Since mid-2017 the United States has adopted a new strategy in Afghanistan that concentrates on using the American advantages in terms of intelligence, air power and special operations forces. There are only about 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan but because of satellite communications thousands more in the United States operate as if they were in Afghanistan by remotely operating UAVs and analyzing intelligence data. Over the last few decades American intelligence has collected a lot of details on how opium and heroin production operates and can direct air attacks to the most valuable (to the drug gangs) targets and then monitor the economic impact on the drug operations. As the old saying goes, “amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics.” It’s lack of cash and inability to rebuild production and distribution capability that hurts the Afghan drug gangs. That plus the majority of Afghans opposed to this particular business and the competition (other places on the planet that can replace much of the Afghan production) makes the drug gangs vulnerable and the Islamic terror groups they finance to provide security very vulnerable. The Taliban like the cultivate the idea that they are a frugal operation that can survive on contributions from wealthy Arab religious conservatives in the Persian Gulf area along with donations (not all of them voluntary) from Afghans the Taliban encounter. That is what Islamic terror groups would like it to be but since 2002 lots of business records belonging to major Islamic terrorists groups have been captured and examined. Thousands of Islamic terrorists have been interrogated and some have voluntarily provided detailed information on terror group finances. The bottom line is these groups are expensive to operate in the long term, very expensive. The latest example of this was ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Iraq and Syria where a cash flow crises sped up the collapse of the “caliphate.”
The drug gangs and Pakistan-backed Islamic terror groups have responded to this new threat by increasing their use of terror attacks, especially in the capital. ISIL is also on the attack but, as usual, is attacking other terror groups as well. ISIL is willing to work with the drug gangs, because even ISIL fanatics have expenses and need cash. The Americans can, and are, doing a lot of damage to the drug gangs and Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan but victory depends on the willingness of enough Afghans to join the fight. So far that seems to be the case. Most Afghans are hostile to the drug gangs (whose products cause a lot of local addiction and a breakdown in family and tribal unity) and see the largely Pushtun drug gangs another effort by the Pushtuns to dominate everyone else. The fact that the Taliban have always been largely Pushtun was one reason the Taliban government collapsed so quickly in late 2001. The Pushtun are about 40 percent of Afghans but have long dominated the majority because the non-Pushtun Afghans belong to several different ethnic groups that have never been as united (in wanting to dominate Afghanistan) as the Pushtun.
Pakistan (where two-thirds of Pushtuns live) backs the Afghan Pushtuns because they see this as the best way to keep Pakistan safe from Pushtun violence. This is a threat going back thousands of years and keeping Pushtuns divided weakens that threat. Terror, intimidation and bribes are powerful weapons and essential in preventing the Pushtuns from uniting and becoming a regional threat (mainly to Pakistan). All Pushtuns resent thus but the Afghan Pushtuns most of all because Afghan Pushtuns have a lot more political power in Afghanistan than their more numerous brethren in Pakistan (where Pushtuns are 15 percent of the population). In Pakistan keeping the local Pushtuns under control has been a major government activity from the beginning and an example of that is how quickly the Pushtun heroin trade was shut down Pakistan (and pushed into Afghanistan) back in the 1980s (when the former production centers in Burma were much diminished).
Because of all this the major threat in Afghanistan remains the drug trade and largely Pushtun drug gangs that are seeking to turn the country into a narco state dominated by the wealthy and heavily armed drug lords. This is where Afghanistan was headed in early 2001 as the Taliban struggled to gain control over the entire country and were largely financed by “taxes” from the drug gangs. Then as now Islamic terrorism is portrayed as the main problem in Afghanistan but what makes the Islamic terrorists so potent is the money they obtain by serving as hired guns by the drug gangs or simply extracting fees from the gangs for providing a sanctuary to work from. The second major problem in Afghanistan is Pakistan, which considers Afghanistan a problem to be handled by keeping the Afghans fighting each other. Meanwhile Pakistan gets rich by controlling most of the drug smuggling and legitimate traffic going into and out of landlocked Afghanistan. The Americans and the rest of the world are pressuring Pakistan to curb its support for Islamic terrorism and drug gangs in Afghanistan. That is unlikely to happen as the drug trade is too lucrative for too many powerful people in both countries.
Pakistani support of the drug gangs, Taliban and Haqqani Network has long been a problem but now Pakistan is finding that there is a nasty backlash. Much of it is public, like the sanctions, UN investigations and testimony of retired or exiled Pakistani officials. The most worrisome backlash is the increasingly widespread American decapitation campaign against Taliban and Haqqani Network leaders. Most of these airstrikes (usually via a UAV) are in Afghanistan but the Americans will quietly (without admitting anything) hit targets just over the border. It is difficult for Pakistan to defend against these airstrikes near the Afghan border but they are making it clear that Islamic terrorists working for Pakistan are vulnerable and a growing number of them are dead.
Another worrisome aspect of this is the Americans shifting troops, aircraft and intel support from Syria/Iraq (where ISIL recently suffered a major defeat) to Afghanistan. During 2017, when that campaign against ISIL was at its height the Americans were using ten times as many airstrikes in Syria/Iraq as in Afghanistan. That explains the growth in airstrikes in Afghanistan in late 2017 and into 2018. That, plus the fact that a growing percentage of these airstrikes are aimed at key leaders and facilities (weapons storage, drug labs, headquarters, training and bomb making facilities) makes the situation a dire one for the drug gangs.
The Taliban and ISIL claimed responsibility for four major terror attacks in Kabul at the end of January. The government believes some or all of these attacks were aimed at crippling the economy because flight crews (for cargo flights to and from India) were sought out in the hotel attack and the Taliban are concentrating on making highway traffic more dangerous. Pakistan is believed behind this mainly because most of the truck traffic that used to go through Pakistan to the port of Karachi is now using the new route via Iran to the port of Chabahar (built by India and Iran mainly for traffic to Afghanistan and Central Asia). At least $5 billion worth of trade to and from Afghanistan will use Chabahar each year. Pakistan is the big loser here, especially since they had recently increased higher traffic on Afghan goods moving through Karachi. In addition since mid-January Pakistan has closed the main border crossings o Afghan traffic entering Pakistan. Yet Pakistani goods are allowed into Afghanistan and now the Afghans are considering blocking that and depending on trade links via Iran and Central Asia.
This is an undeclared trade war by Pakistan. The main reason is growing trade with India and switching from Karachi to Chabahar for Afghan imports and exports. The United States, India, Afghanistan and the UN are increasing pressure on Pakistan over Pakistani support for terrorism. The U.S. is withholding over a billion dollars’ worth of aid because of continued Pakistani support of Islamic terrorism and drug gang operations inside Afghanistan.
Pakistan also plays a key role in the Afghan illegal mining operations. Despite over a decade of government efforts to introduce large scale commercial mining operations into Afghanistan, local politics and lack of law and order in the countryside have called all of these efforts to fail. Yet mining activity in Afghanistan has grown since 2001 and now produces nearly half a billion dollars of sales a year. But nearly all of it is illegal and similar to the outlaw mining so common in much of Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. Criminals and legitimate businesses in Pakistan make the illegal mining profitable for all concerned, except the Afghan government.
February 10, 2018: In the south (Helmand province) four Taliban gunman killed sixteen NDS (National Directorate of Security) personnel inside a NDS site while other Taliban were attacking from the outside. The insiders had joined NDS several months earlier and was believed to be loyal. That enabled the attack to succeed and the killers to drive off with vehicles loaded with guns and other equipment taken from the dead. Despite increased use of background checks the drug gangs and Taliban find that bribes and intimidation (kidnapping a family member or other threats) will usually find a way to get traitors into well defended facilities.
Pakistani and Afghan officials completed two days of discussions in Kabul and Pakistan refused to even admit that it was supporting groups like the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network. What Pakistan has done, but won’t admit, is ordering Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network personnel to use their safe havens in Pakistan less because the Americans have apparently adopted the Pakistani tactics by unofficially attacking Haqqani and Afghan Taliban personnel it detects across the border in Pakistan. There have been several attacks like this so far, using missile-armed UAVs that don’t stay long in Pakistani air space but do leave dead terrorists behind. This encourages Afghan resistance to the drug gangs and Taliban because most Afghans are hostile to Pakistani (or Iranian) interference in Afghan affairs. Thus the Pakistani refusal to agree to anything in these negotiations is seen as normal. But the Afghans feel more confident in fighting back. This can be seen in Kunar province where Pakistan has been firing rockets and mortar shells at real or imagined Pakistani Taliban camps. This has been going on for years and over the last few days the Afghan army has been firing back and apparently daring the Pakistanis to escalate and risk the Americans getting involved with their UAVs and artillery location radar and precision artillery projectiles. The Pakistanis know these American “counter battery” tactics work because they have been used for over a decade inside Afghanistan as well as in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. But until now the Americans did not do cross border counter battery. But apparently that restriction has been lifted as well, especially since the most recent Pakistan artillery attacks in Kunar left four Afghans dead and thousands of civilians fleeing their homes to avoid the Pakistani fire.
February 9, 2018: In the east (Paktika province) an American UAV used missiles to kill Pakistani Taliban leader Khan Sayed Sajna and several (as many as nine) of his subordinates. Sajna had close ties with the Haqqani Network and the Pakistani military.
February 8, 2018: In the east (Nangarhar province) there was an American UAV missile attack just across the border in North Waziristan that left seven Islamic terrorists dead.
February 7, 2018: In northeast (Badakhshan province) American warplanes, over the last week, used over fifty smart bombs and missiles to hit Taliban bases near the Tajikistan border. Most of the attacks took place in one four day period. Some of these bases contained workshops for building suicide car bombs. This border area is a key route for getting opium and heroin into Central Asia, Europe and China. The locals are largely hostile to the Taliban and drug gangs and willing to provide information. That makes it easier to make these massive air attacks in a short space of time, to hit numerous Taliban bases before any can be moved.
February 6, 2018: In the north (Faryab province) an American airstrike killed nearly 30 ISIL members and wounded many as well. Ground forces found two Uzbeks and one Uighur (Chinese) among the dead Islamic terrorists.
February 5, 2018: The U.S. announced that a training program for Afghan special operations troops will put 4,000 of these Afghan commandos into service over the next few months. Afghan soldiers see service in special operations units as one way to avoid the corruption and bad leadership common in many army units. But Afghan troops have to pass a qualification test and then perform well during months of training.
February 4, 2018: In the east (Kunar province) Pakistani troops fired nearly two hundred rockets and artillery shells at villages across the border in Afghanistan. This was apparently a revenge attack because of a recent suicide bomber attack in Pakistan that killed eleven soldiers. The Pakistani government propaganda insists that these Islamic terrorists are based in eastern Afghanistan. That is sometimes true but often it turns out these attacks in Pakistan were planned and prepared in Pakistan.
February 2, 2018: In the southeast (Ghazni province) two American UAVs attacked a building a group of Afghan Taliban were hiding out in. Troops went into the wrecked building and found 26 Taliban dead and 22 wounded. One of the dead was a senior Taliban commander. The American UAVs had been called in by the Afghan troops because the building was heavily defended.
January 31, 2018: American and Afghan intelligence believe the various Islamic terror groups (mainly the Taliban) in Afghanistan have about 60,000 full and part time personnel, most of them armed, on the payroll. Loyalty is not widespread among these nominally Islamic gunmen and the pull of family, clan or tribal affiliation is still strong. The most common denominator here is money. Take away the cash and at least 80 percent of this force is out looking for new employment. Banditry and serving in some warlord force is always available but it all depends on resources to keep your gunmen satisfied with their financial arrangement.
January 29, 2018:
In Afghanistan ISIL took credit for an attack on Afghan Military Academy in Kabul. Some of the attackers were using British night vision goggles used by the Pakistani military and not available to the public. Moreover other Islamic terror groups operating in Afghanistan have been caught with these night vision devices as have Pakistan based Islamic terror groups that carry out attacks in India and are known to work for the Pakistani military and enjoy sanctuary in Pakistan. It isn’t just the night vision goggles. India and Afghanistan have been comparing notes and finding many similarities like that. Pakistan, as usual, denies any involvement. This attack completes an eight day period in which four major attacks in Kabul left over 150 dead and many more were wounded.
January 27, 2018: In Kabul an ISIL suicide care bomber used an ambulance loaded with explosives to attack inside the city and leave about a hundred dead and nearly 200 wounded.
Iran accused the United States (as it has done for years) of creating ISIL. Now Iran insists that the Americans are making it possible for the surviving ISIL personnel from Syria and Iraq to move to Afghanistan. While there are some ISIL personnel in Afghanistan most of them are former Taliban looking for something more hardcore. Meanwhile Afghanistan sees Iran as a threat, if only because Afghan security officials keep finding more Afghans spying for Iran.
January 24, 2018:
In northwest Pakistan (Kurram) two missiles (apparently from a UAV) hit a house known to be used by the Haqqani Network and killed two Haqqani men. One of the dead was a senior Haqqani official who worked with the Afghan Taliban. He apparently died while taking a shower. The United States denied it was responsible. A similar attack earlier this month only wounded the man it was aimed at. A month ago a similar attack was made on Jamil ud Din, a Haqqani Network leader and several of his associates. They all died when their vehicle was hit by two missiles as it drove near the Afghan border (Paktia province). If this latest attack was an American UAV 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.
January 23, 2018:
Afghan officials accuse Pakistan of firing more shells and rockets into Nooristan and Kunar provinces. Pakistan has been firing into Kunar since 2010 in an effort to hit real or suspected Pakistani Taliban bases in Afghanistan. This sort of thing disrupted economic activity, especially farming. Pakistan often denies the attacks, even though the Afghans have plenty of evidence (in the form of fragments of Pakistani made rockets and shells). Some Afghans believed the Pakistanis were often firing their artillery to provide cover for Pakistan based terrorists to get into Afghanistan without being detected by Afghan security forces. The firing might also have been to provide cover for smugglers, especially drug smugglers. The fact is this has always been a strange place and the local tribes see the border (still disputed by both Afghanistan and Pakistan) as part of the problem. Most of the shells land in uninhabited areas and do not harm crops or herds. But the farms and domesticated animals are hit often enough to keep the locals angry at the Pakistani government. This latest round of firing destroyed one farm building, wounded one farmer and killed some cattle along with tearing up some farmland.
January 20, 2018: In Kabul four Afghan Taliban attacked the Intercontinental Hotel and over the next 12 hours 22 people, including 14 foreigners, were killed. A week later Abdul Qahar the father of one of the attackers, came forward and revealed that his son had been missing for 18 months but before the Intercontinental Hotel called his father to say he had been studying at a madrassa in southwest Pakistan (Baluchistan). The Qadar family was from Kandahar Province, which borders Baluchistan. After the attack the Taliban invited the father to visit the madrassa to collect his sons’ possessions. The Taliban also showed the father pictures and videos of his son undergoing terrorist training. The father only took one item of clothing back with him, for his wife. The father then went to the police to report what he had seen and allow the police to video his testimony and release it. The madrassa in Baluchistan had long provided recruits for the Afghan Taliban.
Afghan police quickly made arrests in connection with how the attackers, dressed in army uniforms and able to penetrate several layers of security, got to the hotel. The police know from past experience that to do this involves obtaining the cooperation (via bribes or intimidation) of key security officials. Moreover this attack had the characteristics of a Haqqani Network operation. The usual suspects were rounded up to be interviewed.