20 December 2017

Opium Trade Not Only Funding the Taliban, But Also a Big Contributor to Growing Violence and Corruption in Afghanistan

The additional American ground forces sent to Afghanistan this year are concentrating on Taliban logistics and that means attacks on the drug gang infrastructure. There are thirteen drug gangs in Afghanistan and most rely on Helmand for something. Most of these gangs have a major part of their heroin production in Helmand and all depend on the Helmand access to Pakistan where the military has sufficient authority to make sure chemicals and lab equipment (required to turn the bulky opium into the more compact and much more valuable heroin) get across the border and into Helmand. Half of the opium and heroin leaves the country via Pakistan. Helmand is the key to drug gang operations and the bulk of Taliban income.

Since 2014 (when most foreign troops left) Afghan political and security officials insisted they could defeat the drug gangs and Taliban if they again had the responsive U.S. air support that was available before 2015. That was true of most of the country but not Helmand province and the Afghan Taliban sanctuary across the border in Quetta (capital of Baluchistan province) Pakistan.

The problem was that many American politicians have long refused to believe what was really going on in Afghanistan. The reality is tribal politics amped up by radical Islam and lots of drug money drives the corruption and violence. That was a lot more obvious after 2014 because the Taliban and drug gangs concentrated their violence in a few areas most important to drug production and movement (to foreign markets). Thus fighting has long been heaviest in the south where Taliban control of Helmand province is essential for the continued existence of Taliban power. In mid-2016 over a third of Helmand was under Taliban control and the government pleaded for more American air power (bombers and surveillance) to enable the reinforced Afghan forces to push the Taliban out. Those reinforcement were in place a year later and the Taliban was in trouble again.

It’s the drug gangs that finance all the mayhem in Helmand, as well they might because Helmand is where most of the opium poppies are grown and where the portable labs use chemicals smuggled in from bordering Pakistan to convert the sap of the poppies into heroin. The drug gangs would prefer to bribe the army and police to stay away but that has not worked because the heroin (and much cheaper opium) is hated in most of the country. Over five percent of Afghans have become addicted to the stuff. So the troops and police from other parts of the country face disgrace back home if they do not attack the drug operations when they have a chance (or come back with a large enough bribe to leave). The Taliban respond to this by offering police and army commanders an attractive deal; a bribe large enough to get the commander and some of his family to the West (usually western Europe). The Taliban can also supply a reliable people smuggler to handle the illegal passage to a better life. This pitch often works and it is one reason why so many Afghan illegal migrants show up far from Afghanistan.

The U.S. understood this, at least CIA and Army (especially Special Forces) personnel who spoke local languages and had studied the local cultures. Follow the money and go after leaders and other key personnel and even Islamic terrorist organizations will be crippled or destroyed. There is nothing novel about this approach as it has been applied successfully for thousands of years. As the saying goes; amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics. Ideology makes for better headlines but it is more mundane matters that settle the issue. The money angle also brings in the Pakistani presence, especially the Pakistani military, Afghanistan has always been seen as a major potential threat by Pakistan and considers their interference in Afghan affairs as a form of self-defense. The Afghans don’t agree and that hostility between Pushtuns and non-Pushtuns from what is now Pakistan and India has existed for thousands of years. Afghans, Pakistanis and most of their neighbors understand this. But Westerners, especially Americans, tend to miss the point.

The current fighting in Helmand and other parts of Afghanistan where the Taliban is most active males the most of the American airpower and GPS guided artillery (155mm shells and 227mm rockets). The 48 kg (106 pounds) GPS guided 155mm shells have a range of up to 40 kilometers. The 309 kg (680 pound) GMLRS (guided multiple launch rocket system) is a GPS guided 227mm rocket reaches out to 70 kilometers. Both GPS guided projectiles land within meters of its intended aiming point (GPS coordinates) at any range. The Americans have aerial surveillance that can spot most heroin labs quickly and pass the location onto aircraft or artillery that can put a GPS guided bomb, shell or rocket on the target within minutes. The drug gangs and Taliban know how this works and it hurt them badly before 2014. Dealing with this is expensive. Not just replacing the labs and product (opium and heroin) destroyed but the higher expense of finding safer locations and keeping them hidden. The Americans and Afghans are better at finding these new hiding places. Even expensive gadgets like Russian or Chinese GPS jammers are not a solution but the Americans appreciate the effort. It provides an opportunity to experiment with different ways to deal with the jammers. Then there will be the temptation to use human shields to protect the drug labs. This has had limited success in the past and depended on the foreign media believing the Taliban press releases. That doesn’t work as well as it used to even though the drug gangs spend a lot of money on bribing local media (and threatening those who won’t take the money). .

The Americans have changed their approach since 2014. The aerial reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft are often UAVs and are using more powerful sensors and the UAVs are often much smaller. Moreover “air support” data only includes the traditional air force and navy warplanes and larger UAVs. The American ground forces are using a lot more GPS guided shells and rockets that do not show up in the air support data but are known to have made a huge difference in defeating ISIL in Iraq and Syria earlier in 2017. For ground forces the GPS guided artillery fire is often available sooner and more frequently than air support. The American soldiers and marines have smaller UAVs to look for targets and these smaller UAVs are being used more frequently. Even the Afghan forces are getting some of these “mid-size” UAVs and they are often entrusted to Special Forces operations.

Exploiting Tribal Identity

Most Afghans don’t care if some tribes produce and export illegal drugs, they do care if the drugs are sold inside Afghanistan to Afghans. The Taliban understand this and have been living off the drug gangs since the late 1990s and justify this by promising to return to the system they imposed during the 1990s where the drug gangs were forced to export nearly all their production and were severely punished if any of the opium or heroin got out to the locals. That restriction disappeared along with Taliban control of most of Afghanistan in late 2001. It only worked back then because the Taliban offered security for the drug gangs in return for a large share of the profits and keeping the drugs away from Afghans. For the drug gangs the alternative was no business at all. Some in the current Afghan government see that as a possible option now that most Western troops are gone. The Western donors have made it clear that the aid will disappear (and the bombs will continue) if Afghanistan turns into a “narco state” (the national government is on the drug gang payroll). A majority of Afghan, including nearly all non-Pushtun Afghans refuse to allow the Taliban and drug gangs (which are mainly Pushtun operations) to run the country. It has always been that way.

The drug angle has made most of the tribes hostile to the Taliban and the drug producers. Westerners often lose sight of the fact that most of the violence in Afghanistan is all about the drugs and the disruption they causes to Afghan society and culture. Most of the 3-4,000 Afghan civilians killed each year since 2014 were caught up in this war against the drug lords and their hired guns (mainly the Taliban).

The Afghan countryside has always been a dangerous place but it has become more dangerous because all that drug money has equipped many tribesmen with automatic weapons, fast vehicles and more attitude. The violence against civilians continues as more and more tribes mobilize their militias to halt Taliban expansion efforts, which are mainly to secure drug smuggling routes. Thus there are now about half a million armed Afghans fighting the Taliban and drug gangs. About a third of this force are the tribal militias resisting the drugs and Islamic fanaticism many Taliban use to justify the violence. The drug gangs have found that cash is a much more effective weapon than Taliban violence.

While Taliban threats and violence can terrorize civilians into compliance it also creates more blood feuds and multi-generational vendettas to avenge a death in the family or the loss of land to another Afghan. When the Taliban gained control over most of Afghanistan in the late 1990s they found that there were many advantages to using foreign (non-Pakistani) mercenaries provided by al Qaeda. These men were, by far, the most determined fighters available to the Taliban. By 2001 there were some 5-7,000 of these al Qaeda gunmen working for Osama bin Laden and loaned to the Taliban government as needed. These foreign fighters became the shock troops of the Taliban army and were used to insure that the Taliban would never surrender bin Laden to the Americans. Most of the bodyguards for the Taliban leaders were al Qaeda.

Most of the al Qaeda recruits who had gone through the terrorist training camps went on to serve in the al Qaeda infantry brigades to finish their training and prove their dedication to the cause. The leaders in these brigades are often experienced Islamic terrorists wanted for criminal acts in their home countries. They were in Afghanistan because it was safer than risking jail or execution back home. The al Qaeda brigades would not, like the Afghan units, be open to negotiation and surrender. The al Qaeda troops would more likely fight to the last man. Having no place to run, they have no other option.

The al Qaeda brigades (one or two thousand men each) did most of the heavy fighting for the Taliban in the late 1990s and into 2001. Even the Afghans respected “the Arabs” (as the al Qaeda troops were called) and were not eager to fight with them over minor matters. Thus one reason Taliban control of Afghanistan collapsed so quickly in late 2001 was because the Americans knew that one or two “Arab brigades” were used to enforce Taliban control over many tribes (Pushtun and non-Pushtun) who did not respect Taliban control (mainly because the Taliban were seen as working for the Pakistanis, which was true).

The Americans had aerial electronic monitoring aircraft as well as smart bombs. One could track the al Qaeda units by listening for Arabic chatter down below. Once located the al Qaeda units were hit with smart bombs. This process was aided by a few hundred CIA and Special Forces personnel on the ground. The CIA spoke the language and were authorized to make deals with tribal leaders. The CIA men brought cash (lots of hundred dollar bills) and assurances that more would follow in return for cooperation. The Special Forces men also spoke the language and could call in smart bomb attacks. This impressed the Afghans on another level (killing your enemies quickly and with little risk to yourself). Al Qaeda had not yet adopted the widespread use of local civilians as human shields against smart bomb attack, at least not in Afghanistan.

The Taliban were largely Pushtuns and many came from Kandahar and Helmand. Tribal identification was important and a Pushtun killing someone from another Pushtun tribe is a bad move because of the culture of revenge. But if you use foreigners to do this, especially Arabs, the resentment is directed at largely unreachable foreigners. Arabs never got along with Afghans, even when they were technically allies. That’s because the founder of Islam was an Arab and the Islamic scriptures (mainly the Koran) were written in Arabic and as a result Arabs always considered themselves more “Islamic” than non-Arab Moslems. The al Qaeda Arabs did not hide their disdain for the locals (who were considered a bunch of ignorant hillbillies). And then there was the Northern Alliance (the non-Pushtun resistance to the Taliban that was still holding out in the north by 2001). This spotlighted the ethnic animosities that have always existed in Afghanistan. The Taliban managed to make this worse by allowing their fighters to massacre conquered non-Pushtun tribes, and then move Pushtuns into the depopulated areas. This only made the non-Pushtun tribes resist even more strenuously. Worse for the Taliban, Afghans have long memories. But their usefulness as non-Afghan enforcers is one reason al Qaeda and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) can still find work and sanctuary in Afghanistan. And they still gravitate towards Pushtun groups. The Pushtuns believe they are the majority of Afghans and the one group that should be running Afghanistan. The reality is different and that has been the main cause of internal strife for centuries. But the Pushtns are resourceful and willing to work with non-Pushtuns when it is in their favor.

December 7, 2017: India has agreed to train Afghan female officers at Indian officer training schools. India has already trained over 4,000 male Afghan officers and NCOs. Afghanistan wants about ten percent of the security forces to be women but needs help in providing advanced training. Currently under two percent of the Afghan security forces are female.

December 6, 2017: Afghan officials said the new Iranian port of Chabahar in southeastern Iran on the Indian Ocean and its road link to Afghanistan was officially open. This project also includes new railroad and highway connections from Chabahar to Afghanistan and Central Asian railroads. Projects like this help keep the peace because they provide Afghanistan with an alternative to the existing Pakistani road links to Pakistan ports. This usually meant Karachi but now also includes the Chinese Obor (One Belt, One Road) project which has a similar (to Chabahar) link to the Pakistani port of Gwadar (not far from Chabahar) that links up with Chinese roads and railroads. Iran saw Obor as an attempt to establish a cartel and then control trade and prices mainly to favor China. The Iranians deal with the Chinese as equals but many other Obor countries are deemed more exploitable by the Chinese and often, but not always, are. Chabahar will free India and Afghanistan from dependence on Pakistan for a trade route and will also open up Central Asian markets for everyone since the new rail and road network goes from the northern border of Afghanistan to an enlarged Chabahar port on the Indian Ocean. Everyone involved, except Pakistan, is enthusiastic about Chabahar and Afghan/Central Asian links. Iran may be at war with the United States but the Americans tolerate Chabahar because it provides benefits for India and Afghanistan while also reducing Chinese economic power in the region. The Chabahar route was originally set to be operational by 2020 but began limited operations (from Chabahar to Afghanistan) in 2017 and that portion is now officially declared operational. There are still problems with visa and cargo transit paperwork for Afghan businesses. Some of this is due to the corruption in both countries but also because Iran wants to limit Afghan drug smuggling activity via the Chabahar route (about a quarter of the Afghan heroin and opium is smuggled out via Iran). At the same time Iran has expressed interest in linking with the new Chinese Obor link from China to the Pakistani coast. China likes this because their expensive Pakistani link to the Indian Ocean is more at risk from Islamic terrorist violence than the one in Iran. As with the ancient Silk Road, Iran and China are willing to do business.

December 5, 2017: In the south (Zabul Province) and east (Ghazni and Paktia Provinces) Afghan and American Special Forces killed at least 80 Taliban including Omar Khetab, the deputy leader of AQIS (Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent). Technically Afghanistan is not part of AQIS territory but it has become a more reliable base area (for training camps) than Pakistan or anywhere else in South Asia. AQIS was created in 2014 and initially tried to establish its headquarters in Karachi, long a haven for all sorts of criminal activity and forged alliances with the major Islamic terrorist organizations there. Yet AQIS has been responsible for very few terror attack in Pakistan or anywhere else. AQIS was created to manage and support operations in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and Burma. Islamic terrorism experts believe this was largely a publicity stunt by al Qaeda to counter the growing popularity of the more radical ISIL. Indian Moslems have produced some recruits for Islamic terrorism, but not enough to produce the level of mayhem Islamic terrorists wanted. Lacking a lot of radical clergy and religious schools India has simply not produced a lot of radicalized young men willing to kill and be killed. Similar recruiting problems were encountered elsewhere but other Al Qaeda groups have continued to provide enough cash and other assistance to keep AQIS going and barely visible. The Afghan training camps were a major AQIS asset and the recent losses there will hamper AQIS everywhere it has a presence.

December 1, 2017: In the south (Helmand province) an American UAV used a missile to kill the head of the Taliban “Red Unit” and the video of the missile hitting the UAV was released to the media. Another senior Red Unit commander and three other Taliban were killed in the airstrike.

November 30, 2017: In the east (Nangarhar and Laghman provinces) a week of heavy fighting between ISIL and the Taliban has left over a hundred Islamic terrorists dead or wounded. The cause this time was ISIL attempting to move into Laghman province (for the first time) to take advantage of Taliban losses to the security forces there. Or it may be about Taliban factions deciding to join ISIL. It takes time to sort these things out. Apparently at least two Taliban commanders have been killed and one or both may have been killed by their own men because of disputes over joining ISIL. The increased fighting between Taliban and ISIL groups since 2016 has also about drugs although it is unclear if all these battles are over ISIL hostility to the drug trade or wanting a piece of it. This sort of thing became evident shortly after the first Afghan ISIL groups appeared in 2015. Without cash even the most fanatic Islamic terrorists cannot survive, especially since the thousand or so ISIL men left in Afghanistan are at least half non-Afghan and have a reputation for treating locals brutally. That has largely turned the tribes against ISIL. Despite that ISIL survives and continues to attract Afghan recruits, mainly because ISIL is seen as uncorrupted, at least compared to the Taliban. Most Afghans are more concerned with the cash. ISIL had nearly 3,000 personnel in 2016 but battles with the Taliban, local tribes plus increased attacks from the Americans and Afghan forces have reduced that by more than half. In some weeks over a hundred ISIL men were killed and many of those dead were reached by Afghan or American troops who gathered information for more such attacks. The fighting continues and the Afghan and American commandos in eastern Afghanistan have the dead ISIL men and captured documents to prove it. Despite setting up bases in an area with populations that contain many fans of Islamic terrorism, ISIL has many more enemies in Nangarhar. This is largely because ISIL seems unconcerned about local civilians getting killed by their operations. Planting landmines, especially anti-vehicle mines in roads, is particularly frowned upon. Thus many locals who might support the Taliban are willing to pass information to the security forces about what ISIL is up to.

Elsewhere in the area (Logar province) Afghan police arrested eleven Russian Islamic terrorists. Actually the prisoners included some women and children and all were Chechens travelling in a truck and a motorcycle. Weapons and ammo were seized. The Chechens were travelling from nearby Nangarhar province.

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