Afghanistan and Pakistan: One British Commander’s View

November 2019

By Lieutenant-General Jonathon Riley CB DSO PhD MA FRHistS

Jonathon Riley, Lieutenant General (UK Ret.), is the former Deputy Commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. He also commanded British forces in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, and Iraq and was awarded the NATO Meritorious Service Medal, the Distinguished Service Order and the US Legion of Merit. In addition, he is a Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath. This essay is a slightly revised version of a talk that he gave at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in October 2019.

Abstract: This article outlines the author’s personal experience of life in Afghanistan, supplemented by the research and views of contemporaries. It explores the recent history and ethnography; the legacy of the Mujahideen; the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda; the relationship with Pakistan and other challenges to security and stability in the region, including the nexus between drug cultivation, trafficking, corruption, and insecurity; kidnapping; and bribery in official transactions. The rise in size and capability of the Afghan security forces is also covered along with the role of modern technologies in combatting the nexus.

From 2005 to 2009, I served in Afghanistan and Pakistan as the senior Coalition officer in U.S. Central Command and later as the Deputy Commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). As you may well know, Afghanistan sits astride the Hindu Kush mountains of Central Asia, an extension of the Himalayas, and its climate is continental: harsh winters well below freezing, with snow on the high ground for five months of the year. The summers are hot and dry with temperatures around 50°C. There are frequent droughts lasting several years. The terrain varies from mountains as high as 14,000 feet along the northeastern borders; deserts in the west; river valleys and agricultural land where there is water; and a few large cities like Kabul, Herat, Khandahar, Masar-e-Sharif, and Jellalabad. 1   Eighty percent of the people live on the land: it is an essentially rural, agricultural society with very little mobility; I know valleys in the Central Highlands where the women in one village have heard that there is another village three miles away, but they have never seen it.2

Agriculture, the mainstay of the economy, is highly seasonal—the market changes rapidly as crops come and go. Since there is little ability to preserve, dry, can, or freeze food crops, growers must go to local markets quickly. Relatedly, one reason that opium is a very attractive crop is that the market comes to the grower, rather than the consumer going to the market. For most people, their staple diet consists of bread or potatoes, dried fruit and nuts, and tea—supplemented by whatever is in season.

The area boasts a great deal of history and diversity. Farah, in the far west, was built by Alexander the Great. Its mud walls have lasted 2,500 years. Since it rarely rains, there is little erosion. To build the city must have taken a generation and endless labor in an age when time and human resources were valued differently from today. It is eight kilometres round, as big as ancient Ninevah. Yet, today, a more degenerate posterity uses it only as a sheep-fold and public lavatory. There is Balkh in the north; the ancient Bactria famous for its two-humped camels and its carpets, the home of Zoroaster and of Alexander’s bride, Roxanna; and Herat in the far west, once one of the wealthiest cities in central Asia.3

The population is divided into Pashtuns, or Pathans, who form the largest group, about 5 percent of the total; Baluchis, who are ethnically similar but culturally different; Turkic people, such as the Uzbeks; Oriental Tajiks; Hazaras, the descendants of Genghis Khan’s Mongol invaders; and nomadic Kuchis. The ethnicities divide further into clans and family groups, often bitterly opposed to each other. No love is lost, for example, between the Durani Pathans—of whom ex-President Hamid Kharzai was one—and the Gilzai Pathans.6

Afghanistan as a country did not exist prior to 1919.5 Therefore, it possesses little tradition of statehood as the West would understand it. The Bonn constitution of 20026 imposed a centralized form of government on a country that has traditionally only tolerated the center. Even now, the center has little impact in remote districts. Without the once widespread NATO presence, the central government has little idea about what is happening in most of rural Afghanistan, other than what can be learned from cellphone conversations with friends or relatives. A strong unofficial state composed of tribes, clans, and families, with all the traditional administration of government and justice that this implies, therefore underlies the official state. The glue that used to connect the two was the monarchy, but that is long gone. Afghanistan is also segmented by its violent history of invasion and resistance, which undoubtedly has left a psychological impact on the people, especially in and around Kabul and Khandahar. One of the challenges of modern Afghanistan is to reconcile these two systems of government. But below the unofficial state is the shadow state of warlords and criminals; and below that, the dark state represented by the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State. These networks have not gone away despite their heavy losses. Rather, they simply have faded into the general population and the virtual realm. Afghanistan thus remains a sharply segmented society: by terrain, ethnicity, tribe, and family—living always within walled family compounds. Architecture reveals a great deal about the underlying state of mind of a people.

Afghanistan is also segmented by its violent history of invasion and resistance, which undoubtedly has left a psychological impact on the people, especially in and around Kabul and Khandahar.8 In the last 35 years alone, the inhabitants of Kabul needed to flee an invader three times; as a result, people fear that this devastating cycle.9 The provinces surrounding Kabul (Kapisa, Logar, Laghman, Wardak, Parwan, and Ghuzni) historically have formed the outer defenses of the capital. Whoever controlled them controlled the city. The Mujahideen made control of these areas a strategic objective when they were fighting the Russians during the 1980s. In a society that always lives within compounds, these provinces represent the outer walls of the Kabul compound. If they are breached or infiltrated, then the compound is in danger. I believe the Taliban understood this better than the Alliance did and adopted the same methods as the Mujahideen.

The Taliban Insurgency

What then of the Taliban insurgency? The original Taliban formed during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, in the refugee camps and madrassas across the border in Pakistan, with the active support of the Pakistani authorities and Pakistani military intelligence, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID).10 It consisted primarily of Pashtuns from the southern and eastern part of the country. The Pathans have been warriors since the earliest times. They were a problem for Alexander the Great, successive Indian Mogul rulers and Aghan Kings, the British in India, and the Soviets.11

They are fierce, fearless, determined, and well trained in arms and fieldcraft, endlessly patient and cunning. And they know every rock and bush in their own country. The writer John Masters tells a story about his service with the Gurkhas in Burma during World War II. During a particularly fierce series of attacks by the Japanese, pressed home with utter determination and disregard for casualties, a Gurkha non-commissioned officer (NCO)—a veteran of the North-West frontier—grinned at Masters and said “You know Sahib, if these Japanee-log were Pathans, we would be in trouble!”12

After the Taliban government was swept out of power following its involvement in the September 11, 2001 events, it spent several years regrouping in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan while NATO went about business as if it had been defeated. But the Taliban was not defeated, and when it saw an opportunity, it began re-infiltrating the Pashtun south and east of Afghanistan, as well as pockets of the Pashtu population in the north. This neo-Taliban, re-formed by Mullah Omar on the structure of the original movement,13 formed the core of the insurgency. In an essentially rural country, it is not surprising that this was—and is— an essentially rural insurgency fought by groups of fighters, either from Pakistan or locally recruited, under the direction of several organizing groups or Shuras.

The insurgency is not, however, one coherent grouping. This complicated force is one of many concerns that will make the current political process between the Afghan government and the Taliban extremely difficult. The southern Taliban is directed by the Quetta Shura, originally formed under the direction of Mullah Omah, the overall figurehead of the insurgency, until his death in 2015. It is now led by Hibatullah Akhundazada. Its foci are Khandahar and Helmand, with its secondary foci being Zabul, Oruzgan, and the routes northwards to other Pashtu pockets. Khandahar and Helmand are the heartland of the Southern Taliban. Khandahar was the place where Mullah Omah declared himself the successor of the Prophet—a truly remarkable act and one which made it impossible for him to compromise with the West, or with the Afghan state.14 Since Omah’s death, there have been attempts at negotiation, not least because the Pakistani authorities were obliged by U.S. pressure to crack down on the Shura.

In Helmand, Khandahar, and the other southern provinces, in cooperation with the Baluch, the Taliban continues to derive important income from the narcotics trade. Further northeast, there are a range of groups, such as those directed by the Miramshah and Peshawar Shuras; the Haqqani Network; Hesbi-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG), led by Gulbaddin Hekmatyar (who twice served in government in the 1990s, but long ago embraced criminality); and the Lashkar-i-Taibah which was responsible for the infamous Mumbai bombing in 2008.15 Then, there is the Pakistani Taliban under the direction of Baitullah Mehsud until he was killed by a drone strike. The insurgency is also augmented by fighters from as far away as Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Uzbekistan—and, of course, second or third generation Muslims from Britain and Europe.

Insurgent numbers undoubtedly vary from place to place and over time, but even the Taliban admits enormous losses during the war with NATO—from a quarter to a half of its people. The campaign of targeted drone strikes has reduced significantly the older, experienced leadership and forced those who remain to move frequently and keep a low profile. As U.S. operations kill these commanders, their places are taken by outsiders, inexperienced Madrassa recruits, or previously unknown leaders. Not surprisingly, therefore, the most mobile and ruthless Taliban groups are often the nomadic Kochi Pathans. This attrition of the leadership, in particular, is one reason why the Taliban is highly unlikely ever again to ally with al-Qaeda or ISIS. They simply will not risk the military power of the United States continuing to kill every fighter who shows his face.16

In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s aim has been to reestablish its medieval style of rule and its severe interpretation of Sharia law. To accomplish this, its first goal was to force NATO and other international forces from Afghanistan; or if it could not force them out, to wait them out. And the Taliban possesses a very different view of time than the Western need for instant gratification. While we look at our watches, they view the calendar and exhibit great strategic patience. It knows that the government of Afghanistan is very vulnerable without NATO forces. At the same time, it seeks continually to undermine the Kabul government. The weaker, more ineffective, and more corrupt the government looks, the better the alternatives offered by the insurgents appear to the population. The Taliban certainly succeeded in waiting out NATO and the bulk of U.S. forces under President Barak Obama.17 A U.S. presence remains, and the Taliban has probably therefore had to moderate its aims, but this will be discussed later.

In Afghanistan, during the NATO operation, one often heard the expression “Taliban shadow governance.” This notion is, in my view, misplaced. Taliban shadow “governors” do not govern—they extort. Nor does Taliban rule bring security. It brings law and order: law in the shape of Sharia, and order in the sense of conformity to Taliban norms of behavior. But there is no security for women, non-Muslims, or minorities who are regarded as scarcely human. Many criminal groups—the Haqqanis are one—either collaborate with the Taliban or take advantage of the circumstances of insecurity. Even northern warlords, power-brokers, and officials who are very much opposed ideologically to the Taliban will smuggle drugs one way over the border and weapons the other, taking their cut. There is a system of almost franchise, where criminals are either paid or the Taliban allows them to carry out robbery, smuggling, and kidnapping in exchange for a share of the profits.18 For local people, whether their lives are made intolerable by ideologically motivated Talibs or financially motivated criminals makes little difference: all they know is that their government is not protecting them.

Al-Qaeda is now almost extinct, and much of its work has been subsumed by ISIS, although weakened. Both networks can still act as facilitators for ideology, money, weapons, people, and expertise through their contacts across the Islamic world. They can provide, for example, groups of fighters and trainers with the technical expertise to construct roadside improvised explosive device (IEDs). They recruit, train, indoctrinate, and transport suicide bombers and their devices. They spread the doctrines of hate through Wahabi teaching in the madrassas of Pakistan and elsewhere, and most especially through the internet.19 By these means, they work to spread the global jihad.

The role of Iran is, as usual, malign, but hard to pin down. Much of western Afghanistan was Iranian until the early twentieth century. The Farsi language spoken there is essentially Persian. Most families have a member working in Iran, and the Iranian government funds many programs in the western provinces of Afghanistan. Iranian money is commonly circulated in cities like Heart and all the communications—roads, electricity lines and so on—run into Iran rather than to the far-off center in Kabul. Underpinning this, many western Afghans are Shi’ite Muslims, looking to the Iranian Ayatollahs for guidance. Shi’ite mosques are visible as far east as Mazar-i-Sharif and even a few in Kabul itself. The Iranians find themselves in a quandary. They have no wish to see Afghanistan succeed as a Western client state, but neither do they want a radical Sunni problem, which a Taliban state would be, on their borders.20 They tend, therefore, to calibrate their response. If the Afghan government proves too successful, then some encouragement and weaponry will be supplied to the Taliban, although they have stopped short of supplying ground-to-air missiles or shaped charge warheads, as they did in Iraq. They fear provoking a devastating U.S. response.21 However, if the Taliban are being too successful, then supplies are cut off, offices are closed, and sympathizers locked up. In this, as in many areas, the Iranians will sooner or later miscalculate and attract a direct U.S. military response.

For the Taliban and other groups,a safe haven still exists in Pakistan. The FATA of Pakistan, which abut Afghanistan, cover nearly 11,000 square miles of mountainous, rugged terrain and is home to at least seven million people. Their first loyalty is not to Pakistan, but to their family, tribe, clan, and sense of being Pastun. Covering nearly 40,000 square miles, the FATA and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP, now renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), together number almost 20 million people. Despite large areas of unpopulated mountains, they are approximately three times as densely populated as the Northeastern United States.22 The current border, the result of neither British India nor the old royal government of Afghanistan being able to consolidate its power over the Pashtun areas, means little to these people, whose families, clans, and tribes straddle the border, and whose life has scarcely changed in a thousand years.23 The Taliban, as much Pashtun as Islamic, equally refuses to accept the border. Since the Bonn Settlement of 2002, however, they have used continued sanctuary in the FATA to recuperate, regenerate, and carry out its policy of decapitating (sometimes literally) the tribal leadership and the old Mujahideen leadership, and to launch attacks into both Afghanistan and the settled areas of Pakistan. In these ways, it tries to have its cake and eat it too: refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the border, or indeed the right of the Pakistan government to exercise authority in the FATA, while using our recognition of it against us and the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban’s vision for both Afghanistan and Pakistan is an absolutist one with no room for anything of the West, or any feature that is not derived from a fundamentalist, literal, interpretation of Islam.

The same is true of al-Qaeda and now ISIS, which use sanctuary in the FATA to facilitate foreign jihadists. The population density offers great human camouflage for Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS fighters and their leadership. Before their deaths, Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar were able to remain undiscovered for long periods. Indeed, most Western intelligence agencies failed to grasp the deep impact that al-Qaeda was having in this area until September 11, 2001, by which time it was too late.24 al-Qaeda had attacked the tribal leadership and structures, already weakened by years of war, and radicalized peoples’ outlook. These are the same people, who only 15 years earlier, saw themselves as allies of the West against the Soviets. Many senior al-Qaeda figures had come to the region from Arabia during the 1980s to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Several stayed on and became members of Pashtun communities: Aymun Al-Zawahiri, one of al-Qaeda’s most senior leaders, for example, married a woman from Bajaur Agency. These jihadists became part of the fabric of the FATA, not least because they had money and weapons. Becoming allies with these people made more sense locally than clinging to a West that, in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal, simply turned its back. Since the major troop withdrawals by NATO and the United States, this feeling has only strengthened.

As the late Richard Holbrooke, the famously straight-talking U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan said, the borderland of Pakistan is a crucial battlespace in the Afghan campaign and in the wider war against radical Islamism.25 One way or another, any strategy will have to confront the jihadist insurgency on both sides of the border and challenge the impunity with which insurgent leaders live and operate in Pakistan. The whereabouts of, for example, the Haqqani brothers and Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, not to mention members of the Quetta Shura, are known to the Pakistani authorities, who are either unable or unwilling to take action unless forced to do so. When they do act, it is only as much as is necessary to avoid the disappearance of foreign aid. The active participation of individuals in the Pakistani security services; the unwillingness of the Pakistani Frontier Corps soldiers to fight; the lack of doctrine, training, and equipment for counter-insurgency in Pakistan; public opinion in Pakistan towards the threat of radical Islamism; the unwillingness of the Army to lose its favorable position in society—founded on the threat posed by India rather than anything internal; the old habits of Pakistani military intelligence, the ISID; and the weakness of the Pakistani government all give space for the insurgency in the debatable lands of the FATA. The insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan are clearly the same insurgency. Unless we address them as one, we will never solve the problem of security inside either country. Given the increasing distance between the Pakistani government and the West, I doubt now that such a solution is possible even though the Pakistanis need help. Every strategic decision they have made has been wrong; every measure of life in Pakistan is declining except one—population.26

With the bulk of NATO forces now gone, the Afghan government is continually forced to make choices about where it operates. NATO and U.S. forces have declined from more than 160,000 in 2010, to 8,500 U.S. and about 1,000 British troops, concentrated on Kabul and on the training of the Afghan forces.27 Operations are largely, therefore, the preserve of the Afghan forces, which (including the air force), number close to 300,000.28 This is a major expansion and success by the Afghans themselves, NATO, and the United States. Media lamenting how slow we were to generate local security forces often overlooks the fact that years are necessary to develop institutional capacity: command and control, communications, officer and NCO corps, staff training, personnel and material management, and so on. Security sector reform is not about training and equipping soldiers, rather it is about creating a system within a host nation which will do that for itself.

Although the Afghans still require support from our air forces, special forces, and UAVs, the Army has become multi-ethnic and able to dominate terrain—human and geographic—in a way that once seemed impossible. This is another reason why the Taliban has come to the negotiating table with the government.

In a normal society, the usual face of security for the population is not the army, but the police. The capabilities of Afghan police remain thin. The police, excepting the national elements, remain locally recruited, and subject to local influences and prejudices, as well as being poorly armed, equipped, and trained. They are also often isolated and easy targets for Taliban or ISIS attacks.

Going forward, the enduring problem for the Afghan government, and indeed for the Pakistani government, is not just that the Taliban is strong, but that the state is weak. The insurgency sits inside the greater problem of nation building and poisons it because without security, the development of essential services and basic governance cannot proceed. Security is the most basic requirement for any government. It is bad enough that an absence of security hampers the development of governance and the rule of law—let alone socio-economic programs. Yet, in Afghanistan, governance is hampered further by weak leadership, a culture of dependency and blame, and entrenched, raging corruption. The World Bank assesses that Afghanistan ranks 176 out of 180 of the world’s most corrupt countries.29 State-sponsored theft, bribery, and extortion are destroying the economy far more effectively than the insurgency.

The threats to security in Kabul and other large Afghan cities have little to do with the rural insurgency and far more to do with organized, or at times institutionalized, crime and the corruption it spawns. The abduction, and in some cases, the murder of foreign journalists and non-governmental organization (NGO) workers in Kabul makes headlines. However, the real issue of kidnapping is not that of a few foreigners, but the far larger number of Afghans being kidnapped, which passes unnoticed in the Western media. These kidnappings are entirely criminal and target the children of the new rich and wealthy businessmen.30

But what does corruption mean to people trying to make a living in Afghanistan? Consider some examples. If you are a businessman trying to bring cargo of goods from Peshawar in Pakistan to Kabul through the infamous Khyber Pass, it means 47 different permits or passes for various stretches of the road, each of which may need eight or nine different signatures and requires a hefty bribe. If you are a traveler, it means getting stopped at a police checkpoint every ten miles, and paying a “toll.” If you are the policeman levying such a toll, it means you probably need to do so to feed your family because the district chief of police has stolen most of your $70-dollar-a-month salary. And his salary, in turn, has been stolen by the provincial chief, whose salary has been stolen by someone in Kabul, who is recouping the $200,000 or so that he laid out to buy his job in the first place.31 This problem of salary theft, like many others, is being steadily addressed by the payment of salaries electronically. However, for the traveler, it may also mean that three out of the ten policemen who rob you are doing so to feed a heroin addiction that costs $60 a day to service,32 in an economy where most families expect to live on $4 a day and where bread now costs ten times what it did five years ago.33

Then, there is protection money paid by restaurants and shops to both the police and criminal groups, taxes on security firms and bodyguards, corruption at every level. If you want to pay your electricity bill, you must visit seven different cashiers’ windows in the Ministry of Power and Water, each of which gives permission to proceed to the next step, and to incur a bribe. Consequently, one must pay several times over for the privilege of paying one’s bill. This practice now is being overcome as bill-paying is moved to online or mobile phone payments. Overlaid on routine criminality and corruption in Kabul is the struggle for dominance between the Tajiks, who dominate the police (and therefore corruption), and other ethnic groups. But this corruption is as much the fault of uncontrolled, unconditional, and ill-directed Western spending as it is of Afghans. At least 20 percent of all aid money is spent within the donor country, and then there are the fees of consultants and experts, profits and movement costs, security, and so on. Bottom line: if 20 percent of aid money gets to the recipients, they have done well.34

We also must recognize that there is a nexus between Taliban insurgency and organized crime.35 We have seen this in many parts of the world: in Sierra Leone, its cause and focus was diamonds; in the Balkans, people smuggling; and in Northern Ireland, the IRA made money from a wide range of criminal activities, ranging from smuggling to protection rackets. Corruption is not new; and the way in which criminality and insurgency feed off each other to mutual advantage contributes greatly to the longevity to these kinds of wars.In Afghanistan, the nexus is focused on poppy. Narcotics is the only part of the Afghan economy not being crippled by extortion dressed up as government regulation. It even benefits from development assistance through the recycling of agricultural aid programs.

One reason why bread prices are so high is that less wheat is being grown. Why? There is far more money to be made growing opium or marijuana. Afghanistan accounts for 93 percent of the world’s heroin and morphine production. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 52 percent of its economy, at least $2.7 billion annually, comes from these crops.36 The small farmers, in fact, derive very little profit from it; the money is in the operations of well-connected big growers and in the refining and onward transmission. The average farm gate price of a kilogram of opium last year was $86—on paper, 9.5 times more profitable than growing wheat. However, 10 percent of the farmer’s income will be taxed by the local authorities and/or the Taliban. Harvesters are needed, and they will demand $10 a day each, plus 25 percent of the opium crop; and then small farmers have to buy off the government eradicators, where they are not supervised by the United States—often to the tune of $100,000 per village. And these eradicators may need to be bought off twice a year. Then, there are “loans” to repay and bribes for police check-points when transporting the product for refining.

The statistics show that in many cases, farmers who are not seduced by the Taliban or other criminals into growing opium, and who grow food crops, are actually making more than those who grow opium. But the original $86 per kilo of raw opium inside the farm gate becomes $3,600 once turned into heroin beyond the farm gate, and $35,000 on the streets.37 This money is laundered through the network of hawaladars—a traditional method of transferring credit in the Muslim world through moneylenders. In the past, this was done by deposit in one place, note of hand, and drawing funds at one’s destination. Nowadays, the mobile phone network is the vehicle, and there are virtually no written records, so tracing the passage of money is very difficult.38 There are many more hawala shops than banks, where debt settlement can be done in cash (any currency), opium, or trade goods. Business, of course, fluctuates. In the poppy harvest, a hawala shop in, Baramcha, for example, can be expected to launder $10 million a month; in low season, this may drop below $1,000.39

Drug money is so huge that inevitably it fuels corruption. Everyone, right up the chain, wants some of it. One Afghan looked at me incredulously when I talked to him about this subject. He exclaimed, “Of course there is more corruption—there is more money about!” Border posts, for example, are believed to charge nearly half a million dollars a night to close down when a heroin transfer is taking place. Even a small cut for a policeman on £40 a month will see him and his family right for a year. As well as exploiting the cultivation of poppy, the Taliban is also involved in processing and transporting the crop out of Afghanistan. Of course, most of the opium and marijuana produced in Afghanistan goes to Iran, Pakistan, China, Central Asia, and Russia.40 Little of it reaches Western Europe and the United States. Thus, the Taliban raise funds for their insurgency while simultaneously reducing confidence in the current government. And in poppy-free provinces, corruption and the nexus move where they can: in Logar, for example, to chromite extraction and smuggling; in Nuristan, timber; in big cities, to protection and kidnapping.41

Looking Forward

To change this picture, the behavior of both farmers and the superiors involved in both trafficking and corruption will have to be changed. To change behavior, there are two levers: persuasion and coercion. Persuasion is principally directed towards the farmer—i.e., it is behind the farm gate and consists of subsidies to encourage food crops, access to markets, transportation, and the availability of processing installations. Coercion must be applied to the traffickers and refiners and includes large-scale eradication by cutting or spraying, the destruction of refining facilities, and the prosecution of offenders along with the seizure of their assets.

Many people ask, “Why don’t we just buy up the crop?” It seems an attractive idea, but it does not stand close scrutiny. First, if we buy the crop, we encourage armers to grow it rather than grow food. We also encourage the Taliban and corrupt officials to continue taking their cut. This money would go straight to buying weapons with which to kill our own soldiers. The old argument about medical use is also wrong: the production of opium in Afghanistan for one year would satisfy the entire medical needs of the world for 15 years.42 So are we going to keep 14-years’ surplus every year? Or pay for it with tax dollars and then burn it?

I was often asked why we were in Afghanistan, and if the effort was worth the pain. Through our sacrifices and the sacrifices of dedicated Afghans, there have been some positive trends. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan had the highest child mortality rate in the world. That rate has been reduced by a quarter. Access to health care has gone from eight percent of the population to 65 percent. More children—especially girls—go to school now than at any time in Afghanistan’s history: 3.8 million boys and 2.2 million girls. The road network and general infrastructure, although poor by our standards, is better than it has ever been. The Afghan Army is growing in size and competence.43 Afghanistan possesses significant, if untapped, natural resources: hydro-electric power, a diverse agriculture, forestry, oil, coal, iron, copper, uranium, and gems. It is, potentially, a rich country even without poppy.

At its starkest, the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and especially the FATA, represents the next realistic prospect for a jihadist movement to take control of a state, or part of a state, following the eviction of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Taliban and/or ISIS-al-Qaeda control of this mini-state would neutralize the Afghan and Pakistani central governments’ already tenuous influence. It would also provide a secure base from which Islamic extremists could plan and launch attacks well beyond the borders of Pakistan, as well as threatening the very existence of Pakistan as a unitary, democratic nation state. And Pakistan, remember, has a population of 370 million people44 and a nuclear arsenal that might pose a threat that India could not tolerate. The insecurity of this area keeps those in power in London and Washington awake at night.

Remaining engaged in Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot just be inspired by humanitarian motives—there are plenty of other deserving candidates for that focus. More fundamental questions take priority, such as, to what extent are the developed countries of the world, faced with problems closer to hand, prepared to invest in their own security against the spread of radical Islam, through intervention, to bring security, governance, and development to areas that have none?

One of the consequences of the protracted, closed door talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban may be the end of nearly all direct Western involvement other than by NGOs. The expectation by both Afghanistan and Pakistan would be that the West will continue to throw taxpayer money at them, without proper checks and balances. I doubt this will wash—I hope not. A deal between the parties might well mean Taliban ministers in the Kabul and provincial governments. As discussed above, we know very little about what is happening in large areas of the country. Taliban government to date has meant oppression, and we should not fund that. But if the Taliban is serious about ending its insurgency, then it will go through the process during negotiation that all insurgent movements do. It will modify its demands and compromise, becoming part of the structure of government and society that it once rejected, on terms that are acceptable to both sides. This course of action cannot be taken by al-Qaeda or ISIS, which are not insurgencies, in that they do not seek to modify or to control the state. Rather, they want to sweep away the state as we understand it and replace it with something quite new.

But for the Afghan government and the Taliban, the process of compromise will be a slow one. Importantly, in order to rejoin Afghan society, the Taliban will need three things: first, a means of political expression; second, immunity from prosecution or attack; and finally, a guaranteed means of support for themselves and their families—perhaps through participation in the Afghan security forces. Successful models exist in South Africa and Sierra Leone, for example. However, the process is a hard one, and help will be needed.

1 Philip’s University Atlas (London: Philip & Co, 2008), pp. 92–105

2 Author’s personal experience.

3 See, William Woodthorpe Tarn, The Greeks in Bactria and India (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 14.

4 For a full survey of the Pathans, see, Olaf Caroe, The Pathans (UK: Oxford University Press, 1958).

5 The World Factbook: Afghanistan, Central Intelligence Agency, 2012.

6 United Nations Security Council, Document 1154 (2001).

7 See, Carlo J. Caro, The Fall of the Monarchy and Afghanistan, International Policy Digest, Dec. 2018

8 Caroe, The Pathans, pp. 117–413.

9 See, for example, Stephen Tanner, Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great (New York, DeCapo Press, 2009).

10 “The Taliban”: Mapping Militant Organizations, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University, tracking began 1994.

11 Caroe, The Pathans, pp. 43–91, 168–205, 307–438.

12 John Masters, Bugles and a Tiger (New York: Viking Press, 1956), p. 86.

13 “The Legend Mullah Mohammed Omar,” The Independent (U.K.), July 31, 2015.

14 Encyclopedia Brittanica, Entry written by the editors and updated by Amy Tikannen, collections manager.

15 The Afghan Taliban, Center for International Security Cooperation, Stanford University,

16 Probably the most penetrating study of the Taliban as a fighting force is Theo Farrell, Unwinnable: Britain’s War in Afghanistan, 2001–2014 (London: Bodley Head, 2017).

17 Mark Landler and Helene Cooper, “Obama Will Speed Pull-out from War in Afghanistan,” New York Times, June 22, 2012.

18 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Drug Trafficking and the Financing of Terrorism,

19 See, among other sources, Antonia Ward, “ISIS’s use of social media still poses a threat to stability in the Middle East and Africa,” (RAND, Dec. 11, 2018); Courtney O'Brien, “CIA Director Gives Grim Assessment of Fight Against ISIS,” in Townhall, June 16, 2016; and “Fighting Crime and Terrorism in the Age of Technology,” The Brown Journal of World Affairs, July 30, 2018.

20 For a useful summary of Iranian involvement, see, Alireza Nader, Ali G. Scotten, Ahmad Idrees Rahmani, Robert Stewart, and Leila Mahnad, Iran’s Influence in Afghanistan: Implications for the U.S. Drawdown (RAND, 2014).

21 Lionel Beehner and Greg Bruno, “Iran’s Involvement in Iraq,” Foreign Affairs, 2008.

22 “Population by Religion,” and “Percentage Distribution of Households by Language Usually Spoken and region/Province,” Pakistan Bureau of Statistics.

23 Angel Rabasa, Steven Boraz, and Peter Chalk, Ungoverned Territories: Understanding and Reducing Terrorism of Terrorists Groups Risks (RAND, 2007), p. 49; Ian Talbot, Pakistan: a Modern History (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998, rev. ed.), pp. 2–3; and Sardar Sikander, “Federal cabinet approves FATA’s merger with K-,” The Express Tribune, March 2, 2017.

24 Rohan Gunaranta and Anders Nielsen, “Al-Qaeda in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan and Beyond,” Journal of Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 31, no. 9(2008). This paragraph was written largely as a result of a series of conversations with Dr. Barbara Stapleton, Assistant to the head of the EU delegation in Afghanistan, in 2008 and 2009.

25 Cited in, for example, H.D.S. Greenaway, “Holbrooke clarifies policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Globalpost, March 5, 2010.

26 “Pakistan Population (Live),” Worldometers, Oct. 17, 2019.

27 “NATO and Afghanistan,”, March 5, 2019.

28 C.J. Radin, “Afghan National Army: February 2009 Update,” The Long War Journal, Feb. 24, 2009; and

29 “Afghanistan,” World Bank,, accessed Nov. 20, 2019.

30 J.S. von Dacre, “Child Kidnapping in Kabul on the Rise,” Insideover, July 11, 2019.

31 Recounted to the author by Afghan civilians, military personnel, aid agency workers, and NATO Special Forces members.

32 Aidan Rednedge, “‘I sold my sister to fund drug addiction’: the awful cost of heroin dependence in Afghanistan,” Metro (U.K.), March 27, 2014.

33 “Food Prices in Afghanistan,”, accessed Oct. 17, 2019; and “Afghanistan GDP per Capita” in Trading Economics 2018.

34 Jelena Bjelica and Thomas Ruttig, “The State of Aid and Poverty in 2018: A new look at aid effectiveness in Afghanistan,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, May 17, 2018.

35 Lieutenant-General Jonathon Riley, “The Conflict-Crime Nexus,” Chief of the General Staff’s Conference, Royal United Services Institute, 2014.

36 UNODC, Afghanistan Opium Survey, 2018.

37 “The Opium Kings: Transforming Opium Poppies into Heroin,”

38 “Modern Hawaladar,” How to Vanish,, Sept. 24, 2009.

39 Edwina A. Thompson, “The Nexus of Drug Trafficking and Hawala in Afghanistan,” Afghanistan’s Drug Policy: Structure, Functioning, Dynamics, and Implications for Counter-Narcotics Policy, Chap. 6, Joint Report by UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the World Bank, 2006.

40 William A. Byrd and Oliver Jonglez, “5 Prices and Market Interactions in the Opium Economy,” Afghanistan’s Drug Industry Book: Structure, Functioning, Dynamics and Implications for Counter-Narcotics (UNODC, 2006).

41 William A. Byrd and Javed Noorami, “Industrial-Scale Looting of Afghanistan’s Mineral Resources,” In U.S. Institute of Peace Special Report, 2017.

42 UNODC, Afghanistan Opium Survey, 2018.

43 UNESCO UIS Survey on Afghanistan, UNESCO Institute of Statistics, 2019.

44 “Pakistan Population (Live),”, Oct. 17, 2019.

More articles like this...
The Nexus: War, Insurgency and Criminality » Private Sector Operations » The IED »


Copyright © 2008 Jonathon Riley

Copyright Notice: Unless explicitly stated otherwise, all rights including those in copyright of the documents and content of this website are owned by or controlled for these purposes by Jonathon Riley (Generalship Ltd). Except as otherwise expressly permitted under copyright law or Generalship Ltd's Terms of Use, the aforementioned content may not be copied, reproduced, republished, downloaded, posted, broadcast or transmitted in any way without first obtaining written permission of the copyright owner.