Something remarkable is happening in the Taliban stronghold of southern Afghanistan. The people of Helmand province are protesting against the war and asking the government and the Taliban to stop killing civilians.
This protest would be less remarkable if it were a generic call to peace. Instead, the men and women of Helmand are planning to take the call to the Taliban, announcing that they would march to Taliban-held territory to press for their demands for a ceasefire and civilian protection. This is an act of immeasurable courage in an area where people strive to appear neutral between the government and the Taliban just to survive.
But if this movement had to come from anywhere in Afghanistan, it would be Helmand. The province has been one of the areas hardest hit by the bloody war that is increasingly preying on women and children.
The protest started spontaneously after an explosion at a sports event and comes amid efforts by the Afghan government to kick start long-stalled peace talks. The protests are also happening around the time when the Taliban typically announce their spring offensive, their yearly battle campaign that sets out the group’s targets and tactics. The Taliban have so far dismissed the protesters’ demands, forcing them to go on hunger strike. But as the Taliban’s Pakistan-based political and military commissions finalize their battle plan, they would be well served to pay heed to Helmand.
The Taliban have always claimed that they support peace and want to minimize the suffering of Afghans. This is their opportunity to show in one of the deadliest theaters of war that they are serious. By accepting the call to a ceasefire from a grassroots movement in their own stronghold, they can communicate this through action – not just lofty, self-righteous rhetoric, as is their style.
A limited ceasefire in Helmand could save lives and put the onus on the Afghan government to take the next quantum step toward peace. For a media-savvy Taliban, this would be a propaganda coup. And it would be well-deserved. They have convincingly shown that they can make war; now they can show that they can make peace, too.
And while the Taliban are at it, they could further demonstrate moral leadership by setting their military objectives more clearly for this fighting season. In the past, they have targeted and killed civilians indiscriminately. For example, take this 2015 Taliban statement: “So long as [foreign countries] have a military presence inside our country, their civilian efforts under whatever name and title will not find security.” Conflating civilian and military objectives like this has had catastrophic consequences, like when the Taliban used an explosives-laden ambulance to attack a bustling area close to a hospital, shopping centers, and embassies. About 100 people were killed and 200 injured.
The Taliban have also threatened and attacked Afghans associated with the international presence in Afghanistan, including civilian employees at military bases, aid workers, interpreters, development professionals, health officials, and teachers.
Nobody is expecting the Taliban to stop fighting. But the protesters’ demands are just and clear: stop indiscriminately killing civilians. In practical terms, this means stopping the use of the notoriously imprecise improved explosive devices; not fighting near hospitals, schools, mosques, and people’s homes; no more suicide attacks at crowded locations; not targeting civilians who work for the government. The list goes on.
The political theatrics of peacemaking – where to negotiate, under what conditions, and with whom – will continue to play out. But by taking these steps, the Taliban can save the lives of Afghans. In a war that has become a stalemate, they cannot kill their way to political legitimacy, but they could enter potential talks from a stronger moral position if they took steps to protect lives.
It is true that peace in Afghanistan remains a complex affair involving a motley of global actors with divergent agendas. Besides the Afghan government in Kabul and the Taliban, there are Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, the United States, and India, plus, Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and Central Asian militants. Sorting through all that will take time. But making efforts to reduce civilian casualties should not.
The focus of peace efforts on regional and international realipolitik has distracted everyone for too long from what could be accomplished on the ground with little politics. The protesting mother who lost five sons and her husband is here to remind us of that. Lives could be saved if fighters stopped taking them.
An upstart Islamic State affiliate that first appeared in Afghanistan in 2014 is becoming increasingly deadly and their attacks on the country's minority Shiites have grown bolder. In Sunday's devastating bombing, a suicide bomber walked up to a crowd outside a voter registration office and blew himself up killing 57 people.
Most of the dead were ethnic Hazaras, who are Shiites Muslims. Another 119 people were wounded, many of them seriously.
It was the latest in a series of attacks by ISIS against the country's minority Shiites. Following last year's attack on the Iraq Embassy in Kabul, the extremist group issued a warning to Shiites that they were coming for them. Since then, they have carried out a number of horrific assaults targeting their places of worship in Kabul and Herat in western Afghanistan.
Like their counterparts in Syria and Iraq, insurgents belonging to Afghanistan's Islamic State group are radical Sunni Muslims who revile Shiites as apostates and believe that the entire Muslim world should be ruled by a single caliphate. In Afghanistan, it is known as the Islamic State in Khorasan province, the ancient name of an area that included parts of Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.
HOW STRONG IS THE ISLAMIC STATE IN AFGHANISTAN, AND WHO IS ACTIVE IN IT?
When the Islamic State group first appeared in Afghanistan its ranks were mostly culled from among the most ferocious of Pakistani Taliban from Pakistan's Bajaur tribal region, driven out by a military offensive, as well as from among disgruntled Taliban, who were frustrated with a leadership reigning in its violence and considering negotiations to end fighting.
At its outset, the Islamic State was mostly confined to eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, but in recent years it has gained ground in the north and northeast of Afghanistan. Their ranks quickly swelled with Uzbek fighters, mostly from Central Asia's Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, many of whom were driven out of Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region by a military offensive.
Analysts say the movement brutality's was unmatched and, as outsiders to Afghanistan, the Uzbek fighters show no compunction about carrying out mass killings. ISIS, with the aid of Uzbeks, has made inroads into northern Afghanistan where Afghan Uzbeks mostly live. There have been several reports of open recruitment by IMU members. The size of ISIS in Afghanistan is unknown, but estimates generally run between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters.
WHAT DO THEY WANT?
The ISIS in Khorasan province shares the Syrian and Iraqi ISIS goal of establishing a caliphate that governs the entire Muslim world. Their only stated goal for Afghanistan, however, is to rid it of Shiite Muslims. The overwhelming majority are Sunni Muslims, who historically have lived in peace with their Shiite brethren. Shiites have stepped up security around their places of worship but Afghanistan's security forces seem confounded on how to prevent the relentless attacks.
DO THEY HAVE SIGNIFICANT SUPPORT IN THE POPULATION?
There is little support among Afghans for a movement whose sole goal is killing Shiite Muslims. While Afghanistan is a conservative Muslim country that has been alternately ruled by radical religious groups — first anti-Soviet mujahedeen groups and later the Taliban — there is practically no support for rule by caliphate. Afghanistan's rulers, even the radical religious ones, have been nationalists, ready to go to war to protect their sovereignty.
WHAT IS THEIR RELATIONSHIP TO THE TALIBAN?
ISIS and Taliban are battlefield adversaries which has prompted countries like Russia to confer with the Taliban, who they see as a bulwark against a formidable ISIS on its southern border. While loosely constructed, the Taliban since the death of its supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar several years ago are mostly comprised of ethnic Pashtuns and Arab-speaking nationals with ties to al-Qaida. They have condemned IS and the two groups have fought each other in eastern Nangarhar province where both seek full control, and where US and Afghan security forces have been carrying out offensives against IS hideouts.
China is one of the most important contemporary political-economic actors globally and more so in the South Asian region because of its ever-expanding economic initiatives and engagement in political-economic affairs in the region and beyond. However, it has been playing the role of a silent viewer vis a vis Afghan conflict throughout the course of 2000s with very limited engagement in the Afghan political dynamics at a time when the Country has been an arena for a diverse set of actors. Beijing has contained itself in terms of participating in debates focused on Afghan security, stability and long term visioning. It was only recently that China has demonstrated mobility and participation in Afghan affairs as an important actor.
Beijing has been looking at the Afghan affairs with “wait and see” approach and has gone into hibernation at most of the times in debates regarding future of Afghanistan. The fact that China is the global and regional rival of the United States has also played its part in the approach as Beijing, perhaps, has tried to remain neutral in order to avoid direct confrontation with its economic and political competitor. China has mostly stayed aside in Afghan affairs and has only joined the debates when it has had a direct impact on Chinese territory. This makes one assume that Chinese leadership has a belief that affairs within the Afghan territory are not a matter of concern for the Chinese Government unless it directly affects them.
An instable Afghanistan should be a serious cause of concern for China that shares 76 KM border with Afghanistan in Wakhan corridor located in northeastern part of it. Comparatively, a stable Afghanistan can contribute to Beijing’s regional connectivity and economic integration agenda. While one can argue that the size and extent of the Chinese economy may not need Afghanistan for its growth and expansion agenda, the perils posed by an instable Afghanistan will have far-reaching adversaries for the Asian giant.
A fractured or failed Afghanistan will pose significant security threats to China. Chinese polity and military will be exposed to internal threats posed by separatist movements in Xinjiang. At a time that China is trying to integrate its Uygur community into its broader economic and development framework, the whole investments can face a threat of insurgency backed up from Afghanistan. China has already faced threats posed by Turkistan Islamic Movement (TIM) during Taliban era as they infiltrated from sanctuaries available to them inside Afghanistan within Taliban governed geographies. Collapse of the current Kabul regime to the hard line militants could further embolden TIM and its associates challenging a major part of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) i.e. China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as well as economic development initiatives such as establishment of special economic zone in Kashgar.
The Republic of China Armed Forces might be of the view that TIM movements are curtailed and with their intelligence and military capacity, they will be able to silent any militant activity. However, the spillover effects of instability and conflict cannot be contained in an era where militants have adopted new tactics and have access to state of the art technology. More importantly, groups such as so-called Islamic State-Khurasan Province (IS-KP) that does not believe in operating within certain boundaries and it can have Chinese militant groups as its subseries. The group announced its presence as Afghan wing of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in July 2014 and since then it has been able to perform sophisticated attacks on its Afghan targets. Hence, a fragile or failed Afghanistan can pose prodigiously serious threats to China, at least in its western region.
Besides direct spillover affects, a weakly governed Afghanistan can also threaten countries in the Central Asian region where China has a number of mega initiatives. Beijing is looking to import energy through pipelines from Russia and other Central Asian republics through pipeline projects. One of the major disincentives of an instable Afghanistan can be a threat to these regional initiatives. Even if the Central Asian countries succeed to avoid direct effects of the Afghan conflict it will result in security cost hike of such initiatives.
Besides the security threats, the opium production of Afghanistan is another challenge threatening China. Afghanistan has been one of the leading producers of narcotics globally and is part of the Golden Crescent-Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran-that has been a route for illegal drugs smuggling to China. With an ability to produce a large amount of narcotics, an instable Afghanistan can seriously challenge Chinese society. Amalgamation of illicit economy can result in contamination of the booming Chinese economy and criminal activities can expand to different parts of China.
On contrary to all foreseeable challenges, a stable and strong Afghanistan can be a good regional contributor to the Chinese connectivity and economic integration agenda. Based on an assessment, Afghanistan owns worth USD one trillion untapped mineral resources. These resources include a healthy amount of Lithium and Copper reserves which should be enticing for Beijing based economists as Chinese industry is in great need of the mentioned chemical elements. In addition, as Afghanistan has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China to join the CPEC, discussions on Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) funded projects and previously signed MisAynak mine contract is a clear indication of the fact that Kabul wants to collaborate with Beijing in its quest towards economic integration.
There are certainly some incentives for China in stability of Afghanistan. However, it is an instable Afghanistan that can pose serious threats to Chinese regional economic and political interest. Therefore, Xi Jin ping led Chinese Government should come forward and contribute to the Afghan peace process. Beijing can play a pivotal role in garnering regional consensus on Afghan peace and reconciliation process, a pre-requisite for the process to begin. Beijing should capitalize on the leverage it enjoys with Pakistan to make Islamabad sincerely support Afghan peace and reconciliation agenda. Similarly, it should mobilize Russia and Iran to support the Afghan peace endeavors.
China can be a very acceptable option for Kabul and Taliban at the same time to offer guarantees in the case of potential breakthrough in the formal peace process. In addition, it should also further expand its military support for Afghan security forces in the wake of discussions regarding securing areas in Badakhshan to thwart challenges posed by groups such as IS-KP. Eventually China will have to increase its political engagement at local, regional and global levels in support of a strong Afghanistan in order to help the entire region survive challenges posed by the non-state actors who are exploring use of Afghanistan as their operational bases. A stable Afghanistan can have incentives for China, yet; disincentives generated by instability in Afghanistan can have far-reaching negative impact for it.
Last month, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), released a new inspection report that found, after four years and $60 million, a project called the North East Power System, intended to provide cost-effective and reliable power to unserved populations in Afghanistan, was not yet operational. According to the report, the project was failing due to problems of land acquisition and because “there was no contract provision to permanently connect the system to a power source.”
An obscure report about a failed power project may not seem like a big deal on its face. But last August, President Donald Trump broke his campaign promise and committed to a conditions-based strategy in the war in Afghanistan. The US military would be kept in that war-torn nation indefinitely to build up the Afghan security forces and to buttress their economic development. Trump’s decision was received favorably by the foreign policy establishment, despite the lack of clear details in his announcement. One commentator called it one of his “finest moments as president.”
The reports and audits from SIGAR tell a similar story. The United States is achieving very little in the way of sustainable development in Afghanistan, even with the enormous amount of time and resources that have been invested. To continue in this manner after almost two decades is to show that we have learned nothing, despite years of evidence of little progress. The fatal conceit of nation-building still dominates our foreign policy thinking. This is not a “fine” moment. It’s a shame and a delusion.
The problems that plague the North East Power System are indicative of the broader failures of our attempts to export economic development. The contract, written by the US Army Corps of Engineers and awarded to an Afghan construction company, stipulated that the Afghan government would need to acquire land for the system’s construction. The government was unable to do so, the result being that residents “still reside in houses on that land and, in some instances, are living and farming land directly under transmission towers and power lines.” Landowners also refused to clear the transmission line route of trees, brush, and other vegetation, because the government did not compensate them.
On top of the land issues, the contract contained no requirement to connect the system to the national power grid, despite its building almost 200 towers and the necessary transmission lines. Officials from the Army Corps of Engineers told SIGAR they did not write the “contract requirements for connection correctly or as clearly as they should have, and that the contract only stated that the contractor should ‘deliver power’ without defining how a connection would be made.”
Seen in isolation, this might seem like a small matter of confusion and miscommunication that can easily be cleared up. But reviewing other SIGAR reports reveals the same problems. An audit of the Department of Defense’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations released in January 2018 was titled “$675 Million in Spending Led to Mixed Results, Waste, and Unsustained Projects.” The task force was formed in 2011 to “reduce violence, enhance stability, and support economic normalcy in Afghanistan through strategic business and economic activities”—in other words, to nation-build. Despite poor record-keeping on the part of the task force, SIGAR concluded that “it’s clear [they] were unable to accomplish their goals” due to lacking a “clear mission and strategy combined with poor coordination, planning, contracting, and oversight.” Of the $675 million in task force obligations, only $316 million was used to directly support projects in Afghanistan. Within those project contracts, 78 percent either only partially met or failed entirely to meet their deliverables.
Another audit from October 2017 reviewed projects from the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund, a joint Defense and State Department venture to execute large-scale infrastructure projects to support counter-insurgency strategy. Six different projects were started in 2011. Four of them were more than a year behind schedule, deemed possibly counterproductive to counter-insurgency goals, and lacking in “adequate sustainment plans.” Together they were worth $400 million.
An analysis of all SIGAR-issued inspection reports related to State Department and USAID reconstruction projects in Afghanistan from August 2009 to March 2017 revealed that the construction of facilities such as schools and hospitals were “not always completed in accordance with contract requirements and technical specifications, which resulted in substandard facilities.” Projects with deficiencies “were too often the norm” due to “poorly prepared or unqualified contractor personnel, substandard materials, poor workmanship, inadequate government oversight, and possible fraud.” More than half of inspected projects did not meet contract requirements, and several had structural problems that threatened the safety of their occupants.
As you can probably tell, the most recent reconstruction failure is not an isolated incident. Across the board, reconstruction efforts are either failing to achieve their goals, or are performing lukewarmly at best. On top of that, the US is losing the military battle. In their quarterly report to Congress from January, the inspector general, John F. Sopko, writes that “[h]istorically, the number of districts controlled or influenced by the government has been falling since SIGAR began reporting on it, while the number controlled or influenced by the insurgents has been rising.” The Afghan government now controls only 56 percent of territory, with 30 percent being contested by insurgents. In 2015, the insurgents influenced only 7 percent of the country.
US reconstruction woes stem from basic collective action problems. “Efforts at reconstruction in Afghanistan and elsewhere suffer from two fundamental problems. The first is a knowledge problem whereby outsiders lack the context-specific knowledge required to successfully complete sustainable projects,” says Christopher Coyne, a George Mason University professor and expert on the political economy of foreign intervention and reconstruction. “The second is the incentive problem. Those carrying out reconstruction efforts use other people’s resources and face weak accountability and punishment when projects fail to meet their goals. The combination of these two problems is a recipe for waste, fraud, and abuse.”
Despite poor progress reports and having spent more than 6,000 days there already, the United States remains committed to an indefinite military and rebuilding presence in Afghanistan. President Trump talked last summer about solving Afghanistan’s problems through economic development, but that won’t work in a place without sustainable infrastructure and institutions of governance.
We haven’t been able to build either of these things. So at what point do we say enough? How many more reports detailing failure are we going to have to read?
Syria, North Korea, and Yemen have largely dominated headlines. But Afghanistan also remains in the global conscience. If anything, the much-needed international focus on the campaign against the Taliban has outlined how difficult the fight has become, despite our steady military gains. Frustrated with what many are mistakenly calling a quagmire, international commentators either advocate for a quick-fix peace deal to withdraw from Afghanistan or engaging in a more intense military campaign. The latter is an understandable response, but even so, it is far from a complete remedy.
The war in Afghanistan is not being waged on the battlefield alone: If we are to emerge as a strong and independent democracy, the campaign for Afghanistan’s economy must stand on equal footing with the counterterrorism campaign. In fact, they are one and the same.
We can’t build schools during firefights; but without schools, the firefights will continue. Yet a disproportionate amount of international resources — provided by each contributing country — have been devoted to military operations at the cost of job creation and long-term economic development. But it is more jobs — not just more bullets — that will help persuade militant fighters to lay down their weapons.
Fortunately, Afghanistan is endowed with natural resources — copper, iron ore, lithium, and other precious minerals — and can largely finance its own development, though only if the country receives the necessary investment and technical assistance from the international community. Although Afghanistan has some $3 trillion worth of minerals, we lack the required transportation network to export these resources.
Building the necessary infrastructure — railroads, highways, processing plants — will not only facilitate the mining industry but also create jobs. A sustainable livelihood, no matter how small, will immediately weaken the insurgency and its base, a destitute populace, while a modern transportation network that links Afghanistan with its neighbors will spur long-term growth.
Drug production in Afghanistan is another key problem that can be addressed by economic development. We know from international experience that global demand for narcotics finds ready supply in nations where governance is weak, instability high and poverty rampant. But if Afghanistan’s agriculture sector is thoroughly revitalized, fewer farmers will rely on opium harvesting — a dangerous enterprise to begin with — to make a living. Instead, they could grow wheat, pomegranates, saffron and other high-value crops. As agribusiness becomes profitable and sustainable, it will drive down the cost of food for Afghanistan’s poor and raise rural incomes, which should in turn further weaken the insurgency in crucial provinces like Helmand and Kandahar.
Energy is another factor pivotal to earning the trust of Afghans. Without a comprehensive electricity grid, Afghanistan can hardly achieve a productive economy. The availability of electricity can open an incredibly large market for electronic goods, drastically expanding consumer consumption. Just as importantly, the Afghan people could finally reap the benefits of a globalized world through use of the Internet, to which less than 15 percent the population currently has access.
Further, corruption can be stemmed when the abuse of power is no longer necessary as a means of economic uplift. Corruption is a symptom, not a cause, of weak governance, which can only be strengthened when Afghan civil servants are adequately trained and paid competitive salaries on a sustainable basis. Right now, a driver at an international NGO or a United Nations agency earns at least five times more than a civil servant working for the Afghan government. Nor can this situation be improved unless more resources are channeled away from aid organizations into the Afghan national budget as an efficient mechanism of resource allocation.
John Bolton, now U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, once argued that “religious fanatics, and their grievances, do not arise from poverty or deprivation.” To the contrary, many Taliban fighters join the insurgency simply to earn a living. A significant number of these “rented” Taliban can be made to turn swords into plowshares if they are given alternative opportunities.
International security is closely tied to the nascent Afghan economy. Without stability, the Taliban will continue to enjoy widespread support — and a base from which to attack international interests. If we rely on military might alone, how will the outcome in Afghanistan differ from that of US forces in Vietnam, the French in Algeria, or the Soviets in Afghanistan? Militaries alone simply cannot defeat insurgencies.
However, the good news is that Afghanistan has quickly recovered from an economic depression, which followed the withdrawal of international forces from the country in 2014. Thanks to the austere economic reforms introduced by President Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan economy is being transformed, as unprecedented economic legislation has been passed opening opportunities across new sectors and reducing bureaucratic bottlenecks that encourages regional and global businesses to invest in Afghanistan’s virgin markets.
Consequently, this year alone, Afghanistan has so far signed more than $500 million in investment contacts. It is estimated that the country will see a boost in its GDP growth from 2.5 to 4 percent in the coming years. To reinforce Afghanistan’s peace and war-fighting efforts, regional and global stakeholders should channel more of their aid resources to build on the Afghan economic recovery, helping the country create more new jobs for its youthful population. Doing so will effectively deny regional and transnational terrorist networks the opportunity to exploit Afghanistan’s rife poverty in order to continue to fuel their terror campaign in the country and the world over.
The recent offer by President Ghani to the Taliban to start reconciliation talks has received no positive answer despite containing a few new elements: some promise of the Taliban taking part in a future review of the Afghan Constitution, a Taliban political office in Kabul, with members being issued Afghan passports, and a ceasefire. The offer was widely reported in the media, but the Taliban essentially ignored it. The speculation flourished in the media as to why the Taliban did not take the offer, or at least engage with it.
A common explanation put forward to explain why the Taliban have so far shown little interest in engaging in reconciliation talks with Kabul is because they feel that they are gaining a military edge and that either they will win the war, or strengthen their negotiating position in the future (so why hurry?). However, this is not necessarily true. What we hear from Taliban contacts is that -- despite the gradual erosion of government influence and control in the rural areas -- the Taliban ‘elite’ is not happy about the way the war is going. The leadership council and the top military leaders had set for themselves ambitious aims (although they never announced them in public): such as taking and holding whole provinces, including the provincial capitals. These aims were set in 2014-15, when the Americans seemed to be bailing out of combat operations in Afghanistan. At that point, the Taliban had a serious chance of making a breakthrough, but despite coming close to it, they were never able to hold a province (Kunduz) in its virtual entirety for more than two weeks. From 2016 onwards the Americans gradually tip-toed into combat operations again, making it harder for the Taliban to completely seize cities, and even harder holding on to them. This failure is a source of much recrimination within the Taliban.
There are two other reasons why the Taliban leadership does not necessarily think time is playing in its favour. One is that the Taliban’s Amir, Haibatullah Akhund, is in a weak position at the top of the organisation and risks losing external and internal support if he does not start delivering more.
The other is that the cohesiveness of the Taliban, never very high, is getting much worse. The reintegration of the Haqqani network into the Quetta Shura’s chain of command in 2015 has only temporarily made things better; now Serajuddin Haqqani and Haibatullah are according to sources in very bad terms with each other. The reintegration of the Peshawar Shura into Quetta’s chain of command was another short-lived success: the Peshawar Shura has de facto disintegrated and the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan are at their weakest for years. Now even the leader of the Shura of the North, Qari Baryal, has broken relations with Haibatullah. In Quetta and in southern Afghanistan, Serajuddin Haqqani has now unprecedented influence, that he uses for contrasting Haibatullah; the Ishaqzai Taliban are not yet reconciled with Haibatullah and do not cooperate with him. Haibatullah’s only recent success has been the recent reconciliation with Abdul Qayum Zakir in an effort to pacify the Alizai tribe, to which Zakir belongs, and appointed him head of the logistics commission a few days ago.
But then, if the Taliban are not so certain of the bright path ahead, why are they not negotiating with Kabul?
First of all, the international relations and funding of the Taliban, which are generally poorly understood, represent a major obstacle. Despite a growing literature on the support that over the years has been accruing to them from Pakistan, Iran and the Arab Gulf, somehow commentators, observers and policy makers seem to assume that such support comes without strings attached, that constrain the freedom of manoeuvre of the Taliban leadership.
Second, as mentioned already, the Taliban are not a unified entity and there are multiple centers of power within it. In order for the official leadership of the Taliban to take a position on such a controversial topic it needs to consult all the different centers of power that to various degree recognize it as ‘the leadership’. Clearly, some of these centers of power fiercely oppose any idea of reconciliation: we can just mention the Haqqani network as the main example. The Haqqani directly control 15% of the Taliban’s manpower, and have influence of many other smaller Taliban fronts, which they support in various ways.
Third, when seen through Taliban eyes, President Ghani’s offers might not seem so attractive. The review of the Constitution might well boil down to a modest Taliban delegation joining the future Constitutional Loya Jirga. The Taliban for sure would like a review process in which they represented half or so of the ‘experts’ reviewing the Constitution. A ceasefire would benefit Kabul mainly, as the Afghan security forces have long lost the initiative in the conflict. The Taliban might agree to it at some point, but, as it stands, they are not going to view it as a concession from Kabul, but rather as a concession they might make to Kabul if everything else is satisfying for them.
Finally, an office in Kabul compares poorly with the office the Taliban have in Doha and that Ghani seeks to close down. Although Haibatullah is not himself an extremist, there are enough hardliners within the Taliban to mean that any rushed decision to sit at a table with Kabul and negotiate would badly split the Taliban. It might well deprive them of much of their funding as well. It is not clear what Haibatullah would get for that: the end state of the talks is foggy and the very fact that President Ghani’s offer was made in public probably arouses suspicions in Quetta and Karachi, where most Taliban offices are. After all, Haibatullah’s predecessor Akhtar Mohammad Mansur tried to negotiate, and split the Taliban for little concrete gain. The reward for his efforts to negotiate was a US drone strike that killed him. Haibatullah needs to consolidate his leadership position before he can even think of talks with Kabul, and to do that he needs to score better on the battlefield. The fighting season started early this year, with the campaign for Farah province, where Haibatullah is trying to earn his first great military success.
The view southward from Central Asia has been grim since 2014, when groups of Taliban militants started fanning out across northern Afghanistan.
Thinly stretched government forces in the area were forced to enlist the help of local paramilitary groups, known as Arbaky, who arguably are often little more than bandits with a sheriff’s badge and might not be fighting Taliban forces at all. Some Arbaky are suspected of trafficking narcotics or even selling the weapons and ammunition that the government gives them to the Taliban.
And as the security situation in northern Afghanistan deteriorated, particularly in the northwestern part that not so many years ago was relatively peaceful, the black flag of the militant group Islamic State (IS) was raised in some isolated areas.
It was an added complication few wanted to see, including those north of the Afghan border.
Which is why the killing of Qari Hikmatullah, or simply Qari Hikmat, is probably welcome news for much of Central Asia and Russia.
Hikmat was killed in Faryab Province on April 5. He was the commander of an IS force in the Darzab district of Jowzjan Province, which borders Faryab to the east. Both provinces border Turkmenistan.
Hikmat had managed to hold off government and Taliban forces attacking him since summer 2017, and it was about the time Hikmat seized control of the Darzab district that there were reports that a handful of IS militants were caught in Turkmenistan. Ashgabat never confirmed that, but the Turkmen government in power at the time had virtually never confirmed any security threat to the country.
Russian officials have been warning Central Asian states about the threat from militants in Afghanistan for years. Hikmat’s announcement that he joined IS, and his ability to hold territory in Darzab, fueled the Kremlin’s dire predictions of instability spilling over into the “CIS southern border.”
Russian officials claim there are thousands of IS militants roaming northern Afghanistan, but the only place where there was absolutely someone occupying ground and declaring himself to be IS was Darzab under Hikmat.
Hikmat’s group was quick to announce a new leader -- Qari Habibul Rahman -- but he will be hard-pressed to replace the formidable Hikmat.
Hikmat was an extraordinary opportunist. He was part of the Taliban, but he apparently grew tired of following the commands of the Taliban leadership so he took his fighters over to the government, pledging to fight against the Taliban.
That did not last long, and he reportedly struck out on his own. He reinforced his own force with pro-IS militants who were already in northwestern Afghanistan, remnants of a Taliban-splinter group that had declared loyalty to IS and also a splinter group from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) militant group that were present in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas, and had also sided with IS.
The two groups joined to fight Taliban forces in northwestern Afghanistan at the end of 2015, but the Taliban pummeled them and the fighters scattered throughout northwestern Afghanistan.
Hikmat, himself an ethnic Uzbek from Afghanistan, was able to gather some of the former IMU fighters and others. There were reports that some IS fighters from Syria and Iraq had fled the battlefields there and joined Hikmat’s group.
The commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, said Afghan and US forces had killed Hikmat “and they will kill any successors.”
So IS in northwestern Afghanistan seems to have suffered a major setback, and with both the government and Taliban forces intent on attacking them, the IS group’s days might be numbered.
It might be a rare bit of welcome news out of Afghanistan for the governments of Central Asia, and presumably Moscow, though it is unlikely the latter will tone down its alarming statements about the IS threat in Afghanistan.
Hikmat’s armed group is still in Jowzjan Province.
And of course, the Taliban is still there, too.
On February 20, 2018, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with his Pakistani counterpart Khawaja Muhammad Asif to discuss the threat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Afghanistan. In a press conference after their meeting, Lavrov described the presence of ISIS in northern and eastern Afghanistan as “rather serious,” and alleged that there were thousands of ISIS gunmen operating across the war-torn country.
Lavrov’s statement on the ISIS threat in Afghanistan was widely criticized in the United States. In an interview with the BBC World Service, General John Nicholson, the commander of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, argued that Russia has exaggerated the ISIS threat in Afghanistan to justify its provisions of military assistance to the Taliban. Navy Captain Tom Gresback, the public affairs director at Resolute Support headquarters, also concurred with Nicholson’s assessment by claiming that there is little evidence that ISIS is expanding its military presence in Afghanistan.
Russia’s frequent exaggerations of the Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan are closely intertwined with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s broader internal consolidation and foreign policy objectives. Russian policymakers have emphasized the ISIS threat to unite anti-Western nationalists around Russia’s expanded diplomatic involvement in Afghanistan, strengthen Moscow’s alliances with Central Asian countries, and establish common ground with Pakistan on the resolution of Afghanistan’s political crisis.
Since US President Donald Trump authorized a MOAB (“mother of all bombs”) strike in April 2017 that killed 92 ISIS militants in Afghanistan, Russian officials have argued that US policymakers have become complacent about the Islamic State’s ability to threaten regional stability. To highlight this perceived policy failure, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov released a statement in December 2017 that praised Russia for being one the first countries to label ISIS as a major security challenge, and claimed that over 10,000 ISIS militants were present in Afghanistan, with many arriving from Syria and Iraq.
Even though Kabulov downgraded his estimate to 7,000 fighters on February 1, the narrative that Washington has not adequately responded to the Islamic State’s rise remains at the forefront of Russian official rhetoric on Afghanistan. In late February, Lavrov reiterated Kabulov’s concerns about ISIS fighters migrating from the Middle East to Afghanistan, and decried NATO’s failure to devote adequate resources to defeating this threat.
Even though Lavrov has struggled to sell the case for a rising ISIS threat to US policymakers, the notion that the United States is facilitating the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan resonates powerfully within Russia. Quoting statements from Iranian military officials and Afghan policymakers, Russian state media outlet Sputnik has prominently featured allegations that the United States is supporting ISIS in Afghanistan to weaken the Taliban’s influence in the country. As these conspiracy theories are gaining broader acceptance in Russia, highlighting the ISIS threat ensures that anti-Western policymakers accept the need for an expanded Russian diplomatic role in Afghanistan.
In addition to bolstering internal support for the revival of Russia’s diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, Russia has focused on the ISIS threat in Afghanistan to establish more mutually beneficial alliances with its Central Asian partners. This strategy has reaped dividends, as Central Asian countries view ISIS as a legitimate security threat and a highly visible nemesis to rally public support against. Although Kyrgyzstan was noncommittal about assisting Russia’s military intervention in Syria, it has cooperated closely with Moscow against the ISIS threat from Afghanistan. The Kyrgyz military has also been active participant in Russian-led military drills aimed at increasing the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)’s preparedness against the threat of ISIS in Afghanistan.
Even though Russian officials have historically chastised Tajikistan for its ineffective border security policies, Moscow’s emphasis on the ISIS threat in Afghanistan has created a sense of urgency in Dushanbe that has enhanced Russia-Tajikistan security cooperation. In recent months, Tajikistan has allegedly assisted Moscow’s supplies of light weaponry to the Taliban’s anti-ISIS operations, and facilitated Russia’s pre-emptive defensive measures against ISIS by acting as a conduit for the movement of Russian armored vehicles to Afghanistan’s frontiers.
Russia views these displays of support against ISIS as encouraging, because they allow Moscow to frame itself as a benevolent protector of Central Asian countries against terrorism rather than as a hegemonic actor. As many Central Asian governments continue to view the securitization of Islamic extremism as a useful tool for regime consolidation, Moscow is likely to be able to use its anti-ISIS efforts in Afghanistan to bolster the effectiveness of its regional alliances.
The Russian government’s successful engagement of its Central Asian partners against the ISIS threat in Afghanistan has encouraged Kremlin officials to focus on ISIS during their diplomatic negotiations with Pakistan. While joint pledges from Islamabad and Moscow to combat ISIS have been largely rhetorical in nature, Russian policymakers have been cautiously optimistic that increased dialogue on combatting ISIS will result in more extensive bilateral cooperation with Pakistan.
On March 21, Russia held a Joint Working Group (JWG) on counterterrorism with Pakistan at the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad. After this JWG, officials from both countries described the threat of ISIS in Afghanistan as a “grave concern,” and argued that the diffusion of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria to South Asia was a major threat to regional stability.
Despite the lack of evidence for a rising ISIS presence in Afghanistan, Pakistani officials have shared Russia’s focus on ISIS in Afghanistan, because Islamic State’s rise is a symbol of the ineffectiveness of US counterterrorism strategies in South Asia. As Pakistan continues to face international scrutiny for its links to the Taliban and Haqqani Network, Russia’s strategy of blaming Washington for the poor security situation in Afghanistan is appealing to Pakistani policymakers, and could cause collaboration against ISIS to act as a stepping stone for a more comprehensive Russia-Pakistan security partnership.
Even though ISIS appears to be a declining force in Afghanistan, Russian officials have exaggerated its presence to gain domestic support for Moscow’s diplomatic initiatives in Afghanistan, upgrade its alliances with Central Asian countries, and strengthen Russia’s burgeoning partnership with Pakistan. The success of this strategy ensures that Russia will continue to frame its involvement in Afghanistan around combatting the receding threat of ISIS for the foreseeable future.
On April 9 John Bolton became President Donald Trump’s third National Security Advisor.
Media coverage of the appointment has thus far largely focused on Ambassador Bolton’s outspoken, hawkish record on Iran and North Korea and their rogue nuclear weapons programs. As challenging as those portfolios are, they could eventually be eclipsed by America’s fast-deteriorating relationship with Pakistan and the war effort in neighboring Afghanistan.
Bolton assumed office at a highly volatile juncture in US-Pakistan relations. President Trump has broken sharply from past policy, adopting a decidedly more muscular and punitive approach toward Islamabad. While long overdue, the course correction carries real risks. Skeptics have already conjured doomsday scenarios of state collapse and nuclear proliferation, and Bolton has expressed reservations of his own. He would do well to resist the lure of the Beltway consensus and the comfort of the devil we know.
The Trump Way
President Trump’s infamous first tweet of 2018 signaled an end to the increasingly untenable status quo with Pakistan. He denounced the country’s “double game” of ostensibly backing the US war effort in Afghanistan while providing support and safe haven to the Taliban and Haqqani Network. Such duplicity, the president insisted, would no longer be a costless affair for Islamabad.
While Trump’s predecessors bemoaned this double game, they deemed the status quo (just barely) tolerable, terrified at what might follow a rupture in bilateral relations. Academic lectures and diplomatic protests became the default response to repeated bouts of Pakistani intransigence. And Islamabad proved remarkably effective at parrying any sign of pressure with cosmetic reassurances, forestalling decisive action until Washington’s attention was again diverted elsewhere.
No longer. The Trump administration has imposed deep cuts in US security aid, slowly expanded drone strikes inside Pakistan, and successfully lobbied to have Pakistan “gray-listed” at the Financial Action Task Force, which monitors global money-laundering and terror-financing. Just this week the State Department levied new sanctions on several organizations and individuals associated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a notorious terrorist group that has operated openly in Pakistan for decades.
Foreign Policy reports that additional measures are under consideration. They include “revoking Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally [and] permanently cutting off the US military aid that was suspended.” It adds:
The White House is also weighing even more drastic measures to include visa bans or other punitive measures against individual members of the Pakistani government, military, or ISI intelligence service suspected of allowing the Taliban and Haqqani militants to operate from sanctuaries inside Pakistan
Through Bolton’s Eyes
At first blush, the tough-talking Bolton would appear an ideal candidate to advance the president’s new Pakistan strategy. He is certainly under no illusions about the scope of the problem. This February, Bolton argued that Islamist radicals “already controlled the [Pakistani] military’s intelligence wing and are [an] increasing threat across the officer corps.”
He ultimately agrees a tougher line toward Islamabad is warranted and has lamented how “Obama didn’t pressure [Pakistan] enough.” Importantly, he has also acknowledged the core, inescapable truth of the Afghan conflict: it “will be won or lost in Pakistan.”
At the same time, however, Bolton has publicly cautioned against applying excessive pressure on Pakistan. “If you push too hard, this government in Pakistan is fragile. It has been since the partition of British India,” he argued in an August 2017 Breitbart interview.
Too much pressure, he warned, would risk “flipping Pakistan itself into the terrorist camp.” If radicals were ever to seize power, “it wouldn’t just be another base to launch terrorist operations against us or Western Europe. It would be a terrorist country with nuclear weapons, so it would be Iran or North Korea on steroids.”
Of course, this is all true. Concerns about Pakistan’s unstable cocktail of terrorism and nuclear weapons are understandable. Islamabad reportedly possesses 130–140 nuclear warheads and is building its nuclear stockpile faster than any other nation. Of the roughly fifteen known nuclear sites throughout the country, at least six have reportedly been the target of terrorist attacks. Worse still, the efficacy of Pakistan’s nuclear safety protocols have been called into question before.
Yet these nightmare scenarios have frequently been overstated and used by Islamabad to shield itself from criticism and pressure over its double game. Pakistan may well be “too dangerous to fail” but for too long that’s meant “free to undermine America with impunity.”
In reality, curtailing aid or sanctioning Pakistan’s generals won’t put its nuclear arsenal any closer to the hands of terrorists. US pressure won’t “flip it” into China’s camp: it has been there for decades. In fact, China may well have more to fear from Pakistan collapse than America does.
Nor is the Pakistani state on the verge of collapse, though its citizens are under constant assault from religious fanatics. The real threat to the Pakistani state comes not from US pressure but from the culture of violent jihad encouraged and propagated by its own military and intelligence establishment. In Islamabad’s own sobering estimation, at least thirty thousand Pakistani citizens have perished at the hands of Islamist militant attacks in just the last decade. Put another way, Pakistan has suffered the equivalent of a 9/11 terror attack, every year, for ten years.
Unfortunately, things will likely have to get worse before they get better. Like a drug addict Islamabad will have to be weaned off its addiction to terrorism, and it is unlikely to be a short or painless process.
Nevertheless, President Trump’s maverick instincts regarding Pakistan are correct. A break from the Beltway’s conventional wisdom is long overdue. He will be relying on his new National Security Advisor to demonstrate the grit, resolve and bureaucratic acumen required to oversee this challenging but necessary shift in US strategy.
An Afghan air strike last week targeting Taliban fighters killed dozens in the northern province of Kunduz. Among the dead were civilians, including children, gathered for a religious ceremony.
Kunduz is no stranger to these tragedies. In 2015, 42 civilians were killed in a US air strike on a hospital in Kunduz city, the provincial capital. The city, incidentally, has twice fallen briefly to the Taliban in the past few years, subjecting civilians to even more trauma.
It has been nearly 17 years since American forces entered Afghanistan. While recent discourse about the war in Washington and other major world capitals emphasizes strategy — how to strengthen a beleaguered Afghan government, how to weaken an emboldened Taliban, how to reduce unyielding violence and combat terror — less has been said about Afghanistan’s civilians, who often pay a deadly price for all the failed efforts to end a war that has raged for nearly two decades. The conflict in Afghanistan is a forgotten war, and it is sadly fitting that its many civilian victims are forgotten as well.
After most foreign troops left Afghanistan at the end of 2014, leaving outmatched Afghan soldiers on the front lines, the insurgency has gathered steam — and taken a terrible toll on civilians. Overall, according to a Brown University study, more than 31,000 Afghan civilians had been killed and 41,000 wounded by August 2016. In 2017, according to UN tallies, more than 3,400 were killed and more than 7,000 injured.
Last year marked a grim milestone — civilian casualties from suicide attacks and complex attacks (a term used by the UN for mass-casualty assaults not involving suicide bombers) reached record levels. In 2017, female deaths increased by 5 percent. If there’s any good news here, it is that civilian casualties overall fell 9 percent from 2016.
Many of these civilian casualties occur outside cities, in rural areas where fighting is most intense. And yet, urban casualties could increase too. Daesh, for example, has established a presence in Kabul — setting the stage for new campaigns of terror.
One of the forgotten consequences of these civilian travails is a devastating refugee crisis. For decades, most Afghans fleeing their country went to neighboring Iran and Pakistan, which together host the majority of Afghan refugees. However, in recent years, authorities have vowed to send many back to Afghanistan. Thousands have already returned, with the youngest ones entering a country completely foreign to them and not ready to receive them. One major processing center for them is a UN-run facility in Jalalabad — the capital of Nangarhar province — which happens to be the main bastion of Daesh.
The fact that Afghan refugees are increasingly unwelcome in Iran and Pakistan helps to explain why tens of thousands leaving Afghanistan have started seeking refuge in Europe. In 2016, more Afghans than any other nationality except Syrians entered Europe via Greece. In 2017, it was the third most represented nationality. Unfortunately, many of these Afghans have been turned away because European officials say they, unlike Syrian refugees, are not fleeing civil war.
In effect, an intensifying war is prompting many Afghans to flee — but they are no longer welcome where they used to go, and they struggle to find safe spaces elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who had fled long ago are being forced to return at the worst possible time. Afghans can’t catch a break at home or abroad.
As if this weren’t enough, the new US strategy in Afghanistan portends even more hardship for Afghans. The policy’s main objective is to ramp up the fight on the battlefield and put enough pressure on the Taliban to compel it to agree to talks to end the war. More intense battlefield operations may mean more Taliban deaths, but they also greatly heighten the possibility of more civilian casualties (not to mention more casualties among Afghan and American troops).
It is easy to understand why. More intense warfare means more weaponry and violence on the ground — and in the sky. Ominously, in 2017, civilian casualties from American and Afghan airstrikes increased by 7 percent from 2016. Imagine how much that figure could increase in 2018, when there will have been a full year of the new stepped-up war strategy.
Of course, this is only part of the story. “The figures alone cannot capture the appalling human suffering inflicted on ordinary people, especially women and children,” noted Tadamichi Yamamoto, the UN Special Representative for Afghanistan, in February.
Indeed, this human suffering is hard to put into words in the case of Afghanistan, but also of Syria, Yemen, and so many other places buffeted by war. These are conflicts that civilians do not want, but must suffer through nonetheless. Tragically too often, they must pay the ultimate price.