Afghanistan: Bloody, Broken Dreams


April 5, 2017: In the last week police have disrupted two terror attacks in Kabul, one of them using a suicide car bomber. Increasingly since 2014 the security forces have managed to develop more effective intelligence and security capabilities and prevent most Islamic terrorist attacks in capital but that sort of thing does not make headlines while the occasional successful attack does. The major sponsor of most attacks is not the Taliban but ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) or Haqqani Network. ISIL does it for their own reasons while Haqqani does it because that is now they continue to enjoy a sanctuary in Pakistan.

Meanwhile the Afghan government maintains the security of Kabul by punishing those who made mistakes and enabled attacks to be carried out. For example, the recent attack against the Kabul military hospital led to a prompt investigation of how it happened and within weeks twelve officers, including two generals, were dismissed and accused of poor performance (or poor judgement) that made the attack possible. That sort of thing does motivate other officers and American advisors have noted that as well as the Afghans adopting that attitude towards failure and responsibility.

Meanwhile the Taliban is expanding into many other criminal enterprises, in an effort build up their cash reserves they will need for when they believe they have an opportunity to seize control of the country. Extortion (from Afghans in general and especially Afghan firms spending aid money to rebuild the country) have brought in billions for the Taliban, who expect to eventually inherit these improvements when they regain power. The Taliban are operating in a traditional Afghan way, acting as a strongman who insists on “tribute” or else. Most Afghans regard the Taliban as bandits with religious delusions. They are feared but not admired in any way.

The Taliban “takeover” fund apparently has several billion dollars in it and American counter-terror campaign devotes a lot of effort trying to find the money and seize it. This effort gets little publicity because it is not very dramatic at all. Moreover it involves a lot of very senior and very corrupt people in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran and Afghanistan itself. The Taliban expect to need these shady financial operations after they take over because they assume they will be an outlaw state as they were in 2001, but a more effective one. The majority of Afghans do not want a return of Taliban rule in any form.

The Afghan government has other sources of income. The national budget is currently $6.6 billion and two-thirds of that comes from foreign aid. Because of the Taliban and drug gangs, 36 percent of the budget goes to security. Another 21 percent goes to infrastructure and natural resources. Despite how important both these items are a lot of this money is stolen and that is a very visible bit of damage caused by corruption. Yet there is still a growing sense of national identity and willingness to make sacrifices for a better future. This is aided by the fact that in most of the country the Taliban and drug gangs are hated and often encounter organized and heavily armed resistance from locals, even before the security forces show up. This is partly because the Taliban and the local drug trade were started by members of the Pushtun minority. While a minority the Pushtun have always been the largest minority and thus used that to usually dominate the other minorities (who resented it). This is a major reason why Pakistan is such an unhelpful neighbor.

While the drug gangs are thriving and bribing a growing number of government and security officials the Taliban are using that weakening of government control to reduce areas where the government (national or local) can interfere with Taliban or drug gang operations. For the Taliban the bad news is that the growth of drug gang power and income has turned all the neighbors, including most Pakistanis, against them. As much as Pakistan (or at least the Pakistani military) wants the Taliban to control, or at least disrupt, Afghanistan the majority of Pakistanis see Afghan Islamic terrorists and opium as a major threat. All the other neighbors (Iran, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) see nothing good coming from Afghanistan becoming a narco-state guarded by Islamic terrorists. That didn’t work in the late 1990s and there is no reason to believe it will work now. But there is so much drug money involved (the Taliban alone are believed to receive over $2 billion a year) that the problem persists, even within the Taliban itself.

The government still controls most (at least 60 percent) of the population and the Taliban/drug gangs less than ten percent. For the drug gangs controlling population is not their goal. The drug gangs are largely satisfied because nearly all the gains have been in areas they value most. The fighting has always been concentrated in a few of the 34 provinces that are key to the drug 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 most important 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.

The biggest problem the drug gangs have is the intense attention their Islamic radical hired guns attract. In particular the gang leaders fear being confused with the men running various Islamic terror groups in the region. That’s because the West (in particular) has long known that counter-terrorism operations are most successful when they concentrate on the leadership and the cash flow. This is another manifestation of the old adage that “amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics.” The latest innovations in this approach is the use of large databases and customized counter-terror search software to seek out patterns of how the groups operate. This helps identify who the key people are and where they will be found. Same with the cash and key supplies (weapons, ammo, and in this case chemicals for turning opium into heroin.) This decapitation (kill or capture the leaders) approach does not guarantee quick destruction of a terrorist group but does limit its growth and operations in general. The drug gangs have a real fear that these tools will eventually be turned on them. They saw what happened in other countries (most recently Colombia) when these tactics were applied to drug cartels.

The Taliban is particularly vulnerable to decapitation attacks at the moment because the group has, since 2015, been increasingly unstable because of a dispute over who the senior leaders should be. There are also increasingly loud accusations that the current leader, who is also the head of the Haqqani Network, has turned the Taliban into a Pakistani puppet. There have always been complaints about this but they have gotten more popular, and more violent, as more Taliban remain in the group mainly for the money, not the goal of turning Afghanistan into a religious dictatorship. These attitudes were reinforced in late 2014 as thousands of Pakistani Taliban fled to Afghanistan to escape a Pakistani military offensive against their longtime sanctuary in North Waziristan. These refugees spoke of the devious plans the Pakistan military had for Pushtuns (most Taliban have always been Pushtuns) and Afghanistan in general.

April 4, 2017: Afghanistan and Pakistan began using a new hotline established so that military commanders on both sides of the border could quickly contact each other to deal with an unexpected border incident. Britain helped Afghanistan and Pakistan negotiate some new security cooperation deals, including regularly exchanging details of people wanted for criminal activity along the border.

April 3, 2017: The Taliban have announced the goals of the upcoming Spring Offensive. The Taliban expect to expand their presence in Helmand, Oruzgan, Farah, Faryab, Sar-e Pol and Kunduz provinces. Currently about a third of the country is controlled or threatened by Taliban forces. After more than a year of fighting the Taliban have disrupted government control in ten of the 14 districts in Helmand province. Most of the ten are effectively under Taliban control and another three are moving in that direction. The Ministry of Defense also announced plans to deal with increased Taliban violence in those same provinces the Taliban targeted.

The government also revealed a program for doubling the size of its SOF (special operations forces) from 17,000 to over 30,000 by 2020. Currently about 70 percent of the offensive operations are carried out by the SOF, which are a combination of army and police commando (or SWAT) type units and the best trained, led, armed and reliable troops in Afghanistan.

In the east (Paktika province) police arrested a man identified by intel as a Haqqani Network suicide bomber trained in Pakistan and recently arrived in Paktika to kill a senior police commander. The arrested man provided more details of his mission and training when he was interrogated.

April 2, 2017: In the east (Nangarhar province) Afghan special operations forces clashed with a group of ISIL gunmen, killing nine, capturing two in addition to seizing weapons, cell phones and other useful information. Most ISIL activity is in Nangarhar province, which is on the Pakistani border and a major export route for heroin and opium. Because Nangarhar is relatively quiet (for the provinces on the Pakistan border) it was the area ISIL leaders selected as a base area. That is why this is also where ISIL suffers most of its losses in Afghanistan. American UAVs and Afghan commandos concentrate on ISIL targets there and capture a lot of data which details ISIL operations in the area. The data shows that a large fraction of the ISIL men in Afghanistan are foreigners, mainly from Pakistan. ISIL attracts recruits from other Islamic terrorist groups that are seen as not sufficiently dedicated to the cause of world domination, defending Islam and generally being self-righteous outlaws. Another reason for joining ISIL is the uncompromising attitude towards opium and heroin. While most Taliban justify working for drug cartels (for the money) ISIL makes no exceptions.

In the east (Paktika province) someone fired four rockets across the border into northwest Pakistan (Kurram). There were no injuries.

March 25, 2017: After years of threatening to do so Pakistan has begun building a security fence along its Afghan border. This is part of an effort to hinder the Pakistani Taliban groups based in Afghanistan from easily moving back and forth. The initial fence construction is along the border with the Afghan provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar. These two provinces are where there has always been a lot of lawless activity and these days it is full of Islamic terrorists hostile to either Pakistan or working for Pakistan (against Afghanistan). Fence construction will continue with priority given to areas where there are the most problems.

March 24, 2017: In the east (Nangarhar province) several American UAV missile attacks left at least 22 ISIL men dead.

March 20, 2017: Pakistan opened its Afghan border crossings permanently after having closed them all on February 16th to pressure Afghanistan to do more about border security. One reason the border was reopened was that Pakistani firms that supply goods to the Afghan market noted that these extended border closings have caused a growing number of Afghans to prefer Iranian, Turkish and Indian goods imported via Iran or Central Asia. That will become easier and cheaper as Iran and India complete a road and rail network from the Iran coast to eastern Afghanistan. The latest border closing cost Pakistani businesses $3 billion in sales. The most active legal crossing is Torkham Gate in northwest Pakistan. Normally about 15,000 Afghans use this crossing each day along with about $4 million worth of goods. Torkham was closed several times during 2016 because of ongoing border disputes between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the southwest (Baluchistan) Chamman is the second most active border crossing with Afghanistan. Most of the 2,500 kilometers of border is rural, thinly populated and lacking roads. The border violence has been going on for years and is more about unresolved border disputes than anything else. Torkham has always been the main border crossing with Pakistan because on the Pakistani side is the Khyber Pass. This is 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 and no longer negotiable. 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.

March 19, 2017: In the east (Paktika province) an American airstrike killed Qari Yasin, a local al Qaeda leader and bomb expert who is from Pakistan (Baluchistan) and has many connections within the Pakistani Taliban. Yasin was responsible for planning several major attacks in Pakistan and training some of the best bomb builders and attack planners. He was also responsible for several assassination attempts against senior government and military officials in Pakistan. Islamic terrorists have been trying to operate from bases across the border in Afghanistan, especially Paktika province and that is responsible for most of the violence in eastern Afghanistan.

March 17, 2017: Pakistani Taliban based in Afghanistan crossed border into Pakistan near the Khyber Pass and attacked a border post. Two Pakistani soldiers died, along with six civilians and attackers. Pakistan complained to Afghanistan but was told that this was largely the fault of the Pakistanis whose offensive in North Waziristan had driven thousands of Islamic terrorists into eastern Afghanistan and there were not enough troops and police available to deal with such an influx of armed men.

In the east (Paktika province) an American airstrike killed two Pakistan Taliban leaders.

March 13, 2017: In the east (Paktika province) an Afghan airstrike destroyed two vehicles carrying Haqqani Network personnel and ammunition. When Afghan troops arrived they found that two of the ten Haqqani dead were leaders wanted for their involvement with several recent terror attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in eastern Afghanistan. Haqqani Network leaders gained control of the Afghan Taliban in mid-2016 and have been bringing in experienced Haqqani operatives from Pakistan to help with that. By late 2016 Afghan police confirmed that a growing number of known Haqqani personnel were showing up in eastern Afghanistan, often involved with planning terror attacks. Founder (in the 1980s) Jalaluddin Haqqani died in 2o14 and his successor (Siraj Haqqani) continued to cooperate with the Taliban and maintain subservience to ISI (Pakistani military intelligence). Because Jalaluddin Haqqani helped Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders escape Afghanistan in 2001 there has always been a sense of mutual dependence. For that reason Haqqani leaders were able to help deal with the mid-2015 power struggle within the Taliban and thwart the recruiting efforts of ISIL. Given that Haqqani works for ISI (the Pakistani CIA), Pakistan had to approve, if not help bring about this new arrangement. The Afghan government protested to Pakistan about this but, as usual, Pakistan insisted it had nothing to do with Haqqani, the Taliban or supporting Islamic terrorism of any kind.

March 10, 2017: In the east (Paktika province) Afghan SOF troops killed two ISIL leaders wanted for their role in planning and carrying out major terror attacks.

In the north (Kunduz province) two senior Taliban leaders (one in charge of finances, the other military operations) were killed during clashes with Afghan forces. Four other Taliban were killed and several vehicles (some carrying weapons and ammo) as well.

March 8, 2017: In Kabul four ISIL terrorists, disguised as doctors, attacked the main military hospital. One attacker used an explosive vest while the others used bullets and grenades to kill at least 50 patients and staff and wound many more before they were themselves killed.

March 6, 2017: In the east (Kunar province) at least 76 shells and rockets were fired from Pakistan into rural areas near the border. In 2016 Afghanistan accused Pakistan of resuming the shelling of Afghan territory in eastern (Kunar) and southern (Helmand province) Afghanistan. Although most of the shells and rockets land in remote areas they still manage to kill or wound some people, usually innocent civilians. These rocket, mortar and artillery attacks from Pakistan have been particularly heavy in 2013 and 2014 but happened much left frequently after a new Afghan government joined the U.S. to call out the Pakistanis on these attacks. Pakistan usually refuses to admit they are even happening but because of the 2015 cooperation deal (mainly to deal with Islamic terrorists hostile to everyone) Pakistan became more receptive to these complaints.

March 5, 2017: Pakistani Taliban based in Afghanistan crossed border into Pakistan and attacked three Pakistani border posts in the Mohmand district. Five Pakistani soldiers and at least ten attackers died.

March 4, 2017: In the south (Zabul province) Afghan forces killed an ISIL leader and 16 of his followers who were attempting to move part of ISIL base operations from eastern Afghanistan (Nangarhar province) to Zabul.

In the north (Kunduz province) an Afghan airstrike killed 18 local Taliban, including three leaders.

March 3, 2017: Pakistan opened its Afghan border crossings for two days as a humanitarian gesture.


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