Afghanistan: The North Does Not Forget

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July 10, 2019: While the American peace talks with the Taliban proceed, the Taliban demonstrate their hostility towards democracy by launching numerous attacks on Afghans (and foreigners) preparing for the September 28 presidential election. Taliban violence has increased because of the peace talks. Taliban leaders believe (or at least try to get their followers to believe) that these talks will lead to great things, like the departure of all foreign troops and an end to the elected government in Afghanistan. This means more frequent use of large vehicle bombs in populated areas. In a recent bombing, the explosion occurred near a school, killing or wounding several children along with many other adult bystanders. Few members of the security forces, the intended target, were hurt. The Taliban considers this acceptable damage and the civilian dead are declared “involuntary martyrs” to the cause of defending Islam from democracy and secular (and very practical) education.

The Qatar negotiators now expect to have a “roadmap” by September 1st but this all appears to be more wishful political theater. The most powerful participant in the Afghan violence, Pakistan, is not directly involved in the Qatar talks. Yet Pakistan has to sign off on any final deal for the agreement to have any chance of success. Most Afghans hate Pakistan and the decades of Pakistani troublemaking in Afghanistan. The Afghans at the peace talks are mainly Pushtuns (40 percent of Afghans) representing a minority of Pushtuns who support the drug trade and their Taliban “security associates” (hired guns).

Also not represented is the Northern Alliance. This is the Afghan majority, a coalition of non-Pushtun groups that dominate the north and represent the Afghans who  fight the drug gangs and Taliban and have done so, successfully, in the past. To understand you must also understand why the north still honors the memory of Ahmad Shah Masud. Also known as "Lion of Panjshir", he was a brilliant military leader who led the fight against the Russians in the 1980s and led the united northern forces against the Taliban in 1990s. Portraits and posters of him are common in Afghanistan, especially in the north. He was a Tadjik who was feared and hated by the Taliban. Masud was assassinated by al Qaeda suicide bombers posing as a foreign news crew (the explosives were hidden in the video camera) on September 9, 2001. This killing was done for the Taliban, which had been unable to conquer all of Afghanistan (especially the north) because of the military and political leadership of Mesud. The organization Medud led, the Northern Alliance, still exists and represents the interests of the non-Pushtun majority in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance is no longer a military coalition or even much of a political one. It is more the continued potential for the Northern Alliance to once again become an armed force opposing Pushtun tyranny (especially Pakistan supported Pushtuns). Al Qaeda once more has sanctuaries in Taliban controlled territory in southern Afghanistan. History frequently repeats itself in Afghanistan.

When the Americans intervened in October 2001, their cash and air support enabled the Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban by December. This was humiliating for Pakistan and the Taliban. Both made plans to avoid a repeat. Northern Alliance and American military and political leaders realize that as soon as there is another Islamic terror attack in the West, traced back to an Afghan based group, it will be October 2001 all over again. Why should that be such a certainty? Because Islamic terror groups do not agree with one another and never maintain alliances. There has been ample evidence of that during the last two decades, not to mention the last thousand years of Moslem history. Thinking it will be different this time, because enough negotiators are willing to believe anything to get the deal done, will not work.

Some factions in Pakistan (mainly the military) think that this deal would give them enough power to actually control what goes on in Afghanistan. The reality is that the Pakistani generals are losing support and political power in Pakistan. China, Pakistan’s major trading partner, lender and military ally has turned on the Pakistani generals, at least the ones who depend so much on Islamic terror groups to gain victories in Afghanistan and India.

Inside Afghanistan ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) continues to survive and thrive despite constant attack by the foreign troops, the Afghan security forces and the Taliban. Why is this? It’s because ISIL is the last resort for Islamic radicals seeking an Islamic terror group that has not been “compromised”. That would include the Afghan Taliban (and most of the Pakistani Taliban) as well as all the Pakistan based groups working for the Pakistani military. ISIL positions itself as the most Islamic (and violent) of all Islamic terror groups. Despite the widespread hatred of ISIL, even within the Moslem world, that small fraction of Moslems who support religious violence supplies an endless supply of young Moslems who see ISIL as the ultimate expression of what an Islamic warrior should be. This may sound absurd to Westerners but the proof announces itself daily with explosions and more new recruits declaring their loyalty to ISIL. Despite the survival of ISIL, al Qaeda still exists as the “practical” Islamic terror group that is more willing to make deals with the infidels, or at least pretend to. No Islamic radical group, including the self-described “moderate” Islamic Brotherhood, can do that and still be true to Islamic scripture. That sacred text (the Koran) stipulates that true Moslems accept that church and state are one entity under Islam and that Islam is all about converting everyone to be Moslem. For the more extreme groups like ISIL, killing those who refuse to convert is encouraged. These aspects of the Afghan situation tend to be played down in the West for various political, religious, ideological or diplomatic reasons. But on the ground, where the violence is very immediate and close, the reality is hard to ignore.

The Imaginary Friends

Despite recent Pakistani pledges to cease further 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 an increasingly bloody battle zone. The U.S. now considers Pakistan a problem in the war against terrorism rather than a reliable partner. India and Afghanistan share that view as do a growing number of UN members.

If the Americans should leave and take most of their foreign aid with them, the Taliban would still have their Pakistani backers and drug gang cash. The anti-Taliban Afghan majority 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 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, not just battling another unwelcome foreign army. 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. There were battles between Sunni and Shia tribes but was mainly about tribal disputes, not religious ones.

The Other Addiction

Foreign aid has become “the other opium” in Afghanistan because it makes the addicts feel great and will ultimately cause nothing but trouble. While opium is produced locally, the foreign aid comes from donor nations and those donors are more and more frequently abandoning Afghanistan. The Americans, who provide over 80 percent of the aid, are keen to withdraw their aid along with their troops. The reason is simple, Afghanistan is collapsing not because of the Taliban or the drug gangs but because of corruption. That is one of the few things local opinion polls, aid groups, foreign investors and American military and diplomatic personnel all agree on. This is why so many of the refugees trying to get into Europe these days are from Afghanistan. There has been more prosperity in Afghanistan since 2001 but not much reduction in corruption. So many Afghans who save some money use it to pay people-smugglers to get them into a more promising place. The West, in general, is the most favored destination. This is a sad outcome after all the money spent and lives lost trying to make Afghanistan a better place.

Most Afghans are well aware that in many ways their lives are much better since the Americans arrived. GDP has grown continuously since 2001 with average family income increasing noticeably each year. In early 2001 only a million children were in school, all of them boys. Now there are over eight million in school and 40 percent are girls. Back then there were only 10,000 phones in the country, all very expensive landlines in cities. Now there are over 18 million inexpensive cell phones with access even in remote rural areas. Back then less than ten percent of the population had access to any health care, now 85 percent do and life expectancy has risen from 47 years (the lowest in Eurasia) to 62 (leaving Bangladesh to occupy in last place). This is apparently the highest life expectancy has ever been in Afghanistan and the UN noted it was the highest one decade increase ever recorded. Afghans have noticed this even if the rest of the world has not. But all this was accompanied by more corruption because now there was more to steal. Many Afghans feel the corruption situation won’t show similar improvements, at least in their lifetimes, so they leave.

The fundamental problem for Afghanistan has long been endemic corruption. This makes it very difficult to run the country effectively when any law or regulation can be bypassed with a large enough bribe or a convincing enough show of force. This makes it possible for drug gangs to produce and export most of the world supply of heroin. The Taliban sustains itself by providing security for drug gang operations as well as extorting and stealing cash and goods at every opportunity. The corruption stems from the tribalism which fell out of use in the West, China and elsewhere centuries ago. But in Afghanistan is persists and it is an inefficient and, for the people involved, expensive and deadly historical artifact to live with.

For example, a government investigation into why the northern city of Kunduz fell under Taliban control for three days in September 2015 (before government forces could force them out) concluded that the problem was ineffective senior government and military leadership. Part of the problem was the complicated leadership structure which made it difficult to know who was actually in charge under some conditions. Left unmentioned, but certainly implied, was the role of corruption. The investigators called for more care in selecting people for senior jobs. That was another way of saying that letting bribes and favoritism dominate promotions could have serious and deadly consequences. Corruption has long plagued Afghanistan and now it is working its malign magic on Islamic terrorists and the newly established democracy.

Since 2014, when most foreign troops left, foreign donors have been threatening to reduce or halt aid if the Afghans don’t make more progress in dealing with corruption. The government points out that progress has been made but opinion polls indicate that most Afghans do not agree. When this corruption problem is actually measured Afghanistan finds that it is one of the most corrupt nations in the world.

However, Afghanistan has made some progress since 2012. 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 and “free of corruption” score where each nation is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (least corrupt) scale. 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, at 16, although in 2012 Afghanistan was the bottom. So Afghanistan is making progress reducing corruption. The problem is it is not demonstrating enough progress to make a significant difference.

In Afghanistan, the most lethal aspect of corruption is how it makes it easier for terrorists to operate in a major city, like Kabul. In a crowded place like that well-funded terrorists can pay off enough people to stay hidden. Foreign donors point out that much of their aid is wasted because of the corruption and their cash is better spent in less corrupt areas. Afghanistan protests that Afghans will suffer if there is less aid. The donors point out that Afghanistan is not alone in that respect and the donors want to use the money where it will do the most good. This provides a very powerful incentive to reduce corruption. In Afghanistan, such incentives often fail because for a long time Afghans have tended to make the wrong choices and blame the results on evil outsiders.

Afghans recognize corruption as the biggest problem in the country and the root cause of so many other problems, especially religious violence and drug gangs. There are many forms of corruption that in Afghanistan that foreigners recognize but are not seen as corruption by most Afghans. For example, a lot of the reconstruction work, especially road-building, uses corrupt, and stupid, practices that are considered traditional by the locals. The most common one is to give all the contracts on a job to whoever offered the biggest bribe or simply to someone in your family, who will pay you back later on. The guy who got the contract will not provide further bribes to local tribal leaders in the area where the road, or structures, are being built. This offends the locals, who are then more likely to cooperate with the Taliban to attack the interlopers. Another example of “acceptable” local corruption is how truckers ignore weight limits and overload their trucks. This not only shortens the life span of the vehicle but has ruined the newly built roads in many Afghan cities. Most of these roads were built to handle much less weight (typically 25 tons) than the highways between the cities (which can handle up to 100 tons). The police are supposed to enforce these rules but the cops saw this as another bribe opportunity because the roads seemed fine and this was just another silly rule the Westerners tried to impose on Afghans. Again, short-term thinking with long term consequences, keeping Afghanistan the poorest nation in Eurasia, a status is has maintained for a long time.

The cash for bribes is critical here because most Afghans who reach a leadership position consider corruption (demanding bribes and stealing government funds) something of an obligation to make his family/clan/tribe stronger and better able to survive. Many Afghans have noted that countries with less corruption are more prosperous and peaceful, but this anti-corruption faction is still a minority. Corruption continues to be a major problem in Afghanistan and was expected to get worse after most foreign troops left by the end of 2014. That was the case because without so many foreign troops around local anti-corruption activists were at more personal risk. It was worse for auditors and other monitors of how foreign aid was spent.

July 7, 2019: In Qatar, the Taliban negotiators responded to the hostile public reaction over their recent suicide bombing in Kabul (that wounded over fifty children in a nearby school), by agreeing to the possibility of a ban on attacks on hospitals and schools. This would be a demonstration of good faith in order to move the peace talks along. The peace talks are mainly about getting foreign troops (except for Pakistanis and Iranians) out of the country so the Taliban has a better chance of defeating the elected government and the non-Pushtun majority.

The Taliban have tried to reduce civilian casualties in the last year because it was becoming a major source of popular support for the foreign troops and the elected government. These two groups have always avoided civilian casualties while the Taliban have not. This is mainly because the Taliban will use force when bribes or other persuasions fail to get cooperation from civilians. The Taliban had a similar problem in the 1990s.

July 4, 2019: The peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban in Qatar are stalled over several issues, one of them being what to call the Taliban in the final document. The Taliban insist on being called the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and the Americans, along with most Afghans, consider that title inaccurate and misleading. To Afghans, the Taliban are a bunch of Pushtun hired guns working for the drug gangs. The Taliban, as originally organized by Pakistan by recruiting students of Saudi financed religious schools in Pakistan, were called the Taliban because “Talib” is the term for such students and Taliban is the plural form. These fanatic young “Talibs”, indoctrinated to hate non-Moslems and willing to fight these infidels (non-Moslems), formed the core of the Taliban initially. That soon changed and by 2001 the Taliban were mostly young Afghans offered and gun and a job making Afghanistan safe for the drug gangs that soon became the main source of cash. The current Taliban leadership tries to maintain the aura of the Taliban as holy warriors but to most Afghans, they are bandits and hired guns protecting production and smuggling of heroin shipments to border areas where other gangs transport the heroin to foreign markets.

July 2, 2019: Civilian casualties for the first six months of the year were down 25 percent compared to 2018. The 2019 Taliban “victory offensive” was supposed to avoid civilian casualties and it did, but not to the extent that Afghans regarded the Taliban as transformed into “good guys.” The Taliban have been using fewer suicide bomber attacks but their vehicle bombs have been bigger and that tends to create mass casualties, usually including many civilians. The two areas where most of these civilian losses are found is Kabul and Nangarhar province east of Kabul.

July 1, 2019: In the north (Jawzjan province), the Taliban have seized control of another rural district. Until 2019 the Taliban and ISIL had been fighting for control of key smuggling routes in Jawzjan. ISIL forces in Jawzjan had been weakened by regular clashes with Taliban forces throughout 2017-2018. This fighting was frequent during most of 2017 and was pretty brutal. All this was over control of drug smuggling routes across the border. There have been clashes between ISIL and Taliban in other parts of the country but it has been worst in Jawzjan. With government and U.S. forces increasing their attacks as well the local ISIL has lost many of its senior leaders and some factions in Jawzjan have disappeared, apparently because of casualties and desertions caused by the lack of leadership. The number of American and Afghan air strikes on ISIL in Jawzjan and other northern provinces have increased since early 2018, apparently as the result of more tips from locals or even the rival Taliban forces. The Americans believe that ISIL in Jawzjan is no longer an organized force and that the remaining ISIL members are still being hunted by the security forces as well as the Taliban. The ISIL forces in Nangarhar province remain active and largely intact, for now. In the same period, twelve American troops were killed, compared to 14 for all of 2018.

In Kabul the Taliban took credit for a large car bomb set off near two schools, killing six and wounding over a hundred, including 52 children in those schools. One of these children was killed along with three police and two adult civilians. The bomb was part of an assault on a government compound. The attack failed and all five of the Taliban attackers were killed after several hours of fighting. The fact that so many of the wounded were children was widely criticized by Afghans. The Taliban would close most of those schools if they took power again. Most Afghans want their children to get a secular education, something that the Taliban prohibited when they ruled Kabul from the mid-1990s to late 2001.

June 30, 2019: Pakistan announced that the starting July 1st Torkham, the main border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan will be open 24 hours a day. Previously traffic was, at most, only allowed from dawn to dusk. This was not sufficient for peak days (that occur several times a year) and it would take several days of waiting for trucks before they could get through. That is no longer acceptable. This is a major change for Pakistan which has regularly limited use of the main border crossings for political reasons. The difference now is competition. For over a year the new road access to the outside world, via Iran, has been open for business and business is booming. India and Iran built a new port in Iran near the Pakistan border and that port is open to goods going to or coming from India. Pakistan had long banned India from using Pakistani land crossings to Afghanistan. In addition to the new Iran connection (which is also getting a railroad line), road and rail connections with Central Asia via northern neighbors are also under construction. Meanwhile, Torkham still gets lots of traffic, with thousands of people and vehicles pass through each day. On the Pakistani side is the Khyber Pass which has always been the easiest way to get from northern Afghanistan to the lowlands (most of Pakistan and all of India) beyond. But traffic is declining and now Pakistan has to make Torkham more customer friendly for Afghans in order to hold on to as much business as they can.

June 29, 2019: Another round of peace talks between the Taliban and Americans began in Qatar. American leaders admit that these talks will not work if there is another Islamic terror attack in the United States traced back to terror groups based in Afghanistan. American negotiators have noted that Taliban announcements to their followers play down any fears that respected “defenders of Islam” groups will be denied access to Afghanistan after the foreign troops are gone. The Americans admitted that they had quietly reduced the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 14,000 to 9,000 this year.

June 26, 2019: China now has more reasons to regret its close economic and military ties with Pakistan. Today, in northern Pakistan (Rawalpindi a military town next to the national capital) there was a bombing at the hospital inside the army headquarters compound. This hospital is one of the most heavily guarded facilities in Pakistan. The military tried to keep news of the attack away from local and international media. Ten people were wounded and the target of the attack was believed to be Masood Azhar, an international terrorist long sought (dead or alive) by India. Azar was responsible for the 2011 Mumbai (India) terrorist attack and a more recent February suicide bombing in Kashmir that left 40 Indian police dead. India has plenty of evidence that Pakistan continues to protect Islamic terror groups that only attack other nations (mainly India and Afghanistan). While Pakistan was grateful that China used their UN veto to block justified counter-terrorism measures for so long eventually China got tired of it and recently agreed that Azhar was indeed a notorious terrorist. China was also trying to persuade Pakistan to back off on sponsoring Islamic terrorist groups that were willing to attack Pakistani enemies. Pakistan refused to go along with the Chinese requests so China sent the message in stronger terms by no longer blocking UN efforts to designate Azhar an international terrorist. This move won China some goodwill from Afghanistan, India and many other nations who have suffered from this Pakistani use of Islamic terrorists. Within days of the UN declaring Azhar a terrorist, Pakistan froze his bank accounts and banned him from leaving the country. Azhar was not arrested nor were any moves made against JeM (Jaish e Mohammad), the terror groups Azhar leads. Azhar suffers from kidney failure and needs regular dialysis to stay alive. He was apparently at the military hospital for his medical treatment. JeM has become the primary target of counter-terror operations in Indian Kashmir. About a third of Islamic terrorists killed in Kashmir in the last year has belonged to JeM. Although JeM has been around since 2000 it only became a major Islamic terrorist threat in the last few years.

June 24, 2019: The Taliban announced that any radio or TV station that continues to broadcast paid government announcements, about where to call if Taliban activity is noted, will be attacked. All stations have until the end of the month to halt this practice or face the righteous wrath of the holy warriors/drug dealers. This indicates that the Taliban again consider widespread cellphone use a major problem. The Taliban is generally unpopular and it is easy to call in a tip about nearby Taliban activity. This can result in an airstrike or ambush. 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 a heavy “tax” on local commerce heavily 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 why 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.

June 16, 2019: Afghan banking officials revealed that in 2018 at least $5 billion in U.S. currency was smuggled into Iran. Iran used various methods, some of them scams in Afghanistan, to obtain this cash and used Afghanistan to get it into Iran where it helped Iran cope with the renewed American economic sanctions.

June 7, 2019: I n northwest Pakistan (North Waziristan), Islamic terrorists attacked an army patrol near the Afghan border, using a roadside bomb. Four soldiers were killed and four wounded and Pakistan believes the attackers were based across the border in Afghanistan.

 

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