Our secret Taliban air force

Wesley Morgan

The Washington Post

22 October 2020

Wesley Morgan has reported on the U.S. military and its wars since 2007. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley.”

Inside the clandestine U.S. campaign to help our longtime enemy defeat ISIS

Tyler Comrie photo illustration for The Washington Post; Getty Images, iStock

What Frye didn’t know was that U.S. Special Operations forces were preparing to intervene in the fighting in Konar province in eastern Afghanistan — not by attacking both sides, but by using strikes from drones and other aircraft to help the Taliban. “What we’re doing with the strikes against ISIS is helping the Taliban move,” a member of the elite Joint Special Operations Command counterterrorism task force based at Bagram air base explained to me earlier this year, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the assistance was secret. The air power would give them an advantage by keeping the enemy pinned down.

Last fall and winter, as the JSOC task force was conducting the strikes, the Trump administration’s public line was that it was hammering the Taliban “harder than they have ever been hit before,” as the president put it — trying to force the group back to the negotiating table in Doha, Qatar, after President Trump put peace talks there on hold and canceled a secretly planned summit with Taliban leaders at Camp David. Administration officials signaled that they didn’t like or trust the Taliban and that, until it made more concessions, it could expect only blistering bombardment.

In reality, even as its warplanes have struck the Taliban in other parts of Afghanistan, the U.S. military has been quietly helping the Taliban to weaken the Islamic State in its Konar stronghold and keep more of the country from falling into the hands of the group, which — unlike the Taliban — the United States views as an international terrorist organization with aspirations to strike America and Europe. Remarkably, it can do so without needing to communicate with the Taliban, by observing battle conditions and listening in on the group. Two members of the JSOC task force and another defense official described the assistance to me this year in interviews for a book about the war in Konar, all of them speaking on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk about it. (The U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan declined to comment for this story.)

Afghan elders in the Korengal Valley listen during a meeting with American and Afghan military officials in 2008. Most of the elders have strong family ties to local Taliban fighters. (John Moore/Getty Images)

With the Taliban fighting the Islamic State in Konar, a peace deal was always going to require at least tacit U.S.-Taliban cooperation against their mutual foe. In March, days after U.S. diplomats and Taliban representatives inked a withdrawal deal in Doha, Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top U.S. commander for Afghanistan and the Middle East, told the House Armed Services Committee that the Taliban had received “very limited support from us.” He declined to elaborate, and the form that support took has not been publicly revealed.

But inside JSOC, the team working on this mission is jokingly known as the “Taliban Air Force,” one task force member told me. As negotiators closed in on their deal in Doha, officers repurposed tools honed against the Taliban: Reaper drones and an intelligence complex with nearly two decades of practice spying on Afghan guerrillas. Unwilling to communicate directly with Taliban commanders, the task force worked to divine where and how its old foes needed help by listening to their communications.

By using such signals intelligence, members of the task force told me, they could tell when and where in the mountains the Taliban was preparing thrusts against the Islamic State, then plan airstrikes where they would be most useful. Taliban units on the ground appeared willing to take the help, waiting to assault Islamic State positions until they heard and saw the explosions of bombs and Hellfires. “It’s easy to capture the Taliban’s communications — a lot of it is just push-to-talk radio comms,” meaning walkie-talkies that anyone can listen in on, SAID Bill Ostlund, a retired Army colonel who led the JSOC task force in Afghanistan earlier in the war. “Why directly coordinate with them when you can do it that way?”

The Konar operations may offer a glimpse of what lies ahead for the United States in Afghanistan: the outsourcing of what has long been a core U.S. military mission — fighting the Islamic State and al-Qaeda — to the uneasily coordinated forces of the Afghan government and the Taliban, with U.S. counterterrorism forces in some cases helping both. Under the Doha agreement, the Trump administration hopes to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan next spring, but a CIA presence reportedly may remain. And if a new U.S. administration halts the military withdrawal, it will have to find ways to hunt the Islamic State and al-Qaeda with just the 4,500 uniformed troops the Pentagon has said will remain by November, or even fewer — a smaller force than the United States has had in the country since the early months of 2002.

The precursor to this strategy has been in place for years. Joseph Votel, a retired Army general who commanded JSOC, told me that during his 2016-2019 tenure heading Central Command, even before the U.S. military provided air support, it “deconflicted” with the Taliban — refraining from bombing Taliban units that seemed to be preparing for attacks against the Islamic State. “I can understand a certain distaste for doing it,” Votel said about the new approach. “But if you buy into the overall strategy of bringing the Afghan government and the Taliban into reconciliation while maintaining pressure on international terrorist groups, it’s the kind of thing that needs to happen.”

It’s not clear whether the government in Kabul — which was not a party to the Doha negotiations but is now in its own talks with the Taliban — is aware of the role U.S. airstrikes have played in Konar. (Afghan government officials declined to comment for this story.) But government troops have cooperated with the Taliban there, too, even as they fight bitterly in most other parts of the country. When U.S. soldiers visited the province in 2018 to support an Afghan military offensive against the Islamic State, Afghan troops would sometimes bring in tough-looking, heavily bearded locals from the battlefield for American medics to treat. It was clear, some of the U.S. advisers told me, that the men were Taliban fighters who were collaborating with government troops as guides and scouts, although Afghan officers wouldn’t say so explicitly since they knew that the United States considered the Taliban a hostile force. And during Afghanistan’s presidential elections in September 2019, Taliban fighters guarded some villages in Konar’s Pech Valley against the Islamic State, burning the houses of suspected members of the group and encouraging residents to vote.

American soldiers return to their base, Camp Restrepo, in Kunar Province’s Korengal Valley in 2009. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

The silent rapprochement with the Taliban puts the U.S. military in an odd spot. Even though the group is fighting the Islamic State, it remains allied with al-Qaeda, the enemy that brought U.S. troops to Afghanistan in the first place.

Yet Konar veterans I spoke with seemed realistic about the calculus, seeing this as necessary to keeping U.S. troops out of harm’s way. “I don’t think Americans should be on the ground in firefights with the Taliban, and we need somebody fighting ISIS, so I don’t see a problem with it. That doesn’t mean I want to break bread with them,” said Jason Dempsey, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who fought in Konar in 2009. “Emotionally it’s hard partly because we’ve spent nearly 20 years conflating al-Qaeda with the Taliban, but the Taliban didn’t strike the United States on 9/11.”

Votel, who spent time in Konar in 2007 and 2008, drew a comparison to the way U.S. forces handled Iranian-backed Shiite militias — including some that had previously fought against U.S. troops — during the campaign to push the Islamic State out of Iraq. “It’s not a whole lot different,” he said. The Shiite groups “were playing a role against a common enemy, and we tried not to do anything that might make ISIS’s job easier fighting them.”

Other veterans were less sure that the United States is backing the right horse. The Islamic State’s Afghan branch doesn’t appear to have plotted any attacks on the West, as its counterparts in Iraq and Syria have; the Taliban, meanwhile, has yet to break its long-standing relationship with al-Qaeda. “Just as an American taxpayer, are we more concerned about ISIS taking over Afghanistan, or the Taliban?” asked Loren Crowe, a two-time Konar veteran who was shot in the leg as an infantry company commander there.

What if the U.S. withdrawal plan has its calculus backward? The Doha agreement requires the Taliban to prevent terrorist groups from using its territory to plan international attacks, but not for the Taliban to break its ties with al-Qaeda — and last summer, a top Taliban spokesman refused to acknowledge that al-Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Although its numbers are always hazy, the U.S. military guessed last year that the Taliban hosts 300 al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan’s east and south, more than double its estimate a decade ago, when nearly 100,000 U.S. troops were in the country. And there’s no indication yet that the Taliban has any plans to break with its old ally after the U.S. withdrawal, which will take away most of the tools — like aerial surveillance and drone strikes — long used to keep a lid on al-Qaeda.

The Afghan branch of the Islamic State, meanwhile, appears to be composed mostly of local fighters from Konar and surrounding areas, not foreign terrorists. Some have joined for ideological reasons, but many others have done so because the organization offers high wages and the promise of advancement. “We’re not seeing foreign fighters up there. These are localized folks,” two-time Konar veteran Brig. Gen. Joe Ryan told me of the Islamic State last year in a book interview. “I’m not saying there aren’t worrying indicators, but I don’t believe that a transnational terrorist attack is going to emanate from Konar anytime soon.”

If it’s true that the Islamic State doesn’t pose much threat to the United States or its allies from Afghanistan, and that the Taliban can keep that group under control or even defeat it with a little help from the U.S. military on its way out, it’s a point in favor of the Trump administration’s withdrawal plan. But officials expect that al-Qaeda can be finished off in much the same way. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy who negotiated the withdrawal deal, told an audience in Washington last month that the remaining al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan are on the run. But if U.S. counterterrorism strikes can’t defeat them in the coming months, that could scuttle the pullout and force Washington to keep troops in the country after all. In which case, the JSOC task force would keep pursuing al-Qaeda and the Islamic State indefinitely, and weighing what to do about the Taliban day by day and valley by valley — using drone strikes in some provinces to aid the group against the Islamic State and in others to kill off the al-Qaeda operatives who are the Taliban’s allies.

As long as the soldiers, intelligence officers and contractors charged with America’s counterterrorism mission go looking for people to kill there, that is, they will keep on finding them. “There will always be dragons to slay up there,” Crowe said.

Our secret Taliban air force
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McMaster says Trump’s Taliban deal is Munich-like appeasement

Oct. 20, 2020
National security adviser H.R. McMaster at the White House in October 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s Afghanistan policy is confusing and unclear, even for his own officials. His top general and his national security adviser are publicly battling over U.S. troop withdrawals in the country. And now H.R. McMaster, a retired Army lieutenant general and former national security adviser, has publicly said that Trump’s Afghanistan policy is a “travesty,” and that his deal with the Taliban constitutes appeasement similar to Europe’s accommodation with Adolf Hitler in the Munich agreement of 1938.

McMaster, doing a publicity tour for his new book, sounded off about the Trump administration’s recent approach to Afghanistan during an online event hosted Thursday by the Alexander Hamilton Society, a nonprofit foreign policy network that operates on college campuses across the country. McMaster told the audience that, during his term as national security adviser, the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan had been on track to be sustainable and effective. But in making a deal with the Taliban, he said, Trump has now betrayed the mission and undermined U.S. security.

McMaster said that Trump repeated and then exceeded all of the flaws of the Obama administration’s approach to Afghanistan by seeking to bring the Taliban into the Afghan government and pressuring the Afghan government to go along. Trump, he said, apparently forgot that the Taliban are the enemy, and that they are intertwined with terrorist groups.

“War is a contest of wills. And we have to have the will ourselves to prevail,” McMaster said. “These are some of the most horrible people on earth. These are the enemies of all civilized people.”

Gabriel Scheinmann, executive director of the Alexander Hamilton Society, asked McMaster: “Is this our Munich agreement? Are we pursuing a policy of appeasement with Taliban?”

“Yes, yes, we are,” McMaster replied.

McMaster said that by pushing for an Afghan power-sharing agreement with the Taliban, the Trump administration was not only undermining its Afghan government partners but also undermining the moral and legal underpinning for U.S. intervention there. Trump’s strategy “renders the war unjust, because we no longer have defined a just end,” he said.

“It’s just a travesty,” said McMaster, predicting failure. “We will pay the price, and we’ll be back. We’ll have to go back, and at a much higher cost.”

McMaster’s comments came as the internal Trump administration battle over Afghanistan troop withdrawals spilled into public view last week. National security adviser Robert C. O’Brien and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley are sniping at each other in public, each claiming to understand the president’s policy better than the other.

It started Oct. 7, when O’Brien told a crowd at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, that the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan would go down from about 5,000 to 2,500 by early next year. Referring to the Trump administration’s push for the Afghan government and the Taliban to strike a deal, O’Brien said: “Ultimately, the Afghans themselves are going to have to work out an accord, a peace agreement.”

Just hours later, Trump tweeted that all U.S. troops “should” be out of Afghanistan by Christmas, a typically vague tweet that could be interpreted either as an opinion or an order by the commander in chief. Asked about the troop withdrawal issue by NPR on Oct. 11, Milley took a direct swipe at O’Brien.

“I think that Robert O’Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit,” Milley said. “I’m not going to engage in speculation. I’m going to engage in the rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and the plans that I am aware of and my conversations with the president.”

O’Brien hit back at Milley during an online event Friday hosted by the Aspen Strategy Group, repeating that Trump intends to draw down to 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan soon. “It has been suggested by some that that’s speculation. I can guarantee you, that’s the plan of the president the United States,” O’Brien said, pushing back on Milley’s claim that O’Brien didn’t speak for Trump. O’Brien also said that Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and the Defense Department are “fully on board” with implementing the withdrawal plan.|

Officials tell me that O’Brien is definitely closer than Milley to being able to speak to the president’s intentions. Trump has been angry at Milley since the general publicly apologized for his role in the clearing of Lafayette Square with chemical agents so that Trump could hold a Bible photo op there in June.

Esper, who has also been on thin ice with Trump since that incident, has been keeping a low profile, traveling overseas and avoiding the U.S. media.

McMaster is surely voicing the concerns of many of the senior military brass who have spent years fighting in Afghanistan and worry that Trump is squandering those gains. He has spoken out against his former boss very selectively. At the Hamilton Society event, he implicitly criticized his successor, John Bolton, by saying that the national security adviser shouldn’t publicly reveal dirt about the president, especially while that president is still in office.

“You’re in a position of trust,” he said. “And to violate that trust and confidence during that administration is a travesty, because how are future presidents going to trust their national security advisers?”

McMaster says Trump’s Taliban deal is Munich-like appeasement
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The Intra-Afghan Peace Talks: Warring parties negotiate, victims of war are excluded

Ehsan Qaane

Afghanistan Analysts Network

Facing the past. Mass grave on Kabul’s Tapa-ye shuhada-ye danayi (Martyrs of Knowledge Hill), a memorial for the 40 students killed in an attack on an education centre nearby in August 2018. The message on one of the placards reads: “Who is representing victims in peace negotiations?” Photo: Hadi Morawej/AHRDOViews on the ongoing peace talks

War victims’ groups in Afghanistan and human rights institutions have long supported the notion of a peace process based on the concept of inclusivity and justice. They argue that inclusion, which would improve prospects for a lasting peace, is an essential right of victims as well as an integral part of any peace talks. Ever since the United States made clear its sole focus was to withdraw through a ‘peace deal,’ and with the Afghan government and the Taleban now starting their own peace talks, calls for a victim-centred peace process have grown. So far, however, there’s little sign that the warring parties are listening.

On the opening day of the intra-Afghan talks, on 12 September, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) released a press statement welcoming the start of the talks, which it described as “a unique opportunity to end the war and suffering in the country.” The AIHRC called for “recognition of the expressed wishes of victims” to be “the heart of the deliberations.” (1) Two days later, on 14 September 2020, a symbolic gathering of around 100 survivors and relatives of victims of war was held, at a mass grave for 40 students killed in an attack on the Mawud education centre in Kabul in August 2018. The mass grave is named tapa-ye shuhada-ye danayi (Martyrs of Knowledge Hill) to honour the students who were massacred. The gathering was organised by the National Victims-Centred Peace Network, which released a resolution in which it described the peace talks as a “historic opportunity to achieve a just, victim-centred and sustainable peace” and encouraged the negotiating teams to take the best interests of the nation and victims’ demands into account at the negotiation table (see annex for the full text of the resolution). (2)

Victims’ rights activists have been at pains to remind participants in the peace talks that victims should be recognised as a significant constituency in Afghanistan. The Transitional Justice Coordination Group (TJCG), a coalition of 26 individuals and organisations including victims’ groups, argue that since victims form “one of the largest constituencies in the country,” the talks should reflect that. In a position paper released earlier this year, the group cited the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA)’s reporting which shows that more than 35,000 civilians have been killed and 66,000 wounded since they began to systematically collate civilian casualties in 2009.

Demands and expectations

The three organisations mentioned above, the National Victims-Centred Peace Network, the AIHRC and the TJCG, have all put forward position papers or recommendations about victims’ representation in the ongoing peace talks. With some differences in the detail, the positions taken by these entities are broadly alike. There are a range of overlapping mechanisms proposed, including direct testimony from victims to parties to the conflict (AIHRC and TJCG), a National Victims’ Consultative Jirga (AIHRC) and a committee representing victims who would be a formal part of the peace talks (Victims’ Network and TJCG).

a) AIHRC’s proposals

In June 2020 the AIHRC published a paper on the inclusion and rights of victims in the peace talks. The paper lays out four mechanisms, two of which relate to victims’ direct participation.

  • Victims’ testimonies: a group of victims “from across the country and of a variety of types of violence” should have the opportunity “to speak directly to the parties about their experience in the conflict.” These victims should be selected “through independent and impartial bodies agreed by the [warring] bodies.”
  • National Victims’ Consultative Jirga and Outreach: a consultative jirga would “discuss issues of victims, justice and reconciliation,” to respond to “initial outcomes” of the peace talks. The assembly should not have decision-making powers. Prior to the jirga the parties to the conflict should engage in outreach with victims, inviting online submissions and consultations, facilitated by civil society/social networks.

In addition to these two proposals, the AIHRC recommended two other means through which victims’ interests could be furthered, through wider civil society inputs, rather than victims per se. First would be a sub-committee which would consult regularly with both sides involved in the negotiations. Second, avenues for written proposals should be shared with the negotiating parties.

b) National Victims-Centred Peace Network’s proposals

The Victims’ Network called on the negotiating teams to create a formal mechanism to directly include victims in the talks in a 14 September resolution:

  • Joint Special Victims’ Committee: this should be created by both parties to the conflict as a key part of the negotiation process “to follow up on the basic demands of victims and their families.” The committee should establish and introduce a “well-defined mechanism of access and communication with victims.”
  • In addition, the Victims’ Network would establish a secretariat which would also communicate with negotiating teams on behalf of members of their network.

c) Transitional Justice Coordination Group’s proposals

TJCG’s paper provides case studies from other countries, including Colombia, to argue that in places where victims have directly participated in talks, a more durable peace has been established. Based on this argument, TJCG proposes the following mechanisms.

  • Representation in all peace institutions: this means victims should be included as members of the negotiating delegations and the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR).
  • Technical Committee: this should be established within the HCNR to provide advice to the victims’ representatives in the negotiating delegations.
  • Victims’ testimony: not dissimilar from the AIHRC proposal, the TJCG proposes that victims that have “substantive engagement” with “negotiating delegates and primary conflict actors.” The paper says that victims’ testimony can have a “transformative impact on peace negotiators and victims alike,” citing Columbia as an example where such a process changed views of both victims and conflict actors for those involved and the wider public.

Now that talks have started without these elements in place, some of these proposals may seem less likely to be taken on board. However, the talks are still at a preliminary stage, with many modalities yet to be finalised. Also, as will be discussed later, the government is still working out its own policy on victims’ inclusion.

New terms to bring victims back into the spotlight

Victims of war and other forms of conflict-related have been marginalised for many years as a political force in Afghanistan. In an attempt to re-boot their demands, there has been a noticeable shift in the language being used by victims’ advocates, with ‘victim-centred peace’ and ‘victim-centred justice’ replacing the term ‘transitional justice’ when talking about the inclusion of victims of war in the peace talks. Since 2001, transitional justice was the preferred term for tackling victims’ wishes and dealing with past atrocities, at least among victims’ groups, human rights activists and the media. But in the last two years, discussions among victims’ rights and human rights advocates have brought consensus on alternative terms for transitional justice (the author participated in some of these discussions).

There are two reasons for the shift. Firstly, ‘transitional justice’ – adalat-e enteqali or enteqali adalat in Persian and Pashto – as a term, is not widely understood. In English, its meaning is also not obvious per se, but its wide use means it has come to be understood. Usually, transitional justice is defined as a set of processes and mechanisms, including truth finding, reparations and criminal justice, which ensure there is justice during a transition from war to peace or from an authoritarian to a democratic government. In Dari and Pashto, the two official languages in Afghanistan, the exact translation of ‘transitional’ has given us adalat-e enteqali or enteqali adalat, but enteqal usually refers to a physical movement. Often Afghans assume it refers to physically moving justice from one place to another.

Secondly, the shift to new terms reflects a pragmatic distancing from the negative connotations that transitional justice has gained in Afghanistan. Opponents of transitional justice have deliberately attempted to identify it exclusively with criminal justice, with those who fear being accused as war criminals inciting their followers to stand against taking any action to do with dealing with past wrong after the transition to a post-Taleban administration in 2001.

An apparent conflict between peace and stability on the one hand and justice on the other has been posited as far back as the Bonn Conference in December 2001 with the argument that justice had to be sacrificed to stability. Important players at Bonn, particularly those representing the mujahedin factions, but also the US took this position and it was backed by the United Nations chair of the conference, Lakhdar Brahimi. (3) The conference helped set a course where the interests of political factions and short-term stability were deliberately and explicitly prioritised over justice. (For detail on this, see AAN’s major report on transitional justice from page 14 onwards. 18 years later, there has been no accountability for any war crimes, including mass atrocities. Yet, nor has there been peace. Many have argued that ignoring justice was one factor fermenting instability.

In 2005 the AIHRC released its report “A Call for Justice”, the findings of its national consultation with victims of pre-2001 war crimes. Also in 2005, the Afghan government published its three-year transitional justice “National Action Plan for Peace, Reconciliation, and Justice,” but was unable to implement it in the face of political opposition. Mujahedin leaders from the main civil war factions organised a large gathering in Kabul where they invited their followers and former fighters to rally against the government’s plans. Thousands of people gathered in the Ghazi soccer stadium, where transitional justice was labelled a ‘foreigners’ policy’ against the mujahedin, designed to put them behind bars. This narrative, which ignored the restorative component of transitional justice, has been consistently aired on some of these mujahedin leaders’ private TV channels over many years. Subsequently, the Afghan parliament, with its high proportion of former mujahedin leaders and commanders among its members, approved an ‘amnesty law’ in 2007, which gave a blanket amnesty to those involved in wars before 2001 and a conditional amnesty to those who continued to fight in the post-2001 era if they reconciled with the government. (4)

Reducing transitional justice to only criminal justice has had two implications. Firstly, it shifts focus from the victims to the perpetrators. Holding perpetrators accountable is indeed an essential part of transitional justice, but finding the truth, healing wounds, compensating victims’ losses and bringing institutional reform are also core elements of the process. These components were addressed in the government’s national action plan, but were lost in the noise of the former warlords’ criminal justice narrative. Secondly, it created an unnecessary fear among those who had been involved in the conflict – including low-ranking fighters – that if transitional justice were implemented, they would be put behind bars. To the extent that transitional justice has an accountability component, the focus is generally on command responsibility, rather than fighters, but this was lost.

This narrative helped to divide society between those who believed that the past should be left alone and those who longed for justice. The proponents for justice failed to create a sufficient political and social constituency for their cause, while the opponents succeeded in derailing the implementation of the transitional justice national action plan and control large parts of the victims’ constituency that is divided along political and ethnic lines. This was particularly true under the leadership of the former president, Hamed Karzai, who was significantly influenced by former mujahedin leaders, including several alleged war criminals. When Ashraf Ghani, his successor, was first campaigning for the presidency in 2013, it was hoped that he would distance his administration from people implicated in potential war crimes and publish the AIHRC’s Conflict Mapping Report as he promised during his campaign. However, his selection of General (now Marshall) Abdul Rashid Dostum as Vice President – albeit on condition of a half-hearted public apology – swiftly diminished such hopes.

Today, the tendency to equate transitional justice with criminal justice is still a dominant narrative which discourages the warring parties from involving victims in the ongoing peace talks. Human rights institutions and victims’ groups are hoping that by using ‘victim-centred peace’ and ‘victim-centred justice’ as alternative terms they can bring back the focus to victims’ needs and their potential to make a positive contribution to peace.

The Afghan government’s position

The Afghan government still seems to be formulating its policy on the inclusion of victims in the intra-Afghan peace talks, within the recently constituted State Ministry of Peace. However, hostility from presidential and vice-presidential offices risks undermining more positive intentions at lower levels of government.

In a blow to victims, President Ghani made perhaps his most clear statement yet against a victim-centred peace process. Speaking at a ceremony in the palace to celebrate International Peace Day on 21 September, Ghani suggested that what he called ‘the Spanish model’ of dealing with its past could be a model for Afghanistan. In Spain, after the death of the fascist dictator General Francisco Franco in 1975, a decision was made not to talk about the previous thirty years in Spain, Ghani said. This ‘pact of forgetting,’ as it became known, culminated in the 1977 Amnesty Law which blocked the investigation of Franco-era crimes, leaving uninvestigated the mass graves of more than 100,000 people. However, the Spanish model remains politically controversial, with successive left-leaning governments providing greater recognition for victims, as well as exhumations of mass graves and the removal of some monuments celebrating Franco. (5) The president’s statement went against the decision of the August 2020 Consultative Loya Jirga that “the government should secure the consent of families of victims of war.”

Ghani argued that “in the contemporary history of Afghanistan, we fought against each other and killed each other but tomorrow we need to accept each other as brothers and sisters.” He added that the past must not destroy our future and “forgiveness” was what was needed, adding that he saw a willingness to forgive in the nation, citing the experience of the June 2018 ceasefire (AAN’s report on the ceasefire here).

In the same peace ceremony, First Vice-President Amrullah Saleh spoke for almost 25 minutes but did not say a word about victims. As a former director of the National Directorate for Security (NDS), an institution repeatedly documented as using torture (see UN reports cited here and AAN dossier on torture here), and a leading proponent of the former anti-Taleban coalition, the United Front (better known as ‘Northern Alliance’), the factions of which have also been accused of war crimes he is not known for his pro-victim stance, nor is he an advocate for the peace process, having bluntly stated that he, personally, is irreconcilable with the Taleban.

The second vice-president, Sarwar Danesh, is more supportive of emphasising human rights in negotiations with the Taleban and has previously pledged that human rights would be respected in any peace process. At the peace ceremony he recited verse nine of the Hujurat chapter of the Quran where it says, “… make peace between them fairly, and do justice. Indeed, God loves the just.” While he did not explain what he meant by a ‘just peace’, he had been speaking about Taleban ignorance of Shia Muslims, so this point appeared addressed to the Taleban, rather than both sides.

Despite these mixed messages at the top of government, there have been modest movements within government in policy terms. The State Ministry for Peace and the Afghan Islamic Republic’s negotiating team both have proposals for the inclusion of victims in the peace process, though their plans seem to be in a very early stage.

On 13 October, the State Minister for Peace, Sayed Sa’adat Mansur Naderi and the chairman of the Afghan Islamic Republic’s negotiation team, Masum Stanekzai, held their first virtual meeting with representatives of war victims. In the meeting, Naderi promised to establish a special committee, consisting of representatives victims, victims’ organisations, the High Council for National Reconciliation, in the ministry to manage victims’ affairs related to the peace talks. Stanekzai said the war victims would be “the central part of the peace talks.” He added that the experience of other countries had revealed that in non-exclusive peace talks, victims were the most vulnerable group.

Prior to this, on 22 September 2020, the State Ministry of Peace hosted a victims’ hearing session in the Presidential Palace (where Ghani had proposed the Spanish model for Afghanistan just a day earlier). The Deputy Minister for Human Rights and Civil Society, Dr Alema, in her inauguration speech, promised that her ministry, in cooperation with ‘relevant organisations’, was establishing “structures and mechanisms” to ensure victims’ participation in the peace process. She insisted that the warring parties “must” listen to the victims of war and make sure that “victims benefit from the [peace] agreement the most.”

Meanwhile, it appears that the Afghan negotiation team has formed a committee representing victims’ rights, though this has not been well publicised. On 16 September 2020, team member Habiba Sarabi, told AAN that she is the chair of the team’s Committee for Human Rights, Women’s Rights, Vulnerable Groups and Victims and that it has a mandate to communicate with victims and relevant civil society organisations to collect their views. Sarabi said that she was in regular contact with the AIHRC, the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organisation and the Afghanistan Mechanism for Inclusive Peace, which is an civil society organisations joint initiative. The day she spoke to AAN, she had held her first official round of talks with these organisations. Shaharzad Akbar, the Chairwoman of AIHRC, confirmed having been in contact with Sarabi, told AAN on 9 October 2020 that she was glad, at least, that the Afghan government negotiating team had created such a committee because human rights organisations like AIHRC now had an ‘address’ to give their recommendations to. She hoped the Taleban would do the same. Previously, after President Ghani presented his peace plan the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan in 2018, the government retrospectively added a Victims’ Affairs Committee to the plan (read AAN’s analysis on the 2018 peace plan here). However, this committee never came into being (nor did nine others also mentioned in the peace plan as bodies to address various segments of the Afghan society). Instead, the State Ministry for Peace was established in June 2019. Within the ministry, no department is designated as covering victims’ affairs, though the Department of Programmes is in contact with some victims’ groups.

These developments show that victims have some allies in government, which brings a little hope that the committee and the ministry’s consultations may bring some positive developments for victims. However, there are evident contradictions between these promises of greater inclusion and the stark words and actions of president Ghani, including the prisoner release made under US pressure. Overall, the dominant view within the Ghani administration is that justice will have to wait for peace. (6) These contradictions could be the result of divisions between government factions and the lack of any serious efforts to find a consensus. Or it could suggest a lack of interest from the Afghan government, allowing space only for tokenistic gestures towards inclusion. Alternatively, the Afghan government might be responding to pressure from third parties, like the US in the case of the Taleban prisoners’ release. Some in the government negotiating team believe that the strategy of the government representing victims is bad policy: in a 1TV discussion on the victims’ place in the peace talks, Dr Amin Ahmadi, a member of the government negotiating team, argued that victims and other relevant stakeholders should self-mobilise and act independently from the Afghan government. His argument was that the government’s involvement could politicise victims’ involvement, creating new hurdles for their direct participation in the talks.

The Taleban’s stand

The Taleban have not taken any public position on the inclusion of victims’ representatives in the peace talks, nor have they commented on demands from victims’ groups’ and human rights institutions. They also did not answer AAN’s questions on this subject, which were submitted twice to Muhammad Na’im Wardak, the Taleban’s spokesperson.

However, based on the Taleban agreement with the US (full text here), it could be argued that the Taleban have not taken the victims’ rights seriously. After around 18 months of talks behind closed doors, the Taleban and US signed this agreement in February 2020 to bring a conditional end to their conflict. While the Taleban in its regular incident reports often accuse US troops of killing civilians or committing war crimes, they signed an agreement with the US in which accountability for war crimes or civil remedies for victims of those crimes is not mentioned. As the discussions happened behind closed doors, it is not clear whether justice for victims was a topic ever raised by the Taleban or not, but they have made no public comment on the participation of victims or their representatives in the US-Taleban discussions or Intra-Afghan talks.

It is notable that five victims of unlawful detention and other abuses by the US at Guantanamo are among the Taleban’s representatives in the current peace talks, though their presence relates more to the legitimacy the experience has conferred on them within the movement, rather than informing any policies related to accountability or justice. Taleban positions on Guantánamo over the years have focused only on the release of their own people, not the rights of other Afghans or detainees of other nationalities being illegally detained. In the negotiations to exchange those five prisoners for Seargent Bowe Bergdahl, which was made in 2014 (AAN reporting here), the Taleban actually refused to try to get other non-Taleban detainees out as part of the swap, according to AAN colleague, Kate Clark, who has written extensively on this subject (for example here).

The Taleban negotiating team also includes senior leaders whose potential war crimes are documented; this includes command responsibility for potential war crimes. While the Geneva Conventions encourages warring parties to provide the “broadest possible amnesty” to fighters at the end of hostilities, this does not apply to those who had command responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity. (7) This would implicate members of the Taleban senior leadership.

The US position

The US has no diplomatic track record of taking the rights or needs of Afghan victims into account beyond some forms of compensation payments. Rather, it has long made its hostility towards accountability measures in cases of allegations of war crimes clear, with regards to its own forces, but also its Afghan allies. It signed a number of bilateral agreements with the Afghan government to limit investigation of its military personnel by the Afghan government or a third party, starting in 2003 with the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and most recently the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) signed in 2014. The BSA declared that the Afghan government could not investigate US forces accused of crimes nor could it hand them over to a third party.

The US claimed it would prosecute any wrongdoers through domestic judicial bodies. However, wrongdoers are rarely put through a judicial process and few have received even received any bureaucratic sanctions, such as loss of pay or being fired. Some, such as the head of Bagram detention centre were promoted after a detainee died after being tortured on his watch. (8) The failure to deal adequately with alleged perpetrators of war crimes the attention of the International Criminal Court, particularly with regards to CIA torture (AAN’s analyses here and here).

In the February 2020 US-Taleban Agreement, like the Taleban, the US did not insist on any accountability for the victims of war crimes allegedly committed by the Taleban. Indeed, it agreed to the release of more than 5,000 Taleban prisoners, convicted in Afghan courts for a variety of crimes including murder. For instance, according to the Afghan government, the mastermind behind the massive May 2017 explosion at the green zone of Kabul, close to the German Embassy, which killed nearly 100 people and injured 350 others, was among them. 105 prisoners were also released despite outstanding complaints by individual plaintiffs’  – maybe victims or their relatives – against them. (9)

Conclusion

There is still time for the Afghan government and Taleban – and the US as a major actor still in the context of the Doha peace talks – to demonstrate to victims of the war that they are seen and heard. A small chink of light has been offered by the State Ministry for Peace and the Afghan government negotiating team’s promises to establish mechanisms to consult with victims. The proposals from human rights organisations for the inclusion of victims in the peace talks provide principles and potential structures that could further elaborate those mechanisms. However, these modest gains stand in contrast to the striking lack of political will among those charged with making peace, the Afghan government, the Taleban and the US. The so far only limited mobilisation and organisation of victims is also a hurdle.

The Afghan government is divided, though its leadership is generally hostile to ideas of accountability for and remembering of the past. President Ghani favours forgiveness – or a “pact of forgetting” that would echo the failed Spanish experiment. This approach is already reflected in the 2007 ‘amnesty law’ and bolstered by the continued political clout of the former leaders of mujahedin groups who were involved in the war before 2001, including Abdullah Abdullah, who chairs the High Council for National Reconciliation, as well both of President Ghani’s vice-presidents. The former mujahidin commanders fear that by opening the door to the past, the crimes of the pre-2001 era would be investigated.

The Taleban have demonstrated no interest in the rights of victims during the peace process, or prior to it, concentrating only on the rights of their own members. They have made clear they expect a blanket amnesty, including for those most responsible for the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In the Taleban’s case, which has some high-ranking figures in their negotiating team, this threat may discourage the Taleban from opening the floor to victims’ representative during the peace talks.

The US has, in practice, demonstrated no desire to push for accountability, either of its own forces or allies. The US made an agreement with the Taleban on prisoner release with no consultation with victims or the Afghan government in a clear indication of its willingness to overlook the demands of the victims as the price to pay to get the Taleban to sign its agreement.

Despite these obstacles, victims and human rights organisations still have avenues ahead. They can support the limited number of political allies in the government by mobilising victims, the media and other sympathetic voices. Efforts to shift the language towards a victim-centred peace may help persuade the government and Taleban leadership that the inclusion of victims does not necessarily mean trials, but raises possibilities of compensation and healing that even their fighters can benefit from. Afghanistan has had many decades of evading past crimes, but president Ghani would do well to learn the real lesson from Spain, which is that you can enforce a silence on victims, but you can never make them forget.

Edited by Rachel Reid, Kate Clark and Thomas Ruttig


(1) The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has a long track record of working for war victims’ rights. In 2004, it published a report as a result of a national consultation with war victims to reflect their views on how to deal with pre-2001 war crimes and war criminals, called “A Call for Justice.” The Afghan government then developed a three-year transitional justice national action plan (from 2005-8), which mandated the AIHRC to document war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated from 1978 to 2001. The documentation was completed in 2012 and the “Conflict Mapping Report” was shared with Hamid Karzai, the former president, when he was in the office, and then with Ashraf Ghani, the current president. Both men refused to publish it.

(2) The network, with technical and logistical support of Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organisation (AHRDO), has organised four regional gatherings so far, with three more to be completed by mid-October. According to chairperson Hadi Marifat, once these regional gatherings are complete, elected representatives of each region will come to Kabul to convene the Victims’ National Assembly to decide on their demands and how to engage with the peace negotiating teams and other relevant actors.

(3) Brahimi, a former foreign minister of Algeria, cited Chile as an example of justice being sacrificed for peace while giving South Africa as an example of accountability being jettisoned in favour of a truth and reconciliation process. See “Transcript of the Press Conference by the SRSG for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi,” 27 August 2002.

(4) For more detail on these events, see AAN’s 2013 report on transitional justice in Afghanistan “Tell Us How This Ends: Discussing Transitional Justice.”

(5) General Franco ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975. The ‘pact of forgetting” was hailed by the strong conservative forces in the country, some of them with roots in the Francoist movement, and originally also the socialist party (PSOE), as a necessity to allow the country to transition to democracy. Others decried the policy, with divisions on the issue and in society continuing. After the 30 years had elapsed in 2007, a Historical Memory Law was passed by the then socialist government which went some way towards recognising calls from victims for the exhumation of mass graves and removal of public symbols commemorating Franco, though it was not fully implemented. In September 2020, a new bill was introduced, the Democratic Memory Law, which among other things, makes the state responsible for identifying victims buried in mass graves (see media reports herehere and here and this report of a human rights organisation).

(6) The Afghan government sought to block efforts of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open an investigation in Afghanistan, trying to shield itself by taking small administrative steps towards addressing war crimes, such as creating a War Crimes Unit in the Office of the Attorney General. However, it has failed to hold any senior officials accountable for the potential crimes of interest to the ICC (mostly torture and extra-judicial killings on the part of the Afghan government). For more see this Human Rights Watch report

(7) Article 6(5) of Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions: “At the end of hostilities, the authorities in power shall endeavour to grant the broadest possible amnesty to persons who have participated in the armed conflict, or those deprived of their liberty for reasons related to the armed conflict, whether they are interned or detained.”

(8) There has been no prosecution of anyone involved in the death of Gul Rahman in Bagram in 2002 who froze to death on the bare concrete floor of a cell in CIA custody after interrogators ordered his clothes removed because he was being “uncooperative.” A CIA review listed contributing factors leading to his death: “dehydration, lack of food, and immobility due to ‘short chaining’ [ie being held on a short chain]. ”His case was referred to the US Justice Department. It decided not to bring charges and, in 2012, the US Attorney General prosecutors announced that the investigation would be closed because “the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt” (see here and here). The 2014 US Senate report into the CIA’s use of torture detailed how, in March 2003, “just four months after the death of Gul Rahman, the CIA Station in Country recommended that [redacted] CIA officer receive a “cash award” of $2,500 for his “consistently superior work.” The manger of the detention side stayed in position and “was formally certified as a CIA interrogator in April 2003 after the practical portion of his training requirement was waived because of his past experience with interrogations” at the site.

(9) After protests from French and Australian governments, six prisoners involved in murdering of French and Australian soldiers in Afghanistan were not released, but moved to Qatar to be kept under house arrest (read media report here). For AAN’s legal analyses on the prisoners swap see here and here.


ANNEX 

The National Victim-Centred Network’s resolution which was presented on 14 September 2020.

The entire peace process must be victim-centered, just and aimed at healing the wounds of victims of war and avoiding future recurrence of violence and crime.”

Resolution

Conference of War Victims’ families and relatives on the start of Intra-Afghan Peace Talks 

Decades of devastating and brutal war have claimed countless victims among the oppressed people of Afghanistan, largely among the civilian population, with women and children often the primary targets; people have paid the irreparable human, material and spiritual price of war with their lives, properties, rights and interests.

Now that “negotiations and peace talks between Afghans” has started, we, the families and relatives of the victims of war and violence, call for our active participation in this process, so that our voices are heard and our concerns are taken into account in all its aspects and reflected in the final agreements. We call on all negotiating parties to recognize the active participation of victims in the negotiation process as one of the main pillars of sustainable peace, and do not allow the negotiation process lead to the re-victimization of war victims.

According to the Islamic and international humanitarian rights, civilians, women, children, public property, infrastructures, civil property, the sick and those who surrender in battle are considered absolutely safe, and any assault on them is considered a “war crime”. The comparative experience of the countries involved in the conflict shows that a thorough handling of and accountability for violations committed during war and conflict is one of the inviolable principles of permanent peace that ensures the irreversibility of wars and conflict. Without a reasonable and transparent mechanism to deal with conflict-related crimes and violations, we could face fragile peace in the most optimistic scenario, and in the worst case, civil conflicts would return with greater intensity. War crimes can be dealt with legally, judicially and in accordance with international human rights instruments and national laws. The perpetrators of these crimes should be held accountable and their sentence cannot be suspended and not can it be subject to statutes of limitation [the time after which a crime cannot be tried in court].

We believe that peace cannot be realistic and sustainable without respect for human rights, justice and equality and ending of culture of impunity and violence. The essential precondition for the implementation of human rights and justice in the peace process is to allow active and meaningful participation of war victims in the peace negotiation process and to establish a mechanism to address the rights and rational demands of the victims.

Victims of human rights violations, in addition to the enjoyment of human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other national and international instruments must have effective, equal and non-discriminatory access to justice and to the competent judicial institutions that uphold their human rights. Damage to victims should be compensated in a rational, equitable and timely manner, opportunities should be provided for rehabilitation and, eventually, it should be ensured that their rights are not violated again.

Peace is not just an absence of war and temporary ceasefire, but a situation in which all citizens enjoy their human rights without discrimination, have access to justice and live a dignified, peaceful and non-violent life.

Our basic requests, as families and relatives of war victims from the ongoing peace process, are as follows

  1. Our first demand from the parties to the intra-Afghan peace talks is “A permanent, countrywide ceasefire” to prevent the killing of more civilians.
  2. The Parties shall concentrate on the country’s best interests and Afghanistan’s suffering people and victims, and strive to make good use of this historic opportunity to achieve a just, victim-centered and sustainable peace in which the Afghan people’s human rights and civilian rights are guaranteed.
  3. Negotiations should provide victims with access to justice, truth, and compensation for material and spiritual harms, and should ensure that such disasters do not happen again. Addressing the past and the rights of victims should be an integral part of the peace process agenda. 
  • We call on the negotiating teams of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban to establish a joint special committee to follow up on the basic demands of the victims and their families as soon as possible, and this structure is to be a key part of the negotiation process mechanism.
  • set up a Victim-Centered Peace Working Group to work in a focused and organized way with negotiating groups on both sides and hold talks with the Joint Special Committee for Victims’ Affairs and other relevant groups and committees.
  • assist in the systematic handling of the victims’ basic demands and ensure a permanent and durable peace.

Families and relatives of Afghanistan war victims

September 14, 2020

 

The Intra-Afghan Peace Talks: Warring parties negotiate, victims of war are excluded
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Afghanistan Donor Conference 2020: Pitfalls and Possibilities

Shops on the main street through Istalif, Afghanistan, where they make distinctive turquoise pottery, June 30, 2016. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
Shops on the main street through Istalif, Afghanistan, where they make distinctive turquoise pottery, June 30, 2016. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
Amid the complexities of this crucial and delicate moment, the outcome of the donors meeting, to take place in Geneva, is uncertain: It could effectively promote development and peace in Afghanistan, or it could turn out to be counterproductive. That will depend on whether participants come together and focus on a four-year development and peace framework or allow the meeting to be hijacked by one of several conflicting agendas that might undermine the peace process. While the more than 70 nations and organizations at the conference share an interest in Afghanistan’s development, they also have differing political goals.

In the present circumstances, the high-profile format and four-year time horizon of the Geneva meeting comprise a bold initiative, injecting a welcome medium-term development perspective despite all the short-term uncertainties. It also carries significant risks, ranging from the government failing to meet donors’ expectations to grossly inadequate aid pledges to tensions over peace negotiations. In the Afghan context, where overall risks are high and the current situation fraught with danger, informed risk-taking by the international development community is likely to be an important ingredient in helping make peace sustainable.

Similar to past quadrennial donor meetings in 2016 (Brussels) and 2012 (Tokyo) as well as earlier regular meetings, the Geneva conference on November 23-24 is billed as a “ministerial level pledging conference.” Its purpose is to commit the Afghan government and the international community to shared development objectives for 2021-2024 as well as ensure financial support for the Afghan administration. Other anticipated outcomes of the conference include a joint political declaration—not a feature of past quadrennial donor meetings—and a new aid architecture and mutual accountability framework.

Opportunities

Geneva will bring into the public discourse the views of development donors, which have been largely missing from the current peace talks and from political dynamics on the non-Taliban side. It will provide an opportunity for Afghanistan’s partners to make explicit what they see as the parameters for continuing to provide significant development assistance and support to the Afghan government budget. This signaling will be directed at the Afghan administration, to be sure, but also, indirectly, at the peace process and at the Taliban as a potential future partner in the government.

With its four-year framework, it will also at least partly offset the short-termism that pervades issues of politics, peace, and security in Afghanistan. Donors could signal continuing commitment to Afghanistan’s development, providing an antidote to concerns about “aid following the troops” once U.S. forces leave the country, possibly as early as May 2021.

Pitfalls and Risks

While past meetings generated disappointment and cynicism after promised levels of aid failed to materialize or to deliver expected results, this event sets up the opposite risk. If aid commitments fall precipitously short of the 2016 Brussels pledge of $3.8 billion a year (a total of $15.2 billion for 2017-2020), the Afghan state and its development achievements would be in danger. Both a low level of assistance pledges and going for one-year aid commitments this time—though the latter would be from some perspectives understandable—may feed the abandonment narrative that is already widespread among Afghans and clash with the conference’s four-year development framework.

There is also a risk that donors will force the Afghan government to promise reforms that far exceed its political bandwidth and technical and bureaucratic capabilities. Then, if donors’ expectations go unmet, future aid may be in jeopardy. The Afghan government has overpromised and underdelivered in past mutual accountability frameworks, and this counterproductive pattern must not be repeated.

Threading the Needle

While the structure for the Geneva conference—co-organized by the Afghan government, Finland, and the United Nations—is in line with past practice, in the current context it gives rise to various dilemmas.

First, inviting the Taliban would be unacceptable to the Afghan government, for understandable reasons. Yet the group is a major stakeholder in Afghanistan’s future and in the peace negotiations. Its exclusion misses an opportunity to directly expose Taliban leaders to the complexities of managing international aid and to donors’ expectations regarding human, gender, and political rights.

Second, past meetings gave the Afghan administration a showcase for its achievements and a forum to advance plans for reforms tied to state-building, an agenda the international community strongly supported. This focus could now be problematic. For peace negotiations to progress toward an agreement, the current administration almost certainly couldn’t be left unchanged over the next four years. Thus, the Geneva meeting and its four-year time horizon (coinciding with the rest of President Ashraf Ghani’s five-year term) could send signals that may be seen as benefiting and entrenching the current administration. Whereas the U.S.-Taliban discussions and agreement arguably undermined the position of the Afghan government, the Geneva meeting may carry the opposite risk.

Third, the joint political declaration expected from the conference will be challenging to put together. The Ghani administration probably would resist including anything raising questions about its longevity, but the president’s political opposition might resent an ironclad guarantee for Ghani’s term. The administration might also try to ensure that the declaration supports and reaffirms the existing Islamic Republic constitution and state structure, to which the Taliban would react badly.

The Afghan government, therefore, will face a challenging dilemma at Geneva. Should it try to use its platform to reinforce its negotiating positions vis-à-vis the Taliban? Or would it do better to appear at least somewhat open and flexible—particularly if there is pressure from donors? The government may be tempted to put forward a hard line and try to co-opt development partners to get behind it, but this may alienate key donors that support a peace process that will most likely require difficult compromises with the Taliban.

Ways Forward

To exploit opportunities and contain risks at Geneva will demand deft diplomacy, careful planning, and thoughtful management of the event. Donors need to navigate between strong statements upholding fundamental principles that constitute conditions for continued aid and avoiding specific positions that could become untenable as the need for compromise arises to reach a sustainable peace agreement.

The four-year planning horizon for aid should be maintained. If donors decide to limit their pledges to just a year or two, they should clearly state that similar amounts of assistance will continue in following years, providing agreed-upon conditions are met.

With regard to the level of aid, there is a need for donors to signal predictable, stable or modestly declining amounts. Any reductions should be concentrated in off-budget aid while assistance through the Afghan budget is maintained, contingent on effective use of funds and containing corruption.

Donors may clearly state their conditions for assistance—including protection of gains in human development and rights. However, they will need to avoid appearing committed to a particular Afghan administration or to the current one’s five-year term, which would rule out other possible formulas for a peace deal. Such nuancing could take the form, for example, of a clear statement in the conference communique, noting that aid pledges and indications are to support the Afghan people and key enunciated principles, not for a particular administration or leaders.

In the new aid architecture and mutual accountability framework that is expected to come out of the Geneva conference, donors and government should avoid setting unrealistic expectations and instead seek stringent prioritization of expenditures and aid—in other words, doing less with less but doing it better. That means focusing on essential government functions and a few core development programs that have good track records and avoiding new or scattered initiatives with marginal impact or those that would take too long to achieve results.

Donors should also create aid-linked incentives to improve the functioning of core institutions and programs by zeroing in on what makes them work. The essential elements are well understood: competent, empowered Afghan management teams with an adequate degree of political insulation and containment of corruption.

Finally, the conference and the conditions placed on aid pledges need to underline the importance of Afghanistan increasing its own contribution to national development and starting to convert the rhetoric of “self-reliance” into reality. Securing more revenue through improvements in the Ministry of Finance—and curbing widespread corruption in revenue collection—must become a priority, one that over time will begin reducing Afghanistan’s need for foreign aid.

Afghanistan Donor Conference 2020: Pitfalls and Possibilities
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Whose Islam? The New Battle for Afghanistan

By 

Mr. Osman is a senior consultant on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group.

The New York Times

Finding common ground on the role of Islam is the most decisive task in the peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

The Taliban need to spell out their ideas about the role of Islam in society and governance.
Credit…Hussein Sayed/Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — As the major warring parties in Afghanistan sit down for peace talks in Doha, Qatar, an old, unresolved debate is emerging as the central question: What should be the role of Islam in Afghanistan? A humid seaside resort on the Persian Gulf, where the delegates are gathered, has become the unlikely venue for a search for answers acceptable to most Afghans.

The Taliban, who fought for decades to establish an Islamic political system, struck a deal with the United States in February that calls for American troop withdrawals conditioned on the Taliban engaging in peace talks and promising not to allow the country to be used by transnational terrorists.

They started the peace talks on Sept. 12, aware of the difficulty of persuading other Afghans and the international community to accept their understanding of Islam. The Taliban also seem to have reached a conclusion internally that their 1990s model of government is not tenable today.

When the Taliban seized territory across Afghanistan in the 1990s, the group founded a new “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” but they consulted almost none of the country’s diverse political and religious groups. The result was a style of government which enforced at gunpoint the norms and lifestyles of rural southern Afghanistan on the entire country. Imposing an extremely austere lifestyle on Afghans, banning women from work and education and ignoring the pleas of the international community, turned the Taliban into an international pariah.

Establishing an “Islamic system,” of governance is now the thrust of the Taliban’s demands as it negotiates with Afghan officials and representatives of the political opposition. But the Taliban need to clearly detail their ideas about the role of Islam in society and governance.

The country already has a constitution that holds Islamic jurisprudence above all other laws. Afghan officials consider the character of their system sufficiently Islamic. Their emphasis in the peace talks is on protecting the gains of the last two decades, including women’s rights, freedom of expression and electoral democracy.

If peace is going to result from these talks, those two perspectives on what Islamic governance in Afghanistan looks like will need to be reconciled.

What is it about the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan that the Taliban reject so vehemently? The Taliban say the current system was created under the shadow of Western military forces, caters mainly to Western norms and gives an insufficient role to religious authorities.

I have interviewed members of the Taliban and its leadership over many years. They see the Kabul government elites as secularists who seek to Westernize Afghan society. Instead, they see the active promotion of Islamic values and morals in society as one of the primary functions of a “true Islamic government.”

In my interviews, the Taliban cited as un-Islamic the absence of gender segregation in the current Afghan public sphere; they see the relatively free Afghan media as encouraging “moral corruption,” and they object to the banking system designed on international rules and want Islamic banking. They want a greater role for religious leaders in policy and lawmaking and greater promotion of religious education.

Many Afghans fear that the Taliban favor a return to their heavy-handed rule of the late 1990s. It is true that the Taliban are uncomfortable with the liberalizing society — with degrees of freedom of expression, lack of gender segregation and Westernizing influences — that has flourished in some parts of Afghanistan in recent years.

But there are hints emerging from Taliban ranks that they could be influenced by public opinion, perhaps allowing room for compromise. For instance, the Taliban now allow schools for girls in areas under their control where there is strong popular demand. It is a break from their strict rules restricting education for women during their earlier rule.

The Taliban banned technology and communications during their earlier rule. They have since become pretty proficient users of the internet and mobile phone technology, and, in some areas the group controls today, when local elders petitioned for their community’s internet access the Taliban granted it and guarded the telecommunications towers.

The Taliban seem to understand that they need to go further than tolerating girls’ education. Last month, Hibatullah Akhunkzada, the leader of the Taliban, deputed Mawlawi Abdul Hakim, the movement’s senior most religious scholar, to lead the Taliban negotiators in Doha. Mr. Hakim has no experience in political negotiations, but the personal involvement of such an authoritative religious figure seems to suggest that the Taliban intend to clarify their positions on the role of Islam in governance after the actual negotiations start, and that they will want to convince Taliban fighters that any agreement signed by the group’s leaders will uphold Islamic values.

I have gleaned from conversations with Taliban officials recently that they have certain positions for the negotiations, but they have not nailed down a definitive vision of what they will agree to, leaving the specifics to evolve during talks. The Taliban cite the composition of their delegation for the intra-Afghan talks — it includes a deputy leader, the senior most religious figure and over 60 percent of its most authoritative body, the leadership council — as evidence of their seriousness about reaching a deal with their rivals.

A compromise on the state system will most likely require drafting a new constitution for the country. President Ashraf Ghani has already offered the Taliban the opportunity to amend the current constitution, but only through the existing constitution’s amendment procedures, which would give the government control over the process. Afghan opposition political figures and groups have signaled their willingness to consider structural reforms to the current constitutional order while preserving protections for civil and political rights.

Significant questions remain: Would the Taliban accept elections? Would they accept a coalition government? An elected parliament? In recent weeks, the Taliban leaders have revealed that they envision a religious authority at the apex of a future Afghan government — if not the chief executive position, then a body with power to oversee the executive.

Peace negotiations will be strained on questions such as the Taliban’s refusal to accept the current share of women’s participation in public service. Without the Taliban agreeing to a compromise on individual rights and freedoms, an agreement won’t be reached.

In fact, the Taliban’s positions and attitudes stem from Afghan cultural norms as much as they do Islamic doctrine, which influences them in both strongly conservative and relatively progressive directions. The socially conservative views the Taliban espouse are common among rural Afghans, as well as a substantial share of urban educated youth.

Unlike other modern jihadist groups, the Taliban are not fixated on a literalist reading of textual sources. Their movement was born out of a combination of Islamic oral tradition and pre-Islamic cultural norms, and does not have a single ideological document. In fact, that absence of a definitive intellectual foundation in the Taliban has driven some of its more educated radicalized youth to join rival groups such as the Islamic State in Afghanistan.

The absence of core, rigid ideological texts might enable the Taliban to integrate into mainstream Afghan politics. There are many in Afghanistan who are deeply skeptical about genuine change in the Taliban and the prospect of future transformation. But there are no easier ways to test and build on those possibilities than through political engagement in the context of ongoing peace negotiations.

The evolution of the Taliban’s political thinking, though, is likely to be slow. Rushing the negotiations would risk producing an unstable result that only papers over the two sides’ differences; successful negotiations will require not only patience but also a more hands-off approach from other governments than they are usually comfortable with.

The shaping of the post-Taliban Afghanistan by the Western governments, primarily the United States, eventually turned out to be its vulnerability and undermined its legitimacy in the eyes of many Afghans. A new dispensation in Afghanistan will need the support of conservative elements of Afghan society if we want the long war in the country to finally be over.

Borhan Osman is a senior consultant on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group.

Whose Islam? The New Battle for Afghanistan
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Clemency for the Taliban will not lead to peace in Afghanistan

OPINION

Impunity only encourages armed groups to continue with their violence against the civilian population.

When given a choice between security and freedom, people always choose security. That is why so many dictators and demagogues survive by creating a false sense of threat and then presenting themselves as the saviours.

The same logic applies when people are given a choice between safety and justice. They would choose safety over justice. In the case of Afghanistan, this has fed a continuous cycle of violence over the past few decades.

The absence of any legal consequences for violence and war crimes has only further emboldened armed groups. The release of Taliban fighters as part of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban and the continuing negotiations between the armed group and the Afghan government will not lead to peace. Only a thorough transitional justice process will.

A repeat of history

The decision to sideline justice to supposedly maintain security and peace is not without precedent in recent Afghan history.

During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1987), more than 800,000 people lost their lives. The United States and several Muslim countries supported the mujahideen’s fight against Soviet forces.  Both sides regularly committed serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law throughout the conflict. While the atrocities committed by Soviet forces were widely reported on, war crimes committed by the mujahideen during the same period were largely undocumented.

After the withdrawal of Soviet troops, infighting broke out between various mujahideen groups which led to more war crimes being committed. In February 1993, for example, the infighting between mujahideen factions resulted in the Afshar massacre, in which up to 1000 Hazara men, women and children were brutally murdered. Intra-mujahideen fighting lasted from 1992 to 1994 costing up to 50,000 civilian lives. It is this violence and upheaval that gave birth to the Taliban, which took over Kabul in 1996 and established an Islamic emirate. In August 1998, the Taliban executed between 2000 to 5000 civilians from the Hazara ethnic group in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The 9/11 attacks on the US turned the odds in favour of the same mujahideen as the US-led coalition which invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 allied with them against the Taliban. In 2007, after a US-backed government was installed in Kabul, mujahideen leaders involved in the 1990s civil wars passed legislation in parliament granting them amnesty for their war crimes. The justification given for these laws was simple: if the international community and the government of Afghanistan tried to bring them to justice, the mujahideen would provoke more chaos and insecurity.

Hence, no transitional justice measures were carried out, thereby sacrificing accountability to maintain an illusory post-2001 peace. Suffering for more than two decades, the people of Afghanistan who were the primary victims of the mujahideen’s war crimes let go of justice in the hope of security.

The absence of a transitional justice process against the mujahideen emboldened the Taliban and reassured its members that there would be no consequences for their actions and they continued to commit ever more gruesome violence against the Afghan people. In other words, the impunity the mujahideen enjoyed did not really bring peace to Afghanistan.

This approach to war ethics is problematic, not only because it denies justice to the victims of the Taliban atrocities but also because it strengthens the Taliban’s capacity to prolong the war to achieve its goal of establishing a theocracy.

Transitional justice in Afghanistan

The release of thousands of Taliban fighters after the armed group concluded an agreement with the US on February 29 this year has been justified as necessary to jump-start peace negotiations. However, the odds are against any permanent peace in the country.

The Taliban will not give up violence because it knows that it is only through violent means that it can have any political power. Even with its enormous corruption scandals and its own track record of violence against civilians, the government in Kabul is still preferred by 92 percent of Afghans, according to a 2015 poll. Any impunity the Taliban enjoys will also motivate other groups to continue committing crimes against the Afghan people.

Because of this, calls are growing for the leaders of the Taliban to be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Nevertheless, Taliban leaders are unlikely to face the court soon. Not only the Afghan government and its international backers would be happy to give the members of the group amnesty should they agree to make peace, the US itself is not willing to allow the ICC to investigate the crimes its troops allegedly committed in the country.

Moreover, an ICC investigation at this critical junction risks undermining the ongoing Doha peace talks, as it may discourage the Taliban from agreeing to make peace.  But there are ways to achieve some transitional justice without insisting on an ICC investigation.

The war crimes committed in Afghanistan in the last four decades by all parties can and should be officially documented. This would put an end to widespread attempts to whitewash history and force the perpetrators of these crimes to face some accountability. Following the documentation of these crimes, all political parties, including the communists, the mujahideen factions and the Taliban, should officially apologise to the people of Afghanistan in general and the victims of violence in particular, to officially acknowledge and atone for their past crimes.

A public apology by leaders involved in war crimes has a precedent. During his 2013 election campaign, President Ashraf Ghani’s running mate, Abdul Rashid Dostum, issued an apology for being a part of the 1990s civil wars. Dostum’s apology and pledge to never repeat his past mistakes was welcomed by many Afghans.

The people of Afghanistan are once again being asked to choose between justice and security. While an acknowledgement of war crimes and a promise by perpetrators to not repeat them would not heal the victims of these crimes, it can be an important step towards healing Afghanistan. If these steps are backed by a commitment by the international community to prevent further human rights violations in the country, Afghanistan can finally leave its painful past behind and turn its face towards the future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Clemency for the Taliban will not lead to peace in Afghanistan
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Afghan Talks: A Road Leading to Peace?

The preliminary preparations for the intra-Afghan talks are taking shape in Qatar, aiming to set the stage for the official negotiations that were called for in the US-Taliban agreement signed at the beginning of the year. 

In my opinion, the establishment of long-term stability in Afghanistan will also serve the interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran, specifically in relation to the withdrawal of foreign forces, fighting and containing extremist groups, repatriating refugees, and combating the production and trafficking of narcotics.

However, it is difficult to gauge the effectiveness of the current intra-Afghan talks without a deep understanding of the wording and the spirit of the US-Taliban agreement.

In the Doha agreement, the Taliban consolidated all of their demands within a specific framework and timeline; however, they made no promises to address the issue of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire, which is a fundamental demand of the Afghan people.

In the classified portion of the agreement, the United States obtained a commitment from the Taliban to not stage attacks on provincial capitals, which might lead to the erosion of morale among the security forces and ordinary citizens.  On the other hand, the Taliban have been granted carte blanche to expand their territorial grip over other areas using their military forces. In fact, the only serious condition asked of the Taliban was to not aid or collaborate with any group that could pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies.

The Taliban correctly self-identify as the champions of the Doha agreement; they have realized that the United States’ vested interest in implementing this agreement will prevent other Afghan socio-political forces from undermining it. The Taliban deem this agreement irreversible, at least as far as its American architects are concerned. The United States’ approach in addressing the issue of prisoner swap and particularly its insistence on releasing the last 400 prisoners – testifies to the accuracy of this view.

The importance of the current peace talks for the Taliban is largely to kick-start the process of lifting sanctions on the group’s senior officials, which is expected to take place within a specific timeframe as outlined in the Doha agreement. Nevertheless, there are no indications that they have come to believe in these negotiations as a venue to reach a comprehensive peace agreement, though one should be hopeful. The Taliban’s attitude to the Afghan government and other political movements is reminiscent of what led to the civil wars of the 1990’s. If–and I emphasize if–this calculation proves true, then we should expect the Taliban to see the peace negotiation process as merely a means to buy more time.

There are major gaps between the demands of the negotiating parties. The Taliban perceive the current (govt) in Afghanistan as illegitimate. It appears that they are tacitly striving to reestablish their Islamic emirate. By conceding to “the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government,” the American architects of the Doha agreement have practically moved past the current Afghan system of governance and guaranteed this new political order. Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, with a fragile internal consensus, is attempting to preserve all the accomplishments of the past two decades

We must accept that the essence of the Doha agreement is to abrogate the Bonn Agreement of 2001 and all its inner workings, to make a new regional arrangement in line with Afghanistan’s future, and to change Afghanistan’s domestic political landscape. These new developments grew out of the United States’ reevaluation of its political objectives in this region.

As far as the United States is concerned, the Taliban is an Afghan extremist movement that is pursuing its political ambitions in its own domestic territory. However, the complex structure of the Taliban’s internal relations and its connections with other extremist movements seem to have been deliberately neglected. The recently published reports in the Western media, particularly the latest report by the UN sanctions committee, confirm this failure.

In the grand scheme of things, it appears that the United States is seeking to turn Afghanistan into a geopolitical connecting point in the political economy of the two regions of Central and South Asia.  Making a strategic mistake, the United States is pursuing a vision for peace in Afghanistan that hinges on an overly simplified redefinition of the domestic situation of this country.

At last, it should be noted that the path chosen by the United States (Doha Agreement) cannot lay the foundations for lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan. This statement is not a disapproval of a nation-wide peace in Afghanistan, which is an inevitable necessity not only for Afghanistan but also for the entire region; the vital issue is the requirement of having a realistic approach to achieve a calculated peace. This agreement has created a supposition of bias towards the Taliban in Afghanistan (and also in the domestic political arena of the United States), which could lead to the gradual formation of unnecessary internal divisions in that country.

Without any doubt, the Taliban is a reality of Afghan society and their participation in governance will guarantee stability and sustainable development in Afghanistan. Although the current system of governance in Afghanistan is not free of its own challenges, granting unilateral concessions to the Taliban, including its demand for structural changes to the Constitution, will only foster the group’s sense of victory and throw the fate of these negotiations into doubt.

The most critical miscalculation that was made in the process of reaching the Doha agreement was the attempt to recreate the political atmosphere of 2002 in Afghanistan by moving beyond the current system of governance and setting off on a path to produce a new political framework in that country. There are no guarantees that this change in strategy will be successful.

By restoring the internal balance that has been rattled by the Doha agreement, supporting the role of the UN in facilitating the peace process, renegotiating parts of the Doha agreement, and settling on a realistic definition of peace, a legitimate intra-Afghan agreement that is accompanied by the necessary guarantees of support from the international community and her neighbors can be reached.

Afghan Talks: A Road Leading to Peace?
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Imran Khan: Peace is within reach in Afghanistan. A hasty international withdrawal would be unwise.

September 27, 2020

Imran Khan is prime minister of Pakistan.

An Afghan Army soldier flashes the peace sign from an armored vehicle during a training excercise in Herat on Sept. 24.
An Afghan Army soldier flashes the peace sign from an armored vehicle during a training excercise in Herat on Sept. 24. (Jalil Rezayee/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

We have arrived at a rare moment of hope for Afghanistan and for our region. On Sept. 12, delegations from the Afghan government and the Taliban finally sat down in Doha, Qatar, to begin negotiations toward a political settlement that would bring the war in Afghanistan to an end.

With the exception of the resilient Afghans themselves, no people have paid a higher price for the conflict in Afghanistan than the people of Pakistan. Through decades of conflict, Pakistan has dealt with the responsibility of taking care of more than 4 million Afghan refugees. Guns and drugs have also flowed into our country. The wars have disrupted our economic trajectory and radicalized fringes of our own society. The Pakistan I had known growing up in the 1960s and 1970s changed in some deeply unsettling ways.

This experience taught us two important lessons. First, that we were too closely intertwined with Afghanistan by geography, culture and kinship for events in that country not to cast a shadow on Pakistan. We realized Pakistan will not know real peace until our Afghan brothers and sisters are at peace.

We also learned that peace and political stability in Afghanistan could not be imposed from the outside through the use of force. Only an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led reconciliation process, which recognizes Afghanistan’s political realities and diversity, could produce a lasting peace.

So, when President Trump wrote to me in late 2018 to ask for Pakistan’s assistance in helping the United States achieve a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan, we had no hesitation in assuring the president that Pakistan would make every effort to facilitate such an outcome — and we did. Thus began arduous rounds of talks between the United States and the Taliban, which culminated in the February U.S.-Taliban peace agreement. This agreement, in turn, has laid the groundwork for talks between the Afghan leadership and the Taliban.

The path we have traveled to get here wasn’t easy, but we were able to press on thanks to the courage and flexibility that were on display from all sides. The United States and its allies facilitated the prisoner exchange between Kabul and the Taliban. The government of Afghanistan and the Taliban responded to the Afghan people’s yearning for peace.

The intra-Afghan negotiations are likely to be even more difficult, requiring patience and compromise from all sides. Progress could be slow and painstaking; there may even be the occasional deadlock, as Afghans work together for their future. At such times, we would do well to remember that a bloodless deadlock on the negotiating table is infinitely better than a bloody stalemate on the battlefield.

All those who have invested in the Afghan peace process should resist the temptation for setting unrealistic timelines. A hasty international withdrawal from Afghanistan would be unwise. We should also guard against regional spoilers who are not invested in peace and see instability in Afghanistan as advantageous for their own geopolitical ends.

Like the United States, Pakistan does not want to see Afghanistan become a sanctuary for international terrorism ever again. Since 9/11, more than 80,000 Pakistani security personnel and civilians have laid down their lives in perhaps the largest and most successful fight against terrorism. But Pakistan continues to be the target of attacks launched by externally enabled terrorist groups based in Afghanistan.

These terrorist groups pose a clear and present danger to global peace. We hope the Afghan government will take measures to control ungoverned spaces inside its territory from where terrorist groups are able to plan and carry out attacks against the Afghan people, the international coalition forces stationed in Afghanistan, and other countries in the region, including Pakistan. Like the United States, we do not want the blood and treasure we have shed in the war against terrorism to be in vain.

It is also time to start planning for the “day after” — how can the world help a postwar Afghanistan transition to sustainable peace? How do we create conditions that will enable the millions of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, and other countries, to return to their homeland with dignity and honor?

My vision for Pakistan prioritizes development and prosperity for my country and our region through connectivity and economic diplomacy. Our recent investments in key economic connectivity projects can be harnessed to complement efforts for regional integration between South and Central Asia. Our initial discussions with the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation on these issues have been encouraging. It is heartening that the United States and Pakistan are of one mind on the importance of a “peace dividend” for ensuring a sustainable peace in Afghanistan.

For Pakistan, regional peace and stability remain key to realizing the collective aspirations of our people for a better future. We are committed to multilateral collaboration to achieve this.

The first step toward that peace has been taken in Doha. Not seeing through the Afghanistan peace process or abandoning it for any reason would be a great travesty.

Imran Khan: Peace is within reach in Afghanistan. A hasty international withdrawal would be unwise.
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Editorial: Is Afghanistan being dragged to square one?

Afghanistan Times

Editorial

September 26, 2020

A game is being played on the fate of Afghanistan once again, primarily at the hands of key stakeholders and influencers in the country. The US is seemingly backtracking on everything that it purported to uphold and stand for. The history is going to repeat itself because Afghans are not cognizant of the narratives being presented, especially by the Taliban.

September 26, 1996, marks the arrival of the Taliban into Kabul and the brutal killing of the Afghan former President Dr. Najibullah. They stress a change to some governance structures and the security apparatus. They use violence and flex military muscles to gain leverage – all draw similarities to the circumstances of the 90s when Afghanistan was pulled to pieces. In a recent interview, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Peace Process Zalmay Khalilzad further aggrandized the Taliban as the US is giving in to their every demand. He said the Taliban wouldn’t accept a permanent ceasefire until there is a political settlement in Afghanistan.

The US in a manner is lobbying and advocating for the requests of the Taliban and is instigating that option for the rebels. This way the country is brazenly but slowly turning against the Afghan government, despite supporting it over the past two decades. But it shouldn’t be so; the US along with the international community should have pressurized the group to agree to a ceasefire.

Khalilzad has already reneged on its statement when he said that the US-Taliban agreement (which was signed in February) would be inked on the condition of a truce but that didn’t happen – it’s not even happening when the intra-Afghan talks are ongoing in Doha. The current situation resembles that of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan when Afghanistan was left isolated and cut off from the rest of the world while Afghanistan’s neighboring countries also did huge treason towards the country by cutting off trade routes and relations.

At this juncture, the American and coalition forces’ withdrawal bodes ill for the survival of the current government as the support to the government is being withdrawn with the Taliban coming into the scene. Although the current system enjoys broad-based support from the international community unlike Najib’s era, the negative upshot of a lack of such a cooperation mechanism on the part of the US will lead to a similar situation to that of President Najibullah – if not completely the same – because the Kabul government has been so far frail, perennially corrupt and ineffective due to lack of political consensus.

Such a situation doesn’t rule out yet another internecine war occurring as the Taliban have been grandly emboldened and the government weakened. Any miscalculated step on the part of any stakeholder would take us back to square one and thus all of them, especially the Afghan leaders and elites, should learn from the past mistakes and avoid repeating the history yet again; unless they deliberately want to do so.

Editorial: Is Afghanistan being dragged to square one?
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Taliban assaults Helmand capital as U.S. officials plead for a ‘reduction in violence’

The Taliban launched an all-out assault on Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, as U.S. officials continue to wrongly claim that those attacks are in violation of the U.S.-Taliban withdrawal deal.

The Taliban launched its offensive on Lashkar Gah last weekend and shut down the road linking the provincial capital with neighboring Kandahar City. Taliban fighters struck Police Districts 3 and 4, the Babaji area of the city and “three districts that are near the center of the province,” TOLONews reported. Two of the districts appear to be Nawa and Nad Ali.

Afghan police abandoned several checkpoints, ceding the areas to the Taliban.

Afghan Commandos have been deployed to help retake areas of the city. Two Afghan helicopters collided in Nawa district, killing a reported eight to 15 soldiers. The Taliban claimed that Afghan Army Commandos and four pilots were killed in the crash.

The fighting has been so intense that the U.S. military has been forced to launch airstrikes to help beat back the Taliban. Colonel Sonny Leggett, the spokesman for U.S. Forces Afghanistan, said that the military “will continue to provide support in defense of the ANDSF under attack by the Taliban.”

U.S. officials, including General Scott Miller, the commander of USFOR-A and Resolute Support Mission, and Ross Wilson, the Chargé d’Affaires for the U.S. diplomatic mission in Afghanistan, have wrongly said that the Taliban’s offensive violates the U.S.-Taliban withdrawal agreement that was signed between the two on Feb. 29, 2020.

“It is not consistent with the US-Taliban agreement,” Miller stated.

“This violence, which is not consistent with the U.S.-Taliban agreement, leads only to unacceptable loss of life and destruction,” Wilson tweeted.

However, the deal, which has been published at the U.S. State Department’s web site, makes no mention of requiring the Taliban to commit to “reduction in violence.” Nor is there clause that indicates that the Taliban must reduce its attacks on Afghan forces in the deal. In fact, the only mention of the term “reduction” is related to the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

“A permanent and comprehensive ceasefire will be an item on the agenda of the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations,” the deal reads.

It is possible that there is a side deal between the U.S. and the Taliban that requires the latter to commit to a “reduction in violence,” but if this is true, the Taliban has explicitly denied this, and has claimed it is living up to its end of the bargain. There have been reports of a so-called “secret annex,” but that is supposed to only contain plans for U.S. troop withdrawals.

U.S. military officers have claimed that the Taliban has committed to a reduction in violence in the past. For instance, just five days after the signing of the U.S.-Taliban withdrawal deal , the military launched airstrikes against the Taliban in Helmand. At the time, Leggett, the USFOR-A spokesman, said that the “Taliban leadership promised the international community they would reduce violence and not increase attacks. We call on the Taliban to stop needless attacks and uphold their commitments.”

The Taliban responded by saying that it only agreed to reduce their attacks as the U.S. and the Taliban finalized their deal. Once the deal was signed, it would resume offensive operations against Afghan forces, as it was permitted to do so. [See FDD‘s Long War Journal Report, U.S. military perplexed by Taliban living up to letter of agreement]

U.S. officials have intentionally mischaracterized the withdrawal deal by claiming that it indicated the Taliban would break with Al Qaeda. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has claimed that the Taliban would hunt down and “destroy” Al Qaeda, even though it has been its steadfast ally for three decades. Instead, the Taliban was consulting with Al Qaeda and reassuring them that the agreement would not sever the relationship even as it was negotiating with the U.S. [See FDD’s Long War Journal reports, [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, U.N.: Taliban “regularly consulted” with Al Qaeda throughout negotiations with U.S. and Analysis: Taliban leader declares victory after U.S. agrees to withdrawal deal.]

Instead, the Taliban made the oft-repeated commitment that it would prevent Al Qaeda from attacking the U.S. and its allies. This is the same ‘commitment’ the Taliban made numerous times prior to Sept. 11, 2001. The Taliban has made similar promises since 9/11, yet it has harbored Al Qaeda and other terror groups that have continually plotted against the U.S. and its allies.

Meanwhile the Taliban claims that Al Qaeda or any other foreign terror group is not operating on its soil. If Al Qaeda isn’t present in Afghanistan, then it can’t be considered a legitimate counterterrorism partner, as Pompeo and others have somehow claimed. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Taliban falsely claims al Qaeda doesn’t exist in Afghanistan.]

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

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Don’t trust estimates of Al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan

BY BILL ROGGIO

Foundation for the Defense of Democracies

September 22, 2020 | admin@longwarjournal.org | @billroggio

The U.S. government, military, and intelligence services have provided inaccurate assessments of Al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan for more than a decade.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continued that tradition by recently regurgitating that Al Qaeda has fewer than 200 fighters in the country.

This estimate, like previous ones, should not be trusted.

U.S. officials have downplayed Al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan for several reasons. Chief among them, the seemingly non-threatening number has been used to justify the preferred policy of disengaging from Afghanistan. The Obama Administration sought to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban and fulfill their campaign promise of leaving Afghanistan by the end of Obama’s second term.

It would have been difficult – if not impossible – to achieve this if Al Qaeda had a major presence in Afghanistan and fought alongside the Taliban. Additionally, there are many problems with how U.S. intelligence services have defined Al Qaeda and understood its relationship with allied groups.

The “50 to 100” Fallacy

In July 2010, Leon Panetta, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, estimated that there were merely “50 to 100 Al Qaeda” operatives based in Afghanistan. This estimate remained fixed for nearly six years, until the U.S. and Afghan militaries raided two Al Qaeda training camps in Kandahar and killed or captured more than 150 Al Qaeda fighters.

By the time Panetta provided his 50 to 100 estimate, the groundwork for underestimating Al Qaeda’s strength had already been laid for a year.

In May 2009, General David Petraeus said that Al Qaeda no longer operated in Afghanistan, and that its leadership was based in Pakistan’s tribal agency. At the time, the U.S. was conducting the drone campaign to hunt Al Qaeda leaders and operatives based in Pakistan’s tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan.

In Oct. 2009, General James Jones claimed that there were fewer than 100 Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. In May 2010, some individuals began to question if there were any “Al Qaeda guys” operating in Afghanistan at all.

An Obviously Short-Sighted Estimate

FDD’s Long War Journal has closely tracked operations against Al Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan for the past decade and a half. Based on the operational tempo against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the number of operatives killed or captured during raids, it was obvious there was a major problem with Panetta’s 50 to 100 claim.

FDD’s Long War Journal gathered the data released by the U.S. military in its press releases on raids against the Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and allied jihadist groups in Afghanistan. These press releases were issued beginning in 2007 and continued until June 2013. The press releases only documented a subset of the raids against Al Qaeda, U.S. military and intelligence officials have told FDD’s Long War Journal. Therefore, only the tip of the iceberg of Al Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan could be glimpsed. Had other data, such as press reports, Al Qaeda martyrdom statements, and information from Afghanistan’s military and National Directorate of Security been included, the iceberg would have become more visible.

Still, using the U.S. military’s own data provided all the ammunition needed to disprove the static 50 to 100 estimate. By Oct. 2010, the military’s own press releases showed that Al Qaeda was operating in 62 different districts in 19 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Fifty to 100 Al Qaeda operatives could not possible manage such an extensive network.

The military’s own press releases on operations against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan provided fantastic gems that destroyed to 50 to 100 narrative.

In Sept. 2011, the military announced the death of an Al Qaeda “associate” known as Sabar Lal Melma, a former Guantanamo detainee who returned to Afghanistan to wage jihad. Buried at the end of the press release, the military disclosed that “Coalition security forces have captured or killed more than 40 al-Qaida insurgents in eastern Afghanistan” between Jan. and Sept. of 2011. The year wasn’t even over. And eastern Afghanistan is merely one region of Afghanistan. As previously noted, at this time, Al Qaeda was operating in more than half of Afghanistan’s provinces.

Despite information contained within the military’s own press releases, there was no effort by the military or the intelligence community to revise or hide the estimate of Al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan. The 50 to 100 number was repeated as gospel for well over five years.

In June 2013, the U.S. military ended its reporting on military operations agains the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and their allies. The reason given was that the Afghan military was now in charge of security. However, FDD’s Long War Journal was told that its analysis of the raids hurt the Obama administration’s case of a depleted Al Qaeda.

In May 2014, FDD’s Long War Journal mapped the data relating to the seven years of raids against Al Qaeda and its allies. The data showed that between early 2007 and June 2013, al Qaeda and its allies were targeted 338 different times, in 25 of 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces. Those raids have taken place in 110 of Afghanistan’s more than 400 districts. Again, these raids were only what the U.S. military reported; there were far more which were not.

Death of the “50 to 100” estimate

Then, in Oct. 2015, the fallacy of the static 50 to 100 estimate was laid bare. U.S. and Afghan forces raided two Al Qaeda camps in the Shorabak district in Kandahar province. One of the two camps was situated over 30 square miles and was described as the largest Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion in late 2001.

More than 150 Al Qaeda operatives were killed or captured during that raid alone.

Only after the Shorabak raids did the U.S. military revise its estimate from 50 to 100 Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan – this time from to 100 to 300.

A new, sticky “200” estimate

Pompeo’s estimate of less than 200 Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan is not new, either. The 200 number first appeared in the Nov. 2018 Department of Defense Inspector General’s quarterly report on Afghanistan (the same report also grossly estimated the Taliban’s strength).

Therefore, the estimate of 200 is already two years old.

Why?

In addition to the political angle of downplaying Al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan to justify withdrawal, there are other reasons this problem has spanned a decade. Once an estimate is thrown out there and is put into the bloodstream, there is little effort made or interest in revising the figure. The estimate is then repeated despite contrary evidence.

Also there is a significant misunderstanding of Al Qaeda in the military, intelligence community and the media. The group is operating clandestinely in Afghanistan under the banner of the Taliban – and that makes it difficult to accurately assess its operations. Al Qaeda intentionally hides its footprint in Afghanistan so as not to sabotage the Taliban’s political efforts.

The Taliban cannot get the U.S. to agree to leave Afghanistan if Al Qaeda is openly supporting the Taliban’s efforts.

A common view of Al Qaeda is that it is an organization dominated by Arabs, and thus Afghans and Pakistanis do not play a role in the group. However, Al Qaeda has a significant cadre of Afghan and Pakistanis in both its leadership and rank and file. The U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan from 2005 to 2018, as well as U.S. military operations against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, highlights that fact. Ilyas Kashmiri, a Pakistani jihadist, rose to lead Al Qaeda’s military before he was killed in a drone strike. There are numerous other examples.

The formation of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent in Sept. 2014 remains widely misunderstood. This Al Qaeda branch, which alone has hundreds of fighters, is made up of operatives from the constellation of jihadist groups in the region, including but not limited to the Afghan Taliban, the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan and other non-aligned Pakistani Taliban groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohmmad, Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, and Harakat-ul-Jihad-I-Islami.

This constellation of regional jihadi groups, which used to be known as Al Qaeda and Allied Movements, also fight alongside Al Qaeda as well as conduct joint operations, and thus increase Al Qaeda’s combat power. This also provides Al Qaeda with the opportunity to fill its membership from the leadership and ranks of allied groups when needed.

Additionally, an operative may actually be member of more than one group. (The U.S. military referred to these Al Qaeda leaders as “dual hatted.”) Individuals such as Aminullah Peshwari and Qari Zia Rahman are perfect examples of dual-hatted leaders.

Finally, the fluid border between Afghanistan and Pakistan makes it impossible to assess Al Qaeda strength in either country. Al Qaeda and allied groups frequently cross this border to conduct attacks, establish bases of operations, and shelter given the security situation.

Al Qaeda’s exact strength in Afghanistan may never be known. Given the history of U.S. officials of downplaying this important statistic, one should be highly skeptical of efforts to lowball Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan.

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

Taliban assaults Helmand capital as U.S. officials plead for a ‘reduction in violence’
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