Afghanistan: The Annual Spring Offensive So Far

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May 3, 2016: This year’s Taliban “Spring Offensive” officially began on April 12th and accomplished its initial goal of garnering worldwide media attention and lots of FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) commentary from media pundits. Best of all the annual celebration of nationwide terror and violence masks what is really going on. Most of the organized violence in Afghanistan is made possible by the drug gangs, who use the Islamic terrorists to keep the government from interfering with drug production and distribution. The drug gangs would prefer to dispense with the Taliban and simply use bribes to keep the security forces out of the way. While that works some of the time it frequently doesn’t because the drugs are generally unpopular in Afghanistan. That is because the availability of cheap opium and heroin has turned 5-10 percent of the population into addicts. So the drug gangs need as many hired guns as they can get. The Taliban have proved to be the largest and most reliable supplier. Without the drug money the Taliban would be a nuisance in the south but nothing capable of grabbing the attention of the national or international media.

The brand of Islam the Taliban represent is alien to Afghanistan and generally despised as an unwelcome foreign (from Saudi Arabia) import. The Saudis were able to install their Wahhabi interpretation of Islam in Afghanistan during the 1980s when millions of Afghans were desperate refugees living in Pakistan. The Saudis brought food, weapons and Wahabbi clergy and teachers. Afghan adults were not impressed by Wahabbism but the kids were impressionable and the Wahabbi religious schools were free and provided food and shelter for orphans as well as poor parents who appreciated the help. This is where the first generation of Taliban came from. They were a minority of a minority (the Pushtun tribes of Kandahar and Helmand) back then and still are. But Taliban leaders needed cash (the Saudis never got along with al Qaeda or the Taliban) and the drug gangs were willing to make deals. The initial 1990s arrangement was that the drug gangs could operate freely anywhere the Taliban were in control as long as they paid a large tax which, then as now, kept the Taliban going. When 2001 came around the Taliban had still not conquered all of Afghanistan and in their desperate efforts to do so had made themselves, and their drug gang allies very unpopular. Currently Afghans know the Taliban could never conquer as much of Afghanistan as they had in the 1990s but because of the need to protect their financiers (the drug gangs) the Taliban violence keeps much of the country in turmoil. Add to this the endemic corruption and the increasing number of educated (or simply the most resourceful and ambitious) Afghans leaving the country you have a national disaster of epic proportions. There are no easy solutions for all this, there never were.

Changing The Rules

For the first three months of 2016 civilian losses (600 dead, 1,400 wounded) to criminal (mostly Taliban and drug gang) violence were about two percent higher than the first three months of 2015. The Islamic terrorists (mainly) and drug gangs were responsible for 77 percent of these casualties and the security forces the rest. Only one percent of civilian losses were the result of air attacks (by Afghan or foreign aircraft). Losses among the Taliban are much higher (about three times civilian losses), followed by army and police losses (less than half terrorist losses). Casualties are expected to be much higher over the following six months as that is the height of the traditional “campaigning season” in Afghanistan. One very successful tactic of the security forces is to seek out and kill or capture Islamic terrorist (mainly Taliban, ISIL and Haqqani) leaders and technical specialists. Civilians have been very useful here, especially with the growing availability of cell phones in remote areas. Nevertheless the Islamic terrorists know that if they kill or wound enough soldiers and police this force will be seriously weakened. The security forces, especially the army, are much more effective in combat but that is because it takes years of training and combat experience for the troops go gain that edge. Taliban losses can be replaced quickly (if you have the cash) while army losses cannot.

Nearly all (except for Helmand) the Spring Offensive attacks attempting to capture buildings territory have failed. Most of the Spring Offensive in concentrated in seven provinces. These include Helmand in the south, Nangarhar in the east, Ghazni in the southeast and Kunduz in the north.

Another major bit of heroin supported damage is the very effective network of anti-foreigner media the drug gangs have paid for while the Taliban supplied the intimidation. For years the Taliban media campaign has tried to demonize smart bombs, which are the most effective weapon against the Taliban. Whenever there are real or claimed (often falsely) civilian casualties from American air attacks the Taliban try to get an anti-foreigner media campaign going. It is common knowledge that the Taliban and other Islamic terrorists cause 7080 percent of the civilian deaths. Very few are caused by foreign (mainly American) air operations. Those that do occur are usually people caught in the crossfire, which is common as the Taliban are regular users of civilians as human shields. Taliban controlled media do not mention any of this

In the east the government has been successful in shutting down ISIL attempts to establish a base area. That effort also involved constant skirmishing with Pakistani Taliban hiding out there. The local tribes are also largely hostile to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and all this has provided better intel for the security forces on what ISIL is up to and exactly where they are. Some of the tribes used their own militias to fight ISIL but more often just helped the worst hit villages set up defenses to keep ISIL out. This cooperation (and information) led to more effective and frequent American air strikes and raids by Afghan troops and American commandos and hundreds of ISIL men have been killed and many more wounded in the last year. Many of the wounded desert and there are fewer new volunteers. ISIL is hanging on but is now out of all the 22 villages it occupied at the start of the year. ISIL is not dead in Afghanistan but it isn’t growing much either. A growing number of former Taliban are abandoning ISIL. The remaining ISIL get little sympathy from the locals, many of whom have bitter stories to tell of harsh ISIL rule that included beheadings of most who resisted and imposition of strict lifestyle rules. This included closing all secular schools as well as religious schools and mosques that did not enthusiastically support ISIL. These lurid (and often true) stories are circulating throughout eastern Afghanistan making the region a no-go zone for ISIL. It is now believed ISIL has fewer than a thousand members in Afghanistan, versus over 3,000 in 2015.

The Taliban are having a better time of it. After months of civil war in late 2015 Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour is clearly in power he is implementing some policies his predecessor Mullah Omar opposed or was not enthusiastic about. This includes no interest at all in peace talks with the Afghan government and active support for al Qaeda.

Afghanistan is collapsing not because of the Taliban or the drug gangs but because of corruption. That is one of the few things local opinion polls, aid groups, foreign investors and American military and diplomatic personnel all agree on. This is why so many of the refugees trying to get into Europe these days are from Afghanistan. There has been more prosperity in Afghanistan since 2001 but nor much reduction in corruption. As a result many Afghans who save some money use it to pay people-smugglers to get them into a more promising place. The West, in general, is the most favored destination. This is a sad outcome after all the money spent and lives lost trying to make Afghanistan a better place.

The fundamental problem for Afghanistan has long been the endemic corruption. This makes it very difficult to run the country effectively when any law or regulation can be bypassed with a large enough bribe. The corruption stems from the tribalism which fell out of use in the West, China and elsewhere centuries ago. But in Afghanistan is persists and it is an inefficient and, for the people involved, expensive and deadly historical artifact to live with.

Please, Pakistan Please

Afghanistan again demanded that Pakistan end the sanctuary it has provided the Afghan Taliban since 2002. Afghanistan points out that recent security agreements between the two countries obliges Pakistan to shut down all Islamic terrorist sanctuaries. Afghan officials also accuse Pakistan of controlling much of what the Afghan Taliban does, including ordering terror attacks inside Afghanistan. If Pakistan refuses to comply with this request Afghanistan is threatening to take the matter to the UN and other international tribunals. Pakistan continues to officially deny that Afghan Taliban leaders ever had sanctuary in Pakistan, but that was what they long said about al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Groups like the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network have long been the major benefactors of this sanctuary in Pakistan because they made no attacks inside Pakistan. The Pakistani military and the ISI (the Pakistani CIA) are the main supporters of the “acceptable” Islamic terrorist groups. In Pakistan the military and ISI can defy government orders and only a major change in public opinion towards Islamic terrorism will generate enough pressure to get the military and ISI to back down. That pressure has been building since 2001 as Islamic terrorist violence inside Pakistan became more intense and more Pakistanis turned against this religious violence. But pro-Islamic terror Pakistanis are still a large, stubborn and often violent minority. Eliminating support for Islamic terrorism in Pakistan is a slow process and no one has come up with a way to speed it up. Meanwhile the main Afghan Taliban sanctuary remains in Quetta. This is the capital of Baluchistan and just south of the Taliban homeland in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. Quetta was always off limits to the American UAVs and remains a sanctuary despite constant and increasingly angry calls from the United States and Afghanistan to shut down the sanctuaries down. Pakistan has long been dismissive of Afghan protests and either ignores them or dismisses them with denials. The reality is that Pakistan considers Afghanistan a client state. The Afghans are considered a collection of fractious tribes pretending to be a nation. With no access to the sea, most Afghan road connections to ports are with Pakistan. The Afghans resent this, especially since for thousands of years invasions of northern India (which, historically, lowland Pakistan was a part) came out of Afghanistan where many Pushtun tribesmen would join the invaders. Pakistan and India are well aware of this, and still consider the Pushtuns a bunch of bloodthirsty highland savages. Afghanistan has only been around for a few centuries and Pakistan was carved out of British India in 1947. Before that India and Pakistan were a collection of feudal states and tribal territories. When you get right down to it, Pakistan's big problem is that it contains two-thirds of the Pushtun people (who are 15 percent of Pakistan's population) while Afghanistan contains the other third (who are 40 percent of Afghanistan's population.) "Pushtunstan" is a nation of 30-40 million Pushtuns caught between Pakistan (still over 150 million people without the Pushtuns) and northern Afghanistan (with about 18 million non-Pushtuns) Without Pushtuns, Afghanistan would become yet another Central Asian country with a small population (neighboring Tajikistan has 7.7 million and Uzbekistan has 30 million). But Pushtunstan is never going to happen because the Pushtuns have long been divided by tribal politics and cultural differences. When the Pushtun aren't fighting outsiders, they fight each other. The violent and fractious Pushtuns are a core problem in the region, and have been for centuries. There is no easy solution to this.

May 2, 2016: In the south (Oruzgan Province) soldiers and police began an operation to clear the Taliban from the main highway to neighboring Kandahar. Until 2015 there were no problems with highway security in Oruzgan. But in March 2015 the Taliban finally (after several attempts, managed to murder the popular and effective provincial police chief. Tribal politics prevented the appointment of a competent successor and the current provincial police chief is widely acknowledged as incompetent.

April 28, 2016: In the east (Nangarhar Province) an American UAV used missiles to kill at least fifteen ISIL members. This is one of many UAV attacks this year.

April 25, 2016: In the west (Farah province) security forces repulsed a Taliban attack, killing twenty of the Islamic terrorists and wounding another sixteen. Nearly all Taliban attacks like this fail but that does not always get reported.

April 23, 2016: In the north the Kunduz-Takhar highway was reopened after being closed four days because of Taliban attacks. Security forces killed 18 Islamic terrorists and captured six others.

April 20, 2016: In Kabul the Taliban managed to carry out a major attack, their first there since 2011. This effort was directed at a police base. It involved a suicide car bomb going off at the main gate followed by over a dozen Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers rushing in. The attack was repulsed but 64 died and 347 were wounded. While 30 of the dead were security personnel, most of the casualties were civilians as the attack took place during rush hour and the streets and sidewalks were full of people headed for work. The base being attacked is used by the VIP protective service (that guards senior officials) as well as the feared police commandos. The army commandos are also a major threat to the Taliban but these guys are very hard to kill.

April 17, 2016: Over the weekend the Taliban made another effort to take Kunduz city in the north. This attack failed and over a hundred Taliban were killed or wounded.

April 15, 2016: During the first three months of 2016 there were nearly 80 airstrikes against ISIL targets in eastern Afghanistan. That’s more than twice the number of airstrikes against ISIL in the same period last year. The ROE (rules of engagement) in Afghanistan were loosened up in late 2015, making ISIL and other Islamic terrorists more vulnerable because air strikes were no longer called off because friendly troops were too close or the Islamic terrorists were using civilians as human shields. Ground commanders, particularly Afghans, complained that the old ROE put their troops in more danger and, as a practical matter, since friendly troops often knew an attack was coming they could take shelter from bombs and missiles that did not have a lot of explosives in the first place. As for the civilians it was pointed out that, in the past, once word got around the ROEs would allow attacks despite the presence of human shields, the civilians refused (and usually got away with it) human shield duty. These air attacks against ISIL represented over 70 percent of all American air attacks in Afghanistan. American air strikes in Afghanistan average 30-40 a month so far in 2016 and each attack involves the use, on average, of about three guided missiles or smart bombs. Most of the American air attacks in Afghanistan this year, as in 2015, were carried out by UAVs. The Afghan Air Force is now carrying out nearly as many air strikes each month as the Americans. The Afghans always had a less restrictive ROE than the Americans and other Western warplanes.

 

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