Afghanistan: Fickle Factions Frightened


September 19, 2019: In the south, (Zabul province) a Taliban suicide truck bomb that was apparently headed for a government intelligence compound instead destroyed a nearby hospital, killing twenty and wounding about 90. Because of continued attacks like this, the United States canceled the peace negotiations 12 days ago. The immediate cause was the recent death of another American soldier due to a Taliban attack. That convinced the Americans that the Taliban could not be trusted and further negotiations were pointless. The Americans had insisted that the Taliban must undertake a ceasefire to assure the Americans that the Taliban could be trusted. The Taliban refused to do that and increased their attacks. Once the peace talks were canceled, U.S. forces in Afghanistan were ordered to hit the Taliban with maximum effort. The Afghan security forces were already doing so and the Afghan troops are have been carrying out nearly all the attacks against the Taliban this year. That is something the Afghans are proud of as they have been training and reorganizing for over a decade to reach that level of combat performance. Afghan soldiers and police also realize that they and their families have a lot to lose if the Taliban gain control. The last time that happened, in the mid-1990s, the Taliban retaliated against Afghans who had fought against them and families were not exempt. Technically the Taliban have abandoned such tactics but the Taliban still go after those who desert or switch sides. The battles between the Taliban and Afghans who oppose them has been going on since Pakistan created the Taliban in the early 1990s and has turned into a classic Afghan blood feud. That the Taliban justify their violence by claiming the religious high ground is seen as blasphemous by most Afghans. Popular opinion is that the Taliban are a bunch of predatory, drug dealing gangsters who are also betraying Islam.

The Taliban had refused to believe the Americans were serious about canceling the negotiations just because the Taliban were unable to prove they could be trusted. The Taliban propaganda made it appear that the peace deal and withdrawal of all foreign troops was a done deal and that a Taliban victory was imminent. This was the same message Taliban leaders used in 2014 when they assured their followers that with most foreign troops leaving, a Taliban victory would quickly follow. That did not happen. Thus the 2018-19 peace talks were 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.

Taliban leaders have told their followers that more violence will persuade the Americans to revive the negotiations. The Afghan government sees the Taliban tactics of simultaneously negotiating the exit of foreign troops while killing lots of Afghan civilians as something that could only benefit Pakistan. The presidential election on the 28th, which the Taliban is trying to disrupt and discredit, will confirm or not, the government position. Since the Taliban are violently opposed to democracy, while most Afghans prefer democracy to Taliban tyranny, the presidential election results will most certainly not favor the Taliban. Because of that, the Afghan Minister of Defense boasted that recent fighting had resulted in the Taliban losing more people than the security forces. This was important because the Taliban have long been the cause of most (80 percent or more) civilian deaths. While those deaths are concentrated in only a few Afghan provinces, in August the Taliban generated violence left more than 70 Afghans a day dead. That was something of a record, an achievement the Taliban prefer not to talk about.

The increased Taliban use of violence, especially against civilians, is due to the increased influence of the Haqqani Network. In fact, the Afghan Taliban are now run by the leaders of the Haqqani Network despite a non-Haqqani figurehead leader. Haqqani is another 1990s era Afghan fighting faction that is more gangster than Islamic terrorist and has long been a subsidiary of the Pakistani military and the main conduit for getting Islamic terrorists and their weapons (including large vehicle bombs) into Afghanistan. Haqqani and the pro-Pakistan Afghan Taliban still have sanctuaries in Pakistan, something that the Pakistani military denies but it not hidden in Pakistan and something of an open secret.

The new (since late 2018) Haqqani Network leader is Siraj Haqqani. He not only brought a more aggressive attitude, but he also provided the ISI (Pakistani military intelligence) with better control over the Afghan Taliban. Siraj Haqqani not only dominates the Taliban leadership but also maintains his lucrative subservience to ISI. Because the Haqqani Network founder Jalaluddin Haqqani (who died in late 2018) helped Taliban founder Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders escape Afghanistan in 2001, there has always been a sense of mutual dependence. For that reason, Haqqani leaders were able to help deal with the mid-2015 power struggle within the Taliban and thwart the recruiting efforts of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Given that Haqqani works for ISI (the Pakistani CIA), Pakistan had to approve, if not help bring about this new arrangement. There are still divisions within the Taliban but the Haqqani leaders have been able to limit the damage.

Haqqani leaders have more immediate problems. The canceled negotiations with the Americans were supported by most Afghan Taliban factions because all those factions did not agree on how to handle Afghans who oppose them and the Afghan government, which has a lot more popular support than the Taliban. Getting rid of the foreign troops would simplify matters and would serve to unite the increasingly factional Taliban. The peace talks also served to determine how united the Afghan Taliban were and whether the Afghan Taliban could agree on anything beyond making a lot of money providing muscle for the drug gangs and using that power to sustain the idea that the Taliban can eventually regain a dominant position in Afghanistan.

The Taliban understood, from their experience after 2014, when most foreign troops left, that NATO (mainly American) air power was the key element that prevented the Taliban from defeating the Afghan security forces. It’s not just the airstrikes, it’s also the American ability to airdrop supplies to areas that the Taliban have under siege. The Taliban take heavy losses maintaining those sieges and American supply drops enable Afghan forces to survive and win most of those battles. The Taliban learned this the hard way in 2018 when they saw many of their sieges fail because of the air delivered supplies. In 2017 the U.S. Air Force dropped 15 tons of supplies by parachute (often guided parachutes that can assure delivery in a small area.) In 2018 that increased to 304 tons and that, plus even more airstrikes, made sieges unpopular with Taliban fighters. Since 2014 there has been more hostility, and often fighting, between Taliban factions.

There are other reasons for canceling the peace talks and the main one was that the most powerful participant in the Afghan violence, Pakistan, was not directly involved in the talks. Yet Pakistan had to sign off on any final deal for the agreement to have any chance of success. Most Afghans hate Pakistan, mainly because of the decades of Pakistani troublemaking in Afghanistan. The Afghans at the Qatar negotiations are mainly Pushtuns (40 percent of Afghans) representing a minority of Pushtuns who support the drug trade and their Taliban “security associates” (hired guns). The drug gangs and Afghan Taliban are seen as the work of Pakistan and in the late 1990s that majority of anti-Taliban Afghans got organized as the Northern Alliance and prevented the Taliban from ever controlling all of Afghanistan.

This explains why the Afghan peace talks had no representatives from the Northern Alliance. This non-Pushtuin coalition represents the Afghans who will fight the drug gangs and Taliban and have done so, successfully, in the past. The Taliban had been unable to conquer all of Afghanistan (especially the north) because of the Northern Alliance. The northern willingness to unite and defend the interests of the non-Pushtun majority in Afghanistan still exists. 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).  

Then there is ISIL, a radical al Qaeda group that is at war with everyone. Al Qaeda is again in Afghanistan, with sanctuaries in Taliban controlled areas of southern Afghanistan,  and allied with the Taliban or at least some of the Taliban. Pakistan considers both al Qaeda and ISIL hostile but that is just another aspect of this bizarre situation because the Haqqani Network has long supplied al Qaeda (in Afghanistan) with weapons and explosives.

When the Americans intervened in October 2001, their cash and air support enabled the Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban in less than two months. This was humiliating for Pakistan and the Taliban. Both made plans to avoid a repeat defeat. 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.

September 18, 2019: In the east (Nangarhar province), Taliban gunmen, supported by a suicide bomber, attacked a government compound in the provincial capital (Jalalabad). The explosion at the entrance killed security personnel which enabled the gunmen to get in and take hostages. More security forces arrived and the fighting inside the compound continues. Later in the day the Taliban announced they were asking the Americans to resume negotiations.

September 17, 2019: In the east (Parwan Province) a Taliban suicide bomber on a motorcycle attacked the entrance to a large political rally for the Afghan president. This left 26 dead and 42 wounded but the attackers were stopped. The president was unharmed. In nearby Kabul another Taliban suicide bomber attacked the entrance to a military recruiting center, leaving 22 dead and 38 wounded.

September 16, 2019: In central Afghanistan (Wardak Province), an American Special Forces NCO was killed during a combat operation. This makes 17 dead American military personnel this year in Afghanistan. This is the highest number since 2014 when there were a lot more American troops in Afghanistan.

September 15, 2019: In the north (Baghlan province), the Taliban cut off electrical power to thousands of civilians by taking down electricity distribution lines by using explosives to bring down the towers that supported the power lines.

The Taliban announced that were lifting their April ban on foreign medical aid. This was mostly about money, polio and the growing number of Afghans who see the Taliban as deliberately blocking efforts to prevent polio. Polio has been a growing problem in the south. T he 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. In response to the April ban the Red Cross and WHO shut 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. In this case, public opinion won a victory over the Taliban.

September 13, 2019: The Afghan president announced a new offensive against the Taliban, who are apparently demoralized by the unexpected cancellation of the peace talks by the Americans last week and the U.S. forces in Afghanistan promptly increasing their combat activity. It was pointed out that the Taliban were losing control of areas they had long held and it was Afghan troops who were getting this done. With more American air support these Afghan ground operations would become more frequent and effective.

In Kabul, police raided an ISIL hideout, seizing the family of one ISIL member already under arrest. Two ISIL members at the hideout, one of them a Pakistani, were killed during the attack. Police seized weapons, bomb components and documents regarding planned attacks in the city.

September 7, 2019: The U.S. abruptly canceled the year-long Taliban peace talks. This on the eve of a planned secret meeting in the United States between the Taliban leader and the presidents of the U.S. and Afghanistan, to work out final details. The cancellation was triggered by the continued Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, including a recent one that killed another American soldier. That makes 16 Americans killed so far in 2019. This is higher than annual totals for the previous three years and is likely to exceed the 2015 total of 22 dead. The Taliban helped abort the peace talks in other ways. They had been invited to the meeting in America only a few weeks ago and said they would attend but only if the Americans agreed to other conditions. This included a public signing of the final deal in Qatar, with senior officials from foreign nations, especially Russia, China and Pakistan, in attendance.

September 5, 2019: In Kabul, a Taliban suicide car bomber attacked near NATO headquarters and the Afghan National Intelligence compound, killing ten and wounding 42. Two NATO soldiers (a Romanian and an American) were among the dead. There have been several Taliban attacks like this in the last week, most of them in or around Kabul.

September 3, 2019: In Kabul, a Taliban attack on Green Village, a walled compound for foreigners, used a suicide tractor bomber and gunmen. The attack failed but not before leaving 16 people dead and 116 wounded.

August 25, 2019: In eastern Afghanistan (Nangarhar province), a bomb went off outside the Pakistani consulate in Jalalabad, wounding three people. No consulate staff were injured. Back in 2017 ISIL gunmen shot dead an employee of this Pakistani consulate. Jalalabad has long been the scene of this kind of violence because it is close to the Pakistan border. It is 140 kilometers east of Kabul and Islamic terrorists have operated here regularly because it is the first major city encountered when entering Afghanistan via one of the two major border crossings. The city of 250,000 has long been a base area for American and Afghan troops. Many of the bases are around the airport.

August 16, 2019: In the south (Helmand province), across the Pakistani border in Baluchistan, a bomb went off in a mosque frequently attended by Haibatullah Akhundzada, the leader of the Afghan Taliban. The mosque has tight security and the bomb, as reconstructed, was hidden and set off by a timer. The Afghan leader was not there when the bomb went off but his brother was and the brother and four others were killed and more than twenty were wounded.


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