It has been a disappointing year for the Taliban. I
n early 2015 the Taliban undertook a major military effort against the Afghan security forces now that that foreign troops were no longer doing any of the fighting. That role ended in late 2014. As a result the 350,000 personnel of the Afghan security forces (170,000 troops and 180,000 police) have suffered 27 percent more casualties in 2015 compared to 2014. Taliban losses have also been very high, but they have lower recruiting standards and can offer drugs as well as money for those young tribesmen willing to take a chance during the “fighting season” (the annual warm weather period between the time crops are planted and harvested). Going off to try and gain some glory and loot during the fighting season is an ancient tradition in Afghanistan, especially there is not much alternative employment available in the countryside and the Taliban pay well.
Being part of an organized army is s different matter. American advisors believe that losing nearly three percent of its strength a year to combat deaths or crippling wounds, as occurred in 2014, is not sustainable. While the Taliban suffer higher losses the Taliban are more flexible in how they operate. This is more in line with the traditional Afghan way of warfare, which is more about raiding and ambushes than it is in operating like soldiers. The army and police are often standing guard in exposed positions (checkpoints or in bases) or obliged to go after fleeing Taliban, who often pause long enough to ambush the troops then move off again. Afghan soldiers and police know they are more effective fighters than the tribal warriors, but that their job requires them to expose themselves to danger regularly in order to maintain control of territory. The Taliban are not tied down nearly as much and that makes a big difference in morale.
The drug gangs provide the enormous quantities of the cash the Taliban need to operate as they do. Nearly all the 30,000 or so Taliban are paid and the Taliban leaders are paid much more. Moreover the drug gangs provide enough cash so the Taliban can “compensate” the families of Taliban killed in action. The drug gangs also bribe, and then control lots of government officials (civilian, military and police) and even some tribal leaders. The bribed officials will do things for the Taliban as well as the drug gangs.
The Taliban need all the money they can get because their 2015 plan was to eliminate Afghan security forces in the south (mainly Helmand province, where most of the world’s heroin is produced), the east (where most of the Helmand heroin is moved out via Pakistan and the Pakistani port of Karachi to the rest of the world) and parts of the north where heroin is also moved, mainly via Kunduz province to Central Asia.
The northern offensive failed, which is not surprising because in late 2001 the Taliban had still not been able to conquer all the northern tribes. The north never forgets and local tribal militias up there will go after any Taliban who come too close. Eastern Afghanistan is also increasingly hostile to the Taliban and other Islamic terror groups like the Haqqani Network. But there are so many Islamic terror groups in the eastern provinces along the Pakistani border, including a thousand or so ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) men and over 5,000 Pakistani Taliban and other Islamic terrorists pushed out of North Waziristan by the Pakistan Army in an operation that began in mid-2014 that the Taliban has a hard time maintaining any control in the east. These rival Islamic terror groups will often fight back if the Taliban tries to assert any control.
In the south the Taliban had some success in Helmand, where most of the 10,000 Taliban fighters lost in 2015 were killed. About 20 percent of Helmand is now under Taliban control and the government wants more American air power (bombers and surveillance) to enable the reinforced Afghan forces to push the Taliban out quickly and with fewer dead soldiers and policemen. It’s the drug gangs that finance all the mayhem in Helmand, as well they might because Helmand is where most of the opium poppies are grown and where the portable labs use chemicals smuggled in from bordering Pakistan to convert the sap of the poppies into heroin. The drug gangs would prefer to bribe the army and police to stay away but that has not worked because the heroin (and much cheaper opium) is hated in most of the country because over five percent of the population has become addicted to opium or heroin. So the troops and police from other parts of the country face disgrace back home if they do not attack the drug operations when they have a chance. Most Afghans don’t care if some tribes produce and export illegal drugs, they do care of the drugs are sold inside Afghanistan to Afghans. The Taliban understand this and have been living off the drug gangs since the late 1990s and justify this by promising to return to the system they imposed during the 1990s where the gangs were forced to export nearly all their production and were severely punished if any of the opium or heroin got out to the locals. That restriction disappeared along with Taliban control of most of Afghanistan in late 2001. It only worked back then because the Taliban offered security for the drug gangs in return for a large share of the profits and keeping the drugs away from Afghans. Some in the current Afghan government see that as a possible option now that the Westerners are gone. The Western donors have made it clear that the aid will disappear (and the bombs will return) if Afghanistan turns into a “narco state” (the national government is on the drug gang payroll). Many current government officials are already bribed by the drug gangs and the Afghans will keep wheeling and dealing with drug lords and foreign diplomats in order to keep the cash, but not the bombs, coming.
The drug angle has made most of the tribes hostile to the Taliban and the drug gangs. Westerners often lose sight of the fact that most of the violence in Afghanistan is all about the drugs and the disruption they causes to Afghan society and culture. Most of the 3,000 Afghan civilians killed in 2015 were because of this war against the drug lords and their hired guns (mainly the Taliban). The Afghan countryside has always been a dangerous place but it has become more dangerous because all that drug money has equipped many tribesmen with automatic weapons and fast vehicles.
Another largely ignored (outside the region) element is the growing number of casualties suffered by Islamic terror groups because of factionalism, feuds and infighting. By the end of 2015 the Taliban was fighting ISIL as well as some other “anti-Taliban” Islamic terrorists and a growing number of dissident Taliban factions. ISIL and factionalism are growing problems for the Taliban mainly because ISIL tends to persuade many very capable Taliban leaders to defect. The dissident Taliban factions survive by making deals with a local drug gang. It must be remembered that there is no one organization running the drug business in Afghanistan but dozens of drug gangs (many tribe or clan based) that tend to remain at peace with each other (for business reasons) and will hire the best mercenaries they can.
During 2015 only 27 foreign soldiers died (22 American, two British and thee from other countries) in Afghanistan. Most of these deaths occurred in the last three months of the year. In 2014 75 foreign troops died in Afghanistan and the peak year was 2010 when 710 died. Since late 2001 3,512 foreign troops (68 percent American) have died in Afghanistan. During the 1980s over 15,000 Russian troops died in an attempt to gain control of the country.
In Kabul a Taliban suicide bomber attacked a bus carrying employees of Afghanistan’s largest TV network. This killed seven people and wounded 25. At first it was believed the attack was directed at the nearby Russian embassy but it soon became clear that this was another attack on the media, to discourage coverage (especially unfavorable stuff) of Islamic terrorists or the drug gangs. The Afghan media, finally free after decades of war, is often outspoken in its criticism of Islamic terrorists and drug gangs. The Islamic terrorists don’t need media coverage as much as they used to because now anyone can get their message out via the Internet, especially if it is accompanied by videos of people being tortured and killed.
January 20, 2016: The Afghan Air Force received the first of four used Mi-25 helicopter gunships from India. Afghanistan, India and Pakistan already operate some M-24s as well as the upgraded version (Mi-35). The Mi-25 is an export version of the Mi-24. India is replacing its Mi-25s with American AH-64s.
January 15, 2016: The Afghan Air Force received the first four of twenty A-29 Super Tucano aircraft. These will be used for training and air support of soldiers and police. The Super Tucano is a single engine turbo-prop trainer/attack aircraft that is used by over a dozen nations. This aircraft carries two internal 12.7mm (.50 caliber) machine-guns along with 1.5 tons of bombs and rockets. It can stay in the air for 6.5 hours at a time. It is rugged, easy to maintain and cheap. The U.S. is paying $17.7 million for each Super Tucano, which includes training, spare parts and support equipment and giving all this to Afghanistan as military aid. These aircraft are more useful to the Afghans than jet fighters (which the Afghans would like to have, if someone else would pay for them.) All twenty are to be in service by the end of 2017. The Afghans want to expand their air force with more attack aircraft and armed helicopters. While the Americans are bringing in more warplanes these tend to be used against ISIL first, and then whatever Afghan security forces need. The U.S. sees ISIL as a more serious threat to the United States while Afghanistan is more concerned with all the other Islamic terror groups and especially the Taliban. For example most of the American UAV operations (surveillance and missile attacks) is directed at ISIL and senior Taliban and Haqqani leaders. The Afghans are more concerned with the battles soldiers and police fight every day against Taliban and other Islamic terrorist gunmen.
January 13, 2016: In the east
(Jalalabad) ISIL attacked the Pakistani consulate. Three attackers and seven security personnel died. This was the first time ISIL went after a Pakistani government target in Afghanistan. Apparently four suicide bombers were involved in this attack and the fourth one got away.
January 12, 2016:
Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) boasted that the IRGC was responsible for training (and often recruiting, arming and paying) 200,000 fighters in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. At least a quarter of these are in Syria, followed by Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. Pakistan and Afghanistan were not happy with the IRGC publicly admitting that Iran has sponsored local (and often illegal) Shia militias. Iran had to do some diplomatic fence mending over that. Jafari’s comments confirmed Afghan suspicion of Iranian meddling in western Afghanistan and secret support for some Afghan Shia tribes.
January 11, 2016:
Officials from Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the United States met in Pakistan to try and restart the peace talks with the Taliban. But it soon became clear that the real problem was not Taliban peace talks (not likely because of factionalism within the Afghan Taliban) but the growing hostility between Pakistan and its neighbors Afghanistan and India. Pakistan is accused of harboring Islamic terrorists who make attacks on Afghanistan and India. Officially Pakistan denies any involvement but unofficially Pakistan says it “tolerates” Islamic terrorists who help it deal with Indian threats, especially those done via a growing alliance with Afghanistan. India insists, and the historical record backs them up, that they have no such designs on Pakistan. A perusal of Indian media over the last half century confirms that. Indians don’t really care what happens in Pakistan as long as it does not hurt India. Thus Pakistani Islamic terrorists who attack the few Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan is an issue inside India, but a minor one. The dispute over Kashmir is a bigger deal in Pakistan than in India but there is nothing to indicate Indian enthusiasm for war with Pakistan over Kashmir. Then there is Afghanistan, where Pakistan has been meddling well, forever. When Pakistan was created out of British India in 1947 the new Pakistan government continued, like the British and before that many Indian Empires, in Afghanistan. Many Pakistanis openly declare this to be a Pakistani right and obligation because Pakistan considers Afghans incapable of governing themselves and in need of Pakistani guidance. This view is not appreciated in Afghanistan and bothers India as well.
January 9, 2016:
In northwest Pakistan (North Waziristan) an American UAV missile attack killed five members of the Pakistani Taliban. Just across the border in Afghanistan a similar attack killed at least twenty members of ISIL.
January 3, 2016:
Afghanistan accused Pakistan of organizing the attack on the Indian consulate in the north Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif. The attack failed, but only after a 25 hour siege of a building near the consulate that the attackers were firing from. The attackers were heard speaking Urdu (the language of Pakistan) rather than the languages common in Mazar-e-Sharif (Dari or Pushtu). The attackers also displayed a discipline and tactical skill lacking in the usual suicidal Islamic terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. One reason the attack failed was the Afghanistan allows India to bring in highly trained security personnel to guard diplomatic facilities and major Indian aid projects. This discourages most Islamic terrorist groups and explains why the Pakistanis sent in four professionals for this attack. Apparently one of the reasons for this attack was the successful Indian crackdown on Pakistani sponsored Islamic terrorism in Kashmir. All four attackers and an Afghan policeman were killed while four civilians were wounded during the operation.
Since the security forces went after the Taliban who had entered the northern city of Kunduz on September 28th over 1,300 more Islamic terrorists have been killed in the city and then Kunduz province. The September Taliban attack on Kunduz left 289 civilians dead and 559 wounded. The fighting inside the city continued until October 13th and after that the additional police and soldiers sent north remained and kept hunting Taliban in the area. The Taliban consider Kunduz province a major route for smuggling heroin out of the country via Central Asia. The Taliban are still a threat in parts of Kunduz province, as can be seen in the areas where cell phone companies comply with Taliban demands and that cell phone service be turned off at night (so locals cannot alert police to Taliban activity). If the companies do not comply the Taliban will attack the cell phone towers and company personnel.
December 31, 2015:
Pakistan established a hotline with Afghanistan so officers can use it to contact each other quickly when there are border incidents that could escalate into more violent incidents. The hotline was tested today and worked.
December 28, 2015: In the west (Kandahar) gunmen fired on two female polio vaccination volunteers (a teenage girl and her grandmother) killing the older woman and wounding the other. Despite attacks like this Afghan polio cases were at a record low (eight) in 2015. This compares to neighboring Pakistan where there were 108. In both countries Islamic terrorists (especially the Taliban) tried to ban polio vaccinations. Islamic terrorists in general tend to believe the vaccination teams are spying for the government and that the vaccinations are a plot to sterilize Moslems. In early 2014 Afghanistan suffered its first known case of polio in since the Taliban were overthrown in late 2001. The 2014 outbreak was alarming because many people can catch polio and not become sick so it was unclear how far polio has spread. There had been no polio in Afghanistan after 2001 because the Afghan Taliban changed their policy of opposing polio vaccinations once they were out of power after 2001. But Pakistani Islamic terrorists did not. This became a problem for Afghanistan because of the large number of Pakistani Pushtuns fled to Afghanistan to get away from the 2014 Pakistani offensive into the terrorist sanctuary of North Waziristan. Most Taliban, on both sides of the border, still believe the polio vaccination program is really a Western plot against Moslems. Thus even though the Afghan Taliban support vaccinations there is still violence. Despite that the government has been able to continue the vaccination program and contain the outbreak caused by Pakistani refugees. The 2014 offensive there was a success and the Pakistani vaccination teams are now able to visit nearly all the people who had earlier been inaccessible because of Taliban death squads. For over a decade the Pakistani tribal territories were one of the few places on the planet where people are still being infected. This caused small outbreaks in countries where people from the tribal territories visit (including Syria, where many Pakistani Islamic terrorists have gone and triggered at least dozens of polio cases so far).
December 21, 2015: Near Kabul six U.S. air force personnel patrolling outside Bagram Air Base were killed when attacked by a suicide bomber on a motorcycle.