Afghanistan. The information obtained from dead or captured members of these groups has led Afghanistan and the United States to put more pressure on Pakistan to cooperate by halting its practice of supporting groups like the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani.

September 23, 2016: In the west (Herat province) Afghan intelligence was able to track a shipment of weapons from Pakistan to the Herat-based Taliban. The shipment was seized and the information obtained during this operation led to the discovery of other Taliban weapons storage sites in Herat province.

September 22, 2016: After more than three months of haggling, Hezb I Islami (also known as the Hekmatyar organization), a survivor of the 1990s civil war, finally agreed on terms of a peace deal with the government. The group has not been a major military presence in Afghanistan since the late 1990s because of factionalism, hostility towards any foreigners (Moslem or otherwise) and losses suffered fighting rival Islamic terror groups (including al Qaeda). A representative of leader (and founder) Gulbuddin Hekmatyar signed the agreement in Kabul. Terms include amnesty for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the release of some imprisoned Hezb I Islami members as well as a ceasefire. 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. As a result Hezb I Islami spent most of its time fighting other Islamic terrorists, mainly Pakistan sponsored groups like the Taliban and Haqqani network. The Hekmatyar organization has been surviving as bandits in various areas of eastern and central Afghanistan. This peace deal was mostly symbolic for the government and recognizing the fact that Hekmatyar and the government had some common enemies; drug gangs and Pakistan-backed Islamic terrorists.

September 20, 2016: In the east (Nangarhar province) two Afghan air force airstrikes left nearly 30 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) men dead. There’s not much ISIL presence in Afghanistan and most Afghans who identify as ISIL do so because they consider other Islamic terrorist groups not sufficiently dedicated to the cause of world domination, defending Islam and generally being self-righteous outlaws.

September 19, 2016: In the east (Ghazni province) a local Taliban commander led an unsuccessful attack on a police checkpoint. Five Islamic terrorists were killed, including their leader and six were wounded.

September 18, 2016: In the south (Zabul province) soldiers raided an al Qaeda hideout and killed five Islamic terrorists and arrested two. All were from Pakistan. Among the weapons found at the hideout were two suicide bomb vests. .

September 14, 2016: President Ghani of Afghanistan again publically criticized Pakistan for its efforts to use Islamic terrorism to justify opposition to closer economic and military ties between Afghanistan and India. Pakistan blames India for much of the Islamic terrorism violence occurring in Pakistan. This is a charge India, Afghanistan and most of the non-Moslem world considers absurd and unsupported by any evidence. Ghani has managed to form an international coalition of nations calling out the Pakistan military for supporting Islamic terrorist violence rather than trying to do something about it

September 9, 2016: In the east (Nangarhar province) Afghan air force airstrikes killed at least 13 ISIL members and wounded several others, including two who were captured.


Article Archive

Afghanistan: Current 2023 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 



Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contribute. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   contribute   Close