Afghanistan: New and old challenges amidst a spate of violence – III
by Ramtanu Maitra on 23 Apr 2018 2 Comments

The Russian concerns, however exaggerated they may be, cannot be brushed aside. Indeed, the Islamic State has already shown its fangs in Afghanistan. ISKP has claimed responsibility for some of the recent terrorist attacks, among other things. In April 2015 a suicide attack was carried out on the Kabul Bank that killed more than 30 people. Condemned by the Taliban, the attack was allegedly claimed by ISKP. At the time, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told journalists: “In the horrific incident in Nangarhar, who took responsibility? The Taliban didn’t claim responsibility. Da’esh claimed responsibility for it.” (“First wave of IS attacks? Claim and denial over the Jalalabad bombs,” Afghan Analysts Network, Kate Clark and Borhan Osman, April 22, 2015)


In another incident, in February 2015, CBS News reported that gunmen, identified as members of ISIS by Zabul province Deputy Police Chief Ghulam Jilani Farahi, kidnapped 30 members of the Hazara Sh’ia community without seeking ransom. (“ISIS kidnaps dozens in Afghanistan, official says,” CBS News, Feb. 24, 2015)


Since then, reports have appeared on ISKP’s activity to gain a stronger foothold in eastern Afghanistan adjoining Pakistan’s loosely-governed provinces. One such report of import, a September 2015 article that appeared in the Gatestone Institute website, claims that the ISKP, based on Pakistan’s soil and in cooperation with some of the Pakistan-based terrorist groups, is plotting and executing attacks on Christians. The article claimed that Pakistan’s leading generals had warned Christian clerics: “Emissaries of the most powerful Pakistani generals and the Ministry of Interior have apparently personally warned Christian clerics that the assault will first be launched in the country’s northwest region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This region abuts the Pushtun-dominated provinces of Afghanistan where Pakistan’s Tehrik-e-Taliban is a potent force.” (Pakistan: ISIS Plans Terrorist Campaign against Christians:  Lawrence A. Franklin: Gatestone: Sep 22, 2015) 


The article also complimented three Pakistani Generals - then-Army Chief of Staff General Raheel Sharif; Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief General Rizwan Akhtar; and the commander of Pakistan’s Army Rangers, General Bilal Akbar - for designing an “aggressive battle plan with which to roll back extremist Muslim jihadists threatening Islamabad’s sovereign control over the country.”


The article went on to note that an alliance had been formed between the ISKP operators and some other terrorist groups within Pakistan: “The former Pakistani Taliban Commander, Hafiz Saeed Khan, is said to have pledged an oath of allegiance in January to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Several other Pakistani Taliban groups have reportedly also agreed to join up. In addition, Ahmed Marwat, a.k.a. Farhad Marwat, commander of Pakistan’s Jundallah terrorist organization, specifically threatened in June that ‘the Jundallah will attack kafir Shi’ites, Ismailis and Christians.’” The report added: “The Jundallah group, reputedly the Islamic State’s most potent ally in Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the twin-suicide bombings against All Saints Church in Peshawar on Sept. 22, 2014. It also probably intends to initiate more anti-Christian atrocities.”


Beyond ISKP’s anti-Christian or anti-Shiite campaigns within Pakistan, there are wide-ranging reports that suggest the group is taking advantage of the discontent over internal leadership struggles and rifts within the Taliban. A June 2017 article published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute said that the Pakistani Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the ISKP were recruiting among the Taliban members. “ISKP used the absence of and, later, the confirmation of the demise of Mullah Omar in its propaganda aimed at courting disgruntled members of the Taliban. In these efforts, ISKP argued that Mullah Omar no longer was the legitimate leader of the Islamic community or emirate. The Pakistani Taliban and IMU were increasingly at odds with the Taliban due to the latter’s refusal to conduct and support operations inside Pakistan. …The most significant switching of sides occurred around January 2015 in the heartland of the Taliban when Abd al-Rauf Khadim set up a cell with a several hundred former Taliban fighters in Kajaki district of Helmand province. Khadim was a former commander of the Taliban. According to Afghan analyst Borhan Osman, after being released from the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2007, Khadim rose to prominence, becoming the second in command within the Taliban’s military establishment.” (Iran, Russia, and the Taliban: Reassessing the Future of the Afghan State: Amin Tarzi: Foreign Policy Research Institute: June 14, 2017)


The June 2017 New York Times article referenced earlier also reported such recruitment by the ISKP from several parts of the country. “The group is particularly strong in parts of eastern Nangarhar province, but it also has had a presence in Ghor, Farah and other areas. Most of those elements began as Taliban factions that turned against the mainstream group,” the Times reporters stated.


Kabul’s Weak Governance: E-Tazkera, for Example


Under President Ashraf Ghani the Afghan government has proven incapable of handling the multitude of problems. There are many reasons for Kabul’s failure. To begin with, being heavily dependent on foreign aid and being the victim of foreign interventions has handcuffed the Ghani administration. The exploding unaccounted-for money generation through the  opium/heroin trade has corrupted a vast section of Afghanistan’s law and order, administrative and security machinery; and a well-entrenched and well-funded Taliban and its factions in rural Afghanistan compounds the problem. For President Ghani, who spent most of his youth abroad throughout the 1980s and 1990s, bringing back order in Afghanistan is a Herculean task.


President Ghani has made the situation worse by failing to address the ethnic differences that exist among various tribes in Afghanistan in a constructive manner. Ghani is a Pushtun; the Taliban is virtually all Pushtun; and Pakistan, Afghanistan’s nosiest neighbor, backs the Pushtun tribe’s assumption of power, no matter who is its leader. Pakistan openly opposes any non-Pushtun taking over power in Kabul, and the Taliban’s attitude is no different. Unfortunately, President Ghani has been playing the same card - despite the fact that 60 percent of Afghanistan’s population, the majority, is not Pushtun, but rather Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, Nuristani and others. From the standpoint of effective governance, the need of the hour is a practical plan for inclusiveness to shape and build a truly representative political process.


Ghani’s handling of the policy for electronic national identity cards, known as e-tazkera, to be issued in preparation for the 2019 presidential elections is a good example of his missteps in this regard. The e-tazkera program, whose rollout began on Feb. 15, has fueled dissension and further provoked animosities between the country’s ethnic groups. The issue, which has been simmering since the policy was first tabled in 2013, concerns how an individual is identified. In April 2016, the Ghani government amended a controversial article of the draft census law mandating the issuance of national identity cards to stipulate that both “nationality” and “tribe” are to be indicated on the tazkera. The outcry was immediate. Tajik and Hazara members of Parliament aligned on the issue, demanding that the tazkeras mention neither ethnicity nor nationality, as per the original, 2014 law.


At the heart of debate is whether the new ID should mention the holder’s ethnicity, as well as their nationality. In particular, there is opposition to the use of “Afghan” to denote national identity because some Pushtun ethno-nationalists continue to use “Afghan” to mean “Pushtun.” In colloquial language among some ethnic minorities “Afghan” and “Pushtun” are synonymous (for example, rural Hazaras often refer to Pushtuns as “Awghan” or “Awghu”). Significantly, the Oxford English and Mariam-Webster dictionaries give both meanings for “Afghan” - that is, an inhabitant of Afghanistan and (the less common meaning) another term for Pushtun. (The E-Tazkera Rift: Yet another political crisis looming?: Jelena Bjelica and Ali Yawar Adili: Afghanistan Analysts Network: Feb 22 2018)


President Ghani exhibited his pro-Pushtun bias in another instance, when he “fired” Atta Mohammad Noor Balk as Balkh provincial governor on Dec. 18, 2017. Kabul claims that Noor resigned, but detailed reports indicate that the Tajik, an associate of the late Tajik leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, was terminated. Massoud had emerged as the most respected leader in Afghanistan following the retreat of the defeated Soviet military in 1989, but was then sidelined by the United States at the behest of Pakistan because of his non-Pushtun identity.


Importantly, Noor is highly respected and has succeeded in forming an alliance with the Uzbek leader Abdur Rashid Dostum. Did the growing power of a non-Pushtun lead Ghani to “fire” Noor? According to Ahmed Shah Massoud’s young brother Wali, head of the Ahmad Shah Massoud Foundation: “You cannot fire people every single day and influence people. The problems will multiply. Every day you are complaining that Taliban and Da’esh are coming; who is more effective than Atta [Mohammad Noor Balk] against Da’esh and Taliban, and now you have also fired him.” (Angry Fallout after Noor’s Resignation: Anisa Shaheed: Tolo News: Dec 18 2017)


Ghani’s weaknesses are essentially the same deficiencies that prevent the Taliban from “winning” their war or the United States from bringing a semblance of stability to Afghanistan after all these years - the failure to deal with the country’s ethnic diversity and its implications. The Taliban is largely a Pushtun movement, which limits its support in Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek and other areas. Although there is a bit more ethnic diversity at its lower levels, the Taliban’s top layers are dominated by Pushtuns.


Haibatullah Akhundzada is a Pushtun from the Noorzai tribe in southern Afghanistan. His deputies, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mohammad Yaqub, are both Pushtuns. Other senior leaders - such as Abdul Qayyum Zakir, Ahmadullah Nanai, Abdul Latif Mansur and Noor Mohammad Saqib - are Pushtuns. Overall, approximately 80 percent of the Taliban’s top 50 leaders are Pushtuns from Kandahar province.


Based on Afghanistan’s recent history of grievances between the Pushtun Taliban and the Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek communities, the Taliban’s over-reliance on Pushtun leaders is a serious weakness. Roughly 93 percent of Afghans say they are fearful of encountering the Taliban because of its extremist views and brutality. (Why the Taliban Isn’t Winning in Afghanistan: Too Weak for Victory, Too Strong for Defeat:  Seth G. Jones: Foreign Affairs: Jan 3 2018)


Is Afghanistan in the region’s mind?


Considering the prevailing state of affairs in Afghanistan, the region is confronted with two options. The first is to stay away from it; the country is too broken and too complex to be put together. The second option is to initiate a process, however long that process may take, to prevent conditions within Afghanistan from getting worse and the fallout from infecting the region as a whole. It is likely that this latter approach explains the recent behavior of Russia, who did not consider Pakistan a suitable partner earlier in its goal for peace and stability in the region.


It is also evident that Russia does not consider India as important a player as Pakistan - and China and Iran - in the context of Afghanistan. In the joint statement that followed his talks with Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif in Moscow on Feb. 21 2018, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicated he would like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) - dominated by China and Russia - to play a role in ensuring security vis-à-vis Afghanistan. In that context he mentioned India. He said Russia would like to use the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure to develop practical measures to curtail the Islamic State in Afghanistan and prevent it from spreading to Central Asia.


According to several RUSI interviewees, increased funding and military resources to the Mansour faction is coming from Iran and Russia. Interviewee E noted how “now most of Mullah Mansour’s group have close relations with Iran and get money, weapons and ammunition from Iran,” and that “Russia is also providing aid like money, weapons and ammunition to the Taliban.” Interviewee F claimed that the Russians, in particular, had provided night vision equipment and that Iran had facilitated meetings between Russia and the Taliban on condition that the Afghani movement oppose the ISKP. (Ready for Peace? The Afghan Taliban after a Decade of War: Theo Farrell and Michael Semple: RUSI: Jan 2017)


One of Russia’s concerns about Afghanistan is that it could become a major operational center of the ISKP, many of whose members are from Russia and Central Asia. Moscow also fears that considering the weak nature of the Central Asian governments and the ongoing presence of a large number of Islamists in Russia’s southern Caucasus, a base in Afghanistan could become a stepping stone for the ISKP to challenge the weak Central Asian nations in Russia’s back yard.


On the other hand, China, the most dynamic power to reckon with worldwide, is concerned that Chinese terrorists from Xinjiang Autonomous Region would build up their muscle inside Afghanistan by traveling through the Wakhan corridor, contiguous with China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. In addition to having an intensive dialogue with Islamabad and Kabul about stabilizing Afghanistan, China is trying to secure its own Xinjiang province.


There were widespread reports that, in a bid to extend its presence in the country, China wants to help Afghanistan establish a military base in the northeast province of Badakhshan. On Feb. 23, 2018, Afghanistan Times quoted the presidential office stating: “Such military cooperation by the foreign countries will not take place without the approval of the national security council and the president of Afghanistan. …Cooperation between Afghanistan and China has wide dimensions, but the Chinese military presence in Afghanistan has not yet discussed.” (Afghanistan denies China is building military base in Badakhshan: Pakistan Observer: Feb. 25, 2018)


It is also becoming evident that China’s interest in stabilizing Afghanistan is greater than that of Russia, Pakistan or Iran. Beijing has already launched its One Belt, One Road project. One component of OBOR winds its way from China’s east coast to Kazakhstan and then goes south to Iran and beyond. Another component, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) now under implementation, will run through Pakistan from its northern-most point to the Arabian Sea in the south, traveling close to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. In other words, Afghanistan sits in between two arms of China’s OBOR initiative. China would very much like Afghanistan to be included in this economic project. Moreover, Afghanistan possesses rich mineral reserves which would be of great use to China’s huge manufacturing machine.


Another of Afghanistan’s neighbors, Iran, has gotten closer to the Taliban, particularly to the Akhtar Mansour faction. The Mansour faction is apparently the dominant Taliban power in the Helmand-Kandahar region, reports indicate. Kabul wants to develop a close relationship with Tehran and will be necessarily careful in addressing the issue. Despite that constraint, some senior Afghan officials are concerned about this development. “We have received [intelligence] reports that Iran has obtained some weapons from Russia and delivered them to the Taliban. We cannot confirm it 100 percent. But intelligence reports show that the Taliban receive training inside Iran,” Afghanistan’s Ariana News quoted Gulbahar Mujahid, the chief security commander of Farah Province, in a report published on March 23.


Other Farah officials also told Ariana News that the Iranian government has established military training centers for Taliban militants in Zabol, a city in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan provinces, and in the Khorasan region (Khorasan-e -Razavi and South Khorasan provinces). All three Iranian provinces share a border with Afghanistan. “We have received intelligence reports that training camps have been established in Iran’s Nehbandan area [in Khorasan], and they provide military training to the Taliban. Indeed, Russia, with Iran’s assistance, is equipping the Taliban with advanced weapons,” Farah’s Deputy Governor Muhammad Younis Rasooli claimed.” (Iran and Russia Team up with Taliban to Undermine US-led Mission in Afghanistan: Ahmad Majidyar: Fellow and Director of Iran Observed Project: The Middle East Institute: Mar 24, 2017)


Also noteworthy is the warning issued by the Herat-based jihadi leader Amir Ismail Khan to the Iranian government against providing military and financial assistance to the Taliban militants in Afghanistan. “Support for the Taliban will strain our relations, and enemies will never be able to secure your borders,” he said at a gathering in western Herat province on the occasion of the 28th anniversary of the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan. (Prominent Afghan Jihadi Leader Warns Iran against Supporting Taliban: Ahmad Majidyar: Fellow and Director of Iran Observed Project: The Middle East Institute: Feb 15, 2017)



User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top