Afghanistan: Holding It Together


February 6, 2020: The final results of the September 2019 presidential election are still not available. The election commission has announced that they are examining 137,000 disputed votes. This is about ten percent of the votes cast and most came from 15 percent of the 7,354 polling stations. The delay in determining the results has not disrupted the national government much at all. What Afghan leaders are most concerned about are the peace talks between the Taliban and Americans. The talks appear to be perpetually stalled because the Taliban cannot control its forces.

The American Plan

The official American goal still remains to get the Taliban to accept peace terms that would get American troops out of Afghanistan and also prevent another Afghan civil war. American military leaders describe the current situation as a strategic stalemate because the Taliban cannot defeat the Afghan security forces as long as American airpower and financial support is present. With the American troops gone there would be another civil war that would probably end in some kind of compromise that would eliminate effective central government and return to rule by dozens of regional tribal leaders or warlords. In the south, the Taliban and their drug gang employers would dominate and purchase whatever they needed (like secure smuggling routes) from other warlords. Islamic terrorist groups with enough cash to pay the rent could establish bases from the Taliban or any other local leaders. Most foreign aid and investment would disappear because of corruption and political instability.

Pakistan, Iran and the central Asian nations to the north would defend their borders as best they could. China has a tiny border with Afghanistan that can be easily blocked. Russia would expand its military arrangements with Central Asian states to protect their Afghan borders. The drug gangs would become the most powerful single force in the country and that would probably lead to feuds (as happened in South America) between rival drug gangs. The world would bemoan this sad state of affairs forgetting the fact that this is the traditional (for thousands of years) normal for what is called Afghanistan.

Record Breaking Achievements

Don’t forget that Afghanistan has long been recognized as one of the most corrupt places on the planet. The extent of this corruption c an be seen in the international surveys of nations to determine who is clean and who is corrupt. In 2019 Afghanistan ranked 173rd out of 180 nations in international rankings compared with 172 in 2018. Corruption is measured annually in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. Corruption is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Yemen/15, Syria/13, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/9) have a rating of under 15 while the least corrupt (Finland, New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85.

The current Afghanistan score is 16 (versus 16 in 2018) compared to 71 (71) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 60 (64) for Israel, 69 (75) for the United States, 26 (27) for Nigeria, 44 (43) for South Africa, 20 (18) for Iraq, 39 (40) for Turkey, 53 (49) for Saudi Arabia, 14 (16) for Yemen, 30 (30) for Ukraine, 45 (44) for Belarus, 58 (60) for Poland, 80 (81) Germany, 65 (61) for Taiwan, 39 (40) for Turkey, 41 (40) for India, 28 (28) for Russia, 57 (54) for South Korea, 41 (39) for China, 14 (17) for North Korea, 37 (35) for Vietnam, 85 (84) for Singapore, 73 (73) for Japan, 40 (37) for Indonesia, 38 (38) for Sri Lanka, 29 (33) for the Maldives, 34 (34) for the Philippines, 32 (32) for Pakistan, 26 (28) for Bangladesh, 26 (30) for Iran, 29 (30) for Burma, and 28 (28) for Lebanon.

Afghanistan’s corruption score has changed for the better since 2012 when it was 8.

There have been expensive and energetic measures to reduce corruption and progress has been made. But on the whole corruption in Afghanistan continues to be crippling and makes foreign aid efforts much less effective. A growing number of Afghans support the current stability provided by American troops and financial aid because the economy continues to grow and corruption slowly declines. The reality is that getting Afghanistan into the 20th century, much less the 21st, will take manyl decades of effort and since 2001 there have been barely two decades.

Most Afghans are well aware that in many way their lives are much better since the Americans arrived. GDP has grown continuously since 2001 with average family income increasing noticeably each year. GDP grew 2.9 percent in 2019 and is expected to do 3.3 percent in 2020 unless the civil war breaks out.

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 22 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 a least 80 percent do and life expectancy has risen from 47 years (the lowest in Eurasia) to 62 (leaving Bangladesh to occupy 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.

More economic growth leads to more rural Afghans arming and defending themselves against Taliban and bandit threats. During 2019 there were 18 percent fewer civilians killed by terrorist violence. The Taliban was responsible for 71 percent, the security forces 14 percent, five percent by ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and nine percent by unknown perpetrators. For most of 2019, it looked like the annual total would be higher but Taliban violence against civilians (and in general) greatly declined in the last three months of the year. The Taliban concentrated on hurting Americans, which was a lot more dangerous for the Taliban.

Neighboring Pakistan and Iran take advantage of corruption, mostly just for financial gain. Iran is more hostile to Afghans because of its strenuous efforts to keep Afghan opium and heroin out of Iran. Pakistan is less concerned with that because Pakistanis make the most money supplying the drug gangs with essential supplies and services. The Taliban has a sanctuary in Pakistan which gives Pakistan some control over the distribution of Afghan drugs in Pakistan. Both Iran and Pakistan look down on Afghans as a bunch of tribal barbarians. That attitude has been around for thousands of years.

What has changed is that the Afghans are more prosperous than ever before and Afghan businessmen, entrepreneurs and merchants are treated with respect by their Iranian and Pakistani counterparts. Afghanistan has also managed to get out from under the long-time dependence of Pakistan for land access to the outside world. Now Afghanistan has a road/rail line from the western border to a new, Indian financed, port on the Iranian coast. That persuaded China, which built a similar port (Gwadar) on the Pakistani side of the border, to provide road and rail access to China, to do business with Afghanistan there. The Chinese have arranged for Afghan cargo to move through Gwadar and then by road north to the Chaman crossing into Afghanistan (Kandahar province). A year ago China paid for new facilities at Chaman , with modern rest areas , for people waiting to cross (especially drivers of trucks), and these amenities include refrigerated warehouses for perishable cargoes (like fruit and vegetables) delayed at the crossings. China is a major investor in Pakistan as well as the primary supplier of weapons. So what China wants China gets.

The better living conditions in Afghanistan can be measured compared to the rest of the world. The effectiveness of governments and the societies they represent is rated each year in the Human Development Index. The UN has compiled these ratings for 29 years. The index ranks all the world nations in terms of how well they do in terms of life expectancy, education and income. In 2019 Afghanistan was 170th out of 189 nations. The rank of other nations puts this into perspective; United States is at 15 (tied with Britain), China 89, Israel 22 (tied with South Korea), Saudi Arabia 36, Iran 65, India 129, Pakistan 152, Bangladesh 135, Russia 49, Venezuela 96, Colombia 79, Mexico 76. Egypt 116, Lebanon 93, Syria 154 and Jordan 103. The top ten nations are Norway, Switzerland, Ireland, Germany, Hong Kong, Australia, Iceland, Sweden, Singapore and Netherlands. The bottom ten are Mozambique at 180th place (there are a lot of ties) followed by Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Mali, Burundi, South Sudan, Chad, Central African Republic and in last place, Niger.

February 5, 2020: I n the east (Khost province), an American military contractor was kidnapped. Haqqani Network is suspected because they have had success in arranging foreign hostages to be exchanged for the release of imprisoned senior Haqqani personnel.

January 31, 2020: The Taliban negotiations are stalled once more because the Taliban will not agree to a ceasefire, or anything like it, 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. These various Taliban factions are not under any reliable central control. Many factions do not take orders but are willing to negotiate a change in how they do whatever they are doing. This is something the Taliban can live with because it is how they always operated. The problem is that the Taliban won’t admit this reality to the Americans, or any outsiders. The Taliban are also trying to conceal the fact that they just want the foreign troops gone so that Taliban forces and leaders can move freely without worrying about ever-present American airpower spotting and killing them. The Taliban are also concerned that their “negotiate scam” is being controlled by the Americans to embarrass the Taliban and there is no way the Americans will agree to leave while the Taliban still intend to try and seize control of the country. The Taliban also have a problem in understanding how well the Americans are plugged into Taliban communications. It’s not just the ever present electronic surveillance aircraft and local informants, but there are suspicions that the Americans have also turned some Taliban officials or at least made deals that expose the details of internal discussions among the Taliban leadership.

Most rural tribes see the Taliban as bandits and for all practical purposes that’s what many Taliban are. Not all the 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 Taliban to agree on a definition of peace. Afghanistan has never been a peaceful place, something the rest of the world does not appreciate.

January 30, 2020: In the last three months of 2019 there were more Taliban attacks (that resulted in casualties) than any previous quarter. The 8,204 Taliban attacks for 2019 exceeded the previous record 7,685 from 2010. On the plus side, civilian casualties were down 18 percent and the effective strength of the security forces increased seven percent. There were also more American casualties in 2019 with 23 dead and 192 wounded or injured (in accidents). This is the highest number of deaths since 2015.

American air support for 2019 was one percent greater than in the record setting total for since 2018 . During 2019 there 7,423 airstrikes compared to 7,362 for 2018. That’s about 20 a day for both years. This is a major increase from 12 a day for 2017, 3-4 a day for 2016 and 2-3 a day for 2015. 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 performed more sorties a month, with 15 percent of sorties resulting in weapons being used. This includes AC-130 gunships but not attack helicopters. In some months the U.S. Air Force used more smart bombs and missiles than at any since late 2010.

The greater use of American airpower has had a damaging impact on the Taliban. Prisoner interrogations, eavesdropping on internal or public Internet chatter shows declining morale, higher desertion, fewer recruits and higher pay and benefits to keep numbers up. There is also more pressure on field commanders, by their own gunmen, to keep casualties down. This can be done by avoiding actions that will attract airstrikes, like attacking army or police bases or staying in one place too long while blocking an army or police operation. “Too long” is often an hour or more and after that, if not earlier, the deadly smart bombs arrive. Worse it often means that Taliban groups will be under attack for a while, or at least until they disperse or otherwise evade detection from the air or ground forces. Some Taliban field commanders are better at dealing with this than others and all Taliban combat commanders know that if they are too successful they get put on a priority hit list which often leads to an early death.

Despite all that the Taliban combat forces were ordered to increase attacks as much as possible in order to push the Americans to sign a withdrawal deal. There was an increase in Taliban activity, and they suffered more casualties because of it. But the promised payoff from the Americans has not materialized. Veteran Taliban went through this earlier, after most foreign troops left at the end of 2014. This was supposed to have led to a quick victory over the Afghan security forces. That did not happen because then, and now, most Afghans hate the Taliban and would rather fight than submit. It is the Afghan custom to avoid fighting unless you have an overwhelming advantage or have no choice because of a ruthless attacker. The more the Afghan attacked the security forces the resistance increased and the army and police force did not disintegrate. Them there were the growing number of tribal militias who force the Taliban to back off, or pay a huge bribe to get safe passage. The drug gangs, which finance the Taliban are often (but not always) willing to pay the bribe. Drug profits are so high this is not an onerous expense as long as it keep production and movement of the heroin to foreign markets. But the American airpower could not be bribed. If American air controller teams showed up somewhere local army and police commanders also became more resistant to a bribe. That’s because these commanders know that their forces know how effective the airpower is and that if their commanders avoid using it they have been sold out, literally and many of these troops and police will get killed or wounded. If this sounds complex and mercenary it is and that is the way it is done in Afghanistan. Not just now, but for thousands of years. It’s always been difficult for outsiders to appreciate these customs.

January 29, 2020: In the west (Badghis province), Afghan commandos raided a Taliban prison camp and freed 62 Afghan soldiers who had been held there.

In the east (Nangarhar Province), someone fired two mortar shells as the Torkham (Khyber Pass) border crossing, the busiest one between the two countries. This attack led to the crossing to be closed for ten hours.

January 27, 2020: In the southeast (Ghazni province), an American E-11A electronic support aircraft crashed because of equipment problems. The two crew (pilot and copilot) were killed and their bodies recovered from an area that was nominally under Taliban control since 2015. The E-11A is actually a twin-engine business jet filled with electronics and communications equipment that serves as the equivalent of a communications satellite that enables American and allied ground and air forces to communicate freely without worrying about the interference Afghanistan’s many mountains creates for most types of wireless communication. This enables ground troops to quickly report enemy activity and call in air support or ground reinforcements. In effect, the E-11F provides Afghan and foreign troops with more effective communications than the Taliban or drug gangs. The bad guys can use satellite phones but these are very expensive and detectable.

January 25, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province), near the Mayadeen army base, unidentified (but apparently Israeli) aircraft attacked two targets. One contained Iranian troops and the other Iranian Afghan mercenaries. Iran did not disband all the Afghan mercenary brigades it formed after 2012 for service in Syria and apparently recruiting in eastern Iranian refugee camps continues. Iran says it wants revenge against the Americans for killing their Quds Force commander but so far there are no indications in Syria, Iraq or along the western Afghan border that the Iranians are spending big to organize some kind of retaliation.

January 23, 2020: In Switzerland, where the Afghan and Pakistani leaders were attending an international conference. The Afghan president openly questioned the Pakistani prime minister's assertion that the Haqqani Network no longer had sanctuary in Pakistan. The Afghans have intel to back up their claims but that was not used.

January 20, 2020: Following the January 8 loss of a Ukrainian airliner in Iran, when it was accidentally fired on by air defense systems, most foreign airlines stayed out of Iranian air space and many of them shifted to Afghan air space. With was an unexpected bonanza for Afghanistan because airline passing through has to pay a $700 transit fee. The Iranian situation has meant about $100,000 additional revenue for the Afghan Civil Aviation Authority.

January 16, 2020: The plight of ISIL in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere is one reason why global Islamic terrorism-related deaths have fallen by over 50 percent since 2014 when there were 35,000 fatalities. The decline was largely attributable to one Islamic terror group in particular, ISIL that suffered major setbacks. As a result global terrorism deaths fell to 19,000 by 2017, less than 16,000 for 2018 and the decline continued into 2019. This activity is most visible in the GTI (Global Terrorism Index), which counts all forms of terrorism. But Islamic terrorism is the main cause and for years ISIL was the deadliest practitioner. That led to a curious situation in Egypt which in 2018 dropped out of the top ten as they suppressed most of the ISIL activity in Sinai. In 2017 Egypt was number three but now it is at eleven.

The top ten consists of Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, India, Yemen, Philippines, and Congo. India, Philippines, Yemen and Congo all have Islamic terrorism accounting for a minority of the deaths. Somalia is one of the areas where there have been fewer deaths in the last few years. Al Shabaab has learned that the most profitable approach is to carry out fewer dramatic, high visibility attacks and otherwise conserve your manpower and resources. Thus the emphasis on spectacular attacks in major cities like Mogadishu or against an American military base.

January 15, 2020: Extortion on the main highways is becoming a growing problem. Not only are the Taliban increasingly active here, but so are local police. Not only does this make it more expensive to move goods by truck but it often leads to drivers being killed and trucks destroyed when the payment requested is not available.

January 11, 2020: In the south (Kandahar province), two American troops were killed and two wounded when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. These are the first American fatalities in Afghanistan for 2020.

January 9, 2020: Afghanistan is sending 55 Pakistani wives (and 76 children) of recently surrendered ISIL members back to Pakistan. Afghan and American efforts finally crushed the primary Afghan branch of ISIL. The Taliban also fought this ISIL group, usually because of disputes over drug smuggling opportunities. There is still ISIL activity in Afghanistan, just a lot less of it. Pakistan does not like to be reminded that so many Pakistanis are involved with Islamic terrorism but they regularly allow the bodies of dead Islamic terrorists and live, or dead, family members to return.

January 5, 2020: The January 2nd death of Iranian IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) general Qassem Soleimani in Iraq caused fear (in Pakistan) and hope (in Afghanistan and India). Soleimani was killed by American Hellfire missiles along with several local Islamic terrorist leaders he was developing. The Americans considered Soleimani the Iranian most responsible for years of attacks on the Americans and the deaths of hundreds of American troops and thousands of Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese and so on. Afghans and Indians are now speculating at the possibility of the U.S. going after some prominent Pakistani sponsors of Islamic terrorism. After all, those Pakistani efforts have been responsible for thousands of Indian and Afghan deaths as well as nearly as many American fatalities. The problem is Soleimani had been at it for several decades and was recognized for that in Iran as a celebrity. Pakistan has dozens of ISI (military intelligence) and army leaders who, since the 1980s, have supported local Islamic terrorists groups willing to take aid and orders from Pakistan to attack certain individuals or groups. Instead of one Soleimani, Pakistan has dozens of lesser talents doing similar dirty work for about as long as Soleimani was in the IRGC. Another difference is that Pakistan tries to have normal diplomatic and military relations with the United States. Much that is a deception but on many occasions, Pakistan has been useful in the fight against Islamic terrorism.

January 4, 2020: The U.S. confirmed the month old decision to resume military training for the Pakistani military. This was suspended, along with all equipment transfers, in early 2018 because Pakistan would not take action to curb Islamic terror groups in Pakistan from carrying out attacks in Afghanistan and India. The resumption of training is believed to be a reward for Pakistan not backing Iran in its current confrontation with the United States. This dispute is more intense now because of the recent American killing of senior IRGC General Soleimani.




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