The Taliban was very active in 2016 as their drug gang patrons demanded greater efforts to protect core areas used to produce and export the opium and heroin that pays for all this mayhem. While there was a lot more Taliban violence (and drug gang bribery) this year at the end of 2016 the government still controls two-thirds of the population and the Taliban/drug gangs less than ten percent. Despite the small gains the drug gangs are largely satisfied because nearly all the gains have been in areas they value most.
The fighting has always been concentrated in a few of the 34 provinces that are key to the drug operations. These provinces include Badakhshan in the northeast, Ghazni in the southeast (near the Pakistan border), nearby Zabul, Helmand in the south, Nangarhar in the east and Kunduz in the north. Helmand is most important because that is where most of the opium and heroin is produced. The other provinces are important because they provide key smuggling routes for getting the drugs out and essential supplies (weapons, chemicals and cash) in. American advisors believe that the drug gangs now are present in over a quarter of the country but actually control a lot less. The Afghan government pointed out that the Taliban made repeated, but ineffective, efforts to capture Kunduz city in the north and many areas in Helmand. In all these failures the Taliban suffered heavy losses, not just in men but also in what little popular support they have in some areas. The Taliban has always been unpopular, especially in the north, but the callous attitude of most Taliban commanders towards civilian casualties is noticed by the population in general and that makes it more difficult for the Taliban to obtain support. In many areas of the country even bribes and threats don’t work.
The official Taliban excuse for all this is mostly about defending Islam but on the ground Afghans (and any foreigners who pay attention) know it is mostly about money and tribal loyalty. Worse the few true-believers attracted to the Taliban are now seeking alternatives. For that reason Afghanistan is becoming a more important growth area for ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and this year Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States have been cooperating to find and kill or capture any ISIL members in their territory. U.S. intelligence believes ISIL has, overall, lost at least 50,000 personnel since mid-2014. Precise data on ISIL losses is hard to come by but that is less of a mystery as more ISIL territory is taken and more deserters and prisoners can be interrogated. The U.S. is also deliberately going after ISIL leaders everywhere it can with airstrikes and ground operations to grab ISIL documents (usually on laptops, smart phones, and USB drives). Compiling all the captured data gives the most accurate estimates of enemy losses. This means that since 2013 (when ISIL first appeared) the group has lost over 60,000 personnel to combat, disease, accidents and desertion. Most of the losses have been suffered in Syria, Iraq and Libya. It’s believed that ISIL currently has only about 15,000 fighters available, mostly in Syria and Iraq. There are a few thousand more in northern Libya, eastern Afghanistan and Egypt. In all five countries ISIL is under heavy attack and ISIL recently lost the coastal city of Sirte its only major Libyan base. Defending the city cost them the loss of some 3,000 dead, captured and deserters. ISIL is expected to suffer major losses in 2017, mainly in Syria and Iraq. That could mean in a year Afghanistan would be the largest ISIL force anywhere. Most ISIL activity is in Nangarhar province, which is on the Pakistani border and a major export route for heroin and opium. This is also where ISIL suffers most of its losses in Afghanistan. American UAVs and Afghan commandos concentrate on ISIL targets there and capture a lot of data which details ISIL operations in the area. The data shows that a large fraction of the ISIL men in Afghanistan are foreigners, mainly from Pakistan. ISIL attracts recruits from other Islamic terrorist groups that are seen as not sufficiently dedicated to the cause of world domination, defending Islam and generally being self-righteous outlaws. Another reason for joining ISIL is the uncompromising attitude towards opium and heroin. While most Taliban justify working for drug cartels (for the money) ISIL makes no exceptions.
Then there is al Qaeda, which has branches in Afghanistan/Pakistan, Yemen and Africa and is in much better shape than ISIL. Since ISIL is basically a rogue (and universally hated) al Qaeda faction the main source of new recruits for ISIL are men who have tried al Qaeda and found it too mild for their tastes. For that reason no one will grant al Qaeda sanctuary, especially since the 2014 effort by to expand its operations with AQIS (al Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent). AQIS tried to set up shop in Pakistan but that did not work out and it was believed that the several hundred al Qaeda known to have been driven from North Waziristan into eastern Afghanistan in late 2014 had stayed there. Some of them had, but most had quietly moved south to Kandahar and made a deal with local Taliban and tribal leaders to build a large training facility in a remote area which to train al Qaeda and Taliban and help with the effort to keep ISIL out of the area. That lasted until a surprise army attack in late 2015 killed over 150 AQIS members while capturing and wounding even more. Lots of documents were captured and Afghanistan suddenly became a lot more dangerous for AQIS. As long as AQIS pays its own way the Taliban allows them to keep trying. This is easier now that Haqqani Group leaders are basically running the Afghan Taliban. Al Qaeda has long enjoyed good relationships with Haqqani Network. AQIS maintains a low profile but is still being tracked by American intel and Afghan raids. AQIS suffers damage, but not as much as ISIL. While AQIS has lost about 250 men (killed or captured) in 2016 it still manages to maintain a membership of a few hundred, spilt between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a small number trying to survive in India.
The Taliban Sanctuary Survives
Pakistan has received several proposals from the Americans for shutting down the Taliban sanctuary in Baluchistan (southwest Pakistan, on the border of Helmand province). As the year ends the Afghan Taliban remains in Quetta (the capital of Baluchistan) where it has been since 2002. It has been noted that more mid-level Taliban leaders, and their families, have moved to Helmand recently. The Taliban say that movement is to take advantage of the territorial gains the Taliban and drug gangs have made this year in Helmand. Yet this also puts these leaders and their families at much greater risk of attack or capture. Not just from the American UAVs, which can operate freely in Afghanistan, and work with Afghan commandos to go after high-value targets. The real reason for this shift to Helmand is that because of factionalism within the Taliban since 2015 fewer Taliban groups in Afghanistan are passing on cash to the senior leadership in Pakistan. This factionalism is still a factor and makes it more difficult for the Taliban to operate in a coordinated fashion
Some Taliban spokesmen insist that the entire Taliban leadership has shifted to Helmand but that is obviously not the case. The Taliban headquarters compounds in Quetta and Peshawar (the capital of the tribal territories in northwest Pakistan) are still operational. The U.S. also points out that the Haqqani Network also continues to enjoy sanctuary in Pakistan. Haqqani is much smaller than the Taliban but also much less trouble for their Pakistani protectors. In addition Haqqani leaders are now part of the senior Taliban leadership.
Meanwhile Pakistan may be waiting for a suitable offer before shutting down Quetta sanctuary. Apparently the best offer made so far has been Afghanistan cooperating (and the U.S. financing) to assist Pakistan in the expulsion of several million Afghan refugees still in Pakistan. In addition 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 was supposed to have told Afghan Taliban leaders to either begin serious peace talks with the Afghan government or face eviction from their Quetta sanctuary but even that claim is now in doubt. Meanwhile there is growing pressure from an informal coalition (of the United States, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India) 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). China, which is making major investments in Pakistan, has threatened to cut back if Pakistan does not improve security and is calling for greater international efforts to do the same in Afghanistan (where China has some major projects pending because of security concerns). This is a veiled criticism of Pakistan, which is the largest customer for Chinese weapons exports. All this has caused a growing struggle within the Pakistani government as the military (and its intel branch, ISI) refuse to consider shutting down the remaining Islamic terrorist sanctuaries.
The sanctuary problem 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 radicalized 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.
Popularity and Righteousness Matters
The Taliban is having lots of problems with its leadership and finances. The “decapitation” tactics backed by the Americans and enthusiastically embraced by the Afghan military has done major and growing damage to Taliban leadership, especially the experienced field commanders. In the last few months these losses have been particularly heavy. In addition the Taliban are finding less hospitality among the Moslem faithful in the Persian Gulf or Pakistan next door. These nations are less willing to allow wounded Taliban to enter for medical treatment. Moreover the Persian Gulf is less willing to allow many Talban to park their families there, in relative safely, while the men continue to kill and protect drug lords back in Afghanistan.
Since January of 2016 Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the United States have been trying to restart the peace talks with the Taliban. That is not happening because the real problem factionalism within the Afghan Taliban. This causes the two factions to keep trying to outdo each other in making new demands. The latest one if direct talks with the United States. That will never happen. In the meantime the Afghan government maintains informal (and unofficial) links 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 terrorists. In light of that the Taliban simply demand the release of a few “essential (for peace talks)” Taliban leaders. The Afghan 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 U.S. revealed evidence of the Taliban getting some help (sanctuary and information) from Iran and Russia in return for assistance in keeping ISIL out of Iran and Russia. The U.S. also confirms the belief that Saudi supporters of Islamic radicalism continue to make major financial contributions to the Taliban. The Saudi government knows about this and rather than shut it down (difficult in a region infamous for its rampant smuggling and money laundering) uses the contributors to provide access with the Taliban leadership and the leaders of any allied groups. When confronted by Afghanistan over this Iran admitted that it has the ability to communicate with Taliban leaders, but does this mainly to gather intelligence.
The Heart Of Asia Speaks Up
At an early December conference of nations committed to helping Afghanistan deal with Islamic terrorism and the drug trade the Afghan president again accused Pakistan of, in effect, waging undeclared war on Afghanistan via continued Pakistani support of the Taliban and other Islamic terrorist groups Most of the participants in this “Heart Of Asia” conference (Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and the United Arab Emirates) agree with Afghanistan on this but most won’t say so openly and continue to unofficially pressure Pakistan to eliminate the Islamic terrorist sanctuaries. The conference members also agreed that Pakistan should be less restrictive on what legal goods travel to and from Afghanistan to the outside world via the Pakistani port of Karachi. Afghanistan and India are trying to lift the restrictions Pakistan has imposed on goods moving between Afghanistan and India via Karachi. Currently Afghanistan can export a short list of goods to India via Karachi but nothing is allowed to go from India to Afghanistan.
Then there is China. In late November the Taliban announced that it would not interfere with a huge copper deposit 40 kilometers southeast of Kabul at Mes Aynak. In 2008 China signed a deal with Afghanistan that gave them 30 years to develop a mine there and ship copper out. Mes Aynak is believed to be one of the top three copper deposits in the world and worth $50 billion or more if it ever got into production. But China has not moved because of the lawless situation in Afghanistan. The Afghan government believes the Taliban is trying to entice the Chinese to begin construction so the Taliban can extort regular payments to “protect” the facility from attack. That really doesn’t work in Afghanistan, where there are too many potential attackers.
December 19, 2016: The U.S. revealed that an October 23rd UAV missile attack in eastern Afghanistan (Kunar province) that had killed Farok al Qatani (the al Qaeda leader for that part of the country) had also killed Qatanis deputy and a senior al Qaeda bomb builder. The Qatani death was reported at the time but it took a while to confirm the other two.
December 17, 2016: In the south (Kandahar province) two Islamic terrorist gunmen killed five female screeners on their way to work at the Kandahar airport. The Taliban has always made a point of discouraging woman from working outside the home or sending their children to anything but a religious school. These policies have been enforced this way less and less because most Afghans disagree with it.
December 4, 2016:
In northwest Pakistan (Khyber) the Pakistani air force carried out its first airstrikes in months. This was in response to criticism from Afghanistan that Pakistan was ignoring Islamic terrorist camps near the Afghan border. So Pakistani F-16s hit five of the camps the Afghans had identified and killed at least a dozen people on the ground. This was technically part of the massive anti-terrorism campaign that began in mid-2014 in North Waziristan and was scheduled to end this December 31st. For the last year most of the air and ground action has been in adjacent tribal areas like Khyber. Pakistan was mainly interested in clearing out any Islamic terrorists hostile to Pakistan and that has largely been accomplished. About 5,000 people died in the 30 month campaign, 90 percent of them Islamic terrorists (although some of these were civilian bystanders) and the rest the security forces, mainly soldiers.
December 2, 2016:
In the north, across the border in Tajikistan Russian troops began training Tajik troops as part of a Russian effort to upgrade the skills of the Tajik army. In 2013 the Tajik parliament approved an extension of the military cooperation treaty with Russia to 2042. This included Russia continuing to station 6,000 troops there, mainly on the Afghan border to help keep out drugs and Islamic terrorists. All this required operating three Russian bases in Tajikistan. Russia also continues to train Tajik military personnel (mainly officers) and supply weapons and ammo at low cost or for free. The Russians also agreed to provide trainers to improve the skills of all Tajik soldiers. Tajikistan was part of the Soviet Union until 1991 and borders Afghanistan. This arrangement makes it more difficult and expensive (high bribes) to get drugs out of Afghanistan via Tajikistan.
November 26, 2016: In the east (Nangarhar province) at the Torkham border crossing police seized a Pakistani truck that was trying to nine tons of explosives (Ammonium Nitrate fertilizer) into the country. The Pakistani driver was arrested. 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.
Normally large bribes would get illegal cargoes like this across the border but since ammonium nitrate is the main ingredient in most Islamic terrorist bombs, sometimes bribes are not enough because many police have lost family to Islamic terrorist bombs and that sometimes results in border guards refusing to take the money and let the ammonium nitrate through. For a long time ammonium nitrate, a banned fertilizer, has been used to make roadside bombs. It takes 3-4 kg (6.6-8.8 pounds) of ammonium nitrate (mixed with some fuel oil) for an average roadside bomb. Pakistani officials have resisted pleas to crack down on the movement of excessive (for Pakistan’s needs) quantities of ammonium nitrate into Pakistan and then, via lots of bribes, into Afghanistan. A lot of the bribes are paid on the Afghan side of the border. But in some cases the bribes don’t work. This has become such a serious problem that the Taliban are trying to get their men to avoid civilian casualties as much as possible. This is having some impact as civilian deaths this year (about 3,200) are not up while deaths of soldiers and police are.