Afghanistan: Choose Your Poison

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April 21, 2020: Peace talks with the Taliban are not going well. Using tactics common when Islamic terrorists negotiate with anyone, the Taliban agree to terms and then, when it comes time to deliver, insist on changing the terms. The Taliban has also demonstrated, but not admitted, that it cannot control all its factions when it comes to ceasefire agreements. The Taliban violence always continues, although Taliban leaders will not admit it. There are enough dead or wounded civilians and security personnel to refute Taliban excuses. The Taliban apparently believe the Americans will ultimately agree to some kind of deal and get out of the country. If not, the Taliban have already got a lot of their people out of jail and become more intimidating to Afghans who never believed the Taliban could convince the Americans to leave. The Taliban may be overestimating their capabilities. That would not be the first time the Taliban committed a major error and suffered a major setback.

Coping With Covid19

Speaking of setbacks, Afghanistan now has to deal with the covid19 (coronavirus). It is not as much of a crisis as in other nations but it is having an impact. The virus has led to borders being closed to all but essential traffic. Pakistan is testing Afghan truck drivers for covid19 and about 20 percent of the drivers are sent back. Afghanistan has not got the resources to deal with covid19 and most of its medical resources available are still monopolized by the rich and powerful. The virus is more of a threat in the urban areas, where most of the 1,036 (so far) confirmed cases of the virus have been found. There have been 36 confirmed covid19 deaths so far.

Covid19 is not as scary in Afghanistan because there are so many other deadly diseases or unnatural ways to die. One more does not make much difference and, since covid19 is most fatal for the elderly or those already ill from other afflictions, in most of the country covid19 deaths will not even be noticed. Covid19 is similar to the annual influenza outbreaks but infects and kills more people. Not a lot but enough to be declared a health emergency in most countries. In Afghanistan, a fatal cause of covid19 is just another death by a fever of someone seen as close to death already. This happens in the West as well, but much less frequently and usually by accident. For example, a lot of nursing home deaths in the West were, at first, not attributed to covid19 because nursing homes normally have frequent deaths. The victims tend to have a number of health problems that can eventually kill them. In the West “just another fever” as a cause of death is no longer acceptable even though it is what is happening.

There is some interest in finding out how covid19 got into Afghanistan and nearby nations. Iran is considered the most likely source and is the one nation that has suffered the most. Many prominent politicians, military commanders and religious leaders have died from the virus in Iran. Most Iranians see that as a good thing because for two years now there has been growing antigovernment unrest. At first Iranian leaders, especially the religious ones who control the government, dismissed covid19 as something Allah was using to punish infidels (non-Moslems). That was incorrect and when prominent religious leaders began dying from covid19 ,many Iranians saw this as a sign that the heavenly powers did not approve of how the Iranian religious dictatorship was doing. To make matters worse, neighboring nations were attributing their local covid19 outbreaks to visitors from Iran. Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan have been most affected by this. Turkey and China have persuaded the Iranian government to be realistic about the covid19 problem. Despite that, the virus is still apparently out of control in Iran. China is apparently where Iran got covid19 because both China and Iran have tried to suppress discussion about how covid19 got into Iran via the regular passenger and cargo flights from Wuhan, the center of the covid19 outbreak in China and worldwide.

Political Diseases

Covid19 coming from Afghanistan is less a concern to Pakistan than getting Western troops out of Afghanistan and increasing Pakistani control there. Pakistan will always be deeply involved with what happens inside neighboring Afghanistan. In part because the current efforts by the Afghan Taliban to negotiate a peace deal with the U.S. is apparently inching closer to success. Attitudes inside Afghanistan are different. Most Afghans see the Taliban offer to negotiate as a scam because the Afghan Taliban are doing whatever Pakistan wants. The Afghan Taliban has always enjoyed a sanctuary in Pakistan, across the border from Helmand province where Afghans produce most of the world's heroin supply. Pakistan, or at least the Pakistani military, support the Afghan drug gangs by allowing, for a large fee, raw materials for turning opium plan sap into heroin to go from Pakistan to Helmand and for most of the heroin to be smuggled through Pakistan to the port of Karachi where the illegal drug can be smuggled to markets worldwide. The Afghan drug gangs pay the Afghan Taliban to protect the drug operations from foreign or Afghan interference.

This is how most Afghans see the situation, which includes millions of Afghan addicts made possible by the availability of so much opium and heroin. While most of this stuff is exported some of it is sold locally, at a much lower price than in foreign markets. There are equally large numbers of addicts in Pakistan and Iran and the people in all those countries agree that the drug problem exists because of unofficial Pakistani support. That Pakistani effort is justified by its military's obsession with “controlling “Afghanistan even if it means supporting an Islamic form of government that would not be tolerated in Pakistan and the heroin production that is condemned by the people and governments of Afghanistan and all its neighbors.

Despite this, the Americans are determined to go through the motions of obtaining a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban, who also have internal problems. The Afghan Taliban, at least those in Afghanistan, consist of many factions, usually based on geography and or tribal affiliation. These factions never agreed completely with each other and those differences have grown since the 1990s.

Like everything else in Afghanistan, the Taliban began because of important tribal links. The original Taliban were Pushtuns from tribes in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. The original Taliban combat force was recruited in the mid-1990s from among Pushtun Afghan refugees from war-torn Afghanistan who were still in Pakistan. Even though the Russians were gone by 1988, the pro-Russian government that was left behind survived until 1991 because the Soviet Union that created it had dissolved and the economic and military aid that kept that Afghan government going, in only a small part of Afghanistan. The aid stopped in 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved and by 1992 the Najibullah government the Russians had left behind also disappeared.

The Pakistan backed Taliban entered Afghanistan in 1994. The Taliban were largely Afghans who had been studying in Pakistan-based, Saudi-financed religious schools. They portrayed themselves as pure and not partisan like the other factions in the civil war. The Taliban took control of Kabul and most of southern (Pushtun majority) Afghanistan. By the late 1990s, the victorious Taliban were still fighting the non-Pushtun northerners in an effort to control the entire country. The Taliban never did control all of Afghanistan.

At this point, even a lot of Pushtuns could see that the Taliban were just another Pakistani effort to control Afghanistan or at least parts of it. There were reasons for that. Pakistan has twice as many Pushtuns as Afghanistan although with a much larger population the Pakistani Pushtun are a small minority in Pakistan versus a major (40 percent) minority in Afghanistan. That is one reason why Pakistan is so keen on having a large degree of control over Afghanistan, because that makes it more difficult for the Pushtun in both countries to unite. For thousands of years that has never happened but the potential was always there and late in the 20th century the idea of a separate “Pushtunstan” was gaining more supporters among Pushtun in both countries.

Pushtunstan would be a nightmare for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pushtunstan would likely mean the disappearance of Afghanistan because the northern portions of Afghanistan occupied by Uzbeks and Tajiks could be absorbed by neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The Mongolian Shia Hazaras could be absorbed by Shia Iran as might some of the western border areas of Afghanistan where many Shia live. Pushtunstan would be a more troublesome neighbor than Afghanistan because it would mean Pakistan losing some of its northwestern territories and making the Baluchi tribes southwestern Pakistan (Baluchistan province) even more determined to secede. These separatist nightmares are made more likely because of decades of Pakistani efforts to gain more control over Afghanistan.

The interference in Afghanistan has been going on since Pakistan was created in 1948 is illegal according to international law and opposed by every other nation in the region. Yet this interference has ancient origins. For over a thousand years, before the ancient silk road from China to India and the Middle East was replaced by more effective European cargo ships in the 16th century, the empires in what is now Iran and “greater India” (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) controlled portions of the silk road that went through Afghanistan. In effect, there is ancient Iranian influence in western Afghanistan while the influence in the east is Indian.

The factionalism that has developed in the Afghan Taliban since 2001 is largely the result of more and more Taliban rejecting the Pakistani influence. That is something Pakistan has violently sought to suppress and Iran supports because the anti-Pakistan Taliban groups endanger the Pakistan-backed Afghan drug trade. A final complication is that in Pakistan it is the largely autonomous (from government control) military and the ISI intelligence branch that need the Afghan Taliban to justify their power and autonomy in Pakistan. This has caused a major rift in Pakistan where most Pakistanis back the elected government that, as the constitution stipulates, controls the military and not the other way around.

The American attitude is that it will trust the Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani patrons only so far as the terms of any deal are observed. The Pakistani generals think they can play all this to their advantage. That would change if there were a change of government in Iran. The religious dictatorship of Iran is losing control because of decades of misrule, corruption and bad-behavior towards its own people. A new Iran government would probably be less anti-American and more willing to work with the Americans and Indians to reduce or eliminate Pakistani influence in Afghanistan along with the Afghan drug production. That would be very bad news for the Pakistani generals.

The U.S. believes that the Islamic terrorist threat to Pakistan would encourage Pakistan to prevent the Afghan Taliban from again, as they did in the late 1990s, providing sanctuary for international Islamic terrorists. The Pakistani government has always supported some of those inside Pakistan, but only as long as these groups only attacked targets that Pakistan military approved of. These usually included India and Afghan government forces and their foreign allies.

April 20, 2020: Over the last few days Taliban factions in the north (Takhar and Balkh provinces) and south (Uruzgan province) have been responsible for an increase in violence. There have been about a hundred casualties among the security forces plus a few civilian bystanders. The Taliban apparently suffered fewer losses. The Taliban factions involved are more interested in local issues than what the Taliban high-command, safely living in Baluchistan and Qatar, is demanding. The Taliban factions see their main goal as making money. Dealing with local obstacles often involves violence when bribes or intimidations won’t work. In several parts of Afghanistan, especially the north, the local tribes have become a major obstacle for the Taliban. Much of the fighting in Takhar and Balkh involved local militias that have been fighting the Taliban for years. What with all this, the peace talks with the Americans don’t mean much.

April 19, 2020: The Afghan Taliban announced that its 2020 Spring Offensive will not start on time and is unsure what the new start date will be. This is all about covid19 and fear that many Taliban members will catch it and get sick or even die if allowed to leave their camps and villages to travel and fight.

April 18, 2020: In the east (Khost province) Pakistani troops across the border in North Waziristan clashed with seven Islamic terrorists who had established a hideout near the Afghan border. All seven of Islamic terrorists were killed and found to be Pakistanis. Four soldiers were also killed. Much equipment and documents were seized. The seven men were planning attacks in Pakistan and were believed to have come from a base in Afghanistan.

April 16, 2020: Outside Bagram airbase (near Kabul) six contractors (cleaners) were killed by gunmen. The cleaners were returning home after works. The Taliban denied responsibility so it might have been ISIL. The gunmen escaped into the darkness.

April 14, 2020: The U.S. believes al Qaeda only has 200-300 members in Afghanistan and that these survive because they get along with the Taliban. The Americans want the Taliban to expel al Qaeda as part of a peace deal but the Taliban are trying to avoid doing that.

April 10, 2020: In the east northeast (Nangarhar Province) an army raid near the main crossing from Pakistan found and seized a recently arrived (from Pakistan) truck that was carrying ten tons of explosives. The two men on the truck said they were paid to deliver half the load to someone in Nangarhar and the rest to someone in Kabul. Meanwhile, Pakistan has closed most of its Afghan border crossings to prevent the spread of the covid19. The crossings are expected to remain closed for at least another week.

In eastern Iran over 80,000 Afghan refugees have returned from Iran since March 1st, most of them because of the spread of the covid19 virus inside Iran. This exodus is believed to be the source of the few covid19 cases found so far in Afghanistan.

April 9, 2020: Outside Kabul five rockets were fired into Bagram airbase. Two were intercepted and the other three landed outside the base. ISIL took responsibility.

In the south (Kandahar province) Pakistani soldiers and border fence workers were forced to retreat from the Spin Boldak where they were building the Pakistani border fence, guards stood watch as workers began building dozens of new border outposts on what the Afghans consider the Afghan side of the border in an area called Spin Boldak area. This took place south of Kandahar City, the original "home town" of the Taliban. Most of the construction work takes place at night but the construction sites are guarded day and night because local Afghans will sometimes attack.

About half the 2,500 kilometer long Afghan border fence has been completed. Many Afghans dispute where Pakistan draws the border and the need for a border fence itself. Gunfire from the Afghanistan side of the border regularly kills or wounds soldiers and workers building the fence. Construction has been underway since 2017 and the attacks from the Afghan side have become particularly intense 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 (1893) 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.

April 8, 2020: Pakistan had agreed to reopen Torkham and Chaman, the main border crossings with Afghanistan, three days a week starting April 10th. Afghan needs the cargo but Pakistan also wants the Afghans in Pakistan to go home. That was a problem because Afghanistan lacked the medical personnel to screen all those coming across. Pakistan has a lot of covid19 and Afghanistan has a lot less because it is so hard for anyone to get across the border.

April 7, 2020: In the north (Samangan province) the Taliban lost about fifteen gunmen during four days of failed attempted to take control of two villages. The defending villagers lost two men, plus five wounded. There were also 22 Taliban wounded. The Taliban has had a hard time dealing with hostile tribes in the north and Samangan province is one of the most hostile areas for the Taliban. A year ago Taliban in Samangan again kidnapped many (about 60) truck drivers who refused to pay the Taliban for the right to use local roads without being attacked. This is an old problem in this area and the Taliban continue (since late 2018) having problems getting truck drivers to pay $93 protection money each to avoid being attacked as they transport coal to major towns and cities. The local Taliban declare that they control some key roads used by the coal trucks but local police, tribal militias and soldiers do not agree. The Taliban kidnapped at least fifty of the drivers back in December 2018 but quickly released them so it was difficult to see who really has the power in this area, which is traditionally hostile to the Taliban and drug gangs. Now the Taliban is trying armed attack on local villagers to change minds. This does not appear to be working.

April 5, 2020: The Afghan government is willing to 5,000 release lower ranking Taliban but refuses to released 15 senior Taliban leaders that the Taliban are demanding be freed or there will be no peace deal. The Afghan government points out that these 15 men are capable leaders with a track record of success in planning operations gets a lot of soldiers, policemen and civilians killed. There is no popular support for letting the Fierce Fifteen, who already have a lot of blood on their hands,

April 3, 2020: In the east (Khost province, adjacent to North Waziristan) seven members of a Haqqani Network bomb planting team when the roadside bomb they were emplacing went off. Haqqani takes their orders from the Pakistani military and the current Haqqani leader also runs the Afghan Taliban.

March 25, 2020: In Kabul Haqqani Network was apparently behind an attack on a Sikh temple while there were 150 worshipers inside. The attackers were repulsed but not before they killed 25 people, including some of the Sikh inside the storefront temple. Sikhs are from India where the Sikh religion emerged from a Hindu faction centuries ago. That was how Buddhism came to be even earlier. India is an ally of the current Afghan government and provides economic and military assistance, Pakistan believes that by attacking Afghan Sikhs India may withdraw from Afghanistan. That is not likely but the Pakistani military is getting desperate because of economic problems, local opposition to involvement in Afghanistan and support for Islamic terrorists eager to attack India.

March 18, 2020: The Taliban has declared a truce in their war against the government and foreign health efforts. This came in response to Taliban leaders realizing that “believers” (Moslems) were not immune to covid19 and the lack of health care in Taliban controlled areas would be one more version for the locals to form militias and drive the Taliban out. In 2019 Taliban violence against health workers left 51 dead and 142 wounded. This led to the shutdown of 192 clinics and other health facilities. Only 18 percent of them have been reopened this year. Now more of these facilities, most of them in Taliban controlled territory, will be reopened. Afghanistan does not know how many Afghans have been infected with covid19 because the government cannot afford to test many people. It is known that covid19 infections are coming in with Afghans returning from Iran and Pakistan.

March 16, 2020: The United States kept up its large number of air attacks on Taliban forces. Despite the peace talks with the Taliban, the Taliban have not been able to abide by truce terms already agreed to and the U.S. responded by keeping up the airstrikes. The Taliban is still carrying out over a hundred attacks a day, nearly all against Afghan security forces and civilians. Attacking American troops is considered suicidal but some Taliban will try if they think they might get away with it.

 

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