While American negotiators continue talking to their Taliban counterparts, the Afghan government and the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan have made it clear that they will keep fighting. The reason is simple. Afghanistan is one of the few nations on the planet that are bested described a “chronic failed states.” Afghanistan is one of those areas pretending to be a nation but where there is no law or at least none that is enforced much. The chronic failed states (currently Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia) have many things in common. All are largely Moslem and all have serious problems with governing themselves. This has long been a problem because Islamic conservatives believe that the world should be ruled by an Islamic religious dictatorship and that this must be achieved by any means necessary. This has been popular with Islamic conservatives since Islam first appeared in the sixth century. Since then, it has periodically flared up into major outbreaks of religiously inspired violence. Islamic conservatives come right out and declare democracy “un-Islamic.” The main reason is that Islamic scripture makes it quite clear that Islam is both a religion and a form of government. Unlike other major religions, there is no separation of church and state. While only a minority of Moslems believe this, and will violently attempt to enforce it, that is sufficient to render most Moslem majority nations difficult to rule and slow to develop modern economies with educated and productive citizens. The religious angle has long been adopted by Moslem gangsters looking for some legitimacy for their evil ways. The persistent and often crippling corruption in Moslem states is also sustained by those committing corrupt acts telling themselves and anyone else who will believe it, that all the stealing is done to defend Islam.
In many respects, Islam is a form of institutionalized failure. Some Moslem states cope more effectively with this problem than others. Afghanistan is not one of those. In part that is because Afghanistan has rarely operated as a country. It is a region full of feuding tribes. Two centuries ago most of the tribes agreed to cooperate to deal with the growing number of outsiders who were coming in with better weapons and making traditional tribal life difficult to sustain. So a kingdom of Afghanistan was established, whose main purpose was to keep the foreigners out and let the Afghan tribes deal with their own problems the traditional ways (with wars, bribes, assassination and so on). After 2001 Afghans were given the option of trying democracy, and that is still a work in progress that is not making as much headway as Western sponsors expected.
Another problem is that Afghanistan has powerful neighbors who see Afghanistan as a resource or potential threat that requires a sharp rebuke from time to time to remind the Afghans who holds the power in this neighborhood. Currently, Iran is ruled by a religious dictatorship which has become a shining example of why that aspect of Islam does not work and never has. The other neighbor is Pakistan, a portion of the former Indian Empire which was so large that it was rarely united but was always a threat to Afghans. Pakistan adopted “state-controlled Islamic terrorism” as a political and military tool back in the 1980s. While that has been bad for Pakistan, it has been tragic for Afghanistan. The drug trade and Taliban all came from Pakistan and were sent to Afghanistan to weaken the Afghans and get the problem out of Pakistan. Most Afghans understand this although the Taliban pretend they don’t and the drug gangs don’t care as long as keep making a lot of money. What it comes down to is Western (particularly American) forces can leave Afghanistan, but the malign aspects of Afghanistan (the drug trade and a potential sanctuary for anti-Western Islamic terrorists) remains. The reform-minded Afghans are always a minority but without Western presence, they are vulnerable to the point of extinction.
The Negotiations Reveal
The American effort to negotiate a “peace deal” with the Taliban is rather more than meets the eye. The negotiations will, if nothing else, bring more attention to key aspects of the Afghan situation that are generally ignored. The American voters may be tired of the cost and frustration of their nation-building, drug eradication and pacification efforts in Afghanistan, but the Taliban are not. The Taliban represent the tribal traditionalists who have been able to keep the young and reform-minded men, and women, of their tribes in check with a combination of “taxes” from drug gangs and sanctuary and other support from Pakistan. This arrangement is great for a minority of Afghans (10-15 percent) who are largely Pushtun. This is the largest (40 percent of the population) minority in Afghanistan and historically the strongest. The two century old agreement that kept Afghanistan sort-of-united recognized the Pushtuns as the strongest faction and they traditionally provided the king. With democracy, the Pushtuns are still the largest faction but are divided when it comes to the Taliban. A deal with the Americans will give the Taliban more of a free hand to coerce other Pushtun tribes to obey the traditionalist Pushtun as represented by the Taliban. At the moment the anti-Taliban Pushtun stand with the non-Pushtun majority in opposition to the Taliban and the drug gangs.
If the Americans should leave and take most of their foreign aid with them, the Taliban would still have their Pakistani backers but the anti-Taliban Afghans would have numbers and support from Iran. The Iranians oppose the drug gangs and the Sunni Islamic terrorists, especially the Taliban, al Qaeda and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) who see Shia as heretics and subject to death if they do not embrace Sunni Islam. This confrontation is a recent (the 1970s) development as Saudi support for the Afghans fighting the Russian effort to impose a communist dictatorship was crucial. The Saudis supplied cash, weapons, and missionaries to convince the Afghan rebels that they were defending Islam against the godless communists. Before the Saudis introduced their conservative Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam, most Afghans were Sunni but of more moderate persuasions which did not target Shia or any other form of Islam as worthy of extermination.
The Taliban goal of the negotiations is to make it easier to defeat their Afghan opponents, who consist of a majority of Afghans. The drug gangs only care in that they pay for protection from interference in production and smuggling of heroin out of the country to lucrative foreign markets. These global heroin markets pay high enough prices to bring the drug gangs and their hired guns an unusual level of affluence. The drug gangs have no problem working with the Taliban as they did so successfully during the 1990s. This arrangement was fostered by the Pakistanis who had managed to push the heroin production out of Pakistan and into Afghanistan as a side effect of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. At that time tribes on both sides of the border were producing heroin but with the Russian invasion heroin temporarily lost its status as a forbidden (by most Moslems) drug and became a way to finance the resistance to the Russians. Pakistan has kept the drug production out of Pakistan ever since, something most Afghans bitterly resent as another example of Pakistani aggression.
The Taliban want to destroy democracy and modern ideas (education for women, freedom to listen to music, attend sporting events and use tech at work and play) that the current Afghan government tolerates and often encourages. Few Afghans look forward to a return of the Taliban “lifestyle police.” That is why so many educated Afghans are saving money to pay people smugglers to get them to somewhere they won’t have to deal with the Taliban or anyone like them. The Taliban won’t stop these migrants but will make them pay the Taliban before leaving. This “tax” will be imposed on the smuggling gangs who would rather pay the Taliban than be at war with them. “Taxes” from all sorts of criminal organizations is fine with the Taliban as it is their most important source of income. The Afghan economy will suffer under Taliban rule and will take a hit even if there is a protracted civil war with the Taliban (as was going on when the Americans intervened in late 2001).
The Air War
While 2018 was a record year for American airstrikes in Afghanistan, 2019 is even more so. During the first three months of 2019 American warplanes used 1,463 smart bombs and missiles. That’s 16 a day and is the highest number for this quarter since 2008. The first two months of the year featured fewer airstrikes because of the weather and less enemy activity. But in March the number of weapons dropped doubled compared to March 2018.
Since 2018 American airpower was 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 than 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 was far more intense and destructive with more than twice as many deaths in 2018 and even greater disparity in previous years. Afghanistan has always been a more low-level war compared to Iraq/Syria. Afghanistan 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.
June 5, 2019: The government is trying something daring in an effort to reform the national police. They appointed Khoshal Sadat, a veteran and effective Special Forces officer, as the minister of the Interior three months ago. The new guy was given freedom to do whatever he could to clean up the corruption and ineffectiveness in the national police. He has used that power to replace most of the provincial police chiefs with fellow Special Forces officers he knows and trusts. So far there is progress but it is too soon to know if any of the changes will stick.
June 4, 2019: The Americans have given Pakistan a chance to restore some of the military and economic aid that has been lost because of Pakistan support for Islamic terrorism. The U.S. wants Pakistan to persuade (coerce) the Afghan Taliban to be more reasonable in the peace talk demands. This ask is a long shot and will probably fail. Afghanistan becoming more chaotic and dependent on Pakistan has long been a pillar of Pakistani foreign policy towards Afghanistan. The peace talks in Qatar are going nowhere and that suits Pakistan although the best outcome would be the Americans agreeing to leave and accepting Taliban assurances that Afghanistan would not become a sanctuary for Islamic terrorists.
June 3, 2019: Polio is a growing problem in the south. Back in April, the Taliban began banning the Red Cross and WHO (World Health Organization) from areas where the Taliban was a major presence. This has prevented over 180,000 children from getting their polio vaccinations and families of these children are becoming hostile to the Taliban as a result. The Taliban justifies continuing the ban because of their belief that members of the medical teams were providing targeting information for airstrikes against Taliban leaders. These bans are a common occurrence and halt efforts to deliver medical care to rural areas and that is particularly urgent because of the current effort to vaccinate children in rural areas against polio.
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 says 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 but a growing source of targeting information against Taliban targets is coming from Afghans living in Taliban controlled (or contested) areas.
June 2, 2019: In Kabul, three terrorist bombs went off. One was attached to a bus (killing a student and wounding several others.) The other two were roadside bombs that killed no one but left nearly twenty civilians and security personnel wounded.
During May there were 1,317 due to fighting against the Taliban. This was 37 percent more than in April. These deaths include civilians as well as soldiers, police and Taliban and other Islamic terrorists.
June 1, 2019: In the southeast (Ghazni province), the Taliban Red Unit suffered a major defeat, losing about a hundred dead.
The Red Unit is described by the Taliban as an elite organization. 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 members are generally well trained and quickly leave 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. The response has been ongoing and has resulted in a lot of casualties for the Red Unit. The lowered the quality of Red Unit personnel and explains the major defeat the Red Unit suffered in April during a clash with ISIL forces in eastern Afghanistan. That defeat was not a coincidence but part of a trend as ISIL forces in Nangarhar province been hunting down and killing Taliban there rather than the other way around. The helps the Afghan and American forces that have regularly been attacking both these groups in Nangarhar, which shares a border with Pakistan.
In the first five months of 2019, 185,000 Afghan refugees returned from Iran.
There are still several million Afghan refugees in Iran. Many are not registered as refugees and more and more of them are the children of Afghans who fled to Iran during the 1980s and 90s to escape the fighting (first with the Russians than with other Afghans and the Taliban).
2002 and 2008,
a million left Iran,
Afghanistan. Since then the number of returnees per year has fluctuated. But since American sanctions on Iran were revived two years ago the Iranian economy has been in recession and more Afghans are returning because of that. In 2018 alone at least 800,000 Afghans left Iran, most coming back to Afghanistan.
May 31, 2019: In Kabul, a Taliban suicide car bomber attacked an American convoy. The attack failed but four American soldiers were wounded along with three civilian bystanders. Another four civilians died.
Responding to calls for a ceasefire during the three day Eid al-Fitr celebrations that mark the end of Ramadan (May 5th-June 4th), Taliban refused, repeating its belief that the best way to celebrate Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr is to kill more kaffirs (non-Moslems) and heretics (Moslems who oppose the Taliban). Before Ramadan began the government released 175 captive Taliban as a goodwill gesture. This was part of an effort to get the Taliban to allow the government to participate in the current peace talks. These peace offerings were announced at the end (May 3rd) 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 until the Americans agree to leave and are doing so, along with other foreign troops in Afghanistan. This attitude explains why the Taliban are hated and opposed by most Afghans. It’s the late 1990s all over again. In Afghanistan, bad habits tend to revive and revered regularly. That’s one reason why Afghanistan has long been the poorest and most inhospitable country in Eurasia.
May 30, 2019: In Kabul, an ISIL suicide bomber, stopped at the entrance to an army training center, killing himself and six others.
May 27, 2019:
In northwest Pakistan, across the border in eastern Afghanistan (Nangarhar province) an American UAV used a missile to kill four ISIL
(Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant)
men who were identified by Afghan troops as Pakistani. The Afghans often return the bodies of Pakistani Islamic terrorists killed in near the border because these Pakistanis are often from Pushtun tribes with families on both sides of the border. Returning the bodies is also a public reminder of how Pakistanis are still heavily involved in terrorist operations in Afghanistan. ISIL has long maintained a presence in Nangarhar because it is remote and close to the Pakistan border. It is no secret that many ISIL recruits come from Pakistan and that is one reason why ISIL recently announced the establishment of a separate ISIL “province” in Pakistan.
May 26, 2019: I
n the east (Khost province), there was an incident just across the border
in North Waziristan where a group of
(Pashtun Tahafuz Movement or Pashtun Protection Movement) members, including two Pushtun MPs (members of parliament), were involved in a clash with soldiers at a checkpoint. The PTM members say their vehicles were fired on as they passed an army checkpoint. The army says there was some kind of dispute that got violent. Five soldiers claim they were injured by the PTM members. The PTM survivors insist there was no violence until the soldiers opened fire killing three PTM members and wounding ten (including one of the MPs). Nine of the PTM members were arrested, including the two MPs. Normally the PTM is non-violent although recently some PTM demonstrations in Karachi have turned violent. Pushtuns are 15 percent of the Pakistan population and most live in the northwest where they outnumber the Afghan Pushtuns across the border by two to one. The Pushtun have long complained about poor treatment by the Pakistani government and particularly the army, which supports the Afghan Taliban but is at war with the Pakistani Taliban and many other Pushtuns in Pakistan. The PTM is mainly about the
Pakistani Pushtuns uniting to oppose the mistreatment of Pushtuns in general. While the PTM calls for peaceful demonstrations the military decided in May that the PTM is a threat and thus considered a hostile opposition organization. The main reason for this was that the peaceful demonstrations of the PTM were attracting more non-Pushtuns who not only agreed with the PTM complaints against the military but pointed out that the military is hostile to any Pakistani who speaks up and denounces the many misdeeds of the Pakistani military. The PTM has Pushtun fans in Afghanistan, where a third of all Pushtuns live and also suffer from Pakistani military policies towards Pushtuns. The most prominent reform movement among Afghan Pushtuns is the “People’s Peace Movement.” The Taliban is not yet decided whether this group should be considered an enemy or not. After all one of the official goals of the Taliban is bringing peace to Afghanistan.
May 25, 2019: In the southeast (Ghazni province), Afghan commandos concluded a series of raids that destroyed eight Taliban bases and killed 30 of the Islamic terrorists, including a district leader. More importantly the commander of the Taliban Red Unit was also killed.
May 19, 2019: The Central Bank canceled the operating license of the Arian bank, the only Iranian bank in Afghanistan. Arian was founded in 2004 with financing from Iranian banks. The revived American sanctions on Iran led to the Afghan Central Bank receiving information on the illegal (money laundering) activities of the Arain bank. The U.S. urged that Arian be shut down. The Central Bank conducted an investigation and found that Arian had never made any business loans or provided any significant banking services for Afghans. The managers of Arian claimed the bank was now an Afghan one but there was no proof of that while there was lots of evidence that Arian existed primarily to provide another way for Iran to evade economic sanctions. Earlier in the year, the Central Bank shut down a Pakistani owned bank that was also concentrating on laundering money for Iran. It’s generally easy to set up and run a bank in Afghanistan, and then do whatever you want as long as you bribe the right officials and stay out of the news.
May 15, 2019: Worldwide ISIL has taken credit for several recent terror attacks, especially one in late April that killed nearly 300 people in Sri Lanka, and used that to explain why it is now establishing two more “provinces.” One will be in Pakistan and the other will be in India. Afghanistan (and much of Central Asia) has been the “Khorasan province” for five years. This sort of thing is mostly about maintaining a prominent media presence. ISIL is largely an enterprise that exists because it can reach a wide audience with its message (basically “join or die”) that also allows wealthy Moslems to send cash instead. ISIL has had a hard time making any progress in India and has not done much better in Pakistan or Central Asia.