Afghanistan: Deadly Delusions


April 11, 2023: Pakistan and IEA (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) governments remain divided over how to deal with the TTP (Pakistani Taliban). The IEA refuses to admit that the TTP uses camps in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. TTP regularly carries out attacks across the border in Pakistan. This was not supposed to happen because there are pro-Pakistan officials in the IEA government. Pakistan misjudged how much influence these pro-Pakistan Afghan officials had when it came to IEA/TTP relations. Pakistan was dismayed to discover that TTP has much more support among IEA leaders than Pakistan. Most IEA leaders back TTP efforts to overthrow the secular government of Pakistan and replace it with something like the IEA. Not exactly an IEP (Islamic Emirate of Pakistan), but something similar.

Pakistan believed that once the IEA took over, the pro-Pakistan members of the IEA government would give Pakistan their long-desired control over the Afghan government. That might have happened except for the fact that the official leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Hebatullah Akhundzada, had a lot more supporters in Afghanistan than Pakistan realized. Before the IRA took over Pakistan was convinced that Akhundzada was unpopular with many Taliban faction leaders, in part because Akhundzada was seen as a figurehead and his chief deputy, the head of the Haqqani Network, was actually in charge. That was true but the secret was that Akhundzada only acted as a figurehead because he had to operate from the Pakistan sanctuary in Quetta, a city just across the border from the Afghan province of Kandahar, where many of the original Taliban came from. Kandahar was where Akhundzada went after the IEA replaced the IRA (American backed-Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) in mid-2021. Once back in Afghanistan, Akhundzada could exercise his power as the official head of the Taliban and do so without potentially lethal pressure from Pakistan. The Taliban factions Pakistan believed were hostile to Akhundzada, and openly supported him once he was back in Kandahar.

Pakistan underestimated how widespread the hatred of Pakistan was in Afghanistan, even among the many Afghan Taliban who seemed to maintain a pro-Pakistan attitude. Pakistan believed this would neutralize the many Afghan Taliban factions who had openly expressed their opposition to Pakistan interference in Afghanistan. Mullah Akhundzada was a highly respected Islamic scholar who rarely commented on his political beliefs. The Pakistani ISI (military intelligence service) that created the Taliban in the mid-1990s and “managed” them ever since misjudged Akhundzada’s silence on his attitude towards Pakistan. This was seen as agreement with or neutrality towards the ISI and Pakistan in general. Akhundzada had widespread support in Afghanistan while the pro-Pakistan IEA officials who were appointed while the Taliban were still in Quetta had little such support.

When Akhundzada overruled Pakistan-backed IEA officials, it was clear he was no longer a figurehead. Akhundzada was not a rigid religious fanatic either. When he imposed a ban on women’s higher education in December 2022, he paid attention to the reaction of most Afghans and agreed to lift most of the restrictions. Akhundzada understands he is responsible to what Afghans, not the ISI, want.

This revelation created a lot of problems for the ISI and the Pakistan military, who are in trouble with Pakistan voters and elected officials who want to curb the independence of the Pakistan military. The military’s policy towards Afghanistan played a minor role in this, but the revelation that the Afghans hate the Pakistani military as much as most Pakistanis do make it clear that the Pakistani generals overestimated their power. Inside Afghanistan, the pro-Pakistan Haqqani government officials would not criticize IEA leader Akhundzada openly because that might lead to more anti-Pakistan violence inside Afghanistan.

Another Afghan problem with Pakistan is that Pakistanis tend to take their Islam very seriously and are more violent against any group that has different beliefs. Afghans, in contrast, tend to be more tolerant. The exception is radical Afghan Moslems like the original Taliban. Their radical attitudes were the result of the Taliban being created by the Pakistani military in the mid-1990s. This left a lethal legacy as clashes in northwest Pakistan between Pakistani troops and Islamic terrorists continues. To a lesser degree, violence occurs in the southeast (Baluchistan) with Baluchi separatists. Afghans and Pakistani elected officials blame the Pakistani military for causing the separatist and religious violence and the resulting economic problems. While Pakistanis complain of their “Afghan problem” the Afghans are more justified complaining about a much more damaging “Pakistan problem.”

April 10, 2023: The IEA continues to fail at convincing foreign aid donor nations that the IEA can be trusted to distribute aid, especially food aid, to those that need it most. UN experts believe $800 million worth of aid is needed to deal with looming starvation for millions of Afghans. Only a third of that sum has been pledged, which is half what was pledged last year. Erratic and harmful decisions by IEA leaders continue to be the norm and discourage more foreign aid donors. The UN tries to be reasonable with the IEA but that has not worked either. Foreign aid groups believe that half the Afghan population (that’s 20 million people) face severe food shortages. This will cause some starvation deaths and even more fatalities because prolonged hunger makes victims more likely to die from some other affliction. A year ago the UN estimated that 95 percent of Afghans were not getting enough food and eventually there would be starvation deaths. The UN experts calculated the total need and costs to transport the aid to where it is needed most. The major flaw in this plan is that few foreign aid donors are willing to donate. Disaster areas have earned unofficial “risk level” ratings that measure how much of the aid disappears (is stolen) before it can get to those in need. Afghanistan is considered one of the riskiest aid recipients in the world and has earned and sustained that designation over the last fifty years. This has already happened this year. In February 2022, Pakistan allowed a 50,000-ton Indian wheat shipment into Afghanistan, where most of it did not reach those most in need. The IEA sent the food to loyal groups and withheld it from areas where there was a lot of opposition, some of it armed to IEA rule. A further complication is the war in Ukraine, which has disrupted Ukrainian and Russian grain exports, which normally comprise about 30 percent of world grain exports. Russia started this war and refuses to end it. That means grain supplies are lower and prices higher. That means even less potential food aid for Afghanistan and more incentive for the IEA to mismanage food aid. There is a similar situation with non-food aid, especially medical supplies and equipment. Donors believe the IEA will use access to medical care as another item that can be withheld from Afghans who do not support the IEA.

April 7, 2023: The IEA is maintaining its ban on Afghan women working for foreign aid organizations even though that policy limits the amount of foreign aid donors are willing to provide. The IEA is unpredictable when it comes to how it treats foreign aid and non-Afghan foreign aid workers. Another aspect of that is the seizure of Westerners inside Afghanistan and using them as hostages when the IEA negotiates with Western governments over foreign aid. This is also why the IEA has still not received any diplomatic recognition. Over a dozen nations have representatives in Afghanistan to maintain non-diplomatic lines of communication for trade and border-control issues. In other words, most of these foreign reps are from countries in the region that have borders or long-standing trading relationships. The IEA needs to maintain access to traditional markets for Afghan exports, especially the perishable commodities that cannot be stockpiled. India and Pakistan have resumed importing these items in a big way. Nations that are importing from Afghanistan are also more likely to turn over the local Afghan embassy and consular offices to the IEA. Many of these diplomatic facilities are still controlled by the IRA (Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) that the IEA (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) deposed in 2021. While the foreign embassies and many government staff are in Kabul, the official capital, the senior IEA leaders, including supreme leader Hebatullah Akhundzada, are based in the southern city of Kandahar.

April 4, 2023: In the north (Balkh province), IEA security forces raided a hideout of the local ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) affiliate, ISK (Islamic State Khorasan). The IEA is on good terms with al Qaeda but ISK considers al Qaeda as an enemy of Islam and carries out terror attacks against the IEA as well as against Shia Afghans. About 20 percent of Afghans are Shia and ISIL considers Shia heretics and heretics must be killed. ISK has a lot of supporters in Afghanistan. Despite the local supporters, ISK has suffered major losses inside Afghanistan during the last year. This is a common situation in countries where ISK is present. In Afghanistan the IEA has captured or killed many ISK members and identified who the most senior leaders are and gone after them. Since the IEA took over in mid-2021, over 2,000 ISK members have been killed or captured in Afghanistan. This has not eliminated the ISK in Afghanistan and some ISK factions have maintained a low profile and concentrated on planning and carrying out attacks outside Afghanistan, especially in the West. The IEA will tolerate this kind of ISK presence, but not one that attacks Afghans.

March 30, 2023: The IEA has slowly hired and organized security forces. There are about 150,000 armed men available now and they are stationed throughout the country. While they are all armed, few wear uniforms or have a complex organization and chain of command. This force includes some men who were soldiers or officers in the deposed IRA army and police. These men were hired more for their organizational skills than to serve as commanders. Nearly all the command jobs go to trusted IEA loyalists. In the coming year the IEA expects to add another 30,000 or 50,000 men and supply more of them with uniforms and official ranks. This sort of thing already exists for some of the security forces in Kabul. Outside of Kabul there are complaints about the IEA hiring men for the security forces and not supplying uniforms. Some gangsters take advantage of this and commit crimes while describing themselves as members of the security forces. The lack of uniforms is due to the lack of cash income for the IEA. That makes it difficult to pay for essential services. The IEA has found that taxes on imports and exports is a reliable way to obtain cash to keep the government going. In the past year, government revenue had increased nearly 60 percent. There is still widespread hunger and the IEA expects donor nations to eventually relent and send food. Meanwhile the drug gangs are allowed to keep operating as long as they continue providing cash to IEA and keeping the peace as well as reducing the amount of drugs reaching Afghans rather than being exported. This has always been a problem and now the IEA is demanding a solution or else. The drug gangs consider this a major threat and one they cannot bribe or fight their way out of.

Inside Afghanistan, the only organized opposition to IEA rule was a successor to the 1990s Northern Alliance. This anti-Taliban group reassembled in 2022 as the NRF (National Resistance Front) and appeared to be a major threat to IEA rule and possibly something that was more than the IEA could handle. Some of the NRF leaders are sons of successful Northern Alliance commanders. Iran threatened to provide more support to the NRF than they gave the Northern Alliance. By late 20221 the NRF dominated Panjshir province (northeast of Kabul) and believed they could resist any IEA attack. That was optimistic because IEA forces suffered some losses initially but soon turned that around and inflicted heavy losses on NRF in terms of gunmen, territory and local support. This was not a repeat of the 1990s when the Northern Alliance dominated the Panjshir Valley (a 90-minute drive from Kabul) right up to the defeat of the Taliban government after September 2001. Northern Front leaders became members of the IRA government and now their sons reassembled as the NRF, which had some initial success but no staying power. Not enough Panjshir Valley residents willing to die opposing the IEA government.

The NRF faced many of the same problems the Northern Alliance did in 2001; they were seen by Pushtuns as representing the ethnic minorities of Afghanistan, which make up over half the population and vilely deny the expected respect to Pushtuns. For centuries the Pushtuns dominated Afghan politics and the minorities tolerated that until the Islamic radicals came along with Pakistan’s creation of the Taliban. One thing nearly all Afghans agree on is the damage Pakistan has done to Afghanistan and unwillingness to give up that interference. Afghans see themselves as the victim of neighbors seeking to control the country. Afghans prefer to restore the modern state of Afghanistan, which was peacefully created over a century ago. That quasi-monarchical/quasi-tribal form of government was doing fine because until the 1970s there was an agreement that largely kept the peace. This arrangement meant Afghanistan was a constitutional monarchy presided over by a Pushtun king who largely dealt with foreigners and left the tribes (60 percent of them non-Pushtun) to negotiate their differences. At that point Afghanistan was still largely medieval as far as cultural norms and economic activity was concerned. The 20th century was making an impression and the educated urban minority was calling for radical change. This was tempting to many leading Afghans but the vast majority of Afghans were still in the countryside ruled by tribal leaders. Most of these rural Afghans opposed any radical change. The reform factions, mainly the pro-communist ones, tried violence to overthrow the monarchy, failed and in 1979 Russia intervened to rescue their fellow communists. That led to a civil war that was still going on until 2021. The IEA government was intolerant and anti-Pakistan but also seemed capable to maintaining more peace than Afghanistan had known for decades. It is uncertain how long this will last, but for the moment it is.

March 27, 2023: In Kabul, a suicide bomber was intercepted at a police checkpoint as he approached the Foreign Ministry. The bomb went off at a checkpoint, killing the bomber and six bystanders as well as wounding another six.

March 24, 2023: The IEA cooperated with China, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, India, Turkey, Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to reoccupy their embassy buildings and offices and use them to facilitate trade and other matters of mutual interest. The IEA treats these embassies as diplomatic operations and provides protection even though no ambassadors have been sent to Afghanistan yet. Some of these nations have said they will soon send ambassadors and the others are monitoring how this process is going. Foreigners, and many Afghans, still consider the IEA unstable and unpredictable.




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