By Ron Aledo, M.A.
Ron Aledo is a military and intelligence professional. Former contractor analyst for the CIA and the DIA, he was also a Director of the Liaison office of DHS for Mexico and an operations officer for the Joint Staff, the Pentagon. Ron was an intelligence advisor for the Afghan Police in Kabul for more than a year.
With all eyes in the recent fighting in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State and the two-dozen other radical groups in Syria, and with the tragic attacks in Western Europe by jihadists many are not current with one of the hottest spots for terrorism and insurgency fighting: Afghanistan.
It was in Afghanistan where all began back in 2001 after the September 11 terrorists attacks. Furthermore, if we really want to go back to the root, we can also estimate that it was Afghanistan where all began with the jihadist fight against the Soviet Army back in the late 70s and early 80s (that time of course with Western money supporting the Jihadists).
The truth is that Afghanistan have been and is at the center stage in the fight against terrorism. Back in 2001 it was the regime of the Taliban, the Sunni radical fighters born out of the resistance against the Soviets, the ones who protected and harbored Bin Laden and all of his Al Qaeda captains. After the September 11 attacks, the US was fast to link with the Northern Alliance, mostly of Tajiks and Uzbeks, to fight the Taliban, mostly Pashtun, and remove them from power in Kabul. Then came the hunting down of Al Qaeda that ended up 10 years later with the death in Pakistan of bin Laden himself. Still, the Taliban threat is stronger than ever in Afghanistan and more than 15 years of occupation and war has done little to contain the threat.
After the US and NATO invasion and the fall of the Taliban came the long insurgency war. Out of power and driven from Kabul, the Taliban went to the south-east parts of the country, to the Pashtun lands to continue the wat, this time as the insurgents against the US imposed government (mostly the Northern Alliance converted into a National Government with the help of supportive Pashtuns). While the Taliban remained very much alive during the years of high level deployments from the US and NATO, they went into their ancient tactic of waiting for the invaders to leave, that means low intensity attacks without exposing themselves into open battle, while waiting years until the invaders decide to leave. From the British times back in colonial times, to the Soviets, and now the US and NATO, that has been the Taliban tactic.
With the dramatic reduction in NATO troops and the change of mission in 2014 from fighting to advising, the Taliban took a more aggressive approach and began to engage in open battle and to regain terrain, mostly in the South-West areas of the country, again in the Pashtun lands. The trend ever since remains unchanged with the Taliban gaining more terrain, controlling larger segments of the rural population every year. Unusual and new attacks in the usually quiet northern parts of the country are stretching beyond capabilities the new, large but far from effective Afghan Army.
Another factor in the equation is that many young Taliban, usually fighters under 35, got tired of the waiting strategy of the Taliban and, inspired by the all action approach of the Islamic State, switched alliance and self-declared themselves as the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Most of the very violent terrorist attacks, no prisoners approach and even decapitation of soldiers and policemen are due to the Islamic State, and not the Taliban. In comparison now the Taliban looks like the ¨moderates¨ when talking about the Islamic State.
The Taliban and the other groups use a hybrid tactic of attack: in the country side where they control large areas under their direct government the launch massive conventional military attacks as an organized insurgency against the government forces, while in the large cities under solid control of the Kabul government the Taliban launch classic terrorists attacks, targeting mostly government forces, foreign troops. Because of this the Taliban and other groups attack often Kabul with car bombs, explosives, small arms, etc. as they lack the force there to carry on direct military and conventional attacks.
Other factor of extreme importance is that poppy production in the Taliban controlled areas is a high as ever. The poppy is exported via Central Asia countries to the Russian mafia and then distributed to Europe and East Asia as heroin and derivates. This is a major source of income for the Taliban that allows it to finance itself and get all kinds of supplies.
Most recently the Trump administration said it will soon send about 4,000 troops to Afghanistan to join the 5000 soldiers already there (plus contractors and US Government civilians). I can imagine that most of these troops might be related to air support, as helicopters attacks is the most effective weapons against the Taliban. Actually, while the Afghan Army and Police is doing most of the fight, it is air support that is keeping the Kabul government alive. If air support is removed from Afghanistan, the Taliban would take over the country in months. Most likely the new troops is a last effort to save Afghanistan, as will secure the Afghan government position while negotiation and peace agreement is reached.
I believe that is the one actual possibility to end this long and costly war in Afghanistan: negotiate with the Taliban. While the West or the Afghan government will never be able to negotiate with the Islamic State (that must be eliminated), it can reach some Peace agreement with the Taliban. The soon to arrive reinforcements can provide the Afghan government with a position of strength from which they can negotiate a better deal. If no deal is reached, then the Taliban will continue with their classic strategy of outwaiting the enemy and we will be looking ahead to many, many more years of war in the country.