The American efforts to make a peace deal with the Taliban tend to ignore several key issues. First, the Taliban are a threat mainly because of the revenue they obtain by cooperating with the drug gangs. Second, the Taliban and the drug gangs operate because of cooperation from the Pakistani military (who control the Pakistani government). Third, the majority of Afghans are quite blunt about the fact that they will not tolerate a Taliban dominated Afghan government and if one does get into power, there will be another civil war. Most Afghans and the historical record show these three items are what is really preventing peace in Afghanistan. The Americans and their NATO allies can withdraw all of their troops from Afghanistan but within months the violence and Islamic terrorism will have returned and that was what brought those foreign troops to Afghanistan in the first place. That was complicated by the fact that the only land access was via Pakistan, Iran or Russia (via Central Asian states that used to be Russian controlled).
The Taliban want to negotiate a peace deal with the United States and have the Americans impose the terms on the Afghan government. The president of Afghanistan said he would be willing to turn over control of the country to the Taliban if the Taliban won power in an election. The Taliban could not do this because they have been, since the 1990s, the most hated group in Afghanistan. The current Taliban effort to con the Americans into an agreement that includes a withdrawal of all foreign forces, despite protests from the Afghan government, is seen by Afghans as just one more reason to not trust or like this group of Islamic terrorist thugs. So far there have only been proposals and the impact has been Taliban negotiators revealing their usual lack of sincerity. The Americans want a ceasefire before proceeding while the Taliban demand a withdrawal of foreign forces first.
The Neighbors Have Issues
The Taliban insist Pakistan plays no role in the negotiations yet the Pakistani media, and military, make it clear that Pakistan is a key player in all this and Pakistani demands must be respected. While the Pakistani military continues to crack down on Islamic terrorist violence inside Pakistan they have increased their efforts to export such violence to India and Afghanistan. This is very evident to Indians and Afghans living close to the Pakistani border. Actually it is a bloody reality to Iranians living near the Pakistani border. Iran also has issues with Taliban violence against Iranians because they are Shia and Pakistanis and Afghans who are Shia.
The neighbors also have issues with the Afghan drug gangs, who continue to produce, with Pakistani cooperation, the majority of the world’s supply of heroin (in addition to the cheaper opium and hashish). This is unpopular with the civilian populations of all nations adjacent to landlocked Afghanistan. That’s because the exported heroin passes through all of these nations and creates millions of local addicts in the process. Then there is the violence on the borders as the Afghan drug smugglers are armed and if bribes don’t work bullets come next. Bribes work best on the Pakistani border while the Iranian border has been a war zone for years.
The Pakistani military continues to suppress local Islamic terrorist violence while increasing it in Afghanistan and India. The Afghanistan meddling is relatively risk-free while the violence against India is becoming increasingly dangerous. India has nukes, a much larger economy and a vibrant democracy that is demanding action against the Pakistani attacks.
In Pakistan, the military staged a silent coup since 2017 and took control of the top elected leaders, the mass media and highest courts. The Pakistani military plans to keep this power by doing what they have done for decades; create foreign threats where none exist and use that to justify the continued power, prosperity and immunity from prosecution of Pakistani military leaders. To make this work Pakistani generals have to ensure that several volatile situations do not blow up. One of the more obvious examples of this is Afghanistan, which the Pakistani military sees as a potential problem that is best handled by establishing a degree of Pakistani control over who does what in Afghanistan. Thus Pakistan created the Taliban in the early 1990s to end the civil war in Afghanistan and that had unfortunate side effects. For Pakistan, Afghanistan seems to be nothing but unfortunate side effects.
Pakistan finds itself caught in a system of contradictory obligations. Pakistan has long depended on large cash “donations” or loans from wealthy Gulf Arab oil states to keep the Pakistani economy from collapsing. The Arabs always expected something in return and one of those things was diplomatic and, less frequently, military support. The Arabs, at least Saudi Arabia (the main contributor of cash) also initially (in the 1980s) expected Pakistan to welcome Saudi religious charities that built new mosques and religious schools. The Saudis also sent clerics and teachers for the religious schools. This came in handy when Pakistan agreed to host millions of Afghan refugees during the 1980s when the Russians were seeking to conquer Afghanistan. The Saudis paid for taking care of the refugees and arming the men among those refugees who regularly went back into Afghanistan to attack the Russians for a while, then retreat to the Pakistan refugee camps. The Russians threatened Pakistan over this but Pakistan had the Americans blocking these Russian threats while the Saudis kept the refugee/guerilla war operations going.
One of the after-effects of all that was the Taliban and a growing minority of Pakistanis who backed Islamic radicalism and the imposition of religious law, or even a religious government, on Pakistan. This created a civil war that is still underway. The Pakistani military thought they could control and manipulate the Islamic zealots. That proved more difficult than anticipated and while a four year military campaign (starting in 2014) against the local Islamic terrorists (the extremists among the Islamic conservatives the Saudis created) reduced the number of Pakistani Islamic terrorists seeking to replace the current government (a democracy dominated by the military) with a religious dictatorship, those zealots have become a permanent part of Pakistani society. This has caused problems with neighbors like Iran (Pakistani zealots kill Pakistani Shia), China (Pakistani zealots attack Chinese investments and the Chinese running them) and India (Pakistani zealots seek to terrorize India and seize control of Kashmir and eventually all of India). These neighbors have become increasingly forceful in their demands that the Pakistani government does something about this. Pakistan placates the Iranians by refusing to provide military assistance to the Arabs in Yemen, or against any Iranian military operation directed at the Gulf Arabs. Now Pakistan has to deal with increasingly angry Arabs who threatened to halt the cash infusions that the Pakistani economy increasingly depends on. The Chinese demand quick and effective action against Pakistan supported Islamic terrorists who threaten Chinese investments. This was one of the reasons for the 2014 campaign against many of the Islamic terror groups operating from Pakistani bases. Pakistan had hoped the Chinese would replace the Arabs as a source of cash support but the Chinese don’t operate that way. China makes investments and does not provide cash like the Arabs and, until recently, the Americans did. The United States has halted all cash support for Pakistan because the Pakistanis would not shut down Islamic terror groups that attacked American interests. Now the Pakistanis know that if the Chinese feel they are being played like the Americans were, the Chinese will not be patient or forgiving. The Americans are no longer as accommodating as they used to be and the Iranians never were. India is a nuclear power with a larger army and economy than Pakistan. India is also losing patience and threatening war. Pakistan has to worry about too many past mistakes catching up with them at once. Most Afghans would like to see Pakistan pay for its many misdeeds and judgment day is getting closer.
Corruption In Perspective
One of the major problems for Afghanistan is the extent and persistence of corruption. Even the Taliban justified their harsh rule with promises to reduce corruption. They failed. In 2018 there was some progress, despite the increasing poverty caused by decades of violence and general mismanagement (by local and national leaders). In 2018 Afghanistan ranked 172 out of 180 nations in a worldwide survey of corruption. That’s compared to 177 out of 180 in 2017. Progress, or lack thereof, can be seen in the annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index where countries are measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea/14, Yemen/14, Syria/13, South Sudan/13 and Somalia/10) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85. The current Afghanistan score is 16 (up from 14 in 2017) compared to 28 (30) for Iran, 33 (32) for Pakistan, 28 (29) for Russia, 41 (40) for India, 49 (49) for Saudi Arabia, 70 (71) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 35 (32) for Egypt, 62 (64) for Israel, 10 (9) for Somalia, 13 (12) for South Sudan, 16 (16) for Sudan, 61 (61) for Botswana, 72 (75) for the United States, 72 (73) for Japan, 38 (37) for Indonesia, 57 (54) for South Korea, 18 (18) for Iraq, 41 (40) for Turkey, 14 (16) for Yemen, 39 (41) for China, 62 (63) for Qatar, 28 (28) for Lebanon, 35 (33) for Algeria, 32 (31) for Mali, 43 (40) for Morocco, 43 (42) for Tunisia, 19 (20) for Chad, 34 (33) for Niger, 19 (19) for Angola, 26 (26) for Uganda, 56 (55) for Rwanda, 17 (22) for Burundi, 36 (36) for Tanzania and 35 (37) for Zambia, 34 (35) for Ethiopia, 27 (28) for Kenya, 24 (20) for Eritrea, 25 (25) for Cameroon, 40 (39) for Benin, 41 (40) for Ghana, 43 (43) for South Africa and 45 (45) for Senegal. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble and problems dealing with Islamic terrorism and crime in general. Afghanistan corruption score has improved considerably since 2012, when it was 8. But Afghanistan is still near the bottom, although in 2012 Afghanistan was the bottom.
At the moment the high levels of corruption, made worse by all the bribes paid by drug gangs to produce and move their heroin out of the country has crippled economic growth. With the population growing at three percent a year economic growth is stuck at about two percent a year. There is little foreign investment because of the corruption and the constant fighting with the drug gangs and their Taliban hired guns. The Taliban have their own agenda which is hostile to economic growth. The Taliban forbid non-religious education and any education for girls. Without better economic growth Afghanistan will continue to be the poorest nation in Eurasia and most Afghans are not only aware of but are actually not happy about it.
The corruption has many other side effects, all of them bad. There are over a million refugees from the violence, most of it rural. Over two million people are suffering greatly from food shortages. These are largely the result of periodic droughts made worse by Taliban efforts to disrupt the relatively new highway system. There are no railroads in Afghanistan thus it is very difficult to get emergency food aid to those who need in the best of times. There is little foreign economic investment because of violence and corruption. Even China, which is very active in illegal mining and logging activities in central Africa and southeast Asia, is dissuaded by the hostile atmosphere in Afghanistan.
Record Year For The Air War
In 2018 American airpower used more often in Afghanistan than at any other time (including the 2011 surge). In 2018 coalition warplanes (mostly U.S.) used 12 percent more bombs and missiles than in 2011. Coalition warplanes have flown an average to 613 sorties a month, with 13 percent of sorties resulting in weapons being used. This includes AC-130 gunships but not attack helicopters. The trend has been accelerating throughout the year. In some months the U.S. Air Force used more smart bombs and missiles at any since late 2010. The Taliban want the Americans gone in large part because of the greater use of airstrikes by American and Afghan warplanes and changes to the U.S. ROE (Rules of Engagement). In 2017 American commanders were again allowed to determine the ROE for U.S. troops overseas, especially in places like Syria and Afghanistan. For example in Afghanistan U.S. troops can now fire on the Taliban even when the Taliban are not firing on them and fire on the enemy at long distances. Afghan civilians, the most frequent victims of Taliban violence, complained when the U.S. gradually changed its ROE after 2008 to make it impossible for Americans to fire on the Taliban when Afghan civilians were nearby. When asked Afghan civilians pointed out that was when they most needed the Americans to open fire. As the Afghan air force carries out more airstrikes (about a dozen a day by mid-2018 and nearly double that by the end of the year) the Afghan ROE has reduced the enemy use of human shields. The Afghan ROE ignores human shields and puts the priority on killing Taliban or ISIL fighters. This made human shields in general much less effective, even though most of the air strikes are carried out by foreign (usually American) warplanes. For 2018 American aircraft carried out air strikes at the highest rate ever (about twenty bombs or missiles used a day) and a third higher than the previous peak year (2011). The greater availability of air strikes encourages Afghan security forces to be more aggressive.
By way of comparison, there were twice as many American armed aircraft sorties in Syria/Iraq than in Afghanistan although in Syria/Iraq only ten percent of those sorties involved using a weapon. In Syria/Iraq 18 percent more weapons were used in 2018 than in Afghanistan but the difference was even greater (nine times as many) in 2017. The fighting in Syria/Iraq is far more intense and destructive with more than twice as many deaths in 2018 and even greater disparity (up to five times as many deaths) in Syria/Iraq in previous years. Afghanistan has always been a more low-level war as it is more about drug gangs using the Taliban to terrorize opposition (to drug-related activities) as well as the tribal warfare and rural banditry which has long been a feature of Afghan life even during “peacetime.” In other words operations on the ground are quite different in Afghanistan compared to Syria/Iraq.
While nearly all the dead from air strikes are armed hostiles, on the ground the use of violence against civilians had led to an increase (to about 5,000 in 2018) civilian dead. The Taliban and other Islamic terror groups remain the cause of about 80 percent of these deaths. Afghans blame these deaths on the drug gangs (who finance the Taliban) and Pakistan (which supports the Taliban and facilitates drug gang operations). Even many, if not most, Pushtuns (who comprise most of the personnel in the Taliban and drug business) see Pakistan as the enemy of Afghanistan and the Pushtun in particular. This is becoming a major issue among Pakistani Pushtun (who are twice as numerous as Afghan Pushtun) and that has the Pakistani military worried. The Afghan government recently revealed that the security forces have suffered an average of 10,000 dead a year since 2014, most of them non-Pushtun soldiers and police fighting largely Pushtun Taliban and ISIL gunmen.
The Taliban don’t just hurt civilians in person but increasingly do so via the growing number of landmines they are planting. Civilian casualties from these landmines have increased more than four times (to over 150 a month) since 2012. The Taliban deliberately plant these mines to coerce or punish civilians and are quite open about that. The Taliban is mainly about terror used to control rural populations and are resorting to that approach more and more as tribes become more hostile to Taliban activity.
February 11, 2019: China has announced a foreign aid project that will benefit both Afghanistan and Pakistan. China will pay for the construction of new border crossing facilities at the two main crossings; Torkham in eastern Afghanistan (opposite the Khyber Pass in the Pakistani tribal territories) and Chaman in the south (opposite Baluchistan.) The new facilities would contain modern rest areas for people waiting to cross (especially drivers of trucks) and these amenities would include refrigerated warehouses for perishable cargoes (like fruit and vegetables) delayed at the crossings.
February 9, 2019: Russia and Iran claim that Israeli military intelligence personnel are operating in western Afghanistan (Herat province) from the American portion of the Afghan Shindand Air Base. This base is 120 kilometers from the Iranian border and has long been used for American air surveillance operations along the Iranian border and inside Iran as well. Back in 2009, the U.S. Air Force admitted that it was operating the new, jet-powered RQ-170 UAV in Afghanistan. At that point, the RQ-170, which looks like a miniature B-2 bomber, had been in development for over six years. It was believed to be flying over Iran, which would be a real test for a stealthy UAV like this. This turned out to be the case and in 2011 a RQ-170 crashed in Iran and the Iranians recovered and restored the damaged UAV. Israel and the United States often cooperate on intel collecting operations and there have been earlier reports about Israeli experts coming to Afghanistan to assist in the effort to monitor what is going on in Iran.
February 6, 2019: The Afghan Taliban demanded that Anas Haqqani, a brother of the head of the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban, be freed from an Afghan prison so he can participate in the peace talks. Anas Haqqani has been held in an Afghan prison since 2014 and the Taliban have included him and several other imprisoned Taliban in their fourteen man negotiating team. This is supposed to force the release of these men. The Afghan government, which the Taliban refuses to negotiate with, is not inclined to release any Taliban or Haqqani Network leaders.
January 22, 2019: In central Afghanistan (Uruzgan Province, just north of Helmand and Kandahar and adjacent to Ghazni) an American Special Forces soldiers was killed in action. This is the second American to die in Afghanistan this year. In 2018 fourteen of the 14,000 American military personnel in Afghanistan were killed. This was actually drop from 2017, when fifteen died. Most of the American troops in Afghanistan are carrying out support jobs and rarely leave their bases. Those that do leave their bases tend to be combat troops, usually special operations types like the U.S. Army Special Forces operator who died today.
January 21, 2019: In central Afghanistan (Wardak Province) the Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack on an NDS (National Directorate of Security) training base. The attack used a suicide car bomber followed by another vehicle carrying gunmen who went into the building to shoot survivors of the enormous explosion (which caused part of the two-story main building to collapse. Before the fighting was over (and all the attackers killed) over 65 NDS personnel had died as well. The NDS is considered a key element in government success against drug gangs and the Taliban. For that reason, there have been more attacks, like this, against NDS facilities. Because of the NDS, a lot of smuggled weapons and explosives have been seized in Wardak province. Much of that smuggling is organized by Haqqani Network members operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Haqqani smugglers never seem to have any problems on the Pakistan side of the border but it is quite different on the Afghan side where people understand that most of the victims of these Haqqani/Taliban bombs are civilians who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a result, the greatest danger to Haqqani in Afghanistan is all those civilians who have cell phones (a majority of the population now). The Taliban leadership is now dominated by senior Haqqani leaders, many of them former members of the Taliban. Haqqani is more gangster than Islamic terrorist and frequently works for the ISI (Pakistani intelligence, which created the Taliban in the 1990s.)