Afghanistan: The Ikhwan Factor

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February 2, 2021: In Kabul there was another roadside bomb attack on the police. This one wounded two policemen and is one of a growing number of such attacks. The Taliban denies responsibility but Afghan police don’t believe that because the Taliban have often used “unclaimed” terror attacks in the past, and there is growing evidence that this is happening again as the Taliban continued trying to scam the Americans into leaving Afghanistan.

The Afghan president is trying to get the new American government to halt withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. This is essential so American logistical support can continue and enable other NATO members, like Canada, Norway and Germany to keep their military training and advisory teams in Afghanistan. It appears that the Americans won’t be leaving because the Taliban have been regularly violating terms, they agreed to in February 2020, that were to enable the Americans to withdraw all their troops by May 2021. The Taliban deny these accusations and blame the Americans for violating the ceasefire.

Any agreements with Islamic radical or terrorist groups are unlikely to be kept. One might call this phenomenon the Ikhwan Factor, in recognition of its prominent role in the establishment and maintenance of the Saudi Arabian government and most other rulers of Moslem majority states. The Ikhwan were early 20th century Islamic terrorists who worked with the Saud family to create the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Current Islamic terror groups are similar to the Ikhwan. These groups justify their violence on the need to defend Islam against infidels (non-Moslems) or heretics (Moslems who don’t agree with the radicals). The Islamic radicals cite Koran verses that support all the lies and broken agreements. Governments in Moslem-majority- nations understand this and realize that for their governments to survive, any Islamic extremist groups must be destroyed or expelled. The Saud family understood this when they struggled to establish their kingdom in the 1920s. One radical militia (the Ikhwan) refused to demobilize and kept invading neighboring countries in an effort to impose Sharia (Islamic law) on the population. The Saudis killed the Ikhwan leadership in the late 1920s and forcibly disbanded the militia. That brought peace with its neighbors and once more reminded all rulers of Moslem majority nations that the radicals cannot be trusted or tolerated. Since then, Saudi Arabia has used lethal force against any Islamic radicals that contest Saudi rule.

Most Afghans agree that the Taliban are no different from the Ikhwan , ISIL or any number of Islamic fanatics doing whatever they want because they are on a Mission From God, and will not take orders from any lesser powers. Many Afghans learned this via painful personal experience and don’t trust the Taliban. Another reason for Afghans hating the Taliban is because the group has been under Pakistani control since its creation over two decades ago.

Another issue that does not get much attention in the foreign media is that the power of the drug gangs will increase with the Americans gone, so more heroin and opium will be exported to world markets. The Afghans understand that with the Americans gone the Taliban. Pakistan and drug gangs can turn their attention to taking control of the Afghan government. In the midst of all this are the warlords of northern Afghanistan getting ready for an other civil war. The majority of Afghans not only oppose the Taliban, drugs gangs and Pakistan but have made it clear that they, especially the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara in the north, are ready to resume the war with the Taliban that was going on in 2001 and only ended when the Americans came in to provide air support for this “Northern Alliance”. In 2001 the Americans told Pakistan to decide if they would side with the Taliban and against the U.S. or turn on their Islamic terrorist creation. The Pakistanis lied and said they would stop supporting the Taliban. Pakistan had adopted the use of Islamic terrorist groups in the 1980s as a deniable weapon for attacks on India and any uncooperative government in Afghanistan. The Americans trusted the Pakistanis for over a decade but finally cut financial and military support for Pakistan and are still seeking ways to deal with continued Pakistani support for Islamic terrorists.

A basic problem with any Afghan peace negotiation is that a major faction, Pakistan, cannot officially be acknowledged. Pakistan continues to officially insist that it is not backing the Taliban and drug gangs. Technically that is correct because it’s not the government of Pakistan, but the Pakistani military and its ISI intelligence service that support and maintain 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 so their militaries frequently took control of their governments. While Pakistan is technically run by an elected government, that government cannot do anything the military disagrees with. 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 of Afghanistan, 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.

The drug gangs and Taliban survive 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 Taliban provides the muscle while Taliban leaders maintained their 1990s relationships with the drug gang leaders and the Pushtun tribes. The Pakistani military and ISI profit from the support they provide the drug gangs, as does the Taliban.

The possibility of American forces withdrawing has Afghans seeking replacement allies. Iran is a popular choice with many Afghans openly developing relationships with Iran, and the Afghan government is doing the same. While Iran has a hostile relationship with the United States, such is not the case with Afghanistan. This is nothing new and the two nations have been developing better economic relations for over a decade. Afghanistan backed this to get free from economic dependence on Pakistan, whose two border crossings have long handled most Afghan exports and imports. Since 2001 and the arrival of the Americans, Pakistan often used access to these two crossings as an economic weapon against any hostile moves by the Afghan or American governments. Back in 2015, Afghanistan began discussions with India and Iran over a solution. That led to the 2020 completion of a railway giving Afghanistan access to world markets . This was the direct result of a 2017 agreement that had Iran and India finance and build a 1,300-kilometer-long rail line from Iran's Chabahar port near the Pakistan border to the Afghan border in the north, and then inland to Herat in Afghanistan. The last link is actually an earlier (2007) project to build a rail line from the Iranian city of Khaf to the Afghan city of Herat. Most (77 kilometers) of the railroad is in Iran with the other 62 kilometers in Afghanistan. This is all part of a larger Afghan project to build their first national railroad system. The Iran link will eventually be 220 kilometers long with over 90 percent of that in Afghanistan. In 2016 the first direct rail link to northern neighbor Turkmenistan was completed and that connection will eventually become part of an Afghan national rail network.

India provided over two billion dollars to upgrade the port of Chabahar and build new roads and railroads to Afghanistan and Central Asia. For Iran the Central Asia link is the most valuable one. But for Afghanistan having another way to move most of their imports and exports is a major achievement because Pakistan and Iran will have to complete and that will keep costs down for Afghans and reduce the use of closing the border, which Pakistan has done frequently, to coerce the Afghans.

Iran maintains good relations with Pakistan because they both see the Americans and Israel as archenemies. At the same time Pakistan is on good terms with the Gulf Arab oil states while Iran is at war with them. Pakistan is in a delicate situation here and has to tolerate Iran becoming close to Afghanistan economically and in many other ways. Iran does not want Afghanistan becoming a narcostate controlled by Pakistan. While the Pakistani military controls, supports and profits from the Afghan Taliban and drug gangs, Iran despises the drugs and the Taliban. While Pakistan responds helpfully to Iranian complaints of Sunni Islamic terrorists killing Pakistani Shia, there is no such cooperation when the Taliban kill Shia, especially before 2001. Since then, the situation has changed. Fifteen percent of Afghans are Shia and most reside in central Afghanistan. Shia also dominate several neighborhoods in Kabul and these are where most of the IISL attacks on Shia occur. Since 2015 the Afghan Taliban have been denouncing attacks like this. Since ISIL showed up in 2015 the Taliban saw an opportunity to repair their relationship with Iran. Since then, anti-Shia violence has been monopolized by ISIL, even though in the past the Taliban killed a lot of Shia. Now, however, the Afghan Taliban is receiving support from Iran, a Shia majority nation that is hostile to groups that kill Shia unless those groups make themselves useful to Iran. This puts the Taliban in a difficult situation because Pakistan tolerates the heroin trade and Iran never would. The difference is that the military is running things in Pakistan while Iran has a religious dictatorship that keeps its own military in check. Heroin and opium from Afghanistan are unpopular in all three countries because of the millions of addicts that have been created. The Pakistan military and Taliban don’t care but everyone else does.

With all that in mind, it should be no surprise that Iran and Afghanistan are close to completing negotiations for a comprehensive strategic cooperation agreement that will officially give Afghanistan a new economic and military ally against the Taliban and the Pakistani military. The last item being negotiated is the security aspects. Apparently, this item is not a roadblock but is subject to a fair amount of haggling. One item to work out is the need for Afghanistan to continue working with the United States against international terrorist groups, like al Qaeda and ISIL, that still maintain a presence in Afghanistan. Iran has long provided some support to al Qaeda as long as that connection improved the chances of carrying out successful attacks on Americans or Saudi Arabia and other Arab oil states. One generally ignored aspect of Iranian politics is that the religious dictatorship in Iran is well aware that they have a potential Ikhwan problem of their own because their IRGC (Islamic Republican Guard Corps) is in danger of going full Ikhwan and becoming a lethal threat to the senior Shia clerics who run Iran. This is one thing the Islamic rulers of Iran and Saudi Arabia have in common. The Ikhwan factor is taken for granted by most Iranians in or outside Iran but most Western media cannot or will not comprehend the “Ikhwan problem.”

January 30, 2021: During 2019 and 2020 the downward trend of fewer civilians killed in Afghanistan by terrorist violence continued. In 2020 the civilian deaths were apparently under 3,000. Back in 2014 nearly 4,000 civilians a year were being killed, most often by the Taliban, which is usually responsible for 70-80 percent of such deaths. The security forces account for 10-20 percent, 3-10 percent by ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and the rest (often as many as ten 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. That trend continued into 2020 as the Taliban concentrated on hurting Americans and Afghan security forces, which was a lot more dangerous for the Taliban. Civilian casualties continued to decline in 2020, mainly because the Taliban were concentrating their attacks on the Afghan security forces and foreign troops. The Taliban were supposed to halt their attacks on Americans after the February 2020 ceasefire agreement with the United States. The Taliban attacks on U.S. troops declined but never stopped completely. In 2020 eleven American troops died in Afghanistan. That’s way down from the 26 in 2019.

January 29, 2021: Another Afghan shortcoming is corruption. The arc of Moslem majority nations stretching from northeast Africa, through the Middle East and Central Asia continues to be one of the most corrupt regions 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. For 2020 Afghanistan ranked 165 out of 180 nations.

In contrast, the least corrupt nation in region was UAE (United Arab Emirates), which ranked 21st out of 180 nations. The most corrupt was Syria and many other Arab states were on the “most corrupt” end of the list. Corruption is calculated and ranked 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/14, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/12) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (Finland, New Zealand and Denmark) are over 84.

The current Afghan score is 19 (up from 16 in 2019) compared to 71 (71) for the UAE, 61 (61) for Israel, 15 (15) for Yemen, 67 (69) for the United States, 33 (35) for Egypt, 25 (26) for Nigeria, 44 (44) for South Africa, 21 (20) for Iraq, 40 (39) for Turkey, 53 (53) for Saudi Arabia, 33 (30) for Ukraine, 47 (45) for Belarus, 56 (58) for Poland, 80 (80) Germany, 65 (65) for Taiwan, 40 (39) for Turkey, 40 (41) for India, 30 (28) for Russia, 61 (57) for South Korea, 42 (41) for China, 18 (14) for North Korea, 36 (37) for Vietnam, 85 (85) for Singapore, 74 (73) for Japan, 37 (40) for Indonesia, 38 (38) for Sri Lanka, 34 (34) for the Philippines, 31 (32) for Pakistan, 26 (26) for Bangladesh, 25 (26) for Iran, 28 (29) for Burma, and 25 (28) for Lebanon.

The Afghan corruption score has actually improved over the last decade. Back then it had Afghanistan contending for last place with a score of eight. Meanwhile the UAE achieved the most favorable corruption score in the region because it has long depended on foreign trade to survive and to make money in that business you must be known as an honest trading partner. The UAE is also different in that it is a federation of formerly independent “emirates” that realized the wisdom of joining forces. Laws and customs vary somewhat among the emirates and some are more gangster than others. The UAE became a place where foreigners, and locals, feel comfortable doing business. Before the recent peace deal with Israel, there was always some unofficial Israeli business being done in the UAE. Afghanistan has tried, since 2001, to achieve some of that economic success but is hampered by Pakistani aggression the growing economic and political power of the drug gangs.

January 28, 2021: In the south (Helmand province) security forces killed 26 members of anti-government militias associated with the drug gangs, the Taliban and Pakistani smugglers. Four of the dead were later found to be Pakistani citizens. This operation also found and destroyed four Taliban storage areas where weapons ammunition was stockpiled.

January 27, 2021: In Kabul four bombs went off in various parts of the city throughout the day. Two policemen were killed and four wounded along with five civilians. There was one such explosion the day before that killed one civilian wounded two. No one took credit for these five explosions that appear intended to terrorize more than kill.

The government ordered the head of the UN polio vaccination program to leave the country within 24 hours. Vaccination efforts continue. The expulsion order was not related to polio vaccinations but because the UN official refused to supply the Afghan president with data on how much the UN was spending in Afghanistan on covid19. Polio is still a problem in Afghanistan.

Earlier in the month someone fired on a someone fired on a polio vaccination team that was working in northwest Pakistan (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), killing a policeman escorting the female vaccinators. This came two years after Pakistan launched a media campaign against those who oppose polio vaccination and vaccinations in general. Despite strenuous efforts, Pakistan has been unable to eliminate polio via vaccinations. For a long time, the main opposition were Islamic conservative clerics who called the vaccinations an attempt by Western nations to poison Moslem children. While few of those clerics remain, there are now more Pakistanis agreeing with Western anti-vaccination groups and insisting there are harmful side effects. Numerous controlled studies have not demonstrated any evidence of this but it has become a popular cause. There are other problems unique to Pakistan and Afghanistan. For example, polio is making a comeback among refugees on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. This came after another major effort in 2017 to vaccinate vulnerable Afghan and Pakistani children against polio. In 2016 there were 20 cases of polio in Pakistan and 13 in Afghanistan. There were four in Nigeria, a country was declared free of polio in 2020. In Pakistan and Afghanistan there are still religious problems with vaccination. The Afghan Taliban have openly supported the vaccination program but there still some rural areas where local Moslem clerics or teachers still denounce the vaccinations. There is a similar situation in Pakistan, where some fringe Islamic groups will still try and kill members of the vaccination teams. Since 2008 over a hundred vaccinators and police escorts have been killed. This year there are a quarter million vaccinators and nearly as many security personnel seeking to vaccinate 40 million young (under five) children.

January 24, 2021: Afghan security officials report that over ten percent of the Taliban prisoners released since February 2020 have been rearrested for criminal or terrorist activities. Officially the February ceasefire agreement enabled the U.S.-Taliban peace talks to continue and specified that the Taliban would halt attacks in cities and against American troops. There was also a prisoner exchange with 5,000 Taliban released as well as a thousand police, soldiers and civilians held by the Taliban. It was assumed that Pakistan would halt its attacks via the Haqqani Network but that was not the case and Haqqani continued 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. The Afghan Taliban also resumed its attacks although they insisted it was not them. The February agreement mandated that all American forces be gone by May 2021. If the Taliban did not keep their end of the bargain, then the Americans were under no obligation to leave.

January 23, 2021: Afghanistan, Tajikistan and China have a joint border force of 150 personnel that monitors border threats and coordinates responses by all three countries. This was organized because China asked for such a force and provided generous financial support. Recently Afghans noted that there were now more border guards on the Tajik side of the border closest to China as well as more Chinese forces along the smaller Chinese border. The Tajiks border force now have much better weapons and equipment, courtesy of China. The Tajik border with Afghanistan is 1,357 kilometers long while the Chinese border is only 76 kilometers long. This is the gateway to the 350-kilometer long Wakhan Corridor that is only 13-35 kilometers wide. And the only direct access between Afghanistan and China. There is no high speed (railroad or highway) passing through the corridor and China bans foreigners from the corridor unless they have been authorized. The corridor is thinly (10,000 people) populated and t he key bottleneck passage between Afghanistan and China is the 4,923 meter (15,261 feet) high Wakhjir Pass. The Wakhan Corridor area has never been very violent, and escaped most of the fighting that has torn apart Afghanistan since the 1970s. For a long time, China refused to open its border with Afghanistan, fearing complications with the mainly Moslem Uighur population on the Chinese side of the frontier. There are other problems with this border. There are no roads through the pass, only trails. The pass is closed five months of the year by snow. For several more months the pass is closed intermittently by bad weather. The Wakhan Corridor itself was once part of the Silk Road, but only when weather allowed caravans through. The Chinese Wakhan Corridor border has been closed to traffic for over a century and China considers it too difficult and expensive to build a road or rail line through it. North of the corridor there is a year-round road between Afghanistan and China via Tajikistan. The longer road route via Tajikistan works because it is open all year and safe. Google Earth images have shown that China built a new road to the border area, along with additional guard posts after 2010. The Chinese road was only built to make it easier to move border guards, and their supplies, to the frontier. That is more of a danger to China than the Wakhan Corridor and the main reason for the joint border force. China provides economic aid to Tajikistan and Afghanistan mainly to purchase cooperation along the border.

January 9, 2021: In the southwest (Nimroz province) an airstrike on the Taliban killed 14 of the Islamic terrorists. Afghan troops were able to follow up and identify the dead, discovering that most (nine) of them were Pakistani. This is increasingly common. The Afghan Taliban have always contained some foreigners, most of them from Pakistan but the percentage of Pakistani members has been increasing. Nimroz Province borders Iran and Pakistan (Baluchistan),

December 27, 2020: In the southwest (Nimroz province), across the border in Pakistan (Baluchistan) seven border patrol personnel were killed on the Afghan border when their checkpoint was attacked by Baluchi separatists who were apparently operating from Afghanistan.

December 25, 2020: China is angry at Afghanistan, which earlier this month arrested ten Chinese citizens and accused of being MSS (Ministry of State Security) seeking to establish links with Islamic terror groups in Afghanistan. China denied that and demanded an apology and repatriation of the ten Chinese. The Afghans refused and have been making public their evidence.

December 22, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) an airstrike against an Iranian base killed or wounded over a dozen Afghan mercenaries. Iran is still hiring Afghans to fight as mercenaries in Syria. The Afghans cost more but are worth it because most of the other mercs in Syria are local Arabs working for Turkey or the Russians.

 

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