Afghanistan: Silencing The Voice Of The People


April 12, 2019: The presidential elections have been delayed until September 28th even though the current president's term of office ends on May 22nd . Government officials cannot agree on how to establish an interim government or simply extend the term of the current president. The delays are largely due to the Taliban violence in many parts of the country, which makes it difficult to set up polling places and then collect the votes. That is intentional because the Taliban believe democracy is un-Islamic and violently opposes voting and considers any elected government illegitimate and tainted by Western heresy and manipulation. This is their excuse for refusing to negotiate with the current Afghan government.

Meanwhile, the Taliban have increased the number and size of their attacks while also trying to negotiate a peace deal with the Americans. The Taliban recently announced their annual Spring Offensive. The Taliban appear intent on achieving some kind of spectacular victory to kick off Spring Offensive 2019 but so far have not been able to score big. A major operation in the west (Badghis province) began well enough a week ago but quickly stalled because of determined resistance and Afghan and American airstrikes.

Negotiating With The Taliban

The current effort to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan is not popular with most Afghans or most of the neighbors. The main problem is that the Taliban failed to gain control over the entire nation in the late 1990s (and were still at it on September 11, 2001) and are unlikely to do any better if they get another chance. Worse, few people in the region (especially Afghans and Iranians) expect the Taliban to agree to a ban on Taliban controlled Afghanistan again becoming a sanctuary for Islamic terrorists. Many Afghans are wondering why the Americans are even negotiating with the Taliban, who have long demonstrated that they cannot be trusted. Iranians are particularly wary of this as they see the Taliban as inherently anti-Iranian. Iran also has issues with the Afghan drug gangs, who continue to produce, with Pakistani cooperation, all that heroin, opium and hashish. Much of it gets out of Afghanistan via Iran and that has turned the Iran/Afghan border into an increasingly bloody battle zone.

At the same time, Afghans worry that Iran has some secret plans for the 10,000 Afghan Shia who returned to Afghanistan after serving several years as Iranian mercenaries in the Syrian civil war. The risk of death or permanent injury was great but the pay was good (up to a thousand dollars or more a month) and, until the Americans revived economic sanctions against Iran in 2017, it was relatively easy to have that money sent back to families in Afghanistan or Iranian refugee camps. Many of these Afghan Shia stayed in Iran or even accepted the Iranian offer to settle in Syria in a program for militia veterans that is less extensive than Iran hoped because of budget problems. The American sanctions have reduced what Iran can afford to spend in Syria and that is why so many Afghan Shia militiamen were discharged and sent back to Iran or Afghanistan. Those who arrived back in Afghanistan were respected by their families for their efforts (and the money sent back) but most Afghans, even many Shia, are suspicious that Iran may eventually try to revive their Afghan mercenary units inside Afghanistan.

Elements Of Economic Growth

Foreign economists predict 2.5 percent GDP growth in 2019 and three percent in 2020. Despite the Taliban violence and troublesome weather (drought followed by too much rain and floods over the last year), economic growth continues. The prosperity is not evenly distributed with only about half the population rising out of poverty. Ten percent benefit directly from the drug trade while another 40 percent tend to be in towns and cities, better educated and certainly more prosperous. The poverty of rural Afghanistan is worst in the west where Badghis province has 80 percent of its population in poverty and growing Taliban violence that keeps it that way. The capital (Kabul province) is the most prosperous with only 12 percent of the population in poverty. The Taliban is strongest in rural areas where these Islamic terrorists often shut down schools, especially those that teach girls. Literacy and education are key factors in moving from perpetual poverty to economic growth and prosperity.

Overall GDP had more than quadrupled since the Americans arrived in 2001. The GDP growth was mostly due to over $100 billion in foreign aid (much of it stolen locally) 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 declined after 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 the source of the income the GDP continued 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 young Afghans who get an education end up leaving the country because there are not enough legitimate jobs.

The major threat to prosperity is the drug trade and the use of Pakistani backed Taliban as hired guns to protect production and export routes. Indians, Afghans and Iranians generally agree that Pakistan has no interest in abandoning its use of certain Islamic terror groups (like the Taliban) as a way to put pressure on neighbors. If the Taliban gain power and survive the subsequent civil war, Afghanistan is still in big trouble because the Taliban prefer it when they and their closest associates, plus the drug gangs, have most of the money. This is only ten percent of the population and, as the Taliban were doing until late 2001, the Taliban were constantly fighting the poor majority, usually via traditional methods of massacres and assassinations. The Taliban insist this time it will be different but there is no indication they have fundamentally changed their approach to running Afghanistan and most Afghans would rather fight than find out if a new, improved Taliban are any more tolerable.

The illegal drugs are believed to account for about eight percent of GDP and provide direct benefit to about ten percent of the population. This is mainly the farmers who grow the opium plus the drug gang personnel who refine opium into heroin, the smugglers who get it out of the country and the Taliban who are paid to protect all this. The Taliban account for only a few percent of the Afghans who benefit from the drug trade. The Taliban have the most dangerous job and are paid, by the month, more than the average soldier or policeman. The drug gangs pay death benefits to the families of Taliban killed in action, and that casualty rate is higher than what the security forces suffer. Despite a drought (that began in 2017 and recently ended) that cut opium production over 40 percent (to 5,300 tons of opium) in 2018 Afghanistan is still the source of 90 percent of the worldwide heroin supply.

April 11, 2019: The Taliban banned the Red Cross and WHO (World Health Organization) in areas where the Taliban is a major presence. This ban is common with delivering medical care to rural areas and particularly urgent because of the current effort to vaccinate children in rural areas against polio. The Taliban banned foreign medical aid groups because of suspicions that these foreigners are helping the government and foreign troops who attack the Taliban. In the past, the Taliban has provided foreign aid (particularly medical) groups “security guarantees” if the foreigners did favors for the Taliban or simply paid large bribes. The foreign medical aid groups are popular in rural Afghanistan but the Taliban insists that the foreigners show some support and respect for the Taliban. It is unclear what offended the Taliban this time or what demands they made that the Red Cross and WHO cannot comply with. For the moment the Red Cross and WHO are shutting down operations in rural areas because of the security risk from Taliban and bandit attack. In an emergency (as defined by the Afghan government) the Red Cross or WHO can get a military escort to take them to a rural area but that is rare. When the Taliban say they don’t want you, foreign aid groups have learned to back off. This makes the Taliban even less popular with the civilians affected. The Taliban never paid much attention to public opinion.

In the north (Samangan province) local Taliban have again kidnapped many (about 60) truck drivers who refused to pay the Taliban for the right to use local roads without being attacked. This is an old problem in this area and the Taliban continue (since late 2018) having problems getting truck drivers to pay $93 protection money each to avoid being attacked as they transport coal to major towns and cities. The local Taliban declare that they control some key roads used by the coal trucks but local police, tribal militias and soldiers do not agree. The Taliban kidnapped at least fifty of the drivers back in December 2018 but quickly released them so it was difficult to see who really has the power in this area, which is traditionally hostile to the Taliban and drug gangs.

April 10, 2019: In the east (Kunar province), an American UAV used missiles to kill seven ISIL personnel including (it was later confirmed) a senior ISIL leader.

April 9, 2019: The Taliban denounced the April 29 Loya Jirga called by the Afghan government. This Loya Jirga is meant to provide a grass-roots assessment of how Afghans feel about peace talks with the Taliban, despite the fact that the Taliban has declared the Afghan government and any Loya Jirga called by that government as illegitimate. The Taliban insist they will never negotiate with the Afghan government and are only talking with the Americans to obtain a deal that has foreign troops leave Afghanistan. What the Taliban does not like to discuss is that the elected government of Afghanistan and Loya Jirgas are more representative of what Afghans want than Taliban press releases. The Taliban learned in the late 1990s, when they were trying to take control of all of Afghanistan, that most Afghans are hostile to the Taliban and the drug gangs that finance the Taliban. Those attitudes have not changed and a Loya Jirga is a pretty convincing reminder.

Loya Jirgas (great conference) are usually held in Kabul and bring together two or three thousand prominent Afghans (tribal leaders and politicians) from all over the country to discuss important issues that concern everyone . Over the last decade, Loya Jirgas have dealt with issues like how much longer to host foreign troops (most them left by 2014 but the Loya Jirga wanted some to stay ) and former president Karzai's 2013 plea for a peace deal with the Taliban ( Loya Jirga hostile to the idea) . The main function of the Jirga is for leaders from around the country to get a sense of the attitudes of other tribes and form a consensus. Loya Jirga is a Pushtun word, but it a common practice among the Indo-European tribes that have occupied the region for over 5,000 years. The purpose of the Loya Jirga has changed because of technology. Those now attending have cell phones and access to international radio and TV news. Thus it is no longer a meeting of strangers. Local Jirgas are meetings of people who are often distantly related to each other and are more frequently used to settle local or family disputes. Loya Jirgas used to be rare events, but now that are much more frequent (almost annual affairs) and an opportunity to achieve some kind of national consensus.

Loya Jirgas also make it clear that most Afghans, and people in the region, have issues with the Afghan drug gangs, who continue to produce, with Pakistani cooperation, some 90 percent of the world’s supply of heroin (in addition to the cheaper opium and hashish for local markets). This is unpopular with Afghans and 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 current effort to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan is not popular with Iranians. The Taliban are seen as inherently anti-Iranian. Iran also has issues with the Afghan drug gangs, who continue to produce, with Pakistani cooperation, all that heroin, opium and hashish.

April 8, 2019: Outside the capital, near Bagram air base, a Taliban bomb killed three American marines and an Afghan contractor. So far this year seven American troops have died in Afghanistan. In 2018 fourteen died and in 2017 there were 15 and 13 in 2016.

April 7, 2019: Airlines serving Afghanistan are demanding that the government do something about the continued Pakistani ban on anyone using their air space. This has been going on for over a month and has cost Afghanistan, airlines and passengers nearly $10 million so far. Because of the air battles in Kashmir between Pakistan and India in late February Pakistani airspace has been closed since then and it is costing Afghanistan a lot of money and costing people flying to or from Afghanistan a lot more cash and time as well. Afghanistan gets a $500 fee for every commercial aircraft that passes through Afghan air space and in a normal month there were over 400 such flights a day. But because of the Pakistani flight restrictions, the Afghan international air overflights are down to 20-30 a day. In the last month alone that has cost Afghanistan over seven million dollars. Flying from Afghanistan to India became more difficult. For the first time Iran allowed Afghan transports to reach India via Iranian air space (to the Indian Ocean and then east to India.) This took a lot longer (and was more expensive in terms of fuel and other operating expenses). Via Pakistan, the flights take 90 minutes. Via Iran, the same flights take 300 minutes. Thus passengers had to pay $300 to fly to India versus the usual rate of $160. The air space closures have no end date because Pakistan called the air space closure indefinite, at least until the Pakistani government changes that.

April 6, 2019: In the west (Badghis province), a large (over a thousand gunmen) Taliban force surrounded the large (about 600 troops) Bala Murghab army base and are trying to overrun it like they have been doing to smaller (a hundred or fewer troops) bases for the last two months. The Bala Murghab compound also contains other government operations and the Afghan government is making a major effort to defeat the Taliban attack. By April 12th the battle was still going on with frequent Afghan and American airstrikes preventing the Taliban from overrunning the outnumbered security forces. Air drops of supplies have sustained the surrounded soldiers and police and the army is slowly (to avoid Taliban ambushes) advancing on the battle area. Apparently, the Taliban are determined not to lose this one or at least make it very difficult for the government forces to prevail.

These Taliban attacks on an army base near the Turkmenistan border are mainly about securing important smuggling routes for drug gangs and the Taliban have been attacking army outposts and forward bases near the border since the start of the year.

April 5, 2019: In the east (Nangarhar province), Afghan special operations troops completed a five day operation against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) camps in the area and killed at least 53 ISIL gunmen via airstrikes or ground combat. While the ISIL forces are small they are much hated by Afghans because many of the ISIL members are foreigners and ISIL is behind a lot of the large terror bombings that mainly kill civilians. That is one reason why civilians casualties have gone up since ISIL established a presence in Afghanistan. In 2018 a record number (3,800) of civilians died from the fighting. While it is still the case that more than 80 percent of these deaths are the result of Islamic terrorist violence, the ISIL efforts are seen as the most callous, even by Afghan standards, towards the death of women and children.

April 4, 2019: In the southeast (Paktia province), Afghan and American forces continue to put pressure on Haqqani Network operations. Pakistan ( South Waziristan) borders Paktika province and is close to Pakistani Baluchistan as well and the Pakistan-backed Haqqani has been operating in this area for decades. The leaders of Haqqani are currently key members of the Afghan Taliban leadership and key to whatever future plans Pakistan has for the Taliban.

April 3, 2019: In the east (Kunar province), a three day long operation against led to at least 13 ISIL killed and 55 local Taliban surrendered.

March 30, 2019: For the second time in less than a year First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum survived an assassination attempt. This one took place in the north (Balkh province) and involved two attacks on the Dostum convoy. One bodyguard was killed and two wounded. Four of the Taliban attackers were killed and seven wounded. In July 2018 ISIL took credit for a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport in an effort to kill Dostum, who was returning from 14 months outside the country (for medical treatment and to deal with family matters.) The ISIL attack was apparently meant for Dostum but the timing was off and the Dostum convoy had just left when the suicide bomber struck. The explosion killed 14 people and wounded more than fifty. Dostum had left the country just for medical treatment, he also wanted to avoid prosecutors who sought him for questioning about the kidnapping and torture of a political rival in the north (Jawzjan province). This was not the first time Dostum has been accused of that sort of thing. In the past he eventually escaped prosecution, sometimes by leaving the country for months. Dostum is a powerful man, a classic Afghan warlord and supreme in the north. There is no official leader of the non-Pushtuns but the most powerful of these leaders is outspoken about the continued Pushtun dominance of the government. The best example of this is Dostum, who has been a foe of the Taliban since the 1990s. Dostum is a powerful Uzbek politician, and a long time warlord (he was a general in the communist army that was dissolved in 1992). The Uzbeks are Turks and comprise nine percent of the population. The Uzbeks have always been hostile to the Taliban and drugs. Dostum is their leader but has become popular with Afghans who openly oppose Islamic terrorists. Dostum makes the most of this by regularly giving speeches condemning Islamic terrorism. This involves constantly traveling and exposing himself to terrorist attack. So far he has survived dozens of attacks and this increases popularity while enraging the Islamic terrorists he publicly berates and condemns. Dostum has long been a major critic of Pakistan and how Pakistan continues to support Islamic terrorists operating in Afghanistan.

March 26, 2019: Afghanistan recalled its ambassador to Pakistan as a protest to the Pakistani prime minister suggesting that the elected government of Afghanistan be replaced by an appointed one approved by the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan Taliban refuses to negotiate with the elected government of Afghanistan regarding a peace deal because they consider that government a “puppet of the United States” and the Taliban believe democracy is un-Islamic. Thus the suggestion that a more acceptable (to the Taliban) Afghan government somehow be created so it could negotiate a takeover by the Pakistan sponsored Taliban. Most Afghans believe the current American peace talks with the Afghan Taliban are actually nothing more than an effort by Pakistan, which created and continues to control the Afghan Taliban, to gain more control over Afghanistan.

March 22, 2019: In the north (Kunduz province), two American soldiers were killed.

March 20, 2019: The election commission delayed the presidential election until September 28th. These elections were to have taken place on April 20th because the current president ends his term of office May 22nd.


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