While some Taliban talk about once more occupying Kabul and running the country, most Taliban are more concerned with personal prosperity, peace and some stability. Most mid-level (local) Taliban leaders know the areas they operate in and realize the Taliban do not have much popular support and are actively hated in the non-Pushtun north. Trying to take control of Kabul risks seeing the city destroyed again, as it was in the 1990s after the Russian-backed government collapsed in 1992. These differing attitudes are on hold because Taliban leadership assures everyone that once the Americans are gone the Taliban will be the most powerful force in the country. Many Taliban and most Afghans realize that does not mean the Taliban will be in control of the entire country.
Currently the top leadership of the Taliban are all taking orders from Pakistan, something that most Afghans see as treason. One example of that treason was the recent appointment of
Mullah Yaqoob, the 30-year-old eldest son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, as the commander of Taliban combat operations. This is meant to diminish interest in rumors that the figurehead supreme leader 59-year-old
Mullah Hebatullah Akhundza and his deputy (and real head of the Taliban) 45-year-old Sirajuddin Haqqani, of the infamous Haqqani criminal organization, both have covid19. The Taliban will neither confirm nor deny that any of their senior leaders are ill from the coronavirus. Akhundza is more of a cleric than a military leader. He stayed in Afghanistan most of the time since 2002 and kept a low profile to survive. Sirajuddin Haqqani is a resourceful gangster who sees running the Taliban as more of a business opportunity than a political or religious duty. While
Mullah Omar got along with al Qaeda, his son Yaqoob embraced tactics and teachings of al Qaeda.
Haqqani and Akhundzada all have one thing in common; they will do what Pakistan orders them to and have no problems working with the Afghan drug gangs. That is their main source of income while the Pakistani military provides sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Group, and does not interfere with the drug gangs obtaining chemicals (to create heroin from opium plants) via Pakistan. The Pakistani military also takes a fee from smugglers who move most of that heroin through Pakistan to the rest of the world.
Most Afghans and a growing number of Taliban oppose this Pakistani domination and especially the presence of all that heroin in Afghanistan. Over 80 percent of the world’s heroin is produced in Afghanistan, mainly in Helmand province. Right across the border is Quetta City, the Pakistan sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban. Resentment over being pawns of Pakistan have caused a growing number of Taliban factions to rebel. These defections broke out into open warfare in 2015, led by the example of Mullah Rasool.
The Rasool faction broke away from the Pakistan based Taliban leadership because of a dispute over who should run the Taliban. The current Taliban leader, Mullah Hebatullah Akhundzada, is unpopular with many Taliban faction leaders, in part because Akhundzada is seen as a figurehead and his chief deputy, the head of the Haqqani Network, is actually in charge.
During the late 1990s Mullah Rasool was the Taliban strongman in the southwest as governor of Nimroz. That ended in late 2001 when the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance ousted the Taliban. The Rasool clan had made a fortune controlling the drug smuggling down there. Rasool had lots of contacts in Iran and saw himself as a potential supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban, if only because Rasool was always a close ally of Taliban founder and leaders Mullah Omar. This Taliban civil war is the result of disagreements over who should take over as Taliban leader after it was revealed in 2015 that founder Mullah Omar had died of kidney failure in 2013 (in a Pakistani hospital) at age 53. The information was known to only a few key Omar associates who were accused of doing this as part of a plot to install an Omar successor (Mullah Mansour ) who was second-rate but backed by the Pakistan military. Since Pakistan created it in the mid-1990s, they saw the Taliban as an inexpensive way to keep Afghanistan dependent on Pakistan and cooperative whenever Pakistan wanted something,
From late 2015 to mid-2016 Rasool fought other Taliban factions for control. Heavy fighting began in late November 2015 when Mullah Mansour ordered attacks against the forces loyal to Mullah Rasool. This marked a major defeat for the Taliban as they lost a major asset; unity. Most of the fighting took place in Herat, Zabul and Farah provinces. There were apparently several thousand casualties and the heavy fighting did not cease until July 2016. Meanwhile Pakistan backed their man Mansour, who was then killed in May 2016 by an American air strike. Pakistan used its considerable control over the Afghan Taliban to get the head of the Pakistan backed Haqqani Network appointed as one of the three senior Taliban leaders. Rasool apparently backed down in the face of all this and was thought to have left the country. That was not the case as the Rasool faction remains active in western Afghanistan along the Iranian border. Rasool cooperates with Iran in return for access to Iran for some supplies. Rasool only controls about five percent of Taliban manpower but he is not the only anti-Pakistan 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 Rasool or some other Taliban leader free of Pakistani control. All these dissidents and Rasool 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 (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). 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.
These ISIL defections were more of a nuisance than a threat because ISIL is essentially a self-destructive purist Islamic terrorist faction that considers everyone not part of ISIL to be an enemy. That includes all other Islamic terror groups as well as all existing governments. Joining ISIL is a form of suicide because of the ISIL code of establishing global dominance or die trying. ISIL attacks are planned for maximum shock value and media attention.
The Taliban offers another path, one that brings the possibility of great wealth, or at least a regular job. It is unclear how many Taliban leaders really believe the Taliban can take control of the entire country. To do that would ignore the fact that
the elected Afghan government is largely controlled by the old Northern Alliance coalition of anti-Taliban Afghans who consider the Taliban an instrument of Pakistan influence in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance represents the majority of Afghans who, despite continuing tribal and ethnic differences, agree that heroin is bad and Pakistani interference inside Afghanistan is worse. The Taliban never controlled all of Afghanistan. They had not yet done so on September 11, 2001, the date the U.S. decided to aid the Northern Alliance in defeating the Taliban and Pakistani interference. Nineteen years later that basic situation has not changed. Pakistan will keep trying to control what goes on in Afghanistan and will continue to support the use of terror and mass murder to make that happen.
Worst case if all foreign troops leave and foreign aid is withdrawn (because of the corruption) is that Afghanistan returns to its traditional condition over the last few thousand years. That means the country/region we call Afghanistan gets picked apart by more powerful neighboring states. Traditionally this has meant Persians and Indians. Now its Iranians and Pakistanis (who are basically Indian Moslems who demanded their own Moslem state). Pakistan is broke and economically dependent on China. The Chinese don’t want their numerous investments in Pakistan attacked by Islamic terrorists, tribal separatists or anyone else. Pakistan justifies (to China) the expense of meddling in Afghanistan because it is necessary to control the Pushtun minority in Pakistan. There are twice as many Pushtun in Pakistan as in Afghanistan but Pakistan has a much larger non-tribal (Punjabi and Sindi) population so the Pushtuns are only 15 percent of all Pakistanis. The Baluchi tribes account for another four percent. That makes about 19 percent of Pakistanis tribal and not particularly happy with the Chinese presence or the brutal treatment of tribal people in Pakistan.
Iran historically controlled, when it was profitable to do so, much of western Afghanistan just as the northern Indians controlled eastern Afghanistan and Kabul. This foreign occupation was expensive because the tribes constantly fighting most foreigners. When the once lucrative Silk Road trade route between China and the Middle East/Europe fell out of use (because of cheaper travel via new European ship designs armed with cannon the Chinese, Iranians or Indians lacked). Afghanistan went back to being a region without a unifying government. That changed in the 18th century when the various tribes agreed to declare a kingdom of Afghanistan mainly to keep the foreigners out. A Pushtun king in Kabul kept his job by negotiating with foreigners and providing a neutral space for quarreling tribes to send leaders to try and negotiate an end to the many mutually destructive tribal feuds. Taliban leaders say they want to unite Afghanistan as a caliphate (Islamic religious dictatorship). That fact that caliphates have never worked well or maintained any unity for long is seen as irrelevant. It is God’s Will that Afghanistan become a caliphate. It’s one of those non-negotiable things that kaffirs (non-Moslems) simply cannot comprehend.
There was actually a Kafiristan region of northeast Afghanistan until the 1930s, when the last of the non-Moslem Kaffirs there was killed or converted. These kaffirs were actually an ancient sect of Hindus that Alexander the Great noted when he conquered parts of Afghanistan 2,400 years ago. There are still a few thousand of these kaffirs (called Kalash) living in Pakistan, but just barely. “Pakistan” means, literally, “land of the pure” and these days pure means Sunni Moslem.
Neither Pakistan nor Iran see any profit in annexing adjacent portions of Afghanistan. While Pakistan, or at least the Pakistani military, is content to “tax” Afghan drug operations that need access to Pakistan, the Iranians, like most civilians in the region, see the opium and heroin coming out if Afghanistan as something evil that must be fought. That means the Afghan/Iran border has long been a combat zone between Iranian security forces and armed Afghan drug smugglers.
The Viral Invader
So far, the covid19 coronavirus has been far more lethal in neighboring Iran than in Afghanistan. Iran has 3,286 confirmed cases
and 171 deaths per million population. The Iranian deaths per million are more than double the global average of 79 and higher than nearly 90 percent of the word’s nations. Iran is considered the epicenter of covid19 infections in the region and the source of infection for most of its neighbors. For example, Afghanistan has 912 confirmed cases and 30 deaths per million people, Turkey has 2,614 and 65, India 837 and 20, Pakistan 1,204 and 26. Northern neighbor Tajikistan has 725 and six, while in the Gulf Saudi Arabia has 7,300 cases and 72 deaths per million while the UAE has 5,800 and 34 per million.
Iranian officials recently revealed that they believe about 30 percent of the population is infected and that death rates will reach equally high levels of over a thousand deaths per million people. This would higher than Western nations, which tend to report accurately. Currently Spain has 608 deaths per million while Italy has 580, Britain 667, France 462 and the U.S. 434 deaths per million people.
Afghanistan is, unlike most of its neighbors, still overwhelmingly rural with only about 24 percent of the population living in urban (cities and large towns) areas. About five percent of Afghans are officially classified as “nomads” and most of the rural population has little contact or concern with the urban-based economy or job market. The normal level of violence in rural Afghanistan is higher than in urban areas and much higher than in the West. This was first noted by U.S. Army Special Forces troops who specialized in the region and spoke the languages of Afghanistan (mainly Pushto and the Iranian dialect Dari). The vastly different culture of rural Afghanistan is still largely incomprehensible to Westerners. On the plus side the isolation of rural Afghans protects them from covidd19. Note that the population continues to grow. It is currently about 33 million, but grew from 21 million when the Taliban were ousted in 2001.
Afghan GDP is now expected to decline 5-7 percent in 2020 because of the global economic impact of covid19. Despite that, most urban and many rural
Afghans support the current stability provided by American removal of the Taliban government in 2001. That was followed with billions a year in American financial aid. Since 2001 the economy continues to grow and corruption slowly declines. The reality is that getting Afghanistan into the 20th century, much less the 21st, will take several decades of effort and since 2001 there have been barely two decades.
Most Afghans are well aware that in many ways their lives are much better since the Americans arrived and the Taliban were deposed. GDP has grown continuously since 2001 with average family income increasing noticeably each year.
GDP grew 2.9 percent in 2019 and was expected to do 3.3 percent in 2020, unless the civil war broke out. No Taliban related civil war yet but the unexpected covid19 pandemic did some damage.
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 22 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 a least 80 percent do and life expectancy has risen from 47 years (the lowest in Eurasia) to 62 (leaving Bangladesh to occupy last place). 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. Recently that included money allocated to deal with covid19. This is no surprise to many Afghans who feel the corruption situation won’t show significant improvements, at least in their lifetimes, so many Afghans leave if they can.
More economic growth leads to more rural Afghans arming and defending themselves against Taliban and bandit threats. During 2019 there were 18 percent fewer civilians killed by terrorist violence. The Taliban was responsible for 71 percent, the security forces 14 percent, five percent by ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and nine percent by unknown perpetrators. For most of 2019 it looked like the annual total would be higher but Taliban violence against civilians (and in general) greatly declined in the last three months of the year. The Taliban concentrated on hurting Americans, which was a lot more dangerous for the Taliban. In 2020 civilian casualties continued to decline, mainly because the Taliban were concentrating their attacks on the Afghan security forces and foreign troops. The Taliban continued to cause most of the civilian casualties.
July 20, 2020:
In the east (Kunar province) Pakistani troops fired dozens of rockets and mortar shells at targets inside Afghanistan over the last week. There were some casualties. The national government contacted Pakistan and the Pakistanis apologized and said they would halt the attacks. Back in early 2019 the Afghan government sent the UN a letter complaining about nearly a decade of similar Pakistani border violence. The Afghan letter detailed incidents from 2012 to early 2019 in which Pakistani troops fired 28,849 rockets, mortar or artillery shells into eastern Afghanistan
. Much of this firepower is directed at Kunar province and has been going on since 2010 in an effort to hit real or suspected Pakistani Taliban bases there. These incidents increased to the point where the Afghans began keeping track of them in 2012. Since then this violence has killed or wounded nearly 300 people that the Afghan government knows about. The shelling occurs against rural areas that are often unpopulated so it is unclear if the Pakistanis have hit many Pakistani Taliban. The Pakistani government propaganda insists that these Taliban Islamic terrorists are based in eastern Afghanistan and regularly cross into Pakistan to carry out attacks. The letter details how the situation is getting worse and that since in the previous year alone there had been 161 of these incidents that involved at least 6,025 Pakistani projectiles landing in Afghanistan. The letter pointed out that several elected Pakistani leaders have pledged to halt these border violations but those pledges are ignored by the Pakistani military. There was a large scale (neatly 200 shells and rockets) Pakistani attack in late 2019 but since the UN was notified and the Pakistani habit of cross border attacks became news, there have been fewer of these Pakistani attacks.
In the north (Kunduz province) the Taliban carried out attacks on two border posts. The attacks were repulsed but the point was made; that the Taliban would keeping attacking border posts until border force commanders agreed to cooperate with the Taliban and the drug smugglers that hire the Taliban. Payments from drug gangs are what keep the Taliban in business and business is expected to grow enormously if the Taliban can negotiate a departure of all foreign, especially American, forces. Those negotiations are not going well because not all Taliban factions agree on the terms and that has led to a lot more delays and Taliban violence. Negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government are also stalled because while the government has freed 4,000 imprisoned Taliban, to get back a thousand captured soldiers and police, the Taliban are insisting that the government release 500 Taliban imprisoned for multiple murders as well as planning attacks on civilians. No progress here in over a month.
Turkey banned all commercial flights between Iran and Afghanistan until the covid19 danger recedes.
July 19, 2020: Since late 2019 there have been 17 attacks on religious gatherings by ISIL or the Taliban seeking to intimidate Islamic clergy that speak out against the Taliban. These 17 attacks caused 442 casualties, 39 percent of them fatal.
July 18, 2020:
Nigeria has been officially declared polio free. This comes after three years with no new cases of polio. That means all of Africa is now free of polio, along with Europe, the Americas and most of Asia. Only Afghanistan and Pakistan still suffer from polio. In those two nations the same Moslem intolerance and paranoia that delayed Nigeria becoming polio-free are still in play. Another complaint was that the organization mainly responsible for the “polio free” movement,
Rotary International, is an American fraternal charity whose members are largely responsible for the $5 billion effort to eradicate polio by vaccinating enough children so that the polio virus no longer has a human host and, like smallpox, becomes extinct. This polio free effort began in the 1980s and a decade ago ran into problems with conservative Islamic clergy who spread the rumor that the polio vaccine was actually a plot to poison Moslem children. This has delayed eradication of polio in Nigeria for nearly a decade and still delays it in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
July 14, 2020: Despite the increased Taliban violence, civilian casualties continue to decline. The Taliban leadership has finally accepted and implemented tactics that try to avoid civilian casualties. In the first six months of 2020 there were about 1,200 civilian deaths caused by the Taliban/drug gang violence. For years the civilian deaths 20-30 percent higher. The Taliban has long relied on terror to intimidate rural civilians. That eventually backfired as the rural tribes got better armed, organized and cooperated more with the security forces. The Taliban still account for most of the civilian deaths, but no longer 80-90 percent and that is mainly because of fewer deaths. Most of those missing fatalities would have, in the past, been victims of Taliban violence. For years there were at least 3,000 civilian dead a year. There were some disputes over which dead were the result of the Taliban/drug gang/Islamic terrorist violence and not the normal rural violence. The Taliban are trying to improve their image by reducing their violence against civilians and since the Taliban have long been the main cause of civilian deaths reduction has had some impact. Meanwhile ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and other Islamic radicals continue to kill civilians.
July 12, 2020:
First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum was promoted from general to marshal, as 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 Dostom 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 Dostom. In 2019 Dostum 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, he also wanted to avoid prosecutors who sought him for questioning about the kidnapping and torture of a political rival in the north
(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. Dostum is a powerful man, 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 the 1990s. Dostum is a powerful Uzbek politician, and 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 and drugs. Dostum is their leader but has become popular with Afghans who openly oppose Islamic terrorists. Dostum makes the most of this by regularly giving speeches condemning Islamic terrorism. This involves constantly travelling and exposing himself to terrorist attack. So far he has survived dozens of attacks and this increases 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.
June 27, 2020: A major new railway giving Afghanistan access to world markets
is nearing completion. This is because of the 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 Heart city. 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.
India provided over two billion dollars to upgrade the port of
and build new roads and railroads to Afghanistan and Central Asia. For Iran the Central Asia link is the most valuable one. But for Afghanistan having another way to move most of their imports and exports is a major achievement because Pakistan and Iran will have to complete and that will keep costs down for Afghans and reduce the use of closing the border, which Pakistan has done frequently, to coerce the Afghans.