Afghanistan: A Game of Thrones

Originally published at The Diplomat Magazine

The vice president of Afghanistan, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, returned to Afghanistan on Sunday after self-imposed exile in Turkey amid allegations of rape, sexual abuse, and torture.

In December 2016, Ahmad Eschi, former governor of Jawzian, brought charges that he was detained, tortured, and sexually assaulted by Dostum and his guards. The Afghan Supreme Court ordered Dostum’s house arrest for these charges and the vice president fled to Turkey.

Dostum, a part of the Northern Alliance that toppled the Taliban in 2001, is known for his strong militia and Taliban killings. Yet his homecoming is a complex and controversial event.

Recently, Nizamuddin Qaisari , Dostum’s top commander, was arrested and his soldiers brutally killed by Afghan forces. Facebook videos revealed the Afghan Commando Forces making fun of the soldiers’ bodies, sparking massive protests and accusations against the government for misuse of power.

Dostum’s supporters protested, stormed government offices, burned properties, closed factories, blocked highways, and closed customs and borders — affecting Afghanistan’s economy and creating more chaos and fear for civilians.

The government, unable to control the situation, is seemingly looking to Dostum to impact these protests and settle matters down. There is speculation that this is the purpose for his return. But if one looks further, thereare other reasons for his return at this time.

When in Turkey, Dostum formed strong coalitions with General Atta Mohammad Noor, former governor of Balkh province, and Mohammad Mohaqiq, second deputy of Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah. Noor in particular is known to persuade by pressuring the government to meet his conditions.

In the presidential election of 2014, Abdullah Abdullah, now the chief executive officer, and Ashraf Ghani, the current president of Afghanistan, almost sparked a bloody civil war with their feuding. Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was able to circumvent this, but at great cost. Since the development of the National Unity Government (NUG), an uneasy alliance between Abdullah and Ghani, Afghanistan has become more fragile and violent, with a lack of leadership and centralized power by Ghani.

Rather than one president, two disagreeing leaders are ruling Afghanistan, leaving everyone vulnerable to their internal disputes. To cite just one example, Minister of Energy and Water Ali Ahmad Osmani was fired by Ghani this past June but was brought back by Abdullah — only to be run out of office by the president’s secret service.

The underlying problem in Afghanistan is longstanding ethnic conflict and fears. Throughout history, Pashtuns predominantly ruled the nation and considered themselves the dominant ethnic group — but were not the majority of the population. Other ethnic groups, such as the Tajiks, struggled to gain power, control, and domination in a quest to have one of their own as president.

Each group acts as if they will bring peace to Afghanistan, but each group wants the presidency for the purpose of power, inciting hatred between the political parties and civilians. Rampant discrimination and racism have made peace impossible, resulting in four decades of war. The ethnic conflicts with ties to the civil war are the root of what has made peace impossible for the past 40 years.

These various factions have turned Afghanistan into a battleground for power and not for the people. The technocrats, warlords, and Taliban all state their intent to bring peace – but no group is willing to establish policies that include compromise and inclusion.

The warlords — leaders like Dostum and Noor — comprise a major part of the nation. They are both loved and hated by the people because of their victory against the Soviet Union and the destruction this civil war resulted in. They fought the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, resulting in deep hate for each other.

The technocrats – represented by Ghani’s government — are blamed for dictating power and supporting programs and policies that benefit predominantly Pashtuns. They resist any other group that wants government representation, leaving a deep mistrust. They are also regarded by many as “puppets of the West.”

Finally, the Taliban are viewed as an extreme group but many Pashtuns welcome and praise them because of the stated possibility of peace, shared ethnicity, and a unified Afghanistan they envision through Taliban leadership. The majority of the population, however, view the Taliban as “the puppets of Pakistan” and believe them to be aligned with other extreme nations who engage in terrorist acts without regard for innocent people, destroying economies and civilizations with their mandates such as prohibiting education for girls.

Amid these battling forces, peace in Afghanistan is not a simple matter. It will require education and a willingness to accept others for the purpose of unity. Peace will only be attained when there is equal and shared power, with representation from all ethnicities, and when the Afghan people develop trust and learn to embrace each other for unity, tolerance, and peace as a shared interest for the common good.


Ahmad Mohibi is the founder of Rise to Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadsmohibi

The Afghan peace talks: Feasible, or futile?

Originally published at Washington Examiner

Last week, the Taliban carried out a series of deadly attacks throughout Afghanistan, leaving over 500 dead and dozens wounded. Although a peace offer remains on the table, the Taliban are on the move, destroying any hope for peace and reconciliation.

The Ghazni attack was an embarrassment for the Afghan government and the international community. It revealed one of the most critical security challenges for the Afghan and U.S. security forces. The Taliban have 20,000 to 40,000 active fighters and control roughly 43 percent of Afghan territory. They maintain a feared presence across the entire country, and international support for law and order against them is starting to dwindle.

One day, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced a conditional cease-fire with the Taliban to honor the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. The next day, the Taliban responded with rockets while Ghani was discussing the importance of the cease-fire live on national television. Although the Taliban remained silent, the United States, Iran, Pakistan, and international community praised the cease-fire.

In July, the U.S. held direct talks with the Taliban in Qatar to facilitate a negotiated settlement with the Afghan government, despite the Taliban’s rejection of peace talks offered by former President Hamid Karzai and President Ashraf Ghani. Their willingness to sit down with the U.S. to mediate a peace agreement is suspiciously a display to keep all foreign military presence out of Afghanistan, thereby leaving the country completely vulnerable to their extremist control.

The Taliban’s vision is to replace the current government with the Islamic Emirate and oust the U.S. from Afghanistan. Both the Afghan and American governments acknowledged the Taliban as a political party to end the 17 years of war. The Taliban will continue to fight in order to fatigue Afghan and international forces, and challenge the authority of the Afghan government, while presenting themselves as a stronger adversary.

Yet, the Taliban are not self-governing and do not have a strong leadership. Some elements of the Taliban are willing to negotiate, but not all. One group makes peace, the other group attacks. They have been divided and fragmented, particularly after the death of their leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, in 2015.

Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour was chosen as the new leader, but he was confronted by several adversaries, including Mullah Rasoul, Abdul Manan Niazi, and Mullah Mansour Dadullah, who were all influential forerunners of the Taliban group. When Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in an American drone strike in 2016, Haibutalah Akhund Zada was elected to be new leader, but there is an ongoing struggle to establish a unified leadership. It is possible to make peace with Haibutllah, but Mullah Manan Niazi and his followers, who operate in the Western region of Afghanistan and are backed by Iran, are unwilling to negotiate. While Haibatullah wants peace, Niazi declares an extension of the jihad until foreign troops leave Afghanistan.

Given the peace offers and historical events in Afghanistan, the Afghan government and the Taliban could work on a unified people-centric government because the Afghan government is unable to wipe out the Taliban and the Taliban are incapable of taking over Afghanistan and creating the Islamic Emirate they want.

Although the Taliban continue to fight, both the Afghan and American governments should continue to hold talks with the faction of the Taliban who are intent on a negotiated settlement and compromise with the Taliban’s foremost demands: Shared central government, modifications of the Afghan constitution regarding social and religious matters, such as Sharia, social norms, and the withdrawal of foreign forces. It’s more likely that a conferred reconciliation can lead to a permanent cease-fire with the Taliban, but if the Taliban continues to enjoy the safe havens and support from Pakistan, they will endure the fight with unstipulated demands.

The U.S. and international partners have two roles moving forward in Afghanistan. One is to support the Afghans through capacity-building, educational programs and economic efforts so that the indigenous people can rebuild their resiliency against extreme regimes that jeopardize the national security of Afghanistan. Next, they must facilitate and support a negotiated settlement by blocking foreign fighters and state-sponsors of terrorism from interfering in the Afghan peace talks.

Peace talks with the Taliban will not bring an absolute peace in Afghanistan. A portion of the Taliban, along the 21 other insurgent groups such as the Islamic State, the Haqqani Network, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other foreign fighters, will continue to fight in Afghanistan. But peace is still possible, even if the path is complex and controversial. It requires an ongoing determination and commitment with peace as the end goal rather than control, power, or an agreement based on exclusively monetary considerations.


Ahmad Mohibi is the founder of Rise to Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadsmohibi

CURE FOR A CHRONIC DISEASE

Originally published at Asian Affairs Magazine 

Ahmad Mohibi offers a prognosis for peace in a nation sick from prolonged conflict and corruption

After 17 years of war, Afghanistan is on life-support. It is plagued with chronic violence, corruption, political divergence and proxy wars. The international community is running out of ideas on how to how to handle the situation, although the US Administration continues to commit troops to the region.

One suggestion is to open negotiations with the Taliban, the insurgent group which attacks the current government of Afghanistan and longs to see American soldiers defeated. This year, there have been developments towards negotiations involving the Taliban. According to some reports, they could form part of the peace process going forward. But that does not reduce the threat they currently pose.

In August, the Taliban carried out a series of deadly attacks throughout Afghanistan, leaving over 500 people dead. Taliban forces held Ghazni over five long days before an Afghan-US coalition removed them.

A COMPLEX DISEASE

The Afghan case is complicated and has competing diagnoses. The origins of the disease can be traced back to the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union that spilled into Afghanistan, creating a perfect host for terrorist groups such al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The conflict retains a strong international dimension. Russia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran all pump life into the Taliban, while America tries to contain them.

Pakistan has been a barrier to peace in Afghanistan

There is resentment within Afghanistan at the extensive role other countries play in their nation’s affairs, often providing the weapons which fuel the devastating war. Many Afghans believe that their nation has turned into a frontline of proxy wars and terrorism because of its strategic location and its abundance of natural resources. They also tend to blame their neighbours – in particular Pakistan – for making things worse.

THE PAKISTAN FACTOR

Pakistan has long been a barrier to peace in Afghanistan. A dispute over land, the Durand Line Agreement, is an ongoing source of conflict among the competing political interests and may not have a near-term resolution.

And Pakistan has been a motherland for the Taliban, from the creation of the insurgency in the 1990s to now. Hospitals in Pakistan treat wounded Taliban soldiers and in border regions, the state has held funerals for Pakistani fighters.

However, Pakistan now has the opportunity to take firm action to close terrorist safe-havens and shut down the religious schools or madrasas which breed fundamentalist Taliban fighters. Pakistan’s new prime minister, Imran Khan, has called for a resolution to the Afghan war through a political dialogue which includes the Taliban. He has promisedAfghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, that he will visit Kabul soon.

IRAN AND ITS ENEMY

Another pressure point is Iran, a Muslim nation which shares a language, religion and border with Afghanistan. Iran considers the United States as its enemy. It has therefore been playing a destructive game of politics in Afghanistan and supports hardline Taliban factions which oppose peace talks. If Russia, Pakistan, Iran and the United States could unite in a common goal of stamping out terrorism, the prospects of peace in Afghanistan would improve.

ETHNIC DIVISION

Although the future of Afghanistan will depend on the way it is treated by foreign actors, peace also needs to rise to the top of the domestic agenda.

Pashtuns claim to be Afghanistan’s largest ethnic majority and therefore claim the right to rule the nation

Afghans suffer from prolonged ethnic conflict that has resulted in devastating civil wars. Afghanistan – renamed from Khurasan – has roughly 14 ethnic groups, the two largest being Tajik and Pashtun. Although there is no accurate data as to which is the largest ethnic group, Pashtuns claim to be the majority and therefore claim the right to rule the nation. Other ethnic groups, such as the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks, have historically attempted to gain power by placing one of their own clan on the presidential throne.

Hatred among the political leaders of the different ethnic groups has spread like a disease through their communities. Discrimination and racism continue from generation to generation. It is like an open pot that any insects can dig in and feed themselves. To bring peace in Afghanistan, Afghans must learn from their mistakes and work as one for the national interest.

HELP FROM OUTSIDE

The international community can foster change by supporting more education, helping with infrastructure redevelopment and monitoring the progress against corruption and social injustice. This would empower Afghans to build resilience against the groups which jeopardise their national security.

Ultimately, though, the future of Afghanistan depends on its people. Good governance, transparent elections, economic development, education and ethnic harmony all lie along the path to peace. Afghans must realise that discrimination is ruining the nation, corruption is feeding terrorism, division is breaking the values of what it means to be an Afghan. When they recognise those challenges and commit to overcome them, they can begin taking some faltering steps towards a lasting peace.


Ahmad Mohibi is Founder and Director of Counter-terrorism at Rise to Peace, a non-profit organization, and a national security expert. He is a published author, journalist and news commentator on TOLONews, and an alumnus of George Washington University and George Mason University.
Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadsmohibi

Peace in Afghanistan requires Pakistan

Originally published at New Delhi Times

On June 22nd, the Center for Peace Research (LCPR) and the South Asian Strategic Stability Institute (SASSI) in Pakistan hosted the Afghan Peace Conference. This effort sought ways to achieve meaningful Afghan dialogue.

Senior Afghan leaders and politicians — Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, former Balkh governor Atta Mohammad Noor, second deputy chief executive Mohammad Mohaqeq, and presidential candidate Abdul Latif Pedram — attended this conference. The summit was opened by the Foreign Minister of Pakistan Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

Without a doubt, Pakistan is the foremost player in the Afghan situation. Holding such summits helps the Afghan peace talks process, but it also strengthens the Afghan-Pakistan bond.

Both nations are primarily Muslim dominated societies with shared values — so there is no need to spark hostility, as has been a theory for the past decades, as subsequently resulted in violence on both sides.

Every Afghan simply blames Pakistan for the ongoing war in Afghanistan due to the rise of terror movements in the 1970s, the proxy war pitting East against West, the creation of the Taliban and the post-9/11 conflict.

Pakistan has been accused of supporting terrorists by the United States, the Afghan government and the international community. These suppositions are based on factual evidence and findings.

Pakistan’s connection to terrorism stirs fear in Afghans. Former Afghan National Directorate of Security and current presidential candidate in the upcoming Afghan elections Rahmatullah Nabil said, “Pakistan has been using terrorism as a tool and tactic.” In September 2018, the Trump administration cancelled $300 million worth of aid to Pakistan over its terror record. Further, Islamabad was accused of “not doing enough to root out militants from its border region with Afghanistan.”

Former US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has also accused Pakistan of playing a “double game” on combating terrorism. She accuses Pakistan of “harboring terrorists that attack American troops in Afghanistan.”

Like the United States, the Afghan government calls Pakistan’s game “toxic” and repeatedly asks for a clear stance on terrorism. After the Ghazni offensive — where 400 terrorists, as well as 70 Pakistani nationals, were killed — the Afghan General Chief of Staff Mohammad Sharif Yaftali stated, “Pakistan is the springboard of international terrorism. All terrorists first land in Pakistan, where they get armed, equipped and then sent to Afghanistan to fight,”

Anytime there is a terrorist attack, Afghans blame Pakistan. These accusations are simply rejected. “Blame games” and “double standards” exist between the Afghan and Pakistani governments. While Afghans hold Pakistan responsible for terrorist attacks and their ongoing support of terrorism, Pakistan accuses Afghans of volatility and blames the US for the creation of this “mess.”

Neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan can breathe peace if they continue with this rhetoric. Confidence must be first built between Afghans and Pakistanis because peace is mutually constructive. A peaceful Afghanistan steadies the region.

Any attempts to bring the Taliban and Afghan political leaders to a negotiation table are laudable no matter who brokers a deal. The Pakistan factor is critical due to the historical background of the Taliban and its movement for the following reasons:

Taliban was founded in Pakistan and later, in 1996, was recognized as a legitimate government to operate in Afghanistan. They remain supported by the Pakistani intelligence agency and their religious elites.

Pakistan harbors the Taliban leadership and its easier for Pakistan to pressure them if they want.

Taliban are equipped, trained and deployed to Afghanistan from Pakistan. If Pakistan offers to help, a full stop is required.

Pakistan is the Taliban’s safe haven. Anytime the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) defeat a group or insurgent groups are out of ammunition and financing, Pakistan provides the necessary support. In a recent operation, a wounded Taliban fighter was treated in Pakistani border clinics after their defeat.

Pakistan served as the center for Afghan political leaders to regroup, obtain foreign aid (weapons and money) to fight against the Soviet Union from the 1970s until the late 1989s. Pakistan knows the politics of war and the Afghan conflict more than any country in the world. If they truly wanted, Pakistan could bring significant results to the peace talks.

The leader of Hizb-e-Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was sheltered and protected in Pakistan since the 1990s until he was deleted from the CIA’s blacklist to enter to Afghanistan.

There are numerous other elements that demonstrate the critical the role of Pakistan in the peace process but those listed are especially important. Pakistan’s offer of support is potentially positive but going forward, the Pakistani government must take a strong stance on terrorism.

Supporting terror is simply non-Islamic, toxic for both nations and a peaceful Afghanistan is beneficial to Pakistan. Conversely, Afghanistan must work to bridge the gap and end the hostility. The requirement of two sides working in unison against terrorism and toward mutually held national interests remains the bottom line.


Ahmad Mohibi is the founder of Rise to Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadsmohibi