Afghanistan: The Myth of Taliban Invincibility

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November 10, 2020: The United States appears to be willing to do anything to keep the Taliban peace negotiations going. This includes refusing to release any data about attacks on American or Afghan forces. This is a problem because the Taliban peace talks continue only so long as the Taliban keep their promises not to attack American troops. Local witnesses, both Afghan and foreigners, report such attacks which the U.S. military officially ignores. When asked, the official response is either “it’s classified” or denial. So far this year the U.S. military has halted release of more and more information on U.S., Afghan or Taliban casualties. The Afghans report that Taliban violence is up over 50 percent in the last three months compared the previous three months. Attacks are concentrated on the security forces and American air power, a key factor in the success of Afghan forces, has declined to historically low levels in 2020. The U.S. monitors losses of the Afghan security forces as well as morale and performance of hundreds of Afghan army and police units. The Americans in Afghanistan are still collecting that data but it is no longer made public. It is unclear if those assessments are still being shared with the Afghan government.

The Other Peace Talks

In mid-2020 the Taliban and the Afghan government agreed to begin peace negotiations. Working out mutually acceptable terms seems an impossible task. After all, the stated objective of the Taliban is to replace the current government with a Taliban controlled religious dictatorship. That means there will be no peace and anyone with knowledge of what has gone on in Afghanistan since the 1970s can see how this will end.

Worst case (for Afghans in general) is all foreign troops leaving and foreign aid is withdrawn because of the corruption. In that situation Afghanistan returns to its traditional, for over a few thousand years, condition. That means the country/region we call Afghanistan gets picked apart by more powerful neighboring states. Traditionally this has meant Persians and Indians. Now it is Iranians and Pakistan, which is the Indian Moslems who demanded their own Moslem state when India was created in 1947. Pakistan is broke and economically dependent on China. The Chinese don’t want their numerous investments in Pakistan attacked by Islamic terrorists, tribal separatists or anyone else. Pakistan justifies (to China) the expense of meddling in Afghanistan because it is necessary to control the Pushtun minority in Pakistan. There are twice as many Pushtun in Pakistan as in Afghanistan but Pakistan has a much larger non-Tribal (Punjabi and Sindi) population so the Pushtuns are only 15 percent of all Pakistanis. The Baluchi tribes account for another four percent. That makes about 19 percent of Pakistanis tribal and not particularly happy with the Chinese presence or the brutal treatment of tribal people in Pakistan. Extending that brutal control to Afghanistan won’t improve anything in Pakistan.

Iran, which historically controlled, when it was profitable to do so, much of western Afghanistan did so just as the northern Indians controlled eastern Afghanistan and Kabul. This foreign occupation was expensive because the tribes were constantly fighting the foreigners and each other. All this was paid for by traffic on the Silk Road. The once lucrative Silk Road trade route between China and the Middle East/Europe fell out of use five hundred years ago. The cause was cheaper and more reliable travel via heavily armed European ships the Chinese, Iranians or Indians lacked.

Losing its value to mighty neighbors, Afghanistan went back to being a region without any government. That changed in the 18th century when the various tribes agreed to declare a kingdom of Afghanistan mainly to keep the foreigners out. A Pushtun king in Kabul justified his job by negotiating with foreigners and providing a neutral space for quarreling tribes to send leaders to try and negotiate an end to a mutually destructive tribal feud. Taliban leaders say they want to unite Afghanistan as a caliphate (Islamic religious dictatorship). That fact that caliphates have never worked well or maintained any unity for long is seen as irrelevant. It is God’s Will that Afghanistan become a caliphate. It’s one of those non-negotiable things that kaffirs (non-Moslems) simply cannot comprehend. Most Afghans want nothing to do with a caliphate.

Neither Pakistan nor Iran see any profit in annexing adjacent portions of Afghanistan. Pakistan, or at least the Pakistani military, is content to “tax” Afghan drug operations that need access to Pakistan. The Iranians, like most civilians in the region, see the opium and heroin coming out if Afghanistan as something evil that much be fought. That means the Afghan/Iran border has long been a combat zone between Iranian security forces and armed Afghan drug smugglers. That won’t change as long as the heroin production is tolerated in Afghanistan.

Americans want to be done with the military and economic costs of having troops in Afghanistan. The problem with that attitude is that Americans can leave Afghanistan but Afghanistan won’t leave America. The heroin production will continue and major Islamic terrorist groups will have a sanctuary from which to plan attacks on the Wests, especially the United States.

A more likely result of the withdrawal of foreign troops and most aid would be another civil war. Historically this does go well for the Pushtun minority and the Taliban are a Pushtun movement. During the late 1990s civil war, after the Pakistan armed and recruited the Taliban to defeat the factions and take control there was one insurmountable problem. The one part of Afghanistan the Taliban could never conquer was the Tajik northeast. The Tajiks are undefeated, while the Pustins were beaten in late 2001. If there is another civil war the Tajiks will again be the main opponent for the Pushtun Taliban. The Tajiks have allies that include the other minorities, especially Turkmen, Uzbeks and Mongols (Hazara). This anti-Taliban opposition is still known as the NA (Northern Alliance).

The Tajik and Pushtun are often called “eastern Iranians” because they are, like the Iranians, also Indo-European, as are most people in northern India, Pakistan and Europe. The Tajiks differ from the Pushtun in being less warlike, less religiously fanatic and more amenable to education and progress in general. Perhaps even more important is that the Tajiks have largely abandoned the use of tribes as a political organization. The Pushtun are still very much into tribal power and religious fanaticism. The main reason the Northern Alliance did not defeat the Taliban in the 1990s was because the Taliban had a foreign backer (Pakistan) and the NA did not. That changed in late 2001 when the U.S. agreed to back the NA in its effort to liberate Afghanistan from Taliban control. In 2020 Russia is more willing to provide the NA will support than they were in the 1990s. Back then the Soviet Union had just dissolved (in 1991) and the much-reduced Russia was broke. Now Russia is less broke and interested in buying more influence in Afghanistan through the NA. With or without foreign support the NA is still openly hostile to accepting Taliban rule. A likely outcome of a civil war is a partition of Afghanistan, with Taliban getting Kabul and the Pushtun south while the NA controls the north. The northern provinces are already demonstrating to the Taliban that the north is not to be trifled with. All Taliban efforts to establish a stable presence in the north have failed, and those efforts incur heavy Taliban losses. The main reason the Taliban persist in the north is because the drug gangs need the northern heroin export route. The NA does not want the Taliban or the heroin in the north.

The Anonymous Threat

One major complication with the current Afghan peace negotiations is that a major faction, Pakistan, cannot officially be acknowledged. Pakistan officially maintains that this is not true. Technically that is correct because it’s not the government of Pakistan but the Pakistani military and its ISI intelligence service that supports and maintains Pakistani interference in Afghan affairs. It is important to note that when Britain dissolved its Indian (including what is now Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka) colonial government, the new nations that emerged were quite different. One major difference was how these new nations handled their armed forces. India ensured that the military remained subservient to the elected government. That did not happen in Pakistan or Burma and that meant the military frequently took control of the government. While Pakistan is technically run by an elected government, that government cannot do anything the military disagrees with. With regard to Afghanistan the Pakistani military has a foreign policy towards Afghanistan that supersedes anything the politicians come up with or agree to.

The Pakistani military have always seen Afghanistan has an unstable region that posed a potential threat to Pakistan. Historically this was true. Massive invasions and tribal raids have been coming out of Afghanistan and into India (and Iran) for thousands of years. While India was always a potential (and unlikely) invader, the threat from Afghanistan was real and constant. Most Pakistanis recognized this threat and there was never a lot of popular opposition towards the Pakistani military’s actions towards Afghanistan. That continues to the present. For the Afghan Taliban it means they are very dependent on the good will of the Pakistani military to survive. In fact, it was the Pakistani ISI that created the Afghan Taliban in the mid-1990s as a way to intervene and end the civil war that had been going on since the Russians left in the late 1980s.

The ISI found that it did not have enough control over the Taliban to prevent the September 11, 2001 attacks and the unwanted American intervention in Afghan and Pakistani affairs. The Americans and the Afghan Northern Alliance chased the Taliban out of Afghanistan by the end of 2001. The ISI made the best of the situation and provided the Afghan Taliban with a sanctuary in southwest Pakistan, just across the border from Helmand and Kandahar provinces, which was where most of the world’s heroin was produced and where most of the original Taliban (recruited in Pakistan refugee camps) came from. The drug gangs, which had provided the Taliban with most of their income during the late 1990s, continued to pay the Taliban after 2001 as both the drug gangs and Taliban survived because of support from the Pakistani military. That support included allowing essential chemicals (for converting opium into heroin) into Afghanistan and allowing most of the heroin to be exported via Pakistani ports (naval and air) to world markets. The exiled Taliban provided the muscle while Taliban leaders maintained their 1990s relationships with the drug gang leaders and the Pushtun tribes.

Follow The Money

The Afghan government cannot afford to pay for effective security forces themselves. One thing that keeps the Afghan war effort going is the more than $3.5 billion a year in foreign aid to pay for Afghan security forces. Most Afghans oppose the Taliban and the drug gangs and if someone is going to provide lots of money and some troops to help, the battle will continue. Making peace with the Taliban is less and less likely because the hard core religious and tribal (Pushtun) support for a religious dictatorship (dominated by the Pushtun minority) remains alive and surviving. It’s the same problem the rest of the Islamic world has and there are no quick cures.

Since the foreign troops left in 2014 the Taliban have been on the offensive. That, like most else in Afghanistan, has not worked out as expected. At the end of 2016 the Taliban only controlled about ten percent of the country and were very active (“contesting control of”) in another 20 percent. This is nearly ten times as much control as they had at the end of 2014. Most of the Taliban gains have been in Helmand because, as the old saying goes, “follow the money”. The Taliban also tried to improve their image and paid more attention to what al Qaeda leaders have been telling them for over a decade; avoid civilian casualties, otherwise it turns potential supporters against you. Thus civilian deaths in 2016 (about 3,200) were not up while deaths among the Taliban and security forces were much higher. Losses on both sides have been heavier since the foreign troops left. Afghanistan claims its forces killed 18,000 enemy fighters (mostly Taliban) in 2016, which is more than twice what the security forces lost. Taliban losses have increased more sharply (more than doubling) since 2014 than those of the security forces (which have increased nearly 50 percent.)

This pattern began to emerge in 2015. By the end of 2014 some 300,000 Afghan police and soldiers had assumed responsibility for security all over the country and as a result took a lot more casualties getting that done. At least 5,000 soldiers and police died in 2014, the first year the Afghans had to provide security nationwide. That produced a loss rate of about 2,400 dead per 100,000 troops per year. In 2013 it was about 1,890 which was a big increase from 2007, when the Afghan rate was about 700 dead per 100,000. The rate for 2015 was over 3,000 dead per 100,000, the first full year after most foreign troops had withdrawn. This loss rate was about twice that suffered by American troops during World War II but not unusual for recent Afghan history.

The Taliban and drug gangs proclaimed the departure of the formidable foreign troops an opportunity. Most Afghans saw it differently and since 2014 the security forces have had help from a growing number of tribal militias. These militias are usually part-timers but get organized in times when there is a local threat, like regular harassment by the Taliban or drug gang gunmen. The security forces value the tribal militias not so much for their firepower as for the information they possess about the local area and who is doing what for who at the moment.

The Taliban is also having leadership problems. Mostly it’s because the Afghans have successfully adopted the American practice of going after enemy leadership. This means Taliban field commanders are sought out and killed or, if possible, taken alive. While there are always ambitious younger Taliban willing to move up, the most capable ones often back off and a growing number are turning to Plan B; take your skills and accumulated cash and get out of Afghanistan.

November 5, 2020: The U.S. turned over another 429 hummer vehicles to the security forces. So far this year the U.S. has provided 1,400 vehicles of various types.

November 2, 2020: In Kabul a major terrorist attack was made on the Kabul University campus. About 30 people, most of them civilians, students and faculty, were killed. The government blamed the Taliban but the Taliban said it wasn’t them and was probably al Qaeda, ISIL or Pakistan. The February ceasefire agreement that enabled the peace talks to continue specified that the Taliban would halt attacks in cities and against American troops. It was assumed that Pakistan would halt its attacks via the Haqqani Network but that was not the case and Haqqani is still carrying out attacks in cities that are disruptive to the peace negotiations. Pakistan denies that it controls Haqqani and Haqqani rarely takes credit for attacks. Al Qaeda has an interest in the Taliban negotiations succeeding, so al Qaeda is unlikely. That leaves ISIL, which is currently much weakened and inclined to quickly and loudly take credit for such attacks. In this case ISIL did claim responsibility.

Another possible culprit is one of the many rebellious factions in the Taliban. This is something the Taliban insists does not exist. The factions are real and the result of resentment over being pawns of Pakistan. Over the last decade this has caused a growing number of Taliban factions to rebel. These defections broke out into open warfare in 2015, led by the example of Mullah Rasool.

The Rasool faction broke away from the Pakistan based Taliban leadership because of a dispute over who should run the Taliban. The current Taliban leader, Mullah Hebatullah Akhundzada, is unpopular with many Taliban faction leaders, in part because Akhundzada is seen as a figurehead and his chief deputy, the head of the Haqqani Network, is actually in charge.

During the late 1990s Mullah Rasool was the Taliban strongman in the southwest as governor of Nimroz. That ended in late 2001 when the U.S. backed Northern Alliance ousted the Taliban. The Rasool clan had made a fortune controlling the drug smuggling down there. Rasool had lots of contacts in Iran and saw himself as a potential supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban, if only because Rasool was always a close ally of Taliban founder and leaders Mullah Omar. This Taliban civil war is the result of disagreements over who should take over as Taliban leader after it was revealed in 2015 that founder Mullah Omar had died of kidney failure in 2013 (in a Pakistani hospital) at age 53. The information was known to only a few key Omar associates who were accused of doing this as part of a plot to install an Omar successor (Mullah Mansour) who was second-rate but backed by the Pakistan military. Since Pakistan created it in the mid-1990s, they saw the Taliban as an inexpensive way to keep Afghanistan dependent on Pakistan and cooperative whenever Pakistan wanted something,

From late 2015 to mid-2016 Rasool fought other Taliban factions for control. Heavy fighting began in late November 2015 when Mullah Mansour ordered attacks against the forces loyal to Mullah Rasool. This marked a major defeat for the Taliban as they lost a major asset; unity. Most of the fighting took place in Herat, Zabul and Farah provinces. There were apparently several thousand casualties and the heavy fighting did not cease until July 2016. Meanwhile Pakistan backed their man Mansour, who was then killed in May 2016 by an American air strike. Pakistan used its considerable control over the Afghan Taliban to get the head of the Pakistan backed Haqqani Network appointed as one of the three senior Taliban leaders. Rasool apparently backed down in the face of all this and was thought to have left the country. That was not the case as the Rasool faction remains active in western Afghanistan along the Iranian border. Rasool cooperates with Iran in return for access to Iran for some supplies. Rasool only control about five percent of Taliban manpower but he is not the only anti-Pakistan faction. There are many more but these other factions go along with the main Taliban leadership while waiting for an opportunity to openly side with Rasool or some other Taliban leader free of Pakistani control. All these dissidents and Rasool account for about a third of Taliban strength. A smaller number of Taliban were so fed up with the drug gang connection and Pakistani dominance that they joined ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). For most Taliban the drug money is too good, or simply essential for survival, to ignore. Even some ISIL factions will extort drug smugglers for needed cash rather than just blocking the movement of exportable heroin.

The bodies of the dead Kabul Universities attackers are proving difficult to identify because they killed themselves with grenades when it became clear they could not escape the campus. The government is intent on identifying the attackers because they have a large biometric database of Afghan and foreign terrorists or suspects and this has made it possible to identify dead Islamic terrorists, even when all that is left is a few body parts. The biometric data base is something the Americans devised and built before turning it over to the Afghan security forces. This database makes it more difficult to carry out an anonymous attack. It’s not enough to recruit sufficient suicidal attackers, you have to recruit ones who cannot be traced back to those who organized the attack. Government investigators have proved quite capable of uncovering what a recently deceased terrorist was up to and associating with.

October 20, 2020: American military officials admit that they have quietly been providing air support for Taliban operations against ISIL forces in Afghanistan. American Special Forces teams verify that such operations are under way, approve the airstrikes and monitor the results. As is the case elsewhere, ISIL has no allies in Afghanistan. ISIL persists because it is the highest embodiment of the ultimate “more Islamic than thou” Islamic terrorist.

October 13, 2020: In the east (Nangarhar Province), across the Pakistani border (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) a convoy of commercial tractor-trailers taking American military equipment to Afghanistan was ambushed. No one took credit for the attack, which destroyed some of the cargo. The convoy was headed for Khyber Pass and the Afghan border crossing at Torkham.

 

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