Afghanistan: New and old challenges amidst a spate of violence – I
by Ramtanu Maitra on 21 Apr 2018 1 Comment

As China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project has begun to make its presence felt in the region around Afghanistan, the country has experienced massive bloodletting in recent months, largely a result of the fragmentation of the Taliban. The group’s actions have neither a common goal nor adequate muscle to put together a nationwide movement, and no single faction is capable of securing control of the entire country, particularly the major cities where more than 12 percent of Afghans live. The various factions have engaged in killing innocent Afghans to announce their existence - a dangerous, if pathetic tactic.


A few among Taliban leaders who have rejected the Taliban emir - Maulawi Haibutullah Akhundzada, who heads the Rahbari Shura (also known as the Quetta Shura) - and gone their own way to exercise their newly-acquired authority through killings, have picked up the black ISIS flag, calling themselves adherents of the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) - the nomenclature of ISIS (or Da’esh) in Afghanistan. While their vile actions are public, information on where they are centered, who are their leaders or field commanders, and who are their protectors remains mostly within the realm of speculation.


The weakness of President Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul has added to the chaos. Among other things, it is mired in corruption, partially because of its inability to be effective either in taming the terrorists or in governing the state. The omnipresence of a multibillion-dollar heroin trade, a major source of corruption, has compromised the integrity of government officials and also a part of the Afghan National Army (ANA). Although denied by Kabul, regular media reports from the ground state that government forces are now aiding and abetting one or the other militant group.


This critical situation begs the question: Where is Afghanistan headed? To begin to answer that, we review, first, the status of US policy toward Afghanistan, and then look at some of the major factors at work on the ground: the heroin problem, the violence occasioned by Taliban fragmentation, the growth of the ISKP, the Kabul government’s missteps, and the views and activity of Afghanistan’s neighbors Russia, China and Iran.


What about the Americans?


Desperately trying to hold on to what’s been attained during a 17-year fruitless war, the United States under the new Donald J. Trump administration appeared to be uncertain whether its mission is to “stabilize” Afghanistan - a proposition associated with nation-building that few outside of Washington’s Capital Beltway subscribe to - or establish a permanent presence in the area. However, a recent statement by US Defense Secretary General James Mattis points to the latter.


Arriving unannounced in Kabul on March 13, General Mattis met with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, CEO Abdullah Abdullah and other senior Afghan officials. Before landing, Reuters quoted Mattis telling reporters: “There is interest that we’ve picked up from the Taliban side. We have had some groups of Taliban - small groups - who have either started to come over or expressed an interest in talking.” AP quoted Mattis saying, “We do look toward a victory in Afghanistan,” but “not a military victory - the victory will be a political reconciliation” with the Taliban (Mattis Holds Talks With Ghani and Abdullah: Karim Amini: Tolo News: March 13, 2018).


According to available reports, the United States will be sending more troops to Afghanistan this year in addition to the 16,000 combat troops and trainers already there. In two separate statements in December, the US Army announced its plans to deploy the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team and 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Fort Carson, Colorado-based 4th Infantry Division to Afghanistan this spring. The new soldiers will likely arrive at the beginning of the 2018 fighting season as relief for existing combat troops, a regular troop rotation as part of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (Army Announces 2 New Afghanistan Troop Deployments As DoD Digs In For 2018: Jared Keller: Task & Purpose: Dec 21, 2017). US military officials say their long-term intentions are to establish a bulwark in Afghanistan against Islamist extremism and foreign aggression in a strategic neighborhood that includes Russia, Iran and China.


Whether a few thousand additional troops will be able to seize an edge over the Taliban and the ISKP, particularly at a time when the Taliban is in control of about 60 percent of Afghanistan’s territory, is moot. Few believe the additional troops will make a noticeable dent. Some, like former Afghan President Hamid Karzai - also a member of Afghanistan’s Pushtun power cabal - claim that sending these additional troops is part of Washington’s plan to make Afghanistan its permanent home. Cited in the Feb. 14 Washington Post, Karzai stated: “The United States is not here to go to a party. There is no need for them to build so many bases just to defeat a few Taliban. They are here because all the great American rivals are in the neighborhood, and we happen to be here, too. They are welcome to stay, but not to deceive us” (Hamid Karzai’s dark theories are gaining traction in Afghanistan: Pamela Constable: The Washington Post: Feb14, 2018).


There is no reason to believe Karzai was whistling in the dark. In 2005, when the Taliban had begun its comeback after being ousted from power in December 2001 , I wrote in a March 30 Asia Times article that the United States was beefing up its military presence in Afghanistan and at the same time encircling Iran. Washington will set up nine new bases in Afghanistan in the provinces of Helmand, Herat, Nimrouz, Balkh, Khost and Paktia, I stated. Following talks with then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on Feb. 22, 2005, I reported further, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), at the time the number two Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee - accompanied to Kabul by Senators Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) - said he was committed to a “strategic partnership that we believe must endure for many, many years.” McCain told reporters that America’s strategic partnership with Afghanistan should include “permanent bases” for US military forces (US Scatters Bases to Control Eurasia: Ramtanu Maitra: Asia Times: Mar 30, 2005).


It is likely that a permanent stay in Afghanistan was always the plan behind the US invasion in pursuit of Osama bin Laden in 2001. Weeding out the Taliban and other anti-US forces is a requirement to maintain those permanent bases.


The Current Scene: Heroin Inc. and a Rolling Wave of Violence


Like the US troop presence, large-scale drug production has also become a permanent feature in Afghanistan. The principle source of finance driving the Taliban’s war efforts and perhaps the prime cause behind mounting corruption for more than a decade, poppy cultivation continues unabated. Taliban is surely the main beneficiary, but the huge amount of cash that the drug trafficking business generates annually is widely distributed, compromising many others. The unchecked explosion of drug production has also attracted some terrorist groups from outside to participate in Afghanistan’s morbid state of affairs.


The latest Afghanistan Opium Survey released by the Afghan Ministry of Counter-narcotics and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on Nov. 15, 2017, shows that Afghanistan remains the world’s top producer of opium and heroin. According to the survey, areas under poppy cultivation rose to a record high of 328,000 hectares in 2017, up 63 percent from 201,000 hectares in 2016 (Report: Afghan Opium Production Up 87 Percent In 2017: RFE/RL: Nov 15, 2017). Even more depressing is the finding that more Afghan provinces have begun to show up as poppy cultivators. The UNODC report states that the number of poppy-producing provinces in the country increased from 21 to 24 in 2017, with Ghazni, Samangan and Nuristan provinces joining the ranks, and adds that a 15 percent increase in opium yield per hectare has also contributed to the rise in production.


Drug trafficking and corruption, together with the fighting among Taliban factions based in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as other factors, have contributed to the recent rise of incidents of violence in Afghan cities. Lacking the ability to provide security even to Kabul, the capital city where more than 10 percent of Afghanistan’s population resides, the Afghan government has become a virtual spectator to the violence. Here is a shortlist of violent incidents recorded during the recent several months in Afghanistan’s urban areas:


• Dec. 28 - 41, mainly young, Shia civilians were killed by a suicide bomber in the audience at a Shia education center, Tote, in West Kabul. The attack was claimed by the local branch of the Islamic State via an IS center-related news channel.


• Dec. 31 - 8 people were killed in a bombing at a politician’s funeral in Jalalabad. There were conflicting reports as to whether a suicide bomber or a motorcycle bomb caused the explosion. The Taliban denied their involvement; an ISKP claim was reported.


• Jan. 4 - 11 people, mostly police personnel, were killed by a suicide bomber during a protest involving shopkeepers on Jalalabad Road in eastern Kabul. ISKP claimed responsibility.


• Jan. 20 - 40 people were killed by armed gunmen who stormed the Kabul Continental Hotel. Those killed included mainly government IT specialists, crew members of a private Afghan airline and other Afghan and international hotel guests. This is the only attack where all the victims were not Afghan - 15 of the victims and several of the injured were foreigners. The Taliban claimed responsibility.


• Jan. 23 - five people were killed when armed attackers stormed the Save the Children office in Jalalabad. The attack was claimed by ISKP.


• Jan. 27 - four people - two police and two civilians - were killed during a suicide attack in Kandahar City, near the Aino Mena housing scheme, when a suicide bomber struck a police vehicle. The Taliban claimed the attack.


• Jan. 27 - 103 people were killed when a car bomb exploded in Kabul’s Sedarat Square. This attack was claimed by the Taliban.


• Jan. 29 - 11 soldiers were killed when gunmen stormed a base of the Afghan National Army’s 111th division in Kabul. ISKP claimed responsibility (Five Questions to Make Sense of the New Peak in Urban Attacks and a Violent Week in Kabul: Afghanistan Analysts Network: Thomas Ruttig: Feb 5 2018).


• Feb. 20 - 3 people were killed when an explosion ripped through Jalalabad city, in the eastern province of Nangarhar, at about mid-day (Three Killed In Jalalabad Explosion: Tolo News: Feb 20 2018).


• Feb. 24 - 25 Afghan National Army soldiers lost their lives in a coordinated attack by the Taliban insurgents in western Farah province of Afghanistan, a provincial source said. Taliban claimed responsibility (Khaama Press: Feb 24 2018).


• Feb. 24 - three people were killed in a suicide bombing in Kabul’s PD 9 in Shashdarak area bordering the Green Zone, Afghanistan Ministry of Interior spokesman Najib Danish confirmed.  ISKP claimed responsibility (Death Toll Rises to Three in Kabul City Bombing: Feb 24 2018).


• March 2 - three bystanders were killed and 22 wounded when a car bomb targeting a foreign forces convoy passing through the Qabel Bai area in Kabul’s PD9 exploded. No group claimed responsibility. The attack occurred two days after President Ashraf Ghani had proposed peace talks with the Taliban (Three Killed, 22 Wounded In Kabul Car Bomb Explosion: Tolo News: March 2 2018).


• March 9 - 10 people were killed when a suicide bomber set off explosives in a crowd of minority Hazara Shiite Muslims near a mosque complex in Kabul. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. (Hazaras Protest After an ISIS Attack Kills 10 in Kabul: Andrew E.  Kramer: The New York Times: March 9 2018)


This list is neither complete nor comprehensive; among other things, it does not contain the many terrorist killings that took place in rural Afghanistan during this period. Moreover, in many cases the number of casualties cannot be fully ascertained; some other sources report larger numbers.


(To be continued…)

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