Tag Archives: Afghanistan

MOAB’s and Afghanistan – Another Day, Another Munition Dropped

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By William Reynolds, a 2nd year undergraduate studying War Studies. From a British Armed Forces background, William follows the military capabilities of the West and the security issues in the Middle East with great interest, placing special emphasis on COIN and the experiences of individuals on the ground. William has worked as a Research Fellow for Dr Whetham in the Centre of Military Ethics and is a spammer of many articles on the King’s Middle East and North Africa Forum (MENA).

The recent deployment of a GBU-34 Massive Ordinance Air Blast (MOAB) munition over ISIS territory in Afghanistan has grabbed headlines and sparked debate on President Trump’s strategy. Many attribute this deployment to a more muscular approach and possible signalling to both Syria and North Korea that the current administration is not messing around. This, of course, is reliant on one massive assumption: That Trump gave the order for the strike.

The MOAB is indeed one of the largest non-nuclear weapons that the US possesses in their inventory. However, the GBU-43 (MOAB) that was deployed has been incorrectly labelled as the most powerful in the US armoury. That honour falls to the GBU-57A/B Massive Ordinance Penetrator (MOP) at 30,000 lb (or 14,000 kg). Nevertheless, the MOAB cannot be considered to be in a ‘special category’ such as that which nuclear weapons inhabit. To the planners on the ground, the MOAB is simply another tool for the job. Indeed, during the Vietnam campaign is was not uncommon for the MOAB’s predecessor, the BLU-82 ‘Daisy Cutter’ to be deployed regularly against the National Liberation Front (NLF) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The MOAB simply falls into the same category as a Hellfire missile or 2,000 lb JDAM.

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It is with this in mind that we must question whether Trump explicitly ordered the deployment of such a munition. In general terms, an air strike is called in through a Forward Air Controller (FAC) who is deployed forward with the combat troops. FAC’s don’t necessarily control what ordinance is dropped. Close Air Support (CAS) strikes are not tailored fit for the platoon’s on the ground, rather they make do with whatever assets are assigned to that area of operations. Now a MOAB is most certainly not a munition deployed in the CAS role. Thus, there was pre-planning involved, possibly placed as a useable asset for the push into the ISIS-held region. Such munitions have proved valuable in the past when clearing out insurgents from rough terrain. The Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan and Ho Chi Minh trail in Vietnam springing to mind.

Ultimately, the buck could have theoretically stopped anywhere along the chain of command. It could have gone as far as CENTCOM Commander Votel, the regional commander in Afghanistan or simply the acting commander of the occurring operation. Whoever did indeed give the go ahead, it does not signal a clear change in strategy. The US has always been focused on killing the insurgent. Whilst not particularly favourable in population-centric warfare, they are certainly good at it.

What commentators on the Afghan war should be looking at was the recent deployment of US Marines back into Helmand province. Whilst numbering only 300, the deployment of Marines usually signals an urge to regain the initiative and go on the offensive. Marines are shock troops first and foremost. Their deployment may signal a change in strategy in the region. Indeed, the deployment to Helmand in itself is a signal of sorts. Helmand has always been the stronghold of the Taliban post-2004, with multiple British, American and Dutch offensives turning up little in terms of major gains for ISAF. The deployment of Marines in the region can only mean the focus shifting away from the maintenance of Kabul’s security.

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This possible change in strategy has further intrigued commentators who note that as of today (09/05/17) NATO has requested additional troops from the UK to be deployed in Afghanistan. This will not mean another British Battle Group will place their feet on the tarmac of Camp Bastion again. But it does signal a possible resurgence of military power into the graveyard of empires.

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Bibliography:

https://www.mca-marines.org/site/styles/gallery_photo_image/public/importedFiles/files/1_461.jpg?tok=ONvy9loy-USMC

https://ichef-1.bbci.co.uk/news/624/media/images/78130000/jpg/_amoc-cct-2014-151-062.jpg-CampBastionMemorial

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Why ISIS will not succeed in Afghanistan

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By Lily Hess, a 2nd year undergraduate Student studying International Relations. She is currently studying abroad, and is the Foreign Editor of International Relations Today.

In 2014, a worrying development occurred in Afghanistan: The spread of ISIS’ Khorasan branch into several provinces, with its stronghold in Nangarhar. Following its stunning successes in Syria and Iraq, ISIS decided to expand its franchise outside the Arab world. The Khorasan branch encompasses South Asia in general — including India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. Afghanistan had appeared as a particularly promising country for expansion, given the limited control of its weak government and extensive history of jihadist wars against Western invaders and the “indel” regimes they support. ISIS’ strategy was to use its reputation, superior resources, and the internal discord of local competitors, like the Afghan Taliban, to recruit and integrate existing militants in Afghanistan to build up its own force there. [1]

Currently the Afghan Taliban and ISIS are at war with each other, while both also fight the NATO-backed Afghan government forces. Why didn’t ISIS decide to simply cooperate with groups like the Taliban, a jihadist group that is well-organized and holds long-established networks? This answer may stem back to the foundations of ISIS in Syria. The predecessor of ISIS is the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), al-Qaeda’s previous branch in Iraq. At the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, al-Qaeda saw a ripe opportunity to expand its operations. It tasked the ISI with helping to establish its new Syrian branch, and the Jabhat al-Nusra was declared in 2012. [2] However, al-Qaeda kept ambiguous its connection to al-Nusra in order to give it more leeway to gain the support of other local fighter groups in Syria. At the same time, the leadership of ISI itself wanted to spread its operations into Syria and establish itself as a separate group from al-Qaeda. These tensions culminated to the point where ISI announced that al-Nusra was it’s Syrian subsidiary, but from then on its existence would be unnecessary because ISI would reform itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Most of al-Nusra rejected this association, and in the process had to let loose that it was a branch of al-Qaeda. [2] ISI’s (newly ISIS’) announcement was followed with a series of large victories in Syria and Iraq, which propelled it to international attention. But it’s brutal tactics and hunger for sole control caused other militant groups, including al-Nusra, to increasingly oppose the new group. Al-Qaeda also denounced and dropped its Iraq branch, now ISIS.

 The hostility between ISIS and al-Qaeda has been transcribed into the South Asian theater, owing to the ties between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But ISIS’ vitriol toward the Afghan Taliban also stems from what it believes are ideological deficiencies. It denounces the Taliban’s adherence to local tribal laws instead of a blanket application of a strict form of Sharia Law claiming  the Taliban a puppet of Iran and Pakistan’s intelligence service, in order to present its illegitimacy. Before the world knew that Mullah Omar had been dead for years, ISIS publicly assailed his “nationalist” worldview as opposed to trying to unite all Muslims. After he was found to have been dead, ISIS accused the Taliban of deceiving their followers and being untrustworthy for hiding his death. [3] Indeed, the revelations of Mullah Omar’s death stirred unrest within the Taliban as a power struggle ensued. When Mullah Mansour emerged as the leader, it disaffected a number of its members, some of whom then joined ISIS in Afghanistan.

On top of the discord within the Taliban, ISIS also has used other inter-group tension to recruit top fighters. The two original leaders of ISIS’ Khorasan branch are solid examples of these: The leader, Hafiz Saeed Khan, was a former chief of the Orakzai branch of the Tehreeke-Taliban Pakistan who was passed over for the highest position in the organization. The second-in-command (but since deceased), Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, a former commander in the Afghan Taliban, had perceived an unfair tribal representation in its shura council, and was frustrated over whether Mullah Omar was alive or not. By itself, ISIS also had the advantage of resources over the other groups. Owing from its victories in Syria and Iraq, the group became rich from oil, antiquities, kidnapping, extortion, and other activities. Furthermore, it was willing to spend large sums of money to expand its networks in South Asia. Finally, its sophisticated media campaign was far more advanced than the Taliban’s. [1] Overall, ISIS had the perfect opportunity to use it many advantages to unseat the Taliban and become the dominant insurgent force against the state and expand its “caliphate”.

However, since its early successes in recruiting militants to its cause, ISIS has been facing severe failures in Afghanistan. The main cause of this ultimately originates from its core brutality and intolerance for local practices of Islam and society. Afghanistan’s tribal variations and provinciality, which have long bedeviled the Afghan government’s attempts at constructing a national identity, now bedevil ISIS’ attempts at garnering local support. The group is a foreign import, and does not understand the local people as much as the indigenous Taliban. The largest ethnic group in Afghanistan — and the majority of Taliban fighters — are Pashtuns. ISIS has criticized the tribal code of Pashtuns called Pashtunwali, which does not help their recruitment of Taliban fighters. [3] While the Taliban can be harsh, ISIS is brutal to another level, to the point where it alienates the local population. In fact, ISIS has minuscule local support and no cooperation with other militant groups in Afghanistan. The majority of its fighters in Afghanistan are actually former members of the Pakistani Taliban that were driven out by Pakistani military operations in its tribal areas. [4] In the competition between ISIS and the Taliban, this gives the Taliban two legitimacy advantages: They can claim to be the indigenous and (comparatively) moderate group. Meanwhile, ISIS is being targeted from all sides as American drone strikes, Afghan operations, and clashes with the Taliban batter down the group. The Khorasan Branch is geographically far from its central leadership in Iraq and Syria. Owing to the recent challenges it faces there, it seems unlikely that the central command would place the Khorasan Branch as a high priority and send aid. The group has been virtually eradicated from South and West Afghanistan. [5] While the Taliban now holds more territory than ever since the US-led invasion in 2001, ISIS has lost more than half the districts it once held in Afghanistan. [6]

In the future, ISIS’ influence in Afghanistan is likely to steadily decline, especially if it loses most of its territory in Syria and Iraq. However, the risk of spread to other regions is always present. Many of the fighters are likely to return to their home countries eventually, and this may be troubling news for Central and South Asia. ISIS has recently been attempting to control territory in Northern Afghanistan in order to create a corridor for militants from Central Asian states it borders and Afghanistan. [5] While it is highly unlikely that ISIS will ever succeed in conquering Afghanistan and adding it to the “caliphate”, remnants of the group will disseminate to neighboring regions, where they can remain as a small but perpetual threat.

Bibliography:

Picture credit: Link: https://southfront.org/vilayat-khorasan-isis-takes-over-afghanistan/

1 = Jones, Seth G. “Expanding the Caliphate: ISIS’ South Asia Strategy.” Foreign Affairs. 11 June 2015. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/afghanistan/2015-06-11/expanding-caliphate

2 = Mendelsohn, Barak. The Al-Qaeda Franchise. New York City: Oxford University Press, 2016. Print.

3 = Barr, Nathaniel and Bridget Moreng. “The Graveyard of Caliphates.” Foreign Affairs. 13 January 2016. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/afghanistan/2016-01-13/graveyardcaliphates

4 = “ISIS increasing recruitment from Pakistan, Afghanistan: US.” Financial Express. 24 March 2017. http://www.financialexpress.com/world-news/isis-increasing-recruitment-from-pakistanafghanistan-us/600632/

5 = “IS in Afghanistan: How successful has the group been?” BBC. 25 February 2017. http:// http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-39031000

6 = Gidda, Mirren. “Why ISIS is Failing to Build a Caliphate in Afghanistan.” Newsweek. 25 March 2017. http://www.newsweek.com/afghanistan-isis-taliban-caliphate-kabulbombing

 

 

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Fighting the Islamic State: The case for boots on the ground

 

Patrick Visser is a second year, American-Dutch War Studies Student, voted class most likely to stage a coup two years running”. He loves wars: big wars, small wars, can’t get enough of ’em. After writing this article he will undoubtedly be called a neoconservative.

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It is indicative of how scarred the western psyche has been by the “forever wars” of Iraq and Afghanistan that the simplest, most effective way of ending the Islamic State has been dismissed out of hand by the public, decision makers and virtually all serious commentators. The idea of putting “boots on the ground” is not something that is looked at in terms of its costs and benefits, but with a shudder, as something that is unthinkable. This is not good enough. When dealing with a terror as malignant as the Islamic State all options must be considered, especially as boots on the ground may be the only way of ending the conflict quickly and defeating their ideology.

When I propose boots on the ground, I am not talking about small scale special forces units to carry out raids and call in airstrikes as we are seeing now, these are a necessary part of the existing strategy, but too few in number to make a real difference. Nor am I talking about Lindsey Graham’s insane plan to create safe zones with up to 20,000 US troops,[1] which would expose our soldiers to heavy casualties, while doing little to actually solve the problem. I am arguing for a massive, multi-divisional deployment of overwhelming force on the lines of the 2003 march to Baghdad, to conduct a shock and awe blitzkrieg with the express purpose of defeating and conquering the Islamic State. Actual numbers should be determined by military necessity, not political convenience and while this force would necessarily be led the Americans, all parties, including the Russians, Iranians and all the Arab states, should be invited to participate. Around 100,000 men is a reasonable estimate, it could be done with less but this would expose our troops to unnecessary risks.

What makes this different to the disaster that was the 2003 Iraq War? Simply put, time. This force would not be expected to engage in nation building or stay in the country once it has destroyed the Islamic State, the goal is not to transform Iraq and Syria into nice places to live but to remove the threat to ourselves and the affront to humanity that is the Islamic State.

What makes IS a far more serious threat than its predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq is its control of territory. It might not be Islamic, but we are kidding ourselves if we don’t acknowledge that it is functioning as a state, with a government, a well-equipped army, a taxable and conscriptable population, and a booming economy.[2] It is terrorism on an industrial scale, an order of magnitude removed from the pinprick attacks of older terrorist groups. Fortunately, Western militaries are very very good at breaking states. Nobody does conventional war as well as we do- just ask Saddam. The military feasibility of the conquest of the Islamic State is not in question, and if the 2003 War is anything to go by it could be completed in under 6 weeks with fewer than 300 KIA.[3]

How does this solve the underlying problems in Iraq and Syria? It doesn’t, but it is not meant to. The immediate, domineering problem of fighting IS has meant that none of the underlying problems could be faced anyway- you can’t bring together Iraq’s Sunni’s and Shia in an inclusive government while al-Anbar province is under IS rule. What the defeat of the Islamic state would do is buy time and breathing space to resolve these problems, preferably in conjunction with a settlement in Syria (in which it must now be accepted that Assad must play a role). Once IS loses Raqqa, Mosul and its other population centres, it won’t suddenly cease to exist and it is sure to retreat into the desert and revert to its previous role as a “normal” terrorist group and insurgency, but merely forcing this is already a major and important victory, as without the resources of a state it is a far less menacing threat, both regionally and abroad.

The conquest of IS’s territory would shatter the legitimacy the group has achieved by declaring itself the new caliphate, as for a caliphate to be recognised under Islamic law it must be able to enforce Sharia over the temporal sphere.[4] Indeed, al-Baghdadi’s genius is that he realised people are far more willing to sacrifice for the here and now, rather than Bin Laden’s hazy dream of a world caliphate in the distant future, generations away.[5] Taking this away from the Islamic State removes its most important recruiting tool and sets the jihadist cause back years. It is all well and good to go to Iraq or Syria when you feel you have personal agency in bringing about God’s kingdom on Earth, with the added bonus of getting 30-or-so Yazidi slave wives, it is quite another thing to go to fight and die for a losing cause with the entire might of the world’s most powerful army raining down on you.

The Islamic State’s ideology also creates huge vulnerabilities to Western firepower. According to their doctrine, they see the West as the “new Rome” with which they eagerly await a showdown alluded to in the Hadith on “the plains of Daqib” a town in northern Syria that IS was especially delighted to bring under it rule.[6] In a larger sense, they cannot simply melt into the countryside like most insurgencies, as this would throw away the legitimacy they are so painstakingly trying to build up. They are ideologically mandated to test their mettle against our metal. Let’s see how that works out for them. As they are forced to stand and fight, IS militants will be exposed to our overwhelming firepower and slaughtered en masse, not only is this extremely satisfying from a moral standpoint, it will inhibit the group’s ability to bounce back after it is defeated. In Afghanistan in 2001, after the Taliban was forced to concentrate to resist the advance of the Northern Alliance and then smashed by Western firepower, it took so heavy casualties that it could not constitute a major threat to the government again until 2006. In the same war, al-Qaeda never fully recovered from losing its training camps and the majority of its fighters.[7] It is true that attrition, the infamous “body count” cannot alone solve the problems of terrorism, but it does buy time, time in which other actors can work to resolve those problems.

It is often argued that the Islamic State is able to function because it has at least the tacit support of Iraq and Syria’s Sunni population and that once the US leaves, IS will be able to just walk back into the areas it previously controlled. I counter that in the aftermath of a US campaign IS will not have enough fighters left to “bounce back” and would point out that they managed to take al-Anbar Province and Mosul last year, not because the wider Sunni population rose up and drove out the Iraqi government, but because IS fighter beat the embarrassingly bad Iraqi army on the field of battle and then imposed control on the Sunni population. The Islamic State is deeply unpopular in most of the areas it rules and is only able to impose control through fear, not because its citizens have bought into the message of hate that it spouts.[8] For a long term solution we must look to one of the most successful initiatives of the Iraq War- the al-Anbar Awakening, where local Sunni militias, supported by the US and (reluctant) by the central government were able to decisively defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq between 2007 and 2011.[9] Indeed the single greatest enabler for the rise of the Islamic State was the sectarian Maliki governments reckless disbanding of these militias, that left the Iraqi Sunnis unable to defend themselves when AQI (now IS) recuperated.[10] This must be reversed in the aftermath of a successful US led campaign for the victory to last.

Why does the conquest of the Islamic State require American troops? Cannot the same be done with local actors, supported by US airpower, which is the thrust of the existing strategy? Will not US intervention just stir up further anti-western sentiment and help the Islamic State? These are all valid questions, but I would argue that there is no local actor that can do the job. The Iraqi Army is a bad joke, and too dependent on Iranian assistance, which delegitimises it in the eyes of Iraq’s Sunnis; The Kurds are good fighters, but there are not enough of them and they are mostly and understandably focused on protecting Kurdish interests, not the stability of the wider region; The Syrian resistance is a non-factor; and Assad is overstretched and undermanned, and entirely concerned with his own survival. While the US is not popular, it is at least trusted by all factions not to started committing genocide.[11] Indeed, IS has aroused an extraordinarily large coalition against itself, all of whom would be served by US intervention. The idea that Iraqi’s will suddenly start fighting the US, against their own interests, requires a very low opinion of their intelligence- an opinion that I do not share. All the more so as it will be made clear from the outset that the intervention has a strict time limit and once IS is conquered the territory is to be returned forthwith to Iraqi and Syrian control. Charges such as “imperialism” will be thrown around, as they always are, but they are unlikely to gain much traction.

It is possible, likely even, that IS will eventually be ground into dust under the current strategy, the diverse forces arrayed against them are too large to be resisted over the long run. The problem with this is, firstly, that it will take too long, time in which IS can continue its atrocities and carry out attacks in the West, and also that the moral impact of a grinding defeat, with IS able to portray itself as holding off the whole world and fighters able to escape back home to carry out Paris style rampages, is far less devastating to their cause that a short, sharp disaster, where their kingdom is brought crashing down around them in a matter of weeks, their bravest fighters killed in droves and their ideology revealed to be no match for the forces of civilisation. Such a defeat would undermine the morale of Jihadi groups across the world and be a major coup in the global war on terror.

What about the idea that such a campaign would set a precedent? That having done it once we would have to do the same thing for the next Islamic State, and the one after? I would argue that the precedent that we will smash unmitigated evil wherever it rears its ugly head is a good one, both in terms of common morality and in furthering international stability. Especially as the potential for working multilaterally with traditional adversaries such as Russia exists against the Islamic State and such action could be legitimised by the UN Security Council. In any case, precedent is a pretty weak argument to rest opposition on as there is no rule that you have to act in the future as you did in the past, and as people have very short memories when it comes to foreign policy.

In all honesty, the plan I have proposed is not going to happen. We are war weary after the decade long struggle since 9/11 and for most people IS is just something unpleasant we hear about on the nightly news whenever they launch an attack (on the west- their daily massacres in Iraq and Syria barely register) or behead an aid worker. This is something to be mourned, we have become gun-shy, a legacy of our reckless intervention in Iraq. This caution is commendable when it stops us from blundering into disastrous foreign policy adventures, but is a tragedy when it blinds us to an evil that we have the power to put an end to. I will leave you with a quote from Spiderman “with great power comes great responsibility”. We have great power, but we have shirked our responsibility. IS wants to be considered a state and play at conventional war. Fine. Bring it.

 

[1] Jenifer Rubin Sen. Lindsey Graham offers a new ‘construct’ to defeat the Islamic State, The Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2015/11/17/sen-lindsey-graham-offers-a-new-construct-to-defeat-the-islamic-state/

[2] Helen Lock, How Isis became the wealthiest terror group in history, The Independent http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/how-isis-became-the-wealthiest-terror-group-in-history-9732750.html

[3] There is reason to believe that a campaign against the Islamic state would be even easier, as they lack many of Saddam’s heavy weapons and armour, have few men under arms and are geographically smaller.

[4] Graeme Wood, What ISIS Really Wants, The Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

[5] Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, p.193-195

[6] http://searchtruth.com/book_display.php?book=041&translator=2&start=0&number=6924; Graeme Wood, What ISIS Really Wants, The Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

[7] Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, p.424-428

[8] Munqith al-Dagher, How Iraqi Sunnis really feel about the Islamic State, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/03/24/how-iraqi-sunnis-really-feel-about-the-islamic-state/

[9] Lt Col Michael Silverman, Awakening Victory, the entirety of

[10] Toby Dodge, Iraq: From War to a new authoritarianism, p99-101

[11] Dr Steven Biddle, Iraq After the Surge, http://keats.kcl.ac.uk/pluginfile.php/1483392/mod_resource/content/1/Biddle%20Testimony%20-%20Iraq%20after%20the%20Surge.pdf

 

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Mullah Omar’s Death and the Next Chapter of Afghanistan’s Saga

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.

741083-mullahomar-1406315124-483-640x480After 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.

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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

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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.

SOURCES:

https://www.wash
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http://www.dw.com/en/why-chinas-uighurs-are-joining-jihadists-in-afghanistan/a-18605630

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-33907666

http://uk.businessinsider.com/taliban-leader-mullah-omars-death-is-a-gift-to-isis-2015-7?r=US&IR=T#ixzz3j5EzZZeV

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http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2015/07/29/how-death-of-talibans-mullah-omar-could-boost-isis-in-afghanistan/

https://news.vice.com/article/the-taliban-tells-the-islamic-state-to-get-the-hell-out-of-afghanistan

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-33154074

http://nationalinterest.org/feature/taliban-vs-isis-the-islamic-state-doomed-afghanistan-13153?page=21

http://edition.cnn.com/2015/07/30/asia/afghanistan-mullah-omar/

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-3353

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http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/what-could-mullah-mohammad-omars-death-mean-for-the-taliban-talk

IMAGES:

http://i1.tribune.com.pk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/741083-mullahomar-1406315124-483-640×480

http://christophgermann.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/chinas-central-asia-problem.html?m=1

http://www.columbian.com/photos/galleries/2015/mar/14/editorial-cartoons-march-15-21/

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