The security forces continue to hold their own, bolstered by more frequent and effective air support plus more distractions for Afghanistan’s two meddling neighbors (Iran and Pakistan). Iran is undergoing another popular uprising. The last one, in 2009, was suppressed with the help of indifference from the United States and the West in general. Not this time, and the Iranians are demanding an end to their religious dictatorship this time around. In Pakistan the military (which controls the government but does not run the country) is under growing pressure to allow needed reforms. The Americans are demanding the Pakistani military half support for Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban. The United States has cut aid (nearly a billion dollars’ worth) and India now has an inexpensive way to trade with Afghanistan (via an Iranian port). China is more concerned about the security of its growing investments in Pakistan.
Internally Afghanistan is still very much at war with the drug gangs and their local muscle (mainly the Taliban and Haqqani Network) as well as ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), which takes on everyone. Afghanistan us still the most violent place in the world. But some parts of the country are much more violent than others. Some 40 percent of the 14,600 people killed (and 10,200 seriously wounded) in 2017 were in Nangarhar, Kandahar, Helmand and Kabul provinces. There were about 2,000 attacks in 2017 but sixty percent of them took place in ten (of 35) provinces. Nangarhar alone suffered 17 percent of all the attacks. Overall about 55 percent of casualties were the result of close combat (gunfire, mostly, but also RPGs, grenades and knives). Nearly 20 percent of casualties were from airstrikes while a quarter of causlties were from bombs of various types, about half of them during suicide attacks. Nearly all the dead and wounded were Afghans although a large percentage of the ISIL dead are found to be foreigners as are a smaller percentage of al Qaeda. Foreign troops supporting the government (mostly NATO and American) account for a miniscule number of casualties. A third of the casualties are civilians
Nangarhar has been the scene of about half the combat American troops were involved with on the ground during 2107 and about half of American casualties in Afghanistan occurred there as well. That is not a lot of casualties (15 U.S. troops died in Afghanistan during 2017, plus two NATO.) Currently the 13,000 or so foreign troops are suffering losses of about 130 per 100,000. That loss rate peaked at about 400 per 100,000 in 2012. At the peak of the fighting (2005-7) in Iraq, the losses were nearly 600 per 100,000. The rate for U.S. troops in Vietnam and World War II was about 1,500 per 100,000 troops. It was higher for German and Russian troops, more like what Afghan security forces have suffered since 2014. As high as this is, it’s higher (twice what the army and police lose) for the Taliban and such loss rates were always common in Afghanistan. When the tribal irregulars fought Russian troops in the 1980s they suffered even higher losses. During that period the invading Russians never suffered more than 1,000 per 100,000 dead per year and eventually left because they could not afford the financial cost of seemingly endless fighting in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union fell apart a few years later and nearly three decades later Afghanistan is still a mess.
The Big Picture
A recent terrorism survey (GTI or Global Terrorism Index) showed Afghanistan stuck in its efforts to eliminate Islamic terrorism from the country, especially when compared to the rest of the world. In 2016 Afghanistan ranked among the most violent of 163 nations. The top four slots were filled by the usual suspects (Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Syria). Being part of the top ten nations (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Syria, India, Somalia, Yemen, Philippines and Thailand) is more volatile and the bottom two positions are the only ones that seem to show a lot of change. Note that most of the terror related deaths are Moslem related. Only India and the Philippines had a significant minority of terrorist deaths that were not carried out by Moslems. In those two countries the minority terrorists were leftist rebels who are slowly fading away. Afghanistan lost its leftist rebels in the 1970s and 80s and now it’s mainly religious fanatics, and plenty of them.
While Pakistan continues to support Haqqani and some of the Afghan Taliban, ISIL is on its own in Afghanistan and is finding a small, but steady supply of recruits in urban areas, especially Kabul (the capital). As is typical in Moslem majority countries citizens will often conclude that the only solution for the corruption and inefficient government is a religious dictatorship and for Sunni Moslems that means ISIL is the most effective (the baddest of the bad if you will) for that. Thus Afghan police intel believes there at least twenty ISIL cells (each with up to a dozen members) in Kabul and these have been responsible for at least half the terror attacks in the capital over the last year. Many of ISIL members from Kabul are educated or have technical skills. This is the old, “if we can’t save the country let’s burn it down” attitude that shows up regularly in the West, but usually as secular groups (like the anarchists, various types of radical socialists, and so on). In Afghanistan ISIL is mainly Pushtun and Sunni and is particularly eager to kill a lot of Shia and non-Pushtun Afghans in order to get a larger war going. That is a favorite strategy for Islamic terror groups who believe it is God’s plan for them to survive all the chaos and take over. This is a fantasy with little basis in reality but it survives. Afghan intelligence is not sure ISIL is as active in the capital and believes it is actually Haqqani that is behind most of the terror attacks. One of the complicating factors is that many of the essential services (hideouts, lookouts, stolen vehicles and weapons) terrorists require for attacks are obtained from criminal gangs (“contractors” in effect) that work for anyone who can pay. That includes Haqqani, which has long been seen more as gangsters than Islamic terrorists and while they mostly do terrorism-for-hire in Afghanistan for Pakistan, they apparently are willing to work for ISIL as well.
Options For Able Afghans
There is another alternative for skilled Afghans seeking a more constructive approach for fighting terrorists. The best is the ASSF (Afghan Special Security Forces), who in the second half of 2017 were carrying out an average of 105 operations a week. As was noted in 2016 American SOCOM (Special Operations Command) troops in Afghanistan accompany their Afghan counterparts on about ten percent of combat missions and also help plan or support most of the other 90 percent. In 2017 ASSF were able to carry out 17 percent of their operations without any assistance from foreign forces. That’s up from about ten percent in 2016.
The ASSF is also in the process of doubling its strength, from two brigades (about 11,000 Afghan personnel) to four brigades (23,000 Afghans). The Afghan government wants to accomplish this this by 2020 but the foreign advisors (mainly from SOCOM) believe 2025 is a more realistic date. Moreover to make ASSF work you need a lot of support troops (about one for every two special operations soldiers) plus additional foreign aid to hire more foreign support specialists to do skilled jobs Afghans are not available for. The Afghans want more ASSF troops because they are the most competent and reliable Afghanistan has. The rest of the Afghan Army, by comparison, is hobbled by a shortage of trained officers and NCOS as well as constant pressure from the drug gangs and their Taliban enforcers to take bribes or desert. In contrast the higher standards and longer training for the ASSF attracts Afghans who are looking for a more professional environment. As a result some 80 percent of offensive operations by the Afghan Army are carried out by the ASSF. The main function of ASSF is not commando (“direct action”) operations or even the more mundane (but just as important) intelligence collecting but rather to provide an example of Afghan troops, from dozens of different tribes, working together in jobs that require international standards for skills mastered and put to use. This is a big deal in a country like Afghanistan. While some Afghans have become physicians, pilots, scientists and the like ASSF enables a wider range of Afghans to demonstrate high standards of skill and performance.
Moreover ASSF provides accurate (and understandable to Afghans) intelligence on what is going on in the country so the senior leaders cannot say “they didn’t know.” Moreover the ASSF are relatively incorruptible and the best Afghan combat troops in in Afghanistan. In the largely warrior culture of tribal Afghanistan that is a big deal. So the Western nations that fund and train ASSF are going along with the Afghan plan to double the size of ASSF.
The Afghan Air Force has been a lot more active, averaging some 3,000 sorties a month in 2017. Only about 12 percent of those sorties were for airstrikes, the non-airstrike sorties were for combat support (surveillance and transport), especially for special operations. Efforts to expand and improve the Afghan Air Force are crippled by corruption, and not just in Afghanistan. For example contracts for foreign maintenance personnel (paid for by the United States) are written in such a way that the contractors are able to avoid turning maintenance jobs over to Afghans they are also supposed to be training. In other words the contractor has a way to prevent working themselves out of a job. This is typical with a lot of civilian contractor support operations. The pay is good and the contract lasts only as long as there are not enough Afghans to get the work done. While the contractor personnel are less vulnerable to bribery or intimidation by local criminals or Islamic terrorists, it is an expensive solution Afghanistan cannot afford in the short or long term.
Purported Possible Peace Parley
In the last week it became known that Turkey has been hosting secret (until now) peace talks with the Rasool faction of the Taliban. The third meeting was recently held but there were no official government representatives, only men who informally monitor such activities for the Afghan government. This meeting was arranged with the assistance of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of Islamic terror group Hezb I Islami. Back in November when the first meetings took place, Hekmatyar was the key organizer. Hezb I Islami made peace with the government in mid-2017. The group had survived since the 1990s civil war but had not been a major military presence in Afghanistan since the late 1990s because of factionalism, hostility towards any foreigners (Moslem or otherwise) and losses suffered fighting rival Islamic terror groups (including al Qaeda). Terms include amnesty for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the release of some imprisoned Hezb I Islami members as well as a ceasefire. The UN took Hekmatyar off its list of international terrorists. Hekmatyar created and led an Islamic radical group that lost out to the Taliban in the late 1990s and has been trying to make a comeback ever since. As a result Hezb I Islami spent most of its time fighting other Islamic terrorists, mainly Pakistan sponsored groups like the Taliban and Haqqani network. The Hekmatyar organization has been surviving as bandits in various areas of eastern and central Afghanistan. This peace deal was mostly symbolic for the government and recognizing the fact that Hekmatyar and the government had some common enemies; drug gangs and Pakistan-backed Islamic terrorists. Hekmatyar also had a lot of very useful contacts in the Islamic terrorist community, especially the many factions of the Taliban.
The Rasool faction was one that broke away from the Pakistan based Taliban leadership because of a dispute over who should run the Taliban. The new head of the Taliban, Mullah Hebatullah Akhundzada, is unpopular with many Taliban faction leaders, in part because Akhundzada is seen as a figurehead because one of his deputies, the head of the Haqqani Network, is believed to be in charge. The most active dissident faction is led by the Rasool clan and its current leader Mullah Mohammad Rasool.
During the late 1990s Mullah Rasool was the Taliban strongman in the southwest as governor of Nimroz province until 2001. The Rasool clan made a fortune by controlling the drug smuggling down there. Rasool had lots of contacts in Iran and saw himself as a potential supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban. This Taliban civil war is the result of disagreement over who should take over as Taliban leader after 2015 when it was revealed that founder Mullah Omar had died in 2013 (in a Pakistani hospital). The information was kept to a few key Omar associates who were accused of doing this as part of a plot to install an Omar successor (Mullah Mansour ) who was second-rate but backed by the Pakistan military (which provided sanctuary for Taliban leaders in southwest Pakistan since 2002).
From late 2015 to mid-2016 Rasool fought other Taliban factions for control of the organization. Heavy fighting began in late November 2015 when Mullah Mansour ordered attacks against the forces loyal to rival Mullah Rasool. This marked a major defeat for the Taliban as they lost a major asset; unity. Most of the fighting took place in Herat, Zabul and Farah provinces. There were apparently several thousand casualties and the heavy fighting did not cease until July 2016. Meanwhile Pakistan sided with Mansour, who was then killed in May 2016 by an American air strike. Pakistan then used its considerable control over the Afghan Taliban to get the head of the Pakistan backed Haqqani Network appointed as one of the three senior Taliban leaders. Rasool apparently backed down in the face of all this and was thought to have fled left the country. That was not the case.
Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the United States have been trying to restart the peace talks with the Taliban but were stymied by the two factions that kept 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 and, apparently, Turkey. 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.
January 15, 2018: In Kabul the Indian embassy compound was hit by a rocket, causing some damage to a building but no injuries. Several times a year Pakistan-backed groups attempt to attack embassies in Kabul, especially the Indian compound.
The government revealed that earlier in the month the NDS (National Directorate of Security) had arrested a government official in Herat province (bordering Iran), charged him with being a spy for Iran, and taken him to Kabul. The NDS has been around since 2002 and is often called the Afghan CIA. While the NDS does a lot of same intel work as the CIA it is part of the Defense Ministry and also functions like the American FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) as well. The NDS has over 20,000 personnel including many former Islamic terrorists as well as Russian trained operatives (from the 1980s when there was a pro-Russian national government). The NDS has been very successful in identifying Islamic terrorist supporters who make it possible for major attacks to be carried out in urban areas. NDS also seeks out foreign agents, especially from Iran and Pakistan.
January 11, 2018: In the east (Nangarhar province) a U.S. airstrike hit a group of Taliban pretending to be part of pro-government militia and killed ten of the Islamic terrorists. This happened after a Taliban man infiltrated a local militia led by a tribal leader and member of parliament who suspected his group had been infiltrated by the Taliban or ISIL. This was confirmed when the infiltrator set up a meeting that turned into ambush leaving a pro-government militia leader dead and an American soldier wounded. This led to the airstrike.
January 10, 2018: The U.S. has agreed to supply Afghanistan with another seven C-208B single engine commercial aircraft equipped with sensors and a laser designator (and able to carry two Hellfire missiles) for use as armed surveillance aircraft. Afghanistan already has 24 of these aircraft, which were first used like this in Iraq. In effect these are manned UAVs but the two man crews are Afghans who are often in radio contact with Afghan troops below and have proved extremely useful in finding and eliminating Islamic terrorists and gangsters of all sorts.
January 9, 2018: As U.S. marines return to Afghanistan the U.S. Navy (which supplies the marines with most combat support) has arranged to obtain additional MQ-9 Reaper UAVs for surveillance (not firing weapons) by leasing the UAVs and civilian (former military) personnel to maintain and operate these UAVs. Most of what UAVs do, even the ones built for combat (like MQ-9) is surveillance. This arrangement for the marines will involve at least four MQ-9s.
January 5, 2018:
Iranian media reported that Afghan mercenaries in the Iran created Fatemiyoun Brigade in Syria had suffered over 10,000 casualties since 2013. Over 20 percent of the casualties were fatal. Some 20,000 Afghan Shia have (or still are) served in the Fatemiyoun Brigade. Most of these Afghans were recruited from the three million Afghan refugees still in eastern Iran. Nearly all of these Afghans are Shia who fear returning as long as the Afghan Taliban (and ISIL) are active in Afghanistan. These two groups, and Sunni Islamic terror groups in general, consider Shia heretics and targets them for death on a regular basis. It was also reported that over 3,000 Afghan Shia mercenaries died fighting against Iraq in the 1980s. Then as now the Afghans were recruited with the promise of Iranian citizenship for them and their families as well as regular pay while fighting and medical care if wounded. The Iranian mercenary force in Syria has been a decisive factor in keeping the Syrian security forces from being completely destroyed. Occasionally the recruiting of Afghans for this becomes a political issue in Afghanistan but Iran simply points out that the Afghan volunteers are exiles who do not want to return to Afghanistan because the Afghan government cannot protect them from attack just for being Shia.
January 1, 2018: The U.S. openly accused Pakistan of providing the U.S. with mostly “lies and deceit”, especially since 2001, in return for over $33 billion in aid since 2002. The American said they would withhold $2 billion in aid until Pakistan shuts down the sanctuaries it provides for Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban. The commander of the Pakistani military denied the accusations, as the Pakistanis always do and insisted there was nothing Pakistan could do. The U.S. responded to that by saying there would be more attacks on Islamic terrorists operating inside Pakistan and that was more worrisome for Pakistan because those attacks include the 2011 raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden and a more recent UAV attack that killed the head of the Afghan Taliban and so on. Afghanistan and India backed the Americans and so does most of the international community and the UN. Within a week Pakistan had suspended all military and intelligence cooperation with the United States.
December 31, 2017:
At the end of 2017 Pakistan reported it had completed 150 kilometers of its new security fence along the Afghan border during the first six months of construction. The fence consists of two three-meter (nine foot) high chain link fences running parallel, two meters apart, with three rolls of barbed wire in that two meter gap. Construction began in South Waziristan (which borders Afghanistan’s Paktika province and Pakistan’s Baluchistan, where the Afghan Taliban still maintain a sanctuary). The fence construction was announced in March 2017 and will eventually extend along the entire 2,600 kilometer border with Afghanistan. This is part of an effort to hinder the Pakistani Taliban, and other illegal groups (terrorists and smugglers) from easily moving back and forth. After the Paktika portion of the fence is completed construction will continue along the border with the Afghan provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar. These provinces are where there has always been a lot of lawless activity and these days it is full of Islamic terrorists hostile to either Pakistan or working for Pakistan (against Afghanistan). The new plan will continue giving priority to areas where there are the most problems but will not stop there and eventually (by about 2025) have a fence along the entire Afghan border.
December 30, 2017: Afghanistan revealed that in 2o17 over 8,800 shells and rockets have been fired from Pakistan into Afghanistan in 2017 and is part of a dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan about where the border is and how it is supposed to be guarded.
December 28, 2017:
In northeast and central Iran anti-government street demonstrations took place in several cities. The first one was apparently in the northeast (Razavi Khorasan Province) city of Mashhad, with 3.3 million people, is the second largest city in the country. It is near the borders with Afghanistan and Turkmenistan and was long a stronghold of Islamic conservatives. It still is. Such public gatherings are illegal but video of the ones that took place today spread via the Internet and new demonstrations took place in more cities. The demonstrators were criticizing the government involvement in foreign wars and Islamic terror groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Other complaints were mainly economic, including the corruption in the government and lack of opportunity for young Iranians.
December 26, 2017:
In northwest Pakistan (Kurram) Jamil ud Din, a Haqqani Network leader and several of his associates died when their vehicle was hit by two missiles as it drove near the Afghan border (Paktia province). If this was an American UAV attack it would be the first inside Pakistan since October (when two attacks hit Haqqani targets). Pakistan threatens retaliation for such illegal attacks, which the U.S. will not comment on and Pakistan has not yet acted on.
December 14, 2017:
In southwest Pakistan (Baluchistan) an Iranian engineer was kidnapped and taken to Afghanistan (Nimroz province) where his kidnappers contacted the Iranian government demanding a ransom. Two weeks later Iranian commandos (from the Quds Force) reported they had gone into Afghanistan (apparently without permission) on December 24th and rescued the hostage and captured five of the kidnappers.