A New Idea Floats to End War

Afghanistan Times

Editorial

March 3, 2021

The U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad visited Kabul and met with Afghan leaders, almost all key and influential figures with aim to discuss new steps for accelerating the peace process, but this time with new approaches and a new plan.

Indeed his full intention was to resume discussion with all parties, including women, to find a way to achieve a just and durable political settlement and permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.

But this time, Khalilzad did not come with old ideas, or to call for national consensus on peace talks, rather he floated the idea of a participatory government to the Afghan leaders. Mr. Khalilzad had handed them a draft of the plan, asking them to share their views as soon as possible. Based on the plan, Doha talks will be sidelined and a meeting will be held at the international level to discuss the prospect of an interim government that would include the Taliban.

Mr. Khalilzad also seems to have aimed to bring amendments to the peace agreement signed with the Taliban in 2020. These are a few new steps taken by Joe Biden administration not only to follow the path of peace talks but to bring it to a logical point as ongoing talks in Doha have proven unproductive.

In the first anniversary of the US-Taliban deal, Taliban demanded the release of more Taliban prisoners and the removal of their names from the blacklist and also called for the withdrawal of all international forces from Afghanistan.

The deal has emboldened the Taliban, as they already warned of unprecedented war unless the US implemented the Doha deal. In return, the US doubted the Taliban, accused the group of still having ties with al-Qaeda, and also accelerated attacks.

With such threatening statements, it’s more than clear that Doha talks and the US deal with Taliban failed to bring peace. This is nothing but a fruitless effort and waste of time.

Since the start of negotiations in September, war and insecurity have been increased, even the new trend of targeted-killings, including attacks on journalists, civil society workers, doctors, judges, religious figures, and female employees have hit unprecedented level, where only on Tuesday’s terrorist attack three female journalists were gunned down in a daylight attack in Jalalabad city.

So when there is a deadlock in Doha talks with hope already vanished, the best and great idea floated by the US peace envoy Khalilzad is another Bonn Conference-style meeting to help succeed in forming a partnership government with inclusion of Taliban. Apparently, many Afghan leaders have backed the scheme as it would be the easiest and simplest way to get all the Afghan warring parties onboard and eventually to put a halt to the long years of war and bloodshed.

A New Idea Floats to End War
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Hit from Many Sides (2): The demise of ISKP in Kunar

Obaid Ali • Khalid Gharanai

Afghanistan Analysts Network

The demise of ISKP in Kunar

Pech valley (Watapur district) in January 2012. Photo: Sgt Trey Harvey (US Armed Forces), Creative Commons.Read part 1 on the ISKP in eastern Afghanistan, about the situation after its defeat in Nangrahar, here.

Summary of the current situation in Kunar

The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) lost all of its military positions in Kunar as a result of an offensive that continued for more than a month in February and March 2020. The offensive was mainly carried out by the Taleban, but the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) supported them logistically and also provided safe passage for Taleban fighters to get to frontlines. Local public uprising forces took part in the fighting, and the US military contributed with air strikes.

The Taleban retook almost all areas previously ruled by ISKP, in Chawkai, Narang, Nurgal, Chapa Dara and Dara-ye Pech districts. Most ISKP leaders – the local ones and those who had fled from Nangrahar to Kunar, including non-Afghans – were killed, some were arrested, fewer disappeared.

This offensive followed an earlier one in neighbouring Nangrahar province in autumn of 2019 which also ended with the almost total defeat or displacement of the local ISKP, with a number of its fighters relocating to Kunar, where fallback positions had already been created (read AAN analysis here). The February offensive was also preceded by various unsuccessful Taleban attempts to oust ISKP from Kunar.

Currently, there is almost no ISKP visibility in Kunar province, apart from what  Kabul-based security analysts describe as “rudimentary activity” of “loose networks of smaller IS-KP cells or supporters.” They are apparently located mainly in villages in the Dewagal valley (the Chelas area of upper Chawkai valley in the district of the same name), the Badel valley (Narang district) and the Quro valley (Watapur) but “not under any identifiable leadership or hierarchical structure.” There was a reported but unconfirmed targeted killing attributed to ISKP and at least one anti-ISKP search operation by Afghan government forces in Sarkani district in January 2021. There were also reports in ISKP-affiliated media about a targeted killing of a Taleban member in Dara-ye Pech district and an armed clash with Taleban in the Mazar valley (Nurgal district) but only the former incident had been independently confirmed.

The ISKP commanders and fighters in Kunar were mainly Afghan citizens. According to local sources, the number of Afghan ISKP commanders and fighters were around 1000 in total. They included local Salafis, Afghan Taleban who had switched sides and new recruits. At the end of the offensive, most surrendered to the Afghan government forces in the province.

Among the foreign ISKP fighters defeated in early 2020, the second largest groups were Pakistanis, most of them from the Orakzai tribe on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line, numbering, according to local sources, not more than 500 fighters. Most of them came from the networks of Tehrik-e Taleban-e Pakistan (TTP), the umbrella organisation of the Pakistani Taleban, already based in Kunar or Nangrahar, others from across the border in Pakistan. A small TTP faction in Kunar had remained neutral during the entire ISKP-Afghan Taleban conflict.

Among the better-known commanders from Pakistan was Haji Daud from South Waziristan, a cousin of the late TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud who was killed in an airstrike in North Waziristan in November 2013. Haji Daud had moved to Kunar’s Dewagal valley in mid-2019. According to local people who met him, he had both plenty of money and authority within the ISKP hierarchy. Khaled Baba, formerly a member of the Bajawur TTP faction, was also said to have access to large amounts of money and facilities. ISKP commanders considered him to be the next leader of ISKP in Kunar. He was also based in Dewagal, but in charge of the south-eastern districts of Marawara, Dangam and Sarkano and for Pakistan’s Bajawur agency. Both Haji Daud and Khaled Baba disappeared from Dewagal shortly before it fell to the Taleban, and fled from Kunar.

Central Asians were the third largest group, believed to count between 200 and 250. They were assumed to be mostly Uzbeks from Uzbekistan, though their exact origins were unknown. Locals identified them as foreigners by what they call their different facial features, dress and the languages they spoke among each other. In contrast, the Afghan fighters were known locally, and news about their death or injury would spread quickly among villagers. Some of the Central Asian fighters served as mid-level commanders while most were ordinary fighters.

Government forces arrested the group’s overall leader Sheikh Abu Omar Khorasani (short: Abu Omar; real name Mawlawi Zia ul-Haq) in May 2020. Mawlawi Khadem, ISKP’s amir-ul harb (military leader) for Kunar was killed in the fighting (Khadem is also known as Mawlawi Bashir and Omar Khurasani; not related to Sheikh Abu Omar Khorasani). Among other leading ISKP cadre killed were Mawlawi Tawhidi, deputy provincial governor; Sardar Khan, a member of the ISKP military council; Shamsher, responsible for dawat wa ershad (preaching and recruitment) in a number of ISKP-controlled villages and valleys; Seraj, a kataba (unit) [1] commander; Abdul Haq, communication officer in Dewagal valley, one of ISKP’s main bases and Qari Emdadullah, a key figure in spreading ISKP’s propaganda in Dewagal. Abuzar, commander of all ISKP check points, surrendered to the ANSF and was later killed by his former comrades in government-controlled territory as a revenge for what was seen as his betrayal. [2]

How ISKP emerged in Kunar

In order to explain the emergence of ISKP in Kunar, the following sections provides background on the geographical and strategic importance of the province, its political and social dynamics as well as the history of local Salafism and how it relates to the Taleban and ISKP.

1. Kunar’s geographic and demographic features

The province is part of Afghanistan’s mountainous north eastern region, situated on the southern slopes of the Hindu Kush range. It borders Nangrahar, the region’s most populous province, to the south. To the north lies Nuristan, which had been part of Kunar until 1988. Laghman province is to the west. To the east is the Durand Line, the border with Pakistan that has never been officially recognised by any Afghan government, that is the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA), particularly Orakzai Agency. The districts on the Pakistani side are – from south to north – Mohmand, Bajawur, Lower Dir, Upper Dir and Lower Chitral. Until the conquest of parts of eastern Afghanistan in the late nineteenth century by the former Afghan Amir, Abdul Rahman (r. 1880-1901), the population of Kunar valley paid tribute to the then independent state of Bajawur.

The vast majority of the province is mountainous, with only one eighth of the province, along the Kunar river and the lower Pech river, relatively low land. The altitude rises from 600 meters in the south to 6,000 meters in the north.

The Kunar river divides the province’s 15 districts diagonally. From the southwest to the northeast lie Khas Kunar, Sarkanai (Sarkano), Bar Kunar (formerly Asmar) and Marawara, with Shegal au Sheltan, Dangam and Naray straddling both sides of the river. [3]

These seven districts share 260 kilometres of border with Pakistan. To the north and west of the river lie Nurgal, Chawkai (Tsaukai), Narang au Badel, the provincial capital Asadabad (historical name Chaghasarai), Watapur, Shegal, Dara-ye Pech (Manogai), Chapa Dara and Ghaziabad. This mountainous part of Kunar is dissected by systems of winding, steep, forested valleys and side-valleys that connect these districts over high passes to the provinces of Nuristan and Laghman. Their dense cedar forests provide suitable hideouts and cover for supply and transit routes.

At the border with Pakistan, there are at least 13 illegal crossing points, among the better known being Maya, Metai, Nawa, Bajawur, Bin Shahi, Dukalam and Naray passes. In fact, there used to be official gates at Nawa, Bin Shahi and Arandu but these gates have not been used for the past two decades. They are not just used by militant groups, but more often by smugglers. Smuggling of timber, but also other goods, is an important part of Kunar’s economy.

There is only one major road that can be used by cars, which leads up the Kunar river valley from close to Jalalabad into Kunar in a north-easterly direction. The road passes the entrances into the Wamagal, Mazar, Chawkai and Badel valleys, before, north of Asadabad, it forks off west, into the lower part of the Pech river valley, the second largest in the province. There, the road first leads to Watapur district and further on into Chapa Dara. The Pech valley has several side valleys, including Korengal (to the south), while Waigal valley links up to Nuristan in the north. The road eventually crosses into Pakistan in the northeast corner of Kunar, near Barikot town in Ghaziabad district, towards Arandu town in Chitral. The asphalted road on the Pakistani side was built during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-89) to supply the Afghan mujahedin.

Kunar is the only Pashtun dominated province in the east. The Safi tribe is the largest, but there are also Shinwari, Mohmand, Salarzai, Mamund (part of the Tarkanri or “Bajawuri” confederacy), Meshwanai, Yusufzai and Alekozai. Smaller non-Pashtun groups include the Pashayi – a distinct ethno-linguistic group [4] – in its mountainous parts, particularly the Korengal, Chelas and Shurik valleys, and minorities of Nuristanis (in Naray district) as well as Gujar.

The population largely follows Salafism, an fundamentalist offshoot of Sunni Islam. Salafism spread into this remote province in the last decade of the 19th century through mullahs sent by Amir Abdul Rahman, after his troops conquered the area of what used to be called Kafiristan and today is northern Kunar and Nuristan and converted the small, non-Muslim groups inhabiting the area (called Kafirs, “unbelievers”) to Islam. Thus, Kafiristan became Nuristan, the “land of light” (the light of Islam). It received another boost in the 1980s when, during the struggle against the Soviet invaders, Kunar’s Salafis obtained significant financial support from Saudi Arabia because of the shared religious belief.

2. Kunar’s strategic importance and militant groups

Kunar’s rugged geography makes it a suitable place for militant anti-government groups. The government controls most parts of only seven of the 15 districts (Asadabad, Khas Kunar, Asmar, Nurgal, Narang, Watapur and Naray). In the remaining eight districts the Taleban presence is greater than that of government forces, which are confined to the district centres and a few kilometres around them. Pakistani militant groups such as the TTP, Lashkar-e Taiba and Jaish-e Muhammad currently have a presence in some parts of Ghaziabad, Naray, Dangam, Marawara, Sheltan, Shegal and Sarkano districts (more details in the upcoming report on foreign militants in Kunar).

Militant groups have located training camps in Kunar for decades, from the 1980s’ anti-Soviet mujahedin to al-Qaeda, the Taleban and ISKP as well as Pakistani groups. They have mostly been located in forested valleys such as Dewagal, Korengal and Shuraik (both in Pech Dara).

When ISKP first emerged in Kunar in 2016, it occupied most of Kunar’s three important valleys of Dewagal, Mazar and Shuraik. Until recently, it had training camps in each valley:

  • three camps in the Chelas area of Dewagal, where newcomers received religious and military training. These camps were led by commander Babak, who was killed in 2019;
  • three more camps in Mazar valley of Nurgal district, in Zangal Bandah village, led by commander Muhammad Nabi (Nabi was wounded in the February 2020 Taleban offensive and later surrendered to the Afghan government);
  • two camps in Shuraik valley, led by commander Seraj, who was killed in early 2020 by the Taleban

3. The Salafis of Kunar and their relations with Taleban

The Salafis of Kunar were for a long time a self-sufficient group. They were fairly marginalised during the fight against the PDPA/Watan Party regime (1978-92) and the Soviet occupation (1979-89). The major Afghan jihadi tanzim (faction) leaderscommanders and fighters were mostly mainstream Hanafi Sunni Muslims. The Salafis were opposed to the Taleban Emirate, but (as described below), were eventually pushed into an alliance with the Taleban (by at least 2010, as observed in an AAN background here).

Mawlawi Hussain, aka Sheikh Jamil ur-Rahman, a Pashtun religious leader from Pech valley, became the most important Salafi leader in Kunar in the 1980/90s. He had received religious education in the famous Panj Pir madrassa in the Pakistani town of Sawabai (in English sources often: Swabi) district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In the early 1980s he was a prominent local commander of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami (HIG). In 1985, he established a separate, Salafi organisation, named Jamaat al-Dawat al-Quran wa Sunna (Association for the Invitation to Quran and Sunna, or JDQS, read AAN’s 2010 report about the organisation here).

By the late 1980s, the JDQS had established control over most parts of the province. In 1991, Jamil ur-Rahman formed a Salafi Emirate in Kunar. Under his power, many Kunari Pashtuns converted to Salafism. His group implemented Salafi regulations, for instance preventing people from visiting shrines and from putting flags on graves. However, while fundamentalist in nature, it was a relatively mild form of Salafism that accepted and practiced some local customs, such as visiting graveyards and respecting elders’ conflict resolution. It was also less radical than what is practiced by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or its local affiliate, ISKP.

When Sheikh Jamil ur-Rahman split from Hezb-e Islami it led to serious differences with the party and its leader, Hekmatyar, who is known for not tolerating dissent. These differences were both ideological and political, about control and dominance in Kunar province.

In the beginning of 1991, serious clashes between Sheikh Jamil ur-Rahman’s group and Hezb-e Islami erupted in Kunar. They continued for several days and caused casualties on both sides. Eventually, local elders mediated a truce. In late 1991, however, Jamil ul-Rahman was assassinated in his office in Bajawar agency in Pakistan. His family, though, remained pivotal in Kunar politics, with his nephews, Haji Rohullah and Haji Hayatullah, taking over the leadership of the organisation.

During the Taleban rule (1996-2001), Haji Rohullah opposed the Taleban’s Emirate and went into exile in Pakistan. Abubakar Seddique wrote in his 2014 book Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan that in late 2001, after the Taleban were ousted from power, Haji Rohullah returned to Kunar to secure a share in the new political set-up for his organisation. In 2002, however, he was arrested by US forces and sent to Guantánamo Bay prison. The US had limited understanding of Rohullah’s importance locally, or his opposition to the Taleban. He was accused of financing military operations against the Afghan interim administration and also providing safe passage to al-Qaeda linked Arabs to get in and out of Afghanistan (the accusations may have come from those aligned with the new Afghan power elites who were interested in his timber smuggling trade). This and other clashes with the US military led to the Rohullah was transferred to Afghan custody in 2008 and later released. He returned to Kunar and took up his position as a tribal elder and religious scholar among the Salafi community.

The organisation was by this point registered as a political party in Kabul and was led by Rohullah’s brother, Haji Hayatullah, who spent most of his time living in Peshawar. By early 2010 the organisation officially pledged allegiance to the Taleban but was largely marginalised as they wanted to keep control of the local set-up. They only offered comparatively low ranking positions to the Salafis, such as district governor or deputy provincial governor, while most of their fighters remained as foot soldiers. 

According to several local Salafi ex-Taleban fighters in Kunar, the Taleban leadership council refused to appoint members of the Salafi group into its ranks or at the provincial level, despite the fact that they were fighting together with the (Hanafi) Taleban.

Meanwhile, a leadership dispute caused friction within the Taleban in Kunar, between Korengalis (Salafi Pashtuns from Korengal valley in Chapa Dara district), and non-Korengalis (Hanafi Pashtuns). In the early stage of the Taleban’s emergence in the province, in 2006, Mawlawi Abdul Rahim, a Salafi Taleban commander from Korengal, was appointed shadow provincial governor for Kunar. But his rival, a Hanafi Taleban commander from Shegal district, Mawlawi Nur Jalal, disobeyed the shadow governor’s instructions. Both of them had served as local Taleban commanders in Kunar during Taleban’s emirate (1996-2001).

In 2010, when the Taleban replaced Abdul Rahim with his rival, Mawlawi Nur Jalal, it was the turn of Rahim and his fighters to ignore the orders of the new shadow governor. From then on, the Taleban Leadership Council only appointed outsiders as shadow provincial governor in Kunar, with one exception, Qari Zia ur-Rahman from Marawara district. Others who filled this position after 2010 were, successively, Mullah Qasem Sabari, from Sabari district in Khost province; Omar Mukhles, a Zadran from Paktia province; Qari Baryal, a Pashayi from Kapisa province; Qari Belal, a Zadran from Paktia province; Mawlawi Ismail, a Pashtun from Laghman province; followed by Qari Zia ur-Rahman; and Mawlawi Hamdullah, the current shadow governor, a Pashtun from Helmand province. According to many local elders, all but Qari Zia ur-Rahman, Mawlawi Hamdullah and Mawlawi Ismail were linked with Haqqani network. AAN sources said that when members from the Haqqani network came to the province they were largely outsiders and local Taleban who knew that they were Haqqani affiliated commanders shared their background details with local people.

Secondly, financial resources often cause intra-conflict among local commanders. The primary financial income in Kunar is the timber trade that mostly involves smuggling across the border to Pakistan. Most of the timber is produced in Chelas, Dewagal and Mazar valley of Chawkai district. According to local sources, commanders in these areas collect 1,000 USD per day from traders. A related financial resource comes from smuggling weapons from Pakistan to Afghanistan via Kunar. Local sources told AAN that weapons traders make huge profits from the cross-border weapons trade but pay a substantial amount their income to local militant groups operating in Kunar.

ISKP’s emergence in Kunar

In mid-June 2015, when ISKP appeared in Nangrahar, the Salafi community in Kunar immediately expressed sympathy with the group, since it shared the same theological roots and also because of their frustration with having to fight against the government under the Taleban. Even before this, early in 2015, when reports about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)’s victories in Iraq and Syria spread in eastern Afghanistan some local Salafi religious scholars and community elders had started speaking in favour of ISKP, before there was any visible connection with the ISKP fighters in neighbouring Nangrahar. They praised ISIL’s military capabilities, its wealth and ideology. Many former Salafi Taleban in Kunar also expressed sympathies towards the group and the caliphate system.

By mid-2015, the late Hafiz Sayed Khan, a prominent TTP leader based in Nangrahar province, pledged allegiance to ISIL’s late leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, and set up the Khorasan branch of the ISIL in Nangrahar (read AAN analysis here). This encouraged a number of young Salafis from Kunar, both with and without a religious education,  to visit Nangrahar in order to join ISKP.

According to a local Taleban commander, the first group of young people from Kunar that joined ISKP were 25 students attending Ta’lim-e Quran, a madrasa located in Jalalabad city, the provincial centre of Nangrahar. Most of this cohort, he said, were young, aged 14 to 17 years old. They fought alongside ISKP against the Taleban and government forces in Nangrahar. All were killed during the fighting in Nangrahar.

In the same year, a second group of 40 fighters from Spedar and Amrayo villages of Dewagal valley, Chawkai district, went to ISKP training bases in Achin and Haska Mena in Nangrahar, after a dispute over leadership of the district with local Taleban. They not only pledged allegiance to ISKP but also invited the group’s leaders to establish bases in their valley, where the majority of the population were sympathetic to the group and ready to support it. Many other local Taleban fighters also gradually started to switch sides to ISKP.

Later that same year, the Peshawar Shura of the Taleban replaced Qari Sayed as Taleban district governor with Mawlawi Basir. That caused a dispute between the two commanders, prompting Qari Sayed, a Pashtun tribal leader from the district, to switch allegiance to ISKP. He sent a representative to Nangrahar to convey a message of his support to ISKP leaders. The representative joined ISKP and, after receiving three months of training, returned to his home town to consult with Qari Sayed and to take his family with him to ISKP’s territory in Nangrahar. According to ISKP’s rules of recruitment, any newcomer must stay three months in the ‘caliphate,’ meaning ISKP-controlled territory, for military and ideological training. After the three months, they must bring their families to join them, before they join the fighting. If a newcomer is not married, he must marry a girl or widow in ISKP territory.

Qari Sayed was the first mid-level Taleban commander in Kunar who pledged allegiance to ISKP. He brought along his 40 fighters and officially invited the group to Kunar province. When Qari Sayed returned to Dewagal valley after his own stint in ISKP territory in Nangrahar in early 2016, he raised the ISKP flag in Spedar and Amrayo villages. [5] He then organised mass gatherings in Spedar, his home village, inviting people to join ISKP. According to a local elder who had taken part in most of the gatherings, Qari Sayed promoted to local people the group’s mother organisation, ISIL, because of its Salafi ideology, describing them as as “good Muslims,” and “our Salafi brothers.”  The elder recalled the Qari as also commending ISIL’s access to oil resources and wealth in Iraq and Syria, as well as their goal of establishing a ‘true’ Sharia order under a single flag for the whole Muslim world (the idea of a caliphate). Qari Sayed also delivered anti-Taleban speeches. In one gathering, according to a tribal elder from Spedar village, he called the Taleban “agents of Pakistan.”

Throughout the rest of the year, he expanded his pro-ISKP campaign to neighbouring areas such as Mazar valley of Nurgal and Badel valley of Narang. As a result hundreds of locals joined him. In late 2016, he invited an ISKP delegation from Nangrahar to visit Dewagal valley.

In late 2016, the ISKP delegation arrived in Dewagal valley, led by Sheikh Attaullah and Mawlawi Rabbani, both originally from Kuz Kunar district of Nangrahar (also known as Khewa). Sheikh Attaullah met Qari Sayed and others who had already joined ISKP in Chelas, Korengal and Shuraik at Paman, a small village between the Dewagal and Mazar valleys, later renamed by ISKP to Rahmatabad. [6] Sheikh Attaullah collected details of potential ISKP volunteers in Kunar province and registered the weapons with them. In various public meetings, Sheikh Attaullah announced the ISKP rules for newcomers to join the group. There were four main points, according to a tribal elder who had listened to one speech:

  • s/he should be religiously aligned [7] (women were also targeted for recruitment, some serving as cooks with ISKP and others as housekeepers for ISKP fighters);
  • s/he should be living together with their family in Caliphate territory;
  • new recruits must to start with three months in the field;
  • all ISKP supporters who do not enlist should handover their weapons to ISKP.

Apart from the last point, the local people accepted these conditions. Both sides then agreed that those Kunaris who joined would not have to hand over their weapons (to see if the weapon was adequate or needed to be replaced), as is normal practice. Instead new recruits could just provide registration numbers of their weapons to the ISKP leadership. Sheikh Attaullah also said that the ISKP would announce the establishment of the Kunar branch of ISKP only after he received approval from the headquarters of the Caliphate in Syria.

Two months later, in early 2017, Sheikh Attaullah returned to Kunar and announced that the ISIL headquarter had approved the Kunar branch. On the same day, 200 to 250 fighters publicly pledged allegiance to ISIL’s leader and Qari Sayed was appointed ISKP commander for Dewagal valley. His initiative encouraged many other local Taleban commanders to switch sides.

Upon Qari Sayed pledging allegiance to ISKP, he stepped up his pro-ISKP propaganda campaign. He invited an ISKP propaganda expert, originally from Khas Kunar district and offered him a house in Spedar village, Dewagal, inside the territory of the Taleban. There he secretly worked for three months, drafting and publishing leaflets, flags, logos and other materials with basic equipment only. This material was used later in another pledging ceremony in Chelas village, conducted by Qari Sayed. At that occasion, 500 villagers from Dewagal valley openly swore alliance to ISKP.

In response to the expanding ISKP influence, in mid-2017, Mawlawi Basir, the Taleban shadow governor for Chawkai district, called a meeting of the organisation’s leadership for Kunar in Dewagal to discuss ways of dealing with the new competitor. It was attended by a large number of local Taleban leaders and commanders, including their governors for the province’s districts and then deputy shadow provincial governor Qari Zia ur-Rahman. On the third day, the village where the gathering was being held was surrounded by around 500 ISKP fighters led by Qari Sayed. They ordered the Taleban to lay down their arms and surrender to ISKP. According to a local Taleban fighter who was there, the trapped Taleban commanders did not show any intention of defending themselves, but were extremely worried about their own fate, fearing the brutal the tactics that had been used in Nangrahar where, upon their arrival, ISKP blew up local Taleban and elders with IEDs.

Fortunately for the local Talebs, Qari Sayed was ordered by the ISKP headquarters in Nangrahar to release them if the local tribal elders requested it. The surrounded Taleban had already contacted elders who went to meet the ISKP commanders in Dewagal. Expecting that would gain him their support, Qari Sayed let the Taleban go but they had to leave their weapons behind and depart from their meeting with an escort. This was an immense blow to the reputation and moral of the Kunar Taleban and their supporters. The same day, ISKP announced that Dewagal was a Taleban-free valley and celebrated their victory.

After the Taleban defeat in 2017 many other local Taleban commanders joined the ISKP. In Dara-ye Pech, Qari Azimullah, another prominent Taleban commander, switched sides to ISKP. He had spent five years in an Afghan government prison, opening a madrasa in Shuraik village in Dara-ye Pech after his release in 2015 and started a pro-ISKP campaign across the province. He also reached out to tribal leaders and local Salafi Taleban commanders. In Manogai district, he recruited three prominent commanders, Mullah Janat Gul, a former Taleban supporter, religious figure and mullah-imam in Kalaigal village; Yar Muhammad, a Pakistan-based madrassa graduate, supporter of the Taleban and well-known religious figure in Woradish Tangi village, Manogai district; and Najmuddin, a former Hezb-e Islami commander who had previously switched sides to the Taleban. The ISKP leadership appointed the three as commanders of different fighting units in Manogai district.

Qari Azimullah also extended his campaign to Chapa Dara district, some 50 kilometers to the north of Asadabad. Local elders there held a gathering in Tsarigal, a village only one kilometre away from the district centre and decided to join ISKP. (Tsarigal is another side valley of Dara-ye Pech.) Qari Azimullah appointed Asar Khan and Rahmatullah, two prominent tribal elders, to lead the group in their native town. At least at that time, because of the on-going fighting, all new recruits had to take up weapon and participate in military activities. Qari Azimullah further reached to Manogai and Watapur districts to recruit fighters. Also there, he succeeded in recruiting local elders and appointed them as ISKP commanders in their areas. In Narang district, he recruited Muhammad Sayed and Mawlawi Hamesh. Both previously served as local Taleban commanders and both led around 80 fighters each.

Over 2017, ISKP gradually expanded its territorial control in Kunar further. After brief resistance from the Taleban, ISKP fighters from Nagrahar and Kunar first overran Mazar valley in Nurgal district. The valley is strategically important, as it constitutes an important supply route from Nangrahar to Kunar and Laghman. By late 2017, ISKP most of most of the Mazar valley offshoots as well as controlling the Dewagal, Korengal, Shuraik and Degal valleys in Pech Dara and parts of Watapur district. More Taleban commanders joined, including Mawlawi Basir, the Taleban governor for Chawkai district, who had organised the mid-2017 meeting in Dewagal that had been raided by ISKP, along with 80 to 100 fighters, Haji Gul Amir from Korengal, and Mawlawi Shahab from Chelas. All were Pashtuns.

The number of Pashayi fighters was far lower. ISKP managed to recruit some from Shurik, Korengal, Chelas and Degal, who mainly served at a low level, that is as group heads or foot soldiers. In the beginning of 2018, ISKP sent a delegation from the Mazar valley to the Pashayi tribes in Dara-ye Nur asking them to pledge allegiance to their Caliphate. The Pashayi instead contacted the government for support to be able to defend the district against a possible ISKP attack. The government deployed forces whereupon ISKP gave up targeting the district.

Deforested hillside in Zuliyal (Kunar) in June 2003. Timber smuggling is big business in the province. Photo: Monneb Afghan/Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

ISKP’s leaders in Kunar

Initially ISKP followed the Taleban pattern of largely appointing outsiders as provincial governors, with the most of the well known Kunari commanders only serving at low to mid level positions. But the longer the fighting continued, the more the Kunaris made it to the top ranks. Mawlawi Zia ul-Haq who is originally from Dewagal valley in Kunar even became ISKP’s acting leader of the group after Sheikh Abdul Hasib Logari, until then ISKP amir, was killed in April 2017. (After Zia ul-Haq was detained by the NDS in May 2020, he was described as the ISKP head of South Asia region in an official statement sent to the media.) When ISKP ruled the area, however, Zia ul-Haq was only seen a few times in Dewagal. In the beginning, he spent some times in Nangrahar, then he went to Kabul with his family where he lived secretly until he was arrested, which was well after the defeat in Kunar. [8] Also ISKP military leader Maulawi Khadem [9] and Maulawi Tawhidi, the deputy shadow provincial governor, were Kunaris.

Others came from the region. Mawlawi Halimi, a former Taleban member who led ISKP’s public outreach and recruitment commission and Mufti Ismail (aka Saif ul-Islam), the amir of Dewagal valley and later in charge of ISKP Kunar’s ‘tax’ collection, are from Kuz Kunar district in Nangrahar. Haji Musa, provincial intelligence head of ISKP, is from Dara-ye Nur which has a small percentage of Salafi inhabitants.

Enforcement of ISKP regulations 

When it first appeared in Kunar, ISKP deployed a soft approach and only enforced regulations deemed acceptable to the local population. They did not force locals to quit government jobs, respected the decisions of local elder councils and did not force people to provide food and shelters. However, this policy quickly changed when the group became stronger and absorbed a substantial number of local Taleban over 2017. This replicated patterns AAN had reported from Nangrahar (see here and here).

According to several local people who have experienced life under the ISKP ‘Caliphate,’ they started to enforce harsh regulations that clashed with local traditions when foreign and non-Kunari fighters arrived in the province. For instance, every household was then forced to not only provide food and accommodation but also fighters to ISKP. Those who disagreed had to leave ISKP’s territory. The regulations were announced by preachers in local mosques during Friday prayers and also by ISKP local officials in meetings with elders.

There were 24 items in this regulation, the most important of which are described below:

  • The practice of badal was prohibited because of being ‘against Islam.’ Badal is the practice of exchanging brides between families, often at a young age, which is usually practiced in poor and rural areas as a way of avoiding the expense of the bride price. However, it conflicts with the Sharia requirement for the consent of the bride to the marriage, as well as a prohibition on giving away a daughter in marriage to avoid mahr (dowry payments). (To the extent that it involves child and forced marriage it is also prohibited according to Afghan law). Those who had been married in such manner before the announcement of the Caliphate had to divorce;
  • Women going out had always to be accompanied by a male member of their family. (Women in rural areas of Kunar regularly work on their land alongside male members of their families, including going to their farmland without an accompanying male.);
  • Anyone who had a business or job in the government-controlled areas had either to quit or leave the Caliphate’s territory;
  • All business people and farmers had to pay tax on their incomes to ISKP, accurate details of which they had to provide to ISKP’s representatives;
  • No carrying of weapons in the Caliphate territory was allowed;
  • Villagers are prohibited from leaving their houses at night;
  • ISKP is the only authorised institution to solve local conflicts; tribal councils were prohibited from dealing with local conflict resolution;
  • Any type of entertainment, including watching TV, videos, or listening to music are forbidden;
  • Using any type of tobacco, naswar (snuff) or drugs is prohibited;
  • Villagers must perform their prayers in a mosque five times a day;
  • Anyone who disagrees with any of these regulations must immediately leave their village without being allowed to take their belongings with them, including livestock and any households items.

According to interviewees, most of these rules were felt to be a severe interference with the personal lives of the local population, contradicted the traditional values of Kunar’s tribal society and were far from acceptable to the local population.

ISKP was also accused of committing atrocities and cruel treatment in some of their public punishments of locals.  The first case that caused serious concerns and mobilised many people to stand against the group was the beheading of Gul Shirin, an attorney of Dewagal who had been working for the local district government, for violating the ISKP regulations in December 2017. The verdict was issued by the ISKP provincial judicial committee under their provincial chief justice, Abu Shahed.  Another examples was given from 2018, when an elderly women who wanted to go to her farmland alone was caught by ISKP, accused of violating the regulations and had her head shaven as a punishment.

In response to this harsh rule, thousands of families from Dewagal fled to government-controlled areas in the province. Over time this practice turned more people against ISKP and mobilised the local population to resist.

Anti-ISKP mobilisation 

The beheading of Gul Shirin, in particular, caused anti-ISKP activity in the Chambel and Karburai villages of Dewagal. Tribal elders in both villages mobilised locals to stand up against ISKP brutality. They also reached out to the government for support in their fight against ISKP in their villages. The provincial government responded by providing weapons and ammunition for 300 men for a public uprising force in areas outside of ISKP control. From there, the force started attacking ISKP checkpoints.

In January 2018, ISKP faced the first-ever armed resistance by locals in Kunar inside their territory, in Chambel village. As a result, a local ISKP commander was killed and several ISKP fighters were wounded. After taking control of the area, the uprising forces set up a check post, reinforced by ANSF members.

This force, however, did not last for more than a few weeks. ISKP removed Qari Sayed as ISKP amir in Chawkai district, reportedly for neglecting his duties, replacing him with Mufti Ismail, originally from Kuz Kunar district of Nangrahar. Ismail, an infamously brutal commander, gathered forces and carried out a counteroffensive against the locals’ check post in Dewagal. The security forces retreated to the district centre, with the uprising forces soon fleeing there too. Every single inhabitant of the two villages (Chambel and Karburai) did the same, leaving their houses and belongings behind. In February, tribal elders who had fled the villages organised a blockade of the Dewagal-Chawkai district centre and the Kunar-Nangrahar roads, both in protest against the ISKP counteroffensive and to prevent supplies reaching ISKP in Dewagal. However, the blockade also caused hardship for the people in Dewagal and Chawkai district, so after a couple of weeks local elders and influential figures mediated to reopen the roads. After the defeat of the local uprising forces in Chambell, most other villagers did not dare to stand up against ISKP.

In mid-2018 ISKP detained Hazratullah, a villager from Chambel where the people had revolted, at his home. They accused him of spying for the government. Hazratullah was severely tortured in the ISKP headquarters in Chelas and finally beheaded in an open field.

On the same day, ISKP also captured Sadam, a villager from Khas Kunar district, in Chambel village. He was there to buy wood to cover his newly built house. During his month-long detention in an ISKP base in Chelas, his captors found out that he had previously been a member of the Afghan National Army. Although he had quit the ANA long ago and had no further contact with them, he was also brutally executed.

In mid-2018, ISKP fighters in Shuraik valley detained a local woman of over 60 years for visiting the local clinic without a male relative. She argued that as an old lady and grandmother, she did not require a male escort. As a punishment, the ISKP judges ordered to shave her head. The news of this incident spread throughout Pech valley and scared the local women so much that none of them dared to go out alone anymore. They even stopped working on their farm land. ISKP seemed to be in control again. ISKP’s progress particularly after defeating the public uprising forces and the Taleban made the group stronger than ever.

Taleban and ISKP confrontations 

The attempts by ISKP to expand its influence from Kunar to neighbouring Nuristan and Laghmanwas of great concern to the Taleban leadership. Although the attempts ultimately failed, they provoked the Taleban to take serious counter-measures. In late 2017, they gathered forces to clear areas outside Kunar of ISKP presence. The Taleban offensives started from Alingar district in Laghman where ISKP had established its only check post in the province in mid-2017. After defeating ISKP in Alingar, the Taleban turned their attention towards ISKP bases in Kunar, in Mazar Dara, Chapa Dara and the Pech valley, in early 2018, first trying to win the local populations’ support. They succeeded in persuading locals from Chapa Dara and Manogai districts to join the Taleban forces and help them push ISKP into the Mazar and Dewagal valleys.

In late February 2018, ISKP leaders, including Mawlawi Zia ul-Haq, Mawlawi Khadem, Mufti Ismail, Sheikh Attaullah, Qari Sayed, Mawlawi Sharafuddin and Maulawi Basir, held a meeting in the Mazar valley to discuss how to retake the areas lost to the Taleban. According to local sources close to ISKP, ISKP also felt threatened by reports that the US and the Taleban had resumed talks to end the war (this became public in mid-July that year, see a New York Times report here). They planned to expand their control again before the Taleban and the US, and possibly the Afghan government, reached a peace deal and jointly turned against the group.

This led to regular clashes between the Taleban and ISKP in Mazar Dara and Chapa Dara from early 2018 to October, with most areas frequently changing hands between them (see media report herehere and here). In October 2018, Qari Abdullah, a Salafi religious scholar from Dewagal who had lived in Peshawar for years, started mediating a peace deal between both groups for Kunar. He met local elders and influential figures in Peshawar and also in Kunar and called for a jirga to discuss the ongoing fighting. As a well-respected religious scholar with a close relationship with religious parties in Pakistan, Qari Abdullah was able to convince both parties to agree on a ceasefire in October and to commit to only fight against the ‘joint enemies,’ meaning the ANSF and foreign forces.

As a result of the deal, the level of violence between Taleban and ISKP remained very low from October to late December 2018. But the deal was not concluded in good faith. While it was in force, both sides continued to strengthen their positions by deploying more forces to the front lines. In December 2018 the agreement in Kunar fell apart when the Taleban carried out massive operations against ISKP in Nangrahar which, ultimately, led to an almost complete defeat of ISKP there. Hundreds of its fighters fled to Kunar. They mobilised their local comrades to avenge the Nangrahar defeat by attacking Taleban bases in Kunar. After retaking parts of Chapa Dara and Manogai, they slaughtered a dozen people who supported the Taleban. They set their houses on fire, looted their assets and confiscated their farmland.

Local antagonisms grew because of the practice of seizing farmland and property by ISKP fighters, triggering conflicts between pro- and anti-ISKP families in ISKP-held areas. In one case, the family of an Afghan National Police (ANP) officer from Dewagal fled to government-control areas whereupon their farmland and properties were grabbed by an ISKP fighter. When the intense fighting in Dewagal pushed an ISKP family to leave the area and move to the district centre, the ANP officer’s family found the ISKP family in the district centre and forced them to pay the price for the land that they had been cultivating. The ISKP, in turn, sent warning messages to the officer’s family not to harass the pro-ISKP family. In early September 2018, ISKP carried out a suicide attack against the ANP officer who was on a duty in Chawkai. As a result, 13 ANP service members were killed but the officer remained unhurt.

A Taleban-local government ceasefire

After the ISKP-Taleban fallout, the Afghan provincial government and the Taleban shadow administration struck a deal in spring (April or May) 2019. The initiative came from the local Taleban. Both parties agreed on a ceasefire between them and to join forces against the ISKP. According to a local elder who is familiar with the conflict dynamics in Kunar, provincial governor Abdul Satar Mirzakwal and Taleban shadow governor Qari Zia ur-Rahman signed the deal. Local sources said that Qari Zia ur-Rahman was seen several times visiting the provincial governor’s office to discuss the cooperation. The agreement swung the battlefield dynamics in Kunar against ISKP.

Soon after the ceasefire, the roads linking the provincial centre to Dangam, the Nawa pass, Pech valley and further on to Nuristan became safe, not only for ordinary people but also for government officials and troops. Some of these roads had been blocked by the Taleban for five years. Now, Taleban and ANSF personnel were able to pass areas under the control of the other party. Based on the deal, the Afghan government also provided a safe passage for Taleban fighters to cross government-controlled areas from other parts of the province in order to get to the frontline. According to a local source, the ANP even provided transportation and logistics for them.

In May 2019, Taleban carried out another offensive against ISKP positions in Kunar from multiple directions.  They attacked ISKP bases in Manogai and Chapa Dara districts, advancing from the north, from Laghman, while some parts of Korengal valley were simultaneously attacked by Taleban and uprising forces from Chapa Dara district. The Taleban managed to retake these areas from ISKP. From the south, through Dara-ye Nur, Maulawi Asadullah, the Taleban shadow district governor for Nurgal district, and his fighters continued to advance towards Mazar Dara. The Taleban pressure on ISKP’s main base in Dewagal, however, was disrupted due to heavy airstrikes by US and Afghan forces. Most of the strikes hit ISKP, though local sources suggest there may have also been some strikes that hit Taleban positions. Sources close to ISKP said that the group took heavy losses – estimates ranged from 50 to 80 fighters killed and 100 others wounded. The airstrikes did not weaken the Taleban-government deal.

Because of the airstrikes, the Taleban stopped their attacks but kept up a siege of ISKP in Dewagal. Squeezed from both sides, many local ISKP leaders individually contacted local government officials about the possibility of a safe surrender. This materialised when, for example, 40 ISKP fighters surrendered to the local NDS in late May 2019. Later the same month, a group of ISKP foreign fighters arrived from an unknown place to support the besieged fighters, a villager told AAN. He said there were prominent ISKP commanders and leaders in Afghanistan, most of them foreigners. The group displaced into two different parts in Dewagal, some moved to Chelas, some others to Kalaigal village of Manogai district.

In mid-June 2019, the Taleban attacked the ISKP base in Degal village of Chapa Dara district. After a week of fighting, the district was cleared of ISKP’s presence. In the same month, the Taleban carried out another attack against ISKP bases in Korengal and Kalaigal, also clearing them of ISKP fighters.

Under this intense pressure and as a result of heavy losses, ISKP faced a shortage of fighters in the Dewagal, Mazar, Badel and Shuraik valleys. They called on locals to allow their young people fight alongside them. The demand was immediately rejected and ISKP put pressure on the population to not support their enemies. They banned them from using cell phones, leaving their villages and required any newcomer to the area to report to an ISKP leader. But the persistent Taleban pressure lowered the morale of local ISKP commanders and fighters. Many opened secret channels to negotiate a surrender to the government. On 23 August, for example, prominent Taleban-turned-ISKP commander Mawlawi Basir surrendered along with around 110 fighters.

In late October 2019, the Taleban made their way north towards Dewagal, ISKP’s main base in the province, through Narang-Badel and Chawkai district. They took a few villages in Dewagal, but then US airstrikes in Chelas, Korengal and Amrayo valley caused serious casualties to both ISKP and the Taleban. While they prevented the Taleban fighters from moving further toward Dewagal, the strikes broke the backbone of ISKP. Many ISKP commanders, including Mawlawi Khadem and commander Mawlawi Bashir, along with dozens of fighters, were killed during this phase of fighting. Due to the airstrikes, the Taleban stepped back from Dewagal and remained in the Badel and Korengal valleys. The cold winter with heavy snowfall from December to February 2020 kept them in these positions.

In late February 2020, US airstrikes and Taleban pressure on the remaining ISKP fighters in Dewagal resumed. In the second round of the anti-ISKP operation, US airstrikes mainly targeted ISKP positions and avoided Taleban fighters. This may relate to the agreement reached earlier that month in Doha between the US and Taleban, which protected the Taleban from being bombed (read AAN previous analysis about US-Taleban agreement here). As a result of the renewed air campaign, many ISKP commanders – including Qari Sayed, Mawlawi Sharafuddin, Sheikh Attaullah, Mawlawi Halimi, Sheikh Khetab (who had replaced Mufti Ismail as amir of Dewagal after he was killed in a raid in Mazar valley) and provincial intelligence chief Haji Musa – along with hundreds of fighters, surrendered to the Afghan government and were evacuated to Asadabad, the provincial capital of Kunar. Many were then detained for a time in Kabul, though some are believed to have been released or given some form of government protection, including Musa. Khetab was allowed to leave for his home town in Paktia.

In early April 2020, the Taleban entered Dewagal, Mazar and parts of Badel valleys celebrating their victory against ISKP. After retaking these areas, they embarked on some retaliatory punishments, including setting fire to houses that belonged to local ISKP commanders and publicly executing at least seven ISKP fighters in Dewagal. The Taleban also detained those tribal elders who allowed ISKP to operate in their villages.

The ISKP losses

With ISKP’s main leaders and many commanders either captured, surrendered or killed, any remaining ISKP disappeared from the military field. Of the fighters, most of the Afghans surrendered to the Afghan government forces.

Of the foreign fighters, some were killed in the fighting, others surrendered to the Afghan Taleban and a small number also to the Afghan government, according to local sources. Most Pakistani fighters either returned to their old TTP networks in Kunar or Nangrahar or in Pakistan and stopped fighting against the Afghan Taleban. Of the Central Asian fighters, some were killed, some detained by the Taleban. Others were said to have fled either to the Orakzai agency (where Central Asian fighters allied with the Afghan Taleban before 2001 had fled during the US-led intervention) or to northern Afghanistan.

However profound this military defeat for ISKP appears, it does not mean there is no more ISKP presence in Kunar. According to a local journalist who is familiar with militancy dynamic in Kunar, some local ISKP leaders now operate underground. One is Dr Shahab al-Muhajer, a former commander of the Afghan Taleban-related Haqqani network, who took over the leadership of ISKP in Afghanistan after the previous leader Aslam Faruqi was arrested on 4 April 2020 by the National Directorate of Security (NDS). Almost nothing is known about al-Muhajer. According to the journalist, al-Muhajer seems to have no permanent base in Kunar or Nangrahar, is moving around there as well as in Nuristan, and is mainly involved in new recruiting fighters. According to local sources, a second ISKP local commander, Mawlawi Amanullah, is operating underground in the villages of Madish and Samalam in Shegal district.

Group of ISKP members or sympathisers in the Samlam area of Shegal district (Kunar) in 2020. Photo: Local journalist.

Conclusion 

The February 2020 offensive of Taleban, local forces, the Afghan government and US forces eliminated the military presence of ISKP in Kunar province. During the anti-ISKP operation, US airstrikes did not only hit ISKP, but also sometimes hit the local Taleban, perhaps not wanting the destruction of ISKP to leave the Taleban with full control of important positions in the valleys of northwestern Kunar.

The brutal activities of ISKP had mobilised different local forces to fight alongside the Taleban to defeat the group in Kunar. This included parts of the Salafi population who first supported ISKP for ideological reasons – largely due to the fact that in practice ISKP behaviour proved to be unacceptable to local Salafis in Kunar. In fact, it was the first example in eastern Afghanistan of Salafists’ sympathies swinging against the ISKP.

The Taleban, as usual, celebrated the victory as their own achievement, without acknowledging support from local communities. However, the initial stage of anti-ISKP mobilisation was started by locals. The other factors conveniently ignored by the Taleban is their spring 2019 deal with the local government, as well as air support by US and Afghan security forces that shattered the remaining strength of ISKP in Kunar. The February 2020 US-Taleban deal in Doha facilitated this undeclared alliance during the last phase of the offensive. Most local ISKP commanders and fighters preferred to surrender to the Afghan government instead of the Taleban due to fears that there would be serious persecution by the latter. Indeed, the Taleban did persecute many local Salafi religious leaders after the ISKP’s defeat, accusing them of supporting and providing shelters for the group.

Even when ISKP was at its maximum territorial and military strength, the Taleban remained in control of some of the valleys, which presented a serious challenge for ISKP to stabilise its powerbase and expand to all of Kunar’s complex valleys. Secondly, ISKP did not control any territory in other provinces to flee to after the fall of Kunar, which became a last resort after its 2019 defeat in Nangrahar. Those ISKP who fled north won’t be able to establish bases from where to regroup because the Taleban had already eliminated the self-proclaimed ISKP in Jawzjan and other ISKP sympathisers in TakharKunduz and Baghlan provinces. Because of the Taleban’s strong presence in the north, space would even be limited for ISKP to operate underground.

However, while ISKP’s military presence has disappeared from Kunar, there is still an underground presence in some parts in the province. It remains unclear if the surviving ISKP figures will be able to re-establish active cells to recruit fighters or to connect the broken networks in eastern Afghanistan and across the country after their two deadly defeats in Nangrahar and Kunar.

The Kunar study also shows that apart from ISKP’s ongoing underground presence and activity, there are many active non-Taleban militant groups, including some of Pakistani origin who pursue their own aims without clear loyalty to the Taleban or ISKP. Despite some temporary alliances, it has been almost impossible for the Taleban and ISKP to get these groups under their control. They are based in hard to access areas and also their political or military interests may differ from those of the Taleban.

The colourful mixture of militant groups in eastern Afghanistan, particularly in Kunar, has prevented the Taleban from completely dominating the region. In fact, the Taleban have never been the sole militant group in the east. Even during the Taleban Emirate a number of militant groups were operating in the region under the Taleban or independently. Kunar is challenging for the Taleban largely because of their failure to balance the power between local Salafi and non-Salafi commanders which caused major disputes. Even after the defeat of ISKP, they still give positions, such as provincial governor, to commanders from outside who belong to the mainstream Hanafi creed.

For the local government, its alliance with the Taleban against the ISKP has not strengthened their position. The government remains unable to retake territory following ISKP’s defeat in the province. The risky hidden deal that they forged with the Taleban put them on the back foot, offering the Taleban an opportunity to claim the victory, as well as to take larger areas under their control.

For local people, the defeat of ISKP reduced the intensity of conflict in the province, but also brought a significant change in security dynamics. ISKP left behind new intra-tribal enmities among communities, with some community elders accused of supporting ISKP and providing them with shelter and logistics, resulting in some brutal revenge killings and land grabs. Few expect peace for the people of Kunar in the months and years to come.

Edited by Thomas Ruttig and Rachel Reid

Earlier AAN reporting about ISKP in eastern Afghanistan:

References

1 Kataba (phalanx) is an Arabic term ISKP uses for their ground force units (60-100 fighters).
2 Here a more extensive list of ISKP commanders killed in the 2019 and 2020 fighting:

  • Maulawi Tawhidi, from Ganjgal valley, Sarkani district. The ISKP deputy shadow governor for Kunar province was killed in the result of an American drone in Amrayo Tangi village;
  • Sardar Khan, from Sergal, a sub-village in Chelas, Dewagal valley, members of the ISKP military council was hit by an American drone in his village;
  • Shamsher, from Badgur village, Dewagal valley, responsible for preaching and recruitment (the successor department to the former amr be-l-maruf, the ‘religious police’) in the villages and mosques around Dewagal and other valleys, was killed;
  • Abuzar, from Arit village, Mazar valley, used to be the commander of ISKP check points. He surrendered to the ANSF and was later targeted by ISKP in the government-controlled areas in a revenge strike;
  • Omar, from Amrayo village, Dewagal valley, the deputy commander of ISKP check points in Dewagal, was killed by a US drone in Amrayo Tangi village;
  • Seraj, from Matanga village, Shuraik valley, Manogai district, kataba commander, was killed in a fire fight against the Taleban;
  • Abdul Haq, from Badgur village, Dewagal valley, communication officer in Dewagal, was killed by a drone strike carried out by US forces;
  • Mullah Ahmad aka Ahmad Mullah, from Tantil village, Manogai district, was killed;
  • Rabbani, from Maidan village, Watapur district, was wounded in a fire with Taleban and died from his wounds as he was unable to reach to a clinic;
  • Muhammad Amin, from Loy kelai, Chelas village, Dewagal valley, was killed in a fire fight against Taleban in Manogai district;
  • Qari Emdadullah, from Spedar village, Dewagal valley, who was a key figure in spreading ISKP in Dewagal valley, was killed.

This list may not be exhaustive.

3 A 2019 Afghan National Statistics and Information Authority document lists Sheltan as a separate, “temporary” district.
4 The Pashayi are a distinct ethno-linguistic group that lives in valleys between the Laghman and the Kunar rivers, north of Kabul river and south of Nuristan, in Kapisa, Laghman, Nangrahar, Kunar and Nuristan provinces. According to ethnologist Jan Ovesen (“The Construction of Ethnic Identities: The Nuristani and the Pašai [Eastern Afghanistan],” in: Erwin Orywal (ed.), Die ethnischen Gruppen Afghanistans, Wiesbaden 1986, pp 239-53), some of them were still non-Muslims until the mid-19th century, like the neighbouring Nuristani. The Pashayi language (with four dialects mutually largely unintelligible) was first identified as distinct by G.A. Grierson in 1919. It is part of a separate (Dardic) sub-group of Indo-European languages (the only language with a long literary tradition in this group being Kashmiri), next to the Iranian languages (including Farsi/Dari and Pashto), the Nuristani languages and Indo-Aryan languages (including Hindi). To make things even more confusing, not all Pashayi use this term for themselves, although all know it, according to Ovesen. Some called their language Dehgani or Laghmani, and some identified their ethnic belonging to the particular valley they come from (such as Sum, Shenganek, Chungani, Chelasi) or as Kohestani, Tajik, Safi. (Here, Safi is distinct from the Pashtun tribe of the same name, parts of which also lives in Kunar. A UNAMA provincial profile from 2009 (in the AAN archive) even does not mention the Pashayi as a separate ethnic group at all, but counts “Tajik (Daigan [Dehgan])” as one of the five Pashtun(!) subgroups in the province, and separately has Chalasai [Chelasi] and Kohistani, among others.

The number of Pashayi in Afghanistan was given as 96,000 in 1959 (Ovesen, p248) and then 500,000 in the 2003 “Pashai Language Development Project: Promoting Pashai language, literacy and community development“ (by Ju-Hong Yun). This number seems exaggerated, given the official total number for Kunar’s population of 490,000, even if many Pashayi live outside Kunar.

5 Dewagal is comprised of 14 major villages: Chambel, Karboria, Qala, Gagizu, Puwo, Amrayo, Andarlachak, Islam Khana, Spedar, Pindakai, Dewara and Chelas. From late 2017 until February 2020, ISKP had control over all of these villages.
6 “Paman” in Pashto means “mangy.” “Rahmat” means “mercy.”
7 Mowahed means monotheism and a strong belief on the oneness of God. It is a term that ISKP largely uses for its own religious belief.
8 More biographical details on Maulawi Zia ul-Haq, aka Sheikh Abu Omar Khorasani (or for short, Abu Omar):

Zia ul-Haq, alias Abu Omar is the son of Muhammad Zaman and is originally from Puwo village, Dewagal valley, Chawkai district of Kunar. Like most other Afghan religious scholars, he was educated in Pakistan-based madrasas. Later, he taught at the Chawkai madrassa in Kunar, which is led by the family of Mawlawi Shahzada Shahid, a Salafi religious leader and former member of the post-2001 Afghan parliament. Zia ul-Haq only left the madrassa when he joined the ISKP in Nangrahar province in early 2015. Before, he was not a member of the Taleban but held strong sympathies with Islamist anti-government militants. After 2015, he rose in the ISKP ranks from being a member of its leadership council to deputy leader and, for a short time, he was acting leader of the group. Zia ul-Haq lacked any military experience, but he had good administrative, English language and computer skills.

One of his brothers, Muhammad Hanif Khairkhwa, served in the Afghan  as district governor in various places during the tenure of former president Hamed Karzai (2001-14). Another brother, Mawlawi Khalid, used to teach at Gatu Qala madrassa, in a government-controlled area in Chawkai district. Later, he fought alongside ISKP in Nangrahar and Kunar and was arrested by Afghan security forces at the Torkham border crossing to Pakistan shortly before Zia ul-Haq’s arrest in Kabul.

9 Mawlawi Khadem is originally from Ganjgal valley, Sarkano district. He studied and lived in Pakistan for many years. He was the amir-ul harb (military chief) for ISKP in Kunar province until he was killed in an airstrike in Dewagal.

 

Hit from Many Sides (2): The demise of ISKP in Kunar
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Last Exit from Afghanistan

Dexter Filkins
The New Yorker
1 March 2021
Will peace talks with the Taliban and the prospect of an American withdrawal create a breakthrough or a collapse?
As American troops depart winding down a twentyyear intervention Afghans are forced to reckon with the question of...
As American troops depart, winding down a twenty-year intervention, Afghans are forced to reckon with the question of whether their government can stand on its own against the Taliban.Photograph by Adam Ferguson

On the night of August 14th, Fawzia Koofi was on her way home to Kabul from the funeral of family friends. Koofi, forty-five, is one of Afghanistan’s leading advocates for women’s rights—a former parliament member who, in the twenty years since the United States and its allies toppled the Taliban, has carried on a ferocious public fight to reverse a history of oppression. She and her twenty-one-year-old daughter, Shuhra, were riding in an armored car, as they often do. A second car, filled with security guards, trailed behind. The guards were necessary; in 2010, Taliban gunmen had attempted to kill her.

As they neared Kabul, her driver pulled over to get gas, and Koofi decided to switch cars. “Sometimes the armored car feels like a prison,” she explained, when I visited Afghanistan in December. As they left the gas station, she saw a car behind hers, seeming to track its moves; she was being followed. While she watched, a second car veered into the road, blocking the lane. Koofi’s driver accelerated and swerved onto the shoulder, but, before he could get clear of the blockade, men in the other car opened fire. Bullets smashed through the windows and tore through her upper arm. The assailants sped away. Koofi was rushed to the nearest safe hospital, forty-five minutes away, where surgeons removed a bullet and set her shattered bone.

A month later, Koofi was due to represent the government in peace talks with the Taliban—the latest in a decade-long series of attempts to end the Afghan conflict. As she prepared, the mood in Kabul was unusually fraught. A wave of assassinations had begun, which has since claimed the lives of hundreds of Afghans, including prosecutors, journalists, and activists. Officials in Afghanistan and in the U.S. suspect that the Taliban committed most of the killings—both to strengthen their position in talks and to weaken the civil society that has tenuously established itself since the Taliban were deposed. “They are trying to terrorize the post-2001 generation,” Sima Samar, a former chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, told me.

The peace talks began last September, in Doha, Qatar, a Persian Gulf microstate that sits atop the world’s largest natural-gas field. For seven years, Qatar’s leaders have hosted several of the Taliban’s most senior members in luxurious captivity, housing them and their families with all expenses paid. At the opening ceremony, delegates from the Taliban and the Afghan government gathered at the Doha Sheraton, in a cavernous convention space staffed by an army of guest workers. When Koofi walked into the lobby, she saw a group of Taliban negotiators. They were staring at her arm, which was still in a cast. Koofi smiled at them. “As you can see, I’m fine,” she said.

Despite Koofi’s assurance, the Afghan government was in a precarious position. For decades, it had been buttressed by U.S. military power. But, as Americans have lost patience with the war, the U.S. has reduced its presence in Afghanistan, from about a hundred thousand troops to some twenty-five hundred. Seven months before Koofi went to Doha, officials in the Trump Administration concluded their own talks with the Taliban, in which they agreed to withdraw the remaining forces by May 1, 2021. The prevailing ethos, a senior American official told me, was “Just get out.”

Afghanistan presents Joe Biden with one of the most immediate and vexing problems of his Presidency. If he completes the military withdrawal, he will end a seemingly interminable intervention and bring home thousands of troops. But, if he wants the war to be considered anything short of an abject failure, the Afghan state will have to be able to stand on its own.

At peace talks the delegate Fawzia Koofi was often the only woman in the room.
At peace talks, the delegate Fawzia Koofi was often the only woman in the room.Photograph by Adam Ferguson for The New Yorker

For Koofi and her fellow-negotiators, a question hangs over the talks: How much of the American-backed project, which has cost thousands of lives and more than two trillion dollars, will survive? Before the U.S. and its allies intervened, in 2001, the Taliban imposed a draconian brand of Islam, in which thieves’ hands were cut off and women were put to death for adultery. After the Taliban were defeated, a new constitution opened the way for democratic elections, a free press, and expanded rights for women. Koofi worries that the Taliban leaders, many of whom were imprisoned for years at Guantánamo, do not grasp how much the country has changed—or that they view those changes as errors to be corrected. “I want their eyes to see me, to get used to what Afghan women are today,” Koofi told me. “A lot of them, for the past twenty years, have been in a time capsule.” She hopes that a deal can be made to keep the Americans in the country until a comprehensive agreement brings peace. But she fears that the talks won’t be enough to save the Afghan state: “Even now, there are some people among the Taliban who believe they can shoot their way into power.”

The United States has spent more than a hundred and thirty billion dollars to rebuild Afghanistan. The effort has been beset by graft and misrepresented by Presidents and commanders, but in Kabul the effects were evident. High-rise apartment buildings remade the skyline, and the streets filled with cars; foreign aid helped create new jobs, and women began going to work and to school. After decades of civil war and repressive government, the capital became a rollicking international city. Diplomats, aid workers, and journalists gathered at a French restaurant called L’Atmosphère and a Lebanese place known as Taverna; after hours, they stumbled over to the bar of the Gandamack Lodge, named for a site where nineteenth-century Afghan tribesmen massacred British invaders. The Taliban were gaining strength in the countryside, but the cities flourished.

These days, assassinations and bombings have driven most of the foreigners away. Taverna closed in 2014, after a Taliban attack there killed twenty-one civilians. As American and nato troops have departed, blast walls, barbed wire, and armed checkpoints have risen to provide a semblance of security. The few Western visitors mostly stay at the fortress-like Serena hotel, even though American officials warn that the insurgent Haqqani network, an adjunct of the Taliban, is scouting the place for people to kidnap. At night, the streets are quiet. Twenty years into the American-led war, Kabul feels again like the capital of a poor and troubled country.

On a frigid evening in January, I paid a visit to Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan President. I got out of my taxi at the edge of the security cordon, about half a mile from his office, and trekked past concrete barricades, armed guards, and machine-gun nests. At the center of the defenses is the Arg—a nineteenth-century castle, replete with towers and parapets, which houses Ghani’s administration. Inside, guards searched and X-rayed me, then confiscated my voice recorder and my phone. I was led to a waiting area, a chilly room with rock walls and marble floors, and finally to the office of the President. Ghani was at his desk, wearing a mask, alone. “Welcome,” he said.

Ghani, who is seventy-one, was born to an educated family near Kabul and went abroad as a teen-ager to study. He taught anthropology at Johns Hopkins and then spent a decade at the World Bank, in Washington, D.C., helping developing nations strengthen their economies. After the U.S. invasion, he returned to Afghanistan and threw himself into the reconstruction. Ghani has the cool demeanor of a technocrat, but he spoke passionately about giving up a stable career to work for his country. “I made my decision to come home, and I never looked back,” he said.

Ghani’s Presidency has been a long struggle. He came to power in 2014, in an election marred by fraud. He promised to unite the country but instead watched it deteriorate around him, as more American troops departed. When he won reëlection, in 2019, fewer than two million Afghans cast ballots. In the past year, he has seemed increasingly aware that his country’s future is being decided far from Kabul—first in the Trump Administration’s negotiations with the Taliban over an American withdrawal, and then in the Afghan government’s talks with the Taliban over the potential for peace.

When Trump decided to reach out to the Taliban, in 2018, he chose as his envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, a seasoned diplomat and a native Afghan. Khalilzad had known Ghani since high school, when they played basketball together. But the two found themselves at odds over the country’s direction, and their relationship soured. In January, Khalilzad arrived for a visit, and Ghani declined to see him.

Trump was clearly desperate to make a deal that would allow him to say that he had ended the war. When the Taliban refused to include the Afghan government in the talks, the U.S. did not insist. The senior American official told me, “The Trump people were saying, ‘Fuck this—the Afghans are never going to make peace anyway. Besides, who cares whether they agree or not?’ ” As the talks progressed, Trump repeatedly announced troop withdrawals, depriving his negotiators of leverage. “He was steadily undermining us,” a second senior American official told me. “The trouble with the Taliban was, they were getting it for free.” In the end, the two sides agreed not to attack each other, and the Americans agreed to withdraw.

The Taliban had to meet a list of conditions, including preventing terrorists from operating out of Afghanistan and refraining from major attacks on the country’s government and military. But the prospect of insuring a total pullout was appealing enough that the Taliban began rooting for Trump to win reëlection. In one of the odder moments of the U.S. campaign season, they issued an endorsement of his candidacy. “When we heard about Trump being covid-19-positive, we got worried,” a senior Taliban leader told CBS News. (The group subsequently claimed that it had been misquoted.)

In my meeting with Ghani, he seemed abandoned, like a pilot pulling levers that weren’t connected to anything. He professed gratitude to the United States, but was clearly uneasy with the deal. Recently, he said, he had ordered the release of five thousand Taliban prisoners—“not because I wanted to, because the U.S. pushed me.” He feared a security disaster, as Taliban fighters returned to the streets and American soldiers left the country. “The U.S. can withdraw its troops anytime it wants, but they ought to negotiate with the elected President,” he went on. “They should call me. I’m the elected President.”

Many Afghans say that Ghani is to blame for his predicament, describing him as remote, vindictive, and surrounded by sycophants. A prominent businessman who meets often with senior government officials told me that, when Khalilzad reported that Trump had ordered a pullout, Ghani should have tried to win over his old friend. Instead, the businessman said, “Ghani went around town announcing his intention to destroy him.” I noticed that Ghani did not have a television in his office; he prefers to read transcripts of shows afterward. “He is delusional,” the businessman said. “He has no idea what the country thinks of him.”

Before talks Ashraf Ghani warned negotiators Dont bring home a bad deal.
Before talks, Ashraf Ghani warned negotiators, “Don’t bring home a bad deal.”Photograph by Adam Ferguson for the New Yorker

Ghani was still hoping that Afghanistan would retain its place in the minds of American policymakers. “All I need from the U.S. is four or five videoconferences a year,” he told me. But the Americans have given every sign that Afghanistan is no longer a major consideration. U.S. officials now see Ghani as an obstacle to a peace deal—wedded to the status quo, which keeps troops in the country and him in power. “Each step of the way, he’s resisting,” the senior American official said.

In 2018, the U.S. asked Ghani to appoint a negotiating team; it took two years—and the announcement of a billion-dollar cut in American aid—for him to complete the process. Before the current talks began, he assembled his negotiators for a historical seminar on persistent conflicts. He walked them through Colombia’s civil war, which lasted fifty-two years; Nepal’s, which lasted ten; and Sri Lanka’s, which dragged on for twenty-five. Ghani’s message was that long wars take a long time to end. When talks were convened to end the Vietnam War, he noted, it took nearly three months just to agree on the shape of the negotiating table. Whatever pressure his negotiators felt—from the Americans or from the Taliban—ought to be resisted, he said, instructing them, “Don’t bring home a bad deal.”

According to U.S. officials, the most favorable outcome of the talks is a ceasefire and an agreement to form a transitional government, with power shared between the Taliban and the existing Afghan government. The transitional government would write a new constitution and lay the groundwork for nationwide elections.

Ghani insists that compromise is dangerous. He was chosen by the Afghan people, in an election that was open, at least notionally, to every adult in the country. Why would an elected President hand over power to a group of unelected insurgents? “My power rests on my legitimacy,” he said. “The moment that legitimacy is gone, the whole thing implodes.”

The negotiators gathered in Doha at the Sharq hotel—a sprawling beach resort, owned by the Ritz-Carlton, with high-arched buildings set alongside ornately tiled pools. It struck some delegates as a peculiar place to end a war. “You walk around the hotel and people are swimming,” Koofi said. “Women are walking around in bikinis. And then you go inside a meeting room to talk about the fate of the country.”

At first, the loathing between the two sides was so intense that they bridled at standing together in the same room. “They wouldn’t even look at each other,” a Qatari official told me. After a couple of days, they sat down in a conference room, but even then some of the delegates found their anger difficult to contain. Three weeks earlier, Taliban gunmen had killed the nephew of Nader Nadery, one of the government negotiators. Nadery himself had been arrested and tortured by the Taliban in the nineties, when he was a student activist. “I can’t tell you how badly I wanted to leave the talks,” he told me. Another negotiator, Matin Bek, had lost his father to a Taliban attack ten years before; a third, Masoom Stanekzai, had survived three attacks in which bombs blew up his car.

The Taliban had their own grievances. Among their negotiators was Khairullah Khairkhwa, who helped found the Taliban and served as an interior minister in its government. In the chaotic days after the U.S. began attacking, in 2001, Khairkhwa negotiated to become a C.I.A. informant. (He denies this.) As the talks broke down, Khairkhwa fled to the Pakistani border town of Chaman. He was captured, put on a plane, bound and blindfolded, and flown to the newly opened prison at Guantánamo Bay. “The flight was endless for me, a journey to Hell,” he told me.

At Guantánamo, Khairkhwa said, he was denied sleep, handcuffed to chairs for hours, denied prompt medical treatment, and subjected to months of interrogation. There were occasional moments of tenderness, as when a female military-police officer slipped him earplugs, hidden in a roll of toilet paper, to help him sleep. Mostly it was boring.

In prison, Khairkhwa insisted that he was merely a bureaucrat in the Taliban’s administration. American prosecutors said that he was a military commander, who had helped foment a massacre of ethnic Hazara civilians—but much of the evidence was classified. In 2009, President Barack Obama gave a speech suggesting that cases like Khairkhwa’s belonged in an uneasy category: too innocent to charge, too guilty to free.

Then, in 2014, an American soldier appeared at his cell and told him that he was being transferred to house arrest in Qatar. He and four other Taliban leaders were being swapped for Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who had been captured five years before. Khairkhwa didn’t know much about Qatar, but his guards assured him it was a Muslim country. As it turned out, life was easy there; his wife and children joined him, and he had an apartment, all expenses paid by the Qatari government.

Just as Khairkhwa settled in, he was summoned again: he had been chosen to be a negotiator on behalf of the Taliban for an Afghan peace settlement. Soon afterward, he met for the first time with his American counterparts—diplomats instead of soldiers. “All of a sudden, I was negotiating with the same people who had imprisoned me,” he said. “It is a very strange feeling.”

American soldiers assemble for an operation at Forward Operating Base Kalagush in Nuristan in 2008. In the coming years...
American soldiers assemble for an operation at Forward Operating Base Kalagush, in Nuristan, in 2008. In the coming years, the American force in Afghanistan grew to about a hundred thousand troops. Some twenty-five hundred remain.Photograph by Adam Ferguson

In the current talks, American observers noted that the Talibs who had been held in Guantánamo seemed to struggle to stay focussed. “Their physical and mental resilience has clearly been affected by their time there,” the second senior U.S. official told me. Still, their team was audacious. Before the negotiators could work on matters of substance, they had to devise a code of conduct. The Taliban proposed that disputes be decided exclusively by Sunni jurisprudence. Government delegates insisted that Afghanistan’s Shiite populace be represented, too. “We made it clear to them that we stood for the diversity of our society,” Sadat Naderi, one of the negotiators, told me. The Taliban—whose members had massacred Shiite civilians before 2001—stormed out of the room.

Eventually, they returned to the bargaining table, but things didn’t go much better. “They told us we were puppets of the infidels,” Naderi recalled. “They told us the war was over.” Khairkhwa suggested to me that the 2020 peace deal with the U.S. had established the Taliban as the victors in the conflict. “We defeated the Americans on the battlefield,” he said. Hafiz Mansoor, a former minister in the Afghan government, blamed the Americans for giving the Taliban the impression that they had won the war: “By making the deal, the U.S. legitimized them.”

In meetings, the two sides shouted at each other; Taliban leaders said the Afghan officials represented an illegitimate government, propped up by infidels and bankrolled by Western money. “They were so arrogant,” Nadery said. “They thought they were there just to discuss the terms of surrender. They said, ‘We don’t need to talk to you. We can just take over.’ ”

Since 2001, the main arena of conflict in Afghanistan has been the countryside: the government held the cities, while the Taliban fought to control the villages and towns, particularly in the south, their heartland. But by early this year the paradigm had begun to fall apart. The Taliban were entrenched across the north; their shadow government had begun to creep into the cities.

In January, I visited the Qalai Abdul Ali neighborhood, in western Kabul; it straddles the national highway, which runs south to Kandahar. Taliban fighters, distinguished by black turbans that trail down their backs, were strolling through the streets. A decade ago, when there were nearly a hundred and fifty thousand American and nato troops in the country, such a scene was unimaginable.

In Qalai Abdul Ali, the government was mostly in hiding. A squad of police hunkered down behind Hesco barricades. The real authority, the locals said, was a Talib called Sheikh Ali, who took me on a driving tour of the neighborhood. “I am the mayor,” he said, as he climbed into my car.

While we drove, an Afghan Army truck passed through without stopping. The police and other security agencies were not technically banned from the neighborhood, but those who entered risked attack. As Ali and I drove by a large, abandoned house on a hill, he pointed out the window and said, “Last year, we killed a judge who was living there.” We passed a tangle of twisted metal. “Here, you can see, we blew up an N.D.S. vehicle”—a truck from the National Directorate of Security, the equivalent of the F.B.I.

Ali, soft-spoken but assured, told me that the Taliban in Qalai Abdul Ali were collecting taxes, providing security, patrolling the streets. Every truck that passed through—hundreds a day, on the highway—had paid a toll to the Taliban. He produced a receipt for a payment from a driver who had recently carried a truckful of laundry detergent from Faryab Province. The receipt, marked “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” was complete with a contact phone number and an e-mail address. “The government is full of thieves,” Ali said. “We’re the real authority.”

The neighborhood’s residents weren’t necessarily happy to see the Taliban take control, but they didn’t trust the government, either. A former police officer named Sultan told me that, in the years after 2001, he had thrown himself into his job, inspired by the local police chief, whom he regarded as competent and honest. But his colleagues extorted bribes from the locals; to get hired, he said, he was forced to hand over several months’ salary. Meanwhile, tales spread of corruption and illicit activities among the country’s leaders. They included bacha bazi—a tradition, practiced by warlords in the nineties, of keeping boys as sex slaves. Sultan showed me a video, which was making the rounds on social media, of a former Afghan official ogling a dancing boy. “It turns my heart black,” he said. Sultan gave up his job a year and a half ago, after the Taliban assassinated the local police chief. Now he was working as a minibus driver. The Taliban patrolled the highway at night, all the way to Kandahar, he said: “The road is safe now.”

On the second floor of a house on Qalai Abdul Ali’s main street, I sat with three Talibs—middle-aged men who said they’d been fighting since the Americans first arrived. The group’s leader called himself Hedyat; he had a scraggly gray beard and slouched against a pillow, regarding me with narrowed eyes. Hedyat said tersely that Taliban fighters had moved into the neighborhood two years ago from Wardak, an adjacent province. “The Taliban control all of Wardak now,” he said. “We can bring people from all over the country.”

These days, he said, Qalai Abdul Ali was so secure that the Taliban were using it to stage attacks in other parts of the capital. “Oh, yes,” one of the other Talibs crowed. Hedyat told me that his local group was observing the ceasefire with the Americans. But, when I asked about making a deal with the Afghan government, he smiled scornfully. “We’re not sharing power with anyone,” he said.

Freshta Kohistani was fifteen when the Taliban government fell, and she thrived on the new freedoms. In the next two decades, she became an advocate for the poor in her ancestral province of Kapisa, north of Kabul, where she helped families find food and medicine. She carried herself in a defiantly modern way, driving her own car, walking around in jeans, flashing a bright smile, and asking direct questions of powerful men. She used Facebook to publicly demand better conditions; she separated from her husband when he discouraged her activism. “You can’t imagine someone as brave as Freshta,” her brother Roheen told me. “She was confronting our stupid traditional society.”

For years, Kohistani received threatening text messages, but she ignored them. Then, about a year ago, a group of men with knives surrounded her, and one of them slashed her side as she escaped. In December, Kohistani pleaded for the government to protect her. “I am not a frightened little girl,” she wrote in a Facebook post. But she was worried about what her family and her co-workers would “do in this ruined country after I’m gone.” Twelve days later, as she and her brother Shahram were driving in Kapisa, two motorcycles pulled alongside them, and a man on the back shot them both dead. When I arrived at the Kohistanis’ home, the family was still greeting mourners. Freshta’s father, Najibullah, said that he wasn’t sure who killed her, but that her death resembled many others in recent months. “They are killing the élites,” he said.

When the U.S. negotiated its withdrawal with the Taliban, American officials made it clear that they expected suicide bombings and other mass-casualty attacks to end. In their place, the Taliban appear to have launched a campaign aimed at terrorizing the educated élite, just as the Afghan government began its own talks. More than five hundred Afghans have been killed in targeted attacks in the past year, many of them shot or struck by “sticky bombs,” explosives placed underneath cars. Among them are Malala Maiwand, a female journalist in Jalalabad; Pamir Faizan, a military prosecutor; and Zakia Herawi, one of two female Supreme Court justices who were killed. A deep unease has permeated Afghanistan’s cities. “I feel like I’m in a dark room filled with people, and I don’t know who’s hitting me,” an official named Ali Howaida told me in Kabul.

The Taliban deny responsibility for the attacks, but Afghan officials say that many of them are orchestrated by the Haqqani network. Amrullah Saleh, one of the country’s two Vice-Presidents, told me that Taliban commanders, meeting in Pakistan, mapped out the campaign early last year. Saleh said that he passed a warning to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper before the United States made the deal with the Taliban. (The State Department says that it has no record of this.) “We told them exactly what was going to happen,” Saleh said. Pompeo and Esper were undeterred.

But not all the victims of assassination are enemies of the Taliban. In June, 2019, as Ustadh Abdul Salaam Abed was being driven to his office, a bomb blew off the back of his car and wounded him in the neck. Every week, during Friday prayers at the Osman Ghani mosque, Abed had been telling his congregation that Afghans had to reconcile. While he sometimes criticized the Taliban, he advocated dialogue; it was the government and its American supporters who were driving the violence, he maintained. At his house in Kabul, he gestured to his wound and told me, “I’m a hundred per cent certain the government did this.”

A growing number of Afghans believe that people inside the government are directing some of the killings. In August, a group of prominent former officials, many of whom are close to former President Hamid Karzai, wrote to Ghani alleging that there were “high-ranking officials who are credibly suspected of being involved in targeted assassinations.” The letter also accused a Vice-President and a deputy in the N.D.S. of “attempting to spread an environment of fear and terror among government critics and opposition figures.” A senior Afghan leader told me, “I don’t have proof, but there are people around Ghani who are determined to destroy the peace process.”

Ghani denied that anyone in his administration was behind the killings. Saleh, the Vice-President, dismissed the claims, saying, “They equated our lack of capability to stop the targeted assassinations with being complicit.” The senior American official told me that it seemed plausible that people in the government were behind some of the killings: “Why would the Taliban kill someone who supports the peace talks?” But, he added, with so few troops left in the country, the U.S. was struggling to gather reliable intelligence. “We don’t exactly know what’s going on.”

In January, General Austin Miller, the commander of nato forces in the country, flew to Doha to deliver a message to the Taliban: The assassination campaign was putting the deal with the Americans at risk. If the Taliban didn’t back off, the U.S. could resume attacks. The Taliban maintained that it had no obligation to reduce violence: “the Islamic Emirate has not committed itself to any such undertaking.”

At fifty-nine, Miller is compact, no-nonsense, and direct. When I arrived at his base, he was leading his soldiers in an hour of running and calisthenics, which, at nearly six thousand feet above sea level, were enough to tire a soldier half his age. He is a kind of living symbol of America’s post-9/11 wars. Since 2001, he has spent more than seven years fighting alongside Special Operations Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, he hunted members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban; in Iraq, he took part in the operation that killed the insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He noted wryly that many of the Afghan leaders that he and his staff encountered, friend and foe, were already present when he first came to the region. “We’re dealing with their sons now,” he said.

Since 2002, American soldiers and officers have typically served tours of a year or less. With each rotation, new soldiers have to learn the country, and senior officers devise fresh plans. The result is that twenty years of effort in Afghanistan has meant twenty different campaigns. Miller returned to the country in 2010 and took the top job in 2018. “This is my fourth, fifth, or sixth tour,” he told me. “I haven’t counted.”

Miller arrived at the peak of the American effort, and has presided over a rapidly shrinking force. Where the U.S. once pursued ambitious goals, instilling democracy and economic development, he defined his mission narrowly: Don’t let Afghanistan become a terrorist haven. But, he said, there’s a catch. “You need a government for that.”

Students await exam results at Kabuls Marefat High School. The American intervention has been costly and often overhyped...
Students await exam results at Kabul’s Marefat High School. The American intervention has been costly and often overhyped, but it has led to notable gains in women’s rights.Photograph by Adam Ferguson

Senior officials in the Biden Administration say that they intend to take their time before they decide how to handle Afghanistan. “They’re trying to figure out the best of the bad options they inherited,” the second senior American official told me. They are conscious that, if Biden ignores Trump’s deal and decides to keep the roughly twenty-five hundred American troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban will almost certainly resume attacking them.

In January, a senior U.S. military-intelligence officer told a group of American soldiers to get ready for attacks. “We’ve been in this country for twenty years, and we may be entering the last four months. These could be the most uncertain of all,” the officer said. “Come May 1st, if we are still here, I think it’s game on for the Taliban.”

Miller told me, “If the Taliban were to attack U.S. or coalition forces, we are prepared to respond proportionally, with precision, and with capacity to spare.” But he also said that he was prepared to pull out the last of his soldiers if ordered to do so. The unanswered question—which has hung over the country since 2001—is whether the Afghan state can survive without Western troops. When I asked if he thought that the Afghan Army could secure the country alone, his answer was not reassuring. “They have to,” he said.

In early January, I flew with Miller to Afghan Army bases in Mazar-i-Sharif, in the north, and near the Helmand River, in the south. Looking down on the Hindu Kush from our C-130 transport plane, I was reminded of the country’s natural beauty but also of the geographic realities that have hampered every attempt to help it stand on its own: it’s landlocked and covered by mountains and desert, with only twelve per cent of its land suitable for farming. For much of its modern history, Afghanistan has been a ward of the international community: foreigners pay seventy-five per cent of its federal budget, and American taxpayers largely underwrite its Army and its security forces, at a cost of four billion dollars a year. But, if there is any hope that the Afghan state can become self-sufficient, it resides with the soldiers who train here.

At a lunch meeting with Miller, the limitations of nato’s campaign became clear. When the season began, five of the fifty districts that Alizai’s troops oversaw were under Taliban control, and twenty-nine were “on the edge,” he said. His men had secured a dozen of them, he told Miller. But the Taliban had captured several villages along Highway 1, effectively cutting off the northern and western parts of the country. In Maimana, the capital of Faryab Province, the local government’s control extends barely past the city center. “You can only go to the end of the bazaar,” he said. Several local leaders had been assassinated.

“What do you think is happening?” Miller asked.

“The Taliban are trying to set up a network here,” Alizai said. “We don’t know who they are.” It was a conversation that might have taken place fifteen years ago.

The 209th Corps is assisted by sixteen hundred nato troops, who help with training, and by an American Special Forces team, which provides both training and protection in combat; if an Afghan unit comes under attack, the Americans can call in a plane or a drone. (In one of the more unusual aspects of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, the United States is allowed to protect Afghan forces from attacks. In practice, that means almost daily American air strikes and drone attacks; when I visited Helmand Province, the U.S. had carried out two drone strikes that morning.) The U.S. team was highly competent; all of its twenty members were seasoned, with some having served a dozen combat tours, and many spoke Dari and Pashto. But Alizai worried that the West’s commitment might be coming to an end—or that it might become too small to matter. Over lunch, Miller told him bluntly that he didn’t know what the future would bring. “You know where we’re at,” Miller said. “It’s just not clear.”

The 209th, budgeted for fifteen thousand troops, was fielding barely ten thousand. Even though the Army guarantees employment, in a country where jobs are scarce, Afghan officers struggle to find recruits; young people are often reluctant to leave their families for long tours. Alizai was undeterred. “I think we can get it up to ninety per cent soon,” he told Miller.

Alizai said that he was trying to contain the militias of two local warlords: Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former Vice-President, and Atta Mohamed Noor. Both men befriended the Americans in 2001, and both fight the Taliban. But they operate more like local fiefs than like agents of the government. Dostum has been accused of murder, rape, torture, and mass executions. “I will try to bring them in,” Alizai told Miller. “Once we pay them, we can influence them.” But there was little sign that this time would be different.

Alizai told me that, despite all the problems besetting the Afghan Army so late in the American era, his sponsors shouldn’t give up hope. “It takes time to build an army, brother,” he said. “We are trying to train the right people. We started from nothing. Please be patient.”

At the Sharq hotel in Doha, Fawzia Koofi was often the only woman in a room full of male negotiators. At first, she told me, some of her Taliban counterparts refused to speak to her. At a lunch meeting, two Taliban seated across from her asked her to move to another table. A third Talib at the table stared at the floor, unwilling to meet her gaze. Koofi picked up a plate and offered him a kebab; the Talib took it and smiled. “Miss Koofi, you are a very dangerous woman,” he told her. They have been talking ever since.

By the time I arrived, in late December, the negotiators had begun to relax. “They let their hair down,” the senior American official told me. The government delegates found that the Taliban, though often hostile in groups, were friendlier one on one. The harsher rhetoric began to fade, and on some afternoons I saw Taliban and government delegates walking together through the Sharq’s gardens.

Negotiators from both sides told me that they felt a heavy responsibility to end the conflict. Most believe that the Taliban would accept a deal under the right circumstances—that they are as tired of war as everyone else is. But many observers in Kabul suspect that the Taliban are using the talks to buy time until the Americans depart. One of the skeptics was Sima Samar, who for seventeen years presided over the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which seeks to bring modern concepts of justice and equality to the country. Samar believes that the Taliban will ultimately decide it’s easier to take power by force. “The Taliban?” she said. “They haven’t changed a bit.” In December, during a break in the talks, a video surfaced of Fazel Akhund, one of the Taliban negotiators, greeting a group of masked men at what appears to be a military training camp. As Akhund embraced the trainees, one of them cried out, “Long live the holy warriors of Afghanistan!”

U.S. military supplies are dropped at Combat Outpost Margah in Paktika Province in 2011. A decade later the province...
U.S. military supplies are dropped at Combat Outpost Margah, in Paktika Province, in 2011. A decade later, the province, like many rural places in Afghanistan, remains contested by the Taliban.Photograph by Adam Ferguson

In Kabul, Vice-President Amrullah Saleh suggested to me that pro-government Afghans would be no less reluctant than the Taliban to share control of the country. I met Saleh in 1999, as the Taliban were surging to victory in the country’s long, brutal civil war; back then, Saleh and a few holdouts were clinging to a tiny piece of territory in the northeast. In 2004, Saleh became the head of the National Directorate of Security, and earned a reputation among the Taliban as a fierce and efficient foe. In July, 2019, suicide bombers breached Saleh’s security cordon and killed thirty-two people.

Saleh argued that, if the Afghan government is forced to make a deal with the Taliban before the group forsakes violence, the peace will fail, and the group will try to reimpose its medieval vision. “Society has changed,” he said. Women have been educated, young people are connected to the wider world, English has become common in the cities. “People will not accept the Taliban,” he said. “They will not lie down. We have forty thousand Special Forces. Do you think they will let the Taliban slaughter them one by one?” He went on, “It will be another civil war.” The first, in the nineties, killed more than fifty thousand people. “But it will be worse than the last one. Absolutely worse.”

Yet the government negotiators will have to make some concessions to the Taliban, or the talks will break down, and the Western countries will likely leave the population to fend for itself. “I will fight with my claws and my teeth for the rights we have gained,” Fatima Gailani, a government delegate and an advocate for women, told me. “But there is a risk that some of these rights are going to be lost.”

One place to measure that risk is the Afghan Women’s Skills Development Center, in Kabul. The center offers training in sewing and catering, and works with a restaurant to supply jobs for trainees. It also provides a shelter for women and children escaping the difficulties of a society that, in many places, is still bound by age-old rules. Almost every day, a woman or a girl appears at the doorstep: a child bride fleeing her husband; a wife forced into an abusive marriage; a recently divorced woman whose family regards her as a disgrace and sent her into the streets. One recent morning, a young woman arrived so badly pummelled that attendants massaged her every day for two weeks. “There wasn’t a spot on her body—not one—that was not black-and-blue,” a worker at the center told me. “I wanted to scream.” The shelter, the first of its kind in Kabul, has a maximum capacity of seventy; it is often full.

One of the women who run the shelter is Mahbouba Seraj, an ebullient seventy-year-old. Born to royal lineage, she fled Afghanistan with her family in 1978, as the country disintegrated, and settled for a time in Manhattan, at Lexington Avenue and Forty-third Street. After 2001, Seraj was drawn back by the prospect of change in her homeland. Ever since, she has been sustained by a sense that outdated traditions were falling away. “There’s a lot of change here, and a lot of possibility—and a lot of pain and a lot of happiness,” she told me. “All these things used to get swept under the rug, and there was nowhere for a woman to go. Now there is.”

Would the shelter survive a Taliban regime? Seraj isn’t sure. She believes that the younger generations, which constitute most of the country’s urban population, will fight. “I have a belief in the energy and the idea and the newness and the commitment of the young people of this country,” she said. “We have doctors now, we have people with master’s degrees and Ph.D.s now. So many women and so many young people, so full of energy. They’re not going to give this up.”

Seraj is less sure about everyone else. She told me that she’d been chatting with friends recently, and they all agreed that the situation was likely to get much worse: “For the first time after all these years, I said to my friends, ‘Let’s not be heroes. At this point, we have to save our lives.’ ” ♦

Last Exit from Afghanistan
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What Happens To Afghanistan If U.S. Troops Leave?

3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division sends the first round downrange with the U.S. Army’s new M1A2 SEPV3 Abrams Main Battle Tank, Fort Hood, Texas, August 18, 2020. After the GREYWOLF brigade conducts a test fire on every tank they will dial in their sites by “zeroing” the tanks main gun, ensuring they are fully prepared to conduct future gunnery live fire exercises.

President Joe Biden is still debating with his senior advisors whether to stick to a 1 May withdrawal date for Afghanistan, seek an extension for up to six months, or – according to some reports – expand the number of troops and continue fighting. Key to Biden’s decision will likely be his assessment of what happens when U.S. troops leave – and that is the right thing to focus on.

Just as Obama gave in to considerable pressure and changed his mind about ending the Afghan war in 2015 – as Trump did in late 2020 – in just the first few weeks of his Administration, Biden has likewise seen considerable numbers of Washington figures pressure him not to allow the Afghan withdrawal to occur as scheduled on May 1st.

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, writing as a co-chair of the Afghan Study Group, argued that Biden should not withdraw by May 1st, “in order to give the peace process sufficient time to produce an acceptable result.” Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright warned Biden to avoid a, “reckless withdrawal that leads to state collapse, a civil war, and the revival of a global terrorist haven.”

But are these former high-ranking officials right? Will giving the war effort “a little more time” produce an acceptable peace and will withdrawal by May result in a civil war, state collapse, and revived terrorist haven?  The answer to all is “maybe.”  The more fundamental question that needs to be addressed, however, is this: do the answers to those questions matter? The answer to that question may surprise you.

First, let us look at the oft-repeated claim that U.S. withdrawal would cause state collapse and a civil war. The claim itself masks what should be painfully evident: Afghanistan is, presently, in the midst of a civil war, and has been in one – virtually unbroken – since 1978.

Leave Afghanistan

Two U.S. Army snipers from Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division provide overwatch security for locals during a town meeting in Dey Yak, Afghanistan. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Micah E. Clare) www.army.mil

The Soviet invasion in 1979 was to bolster the side of the communist government in Afghanistan, which had seized power via a coup against the nationalist government in April 1978. The anti-communist side was supported by rebel Mujahadeen.

Throughout the entirety of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the two sides battled viciously. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the civil war continued between the communist regime of Najibullah and the Mujahadeen. In April 1992, the Mujahadeen captured Kabul, defeating the communists.

The unity of the rebel side, however, quickly dissolved and they turned their guns on each other, eventually coalescing into a fight between the newly formed Taliban on one side and the Northern Alliance on the other. That iteration of the civil war was only interrupted by the U.S. invasion on 7 October 2001 following the horrific events of 9/11.

The American involvement, later expanded to include NATO, established the current Afghan government from the leadership of the Northern Alliance.  It did nothing to quell the civil war with the Taliban, however. That fight has continued to this day. So, to the claim that a U.S. withdrawal would cause a civil war in Afghanistan masks the fact that there is a civil war underway and has been, in one form or another, since 1978 – and thus one won’t “break out” if we leave.

The Afghan military is currently doing virtually all the fighting against the Taliban throughout the country. The U.S. does provide critical enabling support in some areas, but the vast majority of the fighting is already being handled by the Afghan security forces. Our withdrawal will make their task harder and it is likely they will incur initial setbacks. It is also certain that our absence will be a blow to their morale, as they realize the American “cavalry” won’t be there to ride to the rescue if they get in a tough situation.

We must be honest and acknowledge that it is possible that in a worst-case scenario the Afghan military could disintegrate like the Iraqi forces did in 2014 and the Taliban may be able to seize large cities like Kandahar and possibly even Kabul. The question for American policymakers is this: what would be the impact on America’s security if that happened? The answer, very little.

Many in the United States believe the myth that the 9/11 attacks happened because the Taliban controlled Afghanistan and thus fear that a return of the Taliban will usher in new 9/11-style attacks. As I have explained in detail elsewhere, that was never an accurate rendering of what actually did cause the 9/11 attacks.

Short answer: we weren’t attacked because the territory of Afghanistan was run by Islamic radicals, but because we chose not to take out Bin Laden the three times we had the chance in the 1990s and the “terrain” of the twisted mind of 9/11-plotter Khalid Shaikh Muhammad.

I cannot stress enough that American security is not assured by having a few thousand troops in a handful of countries, but on our nation’s powerful intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capacity coupled with an unrivaled ability to launch targeted strikes against any direct threats to America – regardless of where in the world those threats arise.

Some will recoil at the thought of a U.S. withdrawal resulting in the fall of an Afghan city and possibly their government and seize on the easy answer: just let the status quo of perpetual war continue. Yet doing so continues the bleed of American blood and treasure for a war that can never be won.

Our presence will continue giving the Taliban and other violent groups motivation to keep fighting. It will continue to dampen Kabul’s willingness to make hard compromises necessary to end the war because they know we’ll always have their back. Perpetuation of the war also continues to degrade our ability to prepare for potential great power fights in the future by diverting our training, operations, and resources on permanent support for a non-winning war.

Continuing our open-ended war will not bring peace to Afghanistan. It will not keep us safer from terrorist attacks. It will continue to degrade our overall combat capability, and it will continue to throw tens of billions annually down an empty hole. We’ve given hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, tens of thousands of American troops killed and wounded, and 20 years of uninterrupted support. It is time to acknowledge reality and end the war.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” 

What Happens To Afghanistan If U.S. Troops Leave?
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Taliban falsely claims: ‘There are no Al Qaeda operatives present in Afghanistan’

Long War Journal

The Taliban has once again attempted to falsely claim “there are no Al Qaeda operatives present in Afghanistan,” despite that fact that U.S. and Afghan forces have killed several senior Al Qaeda leaders in the country over the past year.

Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied today that Al Qaeda is present in Afghanistan in an official statement released on the Taliban’s English language website, Voice of Jihad.

Mujahid made the patently erroneous claim in response to a U.S. Treasury report released earlier this year that noted Al Qaeda was “gaining strength” in Afghanistan with the help and “protection” of the Taliban. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Al Qaeda ‘gaining strength’ in Afghanistan, U.S. Treasury says.]

From the Taliban statement:

We strongly reject this report. The report has been compiled by partisan and warmongering circles based on false information.

In the year 2001 when a large-scale war broke out in Afghanistan and the subsequent uprisings in parts of the Arab world, members of Al Qaeda and other foreign nationals that had previously sought refuge in Afghanistan returned back to their homelands.

Currently, there are no Al Qaeda operatives present in Afghanistan and neither does there remain a need for any foreign national to live in Afghanistan.

Remarks by spokesman of Islamic Emirate concerning report by US Treasury Department, Voice of Jihad, Jan. 27, 2021

The Taliban’s claim that Al Qaeda “returned back to their homelands” after the U.S. invasion following the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the U.S. is laughable.

It is well documented that many Al Qaeda leaders have been killed in Afghanistan in the nearly two decades since 9/11. In the past two years, U.S. and Afghan forces have killed several key Al Qaeda leaders, including Husam Abd-al-Ra’uf (Abu Muhsin al-Masri), a top propagandist and ideologue; Asim Umar, the emir of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent; and Mohammad Hanif, a senior AQIS leader.

Not only has the Taliban been sheltering Al Qaeda, it was consulting with Al Qaeda’s top leaders – according to the United Nations – while it negotiating with the U.S. to withdraw American forces. The U.S. and the Taliban signed the withdrawal agreement, called the Doha agreement, on Feb. 29, 2020.

The Taliban’s denial of Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan is nothing new. [See FDD’s Long War Journal reports, Taliban is caught in a lie by denying Al Qaeda’s presence in AfghanistanTaliban falsely claims al Qaeda doesn’t exist in Afghanistan and Taliban again denies presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan.]

It has maintained this fiction since signing the withdrawal agreement with the U.S., as the only condition placed on the Taliban is that it not allow terror attacks to emanate from Afghan soil. Instead of supposedly “destroying Al Qaeda,” as former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laughingly claimed the Taliban would do, the Taliban instead decided to pretend Al Qaeda doesn’t exist in Afghanistan.

The Taliban, in its latest statement, claims it supports the Doha agreement. U.S. officials have bragged that the Taliban can be an effective counterterrorism partner against Al Qaeda. Yet, it’s impossible for the Taliban to be an effective counterterrorism partner when it won’t even admit that Al Qaeda remains in Afghanistan, let alone under its own roof with Taliban protection.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.

Taliban falsely claims: ‘There are no Al Qaeda operatives present in Afghanistan’
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Why President Biden Must Withdraw From Afghanistan

Breaking our agreement with the Taliban to pull out by May will endanger American troops and entrench them in an unwinnable war.

By William Ruger

Mr. Ruger was former President Donald Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Afghanistan.

The New York Times

Feb. 26, 2021

President Joe Biden faces a defining foreign policy decision: The United States signed a deal with the Taliban last year in Doha, Qatar, offering an American commitment to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by May 1 in exchange for a Taliban promise not to allow the country to be used by transnational terrorists.

May 1 is barely 64 days away.

Those who support breaking the withdrawal agreement with the Taliban are pushing to keep the United States militarily entrenched in Afghanistan. They argue that withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan will compromise our counterterrorism efforts, undermine the wobbly Afghan government and threaten the limited gains we have made on values promotion.

President Biden should reject these calls and continue with the promised withdrawal in May. Completely withdrawing our troops is sound policy, as American security interests do not require the continued presence of our troops in Afghanistan.

Keeping our troops in Afghanistan beyond the promised deadline is pushing them back in the Taliban’s cross hairs and indefinitely continuing an expensive and unwinnable war, which has already cost more than $2 trillion and more than 2,400 American lives.

To effectively target terrorist organizations with the intent and capability to harm the United States, we do not need to station troops permanently in a country. Along with sticking to the agreement with the Taliban, we can further protect ourselves by making it unmistakably clear to the Taliban (and their Pakistani backers) that if they violate the agreement and allow transnational terrorists to operate from their soil against us, they will have to face overwhelming, punitive American force.

If the Taliban keep their part of the bargain, the United States should let the Afghan people decide the future of their country. The past two decades have taught us that a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is also an acknowledgment that fixing Afghan politics and society while keeping the Taliban out is beyond our considerable abilities.

If President Biden decides to stay indefinitely in Afghanistan, it would adversely affect the peace process by signaling to the Afghan government that we will back them despite the heavy costs and despite its inability to confront corruption and ineffectiveness that fuels the insurgency. It would embolden Kabul and reduce the chances of compromises to end the war.

It would lead the Taliban to question our trustworthiness and empower hard-line voices among the insurgents. And reneging on the withdrawal agreement or extending it without the Taliban agreeing to it will lead to escalation in violence and even more deaths.

The administration might be reluctant to withdraw for fear of getting blamed for the messiness that could ensue in post-withdrawal Afghanistan, but anything less than a full drawdown means that Afghanistan will become President Biden’s war. He will have to own the predictably terrible consequences of continuing a war that can’t be won.

The United States has about 2,500 service members in Afghanistan, and they can’t affect the basic trajectory of the conflict. Americans will support a president who chooses withdrawal of the troops, especially since polling shows nearly three-quarters of the public — including veterans and military families — already support ending the war.

Sticking with the withdrawal deal will also immunize the administration against attacks from Republicans who supported calls to end our endless wars during the Trump years.

If Mr. Biden decides to stay in Afghanistan, Republicans could respond with intense criticism, as they did when President Bill Clinton got our troops more involved in Somalia in 1993 and, more recently, President Barack Obama in Libya.

If withdrawal looks politically difficult now, President Biden should consider 2024, when he will be criticized for continuing the endless war and jettisoning President Trump’s efforts to end it and bring our soldiers home.

Mr. Biden opposed President Obama’s surge in 2009, and during his campaign he told a CBS reporter that it was not his job to send American troops into harm’s way to secure human rights in Afghanistan. He also took office with the withdrawal deal already in place. These things diminish the extent to which the people of the United States see President Biden as responsible for the war.

In her recent book about the domestic politics of ending wars, Sarah Croco, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, argues that a president who is seen as a “culpable leader” — someone the public sees as “responsible for the conflict” — typically has a hard time ever ending a conflict and faces “strong incentives to continue fighting in the face of high costs.”

If Mr. Biden makes the decision not to follow the withdrawal agreement, his choice will lead to the Taliban resuming attacks on American troops and leave us stuck in the same bloody cycle that has plagued his predecessors. He would end up being a “culpable leader,” and the war in Afghanistan could outlast his presidency.

The president should declare that we have met our most important goals by decimating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, killing Osama bin Laden and punishing the Taliban, but also pushing them to peace talks — and then let the Doha agreement play out.

President Biden has to choose between Mr. Trump’s withdrawal and Mr. Biden’s war. The right choice is obvious.

William Ruger is vice president for policy at the Charles Koch Institute. He was President Donald Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Afghanistan and is a veteran of the Afghanistan war.

Why President Biden Must Withdraw From Afghanistan
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How much of the US-Taleban Doha agreement has been implemented?

A Deal in the Mist: How much of the US-Taleban Doha agreement has been implemented?

Thomas Ruttig

Afghanistan Analysts Network

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One year ago, on 29 February 2020, the then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Mullah Baradar, Taleban Deputy Leader for Political Affairs, signed the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” in Doha. Simultaneously, representatives of the US and the Afghan government signed the similarly titled but less discussed “Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan.” Some hopes for an end to the 40 year Afghan wars sprouted, but there was also immediate scepticism or clear-cut rejection of the Doha agreement that primarily catered to US and Taleban interests. It is unclear from its publicly available text whether the two most controversial issues – did the Taleban comply to a reduction of violence and to break ties with al-Qaeda – are covered and what mechanisms exist for verification. This in-built vagueness has strengthened the hand of the Taleban over the Afghan government. AAN co-director Thomas Ruttig went back to the text and found it difficult to nail down what has really been agreed, what was achieved and what has been breached.

US representative Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and deputy Taleban leader Mullah Baradar (right) sign the agreement in Doha, Qatar on 29 February 2020. State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain.Executive summary

  • A year on from the US-Taleban “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” the Intra-Afghan talks have stalled, violence is up and trust in the peace process is low.
  • The US is reviewing the Doha deal but faces only bad choices, which all could result in an escalation of violence:
    1. Troop withdrawal on schedule, by 1 May 2021. This grievously weakens the Afghan government, risking its collapse and an attempted takeover by the Taleban;
    2. Leave US troops in Afghanistan for a time limited extension or a “conditions based” withdrawal without an end date. The Taleban would likely see this as voiding the Doha deal, perhaps triggering the end of the intra-Afghan talks and escalating violence;
    3. Open negotiations with the Taleban about a potential extension of the deal. This might require the offer of further concessions (potentially on prisoners and/or sanctions). It is not clear whether the Taleban would be open to this.
  • The US-Taleban agreement was an example of “America-First” foreign policy, which conceded ground to the Taleban from the outset because of US haste to have it signed. For example, the Afghan government was forced into prisoner release before intra-Afghan talks commenced and the deal wasn’t linked to outcomes from the intra-Afghan talks, in contrast to original statements.
  • Afghan-US relations are strained again by the US tabling the idea of an interim government as a step towards peace, which the Afghan government opposes, arguing that elections are the only way to transfer power.
  • The Taleban are buoyant militarily, with freedom to attack Afghan government forces under the Doha deal and with Afghan forces defending fewer positions and unable to supply as many bases.
  • The Biden/Harris review faces two significant points of controversy:
    1. The US claims the Taleban committed to a reduction of violence, but not in the agreement, and they haven’t made public the pledge, making it hard to assess against current conflict dynamics;
      • The Taleban say they have reduced their operational tempo, the US acknowledges that attacks against them have mostly stopped, as have large scale Taleban attacks on city centres. However, the last quarter of 2020 showed a sharp increase in attacks on civilians, with the blame for many targeted killings falling on the Taleban.
    2. The Taleban commitments not to cooperate with al-Qaeda are clearly laid out in the agreement but a monitoring mechanism was not included.
      • Until very recently, there has been no public sign of such disavowal or instructions to members to sever ties and reports of al-Qaeda sightings and cooperation in the south and north east of Afghanistan, including by the UN committee tracking al-Qaeda. Independent verification is challenging, however, and some reports may be unreliable and part of (mis-)information warfare.
      • The Taleban met their commitment to release 1,000 pro-government prisoners, though there were reports that they abducted people in order to have enough prisoners to release. They have also been accused of allowing up to 600 Taleban released prisoners to return to the battlefield. The published agreement, though, only proscribes them threatening the US and allies.
  • The US has so far met its commitment to start removing troops and bases, though it is less clear if it has fulfilled its pledge to review U.S. sanctions against the Taleban or encourage the UN Security Council to remove individuals from the UN sanctions list.
  • It would be surprising if the flaws in the deal were just diplomatic blunders. The US was more focused on selling a deal at home than on paving the way for a peace process.
  • It may be possible for the Biden/Harris team to remedy this with swift diplomacy and further concessions, without triggering an escalation.
  • A key question will be whether a “conditions based” withdrawal would link the troop pull-out to progress in the peace talks.

War continuing, talks stalling, Doha deal being reviewed

There was hubris in the name of the US-Taleban “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan,” concluded in Qatar’s capital Doha a year ago. Few are surprised that it has not ended the over four decades long war in Afghanistan so far. It is becoming increasingly questionable that it ever will.

The Doha agreement set up the intra-Afghan talks that began in September 2020, the faltering progress of which has only further diminished confidence. Asad Kosha of Kabul daily Ettilat-e Ruz’s English language affiliate Kabul Now, speaking for many in Afghanistan, wrote in January 2021 about the “slow-moving intra-Afghan talks” resulting from the US-Taleban agreement that

… seemingly ha[ve] reached to the point that leaves little hope for a peaceful prospect to end the ongoing deadly fighting and pave the way for a durable peace settlement.

Many Afghans and a number of Afghanistan watchers already put the term ‘peace process’ in quotation marks. Among them is Professor William Maley, an old-hand Afghanistan watcher at the Australian National University, who wrote in an op-ed for the Tolo website in December 2020 that “the ‘peace process’… has exhausted any potential it ever had to bring peace and security to Afghanistan.” He even compared it to the 1938 Munich Agreement in which the governments of the United Kingdom and France handed over Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s Germany in what today is seen as a prime example of a mislead appeasement policy. [1]

After more than two and a half years of a peace process – first negotiations between the US and the Taleban started in July 2018 accompanied by a surprise three-day ceasefire (AAN reporting here) and resulted in the Doha agreement signed on 29 February 2020, followed by the cumbersome intra-Afghan negotiations also held in Qatar’s capital – trust in its viability is almost at zero. Intra-Afghan negotiations have been slow from when they started in September 2020. After the first round ended on 14 December 2020, they now seem at a standstill. A second round of talks that was due to commence on 5 January 2021 has yet to begin. This is the result of rising levels of violence, mainly attributed by the Taleban (AAN analysis here and here), but also the political reconfiguration in Washington.

Everyone is looking to the new US administration since it announced it was “reviewing” the Doha agreement. It has to make a decision between some highly unpalatable options, which all tend towards an escalation of violence.

The first option would be to complete the troop withdrawal on schedule, risking the collapse of the Afghan government and a takeover by the Taleban, since without direct US military protection the Kabul government would be easier to push over militarily, or it would be so enfeebled that it would give in to Taleban’s political demands, such as to establish “a new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government” as stipulated in their deal with the US, but according to their own vision. As long as the Afghan government forces are paid and supplied, a military takeover would be violently resisted.

The second option would be leaving the remaining troops in Afghanistan without the Taleban’s consent, either with a limited, short-term extension of the withdrawal or ‘conditions based’, rather than one with a new end-date. For example, President Ashraf Ghani has proposed such an approach in a speech in late January.

This would effectively mean ripping up the Doha deal and almost certainly provoke the Taleban to cancel the Doha agreement (despite widespread doubts about whether they have themselves fulfilled their part), walk out from the intra-Afghan talks and further escalate the violence. [2]

Another option would be to try and engage the Taleban on an extension, although they have already publicly said that they would “never” accept it. At the minimum, to avoid triggering a violent backlash, this option (if the Taleban changed their mind) would likely require further concessions, the release of more prisoners and lifting sanctions against their leaders. The Taleban claim there are still some 7,000 prisoners held.

The chances of successfully pressuring the Taleban into agreeing to such an approach is hampered by the fact that there is no clear-cut pro-peace consensus among Afghanistan’s neighbours and other influential powers. As Kristian Berg Harpviken of Oslo-based PRIO wrote, “[n]eighbors seem to be preparing for continuing conflicts in Afghanistan rather than investing in a path to peace.” He stated that Khalilzad’s approach “to engage the countries either one-by-one or in various ad-hoc groupings… does not represent a working platform nor a concerted will among the neighbors.”

The difficulty of this decision-making for Washington became visible when President Joe Biden failed to mention Afghanistan in his first foreign policy speech on 4 February 2021. But the decision cannot be put off for much longer: the withdrawal date is only weeks away, requiring complex military plans on top of these ominous political considerations.

In addition to the military consequences, the Doha agreement had two significant political ramifications. First, it opened the door for achieving what is the major – bipartisan – US political aim with regard to Afghanistan, pulling out its troops from what the new administration also calls the “so-called forever war” (see new Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in his Senate confirmation hearing, quoted here). US troop numbers have dropped steadily from their peak of 100,000 in 2011, down to 8,000 when the Doha deal was signed and a mere 2,500 by mid-January 2021. This was the lowest level since December 2001.

Second, the agreement allowed for intra-Afghan negotiations to start between the main Afghan parties to the war, the Taleban on one side and the various factions in the current set-up of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRoA) on the other. [3] By December 2020, both parties had reached an agreement about the procedural framework for the talks, the so-called ‘rules of procedure’, and exchanged ideas for an agenda for future rounds (AAN analysis here). The Afghan government, despite having been kept out of the US-Taleban negotiations, was forced to pay part of the price the US conceded to the Taleban, the release of 5,000 Taleban prisoners (AAN analysis here). This weakened the Afghan government’s own negotiating position, as it had been forced into such a major concession before it even got to the table.

A major shortcoming of the Doha deal, however, is that the Taleban’s agreement to it still did not amount to their acceptance of the Afghan government as their direct negotiating partner. Khalilzad even actively supported their position by developing a formula under which the Taleban would negotiate with an “inclusive and effective national team” instead. This term morphed into a so-called “team of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” (IRoA). This included representatives of major political forces in the ‘republic’ who also question the legitimacy of the government of President Ghani (although for other reasons and purposes than the Taleban).

Another shortcoming is that the final deal delinked troop withdrawal from the wider Afghan peace process, that is to say, the outcome of intra-Afghan talks, and shaped those talks to the disadvantage of the Afghan government. These ramifications have been acknowledged by many Afghans and international commentators. James Dobbins, former special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2013-14 under Obama, as well as serving as President George W Bush’s special envoy for Afghanistan in 2001-02, is now a member of the Afghanistan Study Group that has just published recommendations for the Biden/Harris team. Dobbins counted the Doha agreement “[a]mong President Trump’s few foreign policy achievements,” but at the same time concedes that “[t]he price for this success (…) was U.S. agreement to an accelerated timetable for a full military withdrawal unlinked to the outcome of these talks” (author’s emphasis). If this course is continued, most likely it will be Afghans, not Americans, who will have to pay the price.

Recently Afghan-US relations have been strained by a rekindled discussion about an interim government that could replace the government of President Ghani, something the president has always been fiercely resistant to. These ideas seem to have been promoted by the US whose chief negotiator Khalilzad (who has just been confirmed in his position by the Biden/Harris administration). Khalilzad had pushed such ideas earlier, hoping to avoid the 2019 presidential election giving legitimacy to a new Afghan president and to make a power-sharing deal with the Taleban easier. That they are back on the negotiating table became clear from statements from two members of the IRoA negotiation team in early January 2021 (see here and here), one of whom, Muhammad Amin Ahmadi, the president called back from the Doha delegation in February, apparently in anger that Ahmadi voiced support for an interim government.

Talk of an interim government was further kindled by reports that the Taleban’s deputy chief negotiator, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai, had allegedly told the media during a visit to Moscow that Ghani should step down. [4] In addition, a draft 8-page paper has been circulated, entitled “Agreement on a Political Settlement in Afghanistan between the two parties at intra-Afghan peace negotiations” dated 9 January 2021, reportedly “floated privately by U.S. officials and ha[ving] been supported by the Taliban, Pakistan (…) and some Afghan opposition figures.” It was later circulated on social media, with references to a new “Islamic Power Sharing Government” or “Islamic Peace Government” (both terms appear as possible alternatives in the document). Ghani reacted strongly to these ideas by making clear, in a CNN interview on 9 January 2021, his “main goal” was to “hand over to an elected successor,” rejecting thereby the idea of any other form of a transfer of power. Later he added, more strongly, “Be assured that as long as I am alive, they will not see the formation of an interim government. I am not like those willows that bend with the wind.” Then, in a BBC interview broadcast on 22 February (https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-56145953), he suggested that new elections could be held after a peace agreement was concluded, apparently conceding, when pushed, that this could take place, but it was not fully clear whether they would be held prior to or at the end of his five-year tenure (in 2024). [5]

A ‘peace’ agreement?

While casual commentators have often referred to the Doha deal as a “peace agreement,” it is highly doubtful that the two parties ever meant it to be. Hence its title is “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan”, not “Agreement Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” (author’s emphasis). [6]

Beyond the semantics, the modest ambitions of the United States for the deal were clear early on in the process. US chief negotiator Khalilzad appeared to have carte blanche from Trump as long as he sped up troop withdrawal before the 2020 US election. The primacy of haste meant he was quick to drop conditions when obstacles arose, such as when he failed to convince the Taleban to allow the Afghan government to the negotiating table. He dropped the ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agree’ principle postulated at the beginning of the negotiations, but never accepted by the Taleban (AAN analysis here) and started presenting the Doha agreement as a first step only toward a future “comprehensive peace agreement.” This, he suggested, the domestic parties to the war needed to hammer out in their intra-Afghan negotiations. Dobbins confirmed this when he wrote that the US was ready to sell (he uses the word “price”) any chance of the intra-Afghan negotiations ending the war for an “accelerated” withdrawal timetable, thereby delinking the troop pull-out from an existing (or near) peace agreement.

The fact that the US wanted a full withdrawal regardless of the cost for Afghanistan also points to another factor standing in the way of a genuine peace agreement: the peace talks began as a result of political considerations, not because of what is called a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ in negotiation theory, meaning a situation where all parties to the war have genuinely come to the insight that they will not win it. [7] Closest to such an understanding was the US, although Trump mainly pointed to the costs of the war rather than publicly acknowledging they were long past the point of being able to win. [8] There is reason to believe that both the Taleban and (parts of) the Afghan government still believe they can win.

The Taleban had consistently pursued a double strategy of fighting and talking at the same time. They were not alone in this; the US had explicitly used the same approach under Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (see this analysis by Barnett Rubin). For the Taleban, the Doha agreement was a milestone on one of two possible avenues back to power. The first allows them to get rid by diplomatic means (and minimal loss of fighters) their main obstacle to power – the presence of US and allied forces protecting the Afghan government. The other avenue is an all-out military victory.

The Taleban have long claimed that they remain Afghanistan’s legitimate government, toppled by what they consider an ‘illegal foreign intervention’. They insist that they retain their original legitimacy derived from stopping the inter-factional wars that broke out after the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989 and the collapse of the Najibullah government when they swept to power in the 1990s.

The Afghan government also does not seem to believe that there is currently a mutually hurting stalemate, as long as it has the support of the international community, if not direct military support, then at least financial assistance to maintain its armed forces. It has repeatedly claimed its armed forces are able to defend the country even without US troops on the ground, for example President Ghani in a June 2020 speech at the Atlantic Council or Minister of Defence Asadullah Khaled speaking to parliament in November 2020. [9]

Its 305,000 soldiers and policemen, plus armed intelligence units, auxiliary forces and a large array of community defence forces, some of them actually free-floating militias, [10] are surely capable of at least putting up a lengthy fight and preventing the Taleban from marching straight back to power in Kabul and other areas of the country. However, while accurate numbers are hard to come by, the Afghan government is already taking heavy losses on the battlefield, which would soar under a full scale assault by the Taleban. [11] Combine this with the government’s dire domestic revenue situation: it would not be able to pay its beleaguered fighters if external financial support eroded, making resistance unsustainable in the long run.

It is common knowledge in Afghanistan that many fighters only fight as long as they are paid and as long as they believe they can win. Afghanistan experienced in 1992 what happens when these factors change. Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin found their ‘forever war’ in Afghanistan, a legacy of the Soviet era which the new Russian elites wanted to shed, too costly and stopped military and economic support for the Najibullah government in Kabul. This led to many key government military leaders changing sides to the winning mujahedin. (As the mujahedin were deeply fragmented and organised along ethnic lines, this did not lead to a stabilising realignment of forces, but to a new round of wars.)

Today, the reality on the battlefield already looks dire for government troops. They have abandoned many positions, including on key roads, for example on the Wardak stretch of the national ring road connecting Kabul and Kandahar (see this AAN report). The SIGAR reported that in December 2020 Afghan forces abandoned up 200 checkpoints in Kandahar province alone. The Taleban also reinforced their positions around provincial cities, such as Kunduz, Pul-e Khumri (Baghlan) and Lashkargah (Helmand), arguing that this was technically outside the city and they had taken back areas where the government had moved in. An offensive in October 2020 led to US airstrikes “in defence of the ANSF,” which the US claim is allowed by the Doha deal (although it is not part of the published version – more about this below.) The overall trend is one of Taleban buoyancy which is the result of a mix of factors: the Taleban apparently having been given a free hand in the rural areas by the Doha agreement and a US-designed strategy to concentrate government forces on a more limited number of areas of strategic significance combined with the Afghan government’s inability to supply all remaining bases. [12]

Still, the Afghan government continues to present itself as being in a position of strength from which it can negotiate with the Taleban. This confidence has apparently been reinforced by the latest pledges at the November 2020 Geneva conference, which despite some reductions will still prevent a breakdown of the government (AAN analysis here). The government was also encouraged by the joint statement issued on 31 January 2021 by the embassies of 13 key donor countries, including the US, EU and NATO, saying the Taleban bore “responsibility for the majority” of recent incidents of targeted killings in Kabul and there was a chance that the Biden/Harris administration might delay the troop pull-out as recommended by many advisors in Washington, including the 3 February 2021 bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group (read AAN analysis of Biden’s position vis-à-vis Afghanistan here). [13]

Many Afghan observers (not all of them impartial) believe, however, that the main aim of Ghani and his government is to cling to power and not share it, particularly after the sobering experience of ‘power-sharing’ under the 2014-19 National Unity Government (AAN analysis here). This argument is more often publicly raised by Afghans living outside the country, such as former advisor to ex-president Hamed Karzai and to the Afghan finance ministry, Torek Farhadi, who was recently quoted as saying that “[t]he most significant barrier to peace in Afghanistan is now the preservation of financial interests of those who are in power… They will keep fighting to preserve their interests. They will sugarcoat their fight in the name of preserving the Republic.” Arash Yaqin, who describes himself as “Heraty-Dutch-American” on his twitter profile (https://twitter.com/arashyaqin) and has worked for the Afghan foreign ministry and US embassy in Kabul, spoke of a “small circle of (…) Kabul-based elite oligarchs [who] have nothing to offer except a false rhetoric,“ including on peace (both quotes from interviews published here). [14]

What was agreed in Doha, and what was implemented?

In the context of the current Biden/Harris administration review of the Doha agreement there are two major points of controversy. First, there is a lack of clarity whether and how exactly the Taleban committed to a post-deal reduction of violence and how that tallies with current conflict dynamics, including the upsurge of violence noted by the recent SIGAR report which stated that, according to the US military in Afghanistan, “enemy-initiated attacks this quarter (October–December 2020) (…) exceeded those of the same period in 2019”). Second, there are obligations that the Taleban have to break relations with al-Qaeda, but the publicly available agreement does not include how this is measured.

Before we specifically look at these issues, we will review which other agreements were made in Doha and to what degree they were implemented.

Formally, the February 2020 US-Taleban agreement is a quid pro quo. The US and its allies declare their willingness to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, establish a timetable for this and start reducing troop numbers, in exchange for Taleban guarantees to hinder al-Qaeda and similar groups from organising future terrorist attacks against the US and its allies from the territory the Afghan insurgents control, to hold intra-Afghan (peace) talks and include the issue of a permanent ceasefire in their agenda. The latter is a vehement demand of the Afghan government and large parts of the Afghan public. The completion of the US and NATO troop withdrawal by 1 May 2021 is conditioned on the Taleban fulfilling their commitments and vice versa.

According to the “Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” signed simultaneously with the Doha deal, the completion of the troop withdrawal is also made conditional on a “joint assessment and determination between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the United States, its allies, and the Coalition.”

US commitments

The US has fulfilled some, but not all of its commitments in the agreement.  Their main promise was the troop withdrawal, laid out in “Part One” of the agreement, which has happened in line with the timeline so far. Under Trump, troop numbers were swiftly reduced and at least ten bases closed. This happened despite mild rebukes to the Taleban over their failed commitments – a Pentagon spokesman stated in early May 2020 that the number of Taleban attacks was “unacceptably high” and “not conducive to a diplomatic solution” while then Defense Secretary Mark Esper said “[t]here has not been a reduction in violence, if you will, from the Taliban side. On the other hand, they have not attacked us or attacked major metropolitan areas.” A report from the Washington-based think tank CSIS quoted CENTCOM commander General Kenneth McKenzie as saying on 15 July 2020 “I would not say that [the Taliban] have yet [kept up their commitments]… we expected to see a reduction in violence. And… the violence against the Afghans is higher than it’s been in quite a while. It’s one of the highest, most violent periods of the war that we see to date. Average lethality is down just a little bit. But the number of enemy-initiated attacks is, in fact, very worrisome.”

Besides the US troops, the agreement also covers “its allies, and Coalition partners, including all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel.” But the Doha agreement does not include concrete obligations for the non-US troops, only the 30 April deadline for withdrawal completion. The total foreign troop number in Afghanistan was given by NATO as 9,592 for February, which means there are 7,092 non-US-troops, down by some 1,500 from February 2020. This means that non-US troops now outnumber Americans in Afghanistan. [15] US CENTCOM’s Quarterly Contractor Survey for January 2021 showed 18,214 US Department of Defence contractors in Afghanistan, 6,346 of them American, 4,745 Afghan and the rest third country citizens. (The October 2020 numbers were 12,562 US; 7,856 Afghan and 5,967 other.) [16]

In a sense, the US (or rather the Afghan government) has even over-fulfilled one point of the agreement, concerning the release of Taleban prisoners, although not without hiccups. Point 3 of Part One stipulates that the US “is committed to start immediately to work” to release “up to five thousand [5,000]” “combat and political prisoners,” held exclusively by the Afghan government. [17] In practice the US accepted an incorrect Taleban reading of this stipulation, by taking the figure of 5,000 given in the agreement as a goal, not a ceiling (“up to”). (For more AAN analysis on the prisoner exchange see here and here).

A second phase of prisoner release, stipulated in the same paragraph of the agreement, that “[t]he relevant sides have the goal of releasing all the remaining prisoners over the course of the subsequent three months” did not materialise. It is also conceivable that the US, after coming under heavy criticism over the first phase of release unilaterally imposed on the Afghan government, wanted to keep one last bargaining chip for Afghan government in their Doha negotiations.

Two more US commitments have also not been fulfilled on time, at least not visibly. The first is the commitment to “start … an administrative review of current U.S. sanctions” against Taleban members “with the goal of removing these sanctions by August 27, 2020.” The second is a promise of a “diplomatic engagement with other members of the United Nations Security Council and Afghanistan” to remove Taleban members from their separate sanctions list. There is no information publicly available whether these reviews have commenced and what their status is. Diplomatic engagement might well be underway, but the removal has not yet happened.

The delays on the above three (imprecise) commitments were partly a result of the entire timeframe of the agreement slipping behind, caused by the belated release of the 5,000 prisoners (delayed by over five months) to the start of the intra-Afghan talks (delayed by almost six months).

In general, driven by Trump’s urgency for completing the withdrawal or at least coming to an irreversible reduction of troops, the tight withdrawal timeline took precedence over the vague conditions set for its completion. The Taleban used that opening to push for the completion of the withdrawal without emphasising their own commitments or trying to make progress in the negotiations (see also their 16 February 2021 open letter to the US public which highlights US withdrawal in exchange for the Taleban “preventing all threats to the security of other nations from Afghanistan”).

Taleban commitments

The Taleban have fulfilled their commitment to release “one thousand (1,000) prisoners of the other side,” although also not on time. This mainly included captured government soldiers and police. After these releases, Taleban spokesman Suhail Shahin said in mid-August 2020, the movement was not aware of any other security personnel in its custody who still had to be released. In order to implement the prisoner swap, both Afghan parties had direct contacts in Kabul through “technical groups.”

However, there were doubts about whether they had held 1,000 prisoners in the first place and even reports the Taleban had abducted people to reach the number to be released by them. One such accusation came from the provincial governor of Maidan Wardak in March 2020. In late April, Jawed Faisal, spokesman for the Afghan National Security Council, said the Taleban had abducted 164 civilians since their deal with the US.

The Afghan government also accused the Taleban of breaking their promise that the released men would not return to the battlefield. On 25 January 2021, National Security Adviser Hamdullah Moheb stated that “We have recaptured 600 of the freed individuals because they were fighting alongside the Taliban even though they promised they would not fight again” and that other released prisoners were involved in making car bombs and planning attacks on security forces. Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed rejected the accusation and said that only about 40 of the men were back in government custody, most seized during raids on their homes. In February 2021, Vice President Amrullah Saleh even claimed that 85 per cent of the “over 5,500” freed Taleban had returned to the battlefield and that the government had “video and audio clips” to prove this. The Taleban have repeatedly accused government troops of killing released prisoners, even as they were being welcomed back by their communities or their homes (one example here), something the government denied.

Also, the agreement only stipulated that the Taleban commit “that its released prisoners will be committed to the responsibilities mentioned in this agreement so that they will not pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies” [author’s emphasis]. Again, the agreement does not cover the Afghan forces.

There were two Taleban commitments, one part of the Doha deal and one claimed by the US as a verbal commitment, that have become particularly controversial in the context of the Biden/Harris administration’s review of the agreement. The first one is usually summarised as ‘breaking ties’ with al-Qaeda and similar jihadist terrorist groups; the second one pertains to the alleged commitment to reduce violence. Given the lack of transparency about the commitments or any known monitoring mechanism in the published text of the agreement, it is difficult to judge whether the Taleban have fulfilled their commitments or not. In the case of the reduction of violence, it is not even officially known what exactly they had committed to, although scattered statements allow one to piece this together.

It is possible, though, that there is a secret mechanism. A 28 February 2020 Washington Post report, based on an interview with General Austin ‘Scott’ Miller, commander both of US troops and NATO’s Resolute Support mission (RS) in Afghanistan, indicated that the US military had established a kind of ‘hotline’ with the Taleban that had already been used during the ‘reduction of violence’ week before the agreement was signed. After the signing, Miller was also a regular participant in US-Taleban meetings. If the US had used the hotline in the following month, though, it did so rather discreetly.

The new US National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, in a conversation with his Afghan counterpart Moheb stated, according to a White House readout on 22 January 2021 that the ongoing US review of the Doha agreement included an assessment of “whether the Taliban was living up to its commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and to engage in meaningful negotiations.” He also did not call it “commitments from the Doha agreement [emphasis added].”

1. Reduction of violence

The published part of the Doha agreement does not bind the Taleban to stop fighting, observe a ceasefire or even reduce violence. There had been an agreement on a period of a ‘reduction of violence’ (RiV) before its signing, requested by the US and accepted by the Taleban which, according to Khalilzad, was supposed to be “leading to a ceasefire.” (The Taleban had earlier rejected the first US proposal of a six-months’ and then of a three-months’ ceasefire “to get negotiations started”; read AAN analysis here and here.)

Immediately after the signing, on 2 March 2020, Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed confirmed to AFP that:

As per the (US-Taliban) agreement, our mujahideen will not attack foreign forces but our operations will continue against the Kabul administration forces.

After the Taleban offensive just outside Helmand’s provincial capital Lashkargah in October 2021, the US went to the Taleban and protested. US envoy Khalilzad stated that after he and General Miller held several meetings with the Taleban, the other side had “agreed to re-set actions by strictly adhering to implementation of all elements of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement and all commitments made” and that the US expected that as a result the number of “Afghans [who] are dying” would “drop significantly.” This quote seems to indicate the US view that there were RiV commitments made by the Taleban beyond the public part of the Doha deal. Otherwise Khalilzad would have spoken about “all commitments” in the U.S.-Taliban Agreement. If the Taleban had entered into additional commitments in Doha, it is unclear whether a possible post-signing RiV was verbally agreed or put into what then US Secretary of Defence Mike Pompeo has referred to as two classified “military implementation documents,” to which only the US Congress has had access, according to a 1 March 2020 media interview.

Still, on 27 January 2021, Blinken said that his administration had not yet seen certain parts of the agreement. He told journalists:

One of the things that we need to understand is exactly what is in the agreements that were reached between the United States and the Taliban, to make sure that we fully understand the commitments that the Taliban has made as well as any commitments that we’ve made.

It is also not clear, but has often been reported, that the Taleban had allegedly accepted that they would refrain from attacking US and allied troops (except their Afghan allies) and not carry out larger attacks such as car bombs or ‘complex attacks’ involving suicide bombers in large population centres after the deal was signed. The New York Times reported as much in an 8 March 2020 article, referring to “people familiar with the contents” of the annexes that “are only available to members of Congress … [i]n a secure facility underneath the Capitol in Washington DC.”

Finally, in a statement issued on 13 February 2021, the Taleban said that they had “significantly decreased the level of operations,” without mentioning whether or not this was part of any secret annex to the published agreement or a verbal undertaking. They explained that “in breaking with past practice, no annual spring offensive was announced or launched the previous year,” that “no district headquarters were conquered in succession like the years past, no numerous and complex attacks targeted the enemy in major cities, nor were plans sketched for the takeover of cities.” They claimed most fighting had occurred “where our Mujahideen have been forced to defend their areas, or where the public has been safeguarded from harmful check posts, or (…) gunmen” and accused the government of being behind the recent series of targeted killings in Kabul and other parts of the country. This was contradicted by the recently released UNAMA “Protection of Civilians” report which noted the first ever increase in levels of violence levels in the last quarter of a year – after intra-Afghan talks began – mostly the result of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and targeted killings.

The US government partly confirmed this Taleban statement. In February, it marked one year without any US troops being killed in combat in Afghanistan. In a report released in November 2020, the lead inspector general for Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, the US special forces mission in Afghanistan, stated that “[a]s the U.S. drawdown continued, the Taliban largely refrained from conducting attacks targeting U.S. or coalition forces.” He added that the Taleban had conducted a “small number” of attacks “against U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan…  from July through September,” including “instances of indirect fire and surface-to-air attacks.” But he did not explicitly refer to these attacks as breaches of the Doha deal. Also the commander of the US military’s Central Command, that covers Afghanistan, General Kenneth McKenzie, when speaking about “simply too high” Taleban violence in mid-February 2021, did not explicitly say this violated the Doha agreement. For this author, these omissions are too regular to be ignored.

The Taleban, meanwhile, have raised counter-accusations lately of an increase in US air strikes. The UNAMA annual civilian casualties report for 2020, however, noted “counteracting civilian casualty trends between” the US and the Afghan forces following the Doha agreement. This included “record high levels” of civilian casualties caused by Afghan Air Force airstrikes and “the highest number of civilian casualties from airstrikes by the Afghan Air Force since UNAMA began systematic documentation in 2009.” In contrast, international military forces airstrikes caused 17 per cent of all airstrike civilian casualties, a drop by 85 per cent from 2019 and the lowest number recorded since 2009. US forces all but ceased carrying out airstrikes, except in defence of the Afghan forces, between the signing of the Doha deal and the Taleban’s October offensive near Lashkargah.

As the 31 January 2021 joint statement by the EU, 13 embassies and NATO made plain, they disagree with the Taleban about the wave of targeted killings and put the “responsibility for the majority” of those incidents on them. The Economist’s description is likely the correct take on the situation and shared by a number of independent observers and media (see also AP here):

No single group is likely to have conducted all the attacks. A variety of bomb designs has been used. Personal rivalries and organised crime may be behind some, as may other militant groups. But the Taliban are almost certainly the main perpetrators. 

The unclear relationship between the Taleban and al-Qaeda

In contrast to the issue of violence levels, the Doha agreement contains five very concrete points on what the Taleban committed to do on countering international terrorism. This included sending a “clear message” to groups such as al-Qaeda (the only group mentioned by name in the agreement) “that threaten the security of the United States and its allies (…) have no place in Afghanistan.” The Taleban committed that they will not allow them “to use the soil of Afghanistan [the part under their control] to threaten the security of the United States and its allies,” “not [to] host them,” to “instruct” their own members “not to cooperate with” those groups and their members and to prevent them from “recruiting, training, and fundraising.” The Taleban are also not to provide visas, passports and similar documents as well as entrance, asylum or residency to individuals “who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies” – but this seems to refer to a time when the Taleban are already part of the “new post-agreement Islamic government.” (Passports or visas eventually issued currently by their Islamic Emirate would not be recognised anywhere.)

There even seems to be a backdoor for foreign fighters ready to give up the fight to seek “asylum or residence in Afghanistan according to international migration law and the commitments of this agreement,” but the Taleban are obliged to make sure “that such persons do not pose a threat” any longer to US and allies security.

In their 13 February statement, the Taleban insisted that “no entity has taken any steps against the United States of America and its allies from the soil of Afghanistan.” The US does not dispute this. But given the lack of a known monitoring mechanism in the Doha agreement, it is more difficult to judge whether the Taleban have fulfilled their other anti-terrorism commitments. For example, it is not spelled out in the agreement what it means to give a “clear message” to al-Qaeda that they “have no place in Afghanistan” or could monitor whether instructions are given not to work with al-Qaeda and similar groups. There is also no provision that commits the Taleban to hand over or expel foreign fighters, and the provision to make sure that “those seeking asylum or residence in Afghanistan… do not pose a threat” seems to indicate that such (former?) fighters could be allowed to stay if they refrain from violence (and seems to contradict the stipulation that they “have no place in Afghanistan”). This would also require a mechanism through which fighters renounce the use of violence and possibly give up their arms. Only the Taleban could do this in the current situation and it would be difficult to monitor even if there was a mechanism.

As the authors of a recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report (p14, footnote 47) put it, “the Taliban have made no public demonstration or assertion that they have acted on commitments to prevent their membership from interacting with or hosting al-Qaeda figures.” Taleban negotiator Stanakzai, at his 29 January 2021 press conference in Moscow, stated that the US negotiating team in Doha had not mentioned “any problem to us – and we have a daily channel where our military people sit with their military people and discuss what is going on in Afghanistan.”

At the same time, for some months now, there has been an increasing number of reports of alleged al-Qaida sightings in Afghanistan and even of active cooperation with the Taleban, insinuating a continuing or even more intensive al-Qaeda-Taleban cooperation. For example, the Afghan news agency Ariana, quoting sources in the Afghan Ministry of Defense, reported on 28 December 2020 that during two airstrikes within three days 15 al-Qaeda members and 17 Taleban were killed in Nawa district (Helmand province) and that “these Al-Qaeda fighters used to train the Taliban to make bombs.” In November 2020, General Yasin Zia, chief of the Afghan army’s general staff alleged there were al-Qaeda fighters present in an “Taliban-influenced area between Nimruz and Farah provinces,” that some of them had been killed and that the Taleban still had a “close coordination and conduct operations with” al-Qaeda. A spokesman for the governor of Badakhshan described an attack on a checkpost in the province’s Arghanjkhwa district in July 2020 during which “seven Afghan security forces were killed“ as “a joint assault by the Taliban, al Qaeda and Daesh.“

The latest UN report about the Islamic State, al-Qaeda “and affiliated groups,” dated 3 February 2021, stated that

Member States report little evidence of significant changes in relations between Al-Qaida and the Taliban. (…) The killing of several Al-Qaida commanders in Taliban-controlled territory underscores how close the two groups are.

There are references to two al-Qaeda commanders killed in Taleban-controlled territory in the UN report. The first is to Muhammad Hanif, announced on 10 November 2020 by Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) by tweet after an operation in Bakwa district (Farah), without giving a date (reported here). The tweet called Hanif a “senior leader” of AQIS and that he had been “given a safe haven and protection by the [Taleban] there.”

The second reference is about “al-Qaida media chief Husam Abd al-Ra’uf, also known as Abu Muhsen al-Masri” who was reported killed in Andar district (Ghazni province) on 20 October 2020. Al-Rauf/al-Masri is described in media reports as al-Qaeda’s second in command (see here and here). The original source of this report was an NDS tweet, as AP reported on 25 October 2020. According to AP, this report had been confirmed by Amanullah Kamrani, the deputy head of Ghazni’s provincial council, who said that al-Rauf/al-Masri’s death was the result of a raid by “Afghan special forces led by the intelligence agency.” According to the AP report, “Kamrani alleged, without providing evidence, that the Taliban had been offering shelter and protection to al-Rauf.” It further said that “[n]either Kamrani nor the intelligence agency offered details on how authorities identified al-Rauf, nor how they came to suspect he was in the village.” It further quoted Wahidullah Jumazada, a spokesman for Ghazni’s provincial governor in Ghazni speaking about Afghan forces having killed six suspected militants in the raid, without mentioning al-Rauf had been killed. Kamran, a former Hezb-e Islami member, had worked with the NDS in setting up a so-called Uprising Force, a local anti-Taleban militia, in Andar (AAN reporting here).

Earlier, there have been reports about ‘dual-hatted’ Taleban/ al-Qaeda military commanders, originating from the Afghan Ministry of Defence or US government sources (see here and here). In May 2020, the NDS reported the “busting” of a “Haqqani-ISIS cell” in Kabul.

The UN’s al-Qaeda report also called the fact that the wife of a former leader of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) – the group’s South Asian franchise – was on the Taleban list of 5,000 prisoners held by the Afghan government and to be released under the Doha deal as “[f]urther evidence of close relations between the groups.”

Edmund Fitton-Brown, co-ordinator of the UN monitoring team compiling this report, told the BBC on 29 October 2020 that both groups “were talking regularly and at a high level” and the Taleban were reassuring al-Qaeda “that they would honour their historic ties.” He added that “[a]l-Qaeda are heavily embedded with the Taliban and they do a good deal of military action and training action with the Taliban.”

The previous report by this UN team, dated 27 May 2020, listed various alleged meetings between al-Qaeda and Taleban leaders. This involved one that included the Taleban’s military chief Sadr Ibrahim and Osama ben Laden’s son Hamza (reported killed in August 2019 “in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region,” but without a date given) in which the Taleban allegedly reassures “him personally that the Islamic Emirate would not break its historical ties with Al-Qaida for any price.” [18] The Taleban called this report “false.”

Some direct language suggesting strong ties between the Taleban and Al-Qaeda is also found in a document from the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General referring to information received from US Department of the Treasury (not from its own military) dated 4 January 2021 which stated, without mentioning sources, that:

… as of 2020, al-Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection. (…) Treasury told us Al-Qaeda capitalizes on its relationship with the Taliban through its network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support. Senior Haqqani Network figures have discussed forming a new joint unit of armed fighters in cooperation with and funded by al-Qaeda. (…) elements of al-Qaeda (…) continue to use the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region as a safe haven. (…) Al-Qaeda maintains close contacts with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support. (…)Treasury told us as of May 2020, the Taliban and al-Qaeda maintained a strong relationship and continued to meet regularly.

It appears that much of the information available on the al-Qaeda-Taleban (or Haqqani network-ISIS) relationship goes back to Afghan and probably US and other countries’ intelligence sources. The UN report quoted gives “member states” information as their source, which include the US and Afghanistan. These agencies, however, are part of the anti-Taleban coalition, and it has to be figured into analysis that such an important issue as the al-Qaeda-Taleban relationship is a major feature of mutual information warfare in which all parties to the conflict are painting the opposing side as black as possible. Multiple examples exist of how information about active terrorist groups can be factually incorrect or so shallow that it should be treated with caution. [19]

At the same time, Taleban assurances, for example, by their new Doha spokesman, Muhammad Na’im, to Tolonews as reported on 5 November 2020 and in Stanakzai’s 29 January Moscow press conference that “right now, there is no al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan” cannot be taken at face value. There are incentives for both sides to exaggerate and dissemble.

Another more general issue is the exact status and size of al-Qaeda and its so-called affiliated groups in Afghanistan, the relationship between them [21] and the question of whether al-Qaeda is still important for the Taleban and their aims. The exact location of the surviving al-Qaeda leadership under Osama bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri – whether on the Afghan or the Pakistani side of the Durand line – is unknown. As the UN report quoted above stated, it is not even clear whether Zawahiri is still alive; the designated successor, Hamza ben Laden, has also been reported killed. The UN report also said that “[s]hould a succession to al-Zawahiri become necessary, it may be difficult for the new leader to take up residence in Afghanistan, as such a move could have an impact on the interests of the Taliban, given their peace process obligations” from the Doha deal.

The alleged size of the group seems relatively insignificant in military terms on the Afghan battlefield.  The UN’s February 2021 report estimated the “overall number of members of Al-Qaida and its affiliates [author’s emphasis] in Afghanistan (…) at between 200 and 500” and locates them in “at least 11 Afghan provinces: Badakhshan, Ghazni, Helmand, Khost, Kunar, Kunduz, Logar, Nangarhar, Nuristan, Paktiya and Zabul.” The report further referred to two al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in northern Afghanistan, Khatiba Imam al-Bukhari (see also this AAN reporting) with “approximately 150 fighters, mostly in Badghis Province” and the Islamic Jihad Group (sometimes called Islamic Jihad Union) with “approximately 100 fighters active in (…) Kunduz and Faryab under Taliban shelter and control.” The authors of the report added that the Taleban have “forbidden these groups from launching independent operations against [Afghan government forces],” indicating that they not be instrumentalised by al-Qaeda against the Taleban’s intention. If the numbers given for those groups were correct, this would leave ‘core’ al-Qaeda with 250 members of its own, if the maximum figure of 500 fighters is used as the basis.

In earlier years, including during the height of US-Taleban fighting around 2010-12, top US commanders in Afghanistan including generals Jim Jones, David Petraeus and John Allen consistently estimated there were around 100 al-Qaeda fighters in the country, as a Washington Post journalist had compiled. In September 2020, the then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said there were fewer than 200 left in Afghanistan. [20]

The Operation Freedom’s Sentinel report quoted above concludes that it is “difficult to discern the extent to which [the Taleban are] meeting the requirement that Afghanistan not serve as a haven for terrorists” and that “[t]he two sides continue to disagree on procedural aspects of the negotiations.”

Conclusions

The February 2020 Doha agreement between the US and the Taleban was a typical expression of former President Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, an extreme version of self-interested policy at the cost of the ‘objects’ of this policy, the population and government of Afghanistan. By signing it, the US gave up leverage over the Taleban, limiting itself to leverage over the Afghan government.

The agreement’s design played into the hands of the Taleban, sidelined the Afghan government, denying it a place in its own right at the negotiating table. It also encouraged the Taleban to maintain high military pressure on the government forces and gave them extra leverage over the delegation facing them in the (long-faltering) intra-Afghan talks in Doha. (There was the suggestion of the resumption of talks reported on 22 February but it remains to be seen whether it is genuine or just a Taleban move to influence the decision-making in Washington.) In the US, it had left behind a scorched political terrain for the Biden/Harris administration that now has a choice between distasteful options, harmful mainly to Afghans, which could result in escalating war and/or government collapse. If war escalates, a mutual blame game would start about who was responsible for the escalation and the potential unravelling of the peace process. Both Afghan parties have advantages: the government is still recognised by the entire international community, but the Taleban have enhanced their diplomatic standing. The reported accusations by the Russian envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov that the US was in breach, rather than the Taleban, might be a first taste of how this dispute could unfold. Also, the US giving in to the Taleban in multiple concessions during their negotiations, as well as later interpretations of the deal signalled to them that there might be room for more concessions.

A careful reading of the text as well as analysis of how the deal has affected the conflict confirms the concerns of many Afghans that the verifiable demands on the Taleban are weaker than what the Americans have suggested.  While the agreement laid out a concrete, phased timetable for one of the two main outcomes of the agreement, the US and allied troop pull-out, which can easily be verified and monitored, there are no comparable mechanisms for verifying Taleban obligations not to support or give space to al-Qaeda and similar jihadist-terrorist groups. Nor does the agreement hold clear obligations for the Taleban to reduce violence during the intra-Afghan negotiations. There are claims that there have been separate undertakings, either given verbally or included in what has been called two secret annexes, but this cannot be verified.

It would be surprising if these faults were just diplomatic blunders. It seems that the US – more precisely its chief negotiator in the name of the ex-president – was more focused on selling a deal at home than on paving the way for a peace process. (Others have argued that this was meant to provide flexibility to the US but backfired.) The US instrumentalised the overwhelming dependency of the Afghan government of US and other military and financial support and repeatedly confronted it with faits accomplis, such as in the prisoner release saga. This approach continues, as demonstrated by the current new discussion about an Afghan interim government.

Two major points of the agreement therefore have remained in the mist, which means that judgement over whether the Taleban have fulfilled these two – alleged – obligations is open for interpretation and political manipulation. While logic seems to indicate that the Taleban, as by far the largest armed opposition faction on the battlefield and, in contrast to all others, with a countrywide reach, is responsible for much of the latest violence, the ambiguity also opens the door for spoilers to make false or exaggerated accusations which in turn  push the Taleban into a more aggressive mood (already discernable in their most recent statements). In this tense atmosphere of accusations and denials, the US administration needs to make its own judgement about the extent to which the Taleban is upholding its side of the deal. It is easy to see how the coming weeks or months could lead to an unnecessary breakdown of negotiations before they have been seriously tried.

The Taleban, meanwhile, have skilfully stuck to their own, literal interpretation (and sometimes over-interpretation) of the agreement. If anyone expected otherwise, they have been blinded by illusions. More or less plausible deniability has long been an element studiously employed by the Taleban (and other parties to the conflict). Technically, it will be difficult for everyone except the US military and US Congress that have access to the secret annexes to prove that the Taleban have violated their commitments, or which actor is responsible for any attack.

With regard to the ‘Intra-Afghan Negotiations’, as they are officially called, it is remarkable that both parties chose not to have the word ‘peace’ in the title, even though these talks are designed to end the more than 40 year old war. This might be semantics only, but also a sign that on both parties’ actual agenda ‘peace’ does not seem to figure very prominently.

The only way to salvage this peace process – which is unfavourable to Afghans, but with no visible alternative to an ever harder war – would be fast and solid diplomacy, using the remaining small levers of the Taleban prisoners still held, the movement’s desire to get off the various sanctions lists – and the promise of aid once a functioning new government exists. The “Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” signed simultaneously to the Doha deal includes an obligation, vis-à-vis the Afghan government, to review the implementation of the agreement. In those negotiations, the Afghan ‘republicans’ and the international donor community could throw their weight behind trying to keep potential damage to Afghans’ rights and freedoms caused by required compromises to a minimum. It has already supported the Afghan government in its demand for an immediate ceasefire. Also pushing for genuine public and civil society participation in the negotiations might put pressure on both sides for a peace process. So far, neither side is being held to account by their constituencies because levels of fear are so high.

A key question now will be whether the Biden/Harris administration will follow the Trump/Khalilzad approach of delinking the troop pull-out from the peace talks.

Edited by Rachel Reid

References

1 Also AAN did, see this recent Q&A with former UN and EU special envoy to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell. This author disagrees, as peace processes are also always about power. So, peace, or the end to a war, at least, has been only one aim in peace processes from Colombia to El Salvador and East Timor as covered in the above-mentioned Q&A.
2 While in many parts of the country, the fighting remains intense, there has been a one year respite for Afghan cities from car bombs and complex attacks, though targeted killings in cities has increased. A new UNAMA report covers this development and a new AAN report is forthcoming next month. There has also been a reduction of ground and air attacks by Afghan government forces. If the Taleban react violently to what they see as the US reneging on the deal, large-scale attacks in urban areas could be resumed, with the risk of major cities falling to the Taleban. After the US review of the Doha deal was announced, the Taleban made this clear by threatening that it would lead to a “major war” and emphasising they had refrained, for the sake of the talks, from carrying out their usual annual offensive.
3 The IRoA delegation is diverse and divided. They include representatives of the government of President Ghani, including some with a civil society background, and of various of his main political opponents who had supported the unsuccessful presidential run of Dr Abdullah against Ghani in 2019. Dr Abdullah, although formally not part of the government, is now – at least theoretically – responsible for everything that has to do with the peace process as the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation. While jointly facing the Taleban, they continue to be bitter rivals on the domestic scene. For more detail, see this article by two AAN authors, Ali Yawar Adili and Thomas Ruttig for Italian policy institute ISPI.
4 This allegation had been widely reported, however only the “biggest hurdle” part ever came in direct quotes. Listening to the video of Stanakzai’s press conference, he said “the only reason [elat], or hurdle [band] currently standing in the way of peace is the Ghani administration [edara], which doesn’t want it [peace]… However, he does not appear to argue that the Taleban demand Ghani’s resignation as a precondition for a peace deal or a ceasefire (which for them is the same as they see the ceasefire as the last topic on the Doha agenda.) What Stanakzai said is that, in his view, the formation of a “new Islamic government” as a result of the Doha talks and as stipulated in the US-Taleban deal “means that the Ghani administration ends.” He further said, answering a question, “if Ghani today stopped the war and said ‘I step down’, and sacrifices himself for a new government and for peace, we will negotiate with the new government.” When asked again whether that meant a ceasefire was “conditional on Ghani stepping down,” he answered “No. … [ceasefire] is on the agenda [together with] the future order [nezam], constitution, women rights, human rights and a hundred other issues… When we get there, we will try to reach an agreement about it.” He also criticised Ghani for having stated he insisted on serving his full five-year term (see also this Afghan media report). Andrej Serenko, special correspondent of the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta who follows Afghanistan closely, told AAN that the alleged quote had first been published by the Russian newspaper Kommersant (close to the foreign ministry in Moscow), the website Afghanistan.ru (Афганистан.Ру) which is believed to be close to Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov and Central Asian media while the original Russian news agency reports on the meeting, primarily by government-owned TASS, had no quotes of Stanakzai demanding Ghani’s resignation.
5 Here a transcript of this part of the interview, from 1’55”, after having been asked whether he would step aside early if a peace deal was reached: 

Ghani: “I have one criteria – holding of elections.”

Q: “Early elections?” 

“Elections. The Republic is a system that runs by the will of the people. The source of legitimacy of the next government has to be absolutely clear. It has to be the will of people of Afghanistan.”

Q: “Does that have to come at the end of your 5 year tenure?”

“No.“

Q: “So it could be earlier, if the right conditions are in place?”

“This is a premature discussion“…

Q: “So just to be clear, Sir. Your 5 year tenure matters less than peace?”

“Absolutely. Because… I’m not interested in power.”

6 The Taleban are not consistent in their language about it. On their official website, the usually avoid the term “peace agreement” or “peace treaty”: see this transcript of a December 2020 speech by Mullah Baradar or his 16 February 2021 “Open letter to the people of the United States of America.“ In contrast, the deputy head of their Doha negotiation team, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai, called the Doha deal a “peace agreement or peace treaty” at his 29 January 2021 press conference in Moscow.
7 For more on negotiation theories and how they play into the Afghan context, see this recent AAN Q&A and also this 2010 AAN paper).
8 In 2019, Trump publicly mused about a ‘nuclear option’ to end the war when he was quoted as saying “I don’t want to kill 10 million people… I have plans on Afghanistan that if I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the earth, it would be gone, it would be over in literally 10 days.”
9 There were even more belligerent statements, such as by National Security Advisor Hamdullah Moheb who announced in June 2019 that the Afghan armed forces would “break the Taliban’s backbone in four months.”
10 The most recent Quarterly Report of the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR, p59) gives 186,899 Ministry of Defence personnel and 118,122 Ministry of Interior Personnel (MoI) (both excluding civilian personnel). This includes an increase of nearly 15,000 MoI personnel “as a result of the dissolution of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) and the transfer of some of its personnel to the rolls of other MOI elements.” There are also plans to transition “up to 10,851 ALP members” into the ANA-TF, the Afghan army’s “lightly armed local security force” (p65). For more on the ALP and ANA-TF see this AAN special report and this recent New York Times report.
11 The Afghan government has classified the numbers of their casualties (see this SIGAR report, p48). Former UNAMA officer and ICG analyst Graeme Smith recommended the following sources to measure them in his blog

The two best monitors are the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), which recorded violent conflicts since the 1970s, and the newer Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) database. Uppsala takes a more conservative approach, estimating approximately 30,000 battle deaths in 2019, while ACLED looks at a more expansive set of inputs and noted more than 40,000 battle deaths during the same period. These are rough estimates based on public reports, and some analysts doubt their usefulness. Still, early numbers for 2020 from ACLED suggest that thousands fewer people are dying on the battlefields this year.

12 According to the SIGAR report (p67), this is part of the Resolute Support Mission-driven Checkpoint Reduction and Base Development Plan (CPRBD) that, however, foresees “an orderly reduction or elimination of the most vulnerable (minimally manned or unsupportable) checkpoints [over 10,000 nationwide that bind some 95,000 soldiers and policemen], as well as to consolidate personnel into patrol bases (the new standard fighting structures for the ANA).” The mentioned 200 checkpoints in Kandahar, however, were “abandoned to the Taliban,” with the result of “government weapons and ammunition fall[ing] in Taliban hands.”
13 There were earlier examples when apparent changes in the US policy boosted confidence in Kabul, for example, when President Trump cancelled the deal with the Taleban in September 2019, President Ghani retracted his offer of unconditional negotiations, including wide-ranging constitutional ‘reform’. Trump’s step, however, turned out to be temporarily only (AAN analysis here and here).
14 Donor governments have also made it clear before and during the recent Geneva conference that they are concerned about stagnating or superficial anti-corruption efforts by the Afghan government (AAN analysis here and here, see also the anticorruption chapter in the most recent SIGAR report, p101). On 12 February 2021, the US Embassy in Kabul renewed its concerns about corruption in the government’s anti-Covid19 campaign (media report here). Corruption, which includes clinging to power, is an important factor standing in the way of the government being fully ready to compromise about power for the sake of a peace agreement in Doha.
15 This had already been reported in December 2020, before the last reduction of US troops.
16 There are also contractors deployed elsewhere, elements of which can be assumed to fly in and out of Afghanistan.
17 The recent UNAMA torture report which covers the period from January 2019 to March 2020 (ie shortly after the US-Taleban deal) also mentioned that the prisoners interviewed for it also mentioned “8 instances of detention” by United States Forces in Afghanistan. It can be assumed that US forces, while still involved in combat over that period, were occasionally detaining individuals over the short-term for questioning or before handing over to Afghan authorities. There is no evidence for anything beyond that. There are also still two Afghans held in Guantánamo, Asadullah Haroon Gul (called Haroon al-Afghani in the documents there) and Mohammed Rahim (called Rahim al-Afghani). According to a forthcoming AAN report, the Taleban have displayed no interest in non-Taleban detainees at Guantanamo. When the movement had the bargaining chip of captured US serviceman Bowe Bergdahl in its hands, its only efforts were made to get Taleban members freed, negotiating a prisoner swap of five Taleban for Bergdahl. The source for a recent article claiming the Taleban had demanded the release of the two men in negotiations in Doha was weak – an advocate of Guantanamo detainees’ liberty, rather than a member of the Taleban.
18 Hamza ben Laden was still reported alive in January 2018.
19 This includes numerous reports about alleged Chechen fighters active in Afghanistan, proven to be inaccurate by this AAN analysis. AAN when checking reports on ‘Arab’ or ‘foreign’ fighters in Afghanistan often found that local authorities who had reported such incidents were unable to explain how they came to know the fighters’ origin, variously referring to their “different appearance” or “clothes” or the fact that they did not speak. Also worth recalling is the report about two al-Qaeda training camps in Kandahar’s Shorabak district in October 2015, one of them allegedly so big that “it covered almost 30 square miles,” destroyed in “one of the largest joint ground-assault operations we have ever conducted in Afghanistan,” but which has apparently never been independently verified. Based on press releases only, the operation was reported as “an indication that al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan is far more significant than US officials have claimed in the past.“ It is astonishing that despite the US military having a base in the same district (see photo here) it did not notice its establishment and, after attacking it, did not then take journalists to this apparently extraordinary site to witness its apparent destruction. 

More recently, the reported killing in Faryab province of Aziz Yuldash, the leader of some remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan claimed by the Afghan Ministry of Defence (MoD) in November 2020 could also have been misrepresented. While the MoD stated he had “been involved in terrorist attacks and killings of Afghans in the northern provinces,” an experienced analyst in the country said he had information indicating the Taleban had killed Yuldash. He told AAN Yuldash was killed in a drive-by shooting, had been disarmed before, was unhappy about the “treatment of foreign fighters” by the Taleban and was planning to leave the country.

20 The earlier estimates contradict the allegation of Asfandyar Mir and Colin P Clarke writing in Foreign Affairs in September 2020 “[b]y portraying al Qaeda as more of a nuisance than a threat, Pompeo helped President Donald Trump’s administration make the case for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan and making peace with the Taliban.” Pompeo’s estimate was twice as high as the previous ones. Also note the difference between “members” (al-Qaeda) and “fighters” (with KIB and IJG). AAN had repeatedly been told that former Arab (al-Qaeda and non-al-Qaeda) fighters often live with their families (many have married Afghan women), and that sometimes women join the fighting. Sometimes, local officials have included family members in their figures of foreign fighters.
21 According to this report, AQIS “incorporated elements from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Harakat-ul-Muhajideen, Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and Brigade 313, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the Indian Mujahideen (a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Turkistan Islamic Party, Junood al Fida, and other groups.” It is known that individual members or groups switch from one outfit to the other (for example between the various Pakistani Taleban splinter groups), and it is possible that there are overlaps and joint operations but is not clear whether this are occasional or regular appearances. It does not mean that all those groups are pulling together. Afghan and Pakistan Taleban differ immensely even though the latter emerged from a Pakistani support structure for the former during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, while the latter are now fighting to topple the Pakistani government while the former depend on the Pakistani military-intelligence complex for support. Also the anti-Shia sectarian Pakistani groups Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi as well as the Baloch Junood al Fida have their own agendas.

How much of the US-Taleban Doha agreement has been implemented?
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The Blob circles the wagons around failing Afghanistan strategy

Daniel Larison
Quincy Institute

FEBRUARY 23, 2021

Nothing alarms hawks in the foreign policy establishment more than the prospect of an end to U.S. involvement in a foreign war.

U.S. wars can drag on for years or decades without any protest from hawkish pundits and former officials, but the moment that U.S. troops might be brought out of a war zone they swing into action to denounce the “retreat.” We saw this in the collective bipartisan panic over the possibility of withdrawal from Syria in 2018 and 2019, and we are seeing it again as part of a concerted effort to delay the withdrawal of the last 2,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1.

The opinion editors at The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal may not agree on much, but they are both determined to oppose bringing forces out of Afghanistan as our war there approaches its 20th anniversary, raising the specter of “withdrawing irresponsibly.” Meanwhile conservative establishmentarians like Washington Post columnist Max Boot, and his cohort on the center-left side of the dial, David Ignatius, as well as Madeleine Albright, make common cause for keeping troops in Afghanistan as Biden’s “best option.” Today’s “stay” advocates, which include Republicans like Lindsey Graham making the media rounds, may all be coming from different plot points on the Washington political grid, but keeping the United States committed to a desultory, unwinnable conflict unites them. Their messages are circulated and amplified by social media and establishment friendlies, and among big cable news outlets. Thus, a consensus is born.

There is perhaps no better illustration of the groupthink and reflexive hawkishness of the so-called foreign policy Blob in the U.S. than the intense resistance from political and media elites to the possibility of ending our longest war. But as they are on so many other issues, the Blob is wrong about Afghanistan, and Biden would be wise to ignore their recommendations.

The president should honor the agreement made by his predecessor and withdraw the remaining troops by the start of May. Refusing to do this would expose U.S. forces to renewed attacks, and would do nothing to change the course of the war or make an eventual Taliban victory less likely. The United States has already demonstrated that it cannot win in Afghanistan when it has more than 100,000 troops in the country. Keeping a few thousand troops there in violation of the agreement that the U.S. has made will at best delay the inevitable, and it puts their lives at risk for no good reason.

It is taken as a given that Biden has “no good options” in Afghanistan, but there are clearly some that are worse than others. Keeping U.S. troop numbers at their current level past the deadline would be the wrong choice. Choosing to send more troops back in (a total of 4,500) as the Afghanistan Study Group recommends, would be the worst by far. It would not only invite new attacks on U.S. forces, but it would represent a useless escalation of U.S. involvement that is not sustainable. As Adam Weinstein has stressed on these pages, the least bad option under the circumstances is to stick to the agreement that has been made and pull out the remaining troops on time because the Taliban is unlikely to agree to an extension and unilaterally breaking the agreement would invite fresh attacks.

NATO has several thousand troops in the country and the U.S. should coordinate its withdrawal with them, but Washington’s decision should not be contingent on allied approval.

Opponents of withdrawal warn that Afghanistan will suffer from civil war if U.S. forces leave, as if the country hadn’t already been wracked by civil war for the last forty years. If the Taliban are in a position to win after almost 20 years of U.S. intervention, that is the clearest proof of all that the war is draining lives and resources, and cannot be won. Rather than continue this losing strategy, it is time the United States accept that we have lost and come home. It is commonplace for opponents of withdrawal to condemn it as “reckless,” as if continuing a policy that has resulted in a sharp spike in civilian casualties from airstrikes in the last few years should be considered responsible.

When he was vice president, Biden was one of the few Obama administration officials to oppose the “surge” of troops in 2009. Subsequent events have fully vindicated Biden’s skepticism about that policy, which was based on an exaggerated belief in the success of the Iraq “surge” and misplaced faith in the efficacy of counterinsurgency as a way to win the war. More than 10 years after the Obama Administration sent 17,000 more troops into Afghanistan we can see that the U.S. cannot prevail militarily at an acceptable cost, and the public has no appetite for prolonging a war that has been going twice as long as the war in Vietnam.

Hawks argue that Afghanistan will once again become a base for terrorist groups if the Taliban prevail. While this is a possibility, the risk is exaggerated and it doesn’t follow that U.S. withdrawal is a mistake. We should be reassessing the assumptions that have undergirded the war there for all these years. The “safe haven” myth has persisted even though it has been debunked thoroughly many times. The war in Afghanistan has long been justified in terms of protecting the United States from future attacks, but the truth is we do not know whether the threat to the U.S. homeland will actually decrease once we are no longer operating there, stationed and conducting and/or assisting deadly airstrikes — operations which dramatically increased under the Trump administration.

Supporters of continued U.S. involvement in Afghanistan insist that any withdrawal be “conditions-based,” but this amounts to saying that there should be a permanent American military presence and open-ended mission in Afghanistan. Judging from the experience of the last 20 years, there will never be a time when conditions are good enough to meet the Blob’s standard, and there will always be some instability or violence that can be cited as a pretext for staying. If the Afghan military and government are incapable of resisting the Taliban now after the extensive training and the enormous amount of equipment that the U.S. has provided, that confirms that they never will be ready.

Hawks always denounce every withdrawal as “reckless,” but prolonging U.S. involvement in a war that really has nothing to do with our security is the most irresponsible thing that our government could do with the lives of American soldiers. Our leaders need to heed the wishes of the public to end our involvement and acknowledge that we lost our longest war a long time ago.

The Blob circles the wagons around failing Afghanistan strategy
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In Afghanistan, exit is only ‘responsible’ option

In Afghanistan, exit is only 'responsible' option
© Getty Images

Pentagon officials recently questioned whether they would follow through on America’s commitment to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan by the May deadline set by the recent U.S.-Taliban agreement.

A week later, a bipartisan group of experts urged President Biden to postpone the exit. But failure to stay the course on withdrawal would be a dangerous mistake in terms of politics and policy. In negotiating an agreement to end this long and futile war, the Trump administration handed Biden a gift. It laid the groundwork for the Biden administration to do something both popular and wise.

You might think issues of war and peace ought to rise above cynical political calculations. But in a democracy, politics and policy are inseparable. In fact, this aimless war persists largely due to politics. No president wants to be the one castigated by critical cable news channels or historians for the Taliban’s resurgence (it’s already resurged) or for abandoning Afghanistan in the midst of a civil war (it had been in the middle of a civil war when the U.S. first invaded).

The Biden administration’s internal polling may well tell them what a survey by my organization shows — that six times as many Americans support the U.S.-Taliban agreement as oppose it, and support for staying in Afghanistan has plunged in the past year. But the top policymakers also know that, confronted by the economic and health consequences of a pandemic, most Americans simply aren’t paying too much attention. The human costs of the war are shouldered by the small sliver of the population in uniform and the financial costs are kicked to the next generation via the national debt. The war in Afghanistan has become as obscure as it is unpopular.

The decision to keep soldiers in Afghanistan would, in fact, be the cynical one. Without a path to victory, the U.S. continues to prop up an hapless regime and funnel billions of taxpayer dollars to Afghan security forces which deceive and coerce the poorest Afghans to fight the Taliban in dangerous, frontline militias. A Pentagon spokesman claimed the administration is “committed to ending this war, but … in a responsible way.” But when prosecuting a war ignores America’s interests and undermines its values, there is no responsible way to stay.

When President Obama withdrew troops from Iraq in 2011, the public had soured on the war and no clear military mission remained. And just as the Trump-era Doha agreement gives Biden political cover to exit Afghanistan, a Bush-era Status of Forces agreement which dictated the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq gave Obama political cover as well. In both cases, the public supported ending a war. But in a hyper partisan political climate, such a decision invariably carries political risk. One savvy way to neutralize that risk is to show how a predecessor from the opposing political party paved the path for withdrawal, taking credit for finally ending the war and deflecting blame for any messy consequences — all while embarking on the right policy. This is one political move Biden can learn from Obama.

Given Biden’s deeper experience in foreign affairs, there’s one trap which ensnared Obama that Biden might avoid. Obama’s top military and civilian advisers convinced him during the first year of his presidency to surge an additional 30,000 troops in Afghanistan. This proved to be a vain misadventure. According to a military official privy to the administration’s discussions, as vice president, Biden fought the surge “tooth and nail.” By one account, he “would go on long discourses about why it was foolish to think we could do anything more than kill terrorists in Afghanistan.” Now, as Biden weighs the option of maintaining a limited counterterrorism mission, he will feel pressure from the same stubborn mindset of military leaders and the detached idealism of the foreign policy establishment still in thrall to pipe dreams of transforming Afghanistan into a stable democracy. The recent Afghanistan Study Group report which recommends a continued U.S. military presence explicitly seeks to “honor the sacrifices that have been made” by American servicemembers. But when nearly three-quarters of veterans support a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan, staying the course hardly respects them, let alone honors their sacrifices.

The U.S. military is defending nothing worthy of its protection in Afghanistan — neither the corrupt Afghan government nor the sunk costs of U.S. involvement merit a continued troop presence. The war in Afghanistan is a dangerous distraction from more urgent international issues. Just as Obama’s continuation of the Afghan war (and unwise intervention in Libya) distracted him from the challenges posed by China’s rising influence, Biden risks losing focus on the effort to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and reimagine America’s alliances to address today’s global challenges.

More than anything, America’s adversaries and allies both need to know the U.S. stands by its word. Biden has rightly criticized Trump for tearing apart the Iran nuclear deal. But how will Iran trust the U.S. at the negotiating table if Biden proves just as willing to walk back U.S. commitments as Trump? With the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the Trump administration handed Biden a legacy-defining opportunity to end the longest war in American history. The president should think long and hard before squandering it.

Mark Hannah, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation and host of its None Of The Above podcast. 

In Afghanistan, exit is only ‘responsible’ option
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Civilian Casualties Worsened as Intra-Afghan Talks Began

Kate Clark

Afghanistan Analysts Network

 

A boy, displaced by the fighting, stands outside his temporary mud house at a refugee camp in Kabul. Photo Wakil Kohsar/AFP, November 2020

UNAMA’s 2020 report into the Protection of Civilians can be read here, as can all previous reports. AAN’s analysis of civilian casualties from 2009 to 2019 were collected together in: “Thematic Dossier XXIV: Ten years of reporting on civilian casualties, still no ceasefire”. More recent reporting is noted in the text. 
The statistics: 2020 compared to 2019

  • 8,820 civilian casualties (3,035 deaths and 5,785 injured), representing an decrease of 15 per cent;
  • 1,146 women casualties (390 deaths and 756 injured), a five per cent decrease from 2019, although an increase of 13 per cent in deaths;
  • 2,619 child casualties (760 deaths and 1,859 injured), representing a decrease of 28 per cent.

Since UNAMA began systematically recording civilian casualties in 2009, it has documented 110,893 civilian casualties, of which 35,559 civilians were killed and 72,334 injured.

How civilians were killed and injured

Table 1: How civilians were killed and injured in order of magnitude. Data source: UNAMA

Who was responsible for civilian casualties

Insurgents, including the Taleban, Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP, also known as Daesh), and other Afghan and foreign insurgent groups, caused 62 per cent of all civilian casualties in 2020, in total 5,459 (1,885 killed and 3,574 injured), representing a 15 per cent decrease compared to 2019.

Pro-government forces, including the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), international forces (only the US has a declared combat mission in Afghanistan with military forces and CIA present), and pro-government armed groups, were responsible for 25 per cent of all civilian casualties, in total 2,231 (1,906 killed and 1,232 injured). This was a 24 decrease in civilian casualties compared to 2019.

Table 2: Who was responsible for killing and injuring civilians in 2020 Data source: UNAMA

Analysis

A year ago, Afghans were enjoying a 10-day ‘reduction in violence’, ahead of the Taleban and United States signing their agreement in Doha on 29 February 2020. There were hopes the agreement could usher in a more peaceful Afghanistan (see AAN reporting on the deal and responses to it. While there was an overall reduction in the numbers killed and injured in 2020, the new UNAMA report maps out just how much the violence has morphed and ultimately increased in response to the agreement and the subsequent intra-Afghan talks. Many of the new dynamics seen in the conflict in 2020 can be traced back to what was agreed in Doha a year ago.

That agreement bound the US and Taleban not to attack each other, but left the Taleban free to attack government forces. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) assumed, for several months an ‘active defensive’ posture, that is only responding if attacked, before returning to ‘business as usual’, especially in the autumn. The Taleban, by contrast, from the day after the agreement was signed asserted their ‘right’ to attack government forces and (civilian) officials (see quotes in this AAN report from March 2020). This was in contradiction to US assertions that the insurgent group had agreed verbally to maintain the reduction of violence. The Taleban said it had voluntarily decided on some restrictions, including not attacking major population centres.

Throughout the year, the movement appeared to calibrate their military efforts, ramping up violence, gradually and in ways calculated to see what they could do without attracting the US military – and, in particular, US air strikes – back into the war. By the end of the year, they had launched major offensives in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, displacing thousands of families.

The other major dynamic still affecting the conflict was the weakening of ISKP after the onslaught on its territorial bases in Nangrahar by US and Afghan government forces and the Taleban in recent years.

The consequences of the US-Taleban agreement are reflected throughout UNAMA’s report. The near removal of the US military from the battlefield from 1 March onwards meant almost no civilian casualties resulting from US air strikes following the agreement and the disappearance of a whole section of the annual reporting normally given over to the deaths and injuries caused in search operations by the CIA-supported NDS Special Forces and Khost Protection Force and Shahin Force, and to the detailing of those groups’ practice of carrying out summary executions, torture and the destruction of civilian property. [1] These groups did begin to restart their activities towards the end of the year (more on which later). There were also far fewer casualties resulting from suicide and complex attacks, mainly as the Taleban refrained from launching these and partly because of the weakening of the ISKP. [2]

Together these three factors – fewer US airstrikes, fewer operations by CIA-proxies and fewer mass-casualty suicide and complex attacks – as well as three periods when violence was reduced (the ten-day Reduction in Violence in February and ceasefires over the two Eids) brought the overall number of civilians killed and injured in the Afghan conflict in 2020 down. That 15 per cent drop should be relatively good news. However, other dynamics in the conflict are far less hopeful. 2020 saw the usual, albeit unannounced, Taleban ‘spring offensive’, restraint by the ANSF (not popular in the ranks) and then the sharp rise in violence in the last quarter of the year, especially by the Taleban, but also by government forces. UNAMA has never seen this pattern in all its 12 years of systematically documenting civilian casualties. Typically, fighting falls off in the late autumn and winter months. Instead, in 2020, the violence intensified. Compared to the last quarter of 2019, there was a 45 per cent increase in civilian casualties in October to December 2020. As UNAMA has noted, this was just after intra-Afghan talks in Doha got underway (on 12 September).

From UNAMA’s “Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Annual Report 2020”

Two insurgent tactics were responsible for the bulk of the fourth-quarter increase – IEDs and targeted killings. The figures are stark. There was a 69 per cent increase in civilian casualties from IEDs and a 62 per cent increase in civilian casualties from targeted killings in the last quarter of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. October was the bloodiest month of the year in 2020. November was the worst November since UNAMA began its systematic recording in 2009. There were 2,792 civilian casualties (891 killed and 1,901 injured) in October-December 2020 compared to 1,931 (726 killed and 1,205 injured) in the same period in 2019.

Also significant was who was targeted in the killings seen at the end of 2020 (and continuing into 2021): healthcare workers, judges and lawyers, civil society activists, NGO workers, human rights defenders, journalists and civilians working in the government. Also killed as collateral damage were the civilian family members of police and army members who have also been heavily targeted both on and off-duty (one estimate from a security source in Kabul put the proportion of ANSF officers targeted in the capital in recent months as about two–thirds of the total of those killed in targeted killings).

There has been much discussion of who is responsible for these killings, given how few are claimed. Of those targeted killings included in its 2020 Protection of Civilians report, UNAMA attributed nearly two-thirds to the Taleban – 761 civilian casualties (459 killed and 302 injured) – a 22% per cent increase from 2019. [3] In general, the Taleban have been far more reluctant to claim attacks than in previous years. We tracked this in a report in August, “War in Afghanistan in 2020: Just as much violence, but no one wants to talk about it”, but UNAMA has now quantified this trend further. Civilian casualties from attacks claimed by the Taleban fell by 85 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019. At the same time, the number of civilian casualties which UNAMA attributed to the Taleban from incidents which were unclaimed rose by 16 per cent; in these incidents, 3,700 civilians were killed (1,426) and injured (2,274). Overall, there was a 158 per cent increase in casualties caused in insurgent attacks the authors of which UNAMA could not determine – 826 civilians killed (202) or injured (624).

The fourth-quarter upsurge in violence brought together several worrying dynamics: the dearth of claims and tactics which, in UNAMA’s words, “exacerbated the environment of fear and paralysed many parts of society.” The Taleban may have judged that picking off individuals, rather than launching large-scale mass casualty urban terrorist attacks would be less provocative to the Americans, while having a similar impact in cowing the population and undermining the government. Not claiming attacks also ensures the Taleban can deny culpability – as they did indeed do on 1 February 2021.

The timing in the fourth-quarter upsurge was also significant, after the Taleban had secured the freeing of 5,000 prisoners held by the government (as per the US-Taleban agreement) and the reduction in US troops, it put pressure on the civilian population even as the movement was supposedly starting negotiations to end the war. For an authoritarian movement like the Taleban, ‘watchdogs’ such as journalists and human rights defenders may appear a major threat. Silencing them may be aimed ultimately at ‘softening up’ the population, whether the Taleban are actually intent on negotiations or trying to win power through military victory.

The ground war continues

While the end of most direct US engagement in the conflict meant it caused far fewer civilian casualties, fighting between the Taleban and ANSF continued. Ground engagements were the tactic responsible for the most deaths and injuries in 2020 – for the first time since 2016. UNAMA castigates both the Taleban and the ANSF for using difficult-to-target indirect fire, including from artillery shells, mortars and rockets, in populated areas. That casualties caused by the Taleban in ground engagements decreased in 2020, UNAMA attributes only to the group causing particularly high levels of casualties last year in attacks related to the presidential election. Meanwhile, civilian casualties by the ANSF in ground engagements rose by 15 per cent this year, with a 27 per cent increase in those killed and injured by indirect fire. The majority of all civilian casualties caused by the ANSF were in ground engagements. September, October and November were the months with the highest number of civilian casualties attributed to the ANSF.

A dynamic which we reported in March 2020 and especially in October 2020 was also observed by UNAMA: the reckless response of the ANA to Taleban attacks:

Often, the Afghan National Army used indirect fire in populated residential areas, frequently in defence against Taliban attacks, repeatedly harming entire families when artillery shells or mortars landed on their home. As a result, seven out of 10 civilian casualties from the use of indirect fire by the ANA were women (22 per cent) and children (48 per cent).  

70 per cent of all civilian casualties attributed to the ANSF in ground engagements came from the ANA. They killed and injured 42 per cent more civilians than in any previous year documented. In contrast, fewer civilian casualties were caused by the ANP (down by 17%), ALP (disbanded from September onwards and causing 33% fewer civilian casualties) and NDS, including its special forces (down by 80%).

As with the ANA, the Afghan air force is also killing and injuring more civilians – twice as many civilians in 2020 as in 2019 – particularly in strikes on people’s homes. That meant that of the total number of civilians killed and injured by its air strikes, 45 per cent were children and 19 per cent were women.

Also beginning again in the fourth quarter were operations by NDS Special Forces, and two pro-government armed groups which also fall outside Afghan command, the Khost Protection Force and the Shahin Force, which operates in Paktia. Given their reported chain of command to the CIA, it was unsurprising that operations by these groups fell away after the Taleban-US government agreement. However, the Khost Protection Force and Shahin Force are again killing and injuring civilians, UNAMA reports. In the last three months of 2020, 12 civilians were killed in eight incidents, which included deliberate killings during search operations and ground engagements. They included the Khost Protection Force beating a civilian man up in front of his family and then taking him outside and shooting him dead in Khost Matun district of Khost province on 14 October.

Unlike 2019, however, in 2020, most civilian casualties from pro-government armed groups not allied to foreign forces, in particular those operating in the north and northeast. Pro-government forces in Balkh, Faryab, Kunduz, Helmand and Baghlan together caused half of all civilian casualties caused by such forces, mainly during ground engagements and through targeted killings.

UNAMA has also documented deliberate harm to civilians by members of the ANSF or pro-government armed groups. Often, it said, these happened after verbal dispute related to the refusal to pay bribes or carry out “illegitimate requests.” For example, on 5 September, a member of the ANP working at a security checkpoint in Qalat district, Zabul province, shot and killed a civilian man who refused to pay money to pass the checkpoint. UNAMA also documented cases of civilians killed by the ALP and pro-government armed groups because of perceived links to the Taleban or to rival pro-government armed groups. On 4 February, for example, an explosion in a pharmacy in Argo district, Badakhshan province, killed the owner and injured another civilian; allegedly the pharmacy was targeted because of a dispute with the owner’s father, the commander of a rival pro-government armed group.

Attacks on healthcare and education

As AAN has previously documented, the parties to the various phases of the conflict since 1978 have generally respected health professionals and recognised that targeting them is self-defeating – because their fighters or soldiers or the civilians they claim to represent also need treatment. Yet, 2020 saw a 20 per cent rise in attacks on healthcare staff and facilities, causing extra strain on top of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Incidents included both direct attacks and threats against healthcare facilities and personnel, and indiscriminate attacks resulting in civilian casualties and damage. Eight health personnel were killed in 2020, 11 were injured and 36 abducted. UNAMA attributed 73 of the 90 incidents to insurgents, including 71 incidents to the Taleban. The majority of such incidents occurred in the eastern (22), northern (18) and southeastern (14) regions. UNAMA gives several examples, including the Taleban planting IEDs outside a health centre in Daikundi treating women – because they were unhappy with non-Muslims funding the care, and an IED attack inside a pharmacy after the pharmacist refused to pay money; eight civilians, including a child and a doctor were killed. Health-care centres in Paktia province in February 2020 after the NGO running them refused Taleban demands to provide ambulances and supplies and to hire Taleban members as clinic staff. A similar refusal by the provincial health department in Badakhshan led to the Taleban forcing the closure of 17 health centres in the province. The worst single attack was, of course, the still unclaimed mass shooting of women and workers in a maternity ward in a hospital in Dasht-e Barchi in Kabul on 12 May;, the armed men entering the hospital killed 23 civilians and 23 injured, including women in labour and those who had just given birth in an apparent sectarian assault on Shia Muslims.

Attacks on teachers and schools and madrassas, while fewer than in 2019, were still all too many: three education staff were killed and five wounded, along with 30 students were killed and 53 wounded. Most of the incidents were in the east (16), northeaster (14) and northern (10) regions.  UNAMA attributed 22 of the incidents to insurgents, including 17 direct attacks by the Taleban and 20 to pro-government forces, all but two collateral damage. An example was the Afghan air force’s 21 October airstrike against a madrassa in Hazara Qarluq village in Takhar; nine children, five boys and four girls, aged between five and nine years old were killed and 16 injured, along with the mullah.

Conclusion

“After the February ‘reduction in violence week’ provided further evidence that the best protection for civilians is to stop the fighting,” UNAMA has written, “civilian harm began to rise again in March.” The US-Taleban agreement and the launch of an Afghan ‘peace process’ has had an impact on the conflict, but not to cool it down. It has taken the US military out of the conflict, but the Taleban response to the near-exit of its most dangerous military enemy has been to ramp up the violence. This also, eventually, brought a counter-response from the ANSF. The upward curve of violence since the US and Taleban signed their agreement a year ago has been fairly relentless and the surge in violence at the end of 2020 – now continuing into 2021 – a grievous blow to hopes Afghans might have had for peace.

Edited by Rachel Reid

References

1 One of UNAMA’s recommendations is:

Bring the National Directorate Special Forces, which appear to fall outside of the official Governmental chain of command and to be coordinated with foreign actors, under full control of the National Directorate of Security; immediately disband and disarm all pro-Government armed groups, including the Khost Protection Force and Shaheen Forces, or formally incorporate their members into the Afghan national security forces following a robust vetting procedure.

2 For the second year in a row, ISKP killed and injured fewer civilians than the previous year. Even so, the havoc it wreaked was still horrifying: more than 95 per cent of civilian casualties caused by ISKP in 2020 were in mass incidents in the cities of Kabul and Jalalabad and a suicide attack in Kuz Kunar district of Nangrahar province. Also, more than 80 per cent of casualties were in attacks deliberately targeting civilians, including students, Shia Muslims and Sikhs.
3 UNAMA notes that it has likely underestimated the number of conflict-related targeted killings because, in many instances, it could not attribute an attack to a party to the conflict and therefore could not establish a conflict nexus (connection). For this reason it issued a separate special report on 15 February, detailing all targeted killings of human rights defenders, journalists and media workers.

 

Civilian Casualties Worsened as Intra-Afghan Talks Began
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