Afghanistan: Departing Maneuvers

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July 6, 2021: So far this year civilian deaths are up 40 percent compared to 2020. Most of the increase comes from the Taliban policy of killing non-Pushtun civilians while offering Pushtun civilians the option of surrendering without violence. This is the custom in Afghanistan and characterized the unfinished civil war that ended in 2001 when the Americans intervened on the side of the largely non-Pushtun Northern Alliance. The Taliban are confident it will be different this time, because they have more drug money and access to Pakistan for illegal import items and access to the outside world.

Most Pakistani voters would prefer to shut down the Taliban and drug gang paymasters. At the moment Pakistani voters are not in charge as the Pakistani military has achieved control of the elected government without using a military coup. About half the time since Pakistan was created in 1947, a military government was in charge. Over the years there was more and more popular opposition to that and this required a new approach, which the army has carried out over the last few years. This phantom coup is losing its immunity from foreign scrutiny and sanctions. That is not surprising because the military has always been seen as the source of Islamic terrorist support in Pakistan as well as corruption and terrorizing its own government. The army has cultivated relationships with China and Russia, mainly by importing most of their weapons from those two countries. China and Russian usually look after their larger military export customers and the Pakistani military works that angle for all they can.

On the negative side, the Pakistani military is hated and loathed by most Pakistanis as well as neighboring countries like Iran, Afghanistan and India. For a long time, the UN tolerated the military’s misbehavior in Pakistan, but no longer. Another problem for the military is that decades of manipulating Pushtun tribes on both sides of the border to do their dirty work has caused Pushtuns on both sides of the border to unite in opposition to the Pakistani military.

In 2014 this led to the founding of the PTM (Pashtun Tahafuz Movement or Pashtun Protection Movement). By 2018 the military declared the peaceful PTM a threat and used increasingly violent methods to make PTM disappear. What the military fears is that the PTM is more than just a Pushtun nationalist movement in Pakistan and is an increasingly popular idea in Afghanistan as well. Most Pushtuns live in southern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan. Pushtuns are a small minority in Pakistan while in Afghanistan half as many Pushtuns are the largest minority in the country and a force to be reckoned with. Pusthtuns in Pakistan have long been a despised and mistreated minority. The PTM is mostly about addressing the persecution and discrimination Pushtuns face in Pakistan. To the Pakistani military that is a form of treason, at least when it comes from Pushtuns. One reason for that is most Afghan Pushtun agree that Pakistan is no friend of Pushtun on either side of the border and is the main reason why the heroin business operates in Pushun Helmand (southern Afghanistan) province rather than across the border in Pakistani Baluchistan, where the heroin production used to be. The Baluchis are the second largest tribal minority in Pakistan and long violently opposed to bad behavior by the Pakistani military. The Baluchi and Pushtuns usually leave each other alone and agree that the non-tribal Pakistanis are a major threat.

Pushtuns on both sides of the border also agree that India is more of a friend than the Moslem majority of Pakistan who like to treat India as an enemy. Indians always insisted they are not an enemy. There is a history of that in non-Moslem India where there were two historical heroes; the 20th century Mohandas Gandhi and ancient Hindu emperor Ashoka. Gandhi was a Hindu pacifist who led the peaceful effort to eliminate British colonial rule while Ashoka was a Hindu emperor who, 2,400 years ago, ruled as much of south Asia as the British. Ashoka, at the peak of his power, renounced violence and supported the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia. Since then, South Asia has become one of the most peaceful regions of Eurasia. In contrast South Asian Moslems tend to see foreign Moslem invaders as heroes. These invaders were able to conquer most of India but failed to convince or coerce most Hindus and Buddhists to convert. That led to lasting Moslem animosity for Hindus. Afghans, especially Pushtuns, participated in many of those invasions and were always impressed at the Hindu loyalty to the teachings of Ashoka, whose empire included parts of eastern Afghanistan. These things matter because they explain the violent animosity the Pakistani military has towards India and the Afghan willingness to see India as a more reliable ally against Pakistan than anyone else.

India has been a big help in breaking the monopoly Pakistan long exercised over Afghan foreign trade. India can now trade freely with Afghanistan via a new sea/rail link in Iran and most Afghans prefer this to dependency on Pakistan for access to the rest of the world. Attitudes and alliances are changing and Pakistan and the Taliban they created are the big losers.

Taliban Tactics

Currently most of the Taliban violence is in 13 of the 34 Afghan provinces. The 34 provinces contain a total of 407 districts and most of these are rural and thinly populated. These are the districts you hear about the Taliban capturing (and the government forces taking back). The Taliban are mainly interested in expanding control over routes essential for the production and export of heroin, which generates the cash that pays for all this mayhem.

Since the February 2020 ceasefire deal between the Taliban and the United States, the Taliban sought to reduce casualties among the remaining foreign troops, while increasing their attacks on civilians and Afghan security forces. Some Taliban seemed surprised that civilians quickly organized armed defense militias. That sort of resistance is nothing new and has become more common over the years. The official Taliban line is that people are now more willing to submit.

Another reason to resist Taliban domination and increased violence is that the post-2001 Afghan economy continues to grow. While GDP declined five percent in 2020, that was due to the worldwide covid19 recession. That has abated and economic activity is growing worldwide. Afghanistan is on its way to three percent GDP growth in 2021 and four percent in 2022. The main threat to this continuing economic growth is another civil war against the Taliban. Afghans who need a reminder need only note that when the takes control of some remote part of the country, it promptly order the men to grow beards and forbids women from leaving home without an adult male escort. The Taliban continue to attack schools that teach secular subjects and Mosques where the imams preach against Taliban tactics.

Another rarely publicized reality is that the current "Taliban" are not an Afghan organization, but a Pushtun movement that is active on both sides of the border and supported by less than ten percent of the 40 million Pushtun in the region. The Afghan Taliban are seen as part of the drug gangs that have brought the curse of drug addiction to over ten million Afghan, Pakistani and Iranian families. By 2007 this led to the creation of the Pakistani Taliban that was opposed to the drug trade and the Pakistani military efforts to control Afghanistan via links to the Afghan drug gangs and the Afghan Taliban. These attitudes spread to Afghan Taliban factions who, in the last few years, have remained “Taliban” but also openly opposed to Pakistani control or interference in Afghanistan.

There are fewer safe havens for the Taliban. The foreign nations fighting their war on terror in Afghanistan have finally realized that there has never been an Afghan national government that was not corrupt and changing that is going to be more difficult than fighting the Taliban. NATO is now fully aware of the trans-national nature of the Pushtun tribes and the Taliban movement. The "war in Afghanistan" is more of a "Pushtun Tribal Rebellion," and is being handled as such. Most NATO nations with troops in Afghanistan are willing to just walk away and deal with the fallout later. Afghanistan has become politically unpopular and the easiest way out (for Western politicians) is to get out and let their successors deal with the aftermath. Afghanistan has become another "can" foreign leaders are “kicking down the road.”

July 3, 2021: The last U.S. forces departed Bagram Airbase after midnight rather than remain for the announced official handover ceremony on the 4th. The Afghan military arrived two hours later, after hundreds of looters entered and systematically looted the many buildings on the premises. The commander of the Afghan force that was to take control of Bagram says he was not informed of the stealthy departure, which is not unusual in Afghanistan where such information is considered valuable and subject to sale by corrupt officials who gain access to it. It is unclear if anyone in the Afghan government was told of the true departure time and date. This information is usually kept secret (from any Afghans) by the Americans to prevent it from being sold to the Taliban or some other Islamic terror group. The Bagram airbase complex , fifty kilometers north of Kabul is a huge (5,000 acres, 2,000 hectares) facility and has been the largest American base in Afghanistan for two decades . In addition to the airbase, Bagram contains a prison with a capacity of 5,000 prisoners as well as a separate compound for a joint special operations headquarters. The U.S. has spent over $300 million since 2002 to expand and upgrade facilities there. Over the last year all the usual American military operations were shut down and aircraft, equipment and personnel flown or trucked out. American troops maintained security of the base until the end, but after midnight turned off the remaining lights and quietly left.

June 26, 2021: The U.S. revealed its reorganization of how military and financial support for Afghanistan will continue after most American and NATO troops are gone. Command of any counter-terror operations in Afghanistan will now be handled by Central Command headquarters, which is in Tampa Florida with satellite headquarters throughout the Middle East. One of those satellite headquarters will be in the Persian Gulf Qatar American base. From there the continuing financial, equipment, training and support aid for the Afghan security forces will be administered. There will be an expanded military liaison section in the American embassy in Kabul which will also look after to American aid and military assistance programs in Afghanistan. The U.S. military will still have 650 troops guarding the U.S. embassy with the authority to call in up to 300 more if needed on short notice.

The United States will continue to support the majority of the money that pays for the 300,000 personnel in the Afghan security forces. While many soldiers and police are deserting to join local militias that will fight the looming civil war, the majority are sticking with the national forces because the Americans will still monitor the aid and monitor its use. Corruption has long been a problem in the security forces (and inside the Taliban as well) and the Americans are admired for their efforts, often successful, to curb the corruption. For many Afghans, corruption involving foreign aid is something of a national sport. The American auditors and regulations have proved remarkably, by Afghan standards, effective. From the outside a lot of the military aid disappears.

June 25, 2021: In the north (Baghlan and Kunduz provinces) American airstrikes hit Taliban targets. The airstrikes were apparently carried out by armed UAVs.

June 20, 2021: Pakistan prime Minister Imran Khan appeared on an American TV news show and confirmed that Pakistan would not allow an American military base in Pakistan once all U.S. forces are gone from Afghanistan this year. Kahn said he feared retaliatory attacks if he did so. Pakistan has been suffering those retaliatory attacks for over a decade, mainly from Pakistani Islamic terrorists inspired by the Taliban, al Qaeda and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).

Kahn spoke of civil war in Afghanistan if the Taliban attempted to take power and blamed that on the Americans. Kahn ignores the role of the Pakistani military who created the Taliban in 1995 as a means to halt the civil war in Afghanistan. That failed and the Americans intervened shortly after September 11, 2001 with a few hundred CIA field operatives and U.S. Army Special Forces troops, a few million dollars in cash plus American bombers overhead dropping smart bombs. The Americans were providing support for the Afghans still fighting the Taliban. That’s all it took to reduce Taliban control from 80 percent of Afghanistan in October to zero by the end of the year. There were prisoners and lots of documents captured that detailed Pakistani involvement with the Taliban and Pakistani efforts to control events in Afghanistan.

The Americans were mainly interested in preventing Afghanistan from once more becoming a sanctuary for Islamic terrorists seeking to carry out attacks in the West. The September 11, 2001 attacks were planned and organized in Afghanistan and the evidence left behind by the fleeing Taliban made Pakistani involvement in sustaining the Taliban clear. That involvement continued because the fleeing Taliban found sanctuary in Pakistan. Despite persistent Pakistani denials, Pakistan also provided sanctuary for the September 11, 2001 attack planner, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The Americans eventually found bin Laden’s hideout and it was, as suspected, in Pakistan. In fact, it was in a “military town” containing several major military schools and headquarters. Without telling Pakistan the U.S. carried out a 2011 raid that killed bin Laden, who refused to be taken alive, and left with his body and a trove of al Qaeda documents. DNA tests proved the corpse was bin Laden, as did all the documents found in his compound. The Pakistani military denied knowing bin Laden was there but most Pakistanis suddenly had a much less favorable attitude towards their military. For a decade elected officials have attempted to regain control over the increasingly unpopular military and failed. The military is now controlling an elected government and had laws passed making public criticism of the military a crime. If the courts won’t prosecute and convict, the military can arrange for the accused to disappear. Many Pakistanis still have a favorable attitude towards Islamic terrorism, especially it is carried out elsewhere. For example, prime minister Kahn has openly referred to Osama bin Laden as a martyr, an attitude shared by many Pakistanis, if only to avoid assassination by angry local Islamic conservatives. This is largely self-inflicted, because Pakistan did not have major problems with Islamic terrorists until one of the military governments, in the late 1970s, decided to use Islamic terrorism to attack India and control Afghanistan. That backfired, especially in Afghanistan.

While Pakistan won’t allow the United States to establish a military base in Pakistan, Pakistan will allow American military aircraft (combat and transports) to continue passing through Pakistani air space to and from landlocked Afghanistan. This was not unexpected because the Pakistani military has come to regard their creation (the Taliban) as more of a problem than a useful asset.

June 19, 2021: In northwest Pakistan (North Waziristan) an army patrol encountered a group of Pakistan Taliban, apparently coming from bases in Afghanistan, and a firefight and night time pursuit ensued. Two Taliban were killed along with one soldier. These were also wounded on both sides. Encounters like this have been common since the 2014 Pakistani army offensive on Pakistani base areas in North Waziristan. This led to a major (nearly 80 percent) decline in Pakistani Taliban membership. The Pakistani Taliban moved across the border to Afghanistan where they had Pushtun tribal allies who helped them settle in. Still recruiting from Pakistani Pushtuns, as do the Afghan Taliban) the Pakistani rebuilt its numbers and relationships between factions. The Pakistani Taliban are still at war with the Pakistani military, which they see as an enemy of Pushtuns in general and misrule in Pakistan.

June 17, 2021: Turkey confirmed that it is willing to provide peacekeepers to guard Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. The Turkish contingent will provide security for the Afghan government and the main International Airport outside the capital. The U.S. intends to fully withdraw its forces by September 11, 2021. Turkey, and especially president Erdogan, wants something in return for maintaining a powerful stay-behind security force and keeping the airport open. The U.S. has offered to keep its current air defense systems at the airport if the Turks take over airport security.

The airport is a key hub for supplying Afghan government forces as well as the main escape route for foreigners, especially diplomats and aid workers. The Turks are more acceptable as a rearguard because their troops are Moslem and have a reputation of being tough and reliable. Nevertheless, the current peace agreement with the Taliban calls for all foreign troops to leave Afghanistan but only the Americans have set a date. So far most of the 7,000 non-American NATO troops have left along with most of the 3,500 American troops.

June 16, 2021: In the east (Nangarhar Province) five members of a polio vaccination team were killed by unidentified gunmen. This comes after the vaccination campaign recently resumed after being halted because of a March attack that killed three vaccination team members. Despite strenuous efforts, Afghanistan (and Pakistan) have 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 Afghans and 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 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 are 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.

June 8, 2021: In the north (Baghlan province) someone shelled a compound housing Afghan demining teams, killing ten Afghan mine clearing personnel. The Taliban denied responsibility, which they always do because the mine clearing effort is popular with most Afghans.

June 5, 2021: In western Afghanistan several Taliban factions are supported by Iran and also trying to take control of territory. Iran wants to maintain control of Sunni (Taliban) and Shia (the Afghan minority) proxies in Afghanistan, just in case. Many Afghan refugees see the economic situation in Afghanistan as superior to what is available in Iran. That is why about 1.4 million Afghan refugees have left Iran for Afghanistan since 2020.

 

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