Most Afghans want peace but progress in achieving that has been blocked by the drug gangs, Pakistani interference and some troublesome traditions. Achieving peace requires all the help it can get and most Afghans understand that and help has arrived in the form of the Taliban being declared an “enemy of Islam” by a growing number of influential Islamic religious organizations. At the same time Taliban combat leaders are more frequently finding the local tribes they thought they had terrorized into submission were again fighting back. The Taliban were being called heretics and enemies of Islam by rural tribesmen as well as Islamic scholars nationwide. The Taliban claim to being “Holy Warriors” has been wearing thin and now the Taliban find that they have evolved into the enemy of Islam they claim to be fighting. In truth the Taliban have become mercenaries that survive by terrorizing Afghans who try to interfere with the production and distribution of drugs and other un-Islamic activities. That was a toxic, but truthful tag that eventually corroded the Taliban reputation down to something truly vile.
It has gotten so bad for the Taliban that the Afghan Ulema Council (the top religious authority in the country) met in Kabul during early June and condemned the Taliban. The 2,000 Islamic scholars and senior clerics rarely hold such large meetings but this one was considered urgent because of the continued damage being done by the drug gangs, their Taliban hired guns and the Pakistani support for all this. So the Council issued a fatwah (religious ruling) condemning suicide attacks and supporting peace talks. The council also called for a ceasefire. That resulted in a short ceasefire and the Americans piling on by offering to negotiate directly with the Taliban, apparently to force the Taliban to admit what they really were (gangsters, not protectors of Islam.) In early July the civilian casualty data for the first six months of the year were released and showed that the drug gang and Islamic terrorist related violence continued to kill over 250 civilians a month, as it has for the last three years. As usual, the Taliban are directly responsible for most of these deaths.
The Taliban are not inclined to consider peace talks because of money (from the drug gangs) and sanctuary (in southwest Pakistan, particularly Quetta, capital of Baluchistan province). Direct peace talks with the United States, which is now a possibility, are very risky for the Taliban because the existence of their sanctuaries in Pakistan, while denied by the Pakistani military are an open secret in Pakistan where it is also obvious that the Pakistan military and its intelligence agency (the ISI, which literally created the Taliban 25 years ago) handles these sanctuaries. In Pakistan, the military is very much above the law and can usually do whatever it wants. That is not a secret because about half the time since Pakistan was created in 1947 the military has openly run the government (after a coup) until popular opposition forced the generals to allow elections again. The Pakistani interference in Afghan affairs is more unpopular than the presence of foreign troops (who at least bring economic benefits, have no interest in staying around forever and oppose, as do most Afghans, the drug gangs). The Taliban insist their main goal is to get foreign troops out of Afghanistan but say nothing about suppressing the widely unpopular drug business. Moreover, terrorism related deaths are overwhelmingly Islamic terrorists (Taliban and ISIL). These men die protecting the drug production that has turned millions of Afghans into addicts and crippled efforts to build the economy and educate the children. Few Taliban really believe they are doing anything good for Afghanistan or the average Afghan,
The Afghan Ulema Council had never supported peace talks before and since the Council represents all parts of the country its announcements are considered a good gauge of public opinion. Hours after that June decision was announced ten ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) terrorists attacked the meeting place. This attack failed but fourteen people were killed and twenty wounded. The Taliban responded by denying any involvement in the attack and accusing those at the meeting of following orders from the Americans. ISIL wanted to send a more emphatic response and employed a very alien (to Afghans) tactic. The June Ulema condemnation of the Taliban was repeated a month later and similar Islamic scholar organizations in other countries (especially Saudi Arabia) that had backed the Taliban from a religious angle, now changed direction and urged the Taliban to seek peace or else (the Taliban would become, like ISIL, an international Islamic pariah.).
July 16, 2018: In Kabul, a suicide bomber headed for a political rally was spotted by police and shot dead before he could detonate his explosives. This sort of thing is increasingly common in Kabul in large part because Afghans are willing to use their cell phones to alert police who are experienced enough to act on the tips. Given the fact that there are no “veteran” suicide bombers (it’s a “one and done” profession) the police can spot them easily enough and kill them before they kill a lot of civilians. This is the sort of thing that gets widely reported in the Afghan media and Taliban efforts to suppress this unflattering news failed. For most Afghans, the Taliban threat is personal and constant. Trying to portray the Americans or any other foreigners as a greater threat has lost its effectiveness over the years, While most Afghans are still wary of outsiders the Taliban are constantly reminded that this includes other Afghans (from another tribe or ethnic group or Afghan bandits or terrorists of any sort). A lot of Taliban bad habits are widely known, like forcing civilians to act as human shields. This is particularly ineffective against Afghan airstrikes and when the casualties are reported Afghans know why there were civilians killed along with so many Taliban or ISIL gunmen.
July 12, 2018: In the north (Jawzjan province) Taliban forces attacked an ISIL camp and triggered a series of gun battles that over 60 Islamic terrorists dead or wounded. ISIL forces in Jawzjan have been weakened by regular clashes with Taliban forces. This fighting was common during most of 2017 and was pretty brutal, with ISIL often beheading captured (or recently killed) Taliban. All this was over control of drug smuggling routes across the border. There have been clashes between ISIL and Taliban in other parts of the country (mainly in the east) but it has been worst in Jawzjan. With government and U.S. forces increasing their attacks as well the local ISIL has lost many of its senior leaders and some factions in Jawzjan have disappeared, apparently because of casualties and desertions caused by the lack of leadership. The number of American and Afghan air strikes on ISIL in Jawzjan and other northern provinces have increased since March, apparently as the result of more tips from locals or even the rival Taliban forces. The Americans believe that ISIL in Jawzjan is no longer an organized force and that the remaining ISIL members are still being hunted by the security forces as well as the Taliban. The ISIL force in eastern Afghanistan (Nangarhar province) remains active and largely intact, for now. The current clashes in Jawzjan indicate that ISIL had greater recuperative capabilities than anyone expected. But the Taliban have an unexpected asset as well. Captured Taliban in eastern and northern Afghanistan report a special Taliban force being trained in Iran, where they also receive new equipment and weapons with the understanding that they will return to Afghanistan and concentrate their attacks on Americans and ISIL. Iran is desperate to strike back at the Americans for renewing economic sanctions and thwarting Iranian efforts to take control of Syria and then launch attacks on Israel. These Iran backed Taliban have apparently been going after ISIL groups in western Afghanistan but not the Americans, at least not as far as anyone can tell. So far in 2018 three Americans have been killed but none of those deaths can be traced back to Iranian influence. Meanwhile, as many as 600 Taliban are being trained or completed their training in Iran. This sort of foreign meddling is unpopular in Afghanistan where such interference by neighbors, especially Pakistan and Iran, is an ancient and always unwelcome problem.
The renewed American economic sanctions on Iran has provided less lethal (and also illegal) benefits for Afghans. The return of sanctions has caused a dollar shortage in Iran and Afghan traders are taking advantage of it by taking over two million dollars a day into Iran where they get exceptional value (because the dollar is suddenly worth so much more in Iranian rials) and buy Iranian good cheaply for sale in Afghanistan.
July 7, 2018: In the east (Nangarhar Province) some 600 Afghan and American commandos captured the main ISIL base in the province. This concludes an operation that began in April that cost ISIL nearly 200 personnel (dead or captured). About 90 percent of the ground force was Afghan (three companies of commandos) and the ground troops had access to lots of aerial surveillance and airstrikes. The commando force suffered few casualties and no deaths. The main tactic was to force ISIL out of populated districts they long operated in and back towards the remote area where their main base was believed to be. The base was finally located and overrun. The remaining ISIL are isolated in a mountainous area where food and water are in short supply. ISIL has shown surprising ability to regenerate, in part because they attract the most fanatic members of other Islamic terrorist groups, especially the Taliban, which is increasingly seen as just pretending to be Islamic warriors.
June 24, 2018: In the east unidentified Afghan gunmen fired across the border into Pakistan killing a Pakistani soldier and wounding another in a group who were escorting workers constructing the new 2,500-kilometer long border fence. Many Afghans dispute where Pakistan draws the border and the need for a border fence itself. Construction has been underway for about a year now but the attacks from the Afghan side have been particularly intense (about ten a week) during the last four months. So far Pakistan has lost seven soldiers to these attacks and another 40 wounded. 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. The need for renegotiation was mainly about how the line often went right through Pushtun tribal territories. However, the Afghans are more inclined to demand adjustments to the Durand Line and fight to obtain what they want. Thus recent Pakistani efforts to build more fences and other structures on their side of the border was an attempt to make the Durand line permanent and no longer negotiable. In its defense, Pakistan designed the new fence so that it will create the most problems for smugglers and anyone seeking to cross the border illegally. Pakistan has, with the help of Afghanistan and even American intelligence identified 235 crossing points along the border. Those that are frequently used by Islamic terrorists and drug smugglers are easy to identify as are the 18 crossing points that can be used by most vehicles. The majority of these crossing points are what they are because they enable someone on foot, or using pack animals, to get through areas that are made more difficult to use by the addition of a multi-layer fence line and sensors (real or imagined.)
June 23, 2018: In northwest Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban confirmed the recent death of its leader (Mullah Maulana Fazlullah) on June 14th in eastern Afghanistan (Kunar province). The Pakistani Taliban also revealed their new leader; Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud. Most of the leaders of the Pakistani Taliban have come from the Mehsud tribe, which is largely in South Waziristan. This tribe was instrumental in forming the Pakistani Taliban. In late 2013 an American UAV used a missile to kill Hakimullah Mehsud, the man Mullah Maulana Fazlullah succeeded as head of the Pakistani Taliban. That attack took place in Pakistan (North Waziristan) and in light of the subsequent (2014), Pakistani army offensive into North Waziristan the Pakistani Taliban moved their headquarters across the border into Afghanistan. At the same time, there was a civil war within the Pakistani Taliban over the selection of Fazlullah as leader and strategy in general. Fazlullah proved effective in reuniting the Pakistani Taliban and dispersing its operations after leaving North Waziristan. That worked for a while but because the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban do not get along it was only a matter of time before it became impossible to keep the location of the Pakistani Taliban (and his constantly moving headquarters) a secret. The Pakistani Taliban headquarters is still believed to be in eastern Afghanistan.