Daily Briefing: With Peace Talks Suspended In Afghanistan, Violence Surges (May 14, 2019)

Mullah Omar, former leader of the Taliban (source: Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr)

 

Taliban Train Sights on Aid Groups, an Ominous Turn in Afghanistan: Rod Nordland, NY Times, May 13, 2019 — A Taliban attack on two aid organizations last week, the deadliest episode in a recent surge of violence against humanitarian workers in Afghanistan, is a signal to many that as peace talks falter, the insurgents are lashing out against so-called soft targets.
The US Does Not Lose Much by Withdrawing from Afghanistan:  Emil Avdaliani, BESA, March 17, 2019 — The US decision to withdraw about 7,000 troops from Afghanistan in the coming months seems to go against recent developments inside that country.
What Does Iran Want in Afghanistan?:  Maysam Behravesh, Al Jazeera, Feb. 4, 2019 —  Unprecedented negotiations in Qatar between US special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban have created cautious optimism for lasting reconciliation.
Women and the Afghan Peace Process: A Conversation with Wazhma Frogh:  Blog Post by Guest Blogger for the Women and Foreign Policy Program, Council on Foreign Relations, May 13, 2019 — Wazhma Frogh is a lifetime campaigner for Afghan women and girls. She co-founded the Women and Peace Studies Organization in Afghanistan in 2011 and is a member of the Afghan Women’s Network.

 

On Topic Links

 

U.S. Military Stops Counting How Much of Afghanistan Is Controlled by Taliban:  David Zucchino, NY Times, May 1, 2019 — The American military command in Afghanistan has halted regular assessments of how many people and districts the government and insurgents there control, it emerged on Wednesday — eliminating what has long been an important public measure of progress in the war.
It Is Time to End the Longest War in U.S. History: Sam Long, The National Interest, May 8, 2019 — Negotiations resumed between the Taliban and the United States last week, as both sides edge closer to a ceasefire.
Afghanistan Needs an International Solution: Sandy Adams, Real Clear World, Apr. 16, 2019 — The last time I walked by the presidential palace in Kabul and headed back to my NATO base, in 2011, I wondered whether I had made any difference during my year as a NATO advisor to the Afghanistan Ministry of Defense.
Lessons from Vietnam on Leaving Afghanistan:  George C. Herring, Foreign Affairs, Apr. 15, 2019 — The prospect of an end to the conflict in Afghanistan has led many U.S. foreign policy experts to ponder the ignoble conclusion of another war, now a half-century past.

 

TALIBAN TRAIN SIGHTS ON AID GROUPS, AN OMINOUS TURN IN AFGHANISTAN
Rod Nordland
NY Times, May 13, 2019

A Taliban attack on two aid organizations last week, the deadliest episode in a recent surge of violence against humanitarian workers in Afghanistan, is a signal to many that as peace talks falter, the insurgents are lashing out against so-called soft targets.

Wednesday’s attack killed three workers for CARE, the American aid group, and at least six others, most of them civilians. Aid workers said the true death toll was 13. In either case, it was the single biggest loss of life among the country’s 2,000 nongovernmental organizations in over a year.

The bombing, which struck CARE and Counterpart International offices, came as the sixth round of peace negotiations between the Taliban and Americans limped to an end in Qatar. The Afghan government was excluded from the talks, which ended after seven fitful days with a sense of fading optimism. The Taliban vowed that the assault on the aid groups would not be their last.

Even before the attack, casualties among aid workers had started to rise after several years of decline. Through April, five aid workers had been killed, 12 injured and 18 abducted this year in Afghanistan, according to the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator, Toby Lanzer.

Also worrisome for humanitarian groups is the Taliban’s continued refusal to give the International Committee of the Red Cross, by far the biggest aid organization in the country, safe passage through areas they control. In April, the insurgents issued a statement saying that the Red Cross, which has worked on both sides of the conflict’s front lines, and the World Health Organization would be barred from Taliban areas because of what they called “suspicious” activities.

The Red Cross operates ambulance services, orthopedic clinics, hospitals, prison visitations and other activities benefiting all sides in Afghanistan. The World Health Organization carries out polio vaccinations; some Taliban-dominated areas are among the few places in the world where the disease has not been wiped out.

Last Monday, the Red Cross sent its vice president, Gilles Carbonnier, to meet with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, on the sidelines of peace talks with the Americans, but there was no apparent breakthrough. A Taliban statement expressed the obvious: “Both sides stressed that Afghanistan needs a great deal of humanitarian aid and attention.”

Roya Musawi, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross in Afghanistan, said, “We are in dialogue about resumption of our activities for the people affected.”

The peace talks in Qatar between the Taliban and the Americans proved briefer than earlier efforts, ending with little apparent progress. “The current pace of talks isn’t sufficient when so much conflict rages and innocent people die,” the American negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad said Thursday in a Twitter post… [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

 

THE U. S. DOES NOT LOSE MUCH  BY WITHDRAWING FROM AFGHANISTAN
Emil Avdaliani
BESA, March 17, 2019

The US decision to withdraw about 7,000 troops from Afghanistan in the coming months seems to go against recent developments inside that country. Afghanistan just saw a spike in violence (terrorist attacks, etc.), largely caused by elections. It raises eyebrows on the foreign policy level, too, as Russia, Iran, and Pakistan – all of which have difficult relations with the US – will try to use the American withdrawal to their own respective advantage.

Washington’s decision is being viewed by many (quite correctly) with consternation, as the withdrawal of these troops can be regarded as a continuation of a major trend under the Trump administration: withdrawal from major treaties and global responsibilities the US has had for decades, since the end of the Cold War. The decision follows a similar one on Syria, where the US plans to reduce its military presence to a minimum. Together, these moves conjure the idea of a global retreat by the US.

There are, however, counterarguments to the scenario of an American global weakening. First, it should be noted that the number of troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan is about half the number the US has in the country. Moreover, the pullout does not mean Afghan troops and security contingents will be left unprepared. In fact, the Afghan military has been largely in charge of the country’s security since 2014, when more than 100,000 NATO troops were withdrawn. Also, beyond US forces, there are some 7,500 troops from 38 other NATO members and partners in Afghanistan as well as 25,239 private security contractors deployed.

Still, the US withdrawal will probably be a serious problem for Afghanistan. Considering how the decision to withdraw the troops was taken and Trump’s overall skepticism about the Afghan mission, it can be seen as a possible precursor to further major financial and military cuts.

Security in the country will deteriorate if less money goes to Afghanistan. International aid is very important to that country: in recent years, about 50% of the Afghan state budget and 90% of its military and police costs have been covered by international donors. Reductions in such funding will weaken the security situation, embolden local warlords, and render the regions less and less controlled by the central government.

Signs of this have already been seen. Taliban control over Afghanistan has increased in recent months, and the government currently controls or influences only 55.5% of the country’s districts. This is the lowest percentage in several years.

The withdrawal will have global repercussions, as the situation in Afghanistan matters a great deal to its large neighbors. Pakistan, for instance, has long tolerated the use of its territory by the Taliban. After the US withdrawal, Pakistan will likely become more open in its aid to the group and could even try to fill the power vacuum.

Since 2001, Russia and Iran have generally supported the Kabul government. Recently, Moscow used the Taliban as a hedge and, along with Iran and Uzbekistan, provided support for Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara warlords. This kind of pattern will likely occur more often as the Kabul government’s grip on power weakens.

The countries to watch most closely after the US withdrawal are Pakistan, Iran, and Russia. Each has a security and military stake in Afghanistan. Since it is unlikely that any of them will be able to fully control Afghanistan’s difficult terrain, these states will probably try to assist those groups close to the borders who prove amenable to cooperation. This diversity of foreign interests will push Afghanistan down the road towards political and security disarray.

A bird’s-eye view

As noted, the US withdrawal will certainly be harmful to the Afghan state and will create a geopolitical vacuum for other regional powers to fill. Many believe the US is showing signs of global status fatigue.

It should be recalled, however, that this is not the first time the US has withdrawn from territory with uncertain results. When the US withdrew from Vietnam, Lebanon, and recently Iraq, it had not been victorious in those theaters – but the US nevertheless won the Cold War and remains the sole global superpower. Those US wars (Afghanistan included) are not indicative of a definitive weakening of the US but are rather small pieces in a broader American global strategy that (like most everything else in the world) works perfectly sometimes and less well at others. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

 

WHAT DOES IRAN WANT IN AFGHANISTAN?
Maysam Behravesh
Al Jazeera, Feb. 4, 2019

Unprecedented negotiations in Qatar between US special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban have created cautious optimism for lasting reconciliation. “We made significant progress on vital issues,” Khalilzad wrote on Twitter, adding: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and ‘everything’ must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire.”

The potential peace pact, according to a Reuters report, stipulates that foreign forces leave Afghanistan within 18 months of the draft deal being signed. It also requires the Taliban to prevent al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) from using Afghan territory to stage attacks against the United States and its allies.

The big elephant in the room, however, is how the consequent power void will be filled and what role, in particular, Afghanistan’s neighbours, Iran and Pakistan, will play in the post-withdrawal environment. While Pakistan has generally backed the Afghan Taliban as an ideologically reliable and militarily resilient bulwark against growing Indian influence in its northern neighbourhood, Shia Iran’s relationship with the Sunni militant group is highly complicated. Part of this complication is rooted in their common opposition to the US, which has led Tehran to pursue a costly and unpopular policy of “strategic hedging” in war-torn Afghanistan, that is, supporting the US-backed Afghan government and the Taliban at the same time and playing them against each other whenever necessary.

The Tehran-Taliban rivalry
Apart from their sectarian and ideological differences, the Islamic Republic and the “Islamic Emirate” – as the Taliban prefer to describe themselves – have a bitter history of geopolitical rivalry.

In September 1996, the Taliban fighters seized control of Kabul and established the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which was recognised by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – all Iran’s regional rivals. Around two years later, in August 1998 when the Taliban were fighting Iran-backed Northern Alliance – a military front headed by former Afghan Defence Minister Ahmad Shah Massoud – to extend their control over all Afghan territory, they stormed the Iranian consulate in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and killed 10 diplomats as well as a correspondent from Iran’s state news agency there.

Shocked and outraged by the mass murder of its diplomats, Tehran deployed tens of thousands of troops along the border with Afghanistan, but ultimately stopped short of invading its eastern neighbour. It was later speculated that members of Sipah-e-Sahaba, an anti-Shia militant organisation with close connections to the Pakistani military and intelligence apparatus, played a role in the killings.

Pakistan’s newfound nuclear capability must have been on the minds of Iranian leaders when they decided to refrain from a military intervention against the Islamabad-backed Taliban forces in Afghanistan. After three years of strategic self-restraint and patience, however, Iran grasped the opportunity presented by the September 11 terror attacks and, along with the Northern Alliance, provided the US-led coalition with indispensable military and intelligence assistance to topple the Taliban government in late 2001.

Ever since, Tehran’s evolving relationship with the Taliban has been marked by an ambivalent combination of restrained support and containment, as Iranian leaders have sought to use the armed group as a strategic instrument to stymie the US war effort in Afghanistan and make sure that the American military presence in Iran’s backyard remains contested and abortive.

In September 2017, Sharif Yaftali, chief of general staff of the Afghan national army, affirmed in an exclusive interview with BBC that Kabul had evidence showing that Iran supplied weapons and equipment to the Taliban in western Afghanistan. The revelation followed similar remarks by provincial authorities in the region. In August of the same year, Mohammed Arif Shah Jehan, then governor of Farah province adjacent to Iran, told The New York Times that “the strongest Taliban” in the border areas were “Iranian Taliban”. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

 

WOMEN AND THE AFGHAN PEACE PROCESS: A CONVERSATION WITH WAZHMA FROGH 
Blog Post by Guest Blogger for the Women and Foreign Policy Program
Council on Foreign Relations, May 13, 2019

Wazhma Frogh is a lifetime campaigner for Afghan women and girls. She co-founded the Women and Peace Studies Organization in Afghanistan in 2011 and is a member of the Afghan Women’s Network. In 2009, the U.S. State Department granted her the International Women of Courage Award. Frogh recently spoke with Facebook viewers during the final days of a national consensus-seeking loya jirga in Afghanistan, a few weeks after a limited political agreement between the U.S. government and the Taliban.

This conversation- moderated by Maria Luisa Gambale, correspondent for PassBlue, and documentary producer- is part of a Facebook Live series hosted by PassBlue, a publication that provides independent coverage of the United Nations, with a concentration on women in foreign policy and peace operations. The discussion on Afghanistan was co-hosted by The New School, the Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, Afghan Women’s Network, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, Women’s March Global, Ms. Magazine, Oxfam and Refinery29.

For the past 22 years, Wazhma Frogh has been actively engaged in making sure that Afghan women have a voice and are able to get into the decision-making structures. She started this work in the refugee camps in Peshawar, Pakistan, working with children and young women creating education and literacy programs. When she returned to Afghanistan with her family in 2001, she started working with the Afghan Women’s Network, one of the leading women networks in the country. She attended the loya lirga in 2010, where she was often the only woman on working committees. “Every time that I wanted to speak,” said Frogh, “I would be told by the men, ‘You women are not part of the war, you’re not killing, you’re not doing any suicide bombings and attacks, you’re not part of the war, so what makes you part of the peace?’ So, I started the Women and Peace Studies Organization with a colleague of mine. We address that question, what makes women part of the peace process.”

Maria Luisa Gambale: There are a number of different talks on different axes going on in the past few months and coming up. Can you introduce what is happening right now?

Wazhma Frogh: The U.S. Special Envoy started direct talks with the Taliban in September 2018. And the whole purpose, as we see it, is for the U.S. to withdraw militarily from Afghanistan as soon as possible.

While this is going on, Afghans inside Afghanistan have been working to reach some sort of consensus. In 2010, the government created a national peace re-integration program and established a peace council, and there has been regional and international consensus that Afghan conflict needs a political settlement, not a military one. This past week, the government drew together 3,500 representatives from around the country in a national loya jirga to create a consensus for moving forward. …. [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]