The Afghan government continues to be under attack but is doing better than the Taliban. The security forces and local militias have made life more dangerous for the Taliban and the drug gangs they work for. Yet no one is clearly winning. The drug business is too profitable to easily destroy. So a deadly stalemate endures. That has always been the problem Afghanistan could never solve.
The main problems are corruption and a lack of local and national leaders willing or able to bring peace and prosperity. How this works, or doesn’t can be seen in the security forces. 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 over 500 dead some months, the 10,000 American troops (and nearly as many other NATO troops and civilian contractors) are safer than they have ever been. In 2016 16 foreign military personnel (14 American) died in Afghanistan. During 2015 only 27 foreign soldiers died (22 American, two British and thee from other countries). In 2014 75 foreign troops died in Afghanistan and the peak year was 2010 when 710 died. Since late 2001 over 3,500 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.
The Afghans are having a more difficult time doing that themselves. One thing that keeps the Afghan war effort going is the more than $3.5 billion a year in foreign aid to pay for it. Most Afghans oppose the Taliban and the drug gangs and if someone is going to provide lots of money and some troops to help, the battle will continue. Making peace with the Taliban is less and less likely because the hard core religious and tribal (Pushtun) support for a religious dictatorship (dominated by the Pushtun minority) remains alive and surviving. It’s the same problem the rest of the Islamic world has and there are no quick cures.
Since the foreign troops left in 2014 the Taliban have been on the offensive. That, like most else in Afghanistan, has not worked out as expected. At the end of 2016 the Taliban only controlled about ten percent of the country and were very active (“contesting control of”) in another 20 percent. This is nearly ten times as much control as they had at the end of 2014. Most of the Taliban gains have been in Helmand because, as the old saying goes, “follow the money”. The Taliban also tried to improve their image and paid more attention to what al Qaeda leaders have been telling them for over a decade; avoid civilian casualties (as otherwise it turns potential supporters against you). Thus civilian deaths in 2016 (about 3,200) were not up while deaths among the Taliban and security forces were much higher. Losses on both sides have been heavier since the foreign troops left. Afghanistan claims its forces killed 18,000 enemy fighters (mostly Taliban) in 2016, which is more than twice what the security forces lost. Taliban losses have increased more sharply (more than doubling) since 2014 than those of the security forces (which have increased nearly 50 percent.)
This pattern began to emerge in 2015. By the end of 2014 some 300,000 Afghan police and soldiers had assumed responsibility for security all over the country and as a result took a lot more casualties getting that done. At least 5,000 soldiers and police died in 2014, the first year the Afghans had to provide security nationwide. That produced a loss rate of about 2,400 dead per 100,000 troops per year. In 2013 it was about 1,890 which was a big increase from 2007, when the Afghan rate was about 700 dead per 100,000. The rate for 2015 was over 3,000 dead per 100,000, the first full year after most foreign troops had withdrawn. This loss rate was about twice that suffered by American troops during World War II but not unusual for recent Afghan history.
The Taliban and drug gangs proclaimed the departure of the formidable foreign troops to be an opportunity. Most Afghans saw it differently and since 2014 the security forces have had help from a lot more tribal militias. These are usually part-timers but get organized in times when there is a local threat, like regular harassment by the Taliban or drug gang gunmen. The security forces value the tribal militias not so much for their firepower as for the information they possess about the local area and who is doing what for who at the moment.
The Taliban is also having leadership problems. Mostly it’s because the Afghans have successfully adopted the American practice of going after enemy leadership. This means Taliban field commanders are sought out and killed or, if possible, taken alive. While there are always ambitious younger Taliban willing to move up, the most capable ones often back off and a growing number are turning to Plan B (take your skills and accumulated cash and get out of Afghanistan).
During 2016 the United States increased its air support for Afghanistan over 40 percent. That meant 1,337 missiles and smart bombs used. The number of airstrikes was about 600, nearly double what it was in 2015. This was no surprise as in mid-2016 the United States revealed that earlier in the year it had ordered American forces in Afghanistan to go after all Islamic terrorists and do so with few restrictions. An easing of restrictions was noted earlier in the year but there was no official announcement until June. By then U.S. Air Force admitted that during the first five months of 2016 American warplanes used 451 missiles and smart bombs against ground targets in Afghanistan. That’s nearly twice as many as during the same period in 2015. That is still less than a quarter of the activity during 2011 and less than half the number of missiles and smart bombs used per month in 2014 (the last year American combat troops were in Afghanistan). The change in 2016 came after the Afghans finally convinced the American political leaders that more air support for Afghan forces would make a major difference. In early 2016 the United States agreed to allow American forces in Afghanistan to work more closely with Afghan forces against the Taliban and other Islamic terror groups. That change included more American air support and relaxed ROE (Rules of Engagement). Now local American commanders could decide when to use American air power or ground forces to assist Afghan forces rather than having to try and convince lawyers and politicians back in the U.S. that this particular attack was a matter of life or death. That cautious approach left a lot of Afghan soldiers, police and civilians dead and other Afghans noticed why. Afghan political and military leaders have been increasingly critical, often publically, about the earlier, more restrictive, American policy. The U.S. has not yet agreed to maintain or increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. Currently there are 9,800 U.S. troops there and that was supposed to be cut 44 percent by the end of 2016. The Afghans made a case for keeping more American troops in Afghanistan and now the reduction will only be 14 percent. Meanwhile more air support will be provided and fewer restrictions will be placed on the use of those aircraft. A new government in the U.S. is expected to be more effective in providing military and other assistance to the Afghan war effort.
Meanwhile the U.S. continues to use UAV missile strikes against key Islamic terrorist leaders and often waits weeks or months to make details public. This is usually to confirm who got killed and exploit any intel obtained. The Americans have quietly moved many intel units back to Afghanistan since late 2015. This was something he Afghans wanted and it made a difference providing Afghan forces much more information on the enemy and in a timelier manner. It also enabled the Afghans to more effectively go after Taliban and other Islamic terrorist leaders. Throughout 2016 Afghan forces found and killed 40-50 of these leaders a month. A smaller number were captured alive and in all cases much valuable information was captured for the Americans to quickly analyze and alert the Afghans to any useful leads. The U.S. also used UAVs to go after al Qaeda and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) leaders who were difficult for the Afghans to get to.
The Hidden Menace
Pakistan remains the primary source of support for Islamic terrorism in the region. It is becoming increasingly difficult to deny this as more and more evidence surfaces. This has led to open discussions about how to deal with the mess these lies have gotten Pakistan into. Some of these public discussions feature Pakistani officials saying that to move against all Islamic terrorists in Pakistan too aggressively would mean more Islamic terrorist attacks inside Pakistan and that is not acceptable. While maintaining some terrorist sanctuaries makes sense to many Pakistanis it simply angers Afghanistan and India (and now Bangladesh as well) because they have long suffered from Pakistan based Islamic terror groups that had (and still have) sanctuary in Pakistan and until recently any Pakistani openly admitting that would be called a traitor and risk prison or death. What changed Pakistani attitudes towards this official denial was the growing evidence that the Pakistani position was all a lie and a self-destructive one at that. That includes Pakistan trying to blame all Islamic terrorist violence inside Pakistan on foreigners (usually India). This became embarrassing when Pakistani Islamic terrorists would get on the Internet and provide evidence that they, not India, did it. The Afghans and Americans also lost their patience with years of Pakistani promises that “they were working on the problem” when, in fact, that was all for show.
While China is an ally of Pakistan and is making major investments there, China 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 Pakistani support of Islamic terrorism. Pakistan is the largest customer for Chinese weapons exports and increasingly dependent on China as a military ally and supplier of weapons. Yet even China has to deal with the terrorism threat created and sustained by the Pakistani military. All this has fueled the growing struggle within the Pakistani government as the military (and its intel branch, ISI) refuse to consider shutting down the remaining Islamic terrorist sanctuaries. While Afghanistan’s internal problems (corruption, ethnic and religious animosities) are caused and sustained by Afghans it doesn’t help that neighbors like Pakistan actively keep the pot boiling. That is beginning to cause a lot more problems for Pakistan and in the long run that is a good thing for Afghanistan.
Afghan Exit Strategies
There are 13,000 Afghans who served as interpreters for U.S. forces between 2001 and 2014 who have applied to move to the U.S. to avoid death threats from the Taliban and other Islamic terror groups. While there were a few well publicized incidents of interpreters turning on their employers (usually because of disputes over pay and working conditions) most of them served faithfully and often at great personal risk. In the United States, however, there has been a lot of popular and bureaucratic opposition to letting this many Afghans in. The problem is not so much the interpreters as it is the children. A small percentage of them tend to get radicalized when they grow up. This is more common in Europe but it happens often enough in the United States to be noticed.
Despite this terror risk the main incentive for allowing all, or most, of these interpreters in is to make it easier to recruit reliable interpreters in similar (to Iraq and Afghanistan) situations. This is important because using local interpreters has always involved some problems and risks. In Iraq the enemy sought to insert spies, or even suicide bombers, via Iraqi interpreters. They had some success, especially with the espionage. In Afghanistan, the Taliban take advantage of the more mercurial attitudes towards foreigners, and urge interpreters to turn on their employers. Sometimes this happens without any Taliban encouragement. Many non-fatal altercations are never reported. American soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have found that the Afghans can be harder to deal with. Iraqis have been doing business with foreigners for thousands of years, and consider themselves quite cosmopolitan. Afghans are more prone to viewing foreigners as a threat, not a business opportunity. Foreigners in Afghanistan have long been a source of loot or ransom, not a mutually profitable commercial deal.
The Afghan interpreters are eager, even desperate, to get out and willing to do what it takes to fit in. This eagerness to leave might seem odd because Afghanistan has gone through a lot of positive changes since 2001. For example, life-expectancy had increased from 45 years in 2001 to 63 years now. This, plus the rapid economic growth since 2001 means Afghanistan is no longer the poorest country in Eurasia. The increased life expectancy is largely the result to improved sanitation and medical care, especially for newborns and children under five. One reason for the growing hostility towards the Taliban is the continuing efforts of these Islamic radicals to limit the spread of better health care and economic improvements in general. The most obvious example of this is the continuing Taliban opposition to vaccination programs, which the Taliban consider a Western effort to poison Moslem children. Then there is education, which has rapidly increased, despite constant, and often fatal, Taliban resistance. Better educated children are healthier because they learn about how to keep healthy in addition of how to read and count. Taliban insist that education concentrate mainly on religious matters and that girls be excluded. Islamic educators stress the importance of living like the original 7th century Moslems and avoiding modern technology. This is not popular with most Afghans. The problem with all this progress is that it encourages people to seek better paying and safer jobs in the civilian economy or overseas. Few talented people want to work for the government, which is seen as corrupt and dangerous. Worse yet, too many Afghans who do get some education and technical skills are willing to spend what money they have made to get out of Afghanistan, a place few educated people want to be. The Taliban, who worship ignorance and abhor progress, want to keep the country in a shabby and violent state and rule over the smoldering, but historically accurate, ruins. This struggle between progress and religious opposition to it has been going on in the Islamic world for over a thousand years. A growing number of Afghans see their own country as one of the worst examples of this and have given up risking their lives regularly trying to change that.
The growing unpopularity of the Taliban and other Islamic terror groups in Afghanistan has been a major boost for ISIL. As has happened elsewhere, the hard-core members of other Islamic terror groups see ISIL as a step up. Despite that ISIL is dying, largely because everyone (including nearly all other Islamic terror groups) oppose it. 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 its only major Libyan base. Defending it 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 but not very large and under constant attack by just about everyone. Despite that ISIL will remain a minor factor because that’s how ISIL operates.
January 15, 2017: A Spanish foreign aid worker held captive by the Taliban since December 19th was freed unharmed. The government insists that no ransom was paid which usually means a large cash ransom was paid, one that included sufficient bribes for government officials to assure foreign aid donor nations that the “no-ransom” policy was still in place. It usually is, at least in terms of not releasing imprisoned terrorists or gangsters. An all-cash ransom is easier to pass off as a hostage freed because of intervention by “tribal elders.” Sometimes local tribal leaders are involved, if you can afford to pay the cash “gifts” demanded.
January 12, 2017: In central Afghanistan (Wardak Province) Haqqani Network gunmen clashed with the army and lost 11 Islamic terrorists dead with no losses to troops or nearby civilians.
January 11, 2017: The Taliban released a video showing the two professors (an American and an Australian) kidnapped on August 19th in Kabul. The two pleaded for the newly elected American president to negotiate for their release. That usually means releasing a lot of imprisoned Islamic terrorist leaders and other favors. The U.S. rarely does this, largely because it always backfires. Attempts to locate these captives is complicated by the fact that there are many areas in Afghanistan where the locals are encouraged (by bribes and threats) to resist any rescue attempts or efforts to collect information. These two captives are believed to be held by the Haqqani Network, which now controls the Afghan Taliban and has sanctuaries inside Pakistan, which are particularly good for stashing high-value hostages.
January 10, 2017: Major bomb attacks in Kabul, Kandahar and Helmand left over fifty dead and more than twice that many wounded. Some involved suicide bombers but some bombs were planted in high security areas. Most of the casualties were civilians, including over a dozen foreigners in Kandahar where a bomb was hidden in a high-security area of the provincial governor’s compound. That bomb wounded an Arab (UAE) ambassador while five other UAE embassy staff were killed. This the only attack today that the Taliban did not take credit for. Afghan intel later claimed that these attacks were apparently planned and prepared (personnel, training, equipment) at the Taliban sanctuary in Quetta (a Pakistani city just across the border from Helmand province.) The new American Secretary of Defense (a former general with a lot of experience in Afghanistan) affirmed that the Taliban sanctuary remained a key problem for Afghanistan and any effort to deal with Taliban violence. UAE security officials later revealed that they believe the Kandahar bomb was an inside job and more about corruption among senior government officials than Islamic terrorism. It seems that senior officials would threaten, or use, fatal violence disguised as Islamic terrorism to persuade foreign donors to cooperate in corrupt schemes. Unfortunately this is nothing new for Afghanistan and now, as in the past, foreign benefactors will withdraw aid (or trade) rather than submit to Afghan threats.
January 8, 2017: In the east (Nangarhar province) Afghan forces clashed with some Islamic terrorists and when the battle was over found they had killed two known Haqqani commanders (both Pakistani) and two of their followers. Troops seized a large quantity of weapon and documents.
January 6, 2017: The United States said it will send a military training team of 300 marines to Helmand province in early 2017. Since early 2015 the Taliban have regained control overkey areas of Helmand province and contest much of the rest. When foreign troops left at the end of 2014 most Taliban activity was taking place in two (Kandahar and Helmand) of the 34 provinces. Afghan soldiers and police replaced the departed foreign troops. At that point some 40 percent of the Taliban violence was is in ten Kandahar and Helmand districts. Why that concentration of Taliban activity? It’s because of the heroin. The Taliban put most of their effort into protecting the districts where some 90 percent of the heroin in Afghanistan is produced. The other areas cursed with Taliban presence are ones that smuggling routes (to get the heroin to the outside world) go through. The Taliban don’t like to talk about this and they terrorize local media to stay away from it. International media avoid it as well, but on the ground it’s all about drugs and the huge amount of cash they provide for the drug gangs and their Taliban partners. It was different when there were a lot of foreign troops in Helmand. In 2009-10, there were over 15,000 foreign troops in Helmand, most of them British and American who often worked together out of over 200 bases. In 2009 there were
Helmand while 9,000
machine. Eventually the Taliban did, but only after all the foreign troops were gone. The Taliban expected to drive all the Afghan forces out of Helmand in a few months and be running the country again in a few years. That didn’t happen and the surge in heroin production (most exported to the West) is bringing the foreign troops back to Helmand.
January 2, 2017: In the southwest (Nimroz province) Afghan ground and air forces attacked a rural compound that was a major Taliban base. The attack killed over 80 Taliban, about 20 of them foreigners. In addition the operation destroyed two bomb building workshops and large quantities of bomb components. This operation was not publicized for over a week so that captured documents could be analyzed (for the location of other Taliban in the area) and acted on (attacked those Taliban before they found out they had been located and were able to move.)
December 31, 2016: Despite denials from the Iranian government Afghan border guards confirmed that their Iranian counterparts regularly accept the bodies of known Taliban for burial by their families living in Iran.
December 27, 2016:
Pakistan, Russia and China officials met in Russia to discuss the security situation in Afghanistan. China and Russia agreed to try and get UN sanctions against the Taliban lifted in order to encourage the Taliban to enter peace talks with Afghanistan. The U.S. had earlier revealed evidence of the Taliban getting some help (sanctuary, diplomatic support and information) from Iran and Russia in return for assistance in keeping ISIL out of Iran and Russia. Afghanistan accuses Russia and China of cooperating with Pakistan is trying to control Afghanistan via the Taliban (which was created by Pakistan in the 1990s for just that purpose). Afghanistan accuses Iran of secretly working with the Taliban when it will help keep Islamic terrorists out of Iran. Russia has also come out in support of the Chinese financed rail link between China and the Indian Ocean via Pakistan and new port facilities (and a Chinese naval base) on the Pakistani coast. India sides with the U.S. in criticizing China for blocking UN sanctions against some Islamic terrorist leaders who have proved useful to China. Afghan politicians openly accuse Saudi Arabia and Iran of supporting Islamic terrorists when it is in their interests, even if it means problems for other countries, like Afghanistan. Russia admits such links and points out that to fight terrorists you often have to cooperate with some of them.
December 23, 2016: In Kabul police killed the last of three Taliban who had attacked the compound of a MP (Member of Parliament) 10 hours earlier. The suicide bomber died at the start of the attack but the two gunmen held out overnight before police got into position to kill them. The attack failed to kill any of the senior politicians who were meeting in the compound but eight civilians died, including two bodyguards, two grandsons of the MP and several others in the compound when the attack started.
December 22, 2016:
Afghanistan accused Pakistan of resuming the shelling of Afghan territory in eastern (Kunar provinces) and southern (Helmand province) Afghanistan. Although most of the shells landed in remote areas they still manage to kill or wound some people, usually innocent civilians. These rocket, mortar and artillery attacks from Pakistan have been particularly heavy in 2013 and 2014 but happened much left frequently after a new Afghan government joined the U.S. to call out the Pakistanis on these attacks. Pakistan usually refuses to admit they are even happening but because of the 2015 cooperation deal (mainly to deal with Islamic terrorists hostile to everyone) Pakistan became more receptive to these complaints.