The four decades of violence in Afghanistan is fundamentally a tribal/ethnic war between Afghanistan’s largest tribal minority (the Pushtun) and the majority of other tribal/ethnic minorities that comprise over 60 percent of the population. It is no coincidence that the Taliban were originally recruited from southern Pushtun Afghan refugees living in Pakistani refugee camps and attention Saudi funded religious schools. Taliban translates, literally, to “students’” and their initial motivation in the mid-1990s was to end two decades of violence that began when communist Afghans staged a coup and tried to turn Afghanistan into a communist dictatorship. That triggered a civil war because most Afghans saw their Moslem religion as an essential part of their culture and the communists were well known for hostile attitudes towards religion. Russia was known to have suppressed Islam throughout the Central Asian areas they ruled.
The core of Taliban power is four southern, largely Pushtun, Afghan provinces; Helmand, Urozgan, Zabul and Kandahar. These four provinces always supplied most of the new recruits and nearly all leaders of the Taliban. These four provinces are also the source of most opium and heroin in the world. This was an industry that no nation wanted and would not tolerate for long. For centuries it had been centered in a tribal area, now in northern Burma, that was long controlled by no nation. After World War II the opium/heroin production in northern Burma was largely shut down, with the help of drought and less tolerant governments. Opium/heroin production moved to Iran and Pakistan. Iran resisted the heroin trade and chased it out and into Afghanistan. There was still competition from tribal heroin producers in Pakistan where the Pushtun and Baluchi majority in Pakistan’s tribal territories (bordering Afghanistan) welcomed it as a way to get rich and punish the non-tribal majority of Pakistan which dominated the country and both feared and looked down on the “tribals”. That did not last long and during the 1980s the Pakistani government took advantage of the chaos in Afghanistan to push the heroin trade out of their tribal territories and into southern Afghanistan, mainly Helmand province. There it remains and quickly grew to the point where it produces 90 percent of the world heroin supply. When the Taliban won the civil war in the mid-1990s, they legitimized this Pushtun-run drug operation even though it was hated by most Afghans. The Taliban needed the money and the drug trade was willing to be taxed. After all heroin profits had earlier helped finance the resistance against the Russian invaders. Now the drug profits were used to create a large army of Pushtun Taliban fighters to win the 1990s civil war that followed the departure of Russian forces in 1988 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The demise of the Soviet Union ended the subsidies provided to a pro-Russian Afghan government in Kabul, which controlled a lot of Afghanistan but not all of it. Lacking the Russian subsidies, the Kabul government collapsed and civil war ensued. The Taliban won because they had the support of the Pakistan military, which provided weapons, technical assistance and access to Pakistani ports to export the heroin. The Taliban never conquered all of Afghanistan in the 1990s and by 2001 they were under attack by the Americans, for having supplied sanctuary to al Qaeda, which was planning and carrying out more and more terror attacks in the West. The ones in the U.S. on September 11, 2001, triggered a military response from the Americans that is still going on. The Taliban is reluctant to discuss what they would do with the drug trade if they took control of the country again.
The Taliban retreated to their Pakistani sanctuary in 2002 and reorganized as a tribal faction that had ties to the drug gangs of Helmand as well as the Pakistani military. The Taliban (and Pakistan) do not want a democratic, pro-West Afghanistan as a neighbor. That led to the current stalemate which the Americans want to withdraw from.
The problem in Afghanistan is that the four southern provinces (Helmand, Urozgan, Zabul and Kandahar) that are considered the Pushtun heartland, and the core support for the Taliban, contain less than nine percent of the Afghan populations. Since Pushtuns comprise about 40 percent of the population, the Taliban are supported by only a minority of even the Pushtuns. Heroin and opium is considered a major problem by most Afghans. Because of the opium/heroin production, these narcotics are cheaper close to where they were produced and the result has been over ten million addicts in Afghanistan and surrounding countries. Foreign observers tend to ignore the importance of this addict population. It was the growth of addiction because of cheap and freely available opiates that got these opiates outlawed in the West less than two generations after heroin (refined opium) was developed in the 19th century. At first, heroin was considered a wonder and its name was based on the fact that users felt “heroic” for a while. While many users could indulge without becoming disastrously addicted, many first time users could not. By the end of the 19th century addiction to refined opium, in the form of morphine and opium, had become a major political issue. That’s when these drugs became restricted (morphine) or banned (heroin).
The tribalism that is still supreme in Afghanistan has prevented the development of civil society and national identity so common in the West. That is a common problem in many other parts of the world and very difficult to change in Afghanistan. This is especially true because of the unholy alliance between the drug gangs and the Pushtun-backed Taliban. The core problem is that few Afghans trust their government to protect them. Afghans would rather fall back on their tribe and nearly all tribes have some form of tribal militia. Thus the police and military are constantly unable to meet their recruiting goals. The national police and army are usually at least 10 percent under strength because of difficulty in recruiting and retaining new personnel. The Taliban offer competitive pay and fewer restrictions on looting and abusing troublesome civilians.
Pakistan continues to “sponsor” peace talks between the Americans and the Afghan Taliban. Even China encourages these negotiations. The latest round of talks just began in Qatar. Since September these talks have been cancelled twice, and then revived. The problem is that the Americans keep encountering situations where the Afghan Taliban demonstrate they cannot be trusted. The U.S. demands a ceasefire before there can be progress in the negotiations. The Americans would like similar assurances from Pakistan but that is not happening. There was much evidence of Taliban and Pakistani misbehavior and unreliability. Even the UN openly agrees with this as do most nations in the region.
Since the 1980s Pakistan has been waging an unacknowledged Islamic terrorist campaign against India in Kashmir while accusing India of planning to invade and conquer Pakistan. This effort is the work of the Pakistani military and its ISI intelligence agency. A similar effort has been waged against Afghanistan. The most visible aspect of the Afghan effort is the Taliban. Rule by a religious dictatorship backed by Pakistan was not popular with most Afghans. That led to the overthrow of Taliban rule in 2001 and persistent Pakistan-backed violence in Afghanistan ever since. One thing nearly all Afghans can agree on is that Pakistani meddling inside Afghanistan is a very bad thing.
The growing popular unrest in neighboring Iran had reduced Iranian support for some tribal and Taliban factions in western Afghanistan. That support (with guns, money and sanctuaries) has been going on for decades. Actually this has been a factor in local (western Afghanistan) politics for centuries. That is why one of the “national” languages of Afghanistan is Dari, a variant of Farsi (or Persian, the main language in Iran). Currently, Iran is broke and there is growing popular unrest against the religious dictatorship that has run the country since the 1980s. While the supplies of cash and weapons have largely disappeared, some Taliban factions can still maintain bases in eastern Iran and have access to local medical facilities and markets.
December 30, 2019:
In the east (Khost province, adjacent to Pakistani North Waziristan) a
Pakistani death squad (provided by Haqqani Network) shot dead Qari Saifullah Mehsud outside a refugee camp. Mehsud was one of the key leaders (in charge of suicide bombers) of the Pakistani Taliban which until 2014 operated out of
North Waziristan. Driven out by the Pakistani army the Pakistani Taliban moved its base operations across the border. Many family members of Pakistani Taliban fled to Afghanistan as well and many live in refugee camps. The Pakistani Taliban do not have official sanctuary in Afghanistan, as the Afghan Taliban do in Pakistan. Thus the Pakistani Taliban are under constant threat from Afghan forces and their NATO allies. Since the Pakistani Taliban exiles are much less of a threat to Afghans than the Afghan Taliban, going after the Pakistani Taliban is a low priority. Not so for Pakistan, which has used conventional (regular cross border artillery fire) and unconventional (mainly the
Haqqani Network) efforts (individual killings plus roadside and suicide bombings) against Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan. Haqqani Network assassins have been particularly effective against the Pakistan Taliban leadership lately. At the same time Haqqani Network leaders also provide the operational leadership for the Afghan Taliban. This official leader of the Afghan Taliban is a respected Afghan religious scholar and the Afghan Taliban leadership council in Pakistan (Baluchistan, just south of Helmand province) is all Afghan. Actually the Haqqani Network is mainly Afghan but since the 1980s has evolved into a successful criminal enterprise that concentrates on making money. Haqqani Network is immune from Pakistani police or military as long as Haqqani Network continues doing ISI (Pakistan intelligence) dirty work in Afghanistan. This has long included murdering troublesome (to Pakistan) Afghan politicians, intelligence officials and anyone important who could not be bribed or intimidated.
December 29, 2019: According to American negotiators the Taliban agreed to a temporary ceasefire so that negotiations over the withdrawal of foreign troops could proceed. Over the next 24 hours the Taliban added qualifiers to that offer. First, that the ceasefire would only involve U.S. forces and after that the Taliban said it would not be a true ceasefire but a “reduction in violence.” Finally the Taliban denied that there would be any ceasefire. What was not acknowledged in all this was that the Taliban is not a monolithic organization and no one can speak for the entire group. There have always been factions but over the last few years the factionalism has gotten worse, mainly because of the continued control Pakistan exercises over most of the Afghan Taliban. Unlike 2001, if the 20,000 foreign troops left 2020 Afghanistan the resulting civil war would include a lot of Taliban fighting other Taliban groups. In other words, there cannot be a Taliban ceasefire as the Americans understand the term.
The Taliban are not just negotiating with the Americans to get the foreign troops out of the country but are also trying to convince more Afghans that a Taliban religious dictatorship would be preferable to the current democracy. The Taliban have, in effect, made campaign promises that they believe will appeal to most Afghans. These include no longer forbidding women from getting an education or working outside the home. The Taliban promise to reduce corruption and provide order so that the economy can flourish. Few Afghans believe there promises. Older Afghans remember the last period of Taliban rule (1995-2001) and the repression and religious fanaticism that many Taliban still believes in. Younger Afghans see the Taliban as part of the drug gangs who are the main source of organized criminal activity in the country. Besides, campaign promises from Islamic terrorists or local politicians are disdained in Afghanistan as those promises are anywhere else.
One campaign promise the Taliban will keep it to seek the release of 5,000 Taliban imprisoned by the Afghan government. The Americans are supposed to take care of this if there is any peace deal. Since these prisoners are confined because of crimes against Afghans it is going to be difficult to get the Afghan government to free them. The Taliban are seeking to create a situation similar to the early 1990s, when the Russian backed non-democratic Afghan government became helpless once Russian financial and military support ended. The Americans plan to continue financial aid to the Afghan government after foreign troops leave but expect continued efforts to curb corruption which diminishes the usefulness of foreign aid). Threats to cut that aid can be used to get those Taliban prisoners freed.
December 27, 2019: American air support for 2019 fell short of the record set in since 2018
. During 2019 there were nearly 7,000 airstrikes compared to 7,362 for all of 2018. That’s 19 a day compared to 20 for 2018. Since 2018 American airpower was used more often in Afghanistan than at any other time, including the 2011 surge. In 2018 coalition warplanes (mostly U.S.) used 15 percent more bombs and missiles than in 2011. Coalition warplanes performed more sorties a month, with 15 percent of sorties resulting in weapons being used. This includes AC-130 gunships but not attack helicopters. In some months the U.S. Air Force used more smart bombs and missiles than at any 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 U.S. ROE (Rules of Engagement). In 2017 American commanders were again allowed to determine the ROE for U.S. troops overseas, especially in places like Afghanistan. For example, U.S. troops can now fire on the Taliban even when the Taliban are not firing on them and fire on the enemy at long distances. 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 and nearly double that a year later) the Afghan ROE has reduced the enemy use of human shields. The Afghan ROE ignores human shields and puts the priority on killing enemy fighters. This made human shields much less effective, even though most of the airstrikes are carried out by foreign (usually American) warplanes. The greater availability of airstrikes encourages Afghan security forces to be more aggressive. As a result, the Taliban changed the way they moved forces around and sought to deny the American or Afghan warplanes opportunities to hit groups of Taliban. That restricted Taliban movement and attack opportunities but not enough to reduce overall violence in Afghanistan during 2019.
December 25, 2019: In the north (Balkh province), the Taliban attacked a highway checkpoint manned by soldiers and members of NDS (the national intelligence agency). That attack was repulsed by the defenders suffered 15 dead. The main attraction here was the presence of NDS personnel, who are feared for their ability to collect information on Taliban operations and planned terror attacks.
December 24, 2019:
In the west (Farah province), the Taliban stopped a convoy of six civilian vehicles on the main road and found that the 26 passengers were members of an Afghan peace organization. Sensing an opportunity the Taliban kidnapped the 26 rather than just murdering them. The captives were taken away and lectured and threatened then released after a few days. The Taliban were checking traffic because in this province the Taliban must constantly use violence to gain control of roads needed to smuggle heroin and opium.
December 23, 2019: In the north (Kunduz province), an American Special Forces soldier was killed when a Taliban ammo bunker was found and being examined before destruction (with remotely detonated explosives). That makes
21 Americans killed so far in 2019. This is higher than the annual totals for the previous three years. The highest recent annual total was the 2015 total of 22 dead.
December 22, 2019: There is still no decision on who the official winner of the September presidential election. The latest preliminary results were released today and these give the current president, Ashraf Ghani, 50.6 percent of the 1.8 million votes legally recognized. His closest rival got 39.5 percent and more than a dozen other candidates for the rest. Meanwhile, election officials have to deal with over 15,000 complaints about cheating and the accuracy of the vote. As a result election results have been delayed as recounts are undertaken. So far only one percent of the votes have been found to be invalid, compared to 58 percent during the previous presidential election. The use of
biometrically verified votes from the September 28 elections was supposed to keep the count honest and speed up delivery of final results. Corruption seems to have disrupted these plans. Valid votes could be “miscounted” or made to disappear. Originally the final results were to be known by October 19 but that did not happen and November 7 was the new date. No success there either and currently there is no specific deadline for the final results. In addition to the announcement delays, there have been announcements about reductions in the number of valid votes. Originally it was announced that about 2.6 million verified votes were cast at some 26,000 voting stations. As the veracity of these votes was double-checked the number of “verified votes” shrank and now stands at about 1.8 million. Most of this reduction comes from tribal leaders and various local warlords who are backing a particular candidate. These tribal strongmen don’t want to be bothered with obtaining and maintaining an elective post. They can hire people for that and the vote manipulation is how that is done. These rural strongmen control most of the Afghan population and always have. For centuries the “King of Afghanistan” in Kabul earned his position by ensuring the rural tribal leaders got a fair share of any cash or other gifts bestowed on Afghanistan by foreigners. The king was there to keep the foreign soldiers out and regulate any foreign trade or treaties. Since 1973 there has been no monarchy and since 1978 no real national government, at least until 2001 when the civil war between the Taliban and Northern Alliance ended. The Americans intervened on the side of the Northern Alliance soon after September 11, 2001 and the Taliban was gone (to exile in Pakistan) by the end of the year.
After that, it took eight years to establish the infrastructure to hold national elections for a president. The accuracy of the vote was always contaminated by local tribal leaders. By 2019 it was admitted this was a problem and efforts were made to protect the integrity of the vote. With each election, there is more success at protecting the votes from local manipulation. There are often multiple local warlords election officials have to worry about. In addition to the ever-present tribal leaders, there is often one or more regional warlords. These are men are sometimes elected provincial leaders or simply ethnic leaders whose power extends over many provinces.
The threats to the voters from tribal, ethnic, Taliban and ISIL pressure had an impact. There are about 16 million Afghans eligible to vote but only about nine million registered and only less than 30 percent showed up and cast a ballot. That is the lowest participation rate so far but also meant to be the most accurate. The use of biometric ID cards to register and vote reduced, but did not eliminate, voter fraud. Nevertheless, most Afghans saw this, the fourth presidential election in Afghanistan, as the most legitimate and those who voted were often very determined and fearless to do so. Despite a large number of voting stations many voters still had to travel for hours on foot or horseback to reach a voting site. Most of the voting locations were not subjected to threats but instead had problems with remoteness and the logistics of getting to a voting site. Taliban violence against voters left 28 civilians dead and about 250 wounded. The leading candidates, incumbent Ashraf Ghani and chief rival Abdullah Abdullah both declared victory but the final results will not be announced until sometime in early 2020.
December 4, 2019: Afghanistan Pakistan and India all showed up in the top ten of the 2019 GTI (Global Terrorism Index), which counts all forms of terrorism. The top ten were Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, India, Yemen, the Philippines, and Congo. India, Philippines, Yemen and Congo all have Islamic terrorism accounting for a minority of the deaths. Worldwide terrorism deaths declined 15 percent to 15,952. This decline is, so far, a four year trend. Afghanistan is one place where the number of casualties did not decline.
November 22, 2019: The number of Afghans returning from Iran has accelerated this year because of the growing poverty and public protests in Iran. So far this year nearly 400,000 have returned. About 60 percent of those returning were illegal migrants in Iran. Another 50,000 returned from Turkey and Pakistan. Over a million Afghans returned in 2018, mainly from Pakistan. This year Iran is the most frequently fled from exile for Afghans. Iran has always been a more hostile host for Afghan refugees than Pakistan because there are twice as many Pushtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan and Pushtuns are the largest minority (about 40 percent) in Afghanistan. Iran is a much less familiar place for Afghans and the Iranians constantly remind Afghans of that.
December 2, 2019: One way to measure the effectiveness of governments and the societies they represent is the Human Development Index the UN has compiled for 29 years. The index ranks all the world nations in terms of how well they do in terms of life expectancy, education and income. In 2019 Afghanistan was 170th out of 189 nations while Pakistan was 152nd India 129 and Bangladesh 135. The top ten nations are Norway, Switzerland, Ireland, Germany, Hong Kong, Australia, Iceland, Sweden, Singapore and Netherlands. The bottom ten are Mozambique at 180th place (there are a lot of ties) followed by Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Mali, Burundi, South Sudan, Chad, Central African Republic and in last place, Niger. Other notable nations are the United States at 15 (tied with Britain), Russia at 49, China 89, Israel 22 (tied with South Korea), Saudi Arabia 36, Iran 65, Venezuela 96, Colombia 79 and Mexico 76. North Korea is not ranked because not enough reliable data is available on the population or economy.