Daily Briefing: Afghanistan Awaits its September 28th Election Results (October 3, 2019)


Table of Contents:

To Disrupt Elections, Taliban Turn to an Old Tactic: Destroying Cell Towers:  Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Najim Rahim, New York Times, Oct. 2, 2019

As Afghanistan Heads To Polls, Middle East Rivalries Threaten Already Fraught Political Scene:  Kim Sengupta, The Independent, Sept. 28, 2019

The Trump Administration’s Afghanistan Policy Thomas Jocelyn, FDD,Sept. 19, 2019

Can the New Afghanistan Survive America’s Exit? Yaroslav Trofimov, WSJ, Sept. 27, 2019


To Disrupt Elections, Taliban Turn to an Old Tactic: Destroying Cell Towers
Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Najim Rahim
 New York Times, Oct. 2, 2019

There are several reasons Afghan officials are struggling to determine how people voted in the presidential election last week — possible fraud, misplaced biometric data and the country’s vast geography. But there is one factor that has complicated the effort more than any other: the Taliban’s tactic of destroying cellphone towers.

Afghanistan’s growing cellular network has long been considered a benchmark for the country’s modernization and growth. But the destruction of the towers prevented voting officials from communicating with election workers in the country, while instigating fear and intimidation in the affected areas.

The Taliban have sought support in the rural hamlets and towns that harbor militants, even as they fight the government in Kabul. The cellphone tower strategy augments the group’s more conventional, and deadly, forms of insurgency. There were scores of attacks on election targets on Saturday that killed police officers and wounded civilians.

While officials praised the Afghan security forces for their performance in defending against widespread smaller attacks, the Taliban still managed to create a cloud over the elections. Four days after the vote, officials were still struggling to determine how many people had turned out, although the initial figures from the election commission put the number around two and a half million, a historic low.

As recently as last month, the elections were not even certain to happen, with all the attention focused on negotiations between the Taliban and the United States that were nearing a deal for an American withdrawal. If the two sides had finalized an agreement, the election was likely to have been postponed. But President Trump abruptly canceled the talks.

On Wednesday, Zalmay Khalizad, the United States special envoy who had been conducting those talks, arrived for meetings with officials in Pakistan, where Taliban insurgents have sanctuaries. His visit overlapped with Taliban negotiators, based in Qatar, who also were visiting Pakistan. But it remained unclear whether Mr. Khalilzad would meet them.

The election results are not expected for weeks, and a runoff is likely, although the uncertainty has not prevented each campaign of the two main contenders, President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, from claiming its candidate is ahead.

In the northeastern province of Takhar, Taliban commanders warned cellphone companies that if they did not deactivate their towers, the militant group would destroy them. “We have the Taliban letter with us: The order was given by Mawlawi Haibatullah, the Taliban leader,” said Ghafoor Talash, the head of the telecommunications and information technology department in Takhar. “The reason for the order was to violate the election.”

After Mr. Talash contacted his counterparts in Kabul, he was instructed to make sure the towers stayed on at least for Election Day, and the Taliban followed through on their threat. Several towers were destroyed, he said, along with two other main towers in Baghlan and Kunduz provinces. Some towers, Mr. Talash said, cost $200,000 a piece, while some other, larger sites can cost as much as $1 million. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

As Afghanistan Heads To Polls, Middle East Rivalries Threaten Already Fraught Political Scene
Kim Sengupta
The Independent, Sept. 28, 2019

Bitter rivalries among the Gulf states are being secretly played out in Afghanistan’s impending election, with “hidden foreign hands” trying to manipulate the result, a leading candidate has claimed on the eve of the poll. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are seeking to ensure that Ashraf Ghani, the incumbent, wins the presidential race, given his opposition to Taliban peace talks being held in Qatar, Ahmad Wali Massoud told The Independent.

The brother of “The Lion of Panjshir” – commander Ahmad Shah Masood, who was assassinated by the Taliban – holds that the Afghan election has become a locus of competition between Qatar and its Saudi and Emirati adversaries. “The Saudis and Emiratis don’t want Qatar to become the power behind the scenes and make themselves invaluable with the Americans – they want to play major roles in the peace process,” claimed Mr Massoud, a former ambassador to the UK.

The accusations of interference come as campaigning ends in an election which has become increasingly acrimonious, with allegations of fraud and warnings by some candidates that they will not accept the result of Saturday’s vote if there is evidence of malpractice. The run-up to the polls has also been marked by relentless violence, with 170 people killed and 300 wounded in insurgent attacks since campaigning started. The Taliban issued another threat on Friday, warning people to “stay away from the polling stations on election day”.

A rally due to be held by Mr Ghani at Kabul’s Ghazni stadium, where the Taliban used to execute prisoners, was cancelled at the last minute “due to a credible and serious threat”, said officials. Mr Massoud said that although the ongoing violence has been a matter of grave worry, there should also be serious concerns about accusations of dirty tricks.

Afghanistan, he maintained, has become embroiled in the now two-year-long confrontation between the Saudis and Emiratis, and the Qataris. “We have heard there are some foreign hands who are very keen to see Dr Ghani succeed and have been working towards it; this is not pleasant news to hear”, said Mr Massoud. “We hear that the Saudis and the Emiratis here are getting involved. We have been told that a team of hackers had been brought in by Dr Ghani’s team. It is about the Taliban talks. The Saudis and the Emiratis feel they have been left behind despite all the money, the resources they have spent in Afghanistan helping the Taliban over the years. They want to take the peace initiative away from the Qataris if they can.”

Saudi and Emirati diplomats, as well as Mr Ghani’s team, strongly denied that there has been any collusion between them during the election campaign. And no evidence has been produced to support the claims. Daud Noorzai, the president’s chief of staff, has repeatedly stressed that the Ghani campaign has been transparent and has taken the utmost care to avoid being connected with impropriety.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia were the only states, apart from Pakistan, which recognised the Taliban regime of Mullah Mohammad Omar as the legitimate government of Afghanistan during its five years in power. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

The Trump Administration’s Afghanistan Policy
Thomas Jocelyn
FDD, Sept. 19, 2019

Chairman Engel, Ranking Member McCaul, and other members of the committee, thank you for inviting me to testify today concerning the Trump administration’s Afghanistan policy.

Until recently, the administration’s approach has been centered on the effort to negotiate a deal with the Taliban. President Trump walked away from these talks earlier this month and it appears that they will not be resumed, but that may still be a possibility. My own view is that America’s policy with respect to Afghanistan should not hinge on what the Taliban’s political delegation says in Doha. The Taliban’s actions speak volumes. Even as the U.S. pursued an agreement, the Taliban attacked a non-governmental organization in Kabul, kidnapped and murdered a human rights worker, terrorized schools, released a video justifying the 9/11 hijackings, and dispatched its suicide bombers throughout the country, often killing civilians.

The negotiations also took place on the Taliban’s terms. The Taliban demanded that the government of Afghanistan be excluded from formal talks, and the U.S. acquiesced. Some Afghan officials were reportedly allowed to attend sessions in a personal capacity, but not as representatives of Afghanistan’s legitimate, internationally recognized government. The Taliban has repeatedly described the Afghan government as a “puppet” of the U.S. and therefore not a truly sovereign entity. The Trump administration’s unilateral negotiations with the Taliban bolstered this allegation. Meanwhile, the Taliban used the talks in Doha and Moscow to enhance its own standing. Thus, the administration’s approach to these talks undermined our ally while legitimizing the Taliban – that is, the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – as a political entity. It is difficult to see how this approach could possibly lead to peace.

Indeed, it appears the talks would have resulted in a withdrawal agreement, not a peace accord. Most of the details concerning the draft agreement between the Taliban and the U.S. remain hidden from the public. Therefore, I applaud this committee’s effort to perform oversight. But in my testimony today I would like to focus on one aspect of these negotiations that has been reported on in the press, albeit with some noteworthy discrepancies. Namely, my testimony is intended to serve as a rebuttal to the idea that the Taliban could act as a de facto counterterrorism partner.

Early on, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said he was satisfied with the Taliban’s counterterrorism assurances. On March 12, 2019, Khalilzad tweeted: “When the agreement in draft about a withdrawal timeline and effective counterterrorism measures is finalized, the Taliban and other #Afghans, including the government, will begin intra-Afghan negotiations on a political settlement and comprehensive ceasefire.”[1] That is, the U.S. was willing to bargain a withdrawal timeline for the Taliban’s supposed counterterrorism guarantees before the Taliban had even met with the Afghan government. It is not even clear if the Afghan government would have been recognized as a formal entity in these “intra-Afghan negotiations,” and of course the mere prospect of further talks didn’t guarantee any real progress toward peace between the warring Afghan parties. [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

Can the New Afghanistan Survive America’s Exit?
Yaroslav Trofimov
WSJ, Sept. 27, 2019

At the end of 2001, just months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Taliban reached out to the U.S. with a proposal: They would agree to renounce al Qaeda, stop fighting and join power-sharing talks.
President George W. Bush, like the country at large, was in no mood for negotiating with the regime that had given shelter to Osama bin Laden and his followers. The Bush administration scuttled a reconciliation deal that the Taliban had struck with the country’s interim leader, Hamid Karzai, vetoed the Islamist movement’s participation in the Bonn peace conference and killed or imprisoned Taliban leaders.

Eighteen years and many thousands of Afghan and American deaths later, the U.S. and the Taliban—including some former Guantanamo Bay detainees—have initialed in Doha, Qatar, an agreement along similar lines that holds the promise of ending the war.

Except that the Taliban, a routed force in 2001, are now stronger than ever. An exhausted America, no longer determined to bring democracy to the Muslim world, just wants to leave. And today’s Afghanistan has experienced great progress in education, health and economic development since 2001. Many Afghans, while longing for peace, worry about the consequences of rushing to a deal with the insurgency. “There are a lot of anxieties about the return of the Taliban,” said Afghanistan’s national-security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib. “We are of course fearful of losing all the gains that we have made in the last 18 years.”

Though President Donald Trump pulled out from a signing ceremony and a meeting with the Taliban leaders that he had aimed to host at Camp David earlier this month, citing a Taliban attack that killed an American soldier, the State Department has since described the Doha negotiations as merely “suspended.” Officials on all sides say that they expect the process to resume in some way after Afghanistan’s presidential election on Saturday.
Held amid a bloody civil war, the election could be the most fraud-ridden in the country’s history and could further sap the legitimacy of its bickering government, which wasn’t even invited to the Doha talks. Whatever the outcome of the vote, Afghanistan has reached a pivot point: Its post-2001 order, installed through a vast American effort, looks frayed and increasingly untenable.

Critics warn that a hasty U.S. withdrawal could again turn Afghanistan into a haven for terrorist groups to hatch ambitious plots, but Mr. Trump is hardly alone in wanting to end America’s longest overseas war and bring the remaining 14,000 U.S. troops home. Afghan war fatigue has become bipartisan. Both Republican and Democratic policy makers increasingly see Afghanistan less as a front line in securing U.S. interests than as a burden that distracts from dealing with more serious strategic challenges, such as a rising China and an expansionist Russia. “There is a growing weariness with it all,” said retired Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan under Mr. Bush and served as U.S. ambassador in Kabul under President Barack Obama. “I don’t think there is a great number of Americans who really care. It’s forgotten.” [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

For Further Reference:

Brave Voting in Afghanistan Editorial Board, WSJ, Sept. 30, 2019 — The voting totals won’t be known for weeks, yet the two leading candidates for Afghan president are both declaring victory. The current occupant, President Ashraf Ghani, last week ruled out a renewed power-sharing deal, such as the one brokered after the disputed 2014 election.

Bolton Unloads On Trump’s Foreign Policy Behind Closed Doors:  Daniel Lippman, Politico, Sept. 18, 2019 — John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s fired national security adviser, harshly criticized Trump’s foreign policy on Wednesday at a private lunch, saying that inviting the Taliban to Camp David sent a “terrible signal” and that it was “disrespectful” to the victims of 9/11 because the Taliban had harbored al Qaeda.

Trafficking In Antiquities Bleeds Afghanistan Of Its History Margaux Benn and Shahzaib Wahlah, France 24, Oct. 2, 2019 — At the crossroads of Central Asia, Afghanistan has been home to Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Muslim cultures. Artefacts and relics abound, yet decades of war mean archaeological exploration and preservation have been almost impossible in most parts of the country.

Mapping Taliban Control in Afghanistan:  Created by Bill Roggio & Alexandra Gutowski, FDD, 2019 — For nearly two decades the government of Afghanistan, with the help of U.S. and coalition forces, has been battling for control of the country against the ever-present threat of the Afghan Taliban.