AFGHAN TĀLIBĀN: A TERRITORIAL AND SOCIAL ROOTING THAT BOTHERS USA

by Glauco D’Agostino

President Obama’s announcement on the extension of the American operations in Afghanistan

Last October 15th, President Obama announced that the US presence in Afghanistan will be extended until 2017, by revising the plans of military withdrawal from the Central Asian nation, while showing the difficulties to honor his promises made upon his investiture. “While America’s combat mission in Afghanistan may be over, our commitment to Afghanistan and its people endures”, he said. And he added: “I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again”. Even after 2017, “American forces will remain on several bases in Afghanistan to give us the presence and the reach our forces require to achieve their mission”.

The decision is therefore based on assumed justifications concerning the stability of Afghanistan, but also the US national security. Actually, the White House has chosen to perpetuate a war that has been going for 14 years without having achieved its goals, yet, especially after that last December 28th it had announced the end of US and NATO combat missions in Afghanistan.

Obama’s announcement has come after the deteriorating Afghan situation of the last months. We name a few of the most important events:

  • Early June, Tālibān members met in Oslo an important delegation of Afghan women MPs;
  • On July 7th, in Murree, close to Islāmābād, the first officially recognized peace talks between the Afghan Tālibān and the government in Kabul started;
  • On July 30th, a statement of the Afghan Tālibān announced the death of their leader Mullāh ‘Omar, Commander of the Faithful, while other unofficial sources close to them announced Mullāh Akhtar Moḥammed Manṣūr’s election as his successor, by raising questions about his legitimacy, mainly by the deceased leader’s family;
  • On August 31st, again an Afghan Tālibān’s statement revealed Mullāh ‘Omar’s death occurred on April 23rd, 2013, while admitting they have concealed the news for more than two years;
  • In mid-September, the Afghan Tālibān announced they have put aside internal struggles of the recent weeks, and have reached an agreement to recognize Mullāh Manṣūr as Mullāh ‘Omar’s successor: “Mullāh Ya`qūb, the son, and Mullāh ‘Abdel Manan, the brother of Mullāh ‘Omar, swore their allegiances to the new leader in a splendid ceremony”;
  • On September 28th (6 of Tala 1394 Solar Hijra) the Afghan Tālibān (just a few hundred, according to some sources) stormed the provincial capital Kunduz, the first urban center they conquered since the fall of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 2001, by bringing under their control most of the neighboring districts, and through small-scale actions even in the northern provinces of Baġlān, Taḫār and Badakhshān;
  • On October 3rd, the US-led coalition began bombing Kunduz, resulting in numerous civilian casualties and the hit of a Doctors Without Borders’ hospital crowded with patients: the latter action upshot has been at least 22 deaths and 37 wounded among patients and medical staff and no enemy fighter;
  • On October 13th, a press release by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan announced it has ordered the evacuation of its combatants from Kunduz main squares and government buildings, in order to displace them in the rural areas and strengthen the outside lines of defense.

The difficult situation of President Ghani’s government

The temporary seizure of Kunduz, the sixth largest Afghan city in terms of population with its 300,000 inhabitants, that is located just 250 kilometers from Kabul, and a strategic outpost to Tadzhikistan and Central Asia, has been a major blow to the Ashrāf Ghani Aḥmadzai’s government. President Ghani, since his taking office exactly a year earlier, has had a full entitlement and responsibility for country security, under June 2013 agreement, and in that city had fielded at least 7,000 soldiers. Especially as Kunduz, like the rest of the north, has a little Pashtun population (the ethnicity making up the vast majority of the Tālibān ranks), and since, consequently, the Tālibān’s spreading in the north affects territorial balances which were assumed consolidated in Afghanistan. Indeed, according to several even pro-government testimonials, throughout the preparation time for the attack on the city there have been many expressions of solidarity with the Tālibān by locals: and, therefore, Kunduz fall would have been got in part from within and by population abetting, which would endorse an insurgency interpretation rather than a terrorist attack.

Actually, the new government officials’ appointment in the province (the governor, the chiefs of police and intelligence) foreshadowed the risk perceived by President Ghani (see photo below) about a Tālibān’s attack, and, at the same time, following years of corruptive practices, it showed a greater focus on a better political and administrative management, a goal inevitably not reached. The Governor ‘Omar Safi’s absence during the city fall, the Local Police refusal to fight Tālibān, and the lack of loyalty to the government by ethnic-based military units (rather under the command of their former local chieftains before joining the Army) bear witness to the disaffection feeling of the city towards the government, and how the new measures implemented by Ghani would not be well received by the population. Prime Minister ʿAbdullāh ʿAbdullāh himself, a northern native, admits a failure of the actions taken in favor of Kunduz, nevertheless denying that people would prefer Tālibān to the current government in Kabul. Add to this a discrimination suffered by many Pashtun individuals, frequently from Local Police units, falsely accusing them of belonging to the Tālibān militias.

The Tālibān organizational framework

The outcome of this new insurgency is that the Tālibān presence, equipped with at least 60,000 Mujāhidīn, as well as their influence, according to the UN is now deployed in more areas of the country than in 2001, relying on its southern and eastern impenetrable strongholds.

Its organizational framework, according to many analysts, has the following features:

  • The Tālibān would have a centralized command in a structure called the “Quetta Shura”, based in the namesake town in Pakistan (but Islāmābād denies its existence), as well as a galaxy of regional tactical commanders with decision-making power. Quetta would have control over the southern areas corresponding to the Helmand, Kandahār, Zabul and Urōzgān Provinces; the Ḥaqqānī network, resettled to Afghanistan from North Waziristan in Pakistan, would have the command of the eastern parts of the country, and would receive operational support by ISI Pakistani intelligence (but this is obviously rejected by Islāmābād government); in the north-east of the country there is a presence of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Ḥizb-e Islami (Islamic Party), which would determine the operating functions throughout the area, and would support the insurgency push to the north, despite the limited amount of its members;
  • They manage judicial courts according to the Sharī’a principles in the territories under their control, in the face, by the way, of government admission about widespread corruption and injustice in the country.

However, the latest insurrectional events would have resulted in the following effects on the ground:

  • The UN Assistance Mission have forsaken their 13 provincial offices for safety reasons, after the organization security officers had long rated as “high” or “extreme” the danger level in half the administrative districts distributed over 27 of the 34 provinces of the country;
  • Many districts, especially in the south, are only nominally under the authority of the government forces, which actually control just a few buildings of the related chief town: the Urōzgān Province is the one at greatest risk of wholly ending up under Tālibān power in the foreseeable future;
  • The Highway One, an arterial road connecting the main Afghan cities, is substantially impassable, because it’s usually under Tālibān attack, and even in the northern Baġlān Province, a government stronghold, the highway has been repeatedly blocked by the insurgents.

The role of US lobbies

So, Obama’s decision seems subsequent to this sudden surge and determined by his firmness in countering an unexpected instability in Afghanistan, especially in the north. “In key areas of the country, the security situation is still very fragile, and in some areas, there is risk of deterioration”, he said. But, actually, since 2009, several US officials had got wind of the Tālibān’s positions strengthening in the north, and the United States had just started to form and fund locally recruited militias, then listed within the ranks of the Afghan Interior Ministry, with the results described above. Most obviously, instead, we should think about the effectiveness of fighters recruited only under economic motivations, as opposed to Mujāhidīn who (rightly or wrongly) thought fighting for a just cause, and do not recognize as legitimate the government established in Kabul, because they regard it as an expression of Western interests.

Conversely, a debate among US senior leaders had triggered already long, with both the Congress and the military lobbies in favor of a urgent renewal of Afghanistan more effective “protection” (let’s translate, a need to regain a business of military supplies at risk), and all this well before the Kunduz episode. That is why Kunduz casus belli seems to meet a welcomed discredit of President Ghani’s work after international coalition withdrawal, and to deem as inadequate the commitment of 350,000 men under Afghan Army; which consequently leads to take subsidiary US and NATO measures.

The American military has currently slightly less than 10,000 soldiers, and, contrary to the schedule set earlier, will remain at the same level throughout 2016. Then, it can maybe go down to 5,500 men, instead of 1,000 planned by Obama himself before mid-October announcement. What is the scope of 12,000 men and women formally involved only in training, advice and assistance of Afghan armed forces (and possibly in contrasting al-Qāida remnants), is to be explored with NATO and the Resolute Support Mission allies, as little has been made clear about the alleged White House authorization to enlarge the American missions against the Tālibān. The latter case would halt the approach of Tālibān forces to the peace process (moreover formally already started, as mentioned above), they feel as unfair and unbalanced in presence of foreign troops with war intentions and annihilation purposes to them. Especially since the frequent US drone attacks have in the past years resulted in a killing of hundreds of defenseless civilians reportedly involved in combat: in this regard, we can mention the recent revelations by The Intercept, an online publication devoted to American national security, and the 2009 admissions by the US General Stanley McChrystal, then ISAF commander.

Washington, the Islamic State, and the relationship with the Pakistani Tālibān

An authorization to a direct military engagement against the Afghan Tālibān and not against the Islamic State militias of Ḥāfiz Saīd Khān would be very strange, whereas the latter have been waging fierce battles to counter the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, particularly in the north-eastern Nangarhār Province, along the Pakistani border. A slogan which tells us the Islamic State in Khorāsān (how the group operating in Afghanistan calls itself) does not have operational links with the government in Raqqa would appear free of credit, either, because it’s evident that this would avail covering a certain Washington acquiescence towards the Islamic State expansion at the Afghan Tālibān’s expense. If we add that many leaders of the Islamic State in Khorāsān have come out from Pakistani Tālibān, active in the tribal areas and now trespassed to Afghanistan following the recent operations of Islāmābād against them, then the situation is likely to involve neighboring Pakistan and overflow into additional diplomatic complications, given the sensitive triangle of relationships affecting Pakistan, Afghanistan and India (the latter seen as a Kabul patron, as well as its benefactress).

Indeed, Kabul accuses Islāmābād of protecting the Afghan Tālibān and the Ḥaqqānī clan. Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistani government has its own problems with the Pakistani Tālibān (which have derived from other than the Afghan namesakes), and, while on the one hand it has launched offensives to counter them, on the other believes it should establish a dialogue process, deemed as a priority of its mandate. Conversely, the United States prefers the expeditious methods of anytime, and since 2012 has murdered some of the major exponents of the Pakistani Tālibān, by using drone attacks: Badruddīn, Ḥaqqānī’s Operational Commander, Mullāh Nazir Wazir, Hakimullāh Mehsud and Wali ur-Rehman, respectively head and Deputy Commander of the Deobandi movement Tehrik-i-Tālibān Pakistan (Tālibān Movement of Pakistan). Instead, Nāṣiruddīn, a Ḥaqqānī group funder and Badruddīn’s brother, was killed in an alleged shootout in the city of Rawalpindi, close to Islāmābād.

In this scenario, there are many who think a stable Afghanistan cannot be shaped without starting peace negotiations with the Tālibān. In the past, there have been attempts in that direction, that would have been formally standing, too; and again, we must acknowledge a good will of the Afghan and Pakistani governments that have taken place over time. But, oddly enough, whenever negotiations are about to be merely entered, a tragic, defiant event comes breaking a yet hard feeling of mutual trust, painstakingly built. In recent times the following episodes are salient:

  • In 2011, the assassination of former President Burhānuddīn Rabbānī (a professor of Sharīa and a follower of the Theo-democratic Mawdūdī’s theory through his own party Jamā‘at-e-Islami Afghanistan), who was, too, head of the High Peace Council, a position he received the previous year by the Kabul government to negotiate with the Afghan Tālibān;
  • In 2013, the assassination of the aforementioned Hakimullāh Mehsud (left in the photo below), which has been perpetrated one day after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had told the media the dialogue process with the Pakistani Tālibān had started;
  • Yet, ten days later, the killing of Nāṣiruddīn Ḥaqqānī, who in June of that year had represented the Ḥaqqānī network in an attempt to set up a Political Bureau of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in Dōḥa, Qatar, aimed at peace talks with the United States (in the bottom photo, the opening ceremony);
  • Up now, Obama’s reversal about US presence and military operations in Afghanistan, less than three months after the first formally recognized peace talks between the Afghan Tālibān and the Kabul government had started.

An exclusion code

This principled opposition to the Tālibān involvement in peace processes has been jeopardizing for years the stability of Afghanistan, especially since the weakening of al-Qā’ida commitment in the country had raised hopes for a new season of appeasement; and especially while the Tālibān have collaborated with the UN Security Council since 2013 for the Report of the Secretary-General on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. But, perhaps, the territorial and social rooting the Tālibān demonstrate in Afghanistan and Pakistani Waziristan bothers the United States. On the other hand, Washington cannot ignore that early as 1996 the Tālibān had been welcomed not only in Kandahār, but initially by most Afghans, weary of civil war, ruling anarchy, and warlords’ domination, and who were mainly in line with their behavior against a pervasive corruption after the communist regime had collapsed. Just as nearly twenty years later, popular expressions of solidarity during Kunduz seizure have been widespread. Certainly, memory that just four years after its establishment the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan had decreased world opium production by two-thirds, cannot get the favor of most Western lobbies making profit on this trade thoroughly.

However, it should be recalled the new Afghanistan has been built on an exclusion code hitting one of its major components, even today very active, since as early as December 2001 the Tālibān were left out of Bonn International Conference, which chose Hāmid Karzai as head of a temporary administration under US occupation; as a result, in June 2002 they were unable to send delegates to the loya jirga  that elected the transitional government, and they could not take part to the Constitution ratification in December 2003.

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