It appears that Afghanistan produced three billion dollars’ worth of opium and heroin in 2016, which is nearly double what was produced in 2015. Afghan produces about 80 percent of the illegal heroin in the world. While most of it is exported nearly a third of all families in Afghanistan have at least one member who is an opium or heroin addict. This is not a new problem but yet another side effect of the Russian invasion in 1979 and the decades of fighting that followed. The chaos of the 1980s fighting against the Russians allowed the opium trade to spread from Pakistan to Afghanistan. Pakistan subsequently eliminated opium and heroin production on its side of the border but tolerated it in Afghanistan. Many Pakistani businesses and corrupt officials have become wealthy from the Afghan drug trade (mainly by smuggling in chemicals needed to turn opium into heroin and then accepting bribes to allow most of the heroin to be smuggled through Pakistan to foreign markets). Inside Afghanistan the heroin income made possible more wealthy and powerful tribal warlords who managed the drug trade, mostly in the south (Helmand and Kandahar provinces). It was no accident that this was also the homeland of the Taliban because the Taliban have, from the beginning (the early 1990s, after Pakistan recruited and armed the first Taliban from among Afghan refugees) depended on cash from the drug gangs (often run by kinsmen) to survive. Because Taliban controlled Afghanistan was providing sanctuary for the al Qaeda Islamic terrorists who were responsible for a growing number of attacks against Americans the U.S. sent troops to Afghanistan in late 2001 and has been trying to pacify Afghanistan ever since. The U.S. has spent over $700 billion in that effort so far. Much of that money was spent on economic and other non-military aid. For Afghans who could avoid the Taliban (most could) and the opium (most could not) it has been a golden age of economic progress. But there is no peace and there won’t be until the drug trade is eliminated or greatly reduced. That will cripple the Taliban and other Islamic terror groups but defeating the drug gangs is not easy.
For thousands of years what is now Afghanistan has faced numerous foreign invaders who did a lot of damage and then moved on. This time around the most dangerous foreign threat is chemical and financial. Heroin, made possible by a late 19th century German chemical process enables locals to convert opium (laboriously obtained from poppy plants) into much more valuable (and portable) heroin. This is the basic problem in Afghanistan. While a few Afghans benefit financially (some spectacularly) from the heroin trade nearly half the population in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran suffer the consequences of addiction, crime and social breakdown. These deadly side-effects are most obvious inside Afghanistan.
The drugs are winning as they usually do for a while wherever they get established. Eventually they get crushed but eventually can last a long time. The only thing that nearly everyone in Afghanistan can agree on is that the opium and heroin are bad. Nearly ten percent of the population is addicted to drugs (mostly opiates) and another ten percent (there is some overlap) makes a living or gets rich from the drug trade. Most Afghans consider the biggest threat to be the drug gangs, which are largely run and staffed (like the Taliban) by Pushtun. The Taliban want to create a heroin producing Islamic terrorist and gangster sanctuary in Central Asia. If you want to know how that works, look at Chechnya in the late 1990s and Somalia during the last decade. No one has come up with any cheap, fast or easy solution for that.
In 2017 the Taliban have adopted a strategy of going after rural military bases, especially in the south (Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces). The Taliban first attack all police and army checkpoints leading to the base and once those checkpoints have been taken the roads are blocked with landmines and roadside bombs to prevent reinforcements reaching the base by road. Since the Afghan Air Force has limited air transport capability the base being attacked will often get little support and that demoralizes the defenders. Increased American air support had made this strategy more costly for the Taliban.
The Taliban also concentrate on key smuggling routes. In the north there is Kunduz province and access to Central Asia. In the west there are several provinces that provide access to Iran, with Herat being a frequent target. But even away from the borders some interior provinces, like Ghor, are important because they provide easy access to the north and west. The most valuable route is in the east and into Pakistan. This has produced a deadly standoff with Pakistan.
In an effort to persuade Pakistan to stop supporting violence in Afghanistan the Americans are withholding military aid more frequently. In 2016 the U.S. was willing to pay up to $900 million in such reimbursements but has only paid $550 million. Pakistan can retaliate by blocking road access to Afghanistan but this escalation ultimately fails for Pakistan because the only major ally they have is China and the Chinese have made it very clear that they will not join Pakistan in such an escalation. China is more concerned with the Pakistani ability to protect the thousands of Chinese coming into Pakistan each year to build new infrastructure projects. Pakistan has over 100,000 soldiers and police dedicated to the security of these Chinese and their growing number of work sites. There are still thousands of Islamic terrorists inside Pakistan who see the Chinese as a legitimate target.
Meanwhile Afghanistan and India are more aggressively fighting back at the Pakistan sponsored terrorism sent their way. This has turned India and Afghanistan into allies, which infuriates the Pakistani military. That means India has to deal with more Pakistani-backed Islamic terrorist and separatist violence in Kashmir. This has been increasing since 2015. In 2016 there were about twenty terrorism related deaths a month in Kashmir and it is about the same so far in 2017. Because of the increased Pakistani aggression in Kashmir 2016 was also the first time Pakistan suffered fewer terrorism incidents than India. Last year Iraq was first with nearly 3,000 attacks while Afghanistan was second with nearly 1,400. Then came India with nearly a thousand and Pakistan with about 700. Pakistan has benefitted from cracking down (since mid-2014) on local Islamic terror groups that carry out attacks inside Pakistan, especially those that attacked the government and military. But two things haven’t changed. First most of the attacks in India have nothing to do with Islamic terrorism but are the result of leftist or tribal rebels in eastern and northeastern India. Most importantly, adjusted for population Pakistan still suffers more than four times as many attacks as India. Moreover the attacks in India killed far fewer people because most had nothing to do with Islamic terrorism, which concentrates on killing as many people as possible (and nearly all of them Moslems). Overall attacks in India killed over 80 percent fewer people than those involving Islamic terrorism.
With help from India and the U.S. Afghanistan is becoming more vocal and aggressive about Pakistan continuing to tolerate pro-Islamic terrorists religious schools (madrasas) in Pakistan that specialize in training young Afghans, many of whom ended up in Afghanistan as suicide bombers or members of the Taliban. Afghanistan now accuses Pakistan of colluding with the Afghan Taliban to kidnap Afghan children and get them across the border to these Pakistani madrasas. This is something that had long been known but kept quiet because of a desire not to antagonize the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment. That is no longer an issue.
The Russian Paradox
The U.S. and Afghanistan keep finding evidence that Russia is supplying weapons to the Taliban. When pressed Russian officials will talk about the Taliban are the only ones fighting ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Afghanistan and need more weapons for that. This is absurd because Russia considers the Afghan heroin coming into Russia as a bigger threat than ISIL. The latest evidence of Russian arms getting to the Taliban comes from northern Afghanistan, where there is little ISIL activity but major heroin export routes to Central Asia and Russia. The Taliban has been very active up there.
Earlier in 2017 the American accused Russia of colluding with Iran, or Iranian arms smugglers, to supply the Taliban with weapons. Apparently Russia is again trying to destabilize the Afghan government so that they, and their ally Iran, will have more influence. This has been going on since the 1800s. But for over a thousand years before that warlords in Iran and northern India fought to control parts of Afghanistan, especially those areas that were part of the “Silk Road” between the Middle East (and Europe) and China (as well as stops along the way, like India and Iran.) Russia and Iran are concerned about the damage Afghan opium and heroin are doing (by creating millions of Russian and Iranian addicts) but are willing to tolerate the Afghan drug gangs if the export of the drugs can be better regulated to avoid Russia and Iran. That rarely works well but Russia, Iran and Pakistan are willing to try but understand that the American in particular and the West in general would never go along. Meanwhile Western nations are the main source of foreign aid that keeps the Afghan government going. Thus the Russians supplying weapons to the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.
Because of the Ukraine related sanctions on Russia it has proved difficult to keep the Afghan Air Force Russian helicopters operational. Two of the four Russian made Mi-35 helicopter gunships are grounded because of this and there are problems getting technical support for the 26 Mi-17 transport helicopters. The solution for this problem is to replace the Russian made helicopters with American UH-60s. Some Afghan Mi-17 pilots have already had training for this and report that the “conversion training” is not a problem and for experienced pilots is quite easy. The Afghan Air Force expects to be receiving at least 18 UH-60s by the end of 2018. The U.S. has already supplied twenty MD-530F helicopters armed with machine-guns, missiles and rockets and the U.S. has agreed to supply 30 more. These are easier to operate and maintain than the Mi-35s and cheaper as well. Since UH-60s can be armed as well that will be the solution to the grounded Mi-35 problem. The Afghan Air Force plans to increase its helicopter force from 71 now to 214 by 2024 and replace all the Russian helicopters with American ones in the process.
Afghanistan has always had a love-hate thing going with with Iran, the ancient and powerful empire to the west. Yet while Pakistan is considered an enemy Iran is more a frenemy. This is demonstrated in many ways. Iran has always considered the Afghans, especially the Pushtun tribes, a bunch of unreliable barbarians. Most everyone in the region agrees with that. Part of that animosity is religious. The Pushtun tend to be Sunni Moslems and often very fanatic ones. That means Shia Moslems are considered heretics and subject to eradication by devout Sunnis. While only 15 percent of Afghans are Shia, nearly all Iranians are. The Afghan Shia are mostly Hazara, descendants of medieval Mongol invaders. There are over two million Afghans living in Iran, most of them Shia and refugees (or children of) fleeing recent (since the 1980s) wars in Afghanistan. While these Shia refugees feel some affinity with Iran they are still Afghan and many got involved with the lucrative drug smuggling business. This is dangerous as well as lucrative and has turned the Afghan-Iran border into a combat zone. Since the refugees tend to provide a lot of these smugglers, shelter them while profiting from money earned smuggling, the refugees are not very popular in Iran and it is difficult for Afghan refugees to become permanent residents. In 2012 Iran came up with a solution; allowing Afghan Shia in Iran to join an Iranian sponsored mercenary force in Syria. Iran was trying to keep the Syrian government in power against an uprising by the majority of Syrians (who are Sunni). The Shia minority has ruled Syria for over 40 years and since the 1980s done so with the financial and material support of Iran. After 2012 that support included more and more foreign Shia fighters recruited, trained (usually in only a few weeks), paid and led by Iranians. The key benefit for Afghan volunteers from Iran was that successful service (especially if killed or disabled) provided the volunteer and his family with permanent residency in Iran. Nearly 20,000 Afghans from Iran have volunteered so far and some 20 percent have been killed or wounded. Despite the losses, Afghans kept volunteering because the payoff was relatively large and real. The Iranians kept their end of the bargain. But some of the Afghan volunteers did desert and provided foreign journalists and intel analysts with details of how the system worked. For one thing Iranian recruiters stressed the religious angle and the need to protect fellow Shia in Syria. The reality was that Iran needed tough and fearless fighters to deal with Sunni Islamic terrorist groups (mostly al Qaeda and ISIL) who comprised most of the opposition. These Sunni fanatics were responsible for numerous (and ongoing) attacks on Afghan Shia and that was sufficient motivation for most of the Afghan volunteers who come from a warrior culture. In addition to keeping their end of the deal Iran has recently (since late 2016) been providing the Afghan volunteers more public praise in the Iranian media. Most of the Afghans killed in Syria are flown home for burial in Iran and photos or video of the funerals often show up in the media. The families of the “martyrs” are praised as well and often shown receiving their residency papers and other benefits as well (access to better housing, medical care and so on). All this angers many Afghans who see it as another Iranian scheme to exploit Afghanistan. It is, but the Afghan refugees keep volunteering.
Air Support Surge
American air support increased 65 percent (compared to 2016) during the first six months of 2017. This was measured in terms of airstrikes carried out. The number of weapons (smart bombs and missiles) used increased even more dramatically, from 545 to 1,634. Most of the additional air support was applied to Taliban and Haqqani Network targets, which was usually in direct support of Afghan troops.
This was part of a trend because during 2016 the United States increased its air support for Afghanistan over 40 percent. That meant 1,337 missiles and smart bombs used for the entire year. 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 2016 but there was no official announcement until June. By then the 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 increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. Currently there are about 10,000 U.S. troops there and the Afghans want that increased by 50 percent. The Afghans made a case for keeping more American troops. Meanwhile more air support will be provided and fewer restrictions will be placed on the use of those aircraft. In early 2017 a new government in the U.S. indicated there would be more effective military and other assistance to the Afghan war effort.
For those who have studied recent efforts to establish narco states (especially in Colombia and northern Burma) what the Taliban and the drug gangs are doing is trying to establish large areas where there is no government presence. This was almost achieved in Colombia in the late 1990s before popular anger at the drug problem led to widespread support for defeating the drug gangs. The situation was different in northern Burma where opium has been produced on a large scale for centuries but there was no national government until the departing British convinced former colony Burma to take possession of the tribal north. Until the 1980s Burma was the source of most of the illegal opium but was displaced by Afghanistan which produced a cheaper product in larger quantities. Colombia came close to becoming a narco state and Burma never did because the tribes were a minority that never had a chance of taking over. In Afghanistan the Taliban were actually in control of most of the country in the late 1990s but their hold was fragile as was demonstrated by how quickly they were driven out by the addition of the few hundred American specialists (Special Forces CIA field operatives) and several thousand smart bombs. The Taliban are not some invincible force, they simply get more press coverage by those who ignore the past.
August 2, 2017: In the south (Kandahar Province) the Taliban attacked a NATO convoy and killed two U.S. troops. Ten foreign troops have died in Afghanistan so far this year, all of them American. For all of 2016 sixteen foreign troops died in Afghanistan, all but two of them American.
August 1, 2017: In the west (Herat province) two Islamic terrorists attacked a Shia mosque during prayers and caused over a hundred casualties (with 29 dead from a suicide bomb, grenades and gunfire).
Further east fighting between the Taliban and security forces near Kabul temporarily closed the Kabul to Kandahar highway. This interfered with truck traffic, which is essential because there are no railroads and few navigable rivers inside Afghanistan.
In the southeast (Logar province) Afghan airstrikes killed over twenty Taliban and Haqqani Network members, including a senior Haqqani leader (and nine of his associates) known to be responsible for organizing most of the suicide bomb attacks in the area,
July 31, 2017: In Kabul ISIL attacked the Iraqi embassy with a suicide bomber and three gunmen. Security forces defeated the attack, killing all four of the ISIL men. Two embassy employees were killed and three policemen were wounded.
July 29, 2017: In the east (Nangarhar province) a recently discovered ISIL base was attacked from the air and the ground. At least eight ISIL men were killed and documents and weapons recovered. This played a part in finding and destroying three other ISIL weapons storage sites.
July 26, 2017: In the south (Kandahar Province) about 200 Taliban attacked a small army base in a rural area. The soldiers suffered about 30 dead and 20 wounded defending the small fortress while nearly half the attackers were killed or wounded. The soldiers retreated from the base for a few hours while airstrikes kept hitting the enemy. When more ground troops arrived the army recovered the base and some of the dead Taliban.
July 25, 2017: In the west (Herat province) the army ended a ten day effort to defeat anti-government tribal militias operating near the Iranian border. The fighting left at least 250 militiamen dead along with seven civilians. One soldier was killed and seven wounded.
July 24, 2017: In Kabul a Taliban suicide car bomber attacked near where a lot of government employees were going to work, killing 35 people and wounding more than 40. This comes a day after Taliban attacked a hospital in central Afghanistan (Ghor province) killing 35 civilians. The Taliban later tried to deny responsibility for this one.
July 23, 2017: In the east (Nangarhar province) ISIL gunmen using civilians in a funeral procession for cover ambushed some soldiers. The deception failed as the soldiers fired back and called in air support. The civilians were able to flee he area but over a dozen were killed in the cross fire. The fighting went on for two days leaving 23 ISIL men and two soldiers dead as well.
July 22, 2017: In the south (Kandahar province) the Taliban murdered seven of the 70 civilians they had kidnapped from several villages in the last few days. This was a Taliban intimidation operation that sought to force the villagers to stop opposing the Taliban (often by cooperating with the security forces). Various Islamic terror groups account for about 68 percent of the civilian deaths in Afghanistan and the Taliban are responsible for about two-thirds of that. The security forces account for about 20 percent of the civilian deaths, nearly all are accidental. Most of the civilian deaths occur in just ten of the 34 provinces and four of those provinces (Kabul, Helmand, Kandahar and Nangarhar) account for most of that. Normally the Taliban and the drug gangs have a lot of cooperation from civilians in Helmand and Kandahar because so many families profit from the drug trade. The drug gangs don’t have to coerce farmers to grow poppies and harvest the opium. If the price paid for the opium is high enough and the Taliban can keep the government from interfering. Despite that the majority of the population in these two provinces benefit little from the drug trade and often suffer because of it and the constant fighting that goes along with it.
In the west (Herat province) Afghan troops clashed with a group of Taliban near the Iranian border. The Taliban lost eleven dead and at least six wounded. Among the dead was Mullah Abbas, a known (and much wanted) Taliban leader who was known to manage the movement of Iranian weapons and other supplies from Iran for the Taliban. Iran denies that Iran is supplying the Taliban but Afghan intel has lots of evidence (Iranian made weapons, documents, and prisoner interrogations) that say otherwise.
In the east (Nangarhar province) a Pakistani army operation across the border in
the Rajgal Valley came to an end as the Pakistanis declared a week of fighting had cleared 250 square kilometers of remote hills and forests of Islamic terror group camps, especially the ones being used by ISIL to move men and equipment between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The last phase of this operation involved using special operations troops to kill or chase away Islamic terrorists camped out at the highest point in the area; Brekh Top. This was technically part of the massive anti-terrorism campaign that began in mid-2014 in North Waziristan and was scheduled to end at the end of 2017. 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 so far in this three year old campaign, 90 percent of them Islamic terrorists (although some of these were civilian bystanders) and the rest the security forces, mainly soldiers. Over a million civilians fled the fighting and only about half have returned home so far. Pakistan shares details of these operations with Afghanistan, the United States and China. However Afghanistan points out that there is no way to confirm details of what Pakistan claims to have accomplished in operations like this and often the result, on the Afghan side, are often not detectable.
July 21, 2017:
The United States is withholding a $50 million reimbursement (for counter-terror operations) to Pakistan because Pakistan has refused to shut down sanctuaries for the Haqqani Network in Pakistan. The Americans have evidence of Haqqani still operating in Pakistan which the Pakistanis are unable to explain. The Americans are withholding military aid. In 2016 the U.S. was willing to pay up to $900 million in such reimbursements but has only paid $550 million.
July 20, 2017:
Afghanistan criticized Pakistan for making a big deal about attacking Haqqani Network and Afghan Taliban bases on the Pakistani side of the border but ignoring similar bases in Baluchistan (Quetta) and the Pakistani capital (Islamabad).
July 18, 2017: In the east (Nangarhar province) a feud between Taliban commanders led to a gunfight that left two well-known Taliban commanders dead.
July 16, 2017: In the east (Nangarhar province) at the Torkham border crossing police seized a Pakistani truck that was trying to smuggle nearly ten tons of explosives (Ammonium Nitrate fertilizer) into the country. The Pakistani driver was arrested and apparently admitted that the truck was loaded by Pakistani gunmen, who hid the bags of ammonium nitrate under legal consumer goods. 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 terror attacks 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.
July 11, 2017: In the east (Kunar province) an American airstrike killed Abu Sayed, the current leader of the Afghan branch of ISIL. This is the third time in the last year that the local ISIL leader has been killed. The April incident involved a joint U.S.-Afghan commando raid. ISIL has been active in Afghanistan since early 2015.
July 10, 2017: Civilian combat related deaths for the first six months of the year were 1,662, which is up two percent from 2016. Some 40 percent of these civilian deaths were caused by Islamic terrorist attacks using explosives (roadside bombs, suicide bombers or landmines).