Afghanistan: Deadline Fever


March 4, 2021: The government estimates that the Taliban have 30,000 paid gunmen in action plus thousands of armed civilians who are compelled (under threat of attack on families) to participate in some combat operations. The government claims they kill twice as many enemy fighters (mostly Taliban) than security forces lose each year. Taliban losses have increased more sharply (more than doubling) since 2014 than those of the security forces, which have increased nearly 50 percent. The government believes it can negotiate from a position of strength with the Taliban, who seem to think getting all foreign troops out of the country by the May 1st deadline will dramatically change their chances of defeating the Afghan government and opposition forces in general and take control of the entire country. That won’t happen because most of the population backs armed resistance to the Taliban. It’s not just the numbers, but superior equipment, weapons and training that favor the anti-Taliban forces.

This is not a unique situation nor is it the first time it occurred. From the late 1990s to late 2001 the Taliban were struggling to take control of the entire country and financing that effort with cash from Pakistan backed-drug gangs. The Taliban thought that because the Afghan government had been destroyed in the early 1990s, while Pakistani support for the Taliban remained, the entire country could be conquered eventually. They were wrong then and are in a worse position now.

Unlike the 1990s, the Taliban face a national government that has the support of most Afghans and lots of financial support from foreign donors. Nearly half the government budget is provided by this aid and 36 percent of the budget goes to maintain the security forces, which have ten times as many armed men as the Taliban. In the 1990s the government the Russians left behind when they withdrew all their troops in the late 1980s was still functioning because of Russian financial support. That support ended after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and, without the Russian cash, the Afghan government could not maintain enough security forces to make a difference. Yet the Taliban believe that withdrawal of foreign troops will make a difference now when it didn’t in the late 1980s.

This pattern of Taliban self-deception was first observed in 2015 when the Taliban told its followers that an easy victory was theirs because most foreign troops were being withdrawn in 2014. By the end of 2014, some 300,000 Afghan police and soldiers had assumed responsibility for security all over the country and as a result took a lot more casualties getting that done. At least 5,000 soldiers and police died in 2014, the first year the Afghans had to provide security nationwide. That produced a loss rate of about 2,400 dead per 100,000 troops per year. In 2013 it was about 1,890 which was a big increase from 2007, when the Afghan rate was about 700 dead per 100,000. The rate for 2015 was over 3,000 dead per 100,000, the first full year after most foreign troops had withdrawn. This loss rate was about twice that suffered by American troops during World War II but not unusual for recent Afghan history. Most Afghans will fight if there is the prospect of reward and that has come to mean army or police salary or payments from drug gangs or Taliban criminal activities.

The Purge

The Taliban recently issued a public declaration that foreigners were no longer allowed in the Taliban. This was a response to public criticism about the growing number of foreigners in Taliban ranks. Even pro-Taliban civilians oppose long-time Taliban use of foreigners in their combat units. The presence of foreigners also reminds everyone that Taliban have long been criticized as controlled by the Pakistani army. This was the case from the beginning, when the original (mid-1990) Taliban were recruited from among Afghan refugees who fled the 1980s Russian invasion but were still in Pakistan. The refugee camps were in border areas where the local population were also Pushtun tribes, as were most of the refugees. The Pakistan army, which organized the formation of the Taliban, sent in men dressed as civilians, to advise and keep an eye on this new faction meant to end the civil war that broke out after the Russians left in the late 1980s. These Pakistani Taliban were ordered to leave as soon as it appeared Taliban rule was collapsing after the U.S. intervened on the side of anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in late 2001. The Northern Alliance (of northern non-Pushtun tribes) were the first to publicize the presence of Pakistanis in the Taliban and the control Pakistan always had over the Taliban. That support became more obvious after 2001 when Pakistan provided sanctuary for the Taliban leadership in southwest Pakistan (Baluchistan), something the Taliban were unable to hide given the number of prominent Taliban living openly in the Baluchistan capital.

Pakistan always denied that there was any sanctuary arrangement or any Pakistani members of the Taliban. That was always considered a lie because of the Afghan security forces custom of returning the dead to their families for burial. This was accepted as an ancient Afghan custom and it led to a lot of the Afghan dead being taken to a border crossing where Pakistani family members to claim them. While this was a constant embarrassment for the Taliban and Pakistan but interfering with return of the dead to their families was considered likely to stir up Pushtun unrest in Pakistan.

One way to avoid this embarrassment was for the Taliban to take their dead, as well as their wounded with them when they retreated. Identifying dead Afghan Taliban gave the security forces information on where the Taliban were recruiting and which families might be the source of Taliban support. Over the last few years the Taliban have been suffering more casualties, with large numbers of dead left on the battlefield. The army identifies the dead and the number of foreigners is always newsworthy in Afghanistan where most people blame Pakistan for all this violence. In some recent incidents most of the dead were Pakistanis or Islamic terrorists from other parts of the world, like Chechnya and Central Asia. The percentage of Pakistani members has been increasing.

The Exodus

Thousands of Afghans a month are using people smugglers to get them out of the country, usually via Iran. At the same time nearly as many Afghan refugees still in Iran since the 1980s are being forced or persuaded to return to Afghanistan. Too many of those who can afford to pay the smuggler fees are personnel with practical or formal training who know their skills will earn them a lot more outside Afghanistan. It’s also a lot safer outside Afghanistan. The steady loss of skilled Afghans makes it harder to operate an efficient government or effective security forces. The loss of military advisors, if the May 1 departure deadline actually happens, will accelerate the departure of trained Afghans from the air force and army support services. The American and NATO advisors filled in for the insufficient number of Afghans and kept the aircraft flying, the pilots being trained and all manner of complex operations working. Loss of these advisors will be felt gradually as airstrikes and air transport are less available and moving personnel and supplies to where they are needed becomes a lot more difficult.

March 3, 2021: In the west (Herat province) Afghan commandos raided a Taliban prison and freed 34 hostages. These included 11 soldiers, seven police, three airmen and 13 civilians. Six Taliban were killed during the operation, which also captured weapons and ammunition. Some of the prisoners had been tortured for information and all were being kept for use exchanges for imprisoned Taliban or cash ransoms.

March 2, 2021: In the east (Nangarhar Province) Afghan commandos located and raided the main Taliban headquarters in the province. This facility controlled the movement of personnel and goods into and out of Pakistan, which borders Nangarhar. Among the items captured during the raid was some of the drugs that the Taliban is paid to get across the border into Pakistan. Not surprisingly this headquarters raid was followed by similar operations against Taliban storage sites for weapons and other items of value. This rapid-follow-up technique was learned from the Americans who shared their database and intel analysis tools with the Afghans, especially the Afghan commandos, who are now equipped to rapidly verify and exploit information found in a raid so they can go capture other sites before the word gets around that the purpose of those other sites is now revealed and a raid is on the way. The window of opportunity of often less than an hour or a few hours or days.

February 27, 2021: Afghan media reported that Mirza Katawazai, the deputy chairman of the Afghan parliament, was being investigated for months old smuggling attempt uncovered in Tajikistan. At the time of the revelations Katawazai had just arrived in Tajikistan on an official visit. Katawazai is believed to be in Tajikistan not so much for official business but to see what he can do to get rid of this corruption investigation.

The smuggling attempt was discovered in November 2020 and involved $15 million in cash plus 90 kg (198 pounds) of gold bars worth $5 million and believed to come from a legal, but often plundered, Afghan gold mine. Investigators managed to uncover that the money was going to the UAE by air, which was a method also favored by drug smugglers. The investigators were motivated more by the drug connection because addiction is a growing problem in Tajikistan while corrupt politicians are considered less of a public health issue. The drug gangs usually move money out of Afghanistan and Tajikistan to places where it can be banked and “laundered” for use anywhere. The investigation discovered the involvement of Afghan politicians, which wasn’t unusual but in this case the drug connection turned out to be absent. Since then, the Afghan politicians involved have been scrambling to suppress the story by bribing Tajik investigators and officials as well as inventing a cover story to explain their involvement if that could not be “bribed away”. Afghan media got hold of the story from Tajik media and police sources. Now the Afghan government is launching an official investigation, which may or may not be a real investigation rather than part of the cover-up.

February 24, 2021: In Kabul the U.S. turned over another 640 vehicles to the Afghan army. Most (63 percent) were hummers or motorcycles (26 percent). The rest were specialist vehicles like ambulances or Ford Ranger pickups as modified for police use.

February 23, 2021: A UN analysis of war casualties in Afghanistan concluded that civilian victims in 2020 were fifteen percent less than in 2019. The civilian deaths began to decline in 2018 and are now below 3,000 a year. Back in 2014 nearly 4,000 civilians a year were being killed, most often by the Taliban, which is usually responsible for 70-80 percent of such deaths. The security forces account for 10-20 percent, 3-10 percent by ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and the rest (often as many as ten 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. That trend continued into 2020 as the Taliban concentrated on hurting Americans and Afghan security forces, which was a lot more dangerous for the Taliban. In late 2020, when peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban began, civilian casualties increased as the Taliban switched to more terror attacks on civilians to encourage support for giving the Taliban whatever they wanted. The Taliban were supposed to halt their attacks on Americans after the February 2020 ceasefire agreement with the United States. The Taliban attacks on U.S. troops declined but never stopped completely. In 2020 eleven American troops died in Afghanistan. That’s way down from the 26 in 2019.

February 20, 2021: In Kabul there were three vehicle explosions, caused by bombs attached to automobiles by magnets and detonated using a wireless command or a timer. Five people were killed and two wounded. These ”sticky” bombs have been used frequently in Kabul since late 2020 to intimidate government officials who oppose any Taliban control of the government. These bombs are a deliberate Taliban tactic to murder individuals without killing a lot of nearby civilians. Usually, only people in the car are killed or injured. People standing next to the vehicle, like police at a checkpoint, are also vulnerable. Since there bombs first showed up security forces have arrested over 400 of those responsible for placing the bombs or supervising the manufacture and placement of the bombs. Many of the bomb placers were coerced by the Taliban to do it to avoid their families being harmed.

In the north (Balkh Province) a Taliban bomb making class held in a mosque ended when a bomb went off, killing at least 30 students and instructors. Present were several known bomb builders but, as has happened several times before, someone made a fatal error during a “how to” demonstration. Six of the dead were foreigners.

February 14, 2021: Pakistani media reported that the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Hebatullah Akhundzada, had apparently been killed in late 2020 while presiding over a meeting of senior Taliban personnel in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan in southwest Pakistan where the Afghan Taliban have had sanctuary since 2002. The Taliban denied that Akhundzada was dead but he has not been seen in public for months and the explosion was reported in local media. If true, it would not be the first time someone tried to kill Akhundzada with a bomb. In 2019 rivals planted a bomb with a timer in a Baluchistan Mosque that Akhundzada and other family members regularly attended. On the day the bomb went off Akhundzada was late arriving. The bomb went off killing a brother of Akhundzada and four others while wounding over twenty. At first no one took credit for the bombing and the rival Rasool faction was blamed. 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.

February 13, 2021: In the west (Herat province) two explosion at the Islam Qala Iran border crossing caused about five hundred trucks carrying fuel or compressed natural gas to burn up or explode. Another 500 trucks were damaged. At one point the chain explosion was so large that an American photo satellite detected it. Seven people died and 60 were wounded. No one immediately took credit for planting bombs, and it appears that the two explosions were accidental, with at least one of them the result of gunfire. The large queue of trucks waiting to clear customs and enter Afghanistan made easy for one truck fire to quicky spread. The crowded conditions at the Islam Qala crossing were the result of corruption and incompetence on the Iraqi side, where border control officials were more concerned about extracting bribes from drivers than moving traffic as quickly as possible. This disaster disrupted the main source of hydrocarbon fuels for western Afghanistan. As news of the truck losses spread petroleum prices in western Afghanistan increased 25 percent or more. The cargoes destroyed in ruined or damaged trucks were worth over $10 million and were uninsured. The loss of so many vehicles at once and unexpectedly will increase transport costs until replacement vehicles arrive, a process that will take months to complete. The impact of this conflagration will be felt in western Afghanistan for a long time.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close