Afghanistan: Explosive Surprises

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August 10, 2021: In the west (Herat province) the government and two Taliban factions are fighting for control as are, indirectly, Iran, Pakistan and India. This is all about who controls the rail and road link to Iran and an Iranian port as well as rail connections to Central Asia and the west. The 2020 completion of a railway giving Afghanistan access to world markets was a major achievement . 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 the Chabahar port near the Pakistan border to the Afghan border in the north and then inland to Herat city, the provincial capital. 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. Right now, the most important rail and road link for landlocked Afghanistan is the one in Herat. The other rail link in the north (Balkh province) terminates at the provincial capital Mazar-e-Sharif and is used heavily to import and export goods via rail into Uzbekistan.

The Taliban seek control of key border crossings, including the two with Pakistan. The one at Torkham in eastern Afghanistan (Nangarhar province) goes through the Khyber Pass and Pakistani tribal (Pushtun) territories). In the south (Kandahar province) the Chaman crossing provides entry to Baluchistan and the main Afghan Taliban sanctuary in the Baluchistan capital, Quetta.

Most Afghans realize that the Taliban are not seeking to help Afghanistan but to turn it into a religious dictatorship that gets paid by the drug cartels, who also enrich many Pakistani officers and intelligence officials that ease the way for weapons and essential chemicals to enter Afghanistan while providing safe routes for heroin headed for world markets. Lesser amounts of heroin are smuggled through the northern route, to Central Asia and Russia while another minor export operation in western Afghanistan sends heroin into Iran and the Middle East. Heroin and cheaper drugs have turned millions of Afghans, Pakistanis, Central Asians and Iranians into addicts. The five percent of Afghans that profit from the drug business can justify this, but everyone else wants the highly addictive drugs gone.

Unlike the 1980s, none of the neighbors are willing to accept and support millions of Afghan refugees. This includes Pakistan, which got most of those refugees and over a million of them refused to go home and prefer life in Pushtun majority areas of Pakistan. The Afghan refugees were less welcome in Iran, but were tolerated and urged to return to Afghanistan once the Taliban lost power. Most did so. Few refugees went north in the 1980s because that was the Soviet border and the Uzbeks and Tajiks living on the Russian side could host some fellow Tajiks and Uzbeks from Afghanistan but Pushtuns were definitely not welcome and that hasn’t changed. The animosity against Afghan heroin and opium will intensify if the Taliban gain more power in Afghanistan. Narco-states exist, but not for long because of the universal opposition to the highly addictive drugs that sustain narco-states and their hired guns. That’s why the center of heroin production has been moving so frequently during the last century.

Pushtun Power

There is another problem. 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 cartels 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 cartels 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.

In 2014 this led to the founding of the PTM (Pashtun Tahafuz Movement or Pashtun Protection Movement). By 2018 the Pakistani 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. Pushtuns 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 Pushtuns on either side of the border and is the main reason why the heroin business operates in Pushtun-majority 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 bad behavior by the Pakistani military. The Baluchi and Pushtuns usually leave each other alone and agree that the non-tribal Pakistani majority are a major threat.

What keeps a lot of Afghan Taliban loyal to Pakistan is the sanctuary Pakistan has provided since 2002. Evidence of that sanctuary keeps showing up despite the Pakistani denials. One of the latest embarrassments has been the appearance of cellphone videos of the Pakistani funerals of Afghan Taliban killed in Afghanistan as well of Afghan Taliban from Afghanistan and Pakistan receiving medical care in Pakistani hospitals. Pakistani Pushtuns with no connection to the Afghan Taliban admit knowing other Pushtuns in their area who have gone to fight in Afghanistan. The pay is good and most of them return alive.

Friends You Can Rely On

Pushtuns on both sides of the border also agree that India is more of a friend, or at least more helpful than the Moslem majority of Pakistan, who like to treat India as an enemy. Indians always insisted they are not an enemy. Afghans, especially Pushtuns, participated in many of the invasions of south Asia during the last 4,000 years and were always impressed at the Hindu loyalty to their Hinduism and ability to resist total conquest until the British came along. Rather than depending on fighting, the British worked out lucrative business deals with most Indian nobles. Britain was also astute enough to determine that it was time to leave after World War II. The British controlled all of South Asia for about a century and did more positive things like unification, industrialization, and English as a common national language for government and commerce. Britain also left India unified as a functioning democracy with the most powerful military in South Asia. Most importantly, the British knew when it was time to leave. For decades it was considered impolite to even mention these aspects of British rule. A new generation of Indians is more open minded about the British impact on India compared to earlier conquerors from Central Asia and the West.

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.

The Afghan government and its security forces were only kept afloat by massive foreign aid from the United States and the West. If the central government collapses, that aid will not completely disappear because there will still be the Northern Alliance which was undefeated before September 11, 2001, and thereafter was quickly victorious with some help from the Americans. The problem is that there are only three land routes into landlocked Afghanistan; from Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia in the north. All these routes are subject to blockage and negotiation.

Iran and Pakistan are hostile to the United States and the northern route is subject to Russian interference. That route is mainly by Cold War era railroads that are overdue for upgrades and lack much capacity. China is building a rail route to China but that will also be subject to Chinese demands the West may not want to meet.

You can fly in cash and some weapons but not a lot of that. Pakistan may try to use anti-aircraft systems against the foreign aircraft headed for northern Afghanistan. Then again maybe not because Pakistan is in big economic trouble and threatened with more of it by being designated as a supporter of international Islamic terrorism. Pakistan has been guilty of this for over three decades but was protected by China, Russia and a few Arab states.

Iran will allow access via the road and rail route they built with India into western Afghanistan (Herat province). Iran is in big political and financial trouble at the moment and is willing to sell access to this rail link for the right price.

Afghanistan has always been one of the most (as in the top twenty out of 180) corrupt nations on the planet. Since the Taliban were ousted in 2001 there has been tremendous economic growth in Afghanistan as well as higher literacy rates and lifespans. The corruption has been reduced as well, but not enough to win praise from the Western nations that have poured about two trillion dollars into Afghanistan during the last two decades. At least a third of it was stolen and much more spent in ways that could not be monitored. Good deeds never go unpunished and despite that foreign aid donors remain willing to continue sending cash aid, but not as much as in the past. In the last decade less and less aid was sent to Afghanistan because of their inability to get the money to where it was intended, not foreign bank accounts of corrupt officials.

August 9 , 2021: Five provincial capitals in the north have been occupied by Taliban forces, usually because local officials wished to avoid damage sustained fighting would entail. These provinces (Jawzjan, Sar-i-Pul, Takhar, Kunduz, and Samangan) are all Northern Alliance strongholds where local militias, mostly from the countryside, outnumber Taliban forces. By occupying provincial capitals, the Taliban are now subject to road closures by Northern Alliance forces. The Taliban are now going after the largest city in the north; Mazar-e-Sharif, which is the current terminus of the northern rail line from Uzbekistan. The government wants to extend that line to Kabul while the Taliban back plans to extend the line into Pakistan.

Most of the Afghan forces are concentrating on defending their positions in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, the homeland of the Taliban and the center of drug production.

August 8, 2021: Responding to requests from the Afghan government and the army’s special operations troops, the U.S. is flying air support from a carrier off the Pakistani coast and B-52s and C-130 gunships based in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. All American troops are supposed to be out of Afghanistan by the end of August or September 11th at the latest. The departure date is now supposed to be the end of 2021. This might include the end of American air support as well. Even before that, the possibility of continued American air support was a possibility. This would involve using the methods employed in late 2001 when a few hundred American Special Forces and CIA field agents, with the help of air support from carriers off the Pakistan coast and B-52s from distant land bases, enabled the Northern Alliance to quickly destroy Taliban control in Afghanistan along with most of the armed Taliban. It’s late 2001 all over again except now the U.S. does not have to send a lot of Special Forces or CIA field agents to call in the smart bomb attacks because the Americans have trained thousands of Afghan special operations troops, who can call in these strikes. The bombers and fighter-bombers are now equipped with targeting pods that allow pilots to visually double check what they are called in to hit. This minimizes the risk that Taliban bribes or intimidation (by kidnapping wives and children) could persuade an Afghan special operations air strike controller to make a mistake. A disproportionate number of the 8,000 Afghan “commandos” are non-Pushtun and very serious about defeating the Taliban and the drug cartels. While these commandos comprise only seven percent of the army, they participate in over 70 percent of combat operations. According to American Special Forces who trained, and still advise them, the Afghan commandos have never lost a battle with the Taliban. With the Americans resuming air support for the commandos, American troops are technically not in Afghanistan but are making the most powerful Afghan army force even more effective. If the central government does fall apart, most of the commandos will join the Northern Alliance. Currently most of these commandos are in Kabul and the south.

August 7, 2021: I n the north (Jawzjan province) t he Taliban took control of the provincial capital, taking advantage of the absence of the local warlord, 67-year-old Abdul Rashid Dostum. Since June 16th Dostum has been in Turkey to have his cancer treated and is now back in Kabul. His followers in Jawzan left the capital rather than risk massive damage. Dostum’s forces are asking the government to send a few hundred commandos and air support so the capital can be retaken quickly without a lot of damage and civilian deaths. The Taliban do not fight to the death and often retreat when they calculate that the odds are against them.

The Taliban have been increasingly active in the north and have hired many locals, in some cases to take part in the battles against ISIL, but mostly because it was a well-paying job. The Taliban want control of this province not to persecute the local Uzbeks and other non-Pushtuns but to protect the key smuggling routes via Jawzjan. Until two years ago ISIL forces in Jawzjan had contested Taliban efforts in Jawzjan. This fighting was frequent during most of 2017, when the ISIL challenge manifested itself and was pretty brutal. All this was over control of drug smuggling routes across the border. There have been clashes between ISIL and Taliban in other parts of the country but it has been worse in Jawzjan. With government and U.S. forces increasing their attacks as well, the local ISIL lost many of its senior leaders and some factions in Jawzjan disappeared, apparently because of casualties and desertions caused by the lack of leadership. The number of American and Afghan air strikes against ISIL in Jawzjan and other northern provinces increased since early 2018, apparently as the result of more tips from locals or even the rival Taliban forces. In 2020 the Americans concluded that ISIL in Jawzjan was no longer an organized force and that the remaining ISIL members were being hunted by the security forces as well as the Taliban.

Key northern warlord Abdul Dostum has developed nationwide interests. In 2018 he became First Vice President in the national government and in 2020, after his term was over, was promoted from general to marshal. This was part of the political compromise that ended the dispute between the two leading candidates in the last presidential elections. Since the 1980s and the Russian invasion Dostum has been one of the main warlords in the north. He is still a major political factor with the non-Pushtun majority in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban are largely a Pushtun group they have long sought to kill Dostum. In 2019 he survived several Taliban assassination attempts. In mid-2018 ISIL took credit for a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport in an effort to kill Dostum, who was returning from 14 months outside the country to deal with personal and family matters. The ISIL attack was apparently meant for Dostum but the timing was off and the Dostum convoy had just left when the suicide bomber struck. The explosion killed 14 people and wounded more than fifty. Dostum had left the country just for medical treatment, but he also wanted to avoid prosecutors who sought him for questioning about the kidnapping and torture of a political rival in Jawzjan province. This was not the first time Dostum has been accused of that sort of thing. In the past he eventually escaped prosecution, sometimes by leaving the country for months. In the last year he has spent a lot of time in Turkey, where he has a lot of support because Uzbeks are Turks and Turkey has been cultivating Central Asian Turkic leaders heavily since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and five new Central Asian states were created, all of them with Turkic majorities or minorities. It is unclear just how debilitating Dostum’s illness is but he is still working the phones and issuing press releases. In response to the recent Taliban victories in the north Dostum will only say that his forces are mobilizing in the north, something that he has been working on since June.

Dostum is a classic Afghan warlord and supreme in the north. There is no official leader of the non-Pushtuns but the most powerful of these leaders is outspoken about the continued “disruptive” Pushtun dominance of the government. The best example of this is Dostum, who has been a foe of the Taliban since Pakistan created them in the mid-1990s. That animosity continues because some of the Taliban leaders he defeated in 2001 are still with the Taliban. One of them, Mullah Fazil, was Taliban deputy defense minister in late 2001 when Dostum forces captured him and, at the request of the Americans, turned him over and he spent years in Guantanamo, threatened with prosecution for the mass murders he was responsible for while a Taliban leader. By 2014 Fazil was back with the Taliban, after being exchanged for an American soldier the Taliban had held for five years. Dostum encountered Fazil in early 2021 when both were in Russia (Moscow) for the Taliban-American peace negotiations. They got into a shouting match at one point.

Dostum is basically a powerful Uzbek politician, and achieved that status by performing as a long-time warlord. He was also a general in the communist army that was dissolved in 1992. The Uzbeks are Turks, and comprise nine percent of the population. The Uzbeks have always been hostile to the Taliban, drugs and Pushtun efforts to dominate all of Afghanistan. Dostum became the leader of Afghans who opposed the Taliban and was also popular with Afghans who openly opposed Islamic terrorism. Dostum makes the most of this by regularly giving speeches condemning Islamic terrorism. This involves constantly travelling and exposing himself to terrorist attacks. He has survived dozens of attacks and this increases his popularity while enraging the Islamic terrorists he publicly berates and condemns. Dostum has long been a major critic of Pakistan and how Pakistan continues to support Islamic terrorists operating in Afghanistan. If the Taliban do regain control of the national government, they will find that, as in the 1990s, they cannot control the north. In part that is because of leaders like Dostum and many other prominent northerners like him.

For all these reasons the Taliban publicized the capture and looting of Dostum’s home in Jawzjan but have yet to encounter any armed resistance from the Northern Alliance.

August 6, 2021: In the southwest (Nimroz province) the Taliban claim to have captured the provincial capital. Nimroz Province borders Iran (Sistan Baluchistan Province) and Pakistan (Baluchistan Province). Many of the Afghan Taliban in Nimroz are actually Pakistanis. The Baluchis and Pushtun are ethnic cousins and both have been fighting their respective governments for autonomy (Baluchis) or to total Pushtun control in Afghanistan. Pushtun are minorities in both countries and two-thirds of Pushtuns live in Pakistan. There is also a Baluchi minority in southeast Iran. Pushtun and Baluchis often cooperate while Iran and Pakistan compete for influence and control in Nimroz, which is often used as a base for Baluchi separatists from Iran and Pakistan,

The Taliban are also trying to take the Helmand provincial capital Lashgar Gah because Helmand has, since the 1990s, been the source of most of world heroin supply and headquarters for the Afghan drug cartels that finance the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban and enrich the Pakistani military, which is paid to ensure illegal chemicals (for turning opium into heroin) get smuggled into Afghanistan. The Pakistan military also profits from keeping the main export route for Helmand heroin to the rest of the world via the Pakistani port of Karachi.

August 3, 2021: In Kabul, a Taliban attack against the family compound of the defense minister failed but eight people were killed and over twenty wounded. The attack began with a suicide truck bomber attacked near the heavily guarded defense minister’s residence. Then at least four Taliban gunmen sought to enter the nearby home of a member of parliament, who was not home at the time, nor was his family. Both these homes are in a high-security district of Kabul, similar to the “Green Zone” in the Iraqi capital.

July 28, 2021: T he majority faction of the Afghan Taliban sent a team of senior officials to China where they met with Chinese foreign ministry officials to follow up on the recent Taliban declaration that they considered China a friend and that the Uighur Moslems from northwest China would no longer be allowed into Afghanistan once the Taliban took over. This Taliban faction has its headquarters in Pakistan and has enjoyed sanctuary there since 2002. About a third of the Afghan Taliban do not trust Pakistan or any of their friends. One of these dissident factions actively allied itself with Iran. There is a Pakistani Taliban that wants to replace the current Pakistani government and actively attacks Chinese projects in Pakistan. The Pakistan-backed Afghan factions are eager to do business with China. The main Chinese demands are to ensure that Chinese investments are unmolested and that heroin and other drugs produced in Afghanistan are not smuggled into China. The Afghan could not work out a deal with China, at least until they actually controlled Afghanistan, especially the north, where the tiny (76 kilometer) border with China is.

July 20, 2021: Turkey is trying to negotiate a new relationship with NATO as well as the Pakistan-backed Taliban faction. Tukey is offering troops to keep the main Afghanistan airport, outside Kabul, functioning after all other NATO forces have left. The Pakistani-backed Taliban responded that they consider Turkish troops remaining in Afghanistan a hostile act. Taliban threatened to attack Turkish troops as “foreign invaders” even though they are Moslem. The Turks ignored the Taliban threat, which was the worst possible answer for the Taliban. While the Turks are on good terms with Pakistan, they do not play well with Islamic terrorists who attack them. Moreover, the Turks are coming to Afghanistan in order to improve relations with NATO, not the Taliban. Currently Turkey has about 600 troops in Afghanistan where they are training Afghan security forces, meaning they have a non-combat NATO mission. Some Turkish troops are serving at the international airport. The airport is about 60 kilometers south of Kabul. Turkey has also offered to train Afghan special operations troops in Turkey.

July 19, 2021: Iranian media reports that Iran is establishing explicitly Iran-backed Shia militias in western Afghanistan. Iran wants to protect the Shia minority (about 20 percent of Afghans) from the expanding reach of the Taliban. In the late 1990s the Taliban went after Afghan Shia in a big way and the victims have not forgotten. The new militias are composed of combat experienced Afghan Shia who served as Iranian mercenaries and survived combat in Syria. Oddly enough the name of these militias, Hashd Al Shi’I, does not use one of the local languages (Pushtun or Dari), but a language the Syrian veterans learned a little of in Syria. Hashd Al Shi’I is Arabic for “Shia Mobilization”.

Over 50,000 Afghan Shia served in Syria and, as they returned to Afghanistan, often took the initiative in protecting fellow Shia from increasing violence by Islamic terror groups, including the Taliban. The former mercs asked Iran for help but until now all Iran was willing to do was back anti-Pakistan Taliban factions that, in return for weapons and other aid from Iran, promised to leave Afghan Shia alone. Moving on to explicitly Iran-backed Shia militias is not considered a big surprise.

In 2019 Iran sent most of the Afghan mercenaries in Syria home because the revived American economic sanctions had greatly reduced the amount of money that could be spent on the war in Syria. Iran began building a new mercenary force by hiring Syrians. The best of the Iranian foreign Shia were the Afghans but there was a limited supply of Afghan Shia willing to serve as Iranian mercs in faraway Syria. To entice the Afghans to volunteer they were paid more than other Shia mercs in Syria. While the Afghans were the best fighters, a growing number would not renew their contracts and returned to Afghanistan or Iran, where mercenary service also earned an Iran residency permit. While the Syrian Arab mercs are cheaper, they are adequate. The low cost is largely because of the bad shape the Syrian economy is in and the dire poverty many Syrians live with.

July 16, 2021: In the Pakistan capital (Islamabad) the 26-year-old daughter of the Afghan ambassador was kidnapped, held for five hours, during which she was injured while resisting the kidnapping and during interrogation before she was taken to another location and released. The kidnappers did not identify themselves and Pakistan blames India for carrying out the attack to hurt relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. On the 18th Afghanistan recalled its ambassador and demanded answers from Pakistan. It’s still unclear exactly what was going on here, which also characterizes Pakistani foreign relations in general.

July 13, 2021: In Pakistan the parliament approved a fifteen percent pay increase for military personnel. This comes after a recent ten percent increase that was approved and has not gone into effect yet. It was noted that the paramilitary (recruited from locals) border patrol force, used mostly along the Afghan border, only received a ten percent increase. Several weeks later the army announced it was temporarily replacing the paramilitary border guards with regular army troops. The official reason for this was the increased Afghan Taliban violence along the Afghan border that the army believed the paramilitary force could not handle. Along the Afghan border locals see it differently because Pakistan has announced that it will not allow millions of Afghan refugees into Pakistan as it did during the 1980s. The government did not believe the paramilitary force would enforce that ban, while the regular army forces would. One way the military maintains the loyalty of its regular personnel is that the job pays well. Despite that, many of the troops are not happy with the way the military has taken over the government and recently made criticism of the military in the media, including the Internet, illegal. The paramilitary forces, who always received fewer economic benefits, are composed mainly of Baluchi and Pushtun tribesmen, two tribal groups that have been outspoken in their dislike of the Pakistani military.

July 7, 2021: In western Afghanistan, the leader of one of the pro-Iran Taliban factions boasted of the support he was receiving from Iran. This includes IRGC trainers and advisors assisting Afghan Taliban on the Afghan side of the Iranian border. Iran also provides weapons and training in Iran for some of the Afghans. Several Taliban factions cooperate with Iran in return for access to Iran for supplies. These factions only control about five percent of Taliban manpower but these are not the only anti-Pakistan Taliban 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 the openly -pro-Iran factions or some other Taliban leader free of Pakistani control. All these dissidents 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. 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.

 

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