With most of the foreign troops gone the Taliban and other outlaws can now engage in terror attacks with less risk of retaliation. Two decades of Taliban activity in Afghanistan have taught most tribes that the best way to deal with this is to arm and defend yourself. The tribes don’t like to do this because it is expensive (more ammo and weapons are needed) and disruptive to the lives of tribal members. The Taliban see this self-defense trend as a major threat. Recruiting and movements are greatly restricted the more self-defense militias there are. The Taliban already know this from experience in parts of the country (mainly the north) where they have very little popular support and lots of armed and hostile tribesmen. The Taliban has been spending more and more effort fighting the tribal militias. Another new enemy for the Taliban are members who have defected to ISIL
(Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and gone to war with a Taliban they see as sell-outs and reactionary Islamic radical pretenders. There have already been some fatal clashes between ISIL and Taliban in eastern and southern Afghanistan. ISIL has also attracted recruits from the Pakistani Taliban and released a video showing a former leaders of another Pakistan Islamic terrorist faction now becoming a leader of the Pakistani branch of ISIL.
The Taliban (or local drug gangs assuming the name) only have a lot of control in four of 373 districts (each province is composed of districts). The Taliban are very active in over ten percent of districts, mainly in the south (Helmand and Kandahar, where most of the heroin is produced) and the east (where many ISI supported Islamic terrorist groups operate). Eastern Afghanistan is also the main transit route for drug exports and those drugs (heroin, opium and a few others) generates the cash that keeps the Taliban a major problem. There is also significant Taliban activity in the north, where another major drug smuggling route goes through Central Asia. But the main route is in the east, which goes to the Pakistani port of Karachi and thence the world. While the Taliban related violence is usually described as the Taliban on the attack the reality is that the Taliban are trying to defend their drug production areas and the territory through which the drug exports go. Over 90 percent of the drugs produced in Afghanistan are exported because that’s where the money is. There are over two million Afghan addicts (and that is a major reason for Taliban unpopularity) and they not afford to pay much for their opium or heroin. It’s the foreign users who pay the most. Follow the money if you want to find out what is wrong in Afghanistan and why.
The drug gangs prefer to use money to get their way and make payments to thousands of military and police commanders as well as tribal leaders and warlords. The bribes don’t always work. A growing number of politicians and commanders won’t take bribes. Tribal leaders have found that the bad behavior of Taliban gunmen in their villages makes taking a bribe to ignore the Taliban presence unworkable.
The tribal leaders and the active (honest) commanders now point out to the Americans that with the return of some U.S. air power the Taliban would be hurt a lot more. This is useful because the Taliban have become more of a criminal gang and business enterprise than a religious movement. Make the cost of working for the Taliban too high and these Islamic terrorists attract less competent recruits and leaders. That phenomenon has been in play for years now and has hurt the Taliban big time. That’s why a lot of Taliban leaders are willing to negotiate a peace deal. But with the American troops and air power gone the senior Taliban are calling on their followers to be bolder and see how much safer it is to be bad these days. It has become somewhat safer for the thugs but, so far, not as safe as promised. Meanwhile a recent nationwide opinion poll found 77 percent of Afghans support the presence of American troops in Afghanistan and 46 percent (mainly in areas with a heavy Taliban presence) want more American military (29 percent want fewer). Most Afghans blame the Taliban and other Islamic terrorists for all the violence while 12 percent blame the presence of foreign troops. Old prejudices die hard in Afghanistan.
What rural Afghans, and the security forces protecting them miss the most is the NATO (especially American) air power. Over 90 percent of it is gone. At its peak in 2011 foreign warplanes flew an average of 364 sorties a day over Afghanistan and a quarter of those were making attacks in support of ground forces. At the end almost all those air attacks were in support of Afghan soldiers and police. Now the Afghans have to depend on the Afghan Air Force which, in 2014, flew only 19 sorties a day and only two or three were to attack anything on the ground. The Afghan Air Force has less than a hundred aircraft, most of them for transport and recon. Some aircraft and helicopters are armed (with machine-guns and unguided rockets) but they cannot provide the quality of air attacks the Americans (with their smart bombs and guided missiles) can. There are only enough American warplanes still in Afghanistan to deal with emergencies involving the 10,600 American troops (and several thousand civilian contractors) still in the country as well as more than 5,000 foreign troops and officials from American allies.
NATO is working to increase the number of Afghan warplanes by 50 percent in the next year or so and are training several hundred new pilots and even more technical people to keep the aircraft operational. The problem here is that technically trained Afghans see those skills as a way out, or at least to take a better paying (and safer) job outside the military. It was recently announced that Afghan has ordered twenty MD-530 helicopters that will be armed with machine-guns and rockets and will arrive by the middle of 2015. By the end of 2015 twenty A29 Super Tucano light support aircraft (trainers that can also be used for ground attack) are to arrive as well. But what the Afghans really want are the American smart bombs, missiles, helicopter gunships and A-10 aircraft.
Even without air support Afghan army and special police units have been very effective against the Taliban, often killing ten or more of the enemy for each of their own dead. These special operations units make up about ten percent of the 350,000 soldiers and police in the security forces. These men took years to recruit, train and turn into experienced operators. Most of the other police and army units can defend themselves and at least a third of army units can regularly defeat the Taliban on the ground. Most soldiers and police can be depended on to defend a checkpoint, base or compound. But that does not replace the enormous American intelligence collecting and analysis capability which, along with all that airpower (for moving troops as well as blowing things up) which made the foreign troops so incredibly deadly against the Taliban. Many Afghan commanders warned that this support would be sorely missed by Afghans and now that all these foreign forces are gone, a lot more Afghans are agreeing.
There are growing anti-corruption efforts within the security forces. More commanders, including senior ones, are no longer tolerant (or involved in) the more common corrupt practices. This includes the ancient “paper soldiers” scam where you report more soldiers on duty than you actually have and pocket the money sent to pay and maintain these non-existent troops. Another popular angle is simply stealing equipment or money to buy supplies for your troops. More soldiers, and especially police (who are most often the victims) are going public with the detailed reports of the damage this theft does. There is often no money for essentials, like fuel or spare parts for vehicles. Radios and supporters “disappear” as commanders sell them and report them as stolen or damaged and disposed of. Subordinates reporting the details of these incidents is putting more heat on commanders to do right by their fighting men and the people they try to protect.
Despite all this, most Afghans are actually optimistic. While most Americans and the mass media worldwide have declared the 13 year U.S./NATO effort in Afghanistan a failure, most Afghans disagree. Although over 100,000 died during those 13 years nearly half the deaths in the 13 year war were Taliban, other Islamic terrorists and their drug gang allies. Another 30 percent of the dead were civilians, usually the targets of Taliban or gang intimidation. The Afghan security forces (mostly the police, plus the army) suffered 18 percent of the deaths. A little over three percent of the deaths were foreign troops, who gave the government forces an edge in firepower, support, intel and tactical leadership. The death toll since 2001 is a lot less than the millions who died during the decade of fighting the Russians and less than suffered during the 1990s when Afghans fought each other.
Most Afghans are well aware that in many way their lives are much better since the Americans arrived. GDP has grown continuously since 2001 with average family income increasing noticeably each year. In early 2001 only a million children were in school, all of them boys. Now there are 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 17 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 85 percent do and life expectancy has risen from 47 years (the lowest in Eurasia) to 62 (leaving Bangladesh to occupy last place in Eurasia). 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.
Opinion polls show 60 percent of Afghans believe the country is going in the right direction and 90 percent respect the army (and 70 percent the police). Only ten percent respect the Taliban, despite foreign media predicting that the Taliban will soon regain control of the country. Afghans scoff at that, if only because most would rather die fighting rather than submit to Taliban rule again. Foreigners tend to forget that angle, but the Afghans don’t. While many Afghans are saving to pay a smuggler to get them to the West (where they can make a lot more money and live even longer) most are staying and see better prospects than have existed for decades.
Meanwhile there are other problems besides drug gangs and the Taliban. In particular there is Pakistan. Afghanistan is trying to get a better idea of how many Islamic terrorists and their families have fled from Pakistan in the last six months. What has been discovered so far is that not all of these Islamic terrorists fled to eastern Afghanistan. Some are showing up in Taliban controlled areas in the south (Helmand). Most of these recent Islamic terrorist refugees are al Qaeda or groups from Central Asia (especially Uzbekistan). In December American, Afghan and Pakistani military leaders met in Pakistan and agreed to coordinate operations against Taliban operating on both sides of the Afghan border in northwest Pakistan. Many Islamic terrorists, including leaders have fled the Pakistani Army offensive in North Waziristan and headed for neighboring Afghanistan. These terrorists believed they would be safer but that proved to be untrue. Another problem these displaced Pakistani Islamic terrorists have had is growing armed resistance by local Afghan tribesmen. The Pakistani Taliban have always tried to get along with their fellow Pushtun tribesmen just across the border but over the years the constant violence (including the American bomb and missile attacks and thousands of rockets and mortar shells fired from Pakistan by the army and police there into these border areas) turned the tribes against the Pakistani Islamic terrorists and that is reflected in increased sniping, ambushes and armed confrontations on roads. The tribes are also supplying the Americans and Afghan security forces with more information, which often leads to precise UAV missile attacks or helicopter raids by commandos on Pakistani Taliban hideouts. This is causing heavy losses among key people in the Pakistani Taliban and other Islamic terrorists in the area. This has led to discussions about moving to a safer area. The options are not good. Going back to Pakistan is dangerous and given the feuding between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, moving to other parts of Afghanistan (except the south) is not a good idea. Meanwhile the Islamic terrorists in eastern Afghanistan are getting hammered as the Pakistani offensive against North Waziristan that began in June grinds on.
Although Afghanistan and Pakistan have agreed to cooperate on going after Islamic terrorists there are limits to that cooperation that are causing growing anger in Afghanistan. The problem here is continued Pakistani insistence that Indian aid projects to Afghanistan are actually just a cover to Indian terror attacks inside Pakistan. For a long time Pakistan insisted that all terrorist attacks inside Pakistan were actually the work of the Indians. That fantasy eventually became unsustainable because the Pakistani Islamic terrorists refused to play along and were very convincing in taking credit for all the Islamic terrorist mayhem. Yet senior Pakistani officials still claim that India is using Afghanistan as a base for operations against Pakistan. There has never been any proof, just decades of accusations. The Afghans are well aware of this and find the continued Pakistani accusations annoying. Meanwhile Afghanistan hosts nearly 400 Indian aid projects. Most of them are quite small but over thirty of them quite large. The Afghans appreciate the help and especially Indian efforts to work with Iran to create a truck route via the Iran border to a new port being built on the Iranian coast. All this is to serve traffic to and from land-locked Central Asia. The Pakistanis don’t like this project at all as it denies them some major leverage over Afghanistan (the truck route to the Pakistani port of Karachi).
In 2013 the Afghans angered the Pakistanis even more by asking for Indian troops to work in Afghanistan (as trainers and to provide security for Indian aid projects) and for direct military aid (Afghanistan wants artillery, transport aircraft, military engineering equipment and trucks). India has been providing aid and Indian personnel (including civilian security personnel) since 2002. India was receptive to increasing this aid, despite being primarily Hindu, a religion particularly reviled by Moslems. The Afghans are not as upset at this as the Pakistanis are but the new president of Afghanistan rescinded the request, for now, to placate Pakistan. India and Afghanistan actually have a long history. Afghanistan may appear to be at the corner of no and where, but it is actually astride the primary invasion route from Central Asia to India (including Pakistan which is still, historically and culturally, part of India). The Afghan tribes have long since learned to step aside as the foreign invaders moved through. Actually, many Afghans would join the invaders, so much so that these invasions, and the loot and stories the survivors brought back, have become a major part of the Afghan collective memory. Some local names recall all that. For example the Hindu Kush Mountains in Afghanistan mean, literally, “slaughter Hindus.” Most Westerners have not got a clue about this cultural tradition, and how much it influences the behavior of most Afghans. While Pakistani Islamic conservatives still yearn to conquer and convert Hindu India, the Afghans are rather more pragmatic and realistic. Since Pakistan has been a growing threat to Afghanistan since India was partitioned over the last 60 years (into India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) the Afghans have sought local allies. The Afghans see this as one of those “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” situations and the Indians seem to agree so far. So for the moment the Afghans will not accept military aid from India, but will cooperate to assure the security of the many Indian aid projects in Afghanistan, which the Afghans know Pakistan is trying to attack via Islamic terrorists Pakistan controls inside Afghanistan. This sort of thing is very unpopular inside Afghanistan, where Pakistan is considered an implacable enemy who cannot be trusted. Meanwhile the official Afghan line is that the Indian military aid deal was cancelled because the Indians were taking too long to actually deliver anything. In truth the Afghans became aware of the shoddy performance of Indian made weapons and that had something to do with cancelling the military aid. Indian trainers and security personnel are still welcome because the Afghans have noted that in the several wars India and Pakistan have fought since the 1940s, the Indians always win.
Meanwhile Iran continues to allow about half a million Afghan refugees to stay in Iran and this is openly done as a friendly gesture to Afghanistan. Other such gestures include more and more trade with and investment in Afghanistan. Then, of course, there is the deal (involving India and China) to build that new port near the Pakistani border and a road north to the Afghan border to give Afghanistan another route to the sea. Iran may not like Afghanistan’s chummy relationship with the United States, but does want to maintain millennia old economic and cultural relations with their eastern neighbor. In the past eastern Afghanistan was often part of the Iranian (or “Persian”) empire but that is no longer an issue with the Iranians.
February 1, 2015: Although Ashraf Ghani was elected president and took office last September he was only able to swear in his first eight cabinet ministers today. It may take months to get the remaining 17 past all the factional fighting in parliament. Key economy, defense, and justice ministry posts as well as central bank governor have yet to be approved. President Ghani selected 13 of the proposed ministers and the prime minister the other twelve. The problem with democracy in Afghanistan is that, like many pre-industrial countries there is not a tradition of compromise on a national scale. Agreeing on having a “king” to deal with foreigners is what created modern Afghanistan two centuries ago, but agreement on much else at the national level didn’t happen often and only after years of haggling and perhaps some major combat as well. Since 2005 (when the new parliament was first elected) there has also been violence within parliament itself with some of the debates turning into brawls. This is nothing new. In the early 19th century such behavior was common in the American Congress and more modern democracies, like those post World War II ones in East Asia (Taiwan and South Korea) have had problems with legislators getting physical. It’s a learning process and everyone has to go through the stages.
One of the easiest ways to start a brawl in the Afghan legislature is to try and shut down a corrupt scam that benefits several members of parliament. These guys are politicians and they don’t like being called out for what they really are (thieves and liars), especially if the accuser is presenting accurate details. But a growing number of senior Afghan leaders are accepting the fact that the pervasive corruption in Afghanistan is a major reason why the country is backwards (economically, politically and in so many other ways). But for many Afghan politicians corruption is still the traditional way of getting rich and not to be messed with. That attitude no longer works as well as it used to because the foreign donors are threatening to withhold aid and actually doing so if the corruption is found to be crippling what the foreign donors are trying to do. Corrupt officials have long sought to keep the foreign donors ignorant about what is actually happening with the money, but even that is not working anymore as donors come up with ways to get around these deceptions.
January 25, 2015: In the south (the Kandahar border with Pakistan) police stopped, searched and seized a truck when they found it was carrying over fifty assembled bombs of various sizes as well as bomb making equipment (including 20 kg/66 pounds) of explosives. Police in Kandahar have arrested several Islamic terrorists involved in carrying out suicide attacks in the area, especially against the more effective police and army commanders. The border crossing checks and patrols in general have also been much more effective recently, resulting in the arrests of wanted criminals and the seizure of many weapons. Apparently there are a lot more bribe and intimidation resistant police at down there these days.
January 17, 2015:
Afghanistan revealed that it had arrested five men, only described as non-Afghans, near the Pakistani border and are holding them because of suspected involvement in the December 16 massacre at a Pakistani school. That attack led Afghanistan to agree to cooperate with Pakistan in capturing or killing all those responsible.
January 11, 2015: Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States have agreed to cooperate on finding and killing Mullah Fazlullah, the head of the Pakistan Taliban, who is believed to operate from a hideout in Kunar province (eastern Afghanistan on the Pakistan border). All three countries will pool their intel on Fazlullah while the Americans will seek to kill Fazlullah as soon as he is found (before he can find another hiding place) using missile armed UAVs. This sudden cooperation over Fazlullah is the result of Pakistanis capturing radio messages in which Fazlullah can be heard directing the December Taliban attack on a Pakistani school that left 132 children dead. An after-effect of this attack is the Pakistan government ordering nearly two million Afghan refugees (some there since the 1980s war with the Russians) out of Pakistan. This time the Pakistanis say they mean it and Afghanistan is preparing to receive as many as half a million or more refugees. Afghanistan knows that not all the refugees will be expelled because many of those Afghans have become successful businessmen and vital to the economy in northwestern Pakistan and cities like Karachi. Those that will more likely be expelled are the poor and those connected (by family or association) to Islamic terrorists or gangsters. Afghans dominate the gangs that smuggle heroin and opium out of Afghanistan and distribute some of it inside Pakistan and move most of it to Karachi and then overseas customers. Not all the Afghans associated with gangsters or Islamic terrorists will get forced out because those who can afford to bribe (or intimidate with threats of retaliation) will be passed by. The Pakistani government just wants pictures of many Afghans crossing the border. So Afghanistan will get the poor, the small-time crooks and anyone who could not afford to bribe the police.