Afghanistan: New and old challenges amidst a spate of violence – II
by Ramtanu Maitra on 22 Apr 2018 1 Comment

Facing the seemingly unstoppable wave of violence, President Ashraf Ghani has consistently condemned the attacks. In something of a departure, however, on Feb. 28, while inaugurating the second meeting of the Kabul Process for Peace and Security Cooperation in Kabul, President Ghani made concrete proposals for peace talks with the Taliban. For the first time, he mentioned the possibility of a ceasefire, and offered the group an office in Kabul and the lifting of sanctions on those Taliban leaders who join the negotiation (Who shall cease the fire first? Afghanistan’s peace offer to the Taliban: Thomas Ruttig and Jelena Bjelica: Afghanistan Analysts Network: Mar 1 2018). As of now, the Taliban has not responded to this offer, but it is likely that it is under debate within the fragmented group.


Fragmented Taliban


During the wave of recent killings, the Afghan media has sometimes reported that “the Taliban” has claimed responsibility. But it is difficult to fathom who “the Taliban” is. Is it a united orthodox Sunni-Pushtun group? Or is it one or another of the factions that the Taliban has broken down into? Ground reports indicate many disgruntled former Taliban field commanders - who were united under the late Mullah Mohammad Omar while he was alive (or at least was thought to be alive; his death in 2013 was not announced by his coterie until 2015) - have left the mainstream Taliban fold.


Two recent reports document this development. One, “Ready for Peace? The Afghan Taliban after a Decade of War,” by Theo Farrell and Michael Semple, was published by the British military intelligence-linked Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in January 2017. The second is an investigative report, “Afghan Government Quietly Aids Breakaway Taliban Faction,” by Taimoor Shah, Rod Nordland and Jawad Sukhanyar, that appeared in the June 19, 2017, New York Times.


The RUSI report is the more extensive of the two, and its authors - Semple, in particular - have deep familiarity with the subject. Theo Farrell is a professor of international security and dean of arts and social sciences at the City University of London. Michael Semple is a visiting research professor in the George Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University in Belfast. In 2007, Semple and another individual, Mervyn Patterson, were given 48 hours to leave Afghanistan after then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai discovered evidence of a financial plan orchestrated by the two to train the Taliban to use secure satellite phones to communicate directly with UK officials. At the time, Patterson was in Afghanistan as an United Nations diplomat; Semple, an MI6 officer, was masquerading as the acting head of the European Union mission there. Semple was subsequently laundered through various institutions and has now emerged as an Afghanistan expert.


The RUSI report - which is based on interviews with a number of unnamed high-level Taliban operatives, some of whom have distanced themselves from Akhundzada and his Rahbari Shura - makes the following broad points:


• The Taliban movement is in disarray. The new leader, Maulawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, is widely viewed as weak and ineffective.


• Several factions within the Taliban are vying for power. The Mansour network, which is based in Helmand and claims to be backed by Iran and Russia, has risen to become the most dynamic group within the Taliban.


• Levels of morale within the Taliban vary. The boost from 2016 battlefield successes was dampened by the high cost at which they were gained, as well as the alienation of many Taliban from their leadership and the sense that many had no stake in those battlefield gains. The expulsion of Afghan refugees from Pakistan is putting added pressure on the Taliban because some of the refugees work as liaisons between the Taliban and Pakistani authorities.


• There is growing disaffection within the Taliban about the armed campaign. Many Taliban feel that the war has lost direction and purpose, and is corrupting the movement.


The report describes the present discord among the former Taliban leaders who had once united under the now-dead Mullah Omar. All interviewees confirmed that Haibatullah Akhundzada is widely perceived as a weak and ineffective leader. “According to interviewee H [identified in the report as a senior functionary of the Rasool group, with family connections across the movement], ‘everybody is saying there are problems’ with the Taliban leadership. Interviewee E [identified as a direct associate of Mullah Omar from the movement’s beginnings and a former Taliban provincial governor and deputy minister who has close personal links to Haibatullah and professional links to the Rasool group and Mansour network] noted how ‘the position of the Tehreek [the Taliban cause] right now is very precarious, because Haibatullah is not able to run the movement, he is sitting there as a symbol.’


Interviewee B [identified as a Taliban functionary and a former Taliban provincial governor who is widely networked across northern Afghanistan] similarly noted that ‘all know that Haibatullah is a symbol and does not have any authority.’ Interviewee D [identified as a military commander and senior functionary of the Noorullah Noori network] further observed that Haibatullah ‘has little reputation or influence within the movement, and not even within his own tribe [the Noorzai].’”


As a footnote: The Rasool group, headed by Mullah Mohammad Rasool, the former Taliban governor of Nimruz province and formally known as the shura ahli, or high council, is a Taliban splinter group which formally broke from the main movement after the 2015 announcement of the death of Mullah Omar. The Mansour network, another faction of the Taliban, is an informal network of former comrades of the deceased Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. It operates as a powerful interest group within the main Taliban movement. The RUSI report notes that, based in Helmand, the Mansour network controls the largest portion of Taliban revenue from the narcotics trade. Finally, there is the Noorullah Noori network, an informal network of former comrades of senior Taliban commander Noorullah Noori that operates within the main Taliban movement.


Fragmentation’s Fallout


According to the RUSI report: “Multiple interviewees stated how the doctrine of obedience to the emir is far less observed than might be expected, and that the governance structure created by the Taliban during the 2000s (with national, provincial and district commissions for military and political affairs) is breaking down. Hence, Interviewee D noted that whereas ‘previously in the movement, decisions taken at the top were implemented vigorously. This is no longer the case as there is a shortage of resources and lack of obedience.’ Interviewees B, D and H gave the specific example of the provincial governor for Helmand, Mohammed Rahim, who acts independently of the Rahbari Shura (more commonly known as the Quetta Shura). Since Haibatullah was appointed emir, Rahim has stopped remitting revenue from Helmand to Quetta. Interviewee E similarly noted that ‘Mullah Rahim claims that he has seniority within the Taliban leadership.’


The report continues: “This highlights a key problem for Haibatullah: his inability to gain access to Taliban resources. Interviewee H stated that the new emir ‘doesn’t have control of money and hence is losing authority.’ He noted how the head of the Taliban Finance Commission, Mullah Gul Agha, who is aligned with Mullah Rahim, is blocking Haibatullah’s access to Taliban finances. Several interviewees noted a general shortage of resources, and one reported that significant Taliban funds seem to have disappeared.


According to interviewee F [identified as a Taliban veteran from Kandahar and a former Northern Front commander who is widely networked in Quetta, with links to the Mansour network], ‘many believe that the money was with Gul Agha and Samai Sani [deputy head of the Finance Commission], but they dispute this.’ The intensity of the fighting in 2016 showed that the Taliban prioritized financing their war effort. However, this bypassed the emir, leaving him without the kind of patronage resources which Mansour had drawn on to consolidate his position.


“Several interviewees noted how Haibatullah was unable to appoint his own people to key positions, further weakening his leadership. The main example of this is Mullah Qayyum Zakir, the former head of the Taliban Central Military Commission. Multiple interviewees noted how Zakir, who is currently without a formal leadership position, had allied with Haibatullah, expecting a senior appointment in return. According to Interviewee H, Zakir ‘has gone quiet: you can only get hold of his secretary, who takes a message.’ Haibatullah is also unable to replace those, such as Gul Agha, who defy his authority. Indeed, he is struggling to prevent his allies, such as his deputy Mullah Yaqoob (eldest son of Mullah Omar) from being removed from office. Again the experience contrasts with Mansour, who proved skilled at maintaining control of the appointments process within the movement.”


In reviewing the fallout of the fractionalization of the Taliban, the RUSI report, citing the interviewees, points out that the Taliban’s morale is low. “Tactical victories have come at great cost: the interviewees pointed to heavy Taliban losses over the past three months of fighting in Farah, Faryab, Helmand, Uruzgan and Kunduz. The victories also led to a series of political challenges for the Taliban, which have left many in the movement questioning the utility of the military sacrifices,” the report noted.


Interviewee C, identified by Farrell and Semple as a direct associate of Mullah Mohammed Omar from the movement’s beginnings who maintains close links to several members of the Rahbari Shura, said “many commanders feel that the armed struggle has lost direction and purpose. After more than a decade of war, victory is nowhere in sight. Many Taliban commanders worry that military gains are not sustainable. Thus, while the Taliban can capture a city such as Kunduz, they are unable to hold it.”


The report also notes that one of the fallouts is the growing distaste among some Taliban for the un-Islamic motivations and behavior of some Taliban commanders in the conflict. “A particular concern is with the use of suicide bombers (outside of Haqqani operations in Kabul), which have had elements of competition between provincial commanders. Interviewee C noted how commanders are using martyrdom attacks for ‘their own profit and personal fame’ and that ‘they deploy Fedayeen to targets that will cause max casualties, and this gives a rivalry between commanders - so that each commander wants to cause maximum casualties.’”


Similar developments were described in the New York Times article, posted from Kandahar, that appeared on June 19, 2017. Citing a bitter fight that took place then in the heavily contested district of Gereshk in Helmand province, the Times correspondents went on to claim that “the government has quietly provided the breakaway faction - popularly known as the Renouncers - with weapons, safe passage and intelligence support in their fight against the mainstream Taliban.” The “Renouncers,” the Times correspondents explained, are followers of Mullah Mohammad Rasool, who having split with the main Taliban group after revelations in 2015 that the former Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, had long been dead, also became angered with Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour for keeping Omar’s death a secret for two years.


The Rasool faction was further angered with emir Akhundzada when he chose Sirajuddin Haqqani as deputy leader in charge of military operations, the Times article noted. While the Rasool faction is open about waging war against the Mansour network in Helmand, it denies any affiliation with Kabul. On the other hand, the New York Times correspondents stated: “Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, the spokesman for the mainstream Taliban in southern Afghanistan, said the group they had attacked in Gereshk was a unit trained and equipped by the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence agency.”


Though the active fighting among the various Taliban factions remained hidden, the group’s growing disunity in the wake of Mullah Omar’s death was well known. In November 2015, the Afghanistan Analysts Network published a series of articles by Borhan Osman reporting on the splits within the Taliban. Osman wrote: “One day after the Taliban confirmed the death of Mullah Muhammad Omar - when they also announced that his ‘deputy’ Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour had taken his place - three (active or former) members of the highest decision-making body, the Rahbari Shura (Leadership Council), openly declared their disagreement with the succession. They accused the new leader of having engineered the succession so as to get himself ‘selected.’” (Toward Fragmentation? Mapping the post-Omar Taliban: Afghanistan Analysts Network: Borhan Osman: Nov. 24, 2018)


ISKP in Afghanistan: Russia’s New Interest a Pointer


Reports of a growing Islamic State (IS) presence in Afghanistan, particularly in the areas bordering Pakistan’s FATA, have drawn concern from many quarters for some time. Recently, however, Russia’s growing interest in matters concerning Afghanistan is perhaps the clearest signal of a real problem. Moscow has kept its distance from the Afghan conflict since 1989, even supporting the US invasion in 2001 and the subsequent toppling of the Taliban regime; so its new involvement marks a clear change in policy. According to various statements by Russian officials and media reports, Russia fears that Afghanistan may become another safe haven for the IS militant group after Iraq and Syria and the US presence in Afghanistan may enable the process. Experts say Moscow wants to make sure that does not happen in close proximity to its backyard, Central Asia.


“Russian President Vladimir Putin considers the IS presence in Afghanistan a big threat to his country’s interests,” Ahmad Saidi, a former Afghan diplomat, told Deutsche Welle (DW) (Why is Russia so interested in Afghanistan all of a sudden? Deutsche Welle: Mar 01 2017). Because of this fear, Russia is now trying to form an alliance with Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors, such as Iran, Pakistan and China, who are equally allergic to the IS.


Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Pakistani counterpart Khawaja Muhammad Asif, who was on an official visit to Moscow, have agreed to work closely together on all Afghanistan-related processes. Discussing the Afghanistan situation, the two ministers agreed there was a need for such cooperation in order to find a regional solution to the conflict. Speaking at a joint press conference following their talks, Lavrov said, according to Tolo News, “Today, the Russian side reaffirmed its willingness to continue providing assistance to Pakistan in strengthening its counterterrorist activity, which meets the interests of the entire region.”


Lavrov said special attention was given to the situation in Afghanistan and around it. He continued: “Both of us are concerned about the worsening security situation in the country, the growing terrorist activity, the narcotics threat that still looms large and the strengthening of ISIS’ (Da’esh) position in the north and east of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, we have to say that the military presence of the United States and NATO that has lasted for many years has failed to bring peace and stability to the Afghan people.” (Russia Agrees To ‘Help’ Pakistan Fight Terrorism: Kathy Whitehead: Tolo News : Feb 21 2018)


(To be concluded…) 

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