The Taliban negotiations are stalled because the Taliban will not agree to a ceasefire as a precondition to negotiating the withdrawal of foreign troops. The Americans have insisted that there will be no troop withdrawal until a peace deal has been negotiated and is in force. This will be difficult for the Taliban to accept and implement. That’s because the Taliban are involved in a lot of different little wars all over the country. In addition to protecting drug gang operations, they also terrorize and extort civilians in rural areas to prevent interference with Taliban or drug gang operations. Most rural tribes see the Taliban as bandits and for all practical purposes, that’s what many Taliban are. Not all Taliban terrorism is against the security forces. A lot of it is directed at hostile civilian populations and particularly at clerics who run mosques that preach against Islamic terrorism and especially the Taliban. It’s going to be difficult for the Americans and the Taliban to agree on a definition of peace. Afghanistan has never been a peaceful place, something the rest of the world does not appreciate.
Then there are outside forces. Pakistan has “sponsored” peace talks between the Americans and the Afghan Taliban but these collapsed in early September. After that China offered to host negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, with the help of Pakistan, but that was not accepted. Back then the Americans concluded that the Afghan Taliban could not be trusted and demanded more from the Taliban, like a ceasefire, before there could be more progress. The Americans would like similar assurances from Pakistan but that is not happening. There was much evidence of Taliban and Pakistani misbehavior and unreliability. Even the UN openly agrees with this as do most nations in the region.
The increased Taliban use of violence, especially against civilians, was 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 intelligence (the ISI). Haqqani is 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 is not hidden in Pakistan and is something of an open secret.
The new (since late 2018) Haqqani Network leader Siraj Haqqani is not only more aggressive, he has also provided the ISI with better control over the Afghan Taliban. Siraj Haqqani not only dominates the Taliban leadership but also maintains his lucrative crime boss 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 Taliban leadership arrangement. There are still divisions within the Taliban but the Haqqani leaders have been able to limit the damage while also making themselves wealthier. That means a lot of infighting between Taliban factions is tolerated as long as it does not interfere with business (mainly drugs and whatever else the ISI wants).
The growing popular unrest in neighboring Iran had reduced Iranian support for some tribal and Taliban factions in western Afghanistan. That support (with guns, money and sanctuaries) has been going on for decades. Actually this has been a factor in local politics for centuries. That is why one of the “national” languages of Afghanistan is Dari, a variant of Farsi (or Persian, the main language in Iran). Currently, Iran is broke and there is growing popular unrest against the religious dictatorship that has run the country since the 1980s. While the supplies of cash and weapons have largely disappeared some Taliban factions can still maintain bases in eastern Iran and have access to local medical facilities and markets.
November 24, 2019: In Kabul, someone threw a grenade at a UN vehicle, killing one of the UN personnel (a foreigner) and wounding two others (a foreigner and an Afghan).
November 23, 2019: In central Afghanistan (Daykundi province), Taliban gunmen attacked a checkpoint at night. Eight soldiers were killed and four wounded but the attacker’s losses were heavier and the attack was repulsed. The Taliban were able to withdraw taking most of their dead with them.
November 22, 2019: The Afghan air force received another five MD-530F armed scout helicopters. This brings to 40 the Afghans have received since 2010.
By 2017 U.S. had already supplied twenty MD-530F helicopters armed with machine-guns, missiles and rockets and the U.S. agreed that year to supply 30 more. These are easier to operate and maintain than the Russian Mi-35s and cheaper as well. UH-60s are also being delivered. Since UH-60s can be armed as well that will be the solution to the grounded (because of sanctions on Russia) Mi-35 problem. The Afghan Air Force plans to more than double its helicopter force to 214 by 2024 and replace all the Russian helicopters with American ones in the process.
While delivering the hardware has been easy, recruiting and training Afghans to use it has been more difficult. Training Afghans with marketable (elsewhere in the world) tech skills often results in these personnel taking a safer and better paying civilian job as soon as possible. These pilots and technicians will often migrate (legally or otherwise) to do this. Then there are problems with air force commanders who are uncomfortable with allowing subordinates to use a lot of new capabilities. This has caused problems with the American advisors who see the Afghans creating capabilities to use ground controllers who can call in airstrikes or supply drops but not using it. The Afghan air force commanders are more difficult to persuade than it is to train pilots, maintainers and ground controllers.
November 21, 2019: The number of Afghans returning from Iran has accelerated this year because of the growing poverty and public protests in Iran. So far this year nearly 400,000 have returned. About 60 percent of those returning were illegal migrants in Iran. Another 50,000 returned from Turkey and Pakistan. Over a million Afghans returned in 2018, mainly from Pakistan. This year Iran is the most frequently fled from exile for Afghans. Iran has always been a more hostile host for Afghan refugees than Pakistan because there are twice as many Pushtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan and Pushtuns are the largest minority (about 40 percent) in Afghanistan. Iran is a much less familiar place for Afghans and the Iranians constantly remind Afghans of that.
November 20, 2019: The government declared western Afghanistan (Nangarhar province) free of ISIL. This came after 243 ISIL gunmen, along with 625 women and children, surrendered to the government. This did not come as a surprise as ISIL operations in Afghanistan have been under heavy attack by the government, American, Taliban, local tribal, Pakistani and al Qaeda forces for several years. In the last year ISIL lost its last strongholds in the north
(Jawzjan province). There the
Taliban and ISIL had been fighting for control of key smuggling routes. 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 disappeared, apparently because of casualties and desertions due to lack of leadership. The number of American and Afghan airstrikes on ISIL in Jawzjan and other northern provinces 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 force in Nangarhar province remained active and largely intact until early 2019 when the pressure increased and heavy casualties were suffered. In addition more and more ISIL members surrendered and that led to the mass surrender, to avoid a massacre by the Taliban. Mass murder is a tactic both Taliban and ISIL used on each other in the north. Pakistan has warned ISIL that they would face similar lethal pressure if they tried to establish themselves in neighboring Pakistan. Most of the ISIL members in eastern Afghanistan were Pakistani. In some cases the Afghans sent bodies of dead Pakistani ISIL members back to their families just across the border in Pakistan. According to Afghan custom, this was the right thing to do. But it also embarrassed the Pakistani government by publicizing the fact that so many Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan were from Pakistan. That has long been the case.
November 19, 2019: The Taliban released two American college professors they had kidnapped from the American University in Kabul back in 2016. In exchange, the government released three imprisoned Taliban leaders. Two days later the Taliban released ten Afghan soldiers as well.
November 14, 2019: The announcement of election results has been delayed again as another recount is undertaken. The use of
biometrically verified votes from the September 28 elections was supposed to keep the count honest and speed up delivery of final results. Corruption seems to have disrupted these plans. Originally the final results were to be known by October 19 but that did not happen and November 7 was the new date. No success there either and today was the new deadline that wasn’t. In addition to the announcement delays, there have been a reduction in the number of valid votes. Originally it was announced that about 2.6 million verified votes were cast at some 26,000 voting stations. As the veracity of these votes was double-checked the number of “verified votes” shrank and now stands at about 1.8 million. Most of this reduction comes from tribal leaders and various local warlords who are backing a particular candidate. These tribal strongmen don’t want to be bothered with obtaining and maintaining an elective post. They can hire people for that and the vote manipulation is how that is done. These rural strongmen control most of the Afghan population and always have. For centuries the “King of Afghanistan” in Kabul earned his position by ensuring the rural tribal leaders got a fair share of any cash or other gifts bestowed on Afghanistan by foreigners. The king was there to keep the foreign soldiers out and regulate any foreign trade or treaties. Since 1973 there has been no monarchy and since 1978 no real national government, at least until 2001 when the civil war between the Taliban and Northern Alliance ended. The Americans intervened on the side of the Northern Alliance soon after September 11, 2001 and the Taliban was gone (to exile in Pakistan) by the end of the year.
After that, it took eight years to establish the infrastructure to hold national elections for a president. The accuracy of the vote was always contaminated by local tribal leaders. By 2019 it was admitted this was a problem and efforts were made to protect the integrity of the vote. With each election, there is more success at protecting the votes from local manipulation. There are often multiple local warlords election officials have to worry about. In addition to the ever-present tribal leaders, there is often one or more regional warlords. These are men are sometimes elected provincial leaders or simply ethnic leaders whose power extends over many provinces.
The threats to the voters from tribal, ethnic, Taliban and ISIL pressure had an impact. There are about 16 million Afghans eligible to vote but only about nine million registered and only less than 30 percent showed up and cast a ballot. That is the lowest participation rare so far but also the meant to be the most accurate. The use of biometric ID cards to register and vote reduced, but did not eliminate, voter fraud. Nevertheless most Afghans saw this, the fourth presidential elections in Afghanistan, as the most legitimate and those who voted were often very determined and fearless to do so. Despite the large number of voting stations many voters still had to travel for hours on foot or horseback to reach a voting site. Most of the voting locations were not subjected to threats but instead had problems with remoteness and the logistics of getting to a voting site. The leading candidates, incumbent Ashraf Ghani and chief rival Abdullah Abdullah have both declared victory but the final results will not be announced until sometime in November or December.
November 13, 2019: In Kabul, a car bomb was used against a foreign security company that protected Indian operations in Afghanistan. The explosion killed twelve and wounded at least 20 others, most of them civilians. Four foreigners were among the dead.
November 10, 2019: American air support continues to increase. In October more airstrikes were carried out than in any October since 2010. Air support has been up in Afghanistan since 2017 and
2018 was a record year, a trend that continued into 2019. During the first ten months of 2019 American warplanes used 6,208 smart bombs and missiles. That’s 20 a day and is the highest number for this quarter since 2008. Mainly because of weather sorties were down 18 percent in October compared to the 948 in September. As usual most of the sorties flown (nearly 1,500 a month) are for reconnaissance and surveillance (visual and electronic). About 860 are for transport or airdrops while 260 are for refueling. Despite the decline in airstrike sorties for October, and a slight increase in Iraq and Syria, there were still more than five times as many sorties in Afghanistan. Most American troops left Afghanistan in 2014 but Afghanistan is now the major air combat operation for U.S. air forces (army, navy, marine and air force).
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 15 percent more bombs and missiles than in 2011. Coalition warplanes have more sorties a month, with 15 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 at any time 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 a year later) the Afghan ROE has reduced the enemy use of human shields. The Afghan ROE ignores human shields and puts the priority on killing enemy fighters. This made human shields in general much less effective, even though most of the airstrikes are carried out by foreign (usually American) warplanes. For 2018 American aircraft carried out airstrikes 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 airstrikes encourages Afghan security forces to be more aggressive.
October 27, 2019: In the east (Kunar province), gunmen fired into Pakistan where workers were building the new border fence. Pakistani forces responded with rocket and mortar fire against areas where the attack came from. This went on for several days, leaving at least three civilians dead and even more wounded. Despite constant attacks by Afghans, fence work continues. Sometimes the Afghans plant bombs. Gunfire from the Afghanistan side of the border regularly kills or wounds soldiers and workers building the new 2,500 kilometer long border fence. Many Afghans dispute where Pakistan draws the border and the need for a border fence itself. Construction has been underway since 2017 but the attacks from the Afghan side have become particularly intense (about ten a week) at times. So far Pakistan has had over a hundred soldiers and workers killed or wounded. Most of the Afghan-Pakistani border is still called the “Durand Line.” This was an impromptu, pre-independence invention of British colonial authorities and was always considered temporary, or at least negotiable, by locals. The need for renegotiation was mainly about how the line often went right through Pushtun tribal territories. However, the Afghans are more inclined to demand adjustments to the Durand Line and fight to obtain what they want. Thus recent Pakistani efforts to build more fences and other structures on their side of the border was an attempt to make the Durand line permanent and no longer negotiable.
October 16, 2019: India delivered two more Mi-24V helicopter gunships to the Afghan Air Force. Two had been delivered in May. Since 2015 India has given Afghanistan four Russian Mi-24D and five Mi-35 helicopters as well as three Indian Cheetah helicopters. Because of the economic sanctions on Russia for the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, it has been difficult getting spare parts and tech support for the Russian helicopters. At the same time Afghan commanders, pilots and maintainers are more comfortable using the Russian aircraft. It’s a generational thing and younger air force personnel prefer the American aircraft.