Afghanistan: Cashing In, Cashing Out


May 8, 2017: Islamic terrorist and drug gang violence are up ten percent in the first few months of 2017. The security forces are losing over a hundred dead a week. Afghan forces have been in charge of security since 2014 and back then Taliban leaders told their followers that without the foreign troops the Afghan forces would quickly fold. That didn’t happen but casualties among the security forces increased quite a bit. In 2016 over 500 soldiers and police were killed each month, which was up 35 percent from 2015 (the first full year the Afghans had to face the Taliban, drug gangs and assorted other Islamic terrorists and warlords alone). In 2016 nearly 700,000 Afghans fled their homes to avoid the fighting, an increase of 40 percent over 2015. Nearly 200 civilians a month are killed, most by Taliban and ISIL violence. So far in 2017 Afghan security forces are losing personnel at the same rate as in 2016.

In response to all this, and a change of government in the United States, the Americans are planning to increase their current force of 8,400 troops (and many more contractors) to over 10,000 troops. Other NATO nations already provide about 5,000 troops. So far in 2017 U.S. forces in Afghanistan have suffered four dead, two apparently from friendly fire. There were 14 American (and two other NATO) troops killed in 2016. The Americans keep their casualties down by sticking mainly to training, advising and a limited number of commando raids.

Another problem that has to be addressed is the growing prosperity of the Afghan drug gangs. In 2015 and 2016 the U.S. government ordered a reduction in U.S. efforts to reduce opium and heroin production in Afghanistan. It’s unclear why that happened but the policy is being changed. The problem is that drug gang income is way up and they can offer larger bribes to military and political officials as well as higher pay to their Taliban mercenaries (who get most of their cash from the drug gangs). In 2016 Afghanistan (mainly Helmand province) produced a record 4,800 tons of opium. That is a 43 percent increase over 2015 and 80 percent of the world supply. Nearly 60 percent of that comes from the south (mainly Helmand but also Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul, and Daykundi provinces). For Afghan security forces, fighting in Helmand has accounted for 40 percent of the security forces killed since 2015. That includes 18,000 policemen. Afghans in general hate the drug gangs. Not just because it has turned millions of Afghans into addicts but because it has financed more private armies and generated even more violence and disorder than Afghanistan suffers in quieter times. Worst, while the economy has improved most Afghans, especially young ones with any education or tech skills, save money so they can migrate to somewhere else. Only about ten percent of the population benefits from all the drug income but the other 90 percent are paying for it.

While overall GDP has more than quadrupled since the Americans arrived in 2001 that been mostly due to over $100 billion foreign aid and nearly as much illegal income from the drug trade. Running a legitimate business in Afghanistan is still very difficult because of the corruption and outlaw attitudes that have long characterized the country. Legitimate economic activity was down in 2016 and, in general, since most foreign troops departed in 2014. Afghans were left to decide for themselves if they wanted a legitimate economy or a traditional (for Afghanistan) one based on violence, banditry and plunder. Old habits are hard to shake. Despite source of the income the GDP is still growing a 2-3 percent a year. In most of the country lawful commerce is still possible. As long as the drug gangs and their Taliban enforcers can be kept out the economy thrives. Agriculture is doing particularly well and schools are able to function. Unfortunately many of young Afghans who get an education end up leaving the country because there are not enough legitimate jobs.

Jihad On Jihad Violence

The increased fighting between Taliban and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups is about drugs although it is unclear if all these battles are over ISIL hostility to the drug trade or wanting a piece of it. Without cash even the most fanatic Islamic terrorists cannot survive, especially since the 500 or more ISIL men left in Afghanistan are at least half non-Afghan and have a reputation for treating locals brutally. That has largely turned the tribes against ISIL. Despite that ISIL survives and continues to attract Afghan recruits, mainly because ISIL is seen as uncorrupted, at least compared to the Taliban. Most Afghans are more concerned with the cash. ISIL had nearly 3,000 personnel in 2016 but battles with the Taliban, local tribes plus increased attacks from the Americans and Afghan forces have reduced that by more than 70 percent. In some weeks over a hundred ISIL men were killed and many of those dead were reached by Afghan or American troops who gathered information for more such attacks.

Shelter From The Storm

In the south (Kandahar) the provincial police chief has taken advantage of the increased violence (by other Islamic terror groups as well as American UAVs) in the longstanding sanctuary across the border in Baluchistan. The police chief was former Taliban and he has persuaded several dozen Taliban, including some senior leaders, to accept amnesty and settle in Kandahar under his protection. So far these amnestied Taliban have behaved but many Afghans are still unsure because reneging on such deals is nothing new in Afghanistan. The police chief explains that many veteran Taliban, like himself, are tired of the endless fighting and want out.

The Frenemies Next Door

In 2016 Iran became Afghanistan’s largest trading partner as exports and imports reached $1.8 billion. Pakistan, long the largest trading partner, fell to $1.2 billion. The decline in Pakistan trade was partly because of frequent Pakistani border closings over border disputes or disagreements over how to deal with Islamic terrorists operating on both sides of the border. The increased Iran trade also means more illegal items are coming in, especially weapons. Iran does not officially support arming the Taliban, although local Shia militias and “self-defense” (against Sunni terrorist attacks) groups are another matter. The U.S. accuses Russia of colluding with Iran, or Iranian arms smugglers, to supply the Taliban with weapons. Apparently Russia is again trying to destabilize the Afghan government so that they, and their ally Iran, will have more influence. This has been going on since the 1800s. But for over a thousand years before that warlords in Iran and northern India fought to control parts of Afghanistan, especially those areas that were part of the “Silk Road” between the Middle East (and Europe) and China (as well as stops along the way, like India and Iran.)

Russia further complicates the issue by currently hosting Afghanistan peace talks that involve leaders from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and China but not the United States. Even many of the invited participants point out that this makes no sense. But for Russian leaders the idea that most problems in Russia and with Islamic terrorism worldwide are the work of the United States is important to maintain. This makes the Afghan peace effort pointless because the non-Russian participants know nothing will work without American participation.

May 7, 2017: In the north (Kunduz province) an army counterattack on the Taliban (using airstrikes, artillery and ground forces) killed nearly 40 Taliban including five known leaders. Most of this fighting took place outside Kunduz city.

May 6, 2017: In the north (Kunduz province) the Taliban again tried to get into Kunduz city. They failed at that but did manage to seize control of a district outside the city. The Taliban announced that this was part of their 2017 “Spring Offensive” during the traditional warmer weather Afghan “fighting season.”

In the east (Nangarhar province) two ISIL suicide bombers sought to attack Afghan troops but failed when their explosives went off, apparently by accident, as they were trying to get close to the troops. The soldiers were sweeping the area seeking out any ISIL presence in the same area where the U.S. dropped a MOAB bomb on a large ISIL base. In the last month ISIL has taken heavy losses in Nangarhar, as in several hundred dead or captured. Many senior people are now gone, apparently including those in charge of building bomb vests and showing volunteers how to use them.

May 5, 2017: In the south (Kandahar province) Pakistan accused Afghan troops of firing across the border into the Chamman area and killing 11 Pakistanis and wounding about 40. Most of the casualties were civilians. Apparently this violence is connected with disagreements over where the border is and the national census being conducted in Pakistan. Over the next two days Pakistani forces fired back and claimed to have killed fifty Afghan troops and destroyed five border posts. There was no agreement on that, or anything else until the 7th when, during the third meeting of senior officers from both sides, a ceasefire was agreed to as well as a new survey of exactly where the border is in the area where the fighting took place. The nearby Chamman border crossing is the second most active border road crossing between the two countries. Most of the 2,500 kilometers of border is rural, thinly populated and lacking roads so these road crossings are important. The border violence has been going on for years and is more about unresolved border disputes than anything else. 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.

May 3, 2017: In the east (Nangarhar province) an American UAV used missiles to attack an ISIL camp and kill seven of the Islamic terrorists.

In Kabul an ISIL suicide car bomber attacked a NATO convoy, killing eight civilians and wounding about 30 people, including three American soldiers in the convoy that was passing near the U.S. embassy.

May 1, 2017: In the east (Nangarhar province) an American UAV used missiles to attack a Taliban camp and kill eight of the Islamic terrorists.

Across the border in South Waziristan Pakistan reports that raiders from Afghanistan attacked two border posts. These attacks were repulsed and the raiders fled back across the border after losing three dead and several wounded.

April 30, 2017: In the east (Nangarhar province) Taliban and ISIL forces battled each other leaving over thirty fighters dead or wounded. There were also about ten civilian casualties. ISIL later announced that they had won this battle and taken control of Chaprahr district, where most of the opium in Nangarhar is produced. Elsewhere in the province Afghan commandos raided an ISIL hideout killing an ISIL leader and three of his followers.

April 28, 2017: The Taliban released a statement announcing the start of the annual “Spring Offensive”.

April 27, 2017: In the east (Nangarhar province) a joint Afghan-American raid on an ISIL camp near the Pakistan border killed Abdul Hasib, the much wanted leader of the local branch of ISIL. Hasib was also much hated by Afghans for his preference for killing civilians and capturing beheadings on video for later distribution. He also kidnapped local women and forced them to marry ISIL members. It took several days to confirm that one of the ISIL men killed during the raid was Hasib. During the raid, which involved nearly a hundred American and Afghan special operations troops, over thirty enemy fighters were killed during a three hour gun battle. The attackers suffered some wounded and two American Rangers were killed. It was later discovered that they may have been victims of friendly fire. There used to be a lot more of these “friendly fire” incidents but in the last few decades new technology and tactics has greatly reduced such losses. That means any friendly fire incidents are big news. The U.S. Army will investigate this incident and try to modify procedures to prevent another one. Since GPS guided bombs were introduced during the 1990s the technology and procedures for their use have been tweaked, automated and improved to avoid friendly fire incidents although this one apparently involved ground fire and miscommunication. The investigation of this incident is under way and the results of that will result in more tweaks to the system in a continuing effort to reduce friendly fire losses even further. The elimination of most friendly fire incidents was one of many changes that have made 21st century combat much less deadly for American troops. For example the casualty rate for American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq has been about a third of what it was for their counterparts in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Friendly fire deaths have fallen even more and are now about 20 percent of what they were in mid-20th century wars. Now they account for less than one percent of losses and are nearly all investigated and well documented.

Further east, across the border in Pakistan, ISIL and Afghan Taliban forces clashed leaving a senior Taliban leader and two of his bodyguards dead. This was a rare incident for Pakistan as most of the local ISIL forces remain in Afghanistan. The Taliban leader normally operates in eastern Afghanistan (Logar province) but frequently visits friends and family in Pakistan. These appear to be business trips as the Taliban are in charge of security for most of the opium and heroin being moved from Afghanistan to the rest of the world via Pakistan.

April 26, 2017: In the north (Jawzjan province, on the Turkmenistan border) there has been a major series of battles between ISIL and Taliban forces that left over a hundred dead and even more wounded. This was over control of drug smuggling routes across the border.

April 24, 2017: In Kabul the Defense Minister and chief of staff of the army resigned in the wake of the losses suffered during a recent attack on a military base in Kunduz. These two senior leaders were criticized for not enforcing more discipline and demanding better performance from unit commanders. The lax security at the Kunduz base is seen as an example of this.

April 21, 2017: In the north (Kunduz province) about a dozen Taliban, dressed as soldiers, attacked an army training base with suicide bombers and gunmen and during five hours of fighting killed 140 soldiers and wounded over 150. The high number of army casualties was due to the fact that, as a training base, most of the troops were unarmed and had few useful combat skills.

April 13, 2017: In the east (Nangarhar province) the U.S. used one of its large (9.8 ton) MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast) GPS guided smart bomb in combat for the first time. The MOAB was dropped on an ISIL tunnel and cave complex. This area was guarded by hundreds of landmines and explosive traps in addition to several hundred of the Islamic terrorists. Officially known as GBU-43/B, the bomb performed as expected, leaving over a hundred visible dead. Some ISIL men may have been vaporized and others buried deep in the collapsed caves and tunnels. A large explosion likes this creates an overpressure that kills troops deep inside of bunkers. In addition to the shock wave and tunnel collapses the explosion also sucks up all the oxygen in caves and tunnels, asphyxiating those not killed by the blast or overpressure. Later analysis of ISIL post-attack communications indicated that a dozen or more known ISIL leaders may have been killed in this attack. Some stunned or wounded ISIL men managed to get out of the area before ground forces showed up and spread the word about what happened. In the days after this bombing local tribal leaders asked the Americans to use weapons like this more often. Most Afghans oppose the Taliban and drug gangs and usually want more airstrikes than Western air forces are comfortable with (because of the risk of hurting civilians). When pressed the Afghan leaders point out that these terrorists and gangsters kill and abuse local people daily and that civilian losses from airstrikes are less than the long-term losses from the bad guys. Besides, the foreigners pay compensation for civilian casualties while the Islamic terrorists and drug gangs rarely do so despite all the money they are making. The second best solution is more use of airstrikes and artillery by the Afghan army. The army aircraft now have laser guided missiles, which limits the number of civilian losses. The artillery and mortar fire can be a problem but it is preferable to what the Islamic terrorists and drug gangs do if they are able to move about unopposed. When the tribes know that calling in a tip to the police or army will result in some action, they will risk the call. If the Taliban or drug gangs find out who made such a call they retaliate against the entire family if they have the opportunity.

April 8, 2017: In the north (Kunduz province) an American UAV used missiles to attack a Taliban hideout and kill a provincial Taliban leader and eight other Islamic terrorists. Subordinate leaders vowed revenge attacks in the wake of losing their provincial commander.


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