The United States is considering making peace with the Taliban. The major problem with that is such a deal turns control of Afghanistan over to drug gangs, Pakistan, Iran and Islamic conservatives (who ban education for women and generally unpopular lifestyle restrictions). This means going back to the situation before the Taliban lost control of Afghanistan in 2001. Back then the Taliban provided sanctuary for Islamic terrorists, especially al Qaeda. The Taliban is still on good terms with al Qaeda. The Taliban is also seen by the majority of Afghans as the creation of Pakistan and a largely Pushtun organization financed by Pakistan supported drug gangs. The Pushtun are 40 percent of the population and the largest ethnic group in the country. The Pushtun dominate the opium and heroin business which is also opposed by most Afghans, if only because it has created so many addicts. The Taliban are also not a unified organization. The Afghan Taliban has sanctuaries in Pakistan which keep their senior leadership safe and are also the site of border crossings where most of the chemicals for refining opium into heroin get into Afghanistan along with the fertilizer and other chemicals used to make bombs.
Despite all that Russia sponsored Afghan peace talks in Russia on the 9th featured a Taliban delegation. Meanwhile, Iranian ally Qatar hosts a Taliban headquarters where the Taliban can, in effect, meet with anyone to discuss anything. The Russian peace talks attracted delegations from Russia, India, Iran, China, Pakistan and five former Soviet republics in Central Asia as well as non-government groups from Afghanistan and some Americans as observers. Technically the Taliban cannot be in Russia because Russia recognizes the international designation of the Taliban as a terrorist organization. Nevertheless, the Taliban insisted they would make peace only if all foreign troops left and there were international guarantees to keep the Americans from returning or aiding Afghans fighting the Taliban.
These negotiations are opposed by the Afghan government (which sees the Russians as Taliban supporters) although the Americans have had contact with the Taliban office in Qatar. What the Taliban have always wanted is all foreign troops out of Afghanistan. When making these demands in Russia the Taliban referred to themselves as “the Emirate of Afghanistan” and making it clear where they see all this going.
Once the Taliban have all foreign troops out of the country they will negotiate with the Afghan government, which will probably lead to a resumption of the civil war that was interrupted by the American invasion in late 2001. The Northern Alliance (the 2001 opposition consisting of the other minorities who were a majority of Afghans) would be cut off from any outside support while the Taliban still have Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, Iran. In 2001 the Northern Alliance had some help from Russia, Turkey, Iran and India. The Taliban had Pakistan, al Qaeda and Saudi Arabia. This time around the Taliban has broken into factions. There is the Afghan Taliban, backed by Pakistan, financed by drug gangs and divided over the issue of Pakistani control and dependence on drug money. Worse there is a new (since 2001) branch of the Taliban in Pakistan (where there are twice as many Pushtuns as in Afghanistan). The Pakistani Taliban are not financed by the drug gangs but rather from support among Pushtuns eager to overthrow the Pakistani government and establish an Islamic government. The Pakistani military declared war on the Pakistani Taliban in 2014, killed most of them and drove the survivors into eastern Afghanistan, where they survive as a much smaller organization. Another new group is ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), which survives in Afghanistan by attracting the most radical members of all Taliban factions as well as al Qaeda.
Most Afghans don’t want the Taliban back in nominal control of the country. Back in 2001 the Taliban were still fighting the Northern Alliance and were also financed by drug gangs and Pakistani support. The drugs and Pakistan angle is abhorrent to most Afghans but the drug gangs have the cash to buy lots of guns and politicians as well as hire as many young, unemployed Pushtuns (Afghan and Pakistani) as they need.
Currently, the main Taliban strategy is to disrupt transportation (main roads) throughout the country to weaken government control. Commercial traffic is often allowed to pass if a large “tax” is paid but this makes the goods involved more expensive for Afghans. The Taliban don’t have to control a lot of territory or population, just establish access to the roads so they can interfere with traffic. Those few roads are very important because Afghanistan has few rail lines and not many navigable rivers. Afghanistan is landlocked what it cannot produce itself (which includes almost all tools and consumer goods) has to be imported.
The Pakistan Curse
Pakistani support for Islamic terrorist violence in Afghanistan is why the Afghan economy is in trouble and Afghans are increasingly hostile to their eastern neighbor. 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. The Afghan prime minister demanded that his newly elected Pakistani counterpart do something about what is happening Afghanistan. So far the official Pakistani response is; “not our fault.” Pakistani prime minister Imran Kahn is more concerned with nations considered more important to Pakistan, like Saudi Arabia and China. To Pakistanis, Afghanistan is more than of a potential problem than anything else. But to Afghanistan, and most of the world community, the biggest problem in Afghanistan is not the Taliban or the drug gangs, but Pakistan.
Pakistan has been sustaining the chaos Afghanistan has suffered since the late 1970s (when Russian backed Afghan communists tried to start a revolution). The communists were followed by a Russian invasion, drug gangs, an Islamic revolution, civil war and Pakistan seeking to take control in the 1990s with their Taliban movement. Pakistan did serve as a base for millions of Afghan refugees and thousands of Afghan rebels during the 1980s but that led to Pakistan believing it could continue to support Islamic terrorists violence in Afghanistan if it was deemed to be serving Pakistani interests. Pakistan created and supported Taliban gained control of Afghanistan (or at least most of it) from the late 1990s until 2001. That led to the American invasion and Pakistan continuing to support the drug gangs and Taliban while assisting the U.S. in its “war on terror.” Many Americans want to just leave. The problem is just getting out leaves Afghanistan at the mercy of Pakistan, Iran and Russia, as well as all the drug gangs, Islamic terror groups and numerous Afghans who oppose the drugs and all the outside interference. The drugs and Islamic terrorism will still be major exports. The West can leave Afghanistan but the ills of Afghanistan won’t leave the West and that is just fine with Pakistan.
A growing number of Afghan Taliban leaders want peace and an end to being manipulated by the Pakistanis. That is not the peace deal the Afghan Taliban are offering (a religious dictatorship controlled by the Taliban) The U.S. continues to accuse Pakistan of doing nothing about the Pakistan sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network and several other Islamic terror groups that do the bidding of the Pakistani military.
Afghans note that the economic growth experienced after 2001 slowed down considerably after NATO withdrew most of its forces in 2014. The Taliban failed, as they long claimed they could, take control of the country soon after the foreign troops left. But with support from drug money and Pakistan, the Taliban persisted. The rural population suffered the most after 2014 because that’s where the Taliban had the easiest time disrupting local security. After 2014 the majority (over 60 percent) of Afghans lost ground economically. Even the urban population, which tended to continue to see economic growth, were dismayed at the increasing control Pakistan was achieving via their proxies (Taliban and drug gangs).
Since most of the foreign troops left the Afghan security forces have suffered about 28,000 deaths. This seems high by current Western standards but is far less than Afghans suffered during the Russian occupation of the 1980s or the civil war that followed. Currently, the 15,000 or so foreign troops in Afghanistan are suffering losses of about 70 per 100,000 (per year), down from 130 per 100,000 in 2017. That loss rate peaked at about 400 per 100,000 in 2012. At the peak of the fighting (2005-7) in Iraq, the American 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.
November 12, 2018: In the north (Sar e Pul province), two Taliban factions fought each other for several hours. There were over 50 casualties including the leaders of both factions (one was killed the other wounded). Clashes like this are increasingly common.
November 9, 2018: A Russian hosted Afghan peace conference began in Moscow. In addition to the Taliban (which prefer to be called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan at these talks), eleven countries were invited (including Afghanistan and the United States). The Taliban do not consider the elected government of Afghanistan as legitimate and insist on negotiating the United States first to ensure that all foreign troops are withdrawn. The Taliban also want all military aid for the Afghan government halted.
November 8, 2018: In the east ( Ghazni province), the Afghan Taliban have been waging a major campaign to gain control of the province since August. They now control or contest over half the territory in the province and threaten traffic on several major highways passing through the province. Recently the government sent a special operations unit to Ghazni to help protect Hazara Shia there. The special operations force suffered dozens of casualties as the Taliban sent in hundreds of additional gunmen. The Hazara in Ghazni have formed pro-government militias although the main reason for these militias is to protect Hazara from Taliban violence.
November 7, 2018: It was confirmed that the renewed American sanctions on Iran will not interfere with the new trade route from Afghanistan, via Iran to the Indian Ocean 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.
November 5, 2018: In the east (Nangarhar province), Afghan and Pakistani Taliban fought over territorial control and money disputes. There were about a dozen casualties before leaders from both sides arranged a ceasefire.
November 3, 2018: In the capital, another insider attack left an American soldier dead and another wounded. Nine U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan so far this year compared to fifteen for all of 2017.
November 2, 2018: In central Afghanistan (Uruzgan Province, just north of Helmand and Kandahar and adjacent to Ghazni), the Taliban and local Hazara militia have been fighting for a week, causing at least a hundred casualties. The Taliban are getting the worst of it because the Hazara are fed up the inability of the government to protect them. ISIL and to a lesser extent the Taliban have attacked the Hazara frequently because of religious and ethnic differences. Shia Afghans (15 percent of Afghans) are a particular target for Sunni Islamic terrorists like ISIL. The Taliban and al Qaeda are less likely to attack Shia because both organizations rely on Iran for sanctuary and other support. Most of the Afghan Shia are Hazara, who are ten percent of the population and the descendants of the hated Mongols who conducted several invasions during the 13th and 14th centuries. These Mongol attacks destroyed more of the country and its population than any other conquerors. For centuries the Hazara have suffered a lot of discrimination and actual violence in Afghanistan. But Iran is seen as an ally (at least against Pakistan) by most Afghans and Iran is mostly Shia and sees itself as the defender of all Shia.
November 1, 2018: The Americans revealed that Afghan security forces (soldiers and police) had lost an average of 112 dead per week in August and September. Civilian deaths related to this violence are up 39 percent this year, to about 72 a week. This includes a growing number of Taliban assassination attempts against senior political and military leaders.
October 31, 2018: In September the U.S. Air Force used 841 smart bombs and missiles (28 a day) in airstrikes. That was 18 percent more than in August and double what it was in September 2017. The September 2018 numbers were the highest monthly use since late 2010. The Taliban want the Americans gone in large part because of 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 eighteen 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.
October 28, 2018: In the southeast (Paktia province), an American UAV used a missile to destroy a vehicle and kill five Taliban.