The Taliban continue to earn their pay from the drug gangs by disrupting government efforts to halt the production (mostly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south) and exporting of heroin and other drugs via routes in the south, east, north and west). Because of this there is lots of violence in the north, which is largely non-Pushtun (the Taliban is largely a Pushtun outfit) and hostile to Pushtuns and drugs. Pushtuns dominate the drug trade nationwide. There is also a lot of violence in the east, despite the presence of a lot more Pushtuns living there. That’s because Pakistan backed Islamic terrorists have long sought sanctuary along the Pakistan border and often try to control the local tribes via terror. The situation in the east has gotten worse since mid-2014 because of thousands of Pakistani based Islamic terrorists being chased out of their sanctuary (North Waziristan) by a major Pakistani military offensive. This has meant nothing but trouble for the Afghans living in those border areas, which have now turned into a war zone.
The drug gangs prefer to use bribes to create safe smuggling routes but if that doesn’t work the Taliban supply the muscle. That gets the headlines while the bribes rarely do. When a large group (usually less than a hundred) of soldiers or police, including their commanders switch sides the cause is usually cash. Mercenary attitudes are acceptable in Afghanistan and an ancient tradition. Afghanistan is on the “highway” to India and passing armies often offered lucrative, if dangerous, opportunities for Afghan tribesmen. Those who returned with loot told exciting stories that became part of the folklore and tribal history. In this part of the world the legends are a lot more meaningful than elsewhere.
With most foreign troops gone the traditional warfare techniques are more effective. As a result the government is losing control of more territory. The problem is that the traditional methods, as practiced by the Taliban and drug gangs are very effective. These ancient methods use attacks on civilians and lots of terror to demoralize foes and keep allies in line.
Government forces cannot use these methods without endangering the billions of dollars in annual foreign aid that keeps the government and the security forces functioning. The drug gangs receive even more cash each year from producing and exporting opium and heroin. The only decisive edge the security forces had were the foreign troops and especially the Western support forces. This was especially true with air power (smart bombs and lots of air transport) and logistics. The presence of lots of foreign troops also reduced the corruption which is a problem for the government as well as the enemy.
American experts on Afghanistan pointed out that this would happen and now it cannot be denied. It is more likely, but not assured, that American air power and support forces (especially special operations and intel forces) will increase. Doing that is not popular in the United States or the West in general. Over 2,300 Americans (and 1,100 other foreigners) have died in Afghanistan since 2001 and over $100 billion spent so far to rebuild and sustain democracy and the economy in Afghanistan. Yet the withdrawal of Western troops caused panic inside Afghanistan and that crippled economic growth (which went from 14 percent in 2012 to less than two percent in 2014.)
Most Afghan military and police commanders believe that more (as in two or three times more) Western air power would do tremendous damage to the enemy. The reason is that the Taliban and drug gangs always believed that the bad guys would triumph once the foreign troops were gone. It didn’t exactly work out that way and the Taliban have become sloppy. The enemy no longer fears and respects aerial reconnaissance as they once did and now more much more freely. An increase in air power would initially kill a lot of Taliban and force the enemy to move more slowly and cautiously. Taliban attacks would not be as massive and bold. All that air power made a huge difference and both sides know it. Foreign troops had a peak strength of 140,000 in 2010 versus 10,000 now. But the Afghans don’t want a lot of foreign combat troops, just lots of aircraft and support forces.
A growing number of government officials believe efforts to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban are futile. Aside from the growing factional battles within the Taliban factions there is fear that ISI (Pakistani intelligence, the creator of the Taliban) is again lying about its intentions and actually has no intention of helping make any peace talks a success. To the ISI keeping the Afghan leadership busy with futile peace efforts is useful which has always sought to obtain as much control over Afghan affairs using any means available.
Both the security forces and various Islamic terrorist groups continue fighting ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in the east. ISIL is attracting a lot, if not most, of the religious fanatics in the Taliban ranks. From the beginning many of the Taliban were more opportunists than religious zealots. But after 2002, when it became obvious that a Taliban resurgence would have to be financed by drug gangs, the percentage of Taliban who were there mainly for religious reasons declined. Those religious fanatics were not happy working with drug thugs hated by most Afghans. So when ISIL came along these Taliban zealots felt a real attraction to the new gang, even if it meant taking a pay cut. More danger was a plus not a negative because these were the guys who believed death while serving Allah was a surefire ticket to paradise. It is believed there are more ISIL in Afghanistan (up to 5,000) than Pakistan (less than half that) even though there are twice as many Pushtuns (the tribes Taliban are mainly from) in Pakistan. Fortunately for the Taliban ISIL is still busy organizing and building bases and a support organization. So the clashes are relatively few. Eventually ISIL forces will come after the blasphemers (the Taliban and drug gangs) and it will be different. That will start happening sooner rather than later, which is another incentive for more foreign airpower.
Despite the distraction caused by ISIL and internal disputes the Taliban still puts most of its forces into keeping the drug business safe. Thus in the north (Kunduz province) officials report that the Taliban still control areas outside Kunduz city. The Taliban launched a surprise offensive in Kunduz in September 2015 and by the end of the month were in control of Kunduz city. Soon more police and soldiers arrived and drove them out by mid-October. By the end of the year over 1,500 more Islamic terrorists were killed in the city and then Kunduz province. The September Taliban attack on Kunduz left 289 civilians dead and 559 wounded and some local officials fear another attack. The Taliban consider Kunduz province a major route for smuggling heroin out of the country via Central Asia. The Taliban are still a threat in parts of Kunduz province, as can be seen in the areas where cell phone companies comply with Taliban demands and that cell phone service be turned off at night (so locals cannot alert police to Taliban activity). If the companies do not comply the Taliban will attack the cell phone towers and company personnel.
Meanwhile In Pakistan
Despite a massive 18 month long campaign against Islamic terrorist hideouts along the Afghan border the Pakistani military cannot reduce the incidence of Islamic terror attacks below about half their “normal” level (5,300 deaths in 2013). In 2015 there were 3,682 deaths, most of them Islamic terrorists killed in the offensive. But Islamic terrorist attacks only fell by about half. The offensive in the northwest is to continue to the end of 2016 and there is general agreement that it was not enough. The military is under growing pressure to shut down all Islamic terrorists in the country. Many military officers resist that because they believe, for religious or economic reasons that some Islamic terrorists must still be protected (so they can attack India and Afghanistan.) It is getting harder and harder to defend that position. America, India and Afghanistan are leading that effort and Pakistani government denials no longer work at all.
February 10, 2016: the United States has ordered a larger force (500 soldiers) to replace the 150 already in Helmand province. There 150 soldiers are providing security for a base that American Special Forces and foreign commandos operate from. The Taliban and drug gangs see these special operations troops as a major threat and are apparently trying to attack these bases. So more American troops are being sent to ensure that any attacks fail.
February 9, 2016: The United States issued a warning to Americans living in Kabul that Islamic terrorists were planning attacks on areas where foreigners lived in Kabul.
February 8, 2016: Another senior Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Rahmani, died of cancer in a Pakistani hospital. Rahmani was one of the founders and served as governor of Kandahar province in the late 1990s when the Taliban controlled most of the country. Since 2002 Rahmani has been at Taliban headquarters in Quetta Pakistan (just across the border from Kandahar) and was a close advisor of the late Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Quetta has been a sanctuary for the Taliban leadership since 2002 and is the one tribal area where Pakistan would not allow American UAVs to operate.
February 6, 2016: In the east (Kunar province) the bodies of three members of a polio vaccination team were found 12 days after they disappeared. Despite attacks like this Afghan polio cases were at a record low (eight) in 2015. This compares to 54 in neighboring Pakistan. The first 2016 case in Pakistan was confirmed in early February and there has apparently been at least one case so far in Afghanistan. In both countries Islamic terrorists (especially the Taliban) ban polio vaccinations and attack anyone trying to deliver the vaccine to vulnerable children. Islamic terrorists in general tend to believe the vaccination teams are spying for the government and that the vaccinations are a plot to sterilize Moslems.
February 3, 2016: In the east (Paktika province) an American UAV fired missiles that killed 18 Pakistani Taliban coming from South Waziristan. Locals had already buried some of the dead when troops arrived but it was still possible to identify which tribe the dead men were from and collect other useful intelligence.
February 1, 2016: In Kabul a Taliban suicide bomber attacked outside a government compound, leaving 20 dead and 29 wounded. The security is pretty tight these days so Islamic terrorists go for attacks near government facilities, often in lines of civilians waiting to go through a security check the suicide bomber would not pass. The idea here is to get some media attention.
In the east (Nangarhar province) Afghan warplanes and American UAVs found and destroyed an ISIL radio station and also killed 29 of the ISIL men in the area.
January 30, 2016:
Pakistan and Afghanistan agreed to increase coordination on border security. The 2,600 kilometer long frontier is poorly guarded and there are frequent illegal crossings by smugglers and Islamic terrorists.
January 25, 2016: In the southwest (Uruzgan province) the Taliban bribed a policeman to drug and kill the other ten policemen at a remote checkpoint and then load all the weapons and ammo in a vehicle and drive off to join the Taliban. Such acts of bribery, betrayal and murder are not uncommon in Afghanistan. This is especially true if tribal loyalties are involved (as in putting policemen from different tribes or clans in the same unit).
January 24, 2016:
In eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border, an American UAV fired a missile at a building and killed Mullah Fazlullah, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan had asked the Americans to do this and apparently provided some useful intel to make this attack possible. There is still no absolute proof that Mullah Fazlullah is dead but that is expected soon as a new leader will have to be announced if the previous one is really gone. Pakistan accused Mullah Fazlullah of authorizing and supporting several major attacks inside Pakistan, including the recent one at a Pakistani university.
January 21, 2016:
The head of the local (for Pakistan and Afghanistan) branch of ISIL released an interview in which he repeated allegations that the Pakistani military controls the Afghan Taliban and Islamic terrorist groups based in Pakistan that operate in India. These accusations are nothing new but they are the reason ISIL considers Pakistan un-Islamic and worthy of some lethal retribution delivered by ISIL. To underscore that on January 13th ISIL attacked the Pakistani consulate in Afghanistan (Jalalabad). Three attackers and seven security personnel died. This was the first time ISIL went after a Pakistani government target. Apparently four suicide bombers were involved in this attack and the fourth one got away. For most of 2015 ISIL has been skirmishing with Pakistani Taliban hiding out in eastern Afghanistan.