The recently announced change in American strategy in Afghanistan includes a lot more air support (fixed wing, helicopter and UAV). What is interesting is that currently about half the American airstrikes occur in Nangarhar province (east of Kabul on the Pakistan border) and about 30 percent in Helmand province (in the south on the Pakistan border). About ten percent of airstrikes have been occurring in Kunduz province (in the north, near the Tajikistan border). All three of these areas are key locations for the Afghan drug gangs. Nangarhar is where a lot of the heroin exported via Pakistan is moved. More importantly Nangarhar is a favorite hangout for Haqqani Network (the chief enforcer for the Pakistani military) and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and various anti-Pakistan Islamic terror groups that have been forced out of Pakistan since mid-2014. Haqqani Network leaders now head the main factions of the Afghan Taliban while ISIL is full of former Taliban men disappointed with the loss of religious purpose in the Taliban (it’s mainly about money and loot these days) and looking for some good old fashioned religious fanaticism and righteous mayhem. A lot of American airstrikes in Nangarhar are directed at ISIL. Helmand is still where most of the opium and heroin in Afghanistan (and the world) is produced while Kunduz is the main drug smuggling route to Central Asia, China and Russia. What goes on in these three provinces says more about the war in Afghanistan than anything else. The additional American air support will still concentrate on these three (out of 34) provinces but there will be more available for Afghan troops in a dozen other provinces where the Taliban is a problem.
The change in American strategy also means more money and effort devoted to expanding the AAF (Afghan Air Force, actually part of the army). So far this year the AAF has carried out about 300 air strikes a month. The Americans add another 350 a month. The Afghans know the Americans can do a lot more because in 2012 the U.S. and NATO warplanes carried out nearly 2,400 airstrikes a month. In another area, surveillance (using UAVs and manned aircraft) the Americans are still carrying out over 1,500 sorties a month (compared to nearly 3,000 in 2012). The surveillance is very important for Afghan security forces since it gives them a better (and often real-time) picture of where the enemy is and what they are up to. The Afghans would like more air support in the form of fixed wing (C-130) and helicopter (CH-47) support. Both of these would help the Afghan army a lot to move forces (particularly commandos) around quickly and safely. The Afghans don’t expect American air support to increase to peak (2012) levels but the closer the better. Air support, both in terms of surveillance and air strikes, was the most effective capability the foreigners could provide for Afghan forces.
This was part of a trend because during 2016 when 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 policy changes in mid-2017 moved more in this direction. The Taliban responded by announcing they would be more violent but the Taliban “chatter” being monitored on the ground and electronically revealed less enthusiasm in the ranks. Most Taliban members believed what their leaders told them back in 2014 when the American combat troops and most air support left. Now the Taliban could crush the Afghan security forces and take control of the country again. That did not happen and since then Taliban casualties have gone up and the Afghan soldiers and police, especially those from the non-Pushtun majority (who largely control northern and central Afghanistan). Since 2014 many Taliban members have learned that their senior, and many mid-level, leaders have made a lot of money and shipped it to foreign havens (usually in the Persian Gulf) and are now moving more of their family members there. That’s a great backup or retirement plan for the top people but where does that leave the other 95 percent of Taliban fighters. Granted, many of those are just in it temporarily, usually for the money, some adventure or both. If more American soldiers and warplanes return working for the Taliban will become an even more risky choice. But as long as the Taliban have regular supplies of cash from the drug gangs, there are plenty of young Afghan men who are unemployed and willing to fight for pay.
Playing With Pakistan
The current (since 2014) Afghan president Ashraf Ghani got elected as a reformer who was also Pushtun and had to spend about two years convincing the non-Pushtun leaders (who represent the majority of Afghans) that he really a different kind of Pushtun ruler. This was a hard sell. Since the 1970s the Pushtun had been largely responsible for chaos and endless war in Afghanistan. The Pushtun were responsible for the drug gangs, the Taliban and most of the Islamic terrorism. Ghani has got most Afghans (including most Pushtun) behind him as he calls on Pakistan (mainly the military, which has always run Pakistani foreign affairs and much else) to negotiate a peace deal with Afghanistan and order their Taliban minions to do the same. Until recently the Pakistani generals saw no need for that as they considered Afghanistan an extension of Pakistan, especially the Pakistani northwest (the “tribal territories”) where most of the Pakistani Pushtuns (twice as many as in Afghanistan) live. But now the Pakistani generals are under attack from all sides. This was a long time coming and Ghani is offering a way to make the Pakistani generals look good and make peace in the Pushtun lands on both sides of the border. The new American strategy complements this but the Pakistani military has to go along. That is not likely to happen. So far the Pakistani military is demanding that Afghanistan eliminate sanctuaries for anti-Pakistan Islamic terrorists, but those groups are concentrated in Nangarhar province and under constant attack by Afghan and American forces and some, like the Haqqani Network, can still move back to Pakistan without danger.
The Americans have modified their hard line on Pakistan to help get these peace talks going. The U.S. has recently declared that it does not hold Pakistan responsible for the violence in Afghanistan. What the U.S. is doing is focusing on the Pakistani military, which is generally seen as responsible for most of the violence. That is something many Afghans and Pakistanis can agree on.
An earlier effort to persuade Pakistan to stop supporting violence in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) had the Americans withholding military aid more frequently. That is still in play. For example in 2016 the U.S. was willing to pay up to $900 million in reimbursements for Pakistani counter-terrorism efforts but threatened to withhold nearly half of that. 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. This provides another way for the military to ensure that the Islamic terrorists on its payroll remain docile inside Pakistan.
Meanwhile Afghanistan and India are more aggressively cooperating against 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 because of increased Pakistani aggression this is it is about 40 percent higher so far in 2017. Because of the increased Kashmir violence popular support in India (the largest democracy on the planet) for pressuring Pakistan (and risking a nuclear war) has increased. The problem with the Pakistani generals is that they place personal safety and security above doing what is best for Pakistan and that makes them very difficult to negotiate with. Elected Pakistani leaders have been struggling with that since the 1950s but at least now everyone (except the generals) are willing to discuss the situation as it is not as the Pakistani generals prefer to portray it.
Taliban Factions Flee Pakistan Sanctuary
Since early 2017 a growing number Taliban leaders (or former leaders) and their families have left sanctuaries in Pakistan and returned to Afghanistan. This isn’t a long trip as it usually means goring from Taliban headquarters in Quetta (the capital of Baluchistan province in Pakistan and near the border with Helmand and Kandahar provinces) to safety in Kandahar city. It’s a four hour drive (239 kilometers) from Quetta to Kandahar city. These people are related to or were associated with Mullah Omar, one of the Taliban founders and until 2015 the leader of the Afghan Taliban. The problem is that Mullah Omar had died in a Pakistani hospital in 2013 and that was kept secret by the acting head of the Taliban; Mullah Akhtar Mansour. That revelation led many Afghans to wonder if you could trust the Taliban if the Taliban don’t trust each other. But Mansour had been Omar’s chief deputy for many years and knew his way around the organization as well as traditional allies like the Haqqani clan, an even more murderous bunch who eventually took control of the Taliban. Because of that anyone close to Mullah Omar now fears their sanctuary guarantee may be revoked at any time so that Pakistan can turn them over to the Americans as part of some deal that restores American aid or prevents stronger American moves against Pakistan. Despite enjoying Pakistani protection (even from American UAV attacks) since 2002 the Mullah Omar group don’t trust the Pakistanis or the favorite Afghan Islamic terror group of the Pakistanis; the Haqqanis.
The Taliban refugees in Kandahar spoke freely of their years in Pakistan and admitted, as have a growing number of retired Pakistani generals and senior government officials, that the army and its intel organization (ISI) have indeed provided sanctuaries for helpful (to the army) Islamic terror groups. The Pakistani military officially denies these accusations and usually blames India, Israel, the United States or all three for inventing and spreading lies. That excuse doesn’t have the potency it once possessed and many Pakistanis quietly mock their own military for it. Mocking the generals in public is risky and doing in the media can get you killed, kidnapped (and released after you recant) or disappeared (for those who won’t recant).
The Haqqani Network is a group of Islamic terrorists operating in the Pushtun tribal areas along the Afghan border. Founder Jalaluddin Haqqani was a major player during the 1980s battle with the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. He joined the Taliban in 1995, and became a senior official. But after 2001 he gradually grew apart from Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The Haqqani Network has survived by being the most obedient Afghan ally of Pakistan. That means no terror attacks in Pakistan and, when called on, carrying out specific attacks that Pakistani intelligence (ISI) wants carried out in Afghanistan. Jalaluddin Haqqani died in 2o14 and his successor continued to cooperate with the Taliban and maintain subservience to ISI. Because Jalaluddin Haqqani helped Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders escape Afghanistan in 2001 there has always been a sense of mutual dependence. For that reason Haqqani leaders were able to help fix the 2015-16 power struggle within the Taliban and thwart (but not stop) the recruiting efforts of ISIL. Given that Haqqani works for ISI, Pakistan is believed to have played a role the new Taliban willingness to negotiate with the Afghans. The Afghan government protested to Pakistan about their Haqqani ties but, as usual, Pakistan insisted it had nothing to do with Haqqani, the Taliban or supporting Islamic terrorism of any kind.
With Mullah Akhtar Mansour clearly in power he implemented some policies his predecessor Mullah Omar opposed or was not enthusiastic about. This included no interest at all in peace talks with the Afghan government and active support for al Qaeda. Then, in May 2016, an American UAV missile killed Mullah Akhtar Mansour in southwest Pakistan, an area that has always been off-limits to U.S. UAVs. A Pakistani general called this a violation of Pakistani sovereignty that must stop. It did, while the Haqqani Network quietly took over the leadership of the Afghan Taliban. It is now believed that that Pakistanis tipped off the Americans about where Mansour would be and indicated a UAV missile attack would be protested but go no further and the loss of Mansour might be beneficial to all concerned (except Mansour and his loyalists).
Meanwhile the Pakistan government quietly took care of the embarrassing revelation that Mansour was living in Pakistan when Pakistan always insisted they were not providing sanctuary for the Taliban. Yet when the wreckage of the car Mansour was killed in was found it became public knowledge that Mansour had been carrying one of the new “forgery proof” Pakistanis Ids that depicted him as someone else. In an effort to placate (by deception) the angry Americans Pakistani police diligently followed the evidence and arrested six government employees who had supplied Mansour (and apparently other Taliban) with authentic new IDs and fake names. But by mid-2017 those six government employees had been bailed out of jail and disappeared as had others who had been close to Mansour in Quetta. All this angered the Americans, who had seen the same sort of behavior in the wake of the 2011 U.S. raid into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden. The Pakistani military went to a lot of effort to try and hide their connections with bin Laden but it was an obvious cover up and the Americans (and the rest of the world) is accusing the Pakistani military of that along with the continued support for Islamic terrorists.
The Year Karachi Died
All this year Iran and Afghanistan have sped up the completion of the rail link from Afghanistan to Iran a new port on the Indian Ocean. Iran is complaining that India is less intense about speeding up (by providing over a billion dollars in promised financing) the construction of the longer rail line to the Russian border. Currently all this is to be completed by late 2018. Already a lot of Afghan business that used to come and go via Pakistan (and the port of Karachi) is now doing so via the new Iran link. To encourage more trade Iran is offering major cuts in Iranian tariffs for Afghan imports and exports along with secure travel via Iran and that is working. This is part of the Indo-Iranian project (largely financed by India) that enables foreign cargo delivered to the port of Chabahar (in southeastern Iran) to enter Afghanistan by rail or road without any additional tax problems or other restrictions. Iran and India are building the 1,300 kilometer long rail line from the port to the Afghan border (near Herat) in the north. Indians are providing over two billions dollars to upgrade the port and build new roads and railroads to Afghanistan and Central Asia. For Iran the Central Asia link is the most valuable one. But for Afghanistan having another way to move most of their imports and exports is a major achievement because Pakistan and Iran will have to complete and that will keep costs down for Afghans and reduce the use of closing the border (which Pakistan has done frequently to coerce the Afghans) because that will just drive more trade permanently to the Iran link.
Afghanistan never had an internal rail net but it does have (since 2002) a growing number of working rail links to the outside world. The problem is that all three of them are in the north. The longest (75 kilometers) goes from Mazar-e-Sharif across the border into Uzbekistan. Another goes from Herat Province into Turkmenistan while the third one goes from Faryab Province into Turkmenistan. Central Asia is still dependent on long (and expensive to use) Russian rail links to ocean ports. Then there is the bottleneck for moving cargo to southeastern Afghanistan (where Kabul and much of the population is) by truck. The Salang tunnel was built by the Russians in 1964 and cut transportation costs enormously throughout eastern Afghanistan. This tunnel makes the Salang pass useable when deep snow usually makes it impossible for wheeled traffic to get over the Hindu Kush Mountains. The 2,560 meter (1.6 mile) long Salang tunnel is at an altitude of 3,385 meters (11,000 feet). But the tunnel cannot handle all the truck traffic that the road access to Pakistan currently provides. The rail link with Iran gives quick and cheap (compared to trucking cargo through Pakistan) route to the outside world.
Afghan Special Operations Command (SOC)
The Afghan government have agreed to expand their special operations forces and the Americans have agreed to pay for it. The Afghan SOC (special operations command) has grown from nothing in 2007 to 9,000 troops in 2012 to 17,000 now and expansion to 30,000 troops as quickly as it can be accomplished. This could take as long as four years but if enough experienced trainers are sent in from nations that have previously sent special operations personnel to Afghanistan (including some Moslem nations) then the expansion can be done in two or three years.
In August the government said the increase in personnel meant the Afghan SOC will now be designated a corps rather than a division. While SOC comprise only seven percent of army personnel they participate in 80 percent of the offensive operations and have been the most feared (by the Taliban and so on) Afghan military force for years. SOC attracts a disproportionate of non-Pushtuns because SOC is seen as the most effective force to deal with the Pushtun dominated Taliban and drug gangs. Moreover the screening of SOC recruits has become more effective over the years thus keeping out men of questionable loyalty or potentially vulnerable to extortion (by threatening kin, a favorite Taliban tactic).
September 6, 2017: Outside Kabul a Taliban suicide bomber on a motorbike attacked outside one of the entrances to Bagram Air Base. This killed the attacker and wounded four people nearby. This attack was notable because it was mainly a publicity stunt to generate some attention for the recent American use of a propaganda leaflet dropped up north that featured the picture of a dead dog near text mentioning Allah (God). Dogs are considered offensive to many Moslems and the Taliban likes to exploit situations like this to demonstrate how religious they are despite the fact that they are not very religious at all any more.
August 29, 2017: In downtown Kabul (500 meters from the U.S. embassy) a suicide bomber attacked a bank leaving five dead and nine wounded. No one took credit but the Taliban often attack banks at the end of the month when a lot of government employees (including military) come at once to obtain their pay.
August 25, 2017: In Kabul four Islamic terrorists attacked a Shia mosque, killing 28 and wounding more than 50 worshipers. Security forces quickly evacuated over a hundred survivors and cornered the two remaining gunmen. The other two attackers were suicide bombers who died early in the attack. No one took credit but there are several Sunni Islamic terrorist groups that regularly attack Shia.
August 21, 2017: The U.S. announced a change in strategy for Afghanistan and is sending 4,000 more troops with more to follow as needed. The new strategy will change the ROE (Rules of Engagement) to allow for more aggressive operations against the Taliban and other Islamic terror groups. Moreover the goals would be based on conditions not the current (since 2009) use of timetables that ignored actual conditions in Afghanistan. There will also be an increase in air and intelligence support. There is also a problem with tech support and more Afghans need to be trained for this. Currently only 20 percent of Afghan Air Force aircraft maintenance work is done by Afghans, the rest is carried out by foreign contractors. There are already 16,000 American (mostly) and NATO troops in Afghanistan many of them trainers.
August 20, 2017: In the east (Kunar province) at least 85 rockets were fired from Pakistan overnight (and into Monday). These landed in rural areas near the border. In 2016 Afghanistan accused Pakistan of resuming the shelling of Afghan territory in Kunar and southern (Helmand province) Afghanistan. Although most of the shells and rockets land in remote areas they still manage to kill or wound some people, usually innocent civilians. These rocket, mortar and artillery attacks from Pakistan were 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.
August 13, 2017: In the southwest
(Nimroz province) two Taliban suicide bombers tried to attack a checkpoint and failed. One was shot dead and the other man captured. Both turned out to be Iranian, which was obvious for the captured man because he spoke Farsi (Iranian) as well as Dari (a language similar to Farsi that is common in Afghanistan) with an Iranian accent. A growing number of Iranians are showing up in Afghanistan involved in Islamic terrorism. The Taliban denies that it has any Iranian members but several have been encountered, usually after they were killed in combat. Several Taliban leaders with known Iranian connections (usually with the Quds force) are known to be active in central Afghanistan. Normally Quds Force (which supports Shia terrorism worldwide) avoids working with Sunni groups like the Taliban al Qaeda but Iran has taken the position that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and encourages its allies and Quds to work, when it is useful, with Sunni terrorists that are killing (or trying to) Americans or Israelis. The strategy is not popular with a lot of Iranians, although the Iranian government openly approved of the fact that senior al Qaeda leadership (including those outside Iran) had, since at least 2006, advised their subordinates to not kill Shia women and children. That advice has been frequently ignored but Iran has continued to work with al Qaeda and the Taliban when it suited Iranian interests.
August 7, 2017:
In the south (Kandahar province) Pakistani soldiers and border guards stood watch as workers began building dozens of new border outposts on what the Afghans consider the Afghan side of the border in an area called Spin Boldak. About a hundred kilometers north is Kandahar City, the original "home town" of the Taliban. Most of the construction work takes place at night but the construction sites are guarded day and night because local Afghans will sometimes attack, even if their government is willing to negotiate.
August 3, 2017:
Afghanistan has ordered another five ScanEagle systems (each with four UAVs, ground control equipment and maintenance gear) for $3.84 million each. Afghanistan had first ordered eight ScanEagle systems in 2015 and began using them in early 2016. The Afghans found ScanEagle very effective and asked for more (from the U.S. that supplies most of the money for the defense budget). The new order will all be delivered by the end of 2018.