Covid19 has hit the Taliban where it hurts the most, right in the senior leadership. As a result Mullah Yaqoob, the 30 year old eldest son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, is now interim head of the Taliban. This is because the figurehead supreme leader 59 year old
Mullah Hebatullah Akhundza and his deputy (and the real head of the Taliban) 45 year old Sirajuddin Haqqani, of the infamous Haqqani criminal organization, both have covid19. Akhundza is more of a cleric than a military leader. He stayed in Afghanistan most of the time since 2002 and kept a low profile to survive. Sirajuddin Haqqani is a resourceful gangster who sees running the Taliban as more of a business opportunity than a political or religious duty. While
Mullah Omar got along with al Qaeda, his son Yaqoob embraced tactics and teachings of al Qaeda.
The senior Taliban leaders tend to be older men who are the most susceptible age group when it comes to getting ill and dying from covid19. Peace negotiations with the Americans mean most of the senior leaders are meeting frequently. Taliban in general are suspicious of foreign, especially Western medicine. Which explains why the senior leaders hold face-to-face (without masks) gatherings while covid19 was spreading through Afghanistan and Pakistan. For younger Taliban, covid19 presents itself as another version of the annual influenza epidemic. In other words, it might make you feel ill but it probably won’t kill you. Most rural Afghans, including pro-Taliban groups, don’t really notice more elderly Afghans dying of “influenza” this year. Even if there were a vaccine for covid19, many Taliban would not use it because they believe vaccines, including the one for polio, are actually a Western poison pretending to be a helpful medicine. As a result of this, the two most senior Taliban leaders are ill with covid19 and out of action.
Haqqani and Akhundzada all have one thing in common; they will do what Pakistan orders them to and have no problems with working with the Afghan drug gangs. That is their main source of income while the Pakistani military provides sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Group and does not interfere with the drug gangs obtaining chemicals (to create heroin from opium plants) via Pakistan. The Pakistani military also takes a fee from smugglers who move most of that heroin through Pakistan to the rest of the world.
Most Afghans and a growing number of Taliban oppose this Pakistani domination and especially the presence of all that heroin in Afghanistan. Over 80 percent of the world’s heroin is produced in Afghanistan, mainly in Helmand province. Right across the border is the Quetta, Pakistan sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban. Resentment over being pawns of Pakistan have caused a growing number of Taliban factions to rebel. These defections broke out into open warfare in 2015, led by the example of Mullah Rasool.
The Rasool faction broke away from the Pakistan based Taliban leadership because of a dispute over who should run the Taliban. The current Taliban leader, Mullah Hebatullah Akhundzada, is unpopular with many Taliban faction leaders, in part because Akhundzada is seen as a figurehead and his chief deputy, the head of the Haqqani Network, is actually in charge.
During the late 1990s, Mullah Rasool was the Taliban strongman in the southwest as governor of Nimroz. That ended in late 2001 when the Northern Alliance ousted the Taliban. The Rasool clan had made a fortune controlling the drug smuggling down there. Rasool had lots of contacts in Iran and saw himself as a potential supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban, if only because Rasool was always a close ally of Taliban founder and leaders Mullah Omar. This Taliban civil war is the result of disagreements over who should take over as Taliban leader after it was revealed in 2015 that founder Mullah Omar had died of kidney failure in 2013 (in a Pakistani hospital) at age 53. The information was kept to a few key Omar associates who were accused of doing this as part of a plot to install an Omar successor (Mullah Mansour ) who was second-rate but backed by the Pakistan military. Since Pakistan created it in the mid-1990s, they saw the Taliban as an inexpensive way to keep Afghanistan dependent on Pakistan and cooperative whenever Pakistan wanted something,
From late 2015 to mid-2016 Rasool fought other Taliban factions for control. Heavy fighting began in late November 2015 when Mullah Mansour ordered attacks against the forces loyal to Mullah Rasool. This marked a major defeat for the Taliban as they lost a major asset; unity. Most of the fighting took place in Herat, Zabul and Farah provinces. There were apparently several thousand casualties and the heavy fighting did not cease until July 2016. Meanwhile, Pakistan backed their man Mansour, who was then killed in May 2016 by an American airstrike. Pakistan used its considerable control over the Afghan Taliban to get the head of the Pakistan backed Haqqani Network appointed as one of the three senior Taliban leaders. Rasool apparently backed down in the face of all this and was thought to have left the country. That was not the case as the Rasool faction remains active in western Afghanistan along the Iranian border. Rasool cooperates with Iran in return for access to Iran for some supplies. Rasool only controls about five percent of Taliban manpower but he is not the only anti-Pakistan faction. There are many more but these other factions go along with the main Taliban leadership while waiting for an opportunity to openly side with Rasool or some other Taliban leader free of Pakistani control. All these dissidents and Rasool account for about a third of Taliban strength. A smaller number of Taliban were so fed up with the drug gang connection and Pakistani dominance that they joined ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). For most Taliban, the drug money is too good, or simply essential for survival, to ignore. Even some ISIL factions will extort drug smugglers for needed cash rather than just blocking the movement of exportable heroin.
These ISIL defections were more of a nuisance than a threat because ISIL is essentially a self-destructive purist Islamic terrorist faction that considers everyone not part of ISIL to be an enemy. That includes all other Islamic terror groups as well as all existing governments. Joining ISIL is a form of suicide because of the ISIL code of establishing global dominance or die trying. ISIL attacks are planned for maximum shock value and media attention.
The Taliban offers another path, one that brings the possibility of great wealth, or at least a regular job. It is unclear how many Taliban leaders really believe the Taliban can take control of the entire country. To do that would 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's influence in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance represents the majority of Afghans who, despite continuing tribal and ethnic differences, agree that heroin is bad and Pakistani interference inside Afghanistan is worse. The Taliban never controlled all of Afghanistan. They had not yet done so on September 11, 2001, the date the U.S. decided to aid the Northern Alliance in defeating the Taliban and Pakistani interference. Nineteen years later that basic situation has not changed. Pakistan will keep trying to control what goes on in Afghanistan and will continue to support the use of terror and mass murder to make that happen.
The Covid19 Threat
So far Afghanistan has over 16,000 confirmed cases of covid19 (coronavirus) and 240 confirmed deaths. This comes out to 424 cases per million population and seven deaths per million. By way of comparison, India has 145 and four per million. Iran is 1,841 and 94. Pakistan is 346 and seven. Northern neighbors Tajikistan are 422 and five, while Uzbekistan is 111 and 0.4 and Turkmenistan says it has no cases or deaths related to the virus.
The virus is not as much of a crisis as in other nations but it is having an impact in Afghanistan anyway. Fear of covid19 spread led to borders being closed to all but essential traffic. In April Pakistan began testing incoming Afghan truck drivers for covid19 and about 20 percent of the drivers were found to be infected and refused entry. Afghanistan has not got the resources to deal with covid19 and most of the medical resources available are still monopolized by the rich and powerful. The virus is more of a threat in the urban areas, where most of the confirmed cases and deaths have been found.
Covid19 is not as scary in Afghanistan or Turkmenistan because there are so many other deadly diseases or unnatural ways to die. One more does not make much difference and since covid19 is most fatal for the elderly or those already ill from other afflictions, in most of the country covid19 deaths will not even be noticed. Covid19 is similar to the annual influenza outbreaks but infects and kills more people. Not a lot but enough to be declared a health emergency in most countries. In Afghanistan, a fatal cause of covid19 is just another death by a fever or someone seen as close to death already. This happens in the West as well, but much less frequently and usually by accident. For example, a lot of nursing home deaths in the West were, at first, not attributed to covid19 because nursing homes normally have frequent and numerous deaths. The victims tend to have a number of health problems that can eventually kill them. In the West “just another fever” as a cause of death is no longer acceptable even though it is what is happening.
There is some interest in finding out how covid19 got into Afghanistan and nearby nations. Iran is considered the most likely source and is the one nation that has suffered the most. Many prominent Iranian politicians, military commanders and religious leaders have died from the virus. Most Iranians see that as a good thing because for two years now there has been growing unrest against the government. At first Iranian leaders, especially the religious ones who control the government dismissed covid19 as something Allah was using to punish infidels (non-Moslems). That was incorrect and when prominent religious leaders began dying from covid19, many Iranians saw this as a sign that the heavenly powers did not approve of how the Iranian religious dictatorship was doing. To make matters worse neighboring nations were attributing their local covid19 outbreaks to visitors from Iran. Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan have been most affected by this. Turkey and China have persuaded the Iranian government to be realistic about the covid19 problem. Despite that, the virus is still apparently out of control in Iran. China is apparently where Iran got covid19 because both China and Iran have tried to suppress discussion about how covid19 got into Iran via the regular passenger and cargo flights from Wuhan, the center of the covid19 outbreak in China and worldwide.
May 31, 2020: In Kabul, ISIL took credit for a roadside bomb that was used against a minibus carrying TV station employees. Two station employees were killed and six wounded. ISIL believes the TV station backs the government.
May 29, 2020: In the east (Paktia province) two attacks left 14 border guards and an unknown number of Taliban dead. Both attacks were repulsed. The Taliban admitted responsibility for two attacks on border posts and blamed it on the government forces, which had recently built the two new border posts in an area the Taliban insists is under their control. Thus the Taliban say they were justified in trying to remove these two “illegal” border posts.
May 22, 2020: For the last month the Taliban have been observing a Ramadan ceasefire. Despite that, about 150 civilians have died in Islamic terrorist violence. ISIL claims responsibility for some of the attacks but the Taliban's responsibility for any attacks.
May 19, 2020: In the north (Kunduz and Parwan provinces) two separate attacks on mosques left 14 dead and many more wounded.
May 17, 2020:
Rival presidential election candidates Ashraf Ghani (the incumbent president) and Abdullah Abdullah signed an agreement ending their feud over who is president. Ghani will remain president and can appoint half the cabinet ministers. Abdullah will recognize Ghani as president but will have the power to appoint half the cabinet ministers and be in charge of negotiations with the Taliban. This agreement may not last but it is an improvement over nearly a year of feuding over who won the election. During the September 2019 second round election the leading candidates were Ghani and his long-time rival 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 did not settle the dispute. The two candidates eventually 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 war 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. In
March 2020 Ghani was sworn in for a second term. Abdullah Abdullah refused to recognize this and held his own swearing in ceremony and sought to run a parallel government. This rivalry divided Afghan leaders and threatened to get ugly. The U.S. said they would halt over a billion dollars in aid if the two men did not negotiate a settlement. One thing keeping the Taliban on the defensive is the billions in American aid the government receives each year. Much of it goes to keep the security forces fighting and that remains a major threat to the Taliban, drug gangs and Pakistani efforts to maintain its power inside Afghanistan. The two rival presidents worked out a compromise because not doing so risked more problems for both of them and most Afghans.
May 12, 2020: In Kabul gunmen in police uniforms attacked a maternity hospital, killing two newborns, sixteen mothers who had just given birth, or were ready to and six hospital staff. No group took responsibility although ISIL is suspected because that is the only Islamic terror group in Afghanistan that advocates attacks against all Western medicine. The maternity hospital was operated by a foreign aid group. Most Afghan women still give birth at home, with no medical assistance in case something goes wrong. Because of this Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of maternal and newborn deaths in the world. ISIL believes that is “God’s Will.”
May 7, 2020: In the north (Parwan province) Taliban gunmen attacked a checkpoint and killed seven policemen. The Taliban suffered some casualties but took their dead and wounded with them.
April 23, 2020: The Moslem holy month of Ramadan begins today and will end on May 23. Ramadan means fasting during daylight and feasting a night. More time is spent in mosques.
During Ramadan, Islamic terrorists believe violence in defense of Islam receives even more heavenly rewards. The Taliban has pledged not to make any attacks during Ramadan, especially against mosques or other religious ceremonies, like funerals.
April 22, 2020: The 2020 World Press Freedom ratings were released showing Afghanistan in 122nd place (out of 180 nations), In comparison, Pakistan is 145, India 142, Bangladesh 151, China 177, Iran 173, and Russia is 149. In contrast, Britain was 35, France 34, United States 45, Canada 16 and Germany 11. Top five were Norway in first place followed by Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Netherlands. The bottom five were Djbouti, China, Eritrea, Turkmenistan and North Korea. These rankings are mainly about professional journalists and play down the impact of the Internet and many non-professional, but often well qualified, individuals who are now supplying a lot of the news, especially accurate reports of what is actually happening. The conventional media, which employs most professional journalists, has lost more than half its staff in the last twenty years as more people prefer non-professional or semi-pro reporters on the Internet. Governments find it easier to restrict the professional journalists, leaving the Internet based reporters as the main source of accurate reporting in many countries, like Pakistan and Iran.