Afghanistan: ISIL Gets By With A Little Help From Its Friends

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March 3, 2017: In the east (Nangarhar and nearby provinces) the small (about a thousand armed members) Afghan branch (“Khorasan Province”) of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is causing international problems. Pakistan claims Afghanistan is sheltering this group so that it can make attacks inside Pakistan. That is not the case. In fact ISIL initially sought to establish itself in Pakistan and India, not Afghanistan. In early 2015 ISIL sought to attract recruits from the Pakistani Taliban by releasing a video showing the leader of a dissident Pakistani Taliban faction becoming the head of the Pakistani branch of ISIL. The Pakistani Taliban continues to suffer from factionalism and that did not help ISIL which has had little success in Pakistan, India or Bangladesh. Afghanistan, because of help from the Pakistani military, was another story.

This remaining ISIL in Afghanistan consists largely of locals (Pakistanis, Afghans and Central Asians) who defected from the Taliban (both the Afghan and Pakistan branches) as well as al Qaeda. While some fifty ISIL members arrived from Syria in 2015 to get the branch started, few of those foreigners have survived the lethal environment ISIL has had to deal with since then. The current ISIL members in Afghanistan were largely locals seeking to be the most uncompromising and scary Islamic warriors possible. In the last year there have been a lot more defectors from the Taliban. Initially most came from the Pakistani Taliban, in part because so many were driven out of North Waziristan by the Pakistani army offensive that began in mid-2014 (and is still not finished). Recently there have been more from the Afghan Taliban because of an internal dispute over who should be the leader or because more and more Afghan Taliban want to concentrate on getting rich by working with the drug gangs. But there are still Taliban members who point out that the strict form of Islam the Taliban (in theory) adheres to forbids the use of opium and heroin or profiting from the production and distribution of this stuff. The Afghan Taliban has long tolerated the drug gangs because they were a source of needed cash and that eventually the drug gangs would be crushed. But now many Taliban factions are seeing that relationship as a permanent one and that has contributed to the current disagreements over who should run the Taliban. ISIL remains uncompromisingly anti-drug and has sustained itself in eastern Afghanistan (and elsewhere in the country) by accepting these Taliban dissidents. That’s why there will occasionally be ISIL attacks in other parts of Afghanistan. That’s because a local Taliban faction, or a large chunk of it, joined ISIL. The senior leadership of the Afghan Taliban try to persuade these defecting factions to return. Sometimes that succeeds and suddenly there’s no longer any “ISIL activity” in an area outside of eastern Afghanistan (where ISIL has long sought to establish a base close to the Pakistani border and North Waziristan). In the last few months there have been several instances of the Taliban offering to cooperate with the security forces to destroy ISIL in a specific area. The government has never officially accepted any of these offers but the security forces gladly accept any information on where a group of ISIL is camping out or planning to be (usually for a meeting). That is believed to be one reason the American airstrikes against ISIL targets have been so frequent, and accurate, in the last year. These airstrikes are often quickly followed by Afghan special forces who are there to identify the dead, capture survivors and collect intelligence.

In addition to the active (armed and on the attack) ISIL members Afghan intelligence believes that there are 5-10,000 Afghans, either in rural areas or in large cities like Kabul, who provide a reliable (and often unpaid) support network. While only a small percentage of Moslems believe in the ISIL strategy and tactics that’s a few percent of large populations. In Afghanistan it comes to about half a million people nationwide. The fact that ISIL can carry out attacks in Pakistan confirms that they have sympathizers there as well and that is a fact, not speculation.

This has made ISIL more of a threat than its relatively small size would indicate. It’s mainly about high-profile attacks that kill a lot of civilians. For example, in Afghanistan civilian deaths from Islamic terrorist violence were up four percent in 2016; with 3,500 killed. As in the past some 80 percent of the deaths were attributed to the Taliban, drug gangs and sundry other organized outlaws. Yet while ISIL accounts for only about one percent of the active Islamic terrorists in the region, they were responsible for nearly ten percent of the deaths in Afghanistan, and an even higher percentage in Pakistan. ISIL activity in Afghanistan was up in 2016 and is maintaining its lethality in 2017.

While ISIL was unable to establish a base in Pakistan, India or Iran the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan was another matter. The Pakistani 2014 army offensive to clear Islamic terrorists out of North Waziristan made nearby parts of eastern Afghanistan (like Nangarhar province) the next best refuge.

Meanwhile American UAV and manned warplanes regularly seek out and attack an ISIL targets where they may be (often in Nangarhar province during 2016). At the very least these attacks destroy large quantities of weapons, ammo and equipment ISIL has stockpiled there. Since 2016 ISIL has become the priority target for American airstrikes in Afghanistan and any target that is confirmed as ISIL connected goes to the top of the list. In part that is because this branch of ISIL is likely to be the largest one remaining by the end of 2017. The growing unpopularity of ISIL worldwide, especially by Moslems and other Islamic terror groups plus more than a year of heavy losses has not hurt the Afghan branch ISIL as much as elsewhere. ISIL is dying, largely because its base of support, especially among Moslems, is so small. Since 2013 (when ISIL first appeared) the group has lost over 60,000 personnel to combat, disease, accidents and desertion. Most of the losses have been suffered in Syria, Iraq and Libya. It’s believed that ISIL currently has only about 12,000 fighters available, mostly in Syria and Iraq. There are a few thousand more in northern Libya, eastern Afghanistan and Egypt. In all five countries ISIL is under heavy attack and ISIL in late 2016 lost its only major Libyan base that, for a while, ISIL saw as a fallback if they were shut down in Syria and Iraq. ISIL is expected to suffer major losses in 2017, mainly in Syria and Iraq. The ISIL bases in Afghanistan are not safe and secure enough for ISIL to expand or carry out a lot of attacks. So ISIL carries out attacks that will inflict the most damage, garner the most media coverage and make it clear that ISIL is a major player despites its small numbers.

Pakistan is, officially, not seeing ISIL as it is but rather as an excuse to explain why the 2014 offensive decreased but did not eliminate high levels of Islamic terrorist violence inside Pakistan (especially compared to India and Bangladesh). The Pakistani military is finally being brought to account for its decades of support for Islamic terrorists that are supposed to only operate in Afghanistan (to maintain Pakistani control) and India (which is deemed unbeatable any other way). But instead that Islamic terrorism support led to more and more Pakistanis being killed by these zealots who believed they must go after corrupt Moslems wherever they may find them. The Pakistani generals can’t explain this a just a failure to communicate so they are seeking other ways to avoid responsibility. Blaming it on Afghanistan has not been popular in Afghanistan and a lot of Pakistanis are dubious as well. Most people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have watched the Pakistani military support Islamic terrorism since the 1980s, despite the growing denials from the Pakistani military. These denials have often proved to be easily exposed lies. Thus Pakistani denials that it continues to provide a sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban are disproved by anyone visiting Quetta (capital of Baluchistan province) and looking around. The Taliban have been openly living there since 2002. Quetta was always off limits to the American UAVs and remains a sanctuary despite constant and increasingly angry calls from the United States and Afghanistan to shut down the sanctuaries.

Afghanistan is becoming increasingly aggressive in demanding that Pakistan shut down the Quetta sanctuary it provides the Afghan Taliban. It is the Pakistani supported Taliban (working for the drug gangs) that is keeping the Afghan security forced busy. But that has not stopped the Afghan military regularly attacking ISIL and that does not sound like “sanctuary.” ISIL obviously operates in Pakistan. How else could ISIL continue to carry out major attacks far from the Afghan border? Afghanistan points out that security agreements between the two countries obliges Pakistan to shut down all Islamic terrorist sanctuaries. Afghan officials also accuse Pakistan of controlling much of what the Afghan Taliban does, including ordering terror attacks inside Afghanistan. If Pakistan refuses to comply with this request Afghanistan is threatening to take the matter to the UN and other international tribunals. Pakistan has long been dismissive of Afghan protests and either ignores them or dismisses them with denials. The reality is that Pakistan considers Afghanistan a client state. The Afghans are considered a collection of fractious tribes pretending to be a nation. With no access to the sea, most Afghan road connections to ports are with Pakistan.

Rails Against Pakistan

In part because of the recent Pakistani closing of road access to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan are speeding up the completion of the rail link from Afghanistan to Iran. Work will now be completed by late 2018 (in about a year). This is part of the Indo-Iranian project (largely financed by India) that enables 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. Indians are providing over two billions dollars to upgrade the port and build new roads and railroads to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Afghanistan never had an internal rail net but it does have (since 2002) a growing number of working rail links to the outside world. The problem is that all three of them are in the north. The longest (75 kilometers) goes from Mazar-e-Sharif across the border into Uzbekistan. Another goes from Herat Province into Turkmenistan while the third one goes from Faryab Province into Turkmenistan. Central Asia is still dependent on long (and expensive to use) Russian rail links to ocean ports. Then there is the bottleneck for moving cargo to southeastern Afghanistan (where Kabul and much of the population is) by truck. The Salang tunnel was built by the Russians in 1964 and cut transportation costs enormously throughout eastern Afghanistan. This tunnel makes the Salang pass useable when deep snow usually makes it impossible for wheeled traffic to get over the Hindu Kush Mountains. The 2,560 meter (1.6 mile) long Salang tunnel is at an altitude of 3,385 meters (11,000 feet). But the tunnel cannot handle all the truck traffic that the road access to Pakistan currently provides. The rail link with Iran gives quick and cheap (compared to trucking cargo through Pakistan) route to the outside world.

Gang Wars

The government continues to pressure the Taliban to consider peace talks. Many Taliban factions are inclined to at least discuss a peace deal, largely because the vast majority of Afghans oppose the drug trade and all those who keep it going. That includes the Taliban, who provide the muscle to keep soldiers, police or tribal militias from interfering. What keeps the anti-peace factions strong is sanctuary in Pakistan and access to Pakistan to import (via bribes) weapons and chemicals needed to convert opium into heroin as well as access through Pakistan to get the heroin out and to customers worldwide. Most Pakistanis are also hostile to the drug trade and the complicity of their corrupt officials and military officers. But Pakistan continues to be crippled by a military that is not controlled by elected officials and half the time since Pakistan was created the country was run by a military government. The Pakistani military is losing a lot of its political power but it is a slow process.

March 1, 2017: In Kabul two Taliban attacks (using suicide bombers and gunmen) left 22 dead and dozens wounded. In the east (Nangarhar province) an American UAV used missiles to kill the leader of the local Taliban and five of his followers.

February 27, 2017: In the north (Kunduz province) an American UAV used a missile to kill a notorious local Taliban leader Mullah Salam. Afghan and American intel efforts over the last two years finally led to this attack on the key Taliban leader in the north.

February 25, 2017: In the southeast (Logar province) special operations troops finally found, captured and destroyed a major (and well hidden) Taliban base. This base was believed to be the replacement for a similar Taliban base in Logar that had been active from 2006 to 2015. For most of that time the Logar location had long been more of a way station and place to stash supplies. But since 2012 the Logar base had become more useful for staging terror attacks in Kabul and Afghan intelligence found dozens of instances where an attack in Kabul could be tracked back to some location in Logar. That led to the discovery and destruction of the Logar base in 2015. The primary Logar bases are in remote areas and much of it underground in recently built tunnels and bunkers. All of these have been destroyed and local police will regularly check the area to make sure the Islamic terrorists do not return again in Logar to rebuild their base.

February 21, 2017: Pakistan announced that the civilian and military leadership agreed to allow the military to attack Islamic terrorists responsible for recent attacks even if they have bases in a foreign country. This is aimed at Afghanistan as no other neighbor is weak enough for Pakistan to get away with attacking. Pakistan said it had sent Afghanistan the names of 76 Islamic terrorists believed to be operating in Afghanistan. At the same time Afghanistan sent Pakistan a list of 85 Islamic terrorists based in Pakistan but accused of Islamic terrorism in Afghanistan. This is not the first time Afghanistan (or India) have sent Pakistan such lists but this may be the first time Pakistan actually goes after the tolerated (in Pakistan) Islamic terrorists. Both India and Afghanistan (and the United States) are waiting to see what happens. So are many Pakistanis.

February 17, 2017: Afghanistan complained that Pakistani security forces fired rockets and shells from Pakistan into eastern Afghanistan (Nangarhar and Kunar provinces). These rocket, mortar and artillery attacks from Pakistan have been particularly heavy since 2013 but this time Pakistan admitted that it was doing it on purpose. Pakistan accuses Afghanistan of tolerating or even supporting Islamic terrorists based near the border as long as they confine their attacks to Pakistan. India is sometimes accused of supporting these groups as well. Afghanistan and India have demanded proof from Pakistan but none is ever provided. This time the Pakistani military is under tremendous domestic pressure to “do something” about Islamic terrorist violence inside Pakistan. There are Islamic terrorist bases in eastern Afghanistan but some of those groups (like Haqqani Network) work for Pakistan and have their main bases in Pakistan. Many Afghans see no reason to attack Islamic terror groups who only attack Pakistan as long as Pakistan won’t go after Islamic terrorist bases in Pakistan used by groups that only attack Afghanistan. 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. But not receptive enough.

February 16, 2017: In the east (Nangarhar province) Pakistan again closed the Torkham Gate border crossing. This is the most heavily used border crossing for landlocked Afghanistan and it has been closed frequently (several times a year) because of ongoing border disputes between Pakistan and Afghanistan. But this time the closing was because earlier today, in southeast Pakistan (Sindh Province) an ISIL suicide bombing at a popular Sufi shrine left 88 Moslems dead and wounded more than twice as many. Seeking someone else to blame the Pakistani military blamed Afghanistan and began closing border crossing. A day later Pakistan closed the Chamman border crossing in the south (Kandahar province). These are the two most heavily used border crossings and closing them hurts the Afghan economy but does not stop drug gangs or Islamic terrorists from sneaking across via less heavily travelled routes. Torkham is the main border crossing with Pakistan because on the Pakistani side is the Khyber Pass which has long been the easiest way to get from northern Afghanistan to the lowlands (most of Pakistan and all of India) beyond. Chamman is the second most active border crossing with Afghanistan and heavily used by drug gangs to smuggle (via bribes and threats to border guards) truckloads of material in and out.

February 9, 2017: In the north (Jowzjan province, on the Turkmenistan border) the Red Cross temporarily suspended some emergency aid operations because an aid convoy, bringing food and other supplies to villages cut off by heavy snow falls, was attacked and six Red Cross workers were killed and two are still missing. The local Taliban and al Qaeda groups denied responsibility and it was eventually discovered the attackers were from a small band of ISIL members trying to survive up there. Even local bandits tend to leave aid convoys alone, especially in bad weather. That sort of violence is how blood feuds begin and even the Islamic terrorist groups have learned to respect that. But ISIL members tend to disregard all the rules, even the ones that will make it easier to operate among the local tribes.

 

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