Afghanistan: House Of Cards

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September 7, 2021: The Taliban discovered that declaring they now control Afghanistan is easier said than done. The resistance in the north is still there and difficult to hide in an age of cellphone videos and the World Wide Web. Despite a growing number of inaccurate claims of victory against the resistance, the opposition is often public, with daily cell phone videos of anti-Taliban and anti-Pakistan demonstrations still taking place in major cities. The Taliban is trying seize weapons held my many civilians while also imposing the hated lifestyle rules on men and women. Another category of inaccurate reporting is the continuing delays forming a Taliban government. The five-year old and under-reported Taliban civil war continues and is preventing the formation of a new government to officially take over.

This disorder and growing popular resistance is a major embarrassment for Pakistan which thought 2021 would be a repeat of 1995. Back then Pakistan created a militia of fanatical Afghan religious students by recruiting from refugee camps in Pakistan. Led by Afghan adults, often teachers at those schools, the armed students (Taliban in Pushtun), were sent to Afghanistan to defeat the other factions in the civil war there. That conflict was stalemated after years of fighting that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and ended all economic and military aid to the pro-Russian government left behind when the last Russian troops left in 1989. After 1991 the northern border was not with Russia but the new states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The Taliban had a powerful and generous foreign backer in Pakistan, which sent hundreds of Pakistani officers and troops, dressed as Afghans, to assist the Taliban and maintain contact with Pakistan and arrange for supplies and evacuation of Taliban wounded.

The original 1990s Taliban, many of them born in southern Afghanistan (Kandahar and Helmand provinces), felt obliged to Pakistan while the post-1990s generation did not. What triggered the recent civil war was Pakistan hiding the death of Taliban founder, Mullah Omar, who visited a Pakistani hospital in 2013 for treatment and was never seen again. In 2015 the younger Taliban leaders were told that there was a new Taliban supreme leader, who was selected without revealing the fact that Mullah Omar had been dead for two years.

By 2017 it was obvious to the Pakistanis that about half the Taliban leaders in Afghanistan were anti-Pakistan and most of them acted on their hatred of Pakistani efforts to manipulate and control Afghanistan. The fighting lasted a few years and ended in a ceasefire, not a reconciliation.

The provincial level Taliban leaders were basically independent warlords who depended on the drug cartels for cash and Pakistan for access to weapons and other items they could not easily obtain in Afghanistan. Pakistan installed trusted Afghans (mainly from the Haqqani Network) to run the Taliban with some neutral Taliban clerics as replacements for Mullah Omar. Now Pakistan is being reminded that many, if not most, Afghan based Taliban leaders oppose Pakistan loyalists being part of the new Taliban government. The Taliban do still need Pakistan and China, which exerts enormous economic and political power in Pakistan. China is offering the same arrangement to the Taliban government and most Taliban oppose being in the pay of the Chinese. Up until now China had accepted Pakistani assurances that Pakistan would continue to control the Taliban leadership when the Taliban had defeated the elected government. China was quicker to accept the Pakistani error than Pakistan, which sent the head of ISI to Kabul to deal with the situation. ISI is military intelligence, that part of the Pakistan military directly responsible for supervising the influx of Afghan refugees in the 1980s, and came up with the idea for creating the Taliban. ISI was also in charge of telling the Americans what they wanted to hear to keep the billions in American military aid coming to Pakistan. This hustle took over a decade to start coming apart and for the last few years Pakistan became an official “supporter of international terrorism” and near bankruptcy because of overdependence on loans from international agencies, Arab oil states and China. All those sources have stopped lending because they believe Pakistan cannot repay those loans. Pakistan needs a clear win in Afghanistan and they are not getting it. The ISI plan has become a shaky house of cards.

A Different Country

Another factor is that Afghanistan is a much different place than it was in 2001. There are now 32.9 million Afghans, an increase of 57 percent. One of the more obvious examples of this is the national capital; Kabul. In 2001 it had a population of half a million but twenty years later that has increased ten times to five million. Despite the population growth, over two-thirds of the population still lives in the countryside.

GDP has grown continuously since 2001 with average family income increasing noticeably each year until 2020 when GDP declined 5 percent because of covid19. In 2001 there were only 10,000 phones in the country, all very expensive land lines in cities. Now there are over 22 million inexpensive cell phones with access even in remote rural areas. Back then less than ten percent of the population had access to any health care, now at least 80 percent do and life expectancy has risen from 47 years (the lowest in Eurasia) to 62 (leaving Bangladesh to occupy last place). This is apparently the highest life expectancy has ever been in Afghanistan and the UN noted it was the highest one decade increase ever recorded. Afghans have noticed this even if the rest of the world has not.

While GDP declined five percent in 2020, that was due to the worldwide covid19 recession. That has abated and economic activity is growing worldwide. Afghanistan was on its way to three percent GDP growth in 2021 before the covid19 recession appeared. GDP growth was expected to resume in 2022, by about three percent. With the Taliban takeover, GDP is expected to shrink annually for years. Most Afghans expect the situation to get worse than just the GDP decline.

Since 2001 GPD has more than quadrupled, much faster than population growth. While per-capita GDP nearly tripled, the government corruption and growth of the drug cartels distorted income distribution. By 2021 the drug cartels represented nearly 10 percent of GDP and only benefitted ten percent of the population, including the Taliban payroll plus bribes paid to political leaders and security forces commanders. Heroin and other drugs were by far the most profitable economic activity in Afghanistan. Despite that most Afghans are hostile to the drugs and the many local addicts it created. Neighboring countries have the same attitude.

Then there was foreign aid, which took care of most government expenses and much foreign investment. This foreign spending averaged about a hundred billion a year and most of it was not spent in Afghanistan, but in the countries delivering the aid. This is normal, but there was enough being spent in Afghanistan to keep the government in power and the GDP expanding. This spending declined considerably after most foreign troops were withdrawn in 2014. The Taliban expected to quickly take over but that did not happen because most Afghan now had something to fight for and they kept the Taliban out of power until 2021.

After 2014 the Taliban put a lot of effort into disrupting efforts to safely promote and provide education for everyone. Efforts to increase the literacy rate, the lowest in Eurasia in 2001, are stalled. Despite nearly two decades of building schools and educating millions of boys and girls a year, the effort did make a difference. The adult (all those over 15) literacy rate is now 46 percent compared to 31 percent in 2001 and 18 percent in 1979, when the four decades of war began. For school-age Afghans the current literacy is nearly 50 percent because since 2002 over a third of Afghans have received at least a basic education and nearly half of those have been female, despite vigorous Taliban efforts to block that. Since 2014 the Taliban have put a priority on destroying schools, especially those that educate girls. The number of girls getting an education has been declining and parents are angry. In some areas the pro-education beliefs are so strong that the Taliban backs off on the “no school for girls” policy in order to avoid more armed resistance than they can handle. In most parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban terrorize or kill enough parents to keep the schools shut. This sort of thing fuels the growth in Afghans fleeing the country for the chance of a better life somewhere else. It also makes it easier to recruit armed resistance to the Taliban.

Repackaging

The Taliban now controlling most of the country have put a priority on reviving the flow of foreign aid. That will be difficult because the primary donors are Western states and they have learned much since 2001, and not just in Afghanistan. The primary lesson is to direct foreign aid to areas where the local government and opposition are willing to allow foreigners to monitor the aid distribution. When too much aid is being stolen, as in places like North Korea, Somalia and increasingly Afghanistan, the aid money goes elsewhere. The democratic corruptocracy the Taliban recently overthrew was bad but the Taliban are known to be worse and gaining any credibility is going to be very difficult. Expect to see some very creative information war tactics, most of which the donors have heard before.

Reruns

In 2001, when the Americans intervened, they did so to assist the NA (Northern Alliance), which was largely Afghan Tajiks and Uzbeks and still holding out in the north on September 11, 2001. While Pushtuns, mainly in the south, are 40 percent of the population, Tajiks are 24 percent, Hazara ten percent, Uzbek 9 percent and various other non-Pushtun minorities in the north comprise a majority of Afghans. The Northern Alliance contained Hazara and even some northern Pushtuns, but most of the combat leaders were Uzbek and Tajik. The senior NA commander was Tajik Ahmad Shah Massoud, called the Lion of Panjshir (valley) for his successful leadership against the Pakistan-backed Taliban from the mid-1990s to until September 10th 2001. After many failed efforts, the Taliban arranged for al Qaeda to supply two suicide bombers who could pass as Arab journalists seeking a video interview with Masood. Their bomb was hidden in the camera and when that interview began on September 10, 2001, the camera exploded, killing the two al Qaeda men, Masood and several bystanders. In 2001 the Americans and Russians were already in contact with the Northern Alliance and Russia was providing some aid. By October the angry Americans provided a lot more assistance and by the end of the year the Northern Alliance was victorious.

Ever since 2001 Masood has been honored every year in Tajikistan and Afghanistan as a military hero. This year the public Masood celebrations will be confined to the Tajik north and especially the Panjshir Valley, where the Taliban and Tajiks are once more fighting each other. In 2021 Ahmad Massoud, a son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, heads resistance forces there who call themselves the NRF (National Resistance Front).

The other major 2001 Northern Alliance commander was Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. Now 67-years-old, Dostum not only survived the war but went on to become a senior politician and military commander. Since late August Dostum has been somewhere in the north, probably Uzbekistan, where he has a lot of admirers, and some detractors. The Taliban tried to monopolize information about what was going on throughout the country but cell phones, Internet and commercial satellite photos make that impossible. Anti-Taliban resistance is going on throughout the north and west (along the Iranian border.)

Another revival is the use of Pakistani soldiers disguised as Taliban fighters. In the last few years more Pakistanis, usually Pakistani Pushtuns, have been found among the dead. These Pakistanis often carried their Pakistani IDs with them because they knew that their bodies were likely to be returned to Pakistan for burial if the Afghan security forces or local militias knew where they came from. The NRF is reporting more of this, in addition to non-Pushtun Pakistanis (Punjabi and Sindi soldiers) passing as Taliban.

Afghans In Pakistan

Pakistan hosted two-thirds of the seven million Afghans who fled their country to escape the Russians during the 1980s and civil war during the 1990s. After the Taliban were defeated in late 2001 about 40 percent of the Afghans went home. Most went voluntarily but over half a million were forced out of Pakistan and Iranian refugee camps. Most unregistered Afghan refugees are in Pakistan, where many live outside the tribal territories and are left alone as long as they behave. It appears that at least a million are trying to get out now and that number will grow depending on how chaotic the situation is in Afghanistan this time. Pakistan got the Taliban to agree to limit illegal migration and they appear to be doing that. That only slows down the flow of refugees because over the last two decades a people smuggling industry developed. As incomes and aspirations rose many Afghans could afford the fees people smugglers charged to get people to Pakistan, Iran or the West. For the people smugglers, business is booming because many families who were not planning to leave have changed their minds with the return of Taliban and another civil war. These families have sold everything they have to get out of the country. The cheapest smuggler service is counterfeit border crossing documents, plus a bribe to dubious but greedy border guards. Afghans can legally enter Pakistan if they can prove they have kin in Pakistan they are visiting. Millions of Afghans have such family connections. Another valid reason is medical. With the right documents you can get in that way. The number of Afghans crossing the border with valid documents has more than doubled during August. Pakistan will tolerate those who are just passing through on their way to the West but many new refugees plan to settle down in Afghanistan, at least for a while. The Pakistan government does not want more of that because Afghans in general bring lots of crime and other problems with them. Since the 1980s many Afghan communities have developed outside the tribal territories, and these often host all manner of illegal activity, especially in big cities.

September 4, 2021: In Kabul there was overnight gunfire that apparently left 17 dead and 41 wounded that made it to hospitals. Casualties were apparently larger. The Taliban blamed the casualties on celebratory firing by Taliban fighters who believed their forces had defeated the resistance fighters north of the city in the Panjshir Valley. That turned out to not be the case and some of those hospitalized might have been hit deliberately because that many casualties from a few hours of gunfire is not normal. Using fireworks and firing guns into the air for celebrations causes hundreds of casualties, including a few dozen deaths a year in some Middle Eastern countries. While over 90 percent of the casualties are from the fireworks, a growing number of deaths and injuries are caused by bullets falling back to earth. While fireworks have been around for centuries, guns and firing them into the air in celebration is more recent. Even more recent is this practice causing many casualties. That’s because in the last century guns got cheaper, people had more money to buy them, and more people were concentrated into urban areas, where a lot of them were out and about during these celebrations providing more targets for the falling bullets. Bullets fired into the air can fall back to earth with enough velocity to injure or even kill. This is a widespread problem that does not get much attention. For example in 2007 three civilians were killed and fifty wounded in Baghdad, Iraq by gunfire associated with the Iraqi team winning a game during the Asian Games. Parents in Iraq know to get the kids inside when this kind of shooting begins. This was all about the widespread Arab custom of firing weapons into the air on happy occasions. These are called "joy bullets" in Arabic and bullets eventually return to earth, often with deadly consequences. For a long time, when someone was killed or injured by falling joy bullets the injury was shrugged off, or blamed on a handy enemy. Palestinians blame Israelis, some Iraqis blame any armed foreigners in the vicinity or nearby Iraqis they don't get along with. Otherwise, it's just "God's Will." Gunfire in a small part of a large city for a few hours in the middle of the night and leaving behind over a hundred dead and wounded does not sound like joy bullets.

The Taliban were also surprised by daylight public demonstrations of Kabul women protesting the lifestyle restrictions the Taliban is trying t0 enforce on women. Taliban controlled TV later showed Taliban gunmen firing into the air while other Taliban used rifle butts or clubs to beat some of the female protestors, leaving some of them women with bleeding head wounds.

Elsewhere in Kabul, at the airport outside the city, domestic flights resumed with Afghan airliners flying routes to several Afghan cities. The airport radar system was still being repaired.

September 3, 2021: American email and cloud storage suppliers Google and Microsoft are acting on warnings from former Afghan government officials that the Taliban are seeking control of government email accounts and information about who to look for and punish or interrogate. The Taliban searching for real or potential enemies in Kabul and other cities. Some people are executed on the spot, others are taken away for interrogation. The suspects are not all government employees but apparently had helped the government in one way or another.

September 2, 2021: Apparently about a third of the flyable Afghan Air Force aircraft fled or defected in mid-August as the Taliban declared they controlled the entire country. While the air force has about 240 aircraft and helicopters, only about 150 were flyable in mid-August because of maintenance problems. In late August commercial satellite photos showed nearly fifty Afghan military aircraft in Uzbekistan at a military airbase. A week later satellite photos showed that about a third of the Afghan aircraft earlier seen in Uzbekistan were now at a military airbase in neighboring Tajikistan. Official comments from the Uzbeks or Tajiks were not available although rumors in Tajikistan were that the Afghan military aircraft were flown north to eventually provide air support for the Afghan resistance. The defecting aircraft brought a lot of civilians with them, apparently the families of the pilots and maintenance personnel for the aircraft.

Then as now al Qaeda is working with the Taliban, often fighting a radical al Qaeda spinoff, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The Afghan ISIL call themselves Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), which is the Central Asian province of ISIL Khorasan is named after the province of the first caliphate and included eastern Iran, part of Afghanistan and Central Asia. Khorasan also referred to a pre-Islamic portion of a Persian Empire. ISK apparently offered to cooperate with the Afghan Taliban against mutual enemies. That did not work out and ISK is now at war with the Taliban and al Qaeda has stepped to earn their sanctuary in Afghanistan by joining the fight against ISK and anyone else who opposes the latest Taliban effort to run Afghanistan.

August 30, 2021: In Kabul the last American troops departed the airport a day ahead of the Taliban deadline. Hundreds of American citizens and Afghans who are legal residents of the U.S., were left behind along with thousands of Afghans who qualified for a flight out. The last few passenger transports left empty. U.S. troops did disable all American military equipment left behind, including over a dozen transports and helicopters. The air traffic control system in the aircraft was also disabled. The Taliban occupied the airport the next day and called on Pakistan and Qatar to send technicians to get the air traffic control system working again so foreign aid flights could resume, as well as international flights to Pakistan, China, Russia and the Middle East.

August 27, 2021: Pakistan publicized the recent delivery of a list of Pakistan Taliban leaders to the Afghan Taliban leaders and requested that the Afghan Taliban “persuade” those Pakistan Taliban leaders to surrender. Demanding that the Afghan Taliban attack the Pakistan Taliban is a more difficult ask. The Pakistan Taliban, locally known as TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) are about a third the size of the Afghan Taliban and are opposed to the drug cartels that finance the Afghan Taliban. TTP also contains a lot of al Qaeda groups that joined because that appears to be the best way to overthrow the Pakistan government.

Operating from bases in eastern Afghanistan, the TTP have carried out about 40 attacks inside Pakistan so far in 2021. Initially Pakistan tries to blame India which usually prompts the TTP to correct the government and admit it was a TTP operation. The TTP have, since 2014, been a growing embarrassment that made the Pakistani military look bad. In 2014 the army openly declared war on the TTP, which took heavy losses and moved to Afghanistan. For several years after the 2014 army offensive, which continued at a lower intensity, the TTP was much less active. Over the last few years that has changed. The TTP was under constant attack in Afghanistan, but not by the Afghan Taliban, but by government and American forces. This effort was considered inadequate by Pakistan but there were other targets in the border area, like some surviving ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) personnel and other Pakistan-backed terrorists, like the Haqqani Group that were more of a threat to Afghans and literally on the Pakistani payroll.

Earlier this year Pakistan admitted that twelve military personnel (a colonel, a major and ten subordinates) were responsible for TTP leader Ehsanullah Ehsan escaping from house arrests in January 2020. At first the military spread a rumor that Ehsan was allowed to escape as part of some secret strategy. That story did not hold up because the thing both Afghan and Pakistani Taliban can agree on is that the Pakistani military exercises too much influence on Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have contacts with each other because they are all Pushtuns and share many goals and interests. Pushtuns on both sides of the border are watching with great interest how this drama plays out.

August 26, 2021: Outside Kabul airport an ISIL suicide bomber detonated his explosives, leaving 13 American troops dead along with about 90 Afghans waiting to get into the airport and catch a flight out. The U.S. responded with several UAV missile attacks on known (but unnamed) ISIL leaders in Afghanistan. The Taliban thought they had a deal with ISIL to not attack the airport but ISIL took credit for the attack.

August 25, 2021: Despite Pakistan banning Afghan refugees from entering Pakistan, over 10,000 Afghans are getting in each day at the two main crossings and an unknown number getting through the new border fence. The 2,600-kilometer-long fence is costing Pakistan about half a billion dollars. The fence consists of two three-meter (ten foot) chain link fences topped with barbed wire and separated by a two-meter gap. Hundreds of new border posts, some of them the size of small forts, are being built to observe and patrol the fence. Fence construction began in mid-2017 and by mid-2021 was about 80 percent complete. Pushtun tribes on both sides of the border object to the fence and regularly fire on the workers building the fence and their armed guards. Most Afghans agree that in some areas the fence extends into Afghan territory.

August 23, 2021: Pakistani diplomats are once more being called on to lie for their country. It’s become universally accepted that Pakistan has been supporting Islamic terrorism since the 1980s. In the 1990s it was an open secret that Pakistan created the Taliban and when Taliban rule in most of Afghanistan collapsed in late 2001 it was noted that there were a lot of Pakistani military transports taking Pakistanis out of areas the Taliban were about to lose control of. The Northern Alliance, which was still fighting the Taliban in 2001, regularly reported the importance of Pakistani military personnel and access to Pakistan that the Taliban depended on. Pakistan eventually gave up trying to deny this access and admitted that Taliban casualties were regularly treated in Pakistani hospitals but denied that some of those “Taliban” patients were Pakistani military or intelligence personnel. Inside Afghanistan local security forces and NATO troops regularly found Pakistanis among the Taliban dead and it was standard practice for Pakistan to admit the identity of these Pakistanis so their bodies could be returned to Pakistan for burial.

August 17, 2021: Despite the Taliban occupation of Kabul, Turkish president Erdogan wants NATO (meaning the U.S.) to treat Turkish military presence in Kabul as a NATO mission and include Turkey in NATO decision making regarding Afghanistan. Pakistan agreed to use its diplomatic influence with the Taliban to aid Turkey’s efforts to secure Kabul’s airport but has not been much help. The Taliban have offered the Turks cooperation or conflict. Turkish media report Turkish military and paramilitary security forces are prepared to stop an expected wave of Afghan refugees fleeing to the West through Iran and central Asia. Then there is China, which has been pressuring Turkey to cooperate with Chinese foreign policy and has already recognized the Taliban as the new rulers of Afghanistan but could use Turkish cooperation to help safeguard Chinese economic investments in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan the Turks have no safe options and few positive ones.

August 16, 2021: Pakistani prime minister, Imran Kahn praised the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. Most of the Afghan Taliban are controlled, as much as Afghans can be controlled, by the Pakistani military. The Pakistani generals also helped put Kahn into power and for the first time in Pakistani history can tell Kahn and the parliament what to do and these elected officials will comply, or die, apparently. For Pakistan, Taliban control over Afghanistan is a victory over India, which the Pakistani military has been feuding with since Pakistan and India gained independence after World War II. The main complaint against India is that India was a key factor in breaking the monopoly Pakistan long exercised over Afghan foreign trade. Until recently India could trade freely with Afghanistan via a new sea/rail link in Iran and most Afghans prefer this to dependency on Pakistan for access to the rest of the world. Attitudes and alliances are changing and Pakistan and the Taliban they created are the big losers. Iran will allow access via the road and rail route they built with India into western Afghanistan (Herat province). Iran is currently in big political and financial trouble and willing to sell access to this rail link for the right price. The Taliban resurgence is a problem for Iran as well as Pakistan because Iran sees the Taliban as a threat to the large Shia minority. Pakistan still has problems with a much smaller Pakistani Taliban, who want to do in Pakistan what the Afghan Taliban are again trying to do in Afghanistan. While Pakistan praises the Taliban comeback in Afghanistan, they have not recognized the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan. No country has done so yet, not even China which is willing to do business with the Taliban.

August 11, 2021: In the southeast, across the border in Pakistan (South Waziristan) a group of Islamic terrorists were detected moving around at night and confronted by a nearby Pakistani rapid reaction force. One terrorist was killed and another wounded and captured while others fled towards the Afghan border. The Pakistani Taliban maintain most of their bases on the other side of the Afghan border and were believed responsible for this incident.

 

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