by Kate Dinnison and Millie Radovic. Kate is an American second year student of BA International Relations at King’s, North America Editor of IR Today, and Academic Secretary of the War Studies Society. Millie, an Anglo-Serbian native, is also reading IR at the War Studies Department, the Chief Editor of IRT, and VP of the War Studies Society. Both hold acute research interests in Afghanistan, specifically its development in the 21st century: from invasion, to state building and counterterrorism.
After almost 14 years of speculation on the whereabouts of the infamous Taliban leader, after he escaped ISAF’s grip on the back of a motorbike in 2001, the Afghan Government has now confirmed the death of Mullah Omar. Known for his cunning nature and religious rigidity, Omar’s grip was still felt by the Taliban from where he likely stayed in Quetta and Karachi over the years, until his death in Pakistan in 2013. The hunt for Omar had proven to be one of the most difficult on record for international intelligence agencies, some say because of Pakistani interference and support for Afghanistan’s insurgents among other factors that made Bin Laden easier to find in a suburban compound than this two meter tall, one eyed Mullah in urban Karachi. Now that the hunt for him is over, policy makers are questioning what this new information means for future peace talks and the strength of the Taliban without it’s long-time ideological leader. The full withdrawal of U.S. troops is now looming over the statesmen, insurgents and citizens of this long war-torn nation. What, in effect, is to become of Afghanistan?
Peace Talks & Power Brokers
One of Afghanistan’s greatest triumphs occurred in 2014 with the installation of President Ashraf Ghani via the largest and fairest election the country has ever seen, audited under UN supervision. His election marked the beginning of the long transition away from Hamid Karzai’s inefficient, corrupt and favouratist government, which had hindered the U.S. and it’s allies’ state-building efforts during the long fight against the Taliban. Prior to the announcement of Omar’s death, the Taliban orchestrated a statement that he supported the talks with the Afghan government in order to dispel any speculations of internal disconnect and conflict within the Taliban. A few weeks later, just days after the confirmed death of Omar, they released an audio recording of their new leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour – an inaugural address of sorts declaring “the jihad will continue until there is an Islamic system” in Afghanistan. What Monsour said about continuing Omar’s legacy was somewhat predictable, what he omitted, however, is promising for the path ahead. He did not use language suggesting the conquering of Afghanistan, rather the establishment of an “Islamic system.” Despite that he did not support the last round of peace talks hosted by Pakistan, he also did not rule out the possibility of future contact with the government that halted any progress in previous years. The planned peace talks were delayed with the announcement of Omar’s death and have yet to be rescheduled.
The imminent danger in fighting terrorism by eliminating High Value Targets (HVTs) is the inevitable power vacuum that ensues. The US and its allies have played a long game of Whack-A-Mole in the Middle East – one leader dies or one group loses power, another potentially more menacing one takes its place. Such is the fear of Monsour – while supposedly more open to peace talks as the new Supreme Leader, his controversial election could challenge the ideological structure previously set by the militant leaders. While this discord sounds ideal in the fight against the Taliban, behind closed doors, this rift could threaten the unity of the Taliban and cause it to break into smaller, but possibly more violent and extreme factions. This shift in central command could prove to be detrimental for both the Taliban as a unified entity, and for the Afghan National Army (ANA) and their allies if the peace talks prove to be unsuccessful. It is vital for the Afghan Government to utilize this window of opportunity while the Taliban is still somewhat unified and while they still have foreign military aid to strengthen their defenses in case of another bloody summer’s end.
China: losing a man on the inside
Meanwhile, not so much in the spotlight, China has actually been the most enthusiastic supporter of peace talks in Afghanistan. Why? As always, it involves geopolitical and economic national interests. Its far west region, Xianjiang, has been dealing with civil strife for decades as a group of militant Uighur separatists claim that the region is not part of PRC, but that it is East Turkestan that was incorporated in 1949 and has since been under Chinese occupation. Now for China, the relationship between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban becomes important due to its small border Afghanistan (see picture below) that’s situated in the autonomous Xinjiang region. An unstable Afghanistan can become a safe haven for the muslim separatists and further destabilize an already fragile region. Meanwhile, what’s also at stake is China’s $40 billion Silk Road investment plan in Central and South Asia. Hence, it’s fairly obvious why for China, a stable Afghanistan is very important for both maintaining a hold on Xinjiang and securing its investments.
These vested interests, are set to cause a shift of foreign influence and involvement in Afghanistan. As the US led NATO mission winds down, it is the traditionally non-interventionist China that has been increasing its aid to Afghanistan. In October last year, when president Ashraf Ghani first visited China, he returned with promises from Beijing to provide $327 million in aid. Meanwhile, following the nation’s bloodiest day in years, August 8th, when over 50 died and 500 were wounded in three bombings in Kabul, China’s ambassador to Afghanistan called a “marathon meeting” with Afghan National Security Adviser where he said that China was ready to offer “equipment and support to Afghanistan’s security forces”. The extent of China’s involvement is also evident in that the recently postponed peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban were originally set to be hosted in Xinjiang itself. With Mullah Omar’s death announced it will be important to keep an eye on China’s relationship with both the Taliban, and Pakistan. PRC had built a certain relationship with Omar based on the assurance (in 2000) that the Taliban would not allow the Uighur militant groups to launch attacks against China from Afghan territory. With the announcement of his death, and the unity of the Taliban at risk it is difficult to predict what it’s role in the Uighur conflict will be. Then again, it’s important to remember that Omar passed away not this July, but 2 years ago. If the Taliban were to keep its unity under the current leadership a similar understanding between the insurgents and China could continue to hold. Meanwhile, because of China even Pakistan, notoriously a safe haven for the Taliban, will not find it in its interest to support the Uighur militants. This is because their likely target will become the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a particularly important development for Islamabad’s weak economy and ties with China.
ISIS: a limited option for deflectors
Meanwhile to make the situation even more complicated and Afghanistan’s position ever more tragic, the Islamic State has made headway in Afghanistan in its global bid to great an Islamic caliphate. Even before the confirmation of Omar’s death by the Taliban, deflections to the IS were in motion. Now, with the unity of the organisation at stake, it is possible if not probable that certain hardliner splinters of the group will indeed deflect to ISIS.
There are several developments to consider here. Firstly, those related to Al Qaeda. AQ last year confirmed allegiance to Mullah Omar, stating in particular that if anyone should be the supreme “caliph” of the Islamic world, commanding the loyalty of jihadists everywhere, it should be Omar, and not Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State terror group. Meanwhile following the confirmation of Omar’s death, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was quick to pledge allegiance to the new Afghan Taliban chief in an audio message posted online. The pledge to Mullah Akhtar Mansour was Zawahiri’s first message since September last year. There has been speculation about whether Zawahiri is himself dead, and indeed this message isn’t a confirmation that he’s alive (terrorist groups aren’t exactly trustworthy with such information) – however the pledge is confirmation that AQ’s leadership stands with the Taliban, not ISIS.
While this may not lead to Al Qaeda affiliates switching over to ISIS, the disarray that Omar’s death may cause could lead to defections “down in the trenches.” This is particularly noticeable as the 31st of July, the day after the Taliban finally confirmed that their leader had passed was one of the most active days for ISIS on Twitter seen in months. The Islamic State formally announced its presence in Afghanistan in January, and its supporters have since been battling Taliban forces in Nangarhar province. The concern is that instability within the Taliban could soon mean they get a significant boost. Analysts are arguing that ISIS militants are benefiting from a steady influx of young, disaffected ex-Taliban recruits joining their ranks.There have apparently already been “a number of significant breakaways from the Taliban”, with people leaving because they didn’t believe former Taliban leader Omar was still alive. KCL’s very own Dr Rudra Chaudhuri has stated that “splinter groups have burst into the open since the death of Mullah Omar.”
However, in assessing the possibility of ISIS making recruitment gains from the Taliban’s apparent rough patch, it’s important to remember that the groups have differing ambitions. The Taliban is focused on creating an Islamic state in Afghanistan with defined borders, while ISIS is seeking to create a global caliphate and mega-state spanning across several continents. On one hand this makes ISIS seem more appealing – not only are they making gains, but their ambitious aims may appeal especially to the younger members of the Taliban. However, it’s also important to remember that the Taliban are deeply rooted in the local tribal culture of the region. This will always be difficult for ISIS to successfully challenge as it claims to be universal. Hence, those fighting for nationalist reasons are arguably not very likely to deflect from the Taliban (who see their struggle as being regionally limited) to a group that will not prioritise their cause.
Lastly, it’s also important to remember the role of Pakistan, especially as the Taliban’s lifeline. Pakistan has no leverage whatsoever over ISIS and while it has served its interests to support the Taliban and keep its neighbour relatively unstable (and thus less threatening), it would not serve its goals in Afghanistan in any way for the Taliban to be replaced by ISIS. The nation has proven more than competent in sustaining the Taliban against the odds of fighting the United States. Hence, there’s no reason to doubt that they have the capacity and motive to do so against the Islamic State.
The West’s War: Counterinsurgency in the Middle East
Notoriously criticised for their many mistakes in the invasion of and statebuilding in Afghanistan, the US and its allies face another difficult time now. Pulling out of Afghanistan has seemed to be a ‘no brainer’, especially with the arguably very impressive development of the Afghan National Army and the democratic election of the new president Ashraf Ghani. However, with the peace talks at risk, the unity of the Taliban in question, and the advance of ISIS, pulling out completely and for good will prove far more tricky than it had been planned. At the urging of the Afghan government, the deadline for taking the last NATO soldiers out of Afghanistan has been pushed back to December of 2016. But even meeting this will prove difficult. Moreover, with China’s interests in Afghanistan’s stability rising, and crises elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa multiplying it looks so far like following the confirmation of Omar’s death, we’re set to see a shift in international presence and influence in Afghanistan. If China indeed steps closer to ensure its national interests are protected, and the West is looking to meet the December deadline, it must step up in dealing with the worldwide chaos that the Islamic State has caused: the migration crisis and militant clashes in Libya and Turkey in particular. Omar’s death and the scramble that has ensued could prove to be another fork in the road for the long-struggling Islamic Republic of Afghanistan; which path they’ll take will depend on the outcome of this transition period and the will of Ghani to do all in his power to succeed in the imminent peace talks.