Afghanistan: Fight Or Flight

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September 21, 2015: The Taliban peace talks, suspended since July, are now indefinitely delayed because of a worsening split in the Afghan Taliban. The leaders of the various Taliban factions are deadlocked over who shall be their new supreme leader. While these factions have not declared war on each other yet, many have said that they will not recognize Mullah Akhtar Mansour as the new leader of the Afghan Taliban. There has been some fighting but for the moment most Taliban leaders are seeking a solution that will not tear the organization apart. All this is happening despite the fact that the family of the founder (Mullah Omar) came out in support of Mansour. This mess began in late July when the Afghan Taliban announced the selection of a new leader (Mansour) to replace founder and longtime leader Mullah Omar. Mansour has been the acting head of the Taliban since 2010 because Mullah Omar was said to have health problems. It took weeks after the revelation for the Taliban to admit that Omar had been dead since 2013. The Taliban have not revealed exactly why his death was concealed although Omar’s family confirmed the death was from natural causes. The secrecy about the death was apparently to maintain unity. This became clear after Omar’s death and Mansour’s appointment were announced and several Taliban factions went public complaining of how the selection was made. The Afghan Taliban is known to be sharply divided over the subject of peace talks with the Afghan government and strategy in general. Some of the dissidents accuse Mansour of rigging the election. Some factions also complain openly that Pakistan (in the form of the ISI) actually controls the Taliban leaders living in Baluchistan under the protection of the ISI.

Mansour backs peace talks while Omar was said to have opposed them. Taliban leaders most loyal to Omar still oppose peace talks. The official shift in Taliban leadership caused the peace talks (between the Taliban and the Afghan government) to be halted indefinitely. To make matters worse there were some recently released emails where U.S. State Department officials discussed the Mullah Omar situation and confirmed that, as far as the U.S. government was concerned, there was no doubt that Pakistan had been sheltering Omar since 2002. In reaction of the succession disputes more Taliban are quitting. A growing number, including some of their leaders, are joining the new ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) branch in the area (straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan).  ISIL is having the most success in east, particularly Nangarhar province. There the more fanatic ISIL Islamic terrorists have shut down, via violence or threats, over a hundred schools. ISIL is also trying to appeal to nationalism by insisting one of their goals is the abolition of the Durand Line. Otherwise known as the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan this frontier was the result of an impromptu, 1893 decision by British colonial authorities and was always considered artificial by many locals because the line often went right through Pushtun tribal territories. However, the Afghans are more inclined to accept the Durand Line, and fight to maintain it. The Pakistanis believe absolute control of the border is impossible, and attempts to stop illegal crossings cause additional trouble mainly because tribesmen do not like excessive attention at border crossing posts).

While the Taliban argue over who is in charge the Taliban war inside Afghanistan continues. The Taliban are disappointed that the security forces did not collapse when the foreign troops left in 2014. This disappointment has led to morale problems and contributed to the splits in the senior leadership. Field commanders are telling their men that it will take a little longer to defeat the Afghan army and police and point out that the situation is different with the foreigners gone. For the Taliban the major difference is the departure of most hostile aircraft. This means more freedom of movement and freedom from observation. The Afghan security forces are also aware of this change and have been pleading with the United States and NATO to bring back the air power. Not just the warplanes and helicopter gunships but also the intelligence and recon aircraft. While the larger UAVs are still common over Afghanistan they are not as numerous as they were in 2014. The Western nations are slowly responding to these Afghan requests.

This decline in airpower has changed the way the Taliban are fought. The Islamic terrorists can now move with less risk of being spotted, tracked and attacked from the air or ground. The loss of all those NATO transport helicopters means that troops cannot routinely be moved to intercept Taliban or reinforce friendly forces under attack. The loss of medical evacuation helicopters is also greatly missed. The Afghan security forces still outfight the Taliban but not as effectively as when the foreign troops were around. Thus the Afghan security forces and the Afghan people in general also have a morale problem.

A lot more Afghans are giving up and fleeing Afghanistan. This flight is nothing new but with the booming economy more people can afford to pay the people smuggling gangs to get them to the West. Thus the current illegal migrant invasion of Europe finds Afghans the second most abundant (after Syrians) of these outlaw travelers. It’s not just the Taliban violence that is causing Afghans to leave at any cost, but the general depravity and chaos that has long characterized Afghanistan. This is especially true among the Pushtun, who have long cultivated a reputation for being violent, aggressive, quarrelsome and unpredictable. The Pushtun tribes of the south are 40 percent of the population and many of them have noted that the rest of the world tends to be less violent and more prosperous.  These Pushtun want to get as far away from the more traditional Pushtun as possible. Thus moving to neighboring countries, especially Pakistan (which has twice as many Pushtun as Afghanistan) is not a good option. In fact Pakistan has increased its efforts to force Afghan refugees and illegal migrants back into Afghanistan. So far this year over 130,000 of these Afghans have been forced out of Pakistan. That’s four times the number for the same period last year. Thus for many Afghans getting far away from Afghanistan is seen as a necessity that is worth the cost and risk.

Many Pushtun are content with the traditional ways and some are indulging their violent attitudes by joining ISIL and escalating their brutality and oppression in the name of God. The ISIL Afghans are more violent towards those who do not agree with them and have been more aggressive in shutting down secular schools, especially those that teach girls. These policies are aimed at the educated people Afghanistan needs the most. These are the people who are getting out anyway they can. Many Afghans want some progress, more peace and do not want to leave. The constant violence and fighting does grind you down after a while, even if you are a Pushtun.  

There are still a lot of Afghans who will fight. With a population of 32 million Afghanistan now has over half a million men (and a few women) in the security forces (68 percent army, 26 percent national police and six percent local police). Afghanistan could never afford this on its own most of this is paid for by foreign donors, mainly the United States. The army includes the air force, which only has about one percent of all manpower and not many aircraft. In addition there are armed pro-government tribesmen available for emergencies in their own territories. Unless the tribes are facing a major threat to their own existence, the government has to provide some cash (for tribal leaders) and ammo (for weapons of militiamen) to get some action. There are over 100,000 armed men with tribes generally hostile to the government. These tribes and clans often take cash from the government and the drug cartels to cooperate. The drug gangs, the Taliban and other Islamic terror groups don’t have a lot of manpower, perhaps 50,000 armed men and they are largely involved with protecting the drug production and smuggling. Over five thousand are involved in terrorism operations. Not just bombing but also retaliation against tribesmen who interfere with drug operations or who will simply not cooperate with the drug gangs. Despite its poverty Afghanistan has always been heavily armed and in rural villages and towns at least half the adult men have access to a firearm. Most of these gun owners cannot afford a lot of ammunition and are often not very accurate when firing their rifle, shotgun, assault rifle or pistol. For most, it’s for self-defense or joining with neighbors to make a show of force to get marauders to back off. Afghans are practical in these matters and many villages or tribes will negotiate a deal with the Taliban (or any other threatening warlord) to be neutral or even an active supporter of the local bully. It’s how you survive in Afghanistan.

Although most American combat troops left Afghanistan at the end of 2014 there are still several thousand SOCOM (Special Operations Command) troops there and even more regular army personnel (mainly for support). There are still enough warplanes and helicopter gunships available to carry out about 30 percent of the ground attack missions undertaken in 2014. These, however, take longer to arrive as each one requires approval by more lawyers and politicians back in the United States. The SOCOM troops rarely fire their weapons but do accompany their Afghan counterparts on missions about forty times a month. Occasionally the American SOCOM teams carry out a combat mission but these are kept quiet and need lots of permissions from lawyers and politicians back in the United States.

Pakistan is now accusing Afghanistan of harboring Taliban factions that are still active inside Pakistan. This became a big media issue in Pakistan after a September 18th attack against an air force base in northwest Pakistan. This left 29 dead and failed but Pakistani intelligence picked up electronic communications between the attackers and their “handlers” in eastern Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban took credit for the attack, which was part of an effort to strike back against a Pakistani military operation that has driven many Pakistani Taliban into eastern Afghanistan. The Pakistani counter-terror offensive began in June 2014 and soon showed results by eventually reducing terrorist activity (according to the Pakistani military) by about 70 percent over the next year. That exaggerates a bit as the decline, if you measure by civilian deaths, is closer to fifty percent. Either way it is a big drop and most Pakistanis notice and appreciate it. The main reason for the decrease is the damage the offensive has done to Islamic terror organizations. In fifteen months the anti-terrorist offensive has killed over 3,400 Islamic terrorists country-wide (but mostly in North Waziristan) and led to many more surrendering, deserting or fleeing to Afghanistan or other parts of Pakistan. The military estimates that over 20,000 Islamic terrorists were in North Waziristan in June 2014. Nearly all of these Islamic terrorists have been killed or driven out of North Waziristan. Some 2,500 were captured, providing lots of information on Islamic terrorist operations in North Waziristan and elsewhere in the country. There has been a noticeable drop in terrorist attacks against civilians but intelligence specialists know that the terror groups are scrambling to reorganize and rebuild, so the offensive continues but at a different pace and with different tactics. Because of this threat the Pakistani army recently announced that troops will continue operating in the northwestern tribal territories at least until 2019. In 15 months of counter-terror operations about 300 soldiers were killed and the army intends to keep their losses low.

Now Pakistan expects Afghanistan to deal with the Pakistani Islamic terrorists that have fled to Afghanistan. The two countries have an agreement to cooperate in this effort but Afghanistan does not have the military resources (like air power) Pakistan possesses. Nangarhar province is not going to become an Islamic terrorist sanctuary like North Waziristan, but it’s going to take longer for the Afghans to clean the place out like the Pakistanis did to North Waziristan.

September 17, 2015: In the southeast (Logar province) soldiers found and destroyed a Taliban base that had been active since 2006. For most of that time the Logar location had long been more of a way station and place to stash supplies. But in the last few years this location had become more useful for staging terror attacks in Kabul and Afghan intelligence said they had found 29 instances where an attack in Kabul could be tracked back to some location in Logar. The base was in a remote area and much of it was underground in recently built tunnels and bunkers. All of these have been destroyed and local police will regularly check the area to make sure the Islamic terrorists do not return.

September 14, 2015: In the east (Ghazni province) Taliban attacked a prison at night. Using a suicide bomber to breach the wall, over a dozen Taliban gunmen got inside, killed four guards, wounded seven other and allowed nearly 400 prisoners to escape into the dark. Many of the prisoners were Taliban. The attackers lost four men dead, including the bomber.

September 12, 2015: In the east (Nangarhar province) an American UAV missile strike killed five Taliban travelling in a stolen police vehicle.

September 10, 2015: In the east (Paktia province) an American UAV missile strike killed fifteen Pakistani Taliban.

September 6, 2015: Mullah Mansour Dadullah, a former Taliban commander, released a video in which he admitted that he, and many other Afghan Taliban leaders, often took orders from ISI (Pakistani intelligence). This was back in 2007, the year in which Mullah Omar expelled Dadullah from the Taliban for disobeying orders. Two month later Dadullah was captured by Pakistani troops and imprisoned until 2013, when he was released as a good-will gesture to get Afghan peace talks going. Dadullah accused the current Taliban leadership of being corrupt and points to keeping the death of Mullah Omar secret for two years as an example. Another example is the fact that many Taliban field commanders seem more interested in getting rich than in restoring a religious dictatorship in Afghanistan. Many Taliban commanders have lucrative deals with drug gangs and corrupt mining operations.

September 5, 2015: Pakistan announced an agreement with Afghanistan to stop the accusations going back and forth about who is supporting Islamic terrorism. Afghanistan believes that Pakistan is still supporting the Haqqani Network and other Islamic terrorists (like the Afghan Taliban) that specialize in attacks against Afghanistan. Pakistan insists it is interested in making peace. The U.S. has been threatening to withhold aid if Pakistan does not provide some proof that it has cut its support of the Haqqani Network. Pakistan is reluctant to do that because proof would involve admitting it has been supporting Haqqani for decades.

September 1, 2015: In the west (Herat province) Taliban gunmen opposed to the new leader (Mullah Akhtar Mansour) fought with Taliban loyal to Mansour. There were nearly 30 casualties before both sides disengaged.

 

 

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