In the last week the Taliban lost over 300 men in Ghazni province during a futile attempt to seize the provincial capital. Security forces, armed locals and American air support disrupted and defeated the large-scale effort against the city and several rural areas nearby. Ghazni is near the Pakistani border and contains some major heroin smuggling routes into Pakistan. These routes are kept open by the Taliban. The recent attacks, which included using civilians as human shields inside the city and destroying nearly a thousand small businesses, was basically an intimidation attack. It was very costly as it exposed many of the attackers to airstrikes and that’s how most of the Taliban gunmen were lost. There were financial costs as the Taliban usually pay next of kin when one of their members is killed in action. Without that payment recruiting would be a lot more difficult. Major losses in a single operation don’t help either, because they include some mid-level combat leaders who are career Taliban and difficult to replace. Not surprisingly many foreigners (Pakistani, Central Asian and Chechen) were found among the Taliban dead. Since the 1990s the Pakistani ISI (military intel) has sent reinforcements recruited in Pakistan to the Afghan Taliban. Ghazni has long been fought over, because of the heroin smuggling routes. Normally the drug gangs find it cheaper and more reliable to use bribes but because of the growing number of addicts inside Afghanistan the bribes sometimes don’t work and the national government often sends down commandos and NDS (Afghan intel) agents to carry out specific tasks which tend to be bribe-proof. Massive intimidation attacks like this often fail, mainly because of the popular anger towards the drug gangs that keep supplying the local addicts. The fact that the Afghan Taliban has always been supported by Pakistan is another incentive to fight back. Opposing Pakistani meddling in Afghan affairs is a popular issue among most Afghans. One reason Western troops are tolerated in Afghanistan, which has, for thousands of years been hostile to foreigners, is because the Westerners and Afghans are both eager to shut down the drug trade and keep the Pakistanis out. Pakistan sees battles like this as a success because over 400 Afghans (including security personnel and civilians) were killed and there was a degree of intimidation achieved. Operations like this cost Pakistan little as the Afghan drug gangs supply the cash required. They have no choice because the ISI can deny easy access to Pakistan for needed supplies (chemicals for converting opium into heroin) and secure smuggling routes through Pakistan to the port city of Karachi.
The Taliban don’t want or need, to control most of the country to stay in business (as hired guns for the drug gangs). The Taliban get the job done by controlling about 12 percent of the population (and 19 percent of the territory) in areas essential to the production of heroin. This includes supply and smuggling routes. The Taliban have been trying to expand the area they control but have been stalled for the last two years. The main reason for that is the greater use of airstrikes by American and Afghan warplanes and changes to the ROE (Rules of Engagement).
In 2017 American commanders were again allowed to determine the ROE for U.S. troops overseas, especially in places like Syria and Afghanistan. For example in Afghanistan U.S. troops can now fire on the Taliban even when the Taliban are not firing on them and at long distance. Afghan civilians, the most frequent victims of Taliban violence, complained when the U.S. gradually changed its ROE after 2008 to make it impossible for Americans to fire on the Taliban when Afghan civilians were nearby. When asked Afghan civilians pointed out that was when they most needed the Americans to open fire. As the Afghan air force carries out more airstrikes (about a dozen a day by mid-2018) the Afghan ROE has reduced the enemy use of human shields. The Afghan ROE ignores human shields and puts the priority on killing Taliban or ISIL fighters. This made human shields in general much less effective, even though most of the air strikes are carried out by foreign (usually American) warplanes. So far in 2018 American aircraft are carrying out airstrikes at the highest rate ever (about sixteen bombs or missiles used a day) and a third higher than the previous peak year (2011). The greater availability of air strikes encourages Afghan security forces to be more aggressive.
Tale Of Two Talibans
Among the many achievements of the Pakistani government over the years one of the most visible is the Taliban movement. Actually, there are two Taliban movements, both of them staffed largely by Pushtun tribesmen (long dominant in southern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan). Both Taliban movements were founded in Pakistan, one by the military and the other because of the military. The original Taliban was created by the Pakistani military in the mid-1990s (by recruiting Afghan Pushtun refugees) and sending them back home to win, or come close to winning, the civil war that had been underway since the Russians left in 1989. This Afghan Taliban still work for the Pakistani military but by 2007 that inspired the formation of a Pakistani Taliban, recruited from Pakistani Pushtuns, to overthrow the Pakistani government and, as the Afghan Taliban tried to do, establish a religious dictatorship. The Pakistani military declared war on the Pakistani Taliban in 2014 and quickly crushed, but not destroyed, them. The Afghan Taliban are another matter. Because the Afghan Taliban still have the support of the Pakistani military they are still a threat to the Afghan government and that is mainly because the Afghan Taliban have a sanctuary in southwest Pakistan (Baluchistan), right across the border from Helmand province, where most of the heroin (in the world) is produced. The Pakistan military facilitates getting whatever the Afghan Taliban need from Pakistan and, for a fee, getting the Afghan heroin into Pakistan and out to the world via the port of Karachi.
Although a growing number of Afghan Taliban leaders want peace and an end to being manipulated by the Pakistanis the senior leader and the Pakistani generals are not inclined to consider peace talks because of all that money from the drug gangs as well as the ability to “control” (or at least disrupt) Afghanistan. Direct peace talks between Afghan Taliban leaders and the United States, which is now a possibility, are very risky for the Taliban and their Pakistani patrons because the existence of their sanctuaries in Pakistan, while denied by the Pakistani military, is an open secret in Pakistan where it is also obvious that the Pakistan military and its intelligence agency (the ISI) handles these sanctuaries.
In Pakistan, the military is very much above the law and can usually do whatever it wants. That is not a secret because about half the time since Pakistan was created in 1947 the military has openly run the government (after a coup) until popular opposition (and frustration at the task of governing) forced the generals to allow elections again. The Taliban insist their main goal is to get foreign troops out of Afghanistan but say nothing about suppressing the widely unpopular drug trade. Moreover, terrorism related deaths are overwhelmingly caused by the Islamic terrorists, mainly (Taliban and Haqqani Network. These men die protecting the drug production that has turned millions of Afghans into addicts and crippled efforts to build the economy and educate the children. Few Taliban really believe they are doing anything good for Afghanistan or the average Afghan.
To maintain control of the Afghan Taliban the ISI calls on another of their “protected” Islamic terror groups; the Haqqani Network. This group was once a faction in the 1990s Afghan civil war but always had a good relationship with the ISI. Over the last two decades the Haqqani have turned into a criminal gang that also manages terror operations in Afghanistan for ISI, because of that the Haqqani at the behest of ISI, also became part of the current Afghan Taliban senior leadership. Most Afghans know all about this and are not happy with how the Pakistani military gets away with it.
ISIL The Righteous Underdog
ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) had, until mid-2018, two main base areas in Afghanistan. The one in the north (Jawzjan province) appears to have been wiped out recently by a combination of attacks by government and Taliban forces. The end was marked by the surrender of 150 ISIL personnel (a fifth of them women and children) to the government in Jawzjan. The alternative was being massacred by the vengeful local Taliban who has surrounded these ISIL remnants in a rural area. ISIL could have fought to the death but instead chose surrender to government forces, who pushed aside the Taliban cordon to get their ISIL captives out.
ISIL had been savage in its treatment of captured Taliban. ISIL executed these men via beheading or explosives and often produced videos of the incidents. Now the Taliban are concentrating forces in Nangarhar to root out and kill the ISIL forces in what has long been the main base area for ISIL in Afghanistan. Because of that, it has been a prime target for Afghan and American forces.
A very visible sign of this occurred in April 2017 with the use of a large (9.8 ton) MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast) GPS guided smart bomb against an ISIL target. The impact of this air strike was felt for months. This was the first time MOAB was used in combat and the immediate effect was to wipe out an ISIL base that had made extensive use of a tunnel and cave complex. The underground portion was not destroyed but parts of it collapsed and the rest became unstable and too dangerous to use. On the surface, the few visible structures were destroyed as were the hundreds of landmines and explosive traps that were triggered or shattered (and disabled). Several hundred of the Islamic terrorists were killed or wounded. Later analysis of ISIL post-attack communications indicated that a dozen or more known ISIL leaders may have been killed in this attack. Some stunned or wounded ISIL men managed to get out of the area before ground forces showed up and spread the word about what happened. In the days after this bombing, local tribal leaders asked the Americans to use weapons like this more often. That didn’t happen and ISIL didn’t disappear from the area either. The fighting between ISIL and the local Taliban continued and it continued to be all being financed by the drug smuggling and made worse by local tribal rivalries.
By late 2017 ISIL was moving more of its operations to cities, like Kabul, where they were less likely to be hit by airstrikes. This was an admission of defeat because in urban areas ISIL cannot train large numbers of new recruits or build up stockpiles of weapons and ammo. ISIL also cannot earn money from the drug smuggling business and must get by on a lot less cash. So most of the action remained in rural Jawzjan and Nangarhar.
Recently ISIL did something that made the Taliban seem like the good guys. ISIL took credit for the June 4th attack on the Ulema Council meeting. Attacking the Ulema Council (the main Islamic authority in Afghanistan) was a typical arrogant ISIL move, prompted by the Ulema council issuing a Fatwa condemning ISIL tactics, especially suicide bombings. Suddenly the Taliban was seen as a champion for Islam by openly vowing vengeance on ISIL for this unforgivable (and unsuccessful) attack on the Ulema Council.
Meanwhile, American and Afghan forces were not idle. In early July some 600 Afghan and American commandos captured the main ISIL base in Nangarhar province. This concluded an operation that began in April and cost ISIL nearly 200 personnel (dead or captured). About 90 percent of the ground force was Afghan (three companies of commandos) and the ground troops had access to lots of aerial surveillance and airstrikes. The commando force suffered few casualties and no deaths. The main tactic was to force ISIL out of populated districts they long operated in and back towards the remote area where their main base was believed to be. The base was finally located and overrun. The remaining ISIL are isolated in a mountainous area where food and water are in short supply. ISIL has shown surprising ability to regenerate, in part because they attract the most fanatic members of other Islamic terrorist groups, especially the Taliban, which is increasingly seen as just pretending to be Islamic warriors. This time the Taliban announced their plans for going after the ISIL remnants in Nangarhar. Given the recent victory in the north (Jawzjan province) the Taliban plan seems workable.
In mid-July, the Taliban attacked a key ISIL camp in Jawzjan and triggered a series of gun battles that left over 60 Islamic terrorists dead or wounded. ISIL forces in Jawzjan had already been weakened by regular clashes with Taliban forces. This fighting was frequent during most of 2017 and was pretty brutal. All this was over control of drug smuggling routes across the border. There have been clashes between ISIL and Taliban in other parts of the country but it has been worst in Jawzjan. With government and U.S. forces increasing their attacks as well the local ISIL has lost many of its senior leaders and some factions in Jawzjan have disappeared, apparently because of casualties and desertions caused by the lack of leadership. The number of American and Afghan air strikes on ISIL in Jawzjan and other northern provinces have increased since March, apparently as the result of more tips from locals or even the rival Taliban forces. The Americans believe that ISIL in Jawzjan is no longer an organized force and that the remaining ISIL members are still being hunted by the security forces as well as the Taliban. The ISIL force in Nangarhar province remain active and largely intact, for now.
The current clashes in Jawzjan indicate that ISIL had greater recuperative capabilities than anyone expected. But the Taliban have an unexpected asset as well. Captured Taliban in eastern and northern Afghanistan report a special Taliban force being trained in Iran, where they also receive new equipment and weapons with the understanding that they will return to Afghanistan and concentrate their attacks on Americans and ISIL. Iran is desperate to strike back at the Americans for renewing economic sanctions and thwarting Iranian efforts to take control of Syria and then launch attacks on Israel. These Iran backed Taliban have apparently been going after ISIL groups in western Afghanistan but not the Americans, at least not as far as anyone can tell. By August it was apparent that this Taliban strategy had worked in Jawzjan, where in a few weeks of fighting a 500 strong ISIL force was reduced to less than 200 and forced to surrender to the government to avoid annihilation.
One rarely mentioned ally in the effort to defeat ISIL in Afghanistan was al Qaeda or more specifically AQIS (Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent). Technically Afghanistan is not part of AQIS territory and still contains an Afghanistan branch of al Qaeda. Afghanistan has become a more reliable base area (for training camps) than Pakistan or anywhere else in South Asia. AQIS was created in 2014 and initially tried to establish its headquarters in Karachi (Pakistan), long a haven for all sorts of criminal activity and forged alliances with the major Islamic terrorist organizations there. Yet AQIS has been responsible for very few terror attacks in Pakistan or anywhere else. AQIS was created to manage and support operations in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and Burma. Islamic terrorism experts believe this was largely a publicity stunt by al Qaeda to counter the growing popularity of the more radical ISIL. Indian Moslems have produced some recruits for Islamic terrorism, but not enough to produce the level of mayhem Islamic terrorists wanted. Lacking a lot of radical clergy and religious schools India has simply not produced a lot of radicalized young men willing to kill and be killed. Similar recruiting problems were encountered elsewhere but other Al Qaeda groups have continued to provide enough cash and other assistance to keep AQIS going and barely visible. Afghan training camps, destroyed at the end of 2017, were a major AQIS asset and that loss was one reason AQIS agreed to work with the Pakistani Taliban.
August 16, 2018: ISIL took credit for two bomb attacks in Kabul in the last 24 hours. Yesterday ISIL bombed an education center in a Shia neighborhood where high school students were studying for university exams. This suicide bomber attack left 48 dead and was justified by ISIL belief that secular (especially Western) education is un-Islamic and punishable by death, as is being a Shia. ISIL isn’t very popular in Afghanistan but there are enough radicalized local Moslems to keep the group going. The attack today was against an NDS training facility, which had much better security than the educations center (where the bomber just walked in). At least two ISIL attackers were killed as they sought to fight their way into the NDS facility. The ISIL attackers did fire come RPG rockets at the NDS compound, along with a lot of machine-gun fire.
In the last week, the security forces suffered about 250 dead. The numerous Taliban attacks also killed over a hundred civilians and got over 500 Taliban killed.
August 15, 2018: In the east (Nangarhar Province), NDS arrested seven suicide bombers and, the night before, seized a car rigged with explosives. All this was for a coordinated attack on Jalalabad city.
In the northeast (Baghlan province), the Taliban attacked an army outpost and killed 35 soldiers. Another attack further south (Zabul province), left four police dead. Fighting has continued in the far south (Helmand province) where the security forces have been on the offensive.
The Taliban sought to intimidate the Red Cross into being more cooperative by announcing that the existing "safe passage" understanding (which protected Red Cross personnel from Taliban attack) was canceled. The "safe passage" would be restored if the Red Cross would agree to carry out tasks for the Taliban, like assisting in getting captured Taliban out of jail.
August 14, 2018: The renewed American sanctions on Iran will hurt Afghans working in Iran but will not interfere with the new trade route from Afghanistan, via Iran to the port of Chabahar. The Americans make exceptions for these sanctions and in this case, Pakistan is seen as a larger threat to Afghanistan than Iran. 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 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 to 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.
August 13, 2018: In the north (Faryab province) hundreds of Taliban attacked a small army base and the hundred or so troops there. When repulsed (after killing or wounding over half the soldiers) they besieged the base and after two days the 57 surviving troops surrendered because had received no resupply, air support or any assurances that help was on the way. Faryab province is on the Turkmenistan border and part of the major drug smuggling route to Central Asia and Europe. For several years the province was the scene of heavy fighting between ISIL and Taliban for control of the smuggling routes. This year ISIL was defeated and the Taliban turned to the many army bases and outposts in the province.
August 11, 2018: In the west (Farah province), the Taliban sought to make some attacks but were disrupted by airstrikes and prompt response by ground forces.
August 10, 2018: In the southeast (Ghazni province), hundreds of Taliban tried to capture the provincial capital with a stealthy night attack. There was more resistance than the Taliban expected.
August 7, 2018: The United States revealed that it was holding peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar. Not all Taliban factions want to get a peace deal but a growing number do.
August 5, 2018: In the east (Parwan province) three NATO (Czech) soldiers were killed when the foot patrol they were in was attacked near Bagram Airfield by a suicide bomber. An American soldier and two Afghan troops were wounded. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. With this attack the number of foreign troops killed in Afghanistan so far this year increases to six. The other three are all American. In 2017 17 foreign troops were killed in Afghanistan. All but two of those were American. By mid-August, the deaths had increased to eight, five of them American.
August 3, 2018: In the east (Paktia province) two ISIL men attacked a Shia mosque. Both were killed, one by his explosive vest, and the other (a gunman) by security guards. The blast left 29 dead and even more wounded. The Taliban denounced the attack and this sort of anti-Shia violence has been monopolized by ISIL of late. But in the past, the Taliban killed a lot of Shia. Now, however, the Afghan Taliban is receiving support from Iran, a Shia majority nation that is hostile to groups that kill Shia.
In central Afghanistan (Uruzgan Province, just north of Helmand and Kandahar) the Taliban attacked and overran a small army base which left over 4o soldiers dead nearly as many missing. The Taliban looted the base and fled but not before reinforcing troops, and airstrikes, caught up with them leaving about 60 of the attackers dead.
August 2, 2018: In the south (Helmand province) Afghan commandos found and captured another Taliban prison camp and freed 61 civilians held captive. Many of the captives were suspected of providing information to the government. Because of that, the Afghan forces put a priority on finding and seizing these Taliban jails. In the last three months, nearly 400 people have been freed from these camps in Helmand alone.
July 23, 2018: In the Persian Gulf (Qatar) American officials held secret peace talks with the Taliban. The Afghan government was aware of this and apparently went along in the hopes that some progress might finally be achieved after years of failed peace negotiations.
July 22, 2018: In Kabul, ISIL took credit for a suicide bombing at the airport. The target was First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who was returning from 14 months outside the country (for medical treatment and to deal with family matters.) The ISIL attack was apparently meant for Dostum but the timing was off and the Dostum convoy had just left when the suicide bomber struck. The explosion killed 14 people and wounded more than fifty. Dostum also left the country to avoid prosecutors who sought him for questioning about the kidnapping and torture of a political rival in the north (Jawzjan province). This was not the first time Dostum has been accused of that sort of thing. In the past, he eventually escaped prosecution, sometimes by leaving the country for months. Dostum is a powerful man, a classic Afghan warlord and supreme in the north. There is no official leader of the non-Pushtuns but the most powerful of these leaders is outspoken about the continued Pushtun dominance of the government. The best example of this is Dostum, who has been a foe of the Taliban since the 1990s. Dostum is a powerful Uzbek politician, and a long time warlord (he was a general in the communist army that was dissolved in 1992). The Uzbeks are Turks and comprise nine percent of the population. The Uzbeks have always been hostile to the Taliban and drugs. Dostum is their leader but has become popular with Afghans who openly oppose Islamic terrorists. Dostum makes the most of this by regularly giving speeches condemning Islamic terrorism. This involves constantly traveling and exposing himself to terrorist attack. So far he has survived dozens of attacks and this increases popularity while enraging the Islamic terrorists he publicly berates and condemns. Dostum has long been a major critic of Pakistan and how Pakistan continues to support Islamic terrorists operating in Afghanistan.