Afghanistan intelligence believes that the Taliban is holding meetings in the Pakistani sanctuary (mainly in Quetta just across the border from Kandahar province). It is also believed that the Haqqani Network, a largely Afghan Islamic terrorist group that has long been on the Pakistani payroll, has used its connection in the Taliban to help patch up the Taliban civil war over who should replace deceased leader Mullah Omar. Current Taliban supreme leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was shot and wounded during a December 2015 meeting with dissident Taliban. He recovered and kept negotiating. It was Mansour who, for two years, hid the fact that founding leader Mullah Omar had died in a Pakistani hospital in 2013. This leads many Afghans to wonder if you can trust the Taliban if the Taliban don’t trust each other. But Mansour had been Omar’s chief deputy for many years and knew his way around the organization as well as traditional allies like the Haqqani clan. .
The Haqqani Network is a group of Islamic terrorists operating in the Pushtun tribal areas along the Afghan border. Founder Jalaluddin Haqqani was a major player during the 1980s battle with the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. He joined the Taliban in 1995, and became a senior official. But after 2001 he gradually grew apart from Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The Haqqani Network has survived by being an ally of Pakistan. That means no terror attacks in Pakistan and, when called on, carrying out specific attacks that Pakistani intelligence (ISI) wants. Jalaluddin Haqqani died in 2o14 and his successor continued to cooperate with the Taliban and maintain subservience to ISI. Because Jalaluddin Haqqani helped Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders escape Afghanistan in 2001 there has always been a sense of mutual dependence. For that reason Haqqani leaders were able to help fix the current power struggle within the Taliban and thwart the recruiting efforts of ISIL
(Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant)
. Given that Haqqani works for ISI, Pakistan is believed to have played a role in this peace making effort. The Afghan government protested to Pakistan about this but, as usual, Pakistan insisted it had nothing to do with Haqqani, the Taliban or supporting Islamic terrorism of any kind. The Taliban reconciliation deal appears to have involved appointing a brother and son of Mullah Omar to senior positions in the Taliban and accepting back six Taliban leaders (and many of their followers) who had gone over to ISIL but now regretted it (because of extreme violence and most Afghans hating ISIL) and wished to return without any penalty. Deals like this are common in Afghanistan and have been for centuries. All you need is the right people to handle the negotiations.
With Mullah Akhtar Mansour clearly in power he is implementing some policies his predecessor Mullah Omar opposed or was not enthusiastic about. This includes no interest at all in peace talks with the Afghan government and active support for al Qaeda. This was triggered by the 2014
al Qaeda announcement that it was expanding in the region and establishing AQIS (al Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent). It was believed al Qaeda would set up shop in Pakistan, which still hosts Islamic terrorist groups that specialize in attacks on India. That did not work out and it was believed that the several hundred al Qaeda known to have been driven from North Waziristan to eastern Afghanistan in late 2014 had stayed there. Some of them had, but most had quietly moved south to Kandahar and took control (with the help of sympathetic local Taliban and tribesmen) of a large area in which to train. It is also believed that AQIS planned to share thus facility with the local Taliban, especially since AQIS and the Taliban are both battling ISIL. Al Qaeda knew enough to camouflage their presence so that aerial reconnaissance would not spot it quickly. There is so much outlaw activity (drug gangs, Taliban, smugglers) in Kandahar they thought they would go unnoticed. Such was not the case and the surprise army attack in late 2015 killed over 150 AQIS members while capturing and wounding even more. Lots of documents were captured and Afghanistan suddenly became a lot more dangerous for AQIS. As long as AQIS pays its own way Mansour will allow AQIS to keep trying.
Another useful tool Mansour employed to keep the Taliban together was the very effective network of anti-American media the drug gangs had paid for (and the Taliban supplied to intimidation for). For years the Taliban media campaign has tried to demonize smart bombs, which are the most effective weapon against the Taliban. Whenever there are real or claimed (often falsely) civilian casualties from American air attacks the Taliban try to get an anti-American media campaign going. It is common knowledge that the Taliban and other Islamic terrorists cause over 80 percent of the civilian deaths. Very few are caused by American air operations. Those that do occur are usually people caught in the crossfire, which is common as the Taliban are regular users of civilians as human shields. Taliban controlled media do not mention any of this
Despite the internal problem Taliban forces continue fighting in the south (mainly Helmand province), the north (mainly around Kndunz) and the east (mainly Nangarhar Province). Most of this combat is at the behest of the drug gangs, who use the Islamic terrorists to keep the government from interfering with drug operations. The drug gangs would prefer to dispense with the Taliban and simply use bribes to keep the security forces out of the way. While that works some of the time it frequently doesn’t because the drugs are generally unpopular in Afghanistan. That is because the availability of cheap opium and heroin has turned 5-10 percent of the population into addicts. So the drug gangs need as many hired guns as they can get. The Taliban has proved to be the largest and most reliable supplier.
The Core Of It All
Afghanistan is collapsing not because of the Taliban or the drug gangs but because of corruption. That is one of the few things local opinion polls, aid groups, foreign investors and American military and diplomatic personnel all agree on. This is why so many of the refugees trying to get into Europe these days are from Afghanistan. There has been more prosperity in Afghanistan since 2001 but nor much reduction in corruption. So many Afghans who save some money use it to pay people-smugglers to get them into a more promising place. The West, in general, is the most favored destination. This is a sad outcome after all the money spent and lives lost trying to make Afghanistan a better place.
Most Afghans are well aware that in many way their lives are much better since the Americans arrived. GDP has grown continuously since 2001 with average family income increasing noticeably each year. In early 2001 only a million children were in school, all of them boys. Now there are over eight million in school and 40 percent are girls. Back then there were only 10,000 phones in the country, all very expensive land lines in cities. Now there are over 18 million inexpensive cell phones with access even in remote rural areas. Back then less than ten percent of the population had access to any health care, now 85 percent do and life expectancy has risen from 47 years (the lowest in Eurasia) to 62 (leaving Bangladesh to occupy last place in Eurasia). This is apparently the highest life expectancy has ever been in Afghanistan and the UN noted it was the highest one decade increase ever recorded. Afghans have noticed this even if the rest of the world has not. But all this was accompanied by more corruption because now there was more to steal. Many Afghans feel the corruption situation won’t show similar improvements, at least in their lifetimes, so they leave.
The fundamental problem for Afghanistan has long been the endemic corruption. This makes it very difficult to run the country effectively when any law or regulation can be bypassed with a large enough bribe. This makes it possible for the drug gangs to produce and export most of the world supply of heroin. The Taliban sustains itself by providing security for drug gang operations as well as extorting and stealing cash and goods at every opportunity. The corruption stems from the tribalism which fell out of use in the West, China and elsewhere centuries ago. But in Afghanistan is persists and it is an inefficient and, for the people involved, expensive and deadly historical artifact to live with.
For example a government investigation into why the northern city of Kunduz fell under Taliban control for three days in September 2015 (before government forces could force them out) concluded that the problem was ineffective senior government and military leadership. Part of the problem was the complicated leadership structure which made it difficult to know who was actually in charge under some conditions. Left unmentioned, but certainly implied, was the role of corruption. The investigators called for more care in selecting people for senior jobs. That was another way of saying that letting bribes and favoritism dominate promotions could have serious and deadly consequences. Corruption has long plagued Afghanistan and now it is working its malign magic on Islamic terrorists and the newly established democracy.
Foreign donors are threatening to reduce or halt aid if the Afghans don’t make more progress in dealing with the corruption. The government points out that progress has been made but recent opinion polls indicate that most Afghans do not agree. When this corruption problem is actually measured Afghanistan finds that it is one of the most corrupt nations in the world. However, Afghanistan has made some progress in 2014. The year before Afghanistan was in a three way tie with North Korea and Somalia at the bottom of the list of 175 nations surveyed. The latest survey shows North Korea and Somalia still at the bottom together but Afghanistan has moved up to 172. Corruption in this Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The two most corrupt nations have a rating of 8 and the least corrupt (Denmark) is 92. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. In Afghanistan the most lethal aspect of the corruption is how it makes it easier for terrorists to operate in a major city, like Kabul. In a crowded place like that well-funded terrorists can pay off enough people to stay hidden. Foreign donors point out that much of their aid is wasted because of the corruption and their cash is better spent in less corrupt areas. Afghanistan protests that Afghans will suffer if there is less aid. The donors point out that Afghanistan is not alone in that respect and the donors want to use the money where it will do the most good. This provides a very powerful incentive to reduce the corruption. In Afghanistan such incentives often fail because for a long time Afghans have tended to make the wrong choices and blame the results on evil outsiders.
In 2015 the U.S. government issued yet another report detailing the corruption resulting from over $100 billion in American aid entering Afghanistan since 2001. Afghans recognize corruption as the biggest problem in the country and the root cause of so many other problems (especially religious violence and drug gangs). There are many forms of corruption that the anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan have a hard time getting recognized as corruption by most Afghans. For example, a lot of the reconstruction work, especially road-building, uses corrupt, and stupid, practices that are considered traditional by the locals. The most common one is to give all the contracts on a job to whoever offered the biggest bribe, or simply to someone in your family, who will pay you back later on. The guy who got the contract will not provide further bribes to local tribal leaders in the area where the road, or structures, are being built. This offends the locals, who are then more likely to cooperate with the Taliban to attack the interlopers. Another example of “acceptable” local corruption is how truckers ignore weight limits and overload their trucks. This not only shortens the life span of the vehicle but has ruined the newly built roads in many Afghan cities. Most of these roads were built to handle much less weight (typically 25 tons) than the highways between the cities (which can handle up to 100 tons). The police are supposed to enforce these rules but the cops saw this as another bribe opportunity because the roads seemed fine and this was just another silly rule the Westerners tried to impose on Afghans. Again, short-term thinking with long term consequences, keeping Afghanistan the poorest nation in Eurasia, a status is has maintained for a long time.
The cash for bribes is critical here because most Afghans who reach a leadership position consider corruption (demanding bribes and stealing government funds) a right and stealing something of an obligation to make his family/clan/tribe stronger and better able to survive. Many Afghans have noted that countries with less corruption are more prosperous and peaceful, but this anti-corruption faction is still a minority. Corruption continues to be a major problem in Afghanistan and it is expected to get worse now that most foreign troops left by the end of 2014. At this point the anti-corruption activists are at more personal risk as well as auditors and other monitors of how foreign aid is spent.
The Pakistan Connection
Pakistan is still being pressured to crack down on all Islamic terror groups in the country but refuses to do so, or even admit what it is doing (or not doing in this case). The U.S., India and Afghanistan all have evidence that Pakistan still provides sanctuary for Islamic terrorists that concentrate their attacks on Afghanistan and India. Pakistan denies providing this sanctuary despite ample evidence proving the existence of these sanctuaries. The Americans don’t believe Pakistan and fear that much of the military aid provided to Pakistan for counter-terrorism work is going to end up on the Indian border where Pakistan continues to attack Indian border posts while insisting the Indians fired first. The Americans are so incensed over this that they have added additional conditions and monitoring requirements to future military aid and will, as they have in the past, halt that aid if the Pakistani generals do not comply in some very obvious fashion. The continuing Pakistani offensive in North Waziristan has disrupted Islamic terrorist operations in the area and “protected” Islamic terrorists like Haqqani Network and Pakistani Taliban moved many of their bases into Afghanistan. This angered Afghanistan a great deal because it soon became apparent that the Pakistani military was still allowing Haqqani Network and “good” Pakistani Taliban forces to move freely in and out of Pakistan. The “good” Pakistani Taliban moved to other areas of the northwest and provided some sanctuary for members of the “bad” (attacking Pakistani targets”) Taliban if there was a tribal connection. The Pakistani government ignored this because there are some things you cannot change in the tribal territories. The Pakistani Army offensive in North Waziristan seems to be stuck on “95 percent complete” with combat continuing in the Shawal valley (about 100 kilometers southwest of Miramshah, the largest city in North Waziristan). Shawal has long been one of the most popular areas for Islamic terrorists in North Waziristan. The valley is rugged, remote and hard for troops to operate in. Pakistani bombers and American UAVs are still hitting the valley hard because it is one of the few places in North Waziristan where Islamic terrorists are still active, in part because the Afghanistan border is so close. The American UAVs also noted which “protected” Islamic terrorists were still quietly moving through North Waziristan without being bothered by the many soldiers and police there.
In 2016 Pakistan is trying a new tactic to deal with these embarrassing and persistent accusations. Pakistan is now arresting Indians and Afghans in Pakistan and accusing them of being spies for their respective countries and sent to Pakistan to organize terror attacks. This is an old accusation but never gained much traction because there was never any proof. Now Pakistan is trying to invent some proof. So far it does not seem to be working.
The War With ISIL
Afghanistan believes it has driven ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) out of all the villages it controlled in the east, near the Pakistan border. ISIL was attracting many of the most fanatic Islamic terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan and at its peak in late 2015 was believed to have as many as 3,000 members, most of them in Afghanistan. These men are attracted to the ISIL view of the world. For example ISIL insists that the Pakistani military controls the Afghan Taliban as well as Islamic terrorist groups based in Pakistan that mainly operate inside 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 ISIL has been carrying out suicide bomber attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So far there have been few such attacks because ISIL is under attack by Afghan and Pakistani security forces as well as rival Islamic terrorist groups. Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are actually cooperating when it comes to ISIL, which is also hated and hunted by other Islamic terrorist groups.
For most of 2015 ISIL has been trying to establish a base area in eastern Afghanistan (mainly Nangarhar Province) but that has led to constant skirmishing with Pakistani Taliban hiding out there. The local tribes are also largely hostile to ISIL and all this has provided better intel for the security forces on what ISIL is up to and exactly where they are. Some of the tribes used their own militias to fight ISIL but more often just helped villages set up defenses to keep ISIL out. This cooperation (and information) led to more effective and frequent American air strikes and raids by Afghan troops and American commandos and hundreds of ISIL men have been killed and many more wounded. Many of the wounded desert and there are fewer new volunteers. ISIL is hanging on but is now out of all the 22 villages it occupied at the start of the year. ISIL is not dead in Afghanistan but it isn’t growing much either. A growing number of former Taliban are abandoning ISIL. The remaining ISIL get little sympathy from the locals, many of whom have bitter stories to tell of harsh ISIL rule that included beheadings of most who resisted and imposition of strict lifestyle rules. This included closing all secular schools as well as religious schools and mosques that did not enthusiastically support ISIL. These lurid (and often true) stories are circulating throughout eastern Afghanistan making the region a no-go zone for ISIL.
April 11, 2016: Afghanistan, Iran and India agreed on details of the joint venture (mainly between Iran and India) whereby India will spend $100 million to upgrade the Iranian port of Chabahar and allow Indian ships to move cargo in and out of Afghanistan via Iranian roads, railroads and the port of Chabahar. The Pakistani port of Gwadar is 72 kilometers east of Chabahar but Indian relations with Pakistan are too unreliable to allow use of Gwadar (which is now controlled by Chinese firms). During 2004-9 India spent over $70 million to build a 218 kilometer highway from Kandahar (the major city in southwest Afghanistan) to the Iranian border. That connects to Iranian roads and railroads that go the thousand kilometers to Chabahar. This gives Afghanistan easy access to the ocean without going through Pakistan (and its bandits, corrupt officials and unreliable politics). Afghanistan likes having close relations with Pakistan because both India and Afghanistan have had problems with Pakistani hostility and support of Islamic terrorists.
April 10, 2016: In the west a dozen Afghan smugglers were intercepted by Iranian border police while trying to cross the Iranian border illegally. Three of the Afghans were killed during a brief gun battle while two were captured and the rest apparently fled back into Afghanistan. This sort of thing happens regularly on the Iran border as armed Afghan drug smugglers try to get heroin and opium into Iran. There are hundreds of casualties a year (most of them smugglers) on the border.