Afghanistan: That Is The Way

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March 12, 2020: Abdullah Abdullah, the loser in the September presidential election insists he is the legitimate president and is issuing orders to government officials who are caught in the middle of a power struggle between the election winner, the Taliban and the United States. The Americans are trying to get an Afghan government to cooperate with negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban, This would enable the U.S. troops to be withdrawn. This situation is complicated by the fact that the elected Afghan government, in general, does not trust the Taliban and refuses to do what the Americans want because the U.S. has gone along with the Taliban demands that negotiations between the Taliban and the U.S. exclude the Afghan government.

Most Afghans see the Taliban offer to negotiate as a scam because the Afghan Taliban are doing whatever Pakistan wants. The Pakistani Taliban, who have no Pakistani support, are basically at war with the Pakistan government and are much smaller than their Afghan counterparts. The Afghan Taliban has always enjoyed a sanctuary in Pakistan, across the border from Helmand province, where Afghans produce most of the world's heroin supply. Pakistan, or at least the Pakistani military, support the Afghan drug gangs as well by allowing, for a large fee, raw materials for turning opium plan sap into Heroin to go from Pakistan to Helmand and for most of the heroin to be smuggled through Pakistan to the port of Karachi where the illegal drug can be smuggled to markets worldwide. The Afghan drug gangs pay the Afghan Taliban to protect the drug operations from foreign or Afghan interference. This is how most Afghans see the situation, as well as the millions of Afghan addicts made possible by the availability of so much opium and heroin in the country. While most of this stuff is exported some of it is sold locally, at much lower price than for foreign users. There are equally large numbers of addicts in Pakistan and Iran and the people in all those countries agree that the drug problem exists because of unofficial Pakistani support. That Pakistani support is justified by the Pakistani obsession with “controlling “Afghanistan even if it means supporting an Islamic form of government that would not be tolerated in Pakistan and the heroin production that is condemned by the people and governments of Afghanistan and all its neighbors.

Despite this, the Americans are determined to go through the motions of obtaining a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban, who also have internal problems. The Afghan Taliban, at least those in Afghanistan, consist of many factions, usually based on geography and or tribal affiliation. These factions never agreed completely with each other and those differences have grown since the 1990s.

Like everything else in Afghanistan, the Taliban began because of important tribal links. The original Taliban were Pushtuns from tribes in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. The original Taliban combat force was recruited in the mid-1990s from among Pushtun Afghan refugees from war-torn Afghanistan who were still in Pakistan. Even though the Russians were gone by 1988, and the pro-Russian government that was left behind had also disappeared after 1991 because the Soviet Union that created it had dissolved and the economic and military aid that kept that Afghan government going, in only a small part of Afghanistan, disappeared.

The Pakistan backed Taliban entered Afghanistan and declared they were largely Afghans who had been studying in Pakistan-based, Saudi-financed religious schools and they were pure and not partisan like the other factions in the civil war raging in Afghanistan. The Taliban took control of Kabul and most of southern (Pushtun majority) Afghanistan. By the late 1990s, the victorious Taliban were still fighting the non-Pushtun northerners in an effort to control the entire country.

At this point, even a lot of Pushtuns could see that the Taliban were another Pakistani effort to control Afghanistan or at least parts of it. There were reasons for that. Pakistan has twice as many Pushtuns as Afghanistan although with a much larger population the Pakistani Pushtun are a small minority in Pakistan versus a major (40 percent) minority in Afghanistan. That is one reason why Pakistan is so keen on have a large degree of control over Afghanistan because that makes it more difficult for the Pushtun in both countries to unite. For thousands of years that has never happened but the potential was always there and late in the 20th century the idea of a separate “Pushtunstan” was gaining more supporters among Pushtun in both countries. The interference in Afghanistan has been going on since Pakistan was created in 1948 and is illegal according to international law and opposed by every other nation in the region. Yet this interference has ancient origins. For over a thousand years, before the ancient silk road from China to India and the Middle East was replaced by more effective European trading ships in the 16th century, the empires in what is now Iran and “greater India” (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) controlled portions of the silk road that went through Afghanistan. In effect, there is ancient Iranian influence in western Afghanistan while the influence in the east is Indian.

The factionalism that has developed in the Afghan Taliban since 2001 is largely the result of more and more Taliban rejecting the Pakistani influence. That is something Pakistan has violently sought to suppress, and Iran supports, because the anti-Pakistan Taliban groups endanger the Pakistan-backed Afghan drug trade. A final complication is that in Pakistan it is the largely autonomous (from government control) military and the ISI intelligence branch that need the Afghan Taliban to justify their power and autonomy in Pakistan. This has caused a major rift in Pakistan where most Pakistanis back an elected government that, as the constitution stipulates, controls the military and not the other way around.

The American attitude is that it will trust the Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani patrons only so far as the terms of any deal are observed. The Pakistani generals think they can play all this to their advantage. That would change if there were a change of government in Iran. The religious dictatorship there is losing control because of decades of misrule, corruption and bad-behavior towards its own people. A new Iran government would probably be less anti-American and more willing to work with the Americans and Indians to reduce or eliminate Pakistani influence in Afghanistan along with the Afghan drug production. That would be very bad news for the Pakistani generals.

The U.S. believes that the Islamic terrorist threat to Pakistan would encourage Pakistan to prevent the Afghan Taliban from again, as they did in the late 1990s, providing sanctuary for international Islamic terrorist organizations. The Pakistani government has always supported some of those inside Pakistan, but only as long as these groups only attacked targets that Pakistan military approved of. These usually included India and Afghan government forces and their foreign allies.

March 11, 2020: The U.S. announced that several thousand American troops would leave Afghanistan by mid-year, at which point there would be about 8,600 left. The U.S. withdrawal will be halted and reversed if the Taliban do not abide by the deal and reduce their violence. The Taliban say they can handle this but so far they have not been able to. This is complicated by the Taliban intolerance towards the Afghan government.

March 10, 2020: In the east (Nangarhar Province), an army raid on a town near the main crossing from Pakistan found and seized a recently arrived (from Pakistan) truck that was carrying ten tons of explosives. The two men on the truck said they were paid to deliver half the load to someone in Nangarhar and the rest to someone in Kabul. Meanwhile, Pakistan has closed most of its Afghan border crossings to prevent the spread of the Chinese covid19 virus. The crossings are expected to remain closed for at least another week.

In the west (Iran border), over 80,000 Afghan refugees have returned from Iran since March 1st, most of them because of the spread of the covid19 virus inside Iran. This exodus is believed to be the source of the few covid19 cases found so far in Afghanistan.

In the south (Kandahar province), police shot dead a suicide bomber before the terrorist could detonate his explosives.

March 9, 2020: President Ghani is sworn in for a second term. The election is still contested by the loser, Abdullah Abdullah, who held his own swearing-in ceremony and seeks to run a parallel government. Thus could get ugly and the U.S. is trying to negotiate a settlement.

During the September 2019 election, the leading candidates were incumbent Ashraf Ghani and his long-time rival Abdullah Abdullah. Both declared victory right after the voting but the final results were a long time in coming. It took a lot longer (five months) for the Election Commission to do recounts and investigations of vote fraud from both sides. In late September 2019, the first recount gave Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai 55 percent. The two candidates worked out a power-sharing agreement but things like this tend to be unstable in Afghanistan. Abdullah Abdullah was a long-time foe of Hamid Karzai, the corrupt first president. Abdullah was widely believed to have lost the 2009 election because of fraud. Abdullah Abdullah is part Tajik and backed the Northern Alliance against the Taliban during the 1990s. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai is a Pushtun from a powerful tribe. He was attending college in the U.S. when the civil wars and subsequent Russian invasion occurred in the late 1970s. He was in exile until 2001. His family suffered many losses during this period, both because of the Russians and the civil wars. To Puhstuns Ghani is the more acceptable candidate because he is all Pushtun and the Pushtuns have traditionally been the kings or leaders of Afghanistan, even though they are a minority, although the largest one at 40 percent of the population. Ghani and many of his supporters insisted that a lot more Pushtuns turned out to vote in the runoff in order to keep a Pushtun in the top job. On the other hand, Abdullah Abdullah was the victim of Pushtun voting fraud in 2009 and claimed that it was happening again. The recount did not even get started officially until July 17th and was delayed several more times by disagreements. In mid-June, both candidates agreed to an American arranged full vote recount and agreed to abide by the result of the recount, which was overseen by foreign observers. The result of the June 14 runoff was in doubt because of fraud allegations. This was a major political crisis until the recount was complete. There were a lot of foreign observers who reported that there was some fraud but not a lot more than the first election in April. There were nearly 600 formal complaints of fraud and there was an effort by Pushtun leaders to get out more votes for Ghani.

March 6, 2020: In Kabul, a memorial for an Afghan Shia leader killed by the Taliban in 1995 was attacked by two ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) gunmen who killed 32 civilians and wounded 81 others before being killed themselves by police. During the 1990s the Taliban were very anti-Shia but say they have changed now. Afghan Shia don’t believe it. ISIL is still rabidly anti-Shia. There are similar anti-Shia groups in Pakistan. Among the casualties was a local reporter and a news cameraman who were both wounded.

March 4, 2020: In the south (Helmand province), the U.S. carried out an airstrike against Taliban gunmen believed responsible for a recent attack on an Afghan checkpoint. The Afghan attack was a violation of the Taliban agreement to reduce violence.

March 2, 2020: The Taliban declared the peace agreement ceasefire was over because the Afghan government would not carry out its part of the deal. That decision was later sort of withdrawn by the Taliban.

March 1, 2020: In the east (Kunar province), a series of American airstrikes against ISIL targets is believed to have killed at least six key ISIL personnel.

February 29, 2020: In Qatar, the U.S. and Taliban signed a peace deal which, if the Taliban can abide by the ceasefire and other conditions, will lead to the withdrawal of American forces within 14 months. Many believed this agreement was doomed to fail and it promptly did. Within days Taliban forces were violating the ceasefire with multiple attacks. The agreement had a lot of flaws. For example, it called for the Afghan government to release 5,000 imprisoned Taliban within three days. That was a problem because the Afghan government was not involved in the negotiations because the Taliban refused to allow it. The Afghans pointed out that the logistics of identifying the 5,000 prisoners and releasing them would take longer than three days. That amounts to about half the Taliban held in government prisons. Another issue that has been ignored is that many of those Taliban prisoners are jailed because they have killed civilians or security force personnel who surrendered. The kin of these victims want revenge. In Afghanistan that is the way. The number of Afghans who want revenge against Taliban violence is very long and the Taliban want that to just disappear. These blood debts go back to the late 1990s when the Taliban ran most of Afghanistan and were still fighting the Northern Alliance (of Afghan tribes and ethnic groups that comprise the majority of Afghans). The Northern Alliance got some help from Russia and the Americans but was faced with a Taliban that had the enthusiastic backing of Pakistan and many wealthy Sunni Arabs, especially in the Persian Gulf oil countries. Those backers still exist although the number of Arab donors has diminished. Pakistan created the Taliban in the mid-1990s and wants the Taliban to run Afghanistan because that gives Pakistan enormous influence over that goes on in Afghanistan.

The peace deal was full of vague terms and assurances of who would do what. The negotiations seemed to ignore the fact that the elected Afghan government is largely controlled by the old Northern Alliance coalition of anti-Taliban Afghans who consider the Taliban an instrument of Pakistan influence in Afghanistan.

February 24, 2020: In the north (Balkh Province), Taliban gunmen attacked a checkpoint killing six people (civilians and security personnel) and wounded five. This was another violation Taliban “reduction in violence” agreement.

February 18, 2020: In the south and east (Uruzgan, Kunar, Helmand, Kandahar, Nangarhar and Ghazni provinces), Afghan security forces carried out numerous raids and attacks (usually with airstrikes or artillery) that left 54 Taliban dead and 29 wounded. All of this was in retaliation for a recent increase in Taliban violence.

February 11, 2020: In Kabul, a suicide bomber attempting to reach the nearby military academy was halted at a checkpoint where he detonated his explosives. Two of the six dead were civilians the rest were police. There were twelve wounded, five of them civilians. The Taliban denied responsibility and the ISIL was the most likely cause.

February 8, 2020: In the east (Nangarhar Province), someone in an Afghan army uniform opened fire with an automatic weapon on a group of American and Afghan soldiers. Two Americans and one Afghan were killed while six Americans and three Afghans were wounded. The shooter was killed by return fire. So far this year six American troops have been killed in Afghanistan compared with 22 for all of 2019. While some attacks of this nature are the work of Taliban infiltrators, this one was not. Acts of violence like this by Afghan soldiers are not unusual and most of those killed are fellow Afghans. There are lots of people with anger management problems in Afghanistan, always have been.

 

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