Afghanistan: Who Is In, Who Is Out


April 6, 2021: Pakistan, Iran, India, China and Central Asian nations all have different plans for handling another Taliban attempt to take control of the entire country. Pakistan believes they still have sufficient clout to compel the Taliban to follow orders. One aspect of this is Pakistan spending a lot of money to reinforce border security with Afghanistan, making everyone more dependent on the few legal crossing points. These crossings are based on a good road and staffed with border guards and customs officials who enforce whatever the current rules are about who or what can go either way and how much you have to pay, legally or illegally. The Iran border is even more dangerous if the Taliban try to take control of western Afghanistan or continue attacking Shia Afghans. Iran is the largest and most powerful Shia majority nation in the world, and takes that status very seriously and violently when Shia are attacked in neighboring countries. Unlike the 1990s, Iran now has lots of combat veterans defending the Afghan border. There are also Afghan Shia militias inside Afghanistan that are loyal to Iran. These militias contain thousands of Afghan Shia veterans of service as Iranian mercenaries in Syria. Iran also has a newly built port for landlocked Afghanistan, and Central Asia, to use. India supplied the money and Iran the territory for a highway and railway going from western Afghanistan to a new Indian Ocean port near the Pakistani border. That makes it more difficult for Pakistan to threaten Afghanistan with loss of road access to the outside world if the Afghans do not comply with Pakistani demands.

The Taliban trying to play Iran and Pakistan against each other is difficult because Iran considers the Taliban a Pakistan controlled operation. Similar situations exist on the Central Asian borders. China has a miniscule border with Afghanistan that is virtually impossible for any smugglers. China is also the major supplier of weapons to Pakistan and provides billions of dollars’ worth of construction projects, especially new road, rail and pipeline links from China to a new port near the Iranian border. China and Iran recently signed a 25-year military-economic cooperation deal that will make Iran as dependent on China as Pakistan already is. Iran has an alternative to China in India, which Iran maintains good diplomatic and economic relations with. China and India are locked in a bitter and increasingly violent border dispute. In this case geography and history matter as Iran and India have been trading and interacting for thousands of years while China was a distant mystery. One of the India-Iran historical interactions was joint control of Afghanistan when the ancient Silk Road caravan route between China and the rest of Eurasia was a valuable economic link between strangers. China is decidedly anti-drug and anti-Islamic terrorism. China has leverage, but not control, over Pakistan and Iran. If China opposes another Taliban attempt to take control of the entire country, chances of Taliban success decline to miniscule levels.


According to a national survey there are now 32.9 million Afghans, an increase of 57 percent since the Taliban lost power in late 2001. One of the more obvious changes is the national capital; Kabul. In 2001 it had a population of half a million but twenty years later that has increased ten times to five million.

Despite the population growth, over two-thirds of the population still lives in the countryside. That means it is difficult to safely promote education for everyone. That means efforts to increase the literacy rate (the lowest in Eurasia) are stalled. Despite over a decade of building schools (currently ten million Afghans are in school), the adult (all those over 15) literacy rate is 43 percent compared to 31.5 percent in 2001 and 18 percent in 1979, when the four decades of war began. Since 2002 over ten million Afghans have received at least a basic education and nearly half of those have been female, despite vigorous Taliban efforts to block that. Since 2014 the Taliban have put a priority on destroying schools, especially those that educate girls. The number of girls getting an education is declining and their parents are not happy about this. In some areas the pro-education beliefs are so strong that the Taliban backs off on the “no school for girls” policy in order to avoid more armed resistance than the Islamic terrorists can handle. In most parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban terrorize or kill enough parents to keep the schools shut. This sort of thing fuels the growth in Afghans fleeing the country for the chance of a better life somewhere else.

Nearly all the newly literate are young, creating a growing problem as one other item dividing the younger and older Afghans. But in the rural areas over 80 percent of women are still illiterate. That has become less of an issue because since 2002 cell phone service has become available for nearly all of the rural areas. For a largely illiterate population this is a big deal. At the same time over half the population has access to the Internet. Unlike cell phones the Internet is most useful to those who are literate. By increasing literacy efforts, especially among adults, the government hopes to speed up economic growth and reduce support for Islamic terrorists. More literacy means more economic growth and, while most children are growing up literate, without more literacy among adults economic progress is limited. This is acceptable to the Taliban who base their strategy on Islamic fundamentalism which regards most technology introduced since the 8th century as “un-Islamic”. For many Moslems this is a belief worth killing and dying for. A growing percentage of literate Afghans are no longer willing to fight traditionalists like the Taliban and concentrate on moving to some other part of the world. This is making Afghan smugglers rich and depriving the country of talent it has lacked until now.

Smuggling has long been a major part of the Afghan economy. While the drug smuggling is still doing well, the people smugglers are seeing less business because fewer of those who pay to be smuggled out are allowed to stay in the West and that discourages some from trying. Since 2015 a growing number of Afghans have been forcibly returned by Western countries. More illegal migrants are also returning from Iran and Pakistan, often voluntarily (or semi-voluntarily) because of poor economic conditions and hostility towards foreigners. Afghans still want to leave but first they have to find a destination they can expect to settle in, not just visit briefly.

Most of those who leave are the best educated or with skills Afghanistan needs. Continued violence and world-leading levels of corruption have made life more difficult for those able to make money legitimately. Afghanistan is also considered the least safe country in the world. According to a 2020 Gallup Global Law and Order survey, Afghanistan was in last place. The safest country was Singapore with a rating of 97. The Philippines, Australia and New Zealand all had a rating of 84. The U.S. rating was 85. Afghanistan was the least safe, at 43. The annual in-person surveys were conducted in late 2019. A representative sample of the population was asked how safe they felt, how much confidence they had in local police and if they had been a victim of crime in the last 12 months.

The Missing Link

The Afghan military is facing a catastrophe because they are losing the last of the American military advisors by May 1st. These American troops were essential for ensuring that the foreign contractors America still pays for are used effectively. In early 2021 the U.S. Department of Defense reported that there were 18,000 contractors in Afghanistan, about seven for each remaining American soldiers. Demand for foreign military contractors has always been strong in Afghanistan and the current number is seen as inadequate. That’s because many of the contractors are needed to support Afghan forces, which are chronically short of locals who can supply such logistical and technical support skills for the security forces. American troops are the most reliable way of spotting corruption among Afghans or foreign contractors. The American military advisors also manage the most effective military training centers.

April 1, 2021: Islamic terrorist violence in March were up 20 percent over the previous month. The March violence left 305 dead and nearly 400 wounded. This about 25 percent higher than the 2020 average and is part of the Taliban effort to bully their domestic opponents (the government and local militias) into accepting the possibility of Taliban rule. The increased violence has the opposite effect inside Afghanistan but does frighten some foreign governments and most foreign media. Inside Afghanistan the response is more something of a reminder that; “there are more of us, we will fight, we defeated you last time and you are widely despised criminals working for Pakistan.” That means civil war because a lot of the armed opponents of the Taliban will come from local militias determined to prevent a repeat of what happened in the late 1990s when the Pakistan sponsored Taliban almost won the civil war before the Americans intervened on the side of the remaining opposition forces, mainly the Northern Alliance.

There’s also a tribal angle to this. The Taliban and drug gangs are largely composed of Pushtun tribesmen. About 40 percent of Afghans are Pushtun and many of the Pushtuns oppose the Taliban, drug gangs and Pakistani interference. A new development is the Pakistan-based PTM (Pashtun Tahafuz Movement or Pashtun Protection Movement) that has been around since 2014 but has become popular enough in the last few years to attract the interest of Pakistani military censors, who decide which groups or individual Pakistani critics are worth some fatal attention. By 2018 the Pakistani military had banned anything about PTM in the mass-media. That just increased PTM use of the Internet and social media. By 2019 this led to the Pakistani military dispatching its death squads to kill or intimidate prominent PTM leaders or supporters, especially those active in the Internet and living in Pakistan. This included the arrest of two Pushtun MPs (members of parliament). Since then, the PTM has remained non-violent while the Pakistani military has made itself more unpopular with most Pakistanis by continuing efforts to suppress PTM.

Some PTM demonstrations, especially outside the tribal territories in the northwest, got very violent. This was especially the case in Karachi, where PTM demonstrations turn violent when the police and non-Pushtuns attack the demonstrators. That is fairly normal in Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan, largest port and home to about 14 percent of the national population. Karachi attracts people from all over the country. That makes it easier to find some new group to hate. A growing number of Pustuns have fled the violence in their northwest Pakistan homeland for cities like Karachi. Non-Pushtuns are often hostile to Pushtuns, and any other minority in Pakistan, Pushtuns are 15 percent of the Pakistan population and most live in the northwest where they outnumber the Afghan Pushtuns across the border by two to one. The Pushtun have long complained about poor treatment by the Pakistani government and particularly the army, which supports the Afghan Taliban but is at war with the Pakistani Taliban and many other Pushtuns in Pakistan. The PTM is mainly about the Pakistani Pushtuns uniting to oppose mistreatment of Pushtuns in general. While the PTM calls for peaceful demonstrations the military has declared the PTM is a threat and thus considered a hostile opposition organization. The main reason for this was that the peaceful demonstrations of the PTM were attracting more non-Pushtuns who not only agreed with the PTM complaints against the military but pointed out that the military is hostile to any Pakistani who speaks up and denounces the many misdeeds of the military. The PTM has Pushtun fans in Afghanistan, where Pushtuns also suffer from Pakistani military policies towards Pustuns. The most prominent reform movement among Afghan Pushtuns is the “People’s Peace Movement.” The Taliban is not yet decided whether this group should be considered an enemy or not. After all, one of the official goals of the Taliban is bringing peace to Afghanistan.

April 5, 2021: Covid19 is the least of Afghanistan’s problems, but it is a threat because of neighboring Iran, where the arrival of the virus was deliberately downplayed by the religious dictatorship, who insisted that Moslems were immune to it. They weren’t and before reality was recognized the covid19 death rate for Iran was more than double the global average and higher than 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, so far Afghanistan has 63 admitted deaths per million people compared to Iran with an admitted rate of 747 deaths per million and internal reports of more than twice that. Meanwhile Turkey reports 382, India 119, Iraq 355 and Pakistan 67. Further away Saudi Arabia has 190 deaths per million and the UAE 151. In Europe Spain has 1,620, Britain 1,861 and Sweden 1,330. The U.S. rate is 1,712. The world average is 369 deaths per million.

April 3, 2021: The NDS (National Directorate of Security) reported that all indications were that the Taliban was not preparing for peace but for continued war. The Taliban insists to foreigners that they are dedicated to a peaceful settlement but the NDS is considered a key element in government success against drug gangs and the Taliban and has a track record for accuracy in finding out what the Taliban is up to. For that reason, there have been more Taliban assassination attacks against key NDS officials and large scale assaults on NDS facilities. These attacks cause the Taliban lots of losses. That is considered worth the cost if it slows down NDS investigations.

April 2, 2021: In the east (Nangarhar Province) Afghan commandos located and raided an ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) hideout and captured the head of the provincial ISIL group and nine of his followers. ISIL has no allies in Afghanistan and over the last few years Taliban and al Qaeda have been passing on to the government and Americans accurate information of where ISIL personnel are. This has led to many accurate airstrikes and raids against ISIL, a group that persists because it is the highest embodiment of the ultimate “more Islamic than thou” Islamic terrorist.

March 30, 2021: In the east (Khost province) Taliban forces fired several rockets at a military base shared by Afghan and foreign troops. The Taliban took credit for the attack, which makes it a violation of the February 2020 agreement that had American forces leaving Afghanistan by May 1st in return for an immediate Taliban ceasefire, at least regarding attacks on American forces. This agreement has not been working, partly because not all Taliban factions agree with it and partly because the current Afghan government refuses to step aside for a Taliban government and insists it will fight and at least block any Taliban plans for attempting to gain nationwide control. Many Taliban leaders believe they are on a Mission from God and can take otherwise irrational risks because Allah (God) is on their side. These Taliban are also big fans of those portions of their scripture (the Koran) that describe how it is right and proper to lie to non-believers to gain an advantage.

March 21, 2021: President Ghani offered a three-step peace process with the Taliban that first involves a negotiated power sharing arrangement approved by a Loya Jirga (great conference) , which generally considered more representative of what Afghans want than Taliban press releases. The Taliban learned that in the late 1990s, when they were trying to take control of all of Afghanistan and were prevented from do so because most Afghans demonstrated a hostility towards the Taliban and the drug gangs that finance the Taliban. Those attitudes have not changed and a Loya Jirga is a pretty convincing reminder. For example, a 2019 Loya Jirga was held in Kabul and brought together three thousand prominent Afghans (tribal leaders and politicians) from all over the country to discuss important issues that concerned everyone . Over the last decade Loya Jirgas have dealt with issues like how much longer to host foreign troops. Most left by 2014 despite Loya Jirga advice that some should stay. Former president Karzai's 2013 plea for a peace deal with the Taliban was thwarted because the Loya Jirga was hostile to the idea . The main function of the Jirga is for leaders from around the country to get a sense of the attitudes of other tribes and form a consensus.

Loya Jirga is a Pushtun word, but it a common practice among the Indo-European tribes that have occupied the region for over 5,000 years. The purpose of the Loya Jirga has changed because of technology. Those now attending have cell phones and access to international radio and TV news. A Loya Jirga is no longer a meeting of strangers. Local J irgas are meetings of people who are often distantly related to each other and are more frequently used to settle local or family disputes. Loya Jirgas used to be rare events, but now that are much more frequent (almost annual affairs) and an opportunity to achieve some kind of national consensus. Back in 2019 the Taliban declared any Loya Jirga called by that government as illegitimate. That created another reason for most Afghans to despise and oppose the Taliban.

The second and third phases of the Ghani Plan involve a ceasefire and nationwide elections, validated by foreign monitors, to approve any power sharing agreement the government, Taliban and Loya Jirga approved of. The Taliban expressed hostility to all aspects of the Ghani Plan, which does have the support of many Afghans and neighboring nations.

The Ghani proposals was not aimed at the Taliban senior leadership, which is still under the control, of at least heavily influenced, by Pakistan. Ghani was talking to the many Taliban factions that oppose or even resist the Pakistan dominated senior Taliban leadership. These factions have been growing and now control or heavily influence over a third of the 30,000-armed Taliban and a slightly higher percentage the several million Taliban supporters. Most of these supporters are from the ten percent of the population that receives any economic benefit from the drug business, mainly by growing opium and other addictive plants and then processing and preparing the drugs for distribution locally and, for the most part, foreign markets. This illegal drug trade accounts for at least ten percent of the national GDP and is by far the most profitable economic activity in Afghanistan. Despite that most Afghans are hostile to the drugs and many local addicts it created. Neighboring countries have the same attitude.

The anti-drug attitudes have influenced many Taliban faction leaders to differ (openly or quietly) with senior leadership. This would be important if there were another civil war. Senior Taliban leaders and their Pakistani patrons realize that uncertainty about how many armed Taliban would side with the Pakistan backed forces makes Taliban less certain, despite their divine backing, that they would prevail.

March 20, 2021: Despite Taliban assurances to the U.S. that no Islamic terrorist support would be allowed if the Americans pulled all their troops out by May 1st, the Taliban recently released photos of its current network of twelve training camps. It is uncertain if there are actually twelve camps and the Taliban took care not to show enough background details in the photos that would enable the American intel analysts to pinpoint where the camp is and bomb it. This has happened numerous times in the past. However many camps there are and how many are permanent or transitory, the images show that the camps are mainly about teaching the fundamentals of irregular warfare to newly hired gunmen. Also featured were training of those few who volunteered for suicide bomber attacks as well as a larger number training to join the elite shock troop units. All trainees receive lots of religious indoctrination explaining how what the Taliban does is God’s Will and all who oppose the Taliban are enemies of Islam.

Not publicized is the continued support for al Qaeda, which is taken as a given for Taliban leaders, despite the hostility of every neighboring nations to that. The Taliban also leave out any mention of their dependence on the drug gangs (for cash) and Pakistan (for continued sanctuary for senior leaders and badly wounded personnel). Also left 0ut are the support from the Pakistani military in getting essential chemicals and equipment into Afghanistan for the manufacture of heroin and access to Pakistan (especially the port of Karachi) for distributing the heroin internationally. The other two export routes, Iran and Central Asia, are dangerous (government and popular opposition to drugs) and more expensive (higher bribes to overcome the resistance).




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