Afghanistan: Complexity, Chaos And Compromise


September 21, 2018: The U.S. will no longer release data on the number of enemy fighters killed in Afghanistan. The reason is that this “body count” data tends to be used as a measure of success or failure. American military leaders point out that this is not the case and that there are numerous factors that go into calculating who is winning or thinks they are in Afghanistan. The U.S. also wants to avoid repeating the problems with "body count" during Vietnam (especially pressure on commanders to increase it for the enemy). Actually, the Department of Defense has downplayed “body count” data in Afghanistan since 2004 but that effort never got much attention in the media. It still won’t because there are plenty of other sources for casualties. These vary greatly in terms of accuracy, as does the reporting on what goes on in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense does have methods for measuring progress, or lack of it, in Afghanistan. These calculations contain a lot of classified information (especially the stuff obtained from sources inside the Taliban or Pakistani military). So these internal measures of progress are kept secret until long after the events they cover were current events.

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The Americans are trying to use their decades of experience with Afghanistan (a “very complex place” as these veterans put it) to reduce the chaos and prevent the place from becoming a safe haven for drug gangs. If Afghanistan becomes a narco-state that means Islamic terror groups that seek to conquer (or at least terrorize) the world will find sanctuary there. The Afghan Taliban is divided especially over the issue of being controlled by Pakistan and responsible for the growing number of Afghan drug addicts. Then there is also the fact that Afghanistan has been in chaos since the late 1970s (when Russian backed Afghan communists tried to start a revolution). The communists were followed by a Russian invasion, drug gangs, an Islamic revolution, civil war and Pakistan seeking to take control in the 1990s with their Taliban. That led to the American invasion and Pakistan continuing to support the drug gangs and Taliban while assisting the U.S. in its “war on terror.” Many Americans want to just leave. The problem is that leaving just leaves Afghanistan at the mercy of Pakistan, Iran and Russia, as well as all the drug gangs, Islamic terror groups and numerous Afghans who oppose the drugs and all the outside interference. The drugs and Islamic terrorism will still be major exports. The West can leave Afghanistan but the ills of Afghanistan won’t leave the West.

A growing number of Afghan Taliban leaders want peace and an end to being manipulated by the Pakistanis. Despite that, the senior Afghan Taliban leader and the Pakistani generals are not inclined to consider peace talks because of all that money from the drug gangs as well as the ability to “control” (or at least disrupt) Afghanistan. This week the U.S. repeated its accusation that Pakistan had done nothing about the Pakistan sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network and several other Islamic terror groups that do the bidding of the Pakistani military.

Direct peace talks between Afghan Taliban leaders and the United States, which is now a possibility, are very risky for the Taliban and their Pakistani patrons because the existence of their sanctuaries in Pakistan, while denied by the Pakistani military, are an open secret in Pakistan where it is also obvious that the Pakistan military and its intelligence agency (the ISI) handles these sanctuaries. Those sanctuaries make it possible for the Afghan Taliban to plan and organize attacks on internal enemies (factions that oppose Pakistani control). Peace talks between the Americans and factions of the Afghan Taliban are just one of the problems the Afghan Taliban faces. There has been growing internal unrest, mainly between factions that believe they are serving Pakistan at the expense of Afghans. On an individual basis, more Afghan Taliban veterans are quitting to join ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) because they see the Afghan Taliban becoming more of a drug gang security force than anything else. Other Taliban veterans just quit. The Afghan Taliban is gradually losing its true believers (in the original goal of establishing a religious dictatorship in Afghanistan) and turning into mercenaries.

Whatever the Afghan Taliban evolves into the Pakistani military will have a major role to play. The Pakistani military does what it wants in Afghanistan, just like it does in Pakistan, where the military is very much above the law and can usually act like it. That is not a secret because about half the time since Pakistan was created in 1947 the military has openly run the government (after a coup) until popular opposition (and frustration at the task of governing) forced the generals to allow elections again. The Afghan Taliban insist their main goal is to get foreign troops out of Afghanistan but say nothing about suppressing the widely unpopular drug trade. Moreover, terrorism related deaths are overwhelmingly caused by the Islamic terrorists, mainly Taliban and Haqqani Network attacks. These men die protecting the drug production that has turned millions of Afghans into addicts and crippled efforts to build the economy and educate the children. Few Taliban really believe they are doing anything good for Afghanistan or the average Afghan.

To maintain control of the Afghan Taliban the ISI calls on another of their “protected” Islamic terror groups; the Haqqani Network. This group was once a faction in the 1990s Afghan civil war but always had a good relationship with the ISI. Over the last two decades, Haqqani have turned into a criminal gang that also manages terror operations in Afghanistan for ISI. Because of that Haqqani, at the behest of ISI, also became part of the current Afghan Taliban senior leadership. Most Afghans know all about this and are not happy with how the Pakistani military gets away with it. This has caused a split in the Afghan Taliban with several factions still working for drug gangs but refusing to take orders from the ISI controlled Afghan Taliban leadership.

Since 2015 there has been a lot more violence and most of it has involved fighting between Islamic terror groups as well as with local tribal militias and Afghan security forces. What drives this extraordinary degree of violence is the drug trade, which is seen as a quick path to wealth by many uneducated and unemployed Afghans. While Taliban attacks on urban areas is always big news outside of Afghanistan what is important to the Taliban is control of key rural areas where opium and heroin are produced as well as the routes to external markets (usually via Pakistan, as well as Iran and Central Asia). The routes to Pakistan are also important for importing chemicals (to turn opium into heroin), weapons and other illegal suppliers. The Americans are apparently revising their strategy in Afghanistan to recognize the key importance of Pakistan. This is where most of the heroin moves from Afghanistan to world markets (via the Port of Karachi) and where the Pakistan military makes sure whatever the Taliban in Afghanistan needs gets safely to the Afghan border. Since 2oo2 the U.S. has respected Pakistani demands that the Taliban leadership sanctuary in Quetta (the capital of Baluchistan Province and near the Afghan border and Kandahar province, where most of the worlds heroin comes from) not be attacked by American UAVs Apparently those conventions are being reviewed while all military aid to Pakistan has been halted. Pakistan received over $33 billion in aid since 2001. This has caused the Taliban and Pakistan to reconsider their strategy towards the drug trade and efforts to maintain influence over Afghanistan by sponsoring lots of violence inside Afghanistan. By continuing to refrain from hitting Afghan Taliban sanctuaries Pakistan has an incentive to continue allowing NATO to move supplies from the port of Karachi, by road, into Afghanistan.

The Taliban peace talks are with the Pakistan controlled Afghan Taliban and their main demands are an exchange of prisoners, the departure of all foreign troops (except Pakistanis) and enforcement of strict lifestyle laws (especially no education for girls beyond age 12 and women unable to leave the home without a male chaperone). The majority of Afghans oppose this but the Taliban have an army funded by the drug trade and Pakistan (which also provided sanctuaries). The Taliban act like local warlords (a staple of local history for thousands of years) who pledge allegiance to the supreme Taliban leadership that resides in Pakistan and is controlled by Pakistan. Afghans are much more aware and angry about this than foreigners (especially those in the West). Afghans are also aware of how violent their culture even when there is not a major conflict (more the “drug gang/Pakistan” war than the “Taliban war”).

American Special Forces medical specialists noted this when they arrived in force after 2001 and got to know tribes in many parts of the country. Each Special Forces team has two medical specialists who can act as primary care doctors for rural Afghans who have had little contact with modern medicine. The Special Forces medics noted that the norm in many of these tribes was lots of domestic violence and judging from the scars seen on adult males, lots of violence between the men even when there was no war going on.

Meanwhile, the remnants of the Pakistani Taliban hide out in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. A favorite hideout for all sorts of Islamic terrorists, smugglers and outlaws is Nangarhar province where the Afghan military and American forces are constantly seeking out all manner of Islamic terrorists (Haqqani Network, al Qaeda, ISIL and both flavors of Taliban). For example, on August 25th an American airstrike killed the head of the Afghan branch of ISIL. This sort of thing is one reason ISIL has not been able to spread into Pakistan. This is something the Pakistani military would rather not dwell on because Pakistan prefers to insist that Afghanistan and the Americans are not doing enough to suppress Islamic terrorists who are hostile to Pakistan (especially the Pakistani Taliban).

The Iranian Immunity

Due to the worsening economy in Iran (made worse by the American revival of sanctions in March) over 15 percent of the three million Afghan refugees still in eastern Iran have returned to Afghanistan so far this year. Nearly all of these Afghans are Shia who feared to return as long as the Afghan Taliban (and ISIL) were active in Afghanistan. These two groups, and Sunni Islamic terror groups in general, consider Shia heretics and targets them for death on a regular basis. But Iran has made returning to Afghanistan easier by increasing its support for the Afghan Taliban. This gesture is also a favor to Pakistan, which Iran is trying to maintain good relations with (as Pakistan is also an ally of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is the only Moslem nation with nukes).

September 20, 2018: Today is the Shia Ashura, commemorating of the key Shia “saints”. The government has armed and paid Shia to provide additional security for the annual Ashura events. Because Ashura is the major annual Shia religious event it is always a prime target for any anti-Shia groups, mainly ISIL. In the last few days, police arrested 26 suspected ISIL members in Kabul, where ISIL likes to carry out its attacks. While 15 percent of Afghans are Shia most live in central Afghanistan. But they dominate several neighborhoods in Kabul and these are where most of the IISL attacks occur. The Taliban denounce attacks like this and anti-Shia violence has been monopolized by ISIL of late. But in the past, the Taliban killed a lot of Shia. Now, however, the Afghan Taliban is receiving support from Iran, a Shia majority nation that is hostile to groups that kill Shia.

September 17, 2018: In the west (Badghis province) police suffered ten dead in several Taliban attacks. The Taliban lost even more dead and wounded in what was another round of violence to gain control of roads needed to smuggle heroin and opium. These attacks were linked with similar violence in nearby Farah province.

September 16, 2018: In the west (Farah province) the Taliban attacked several checkpoints leaving 27 policemen dead. These attacks are meant to intimidate and eliminate police security on roads the Taliban want to use freely.

September 12, 2018: In the east (Paktika province) police seized a truck from Pakistan carrying over half a ton of ammonium nitrate (used for explosives). Two Haqqani Network members were arrested and it was discovered that the ammonium nitrate came from a Haqqani base across the border in Pakistan (South Waziristan). This shipment of ammonium nitrate was headed for Ghazni province where Islamic terrorists were planning another series of attacks.

September 11, 2018: In the east (Nangarhar Province) over 60 demonstrators were killed (and more than a hundred wounded) in several bombings, included one protesting the appointment of a corrupt police commander as police chief and two more bombs in Jalalabad, the provincial capital, which went off in front of a girls high school. The Taliban denied responsibility for the demonstration bombing and ISIL did not take credit.

September 10, 2018: In the east (Kunar province) there were battles between ISIL and Taliban groups over the last several days. There were several dozen casualties including at least ten dead. The operation also involved American and Afghan special operations forces who checked out the site of the remote ISIL camp after the airstrike.

September 9, 2018: In Kabul, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle exploded (killing seven and wounding 20) near a procession honoring the memory of Ahmad Shah Masud. He was a Tadjik leader assassinated by al Qaeda on September 11, 2001. This killing was done for the Taliban, which had been unable to conquer all of Afghanistan (especially the north) because of the military and political leadership of Mesud. The organization Medud led, the Northern Alliance, still exists and represents the interests of the non-Pushtun majority in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance is no longer a military coalition or even much of a political one. It is more the continued potential for the Northern Alliance to once again become an armed force opposing Pushtun tyranny (especially Pakistan supported Pushtuns).

September 5, 2018: There were several bombings in Kabul, one at a wrestling competition (which Islamic terror groups forbid). All these attacks left 26 dead, most of them Shia Moslems. ISIL took credit.

September 4, 2018: The recent death of Jalaluddin Haqqani, 79 year old founder of the Haqqani Network, was revealed by the Afghan Taliban. Jalaluddin Haqqani was thought to have died in 2014 but that was actually when he became so disabled that he had turn over control of the network to his successor (Siraj Haqqani). This transition was smooth and Siraj Haqqani continued to cooperate with the Taliban and maintain subservience to ISI (Pakistani military intelligence). 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 deal with the mid-2015 power struggle within the Taliban and thwart the recruiting efforts of ISIL. Given that Haqqani works for ISI (the Pakistani CIA), Pakistan had to approve, if not help bring about this new arrangement.

August 28, 2018: The U.S. reported that their warplanes in Afghanistan had used more smart bombs and missiles 746) there during July than any month since 2010. That was also 30 percent more than the 572 in June and 113 percent more than the 350 in May.

August 27, 2018: In the north (Takhar province) a group of Taliban and drug smugglers got into a gun battle at the Tajikistan border with Tajik border guards that left two Tajiks dead. Then there was an airstrike on the Taliban led force that left six Taliban dead and six wounded. The Taliban force retreated. No one could identify the nationality of the attacking aircraft and the Tajiks and Russians (who have troops and warplanes in Tajikistan) denied the aircraft was theirs. Same with the U.S. and Afghanistan. The most likely culprit was Russia, trying to help an ally out while maintaining a low profile.

August 25, 2018: In the east (Nangarhar Province) airstrikes by American and Afghan aircraft killed the ISIL leader for Afghanistan and ten of his followers.

August 24, 2018: In Pakistan, the newly elected prime minister Imran Khan stated his goals; reduce corruption, reduce debt (and constant borrowing to cover budget deficits) and make peace with India by negotiating a deal on Kashmir. What was most telling was what was not mentioned; the dominant political power of the Pakistani military, the military’s use of Islamic terrorists to get Kashmir from India by force and to keep Afghanistan in a constant state of disorder because the Pakistani military prefers it that way. All these unmentioned issues have a lot to do with the high levels of corruption and Indian determination to hang onto Kashmir and deal with the Pakistani use of Islamic terrorists. That has caused Pakistan to become more isolated as more nations agree that for decades the Pakistani military has been supporting and using Islamic terror groups to attack its neighbors. Imran Khan may try to ignore this issue but the rest of the world will not. Imran Khan is believed to be prime minister because the Pakistani generals allowed it to happen and will remove him if the prime minister threatens military wealth, immunity and power. Imran Khan won the elections but did not, as the Pakistani constitution mandates, become the head of a government that actually rules Pakistan.

August 23, 2018: In the east ( Ghazni province) the Afghan Taliban have been waging a major campaign over the last two weeks to gain control of the province. This effort has failed and the Taliban have suffered about a thousand casualties. This is exceptionally high for the Taliban and led to some embarrassing consequences for Pakistan. Among the more than 300 Taliban dead Afghan security forces were able to examine many foreigners (Pakistani, Central Asian and Chechen) were identified. Since the 1990s the Pakistani ISI has sent reinforcements recruited in Pakistan to the Afghan Taliban. Officially the Pakistani denies this happens but occasionally evidence becomes so visible that it is difficult to ignore or deny with any assurance of being believed. In addition to the foreign dead left behind the Afghan Taliban took some of their dead with them (as they always try to do to prevent identification) and those from Pakistan were smuggled across the border so their families in Pakistan could bury them. This practice is essential if the Afghan Taliban want to continue recruiting from Pushtun tribes across the border in Pakistan and maintain good relations with those tribes. A growing number of people in those tribes now have smartphones and access to social media sites where they post family news, like recent funerals and who the deceased was. A lot of deaths recently were young men who, gossip indicated, were working in Afghanistan. The pay was good but it was dangerous. But at least the family got the body back and a substantial cash payment.

In addition, a lot of the Taliban casualties showed up in Pakistani hospitals and received treatment. That became news because it was rare for there to be so many casualties like this at once when, officially, there was nothing going on in Pakistan. Those casualties were the result of unexpectedly prompt and effective resistance by Afghan security forces, armed locals and American air support in Ghazni province. This disrupted and defeated the large-scale effort against the city and several rural areas nearby. Ghazni is near the Pakistani border and contains some major heroin smuggling routes into Pakistan. These routes are kept open by the Taliban. Ghazni has long been fought over, because of the heroin smuggling routes. Normally the drug gangs find it cheaper and more reliable to use bribes but because of the growing number of addicts inside Afghanistan the bribes sometimes don’t work and the national government often sends down commandos and NDS (Afghan intel) agents to carry out specific tasks which tend to be bribe-proof. Massive intimidation attacks like this often fail, mainly because of the popular anger towards the drug gangs that keep supplying the local addicts. The fact that the Afghan Taliban has always been supported by Pakistan is another incentive to fight back.

Opposing Pakistani meddling in Afghan affairs is a popular issue among most Afghans. One reason Western troops are tolerated in Afghanistan, which has, for thousands of years been hostile to foreigners, is because the Westerners and Afghans are both eager to shut down the drug trade and keep the Pakistanis out. Pakistan sees battles like Ghazni as a success because over 400 Afghans (including security personnel and civilians) were killed and there was a degree of intimidation achieved. Operations like this cost Pakistan little as the Afghan drug gangs supply the cash required. They have no choice because the ISI can deny easy access to Pakistan for needed supplies (chemicals for converting opium into heroin) and secure smuggling routes through Pakistan to the port city of Karachi. It was later discovered that most of the 500 (or more) foreign fighters ISI supplied for the Ghazni battle cane from three known Pakistan based Islamic terror groups known to work for ISI. The most prominent of those with a contingent in Ghazni was the Haqqani Network, whose leader currently runs the Afghan Taliban.

The Afghan prime minister is demanding that his newly elected Pakistani counterpart do something about what happened in Ghazni province. So the official Pakistani response is; “it wasn’t us.” Pakistani prime minister Imran Kahn will eventually meet with his Afghan counterpart but first he has to meet with leaders of nations that are more important to Pakistan, like Saudi Arabia and China. To Pakistanis, Afghanistan is more than of a potential problem than anything else. But to Afghanistan, and most of the world community, the biggest problem in Afghanistan is not the Taliban or the drug gangs, but Pakistan.

August 17, 2018: The Afghan air force received the first five of 30 MD-530F armed helicopters that were ordered in 2017. All 30 of these armed helicopters will be delivered by 2019.




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