Afghanistan: Blood and Water


June 14, 2023: Satellite photos show that the 2022 IEA ban on poppy production reduced it by nearly 90 percent. Opium needs poppy plants as a raw material. Opium can be further refined into heroin. Reducing poppy production makes it possible for the IEA (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) to obtain much needed foreign aid. Back in the 1990s, the original Taliban faced a similar situation and reduced poppy after a record crop in the previous year. The ban did not last because the drug cartels are a major source of revenue for the Afghan government. Afghans in general oppose poppy production because it creates a lot of addicts in Afghanistan. That has tragic consequences for the family of the addict. Since tribes and tribal leaders are still an important factor in Afghanistan, tribal leaders tend to oppose the drug trade. For that reason, over 90 percent of Afghan poppies are produced in one province; Helmand. Then as now, neighboring Pakistan must cooperate to make this work because essential chemicals must be imported to refine the opium into heroin. Pakistan is also the most effective route to worldwide drug markets via Pakistani airports and the port of Karachi. Afghanistan’s other neighbors (Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) are very hostile to the drug smugglers. The northern neighbors have long received armed assistance from Russia to combat the smugglers.

Unlike the 1990s, the Pakistani military, which created the Taliban in the 1990s and has sought to control them ever since, has encountered unexpected problems in 2003. This came in the form of a popular reformist Pakistani politician Imran Khan taking on the military and its ability to do whatever it wants and ignore the elected government.

Back in 2021, shortly after the IEA took control of Afghanistan, then Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan repeated his belief that foreign nations, including the United States, would eventually have to recognize the Taliban IEA government and resume diplomatic and economic relations with Afghanistan. That was a minority opinion in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kahn was taking a lot of heat from Pakistanis who have seen their incomes fall or disappear because money from Afghanistan stopped coming into Pakistan due to the end of nearly all Western aid after the IEA took over Afghanistan in 2022.

Khan has been a longtime fan of the Taliban, earning him the nickname; Taliban Khan. Many thought this meant Khan was an ally, or puppet of the military. That was not the case because Khan did not believe in the Pakistani generals operating beyond any oversight by the elected government. This had long been an issue but this time Khan rallied his many Pakistani supporters to openly oppose military political power. The scale of this opposition is unprecedented and the generals see their political independence and corruption income in danger of being eliminated.

This struggle is being followed with great interest by Afghans, who generally see the Pakistani military and its intelligence arm, the ISI, as bad news for Afghans and the major source of strife and corruption in Afghanistan. Khan is less corrupt than most Pakistani politicians and willing to take risks to make needed changes in Pakistan. Curbing military power is a much needed change but one that can get a powerful reformer killed by military operatives seeking to do the deed without implicating the military. If Khan comes out on top, the Afghan drug cartels are in trouble and so is, to a lesser extent, the IEA. Most Afghans want to see drug cartel power and activities curbed. That would cost the IEA a major loss of financial support, but would also make foreign aid more likely to resume and boost IEA popularity in Afghanistan.

Despite the current international condemnation of many IEA policies, there is some international cooperation with the IEA in areas of mutual interest. The most obvious one is Islamic terrorism, which is also a problem for the IEA. The primary Islamic terror threat in Afghanistan is from ISK (Islamic State Khorasan), which was formed in Afghanistan during 2015, with the help of ISIL leadership in Syria, to handle ISIL activity throughout the region (Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan and India). ISK found they were most effective if they confined their operations to Afghanistan and Pakistan, which they have been doing since 2019.

The IEA also has problems because they cannot gain any official recognition that they are the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Most nations consider the IEA a Pakistan-backed Islamic terror group that took control of the government with the additional help of Afghan drug cartels. ISK has become more active in Afghanistan and Pakistan since the IEA took over because now no one is in charge and that is ideal for ISK and the drug cartels. ISK and the cartels stay out of each other’s way because neither has anything to gain, and much to lose, by attacking each other. The cartels pay IEA to refrain from attacking drug operations, which include poppy crops and small labs that convert portions of the poppies into opium and then heroin, though this may change fast given the IEA’s apparent successful attack on opium farming. ISK sees no point carrying out terror attacks against the cartels because the cartels will do the same to ISK and on a larger scale. In that respect the cartels are terrorists, but only when cash does not get them what they want. ISK is different because they see IEA as heretics and enemies of Islam. IEA feels the same way towards ISK. Other Moslems in Afghanistan and neighboring nations regard ISK as religious zealots who defame Islam. The only relatively safe base for ISK is IEA-ruled Afghanistan, and that only because the IEA is weak and divided. Despite this, ISK attacks targets in Afghanistan, including IEA but not the drug cartels. ISK also uses its Afghan bases on the Pakistan border to carry out attacks in Pakistan. There used to be some ISK actions across the Iranian border but attacks on Iran were more costly, in terms of cash and personnel, then similar efforts against IEA and Pakistani targets. ISK also plans attacks farther away, especially in Western countries. These attacks are more risky and prone to trigger massive counterattacks. Western nations, especially the United States, continue to observe ISK operations and carry out occasional airstrikes, usually with missile armed UAVs.

Water Wars

The IEA has a border dispute with Iran involving access to scarce water. Drought conditions have been a problem in both countries for several years. This is in addition to Iranian complaints about the Afghan heroin smuggled into Iran to support several million addicts. The heroin travels through Pakistan due to the cooperation of the Pakistan military. There has long been a business relationship between the Afghan drug cartels and the Pakistan military. That was supposed to include not supplying Pakistani dealers and addicts with heroin and opium. That didn’t make any difference as the drugs were smuggled into Pakistan to support several million Pakistani addicts and casual users.

Iran has always been subject to periodic droughts but had coped with those because the monarchy backed developing more efficient irrigation methods and water use policies in general. This began to fall apart when the current religious dictatorship took control in the 1980s. Decades of ignoring water management problems contributed to the water shortages caused by the current three-year-long drought. Afghanistan also found itself with a religious dictatorship in 2021. Since then, water management has not been a high-priority issue. The growing number of hungry (because they depend on irrigation) and thirsty (lack of clean or any water) Afghans and Iranians want a solution. Iran and Afghanistan have long shared some water resources along their 921 kilometer border. Both countries have moved more combat forces to their common border. The Afghans are the underdog here and that has been the case for centuries. Despite that, IEA military leaders assert that they can defeat the Iranians. The militarily superior Iranians ignore the IEA threats. With nearly all of Iran now suffering water shortages, Iran will do whatever it can to alleviate that situation. It’s unclear if that includes invading Afghanistan and taking possession of the disputed water supplies.

June 12, 2023: UN personnel working in Afghanistan report that the IEA appears to be tolerating the presence of al Qaeda personnel as well as TTP (the Pakistani Taliban). TTP support is expected but IEA insists it will not tolerate any Islamic terror groups. They are either lying or simply don’t have much control in many parts of the country. The UN staff found al Qaeda training camps in five provinces in addition to many more safehouses. Suicide bombers are being trained and indoctrinated for use outside Afghanistan. Some are being sent to Western countries where they can hade among the many Afghan refugees fleeing IEA rule. The IEA is also continuing to impose more lifestyles restricts they enforced in the 1990s. This includes a ban on listening to live or recorded music. The IEA also censored what could be shown by Afghan TV stations. This meant no shows that had women with uncovered faces as well as no music. The IEA wants women appearing in public to wear the burqa (covers everything except the hands and eyes.) Many rural Afghans support some of these urban ideas, especially education for girls and more education in general. Beyond that these rural Afghans tend to be more conservative than those living in urban areas.

When the IEA took power, the national population was at least 33 million, which is 57 percent more than two decades ago when the Taliban were driven from power. Kabul is the largest city, with about half the urban population. The last time the Taliban were in charge (2001) Kabul 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 but the rural Afghans are not as conservative as they were in the 1990s.

June 11, 2023: In the east (Nangarhar Province) WHO (World Health Organization) polio monitoring teams have detected four cases of polio so far this year. There was also one case in Pakistan. These are the only cases detected worldwide. Pakistan expects to have no cases in 2024, unless the number of refugees from Afghanistan increases substantially. Despite years of strenuous efforts, Afghanistan has been unable to eliminate polio via vaccinations. For a long time, the main opposition were Islamic conservative clerics who called the vaccinations an attempt by Western nations to poison Moslem children. While few of those clerics remain, there are now more Afghans agreeing with Western anti-vaccination groups and insisting there are harmful side effects. Numerous controlled studies have not demonstrated any evidence of this but it has become popular. In 2016 there were 20 cases of polio in Pakistan, 13 in Afghanistan and four in Nigeria, a country declared free of polio in 2020. In Pakistan and Afghanistan there are still religious problems with vaccination. The Afghan Taliban have openly supported the vaccination program but there are still some rural areas where local Moslem clerics or teachers still denounce the vaccinations. There is a similar situation in Pakistan, where some fringe Islamic groups will still try and kill members of the vaccination teams. Since 2008 over a hundred vaccinators and police escorts have been killed.

June 10, 2023: In the southeast (Khost province) TTP gunmen crossed into Pakistan (North Waziristan) and attacked Pakistani soldiers at a checkpoint. The gunbattle left three TTP men and three Pakistani troops dead as well as four TTP wounded.

June 8, 2023: The IEA assembled old Russian tanks and troops on the Iranian border for “training exercises.” This was a show-of-force in an unsettled dispute with Iran over water. Iran accuses Afghanistan of restricting the flow of water sent to Iran from a river in Helmand province. This violates a 1973 treaty. There is a severe drought in Iran and Afghanistan that makes water sources worth fighting for.

June 7, 2023: In the north (Badakhshan province) an explosion near a mosque killed eleven people assembled for a memorial service to honor the provincial deputy governor, who was killed by a car bomb the day before. ISK claimed credit for both attacks.

June 6, 2023: In the east (Kunar province) IEA security forces carried out several operations near the Pakistan border that killed Sanaullah Ghafari, the head of ISK (Islamic State Khorasan) and six of his armed followers. ISK was formed in Afghanistan during 2015, with the help of ISIL leadership in Syria, to handle ISIL activity throughout the region (Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan and India). ISK found they were most effective if they confined their operations to Afghanistan and Pakistan, which they have been doing since 2019.

June 1, 2023: The UN issued a report describing the integration of al Qaeda leaders in the IEA government. This includes two provincial governors and several senior jobs in the central government. Another disrobing trend is Pushtuns dominating the central government and deliberately excluding the other ethnic groups which make up over half the population and refuse to respect Pushtun domination. 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 the IEA took over in 2021. The IEA government was intolerant and anti-Pakistan but also seemed capable of maintaining more peace than Afghanistan had known for decades. It is uncertain how long this will last, but for the moment it is. Part of the IEA strategy involves integrating senior Pushtun al Qaeda leaders into the government. This undermines IEA assurances that it is seeking to diminish Islamic terrorist activity in Afghanistan. The TTP (Pakistani Taliban) was granted sanctuary in Afghanistan. The dominance of Pushtuns in the government means the political power center of Afghanistan has shifted from Kabul and its large non-Pushtun population to Kandahar city, the capital of Kandahar province in the southwest. This is where Helmand province, where most opium and other drugs are produced.

May 18, 2023: Afghans noted that that Russia lost more troops (over 20,000) in less than a year of combat in Ukraine than the 15,000 they were lost during nine years of fighting in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Nearly a million Afghans died from Russian military operations during the 1980s, most of them unarmed civilians. Ukrainians have forces similar to the Russians and troops who are more lethal and determined than the Russian invaders. During the 1980s, Russian forces avoided contact with armed Afghans. The only exception was the few thousand special operations troops and warplanes carrying out airstrikes against Afghan civilians and the more elusive Afghan resistance fighters.




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