Afghanistan: Forever War And Eternal Truths

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May 10, 2019: Taliban peace negotiations continue as do doubts about the practicality of these efforts. There are several key items that are generally ignored or played down in the media reporting on efforts to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban. One problem is often mentioned and that is the Taliban refusal to negotiate with the Afghan government. The Taliban finally agreed that it would negotiate with the Afghan government, but only after the Americans agreed to pull all their troops out of Afghanistan and had actually done so. This Taliban attitude is, for most Afghans, another reason for not believing or supporting the Taliban. The Taliban insist on negotiating a deal with the United States first, to get all foreign troops (unless they work for Pakistan) out of the country. Many Afghans remember that this was similar to what happened after the Russians withdrew in 1989 and left behind a pro-Russian national government that had enough support to hold Kabul and some other parts of the country. The civil war which followed that is still going on.

During the early 1990s most of the rebels were still based in Pakistan where, since the early 1980s, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states financed refugee camps and religious schools that taught hatred of non-Moslems. This led to Pakistan creating the Taliban in 1994 by recruiting refugee Pushtun students from these religious schools (“Taliban” translates to “students”), arming them and providing logistical support and plenty of reinforcements from the Afghan refugee camps. The Taliban were, and still are, the Pakistani faction in Afghanistan and the Taliban are seen as repeating the same mistake they made in mid 1990s by agreeing with other rebel factions that negotiation with the pro-Russian Afghan government was not possible and it was preferable to fight each other to determine who would dominate Afghanistan. This is what Pakistan wanted and by the late 1990s their Taliban faction was on their way to defeating all the other factions. That job wasn’t finished when September 11, 2001 came around and the Americans backed the remaining anti-Taliban coalition (the Northern Alliance of non-Pushtun tribes). The Taliban have never controlled all of Afghanistan.

The Russian supported Afghan government lost Russian financial and military aid after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. This left that government much less able to defend itself. In response to that several tribal and rebel factions battled for control of Afghanistan and the capital Kabul. The Taliban was better organized, more fanatic and, most importantly, receiving all manner of logistic, training and military advisor support from Pakistan. Meanwhile, the former “holy warriors” among the tribal factions no longer had the support of Pakistan based camps and Islamic (mainly Saudi) charities operating there. Some of those factions agreed to work for Pakistan and were either integrated with the Taliban or, like the Haqqani Network, remained independent and useful to Pakistan. The Taliban soon took Kabul but was never able to defeat all the other factions, especially the non-Pushtun ones.

Two decades later Afghans regard Pakistan as the foreign invader to worry about, not the American and NATO troops. The Taliban have even less credibility now than they did in the 1990s. The current Taliban are seen by most Afghans, as a bunch of hired guns working for drug gangs or personal benefit. As long as the Taliban refuses to first negotiate with the current pro-West government, most Afghans will regard the Taliban as the main obstacle to peace.

The reality is that the current war in Afghanistan has been going on since 1979. That is four decades of fighting caused by outsiders intervening militarily in Afghan affairs. First, it was Russia-backed Afghan communists ousting a pro-West monarchy and replacing it with a communist dictatorship. That triggered violence by many tribes hostile to foreign influence and that problem continues. Many tribes, or at least tribal elders, are unsure if democracy is an improvement over the old monarchy. The tribes do agree that a religious dictatorship is unwelcome, especially after the Taliban attempt to make it work in the late 1990s.

Up until 1979 the two century old Afghan monarchy had always been dominated by Pushtuns and the kings were usually Pushtun because Pushtuns were not only the largest minority (40 percent of the population) but across the border, in Pakistan, there were twice as many Pushtuns. However, in Pakistan, the Pushtuns were a tiny minority of the much larger Pakistani population and kept on a short leash by the non-tribal majority that has always run Pakistan.

It is true Afghans have long (for thousands of years) been hostile to outsiders and the outsiders feared most were the ones next door (especially many Indian and Iranian Empires.) This history doesn’t resonate with most Westerners but it is current events for most Afghans, who often consider other Afghans (from distant tribes or ethnic groups) as “outsiders.” Currently, the Westerners are seen as less of a threat because all they want is no sanctuary for Islamic terrorists and no drug production. The majority of Afghans can agree with both of those goals as well as the incoming Western economic and military aid.

The Afghan Taliban are suffering from fragmentation. More Taliban factions are opposing Pakistani and/or Iranian control as well as cooperation with (and financial support from) the drug gangs. The one thing nearly all Taliban agree on is getting rid of foreign interference. The problem is deciding which foreigners are the biggest threat to Afghanistan. The majority of Afghans agree it is Pakistan and therein lies the main obstacle to Taliban domination of Afghanistan. Because of their past and current behavior, most Afghans see the Taliban as the problem, not the solution. Until recently Pakistan would not even admit it was continuing to directly interfere with what happens in Afghanistan. Now Pakistan sees their goal of having their Taliban once more the dominant power in Afghanistan closer to reality. Many Pakistanis are not so sure this is the kind of reality Pakistan needs.

Ending The Forever War

The United States has long maintained the possibility of working out a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban. The major problem with that is getting Pakistan to cooperate. The Afghan Taliban cannot make any deals without Pakistan agreeing. Then there is the larger problem of such a deal turning control of Afghanistan over to a coalition of Afghan drug gangs assisted by Pakistan, Iran and local Islamic conservatives (who ban education for women and generally unpopular lifestyle restrictions). Russia and Pakistan believe this would be the best possible “peace deal”. Most Americans and Afghans disagree. So does India and many Pakistanis unhappy with their military dominated government.

Then there are the traditional (usual) “how to negotiate with infidels” rules used by Islamic terrorist groups and some governments dominated by Islamic conservatives. These rules stress the use of lies and deception because the Islamic scripture mentions it so it must be the only way to go. This approach has been very consistently used by Islamic terror groups and the fact that the Afghan Taliban are actually a front for Pakistan makes no difference because Pakistan is increasingly dominated by their armed forces who have, since the 1980s, been using (if not all believing in) Islamic terror groups against their real or imagined enemies. The drug gangs, which also depend on Pakistan to stay in business and are largely run by Pushtuns, will go along with whatever Pakistan wants as long as the drug trade is not trifled with.

The Truth

The Afghan Taliban are actually a minor decision maker when it comes to peace in Afghanistan. That has always been the case, even before the Taliban lost control of Afghanistan in 2001. Back then the Taliban provided sanctuary for Islamic terrorists, especially the then generous al Qaeda. This was allowed by Pakistan because that sanctuary policy was seen as a minor problem, though it turned out to be a major one on September 11, 2001. The Taliban is still on good terms with al Qaeda, although Pakistan is not. But as long as the Afghan Taliban cooperates in keeping al Qaeda out of Pakistan all is well.

The Taliban is also seen by the majority of Afghans as the creation of Pakistan and a largely Pushtun organization financed by Pakistan-supported Pushtun-led drug gangs. Worse, the Taliban is not a unified organization. The mainline Taliban have sanctuaries in Pakistan which keep their senior leadership safe and are also the site of border crossings where most of the chemicals for refining opium into heroin get into Afghanistan along with the fertilizer and other chemicals used to make bombs.

All this is common knowledge and the only practical reason to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban is to force more Pushtun tribes (that are still technically Taliban supporters) to decide if they still are pro-Taliban and OK with the Taliban and Pakistan controlling the Afghan government. Another obvious negotiating problem is the Afghan government, which is elected. Democracy is haram (forbidden) as far as Islamic terrorists are concerned. All this explains why the U.S. is demanding a six month ceasefire as a precondition to negotiations. The Taliban cannot afford to allow that because most of the Taliban activity is in support of the drug gangs which the majority of Afghans are quite vocal about opposing and not willing to leave alone for six months. Plus, this being Afghanistan, ceasefires are at best relative.

Despite the peace talks senior American military commanders openly discuss the fact that the violence in Afghanistan will get worse if American forces are all withdrawn. Their Afghan counterparts agree as do the Afghan and American intelligence agencies.

In other words, the peace negotiations are not about peace but about smoking out the real intentions of Pakistan in Afghanistan. Making it even more obvious that Pakistan is a major backer of Islamic terrorism and the heroin trade makes it easier to understand that the fears of Islamic terrorists having nuclear weapons have already been realized given the direction the military dominated Pakistan government is headed. Again this is nothing new and certainly not a secret to those who have worked with (or paid attention to) Pakistan for a while.

While the Taliban have tried to improve their relationships with the Afghan civilians, the Taliban tendency to shut down schools and cell phone service while putting heavy “taxes” on local commerce turns off most civilians. Increased Taliban use of landmines and roadside bombs increased civilian casualties in 2018. All this is not popular. It’s gotten to the point where more tribes are simply mobilizing their armed men into self-defense militias and telling the Taliban to stay away. In times past the Taliban would have sent in some enforcers (often foreigners) to kidnap or murder some key people and dismantle that resistance. This no longer works (the news gets around, which is who most Afghans want their cell phones and the Taliban resist that). In short, it’s no longer fashionable to be associated with the Taliban. This is not something that happened overnight, it’s been going on for a long time and has reached the point where the Taliban are seen more as part of the problem than part of any solution.

The Pakistan Pledge

Despite recent Pakistani pledges to cease any involvement with Afghan “internal conflicts,” Iranians, Indians and Afghans generally agree that Pakistan has no interest in abandoning its use of certain Islamic terror groups (like the Taliban) to put pressure on neighbors. This is considered a problem for everyone, especially the Afghans. 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 a bloody battle zone.

At the same time, Afghans are wary of what Iran might try to do with 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.

The Afghan Response

At the start of the year, the Afghan security forces had about 300,000 soldiers and police, the lowest number since 2015. The most effective ground force is the Army Special Forces (commandos) and smaller police commando units. The army commando forces are close to 30,000 with ongoing efforts to expand it to at least 40,000 by 2020. Most of the offensive ground operations are carried out by the Afghan commandos. The rest of the armed forces mainly defend, which that at least keeps most key roads open. The incentive to keep those roads open is that the troops cannot be supplied if the roads are not usable. Those troops often have help from local tribal militias who also depend on the roads. The Taliban will make deals about road access as long as it involves a local truce and no interference with the movement of drugs and Taliban forces. The American forces do not go along with these truces, at least not officially. As a practical matter, compromises are made.

During 2018 Afghan security forces suffered about 500 casualties a month in 2018. By Western standards that is a high casualty rate but it isn't by Afghan standards. The Taliban, with about 60,000 armed men (a fifth of what the government has) often suffers heavier losses each month. The Taliban have no air and artillery strikes available to use. Since most of the foreign troops left the Afghan security forces have suffered about 28,000 deaths. This seems high by current Western standards but is far less than Afghans suffered during the Russian occupation of the 1980s or the civil war that followed. Currently, the 15,000 or so foreign troops in Afghanistan are suffering losses of about 130 per 100,000 (per year), the same as 2017 but up from 100 in 2016. That loss rate peaked at about 400 per 100,000 in 2012. At the peak of the fighting (2005-7) in Iraq, the American losses were nearly 600 per 100,000. The rate for U.S. troops in Vietnam and World War II was about 1,500 per 100,000 troops. It was higher for German and Russian troops, more like what Afghan security forces have suffered since 2014. As high as this is, it’s higher (twice what the army and police lose) for the Taliban and such loss rates were always common in Afghanistan. When the tribal irregulars fought Russian troops in the 1980s they suffered even higher losses. During that period the invading Russians never suffered more than 1,000 per 100,000 dead per year, and eventually left in 1989 because they could not afford the financial cost of seemingly endless fighting in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 and Afghanistan is still a mess. Western observers are alarmed at the high casualty rates for local forces in Afghanistan but the locals note that the current loss rates are lower than in the past. Because the Afghan ground forces have air support (from Afghan and American warplanes) they know they inflict even heavier losses on the Taliban.

May 9, 2019: The latest round of American-Taliban peace talks ended after a week. Both sides said there was progress but still no agreement on key items like how to deal with the elected Afghan government and monitor Taliban compliance of any agreement.

May 8, 2019: In Kabul, the Taliban attacked the compound used by foreign NGOs (Counterpart International and CARE) in an operation that left nine dead and over 20 wounded. The attackers (a suicide bomber and several gunmen) all died in the operation.

May 3, 2019: The government will release 175 captive Taliban as a goodwill gesture towards the Taliban. This is part of an effort to get the Taliban to allow the government to participate in the current peace talks. This was announced at the end of the four day Loya Jirga called by the government. This Loya Jirga was 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 Jirga called for the Taliban to accept a ceasefire during the upcoming holy month of Ramadan. The Taliban promptly rejected any ceasefire, especially during Ramadan. During that month of fasting and prayer Islamic terrorists believe violence in defense of Islam receives even more heavenly rewards. 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. This Loya Jirgas (great conference) was held in Kabul and brought together 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 was 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.

May 2, 2019: The U.S. revealed that between December 2018 and February 2019 desertion in the Afghan security forces was 31 percent higher than the same period a year earlier. At the same time enemy (mainly Taliban) attacks were up 19 percent.

May 1, 2019: In the east (Khost province, adjacent to North Waziristan), the Pakistani artillery fired into Afghanistan, killing four civilians and wounding five. At least twenty buildings were destroyed or damaged along with a number of vehicles. This was apparently in retaliation for a Pakistani Taliban attack on Pakistani soldiers across the border in Pakistan. This left three soldiers dead and Pakistan claims the Taliban were based in Khost province and fled back across the border after the attack.

In Qatar, the peace talks between the Americans and the Afghan Taliban resumed. The negotiations are stalled over the issue of who is considered an “Islamic terrorist” organization in terms of the Taliban not allowing Islamic terrorists to operate in Afghanistan after the Americans withdraw.

April 30, 2019: NATO will no longer release its estimates of which districts (the 34 provinces contain a total of 407 districts) where the Taliban is not present, has some control or the government has no control. NATO said this data had proved of little use to NATO commanders. In late 2017 NATO stopped releasing Afghan security forces casualties, at the request of the Afghan government.

April 24, 2019: The UN reported that civilian deaths, at 581, fell by 24 percent during the first three months of 2019. For the first time, most of the deaths (53 percent) were the result of American and Afghan airstrikes, which have increased a lot, and fewer Taliban and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) suicide bomb attacks against civilians. Islamic terrorists continue to use civilians as human shields.

April 22, 2019: The Pakistani prime minister visited Iran and after discussing Afghanistan, and other matters, with Iranian officials, returned home two days later, back in Pakistan, declared that Pakistan would no longer, “be party to any internal conflict in Afghanistan anymore.” This statement was interesting because Pakistan had always maintained that it had nothing to do with the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network operations in Afghanistan. It was increasingly obvious that this was not true and Pakistan has been under increasing pressure (from the United States, Afghanistan, India and the UN) to halt such support and the lies that accompany the violence. It has been an open secret since 2002 that Pakistan provided a very visible sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban in southwest Pakistan (Baluchistan), just across the border from Helmand Province, where Afghan drug gangs produce most of the world’s heroin. Afghan security forces regularly catch trucks entering from Pakistan carrying explosives for the Taliban and chemicals needed for the drug gangs to transform opium into heroin. It is also no secret that most of that heroin is smuggled out of Afghanistan via Pakistan and its port of Karachi. This support for heroin and opium production in Afghanistan has created millions of addicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan blames Afghanistan while the rest of the neighbors blame Pakistan.

April 20, 2019: In Kabul, the unidentified Islamic terrorists used a suicide bomber and four gunmen to attack the telecommunications compound. All the attackers died along with four civilians and three soldiers. Eight civilians were wounded.

April 19, 2019: In northwest Pakistan (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), security forces arrested two Pakistani Taliban members who were involved in the kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002. One of the suspects was soon positively identified as Azim Jan, a commander in the Pakistani Taliban and currently running a terrorist training camp on the Afghan border. In 2002 Azim Jan was already recognized as a capable organizer of kidnappings, especially when the victim was a foreigner. Azim Jan is the last major participant in the Pearl kidnapping and murder that was being sought.

April 16, 2019: The Afghan civil aviation authority revealed Afghanistan has lost over $12 million because of the continued Pakistani ban on anyone using their air space. This has been going on for nearly two months and meant added costs for the Afghan government, airlines and passengers. 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 250 such flights a day. But because of the Pakistani flight restrictions, the Afghan international air overflights are down to less than ten a day. Since late February this alone that has cost Afghanistan over eight 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. The Afghans are trying to negotiate an alternate air route to India via China.

April 15, 2019: In the east (Nangarhar province), Taliban fighters clashed with ISIL, losing eight dead and four wounded. Four ISIL gunmen died while the rest fled. The Taliban gunmen involved were from an elite organization called the Red Unit. This group has been around since 2017 and tends to travel at night in captured army and police pickup trucks and hummers. They have been seen wearing Russian night vision goggles and captured M4 (short barrel M16) assault rifles equipped with Iranian and Pakistani night sights and laser pointers in addition to American gear captured from Afghan security forces or bought on the black market. The Red Unit was well trained and leaves quickly after each attack to avoid retaliation by airstrikes or artillery. The Taliban made a big deal about the Red Unit on the Internet and challenged the Afghan Special Forces and the Americans to respond. It is unclear how the ISIL forces in this border area bested the Red Unit. 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 civilian casualties have gone up since ISIL established a presence in Afghanistan. In 2018 a record number (3,800) of civilians died from the fighting and over 20 percent were the work of ISIL attacks. The ISIL efforts are seen as the most callous, even by Afghan standards, towards the death of women and children. Afghanistan and American intelligence agencies agree that the local ISIL franchise has maintained its strength, and even grown, despite heavy losses because several hundred ISIL veterans of the Iraq-Syria campaign have shown up, via Pakistan. There are apparently more on the way and Pakistan does not seem to be trying to stop it.

April 12, 2019: T he Taliban announced the start of their Spring Offensive. Several major attacks followed. While Pakistan encourages the peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, Pakistan has not condemned the Afghan Taliban Spring Offensive or any of the major attacks the Afghan Taliban have carried out.

 

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