The government is being criticized by the non-Pushtun groups (wh0 comprise about 60 percent of the population) of trying to deal with the main problems facing the country (Islamic terrorists and the drug gangs) without making the best use of the non-Pushtun majority. The Islamic terrorists and the drug gangs are both mainly Pushtun. The drug operations and Taliban were founded by Pushtuns and continue to be comprised mainly of Pushtun. While the current (since 2014) president Ashraf Ghani is seen as a reformer he is also Pushtun and has a hard time getting along with non-Pushtun leaders. It took Ghani over a year to select the 25 cabinet ministers. All had to get past all the factional fighting in parliament, where the non-Pushtun majority has some control. The problem with democracy in Afghanistan is that, like many pre-industrial countries there is no 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 very physical 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.
There is no official leader of the non-Pushtuns but the most powerful of these leaders is outspoken about the continued Pushtun dominance of the government. The best example of this is First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who
has been a foe of the Taliban since the 1990s. Dostum is a powerful Uzbek politician, and a long time warlord (he was a general in the communist army that was dissolved in 1992). The Uzbeks are Turks, and comprise nine percent of the population. The Uzbeks have always been hostile to the Taliban and drugs. Dostum is their leader but has become popular with Afghans who openly oppose Islamic terrorists. Dostum makes the most of this by regularly giving speeches condemning Islamic terrorism. This involves constantly travelling and exposing himself to terrorist attack. So far he has survived dozens of attacks and this increases popularity while enraging the Islamic terrorists he publicly berates and condemns.
Dostum has long been a major critic of Pakistan and how Pakistan continues to support Islamic terrorists operating in Afghanistan.
The Emerging Narco State
While the drug gangs are thriving and bribing a growing number of government and security officials the Taliban are using that weakening of government control to reduce areas where the government (national or local) can interfere with Taliban or drug gang operations. For the Taliban the bad news is that the growth of drug gang power and income has turned all the neighbors, including Pakistan, against them. As much as Pakistan (or at least the Pakistani military) wants the Taliban to control, or at least disrupt, Afghanistan the majority of Pakistanis see Afghan Islamic terrorists and opium as a major threat. All the other neighbors (Iran, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) see nothing good coming from Afghanistan becoming a narco-state guarded by Islamic terrorists. That didn’t work in the late 1990s and there is no reason to believe it will work now. But there is so much drug money involved (the Taliban alone are believed to receive over $2 billion a year) that the problem persists, even within the Taliban itself.
The government is trying informal peace talks with Taliban representatives living in Qatar. Unofficial negotiations in the Persian Gulf are nothing new nor are “informal contacts” with Taliban leaders in Afghanistan. That’s another way of describing the growing number of politicians who take money from drug gangs and socialize with Taliban or drug gang middlemen (tribal leaders or former senior politicians). It’s hard to be an honest government employee in Afghanistan. If bribes don’t work there’s also intimidation or assassination. The “gold (bribe) or lead (a bullet)” offer is also applied to journalists, businessmen and anyone else the drug gangs feel they need some cooperation from.
In Qatar talks with the Taliban have been going on (and off) since 2013. The Taliban demands don’t change much. The Taliban still demand the removal of all foreign troops and elimination of any security agreements with non-Moslem nations. Another permanent demand is getting the Taliban off the list of international terrorist organizations and the removal of Taliban leaders from the UN blacklist (that restricts their movements outside of Afghanistan) and official recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political entity. The Taliban are also demanding the imposition of Islamic law.
In the past there were demands for the immediate release of all convicted Taliban from prison. This last item has always been very unpopular with most Afghans, who have long memories of the many friends and family killed by these Islamic terrorists. In light of that the Taliban simply demand the release of a few “essential (for peace talks)” Taliban leaders. These demands must be met before the Taliban will begin formal peace talks. Meanwhile the government refuses to agree to any of that and demands that the Taliban comply with a ceasefire and partial disarmament before formal peace talks can begin. The Taliban will have none of that.
Meanwhile the Taliban are also talking with local officials in Qatar as well as gang leaders and others who help facilitate the Afghan drug gangs in distributing their heroin worldwide. The Taliban need money and their only reliable source of cash (since the 1990s) has been the drug gangs.
Inside Afghanistan the Taliban response to all these peace efforts is to make maximum efforts to gain control of as much territory and local leaders as possible before the Pakistani support diminishes. ) The Taliban are most active in the south (Helmand and Kandahar, where most of the heroin is produced), the east (where many Pakistan/ISI supported Islamic terrorist groups operate) and the ancient northern trade routes (that go through Kunduz). By concentrating on Helmand in 2016 the Taliban have all but halted the government effort to destroy poppy growing. Poppies produce opium that is turned into heroin. Opium production is on the rise again, getting back to peak levels last seen in 2014. This has caused problems for the Taliban because it means lower prices for opium inside Afghanistan and that has led to an increase in the number of addicts. When many of these addicts are from families the Taliban recruits from there are problems.
Pressure On Pakistan
Faced with unprecedented foreign and internal pressure (from politicians who are no longer afraid to challenge the Pakistani generals) Pakistan is putting pressure on the Afghan Taliban to negotiate a peace deal with the Afghan government and prepare to leave their sanctuaries in Quetta (capital of the southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan). If the Taliban sanctuaries are shut down Afghanistan will cooperate (and the U.S. will finance) the expulsion of several million Afghan refugees from Pakistan. The Americans will no longer threaten airstrikes on Islamic terrorists based in Pakistan, something that the Pakistani military can’t even attempt to stop with risking even more embarrassment. Pakistan has reportedly told Afghan Taliban leaders to either begin serious peace talks with the Afghan government or face eviction from their Quetta sanctuary. At the same time the Afghan Taliban is facing internal problems as the many semi-independent factions that comprise the Afghan Taliban continue to fight each other and the new leadership, which appears to be the head of the Haqqani Network. Since 2014 the Afghan Taliban has been unable to agree on who should run the organization and that has led to more of the factions going into business for themselves. The several dozen factions have territories and different Pushtun tribes and clans they depend on for recruits. To maintain those tribal connections the Taliban need cash to pay full time staff and attract new recruits each year. The tribal leaders and local officials also have to be bribed. The faction leaders have been sending less (increasingly no) cash to the senior leadership in Quetta. More of the faction leaders are responding to family needs and many of those kin want to get out of Afghanistan. That costs money and there is but one source.
Meanwhile there is growing pressure from an informal coalition (of the United States, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India) that is demanding Pakistan stop lying about its support for Islamic terrorists that are allowed sanctuary in Pakistan as long as they only carry out attacks elsewhere (especially in Afghanistan and India). Pakistan has been doing this since the 1980s and always denied it. This began in the 1980s when Pakistan provided a refuge for Afghans fleeing the Russian violence (similar to what the Russians are now doing in Syria) following a 1979 invasion. Pakistan, with cash and weapons from oil rich Arabian countries and America providing protection from Russian retaliation, allowed Afghan rebels to maintain bases alongside Afghan refugee camps. The problem was that after the Russians left in 1989 Pakistan has never stopped supporting Afghan rebels and interfering in Afghan affairs. Pakistan also encouraged Islamic terrorist attacks inside India. Pakistan admits they created the Taliban, but only to stop the 1990s civil war in Afghanistan. All the rest they have always denied.
The truth was that Pakistan expected the Taliban to ensure that whatever government was running Afghanistan would do whatever Pakistan needed done. That meant tolerance for the Afghan drug trade (which made many Pakistanis rich), no contacts with India and no criticism of the Pakistani military or its intelligence branch (the ISI). It was of little concern to Pakistan that the Taliban and the drug gangs have been tearing Afghanistan apart ever since. Only about ten percent of Afghans got any economic benefit out of the drug business and millions of Afghans, Pakistanis and people throughout the region have become drug addicts. Pakistan has been using Islamic terrorist groups against India as well and this turned India and Afghanistan into allies. It is telling that while Pakistan supports terror against India every other Moslem nation in the region (especially Iran and Bangladesh) regards non-Moslem India as someone they can get along with. Pakistan, despite sharing a long border with Iran, is considered more troublesome and less reliable than India. Bangladesh used to be part of Pakistan but rebelled in the 1970s and despite savage reprisals from the Pakistanis, achieved independence and continue to hold Pakistan responsible for those atrocities. Pakistan has always denied the Indian, Afghan and Bangladeshi accusations but now the United States is becoming more forceful in demanding that Pakistan stop lying and terrorizing its neighbors and threating the world. All this came to a head recently in the UN where many nations, especially Afghanistan, and India, openly demanded that Pakistan stop supporting Islamic terrorist groups, particularly those that specialize in terrorizing neighbors. The Pakistan military, which always portrays itself as a victim, responded by up increasing violence along the Indian border, blaming it all on India, and risking a nuclear war because India, unlike Afghanistan, has nukes. Meanwhile Afghanistan, Iran and India are developing new trade routes that will ignore Pakistan.
Afghanistan and the American also want Pakistan to include the Haqqani Group, another Afghan Islamic terrorist group the Pakistanis have long sponsored and sheltered, with the Afghan Taliban. That is because these two groups have, since late 2015, effectively merged (at least at the leadership level).
The Afghan military is having a hard time with all the drug-related violence. The current strength of the army is supposed to be 190,000 but casualties, desertions and recruiting problems have prevented the military from growing much beyond 170,000. Similar problems with the national police, who are supposed to have 150,000 personnel but in reality can only maintain about 120,000. It may be more dangerous to work for the Taliban but the pay is better and looting is not discouraged. The main problem with the security forces is the quality of leadership. There continues to be a shortage of officers and NCOs troops are willing to follow. This is because of shortages of trained and experienced leaders as well as corruption and ethnic animosities. These last two items are the biggest problems for the military. The corruption is pervasive and newly arrived leaders have to convince their subordinates that the new boss will not sell them out. There is also corruption outside the unit and the unit commander’s control. The government and army is full of senior people who steal money meant to buy things the troops need; like food, fuel, weapons, equipment, ammo, medical care and sometimes even their pay. While the Afghan security forces are suffering up to a thousand dead some months, the 10,000 American troops are safer than they have ever been. So far this year nine American military personnel have died in Afghanistan. There were three in October.
American Air Support
So far in 2016 there have been 15-20 American airstrikes a week, most of them against al Qaeda and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) targets in eastern Afghanistan. That’s more than twice the number of American airstrikes in Afghanistan during 2015. 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. During the first half of 2016 air attacks against ISIL represented over half all American air attacks in Afghanistan. Each attack involves the use, on average, two or 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. But the Afghan air force only has about a hundred aircraft, half of them helicopters. While nearly half of these aircraft can laser guided missiles, there is a shortage of pilots and ground controllers to make sure the right targets are hit.
October 24, 2016: In the east (Nangarhar province) Taliban gunmen attacked a police checkpoint near the Torkham border crossing and killed eight policemen. Torkham is the main border crossing with Pakistan and where thousands of people and vehicles pass through each day. On the Pakistani side is the Khyber Pass which has always been the easiest way to get from northern Afghanistan to the lowlands (most of Pakistan and all of India) beyond.
In the south, across the border in Pakistan, Islamic terrorists based in Afghanistan attacked a police training center and after five hours of violence left 71 dead and 170 wounded. The attackers were from a Pakistani Islamic terror group (Lashkar-e-Jhangvi) that was forced to move its bases to eastern Afghanistan after 2014 because the Pakistani Army launched a major offensive on North Waziristan and other Islamic terrorist sanctuaries used by groups that made attacks inside Pakistan. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was mainly about killing “heretics” (especially Pakistani Shia). These attacks were often in Baluchistan Province, which Quetta is the capital of.
October 23, 2016: The Taliban released a UAV video of a suicide truck bomber attack on a police station in the south (Helmand province). The video, taken on October 3rd, appears to have been from a quad-copter type UAV that was hovering over the area as the truck drove at high speed towards the police compound and, once inside, detonated in a large explosion that destroyed several buildings.
October 22, 2016: In the north (Kunduz province) soldiers clashed with a group of Taliban near the provincial capital (Kunduz city) and killed at least 17 of them. Among the dead they found three local Taliban leaders. In the east (Kunar province) police seized a Pakistani bus that was being used to smuggle a ton of explosives (Ammonium Nitrate fertilizer) into the country. Two Pakistanis and an Afghan man were arrested in connection with the bus.
October 11, 2016: In the south (Helmand province) the Taliban murdered over a hundred soldiers who had agreed to abandon their Lashkar Gah (the provincial capital) outpost in return for safe passage. Over 200 Afghan soldiers were killed in battles around Lashkar Gah during the last week.
In Kabul three Islamic terrorists attacked a Shia shrine, the largest in Afghanistan). One of the attackers was killed over a dozen worshippers and security personnel were wounded. ISIL later took credit.