Increased American support (airstrikes, Special Forces, less restrictive rules of engagement and more intel) has boosted the morale and effectiveness of the Afghan security forces. This makes it more difficult for the Taliban to claim control of more of the 407 districts because the Afghan forces can more quickly respond to Taliban efforts to occupy distract capitals (often small towns in areas with few roads). In addition to more airstrikes, the Americans have also brought in more UAVs for reconnaissance and surveillance as well as more access to the high-resolution photo satellites.
The Taliban are responsible for security over large areas (farms where poppies are grown, roads and border areas where drugs are smuggled out and chemicals for turning opium into heroin are smuggled in) and that provides more targets for the increased air support. Casualties are up for the security forces but are up even more for the Taliban and by Afghan custom, that’s a win. Afghanistan is a violent place in the best of times and last four decades have not been good for Afghanistan in general. Afghan security forces lost about five percent of their strength in the last year but if the successes against the Taliban continue desertions will decline and more recruits will join.
The parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for October 2016 were delayed by Taliban violence to July 2018 and now to October 2018. The Taliban and the drug gangs oppose the elections while most Afghans want to vote. Taliban attacks on the voter registration effort are reducing the number of people who will be able to vote but is not changing minds about wanting to vote.
For the Taliban democracy is heresy and allowing women to vote makes it worse. Given the widespread hatred of opium and heroin (for all the addicts it creates in Afghanistan) the drug gangs don’t want people able to express that attitude via elections. Three years ago a national opinion poll showed that 92 percent of Afghans wanted the election process reformed to reduce corruption. Back then only about twenty percent of Afghans trusted the way elections were handled. Nothing kills democracy faster than a loss of faith in the reliability of the voting process. At the same time, 85 percent of Afghans supported the then new (post Karzai) national government and 91 percent trusted the newly elected president Ghani. At the same time, 81 percent believed the country was moving in the right direction and 71 percent believed public support for the Taliban continued to decline.
Despite the growing opposition to the Taliban, these religious fanatics will remain a problem as long as they are allied with the drug gangs who have the cash and determination to keep the corruption and Islamic terrorism going because it is good for their business. A growing number of prominent religious leaders are openly opposing the Taliban and the Taliban are encountering more local opposition in tribes long considered pro-Taliban. While the drug gangs provide more and more cash the Taliban are getting more and more young men killed, or turned into addicts. The Taliban have been at it for 25 years and have a track record of death, destruction and inability to accomplish anything useful. Concentrating attacks on the national police kills a lot of policemen, who tend to be local guys and eliminate the police presence in an area. That reduces local security and allows the Taliban, and any bandits in the area, to do whatever they want. Local tribes are trying to organize militias to oppose this but in many rural areas, the population is too sparse and too poor to match the more numerous and better armed Taliban.
As Taliban and drug gang control increases legitimate economic activity declines. Since foreign troops left in 2014, the Afghan security forces became the main foe of the Taliban and drug gangs and the government forces have been unable to go after the Taliban and drug gangs while also providing local security that is necessary for economic activity and growth. As a result, the poverty rates have gone up. In 2012 a third of Afghans were considered very poor. By 2017 nearly 60 percent of Afghans were considered very poor and many were going hungry and lacked access to food or other aid. The unemployment rate was nearly 25 percent and for young men in the countryside (half the population is now under 15) taking a job with the Taliban seems the only option. The Taliban blocked the roads or simply demanded bribes too large for truckers to pay (and stay in business). Despite the economic harm, they were doing the Taliban insisted they were on a Mission From God and could not be criticized. But a growing number of local, and now national, religious leaders were forced, by the Moslems they regularly worked with, to speak up about the bad things the Taliban were doing. This has led to more open dissension in Taliban factions, with the Taliban clerics (who serve as spiritual advisors and judges) calling to making peace.
This is an extension of the larger Taliban civil war that broke out in 2015 as a result of disagreements over who should take over as Taliban leader after founder Mullah Omar was revealed in 2015 to have died in 2013 (in a Pakistani hospital). The information was kept to a few key Omar associates who were then accused of lying as part of a plot to install an Omar successor who was second-rate. The civil war began in late November 2015 when Mullah Mansour, leader of the OT (Original Taliban) ordered attacks against the forces of rival Taliban leader Mullah Rasool. This marked a major defeat for the Taliban as they have now lost a major asset; unity. Similar fighting has also occurred in Zabul province. By 2017 the Taliban infighting had diminished but not disappeared. The Pakistani ISI (intelligence service) intervened by having Haqqani Network leaders with Taliban ties take sides and eventually take over the senior Taliban leadership. This reduced but did not eliminate the feuding. As a result the Taliban sought to regain territory they had lost to government forces in 2017, especially near the Iran and northern borders. This was important because these border areas were used for smuggling heroin and opium into Iran.
ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is moving more of its operations to cities, like Kabul, where they are less likely to be hit by airstrikes. This is an admission of defeat because in urban areas ISIL cannot train large numbers of new recruits or build up stockpiles of weapons and ammo. ISIL also cannot earn money from the drug smuggling business and must get by on a lot less cash.
Iran is financing a resettlement operation in Syria that brings in Shia families from Lebanon, Afghanistan and elsewhere to replace the third of the Syrian population that fled the country during the civil war. Nearly all these refugees were Sunni Arabs and the Assads (who are Shia) don’t want them back. The Lebanese Hezbollah are supervising the resettlement program by bringing in Shia Arab Lebanese attracted by the offer of free land and housing. Actually, the buildings may have suffered some war damage but are repairable. Hezbollah fighters are actively preventing Syrian Sunnis from returning and reoccupying their land and homes. Most of the Afghan settlers are illegal residents in Iran who do not want to return to Afghanistan. Many of those Afghans who are Shia are already serving as Iranian mercenaries in Syria and are inclined to bring their families to Syria.
May 15, 2018: In the west (Farah province) Afghan and American airpower assisted local troops and defeated a major Taliban attack against the provincial capital. The Taliban suffered many dead and wounded as they were forced to retreat. This attack was considered a desperate move by local Taliban forces. The Afghan Air Force released video of their new A-29 ground attack using smart bombs against targets in Farah province as well as other targets in southern Afghanistan. The A-29s have been in action using smart bombs since March 22nd. The video was released, in part, to demoralize the Taliban in places like Farah province. Meanwhile, Taliban forces near Farah city are unable to organize another attack because of the constant UAV surveillance. Over the next few days, there were incidents where the Taliban appeared to be organizing another attack and were then hit with airstrikes. Afghan intel believes that Iran is providing support for some of the Taliban factions in Farah. This support appears to be weapons, ammo and some cash. In return, the Taliban provide Iran with help in controlling the border and especially the Afghan opium and heroin getting into Iran (which now has several million addicts).
May 14, 2018: In the west (Herat province) rival Taliban factions fought each other leaving at least eight of the Islamic terrorists dead. Since 2016 western Afghanistan (Farah, Herat and Badghis provinces) has been the scene of much fighting between rival Taliban factions. This has left hundreds of Taliban dead and even as this infighting continued the army moved to oust the Taliban from areas the Islamic terrorists long controlled directly or indirectly.
May 12, 2018: The first four weeks of voter registration have left 86 dead and twice as many wounded.
May 11, 2018: The government has extended, by one month, the voter registration period, which was supposed to be completed by mid-June.
May 9, 2018: In Kabul, five Taliban attacked a police station. One attacker used an explosive vest at the entrance which allowed four gunmen to get inside where the remaining four Taliban were killed. At the same time, another police station was also attacked, apparently by ISIL forces. Total deaths from both attacks were about 25.
May 8, 2018: In Kabul police identified Haqqani Network as the ones who carried out two suicide bomber attacks on police stations in the city today.
May 7, 2018: The Afghan Taliban refuse to take part in an international Afghanistan peace conference organized by regional Islamic leaders and hosted by Indonesia. Some Taliban factions are interested in a peace deal but majority of the Afghan Taliban is now controlled by the Haqqani Network, which answers only to the Pakistani military.
May 6, 2018: In the east (Khost province) a time bomb hidden in a mosque went off and killed over fifty and wounded more than thirty. The mosque was also being used as a voter registration site and that appears to have been the target of the time bomb.
May 1, 2018: Nearly 1,200 died from Taliban and drug gang related violence during April. About 200 of the dead were civilians, killed in many of the 173 different incidents involving explosives or gunfire. The rest of the dead were Islamic terrorists and other criminals along with security forces. That is up about 15 percent in March.
April 25, 2018: The Taliban announced the start of the Spring Offensive. This is largely a propaganda announcement because the Taliban operate year round to protect drug operations, a service that provides the cash to keep the Taliban going.
April 23, 2018: In the east (Nangarhar Province) the top leader of AQIS (Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent) was killed by an American airstrike. Technically Afghanistan is not part of AQIS territory but it has become a more reliable base area (for training camps) than Pakistan or anywhere else in South Asia. AQIS was created in 2014 and initially tried to establish its headquarters in Karachi (Pakistan), long a haven for all sorts of criminal activity and forged alliances with the major Islamic terrorist organizations there. Yet AQIS has been responsible for very few terror attacks in Pakistan or anywhere else. AQIS was created to manage and support operations in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and Burma. Islamic terrorism experts believe this was largely a publicity stunt by al Qaeda to counter the growing popularity of the more radical ISIL. Indian Moslems have produced some recruits for Islamic terrorism, but not enough to produce the level of mayhem Islamic terrorists wanted. Lacking a lot of radical clergy and religious schools India has simply not produced a lot of radicalized young men willing to kill and be killed. Similar recruiting problems were encountered elsewhere but other Al Qaeda groups have continued to provide enough cash and other assistance to keep AQIS going and barely visible. Afghan training camps, destroyed at the end of 2017, were a major AQIS asset and that loss was one reason AQIS agreed to work with the Pakistani Taliban.
April 22, 2018: For the first time since October 2017 ISIL issued an official statement via the Internet. This one informed members and supporters about the new ISIL strategy. No surprises in that as the message repeated the call for ISIL members to return home, if possible, and organize terror attacks there. The primary ISIL targets are the “apostate” governments of Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Gaza (Hamas) and the West Bank (Fatah). In addition, the Taliban of Afghanistan are the main target in Afghanistan because the local ISIL branch competes with the Taliban to control drug smuggling routes that provide large amounts of cash that ISIL in Afghanistan needs to survive.
April 18, 2018: In the east (Paktia province) Pakistani troops agreed to move back from the disputed territory on the Afghan border. South of Paktia, in Khost province there was a similar withdrawal of Pakistani forces in North Waziristan. This is a temporary fix for the continued disputes over where the Afghan border actually is.