Afghanistan: Dancing With The Devils

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December 15, 2020: As American forces continue to withdraw to 2,500 troops by mid-January, Afghans are seeking replacement allies. Iran is a popular choice and many Afghans are openly developing relationships with Iran and the Afghan government is doing the same. While Iran has a hostile relationship with the United States, such is not the case with Afghanistan. This is nothing new and the two nations have been developing better economic relations for over a decade. Afghanistan backed this to get free from economic dependence on Pakistan, where two border crossings have long carried out exports and imports for Afghanistan. Since 2001 and the arrival of the Americans, Pakistan often used access to these two crossings as a weapon against any hostile moves by the Afghan or American governments. Five years ago, Afghanistan began discussions with India and Iran over a solution. That led to the recent completion of a railway giving Afghanistan access to world markets . This is the direct result of a 2017 agreement that had Iran and India finance and build a 1,300-kilometer-long rail line from the Chabahar port near the Pakistan border, to the Afghan border in the north and then inland to Heart city. The last link is actually an earlier (2007) project to build a rail line from the Iranian city of Khaf to the Afghan city of Herat. Most (77 kilometers) of the railroad is in Iran with the other 62 kilometers in Afghanistan. This is all part of a larger Afghan project to build their first national railroad system. The Iran link will eventually be 220 kilometers long with over 90 percent of that in Afghanistan. In 2016 the first direct rail link to northern neighbor Turkmenistan was completed and that connection will eventually become part of a national rail network.

India provided over two billion dollars to upgrade the port of Chabahar and build new roads and railroads to Afghanistan and Central Asia. For Iran the Central Asia link is the most valuable one. But for Afghanistan having another way to move most of their imports and exports is a major achievement because Pakistan and Iran will have to complete and that will keep costs down for Afghans and reduce the use of closing the border, which Pakistan has done frequently, to coerce the Afghans.

Iran maintains good relations with Pakistan because they both see the Americans and Israel as archenemies. At the same time Pakistan is on good terms with the Gulf Arab oil states while Iran is at war with them. Pakistan is in a delicate situation here and has to tolerate Iran becoming close to Afghanistan economically and in many other ways. Iran does not want Afghanistan becoming a narcostate controlled by Pakistan. While the Pakistani military controls, supports and profits from the Afghan Taliban and drug gangs, Iran despises the drugs and the Taliban. Pakistan responds to Iranian complaints of Sunni Islamic terrorists killing Pakistani Shia, but there is no such cooperation when the Taliban kill Shia, especially before 2001. Since then the situation has changed. While 15 percent of Afghans are Shia most reside in central Afghanistan , they also dominate several neighborhoods in Kabul and these are where most of the IISL attacks on Shia occur. Since 2015 the Afghan Taliban have been denouncing attacks like this . When ISIL showed up in 2015, the Taliban saw an opportunity to repair their relationship with Iran. Since then, anti-Shia violence has been monopolized by ISIL, even though 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 unless those groups make themselves useful to Iran. This puts the Taliban in a difficult situation because Pakistan tolerates the heron trade and Iran never would. The difference is that the military is running things in Pakistan while Iran has a religious dictatorship that keeps its own military in check. Heroin and opium from Afghanistan is unpopular in all three countries because of the millions of addicts that have been created. The Pakistan military and Taliban don’t care but everyone else does.

With all that in mind it should be no surprise that Iran and Afghanistan are close to completing negotiations for a comprehensive strategic cooperation agreement that will officially give Afghanistan a new economic and military ally against the Taliban and the Pakistani military. The last item being negotiated is the security aspects. Apparently, this item is not a roadblock but is subject to a fair amount of haggling. One item to work out is the need for Afghanistan to continue working with the United States against international terrorist groups, like al Qaeda and ISIL, that still maintain a presence in Afghanistan. Iran has long provided some support to al Qaeda as long as that connection improved the chances of carrying out successful attacks on the Americans.

Perplexing Pakistan

Most Afghans hate Pakistan for its murderous meddling in Afghan affairs for nearly half a century. Pakistan is held responsible for creating the Taliban in the mid-1990s. Not Pakistan the country but the Pakistani military and their intel branch, the ISI. For Pakistani generals, creating the Taliban was meant to end the civil war in Afghanistan on terms that favored Pakistan. That worked and the Taliban then turned Afghanistan into an outlaw state, dependent on the sale of heroin and opium to survive while also doing whatever Pakistan demanded. One of those demands was to host Islamic terror groups that were carrying out attacks in the West. Al Qaeda was the most successful of these until the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. The brought American retaliation and the Taliban were out of power within two months. Pakistan did not give up, gave the Taliban sanctuary in southwest Pakistan, and ordered the terror groups to start rebuilding. What made this possible was the Pakistani military concentration on keeping the heroin and opium production and exports going. The key to that was access to Pakistan, to get chemicals for converting bulky opium to more portable and valuable heroin. Pakistan also provided help in protecting the exported heroin. This drug business has grown to the point where it earns several billion dollars a year that is shared between the Taliban and the Pakistani military.

The Pakistani generals got away with this because in 2001 when the U.S. demanded that Pakistan assist in the war on Islamic terrorism in Afghanistan, the Pakistani government agreed. What was ignored was the fact that half the time since Pakistani was created in 1947, the country has been run by military governments. The generals take over for the “good of Pakistan” to replace corrupt and often ineffective elected officials. Most Pakistanis want their democracy and the military takeovers have, over the years, become less tolerable, even momentarily.

The Pakistani military cannot hide their growing wealth, which is distributed among senior officers and cooperative politicians. There are a growing number of large, gated communities full of retired Pakistani officers who mysteriously got rich on their modest military salaries. Similar wealthy neighborhoods appeared in Afghanistan, mainly in the south (Helmand and Kandahar provinces) where most of the Taliban are from and where most of the world’s heroin supply is produced. The cash generated by three decades of heroin production enabled the Pakistani military and Taliban to diversify. The Taliban expanded to various criminal enterprises, mainly extortion. In many parts of Afghanistan, if you want to run a business or move goods and people along the new roads, you have to pay the Taliban for protection. Mining has become a big business because the minerals extracted bring in enough cash to pay the Taliban a large share and still make a profit. The Afghans who do the mining get the least because the Taliban have massive firepower, and willingness to use it on uncooperative miner workers. Same situation in Pakistan where the military runs a more legitimate scam, demanding or buying partial or total ownership in many legitimate enterprises. This growing illicit wealth has made the Pakistani military and Afghan Taliban increasingly unpopular in both countries.

Now Western troops are preparing to leave Afghanistan and Pakistan, or at least the Pakistani military, sees that as an opportunity. Worst case (for Afghans in general) is all foreign troops leaving and foreign aid is withdrawn because of the corruption and continued presence of Islamic terror groups. In that situation Afghanistan returns to its traditional, for over a few thousand years, condition. That means the country/region we call Afghanistan gets picked apart by more powerful neighboring states. Traditionally this has meant Persians and Indians. Now it is Iranians and Pakistan, which was created byIndian Moslems who demanded their own Moslem state when India was created in 1947. Pakistan the government is broke and economically dependent on China. The Chinese don’t want their numerous investments in Pakistan attacked by Islamic terrorists, tribal separatists or anyone else. Pakistan justifies (to China) the expense of meddling in Afghanistan because it is necessary to control the Pushtun minority in Pakistan. There are twice as many Pushtun in Pakistan as in Afghanistan but Pakistan has a much larger non-Tribal (Punjabi and Sindi) population so the Pushtuns are only 15 percent of all Pakistanis. The Baluchi tribes account for another four percent. That makes about 19 percent of Pakistanis tribal and not particularly happy with the Chinese presence or the brutal treatment of tribal people in Pakistan. Extending that brutal control to Afghanistan won’t improve anything in Pakistan.

Neither Pakistan nor Iran see any profit in annexing adjacent portions of Afghanistan. Pakistan, or at least the Pakistani military, is content to profit from Afghan drug operations that are not possible without easy access to Pakistan. Americans want to be done with the military and economic costs of having troops in Afghanistan. The problem with that attitude is that Americans can leave Afghanistan but Afghanistan won’t leave America or the West in general. The heroin production will continue and major Islamic terrorist groups will have a sanctuary from which to plan attacks on the Wests, especially the United States.

Aftermath

A more likely result of the withdrawal of foreign troops and most aid would be another civil war. Historically this does not go well for the Pushtun minority and the Taliban are a Pushtun movement. During the late 1990s civil war, after the Pakistan armed and recruited the Taliban to defeat the armed factions and take control, there was one insurmountable problem. The one part of Afghanistan the Taliban could never conquer was the Tajik northeast. The Tajiks are undefeated, while the Pushtins were beaten in late 2001. If there is another civil war the Tajiks will again be the main opponent for the Pushtun Taliban. The Tajiks have allies that includes the other minorities, especially Turkmen, Uzbeks and Mongols (Hazara). This anti-Taliban opposition is still known as the NA (Northern Alliance).

The Tajik and Pushtun are often called “eastern Iranians” because they are, like the Iranians, also Indo-European, as are most people in northern India, Pakistan and Europe. The Tajiks differ from the Pushtun in being less warlike, less religiously fanatic and more amenable to education and progress in general. Perhaps even more important is that the Tajiks have largely abandoned the use of tribes as a political organization. The Pushtun are still very much into tribal power and religious fanaticism.

The main reason the Northern Alliance did not defeat the Taliban in the 1990s was because the Taliban had a foreign backer (Pakistan) and the NA did not. That changed in late 2001 when the U.S. agreed to back the NA in its effort to liberate Afghanistan from Taliban control. In 2020 Russia is more willing to provide the NA with support than they were in the 1990s. Back then the Soviet Union had just dissolved (in 1991) and the much-reduced Russia was broke. Now Russia is less broke and interested in buying more influence in Afghanistan through the NA. With or without foreign support the NA is still openly hostile to accepting Taliban rule. A likely outcome of a civil war is a partition of Afghanistan, with Taliban getting Kabul and the Pushtun south while the NA controls the north and most of the Iran border region if they make a deal with Iran. The northern provinces are already demonstrating to the Taliban that the north is not to be trifled with. All Taliban efforts to establish a stable presence in the north have failed, and those efforts incur heavy Taliban losses. The main reason the Taliban persist in the north is because the drug gangs need the northern heroin export route. The NA does not want the Taliban or the heroin in the north.

One major complication with the current Afghan peace negotiations is that a major faction, Pakistan, cannot officially be acknowledged. Pakistan officially maintains that this is not true. Technically that is correct because it’s not the government of Pakistan but the Pakistani military and its ISI intelligence service that supports and maintains Pakistani interference in Afghan affairs. It is important to note that when Britain dissolved its Indian (including what is now Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka) colonial government, the new nations that emerged were quite different. One major difference was how these new nations handled their armed forces. India ensured that the military remained subservient to the elected government. That did not happen in Pakistan or Burma, which  meant the military frequently took control of the government. While Pakistan is technically run by an elected government, that government cannot do anything the military disagrees with. With regard to Afghanistan the Pakistani military has a foreign policy towards Afghanistan that supersedes anything the politicians come up with or agree to.

The Pakistani military have always seen Afghanistan has an unstable region that posed a potential threat to Pakistan. Historically this was true. Massive invasions and tribal raids have been coming out of Afghanistan and into India (and Iran) for thousands of years. While India was always a potential (and unlikely) invader, the threat from Afghanistan was real and constant. Most Pakistanis recognized this threat and there was never a lot of popular opposition towards the Pakistani military’s actions towards Afghanistan. That continues to the present. For the Afghan Taliban it means they are very dependent on the good will of the Pakistani military to survive.

The drug gangs and Taliban survive because of support from the Pakistani military. That support included allowing essential chemicals (for converting opium into heroin) into Afghanistan and allowing most of the heroin to be exported via Pakistani ports (naval and air) to world markets. The Taliban provides the muscle while Taliban leaders maintained their 1990s relationships with the drug gang leaders and the Pushtun tribes.

December 13, 2020: The first round of peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government have been suspended until January 5th so both sides can debate how to proceed.

December 12, 2020: In Kabul ten rockets were fired into the city, killing one civilian and wounding two others. The unguided rockets were believed fired by the local ISIL faction. ISIL took credit for a similar attack last month. The Taliban appears to be increasing their attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians as a way to pressure the Americans to complete negotiations and get out. That is not likely to work because there is a new government in the U.S. which is more inclined to maintain a U.S. troops presence in Afghanistan.

December 1, 2020: The United States is cutting it troop levels in Afghanistan from the current 4,500 to 2,500 by January 15th. Most of these troops will be in two large bases and a few smaller outlying bases.

November 21, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) there was another airstrike against Iranian mercenaries guarding weapons stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. There were fifteen deaths of Afghan and Iraqi gunmen working for Iran. The Afghan mercs are more expensive but they are also more effective. Despite the reduction in cash available to support Syria operations, some of the more expensive Afghan mercs are retained while more of the less effective ones were removed from the payroll. Iran has developed other useful allies in Afghanistan. One of them is a major Taliban faction led by Mullah Rasool and operates along the Iranian border. The other allies are comprised of Afghan Shia, especially the Hazara (Mongol) minority. Many Afghan Shia have served as Iranian mercenaries in Syria and returned to Afghanistan. If Afghanistan suffers another civil war, Iran will have some powerful factions it can rely on.

November 15, 2020: Iran revealed that 25 border guards had been killed so far this year, most of them by Kurdish separatists in the northwest or Baluch separatists in the southeast. Since the 1990s over 13,000 border guards have died, mainly in the fight to halt drug smuggling from Afghanistan. That border has been relatively quiet recently, in part because the border security there is rather heavy. For a long time, the Afghan border was a combat zone with daily gun battles between Iranian security forces and heavily armed Afghan smugglers. The Afghan drug gangs eventually concluded that it was easier to smuggle out the drugs via Afghan’s northern neighbors.

 

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