Taliban Splinter Groups Add To Election Fears In Afghanistan

14 03 2014

13 March 2014

Below Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty quotes me on the implications of Taliban splinter groups after the killing of a prominent Swedish journalist. Link available here.

Taliban Splinter Groups Add to Election Fears in Afghanistan

By Frud Bezhan

The deadly reemergence of a little-known militant group in Afghanistan has prompted fears that rogue insurgents could be an added source for concern ahead of a crucial presidential election.

The Feday-e Mahaz, or “Suicide Brigade,” announced its return by claiming responsibility for killing Swedish-British journalist Nils Horner in Kabul on March 11. In a brazen attack that has sent shockwaves through the international community in Kabul, Horner was gunned down in broad daylight in the Afghan capital’s heavily fortified diplomatic district.

Feday-e Mahaz said in a statement posted on March 12 on its website that it targeted Horner because the Taliban splinter group believed he was a spy for Britain’s MI-6 spy agency, and not a journalist.

The mainstream Taliban, meanwhile, denied any involvement in the killing as well as any affiliation with Feday-e Mahaz. Afghan officials consider the crime unsolved and are hunting for two suspects as part of their investigation.

Afghan officials have described Feday-e Mahaz as a small, hardcore offshoot of the mainstream Taliban. The group is believed to be led by Haji Najibullah, a loyalist to radical Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, who was killed in a U.S.-led attack in Helmand Province in 2007.

Afghan intelligence officials had described Dadullah as an effective yet brutal militant leader who had close ties to Al-Qaeda and embraced the terrorist organization’s extremist tactics, including the use of suicide bombers and the incorporation of foreign fighters.

Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, says Feday-e Mahaz is one of various splinter groups to have emerged amid efforts among moderate Taliban to engage in peace talks with Kabul and Islamabad over the last few years.

“Both the Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban are deeply fractured organizations, and rare is the time when either one makes a consequential decision that is supported by the entire ranks,” Kugelman says.

“These splinter groups represent the most hardline elements of the Taliban, and therefore any Western target is considered fair game. This could explain why Feday-e Mahaz decided to target a European journalist.”

Feday-e Mahaz, which has remained largely out of the headlines in recent years, has a history of targeting foreign journalists. The group was believed to be behind the 2008 abduction of “The New York Times” journalist David Rohde, who was kidnapped as he traveled with several Afghan colleagues to interview a Taliban commander. Rohde and an Afghan colleague managed to escape to safety nine months later near the border with Pakistan.

Other Taliban splinter groups have also appeared in Afghanistan. They include the Mullah Dadullah Front, an extremist offshoot that operates mainly out of southern Afghanistan. That group claimed responsibility for the 2012 killing of Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban official who became a key member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, the government’s main avenue for peace talks.

The front is led by Daddi Allah, the brother of Mullah Dadullah. Daddi Allah has previously threatened to kill anyone, including Taliban commanders, who is involved in the peace process. It is unclear how numerically strong the group is.

Some observers leave open the possibility that Feday-e Mahaz and the Mullah Dadullah Front could be the same group and simply use different names.

Another group is the Jihadi Shura of Mujahidin For Unity and Understanding, which operates along the Afghan-Pakistan border. The size of this splinter group is unknown, but it shares a similar policy to the Feday-e Mahaz and Mullah Dadullah Front in its opposition to peace talks. The group has also criticized infighting between various insurgent groups fighting in Afghanistan.

David Young, an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project in Washington, says the various splinter groups might actually be under the control of the larger Taliban group.

“Whenever the Taliban doesn’t want to take credit for an attack, it will frequently create a splinter faction just for the purpose of taking credit for that attack, and it may revive the group for subsequent attacks or have it disappear altogether,” says Young.

“Sometimes it can help deflect blame for a particularly gruesome or senseless attack, while other times it’s a useful technique to create confusion among the group’s pursuers. Either way, it remains unclear whether Feday-e Mahaz is a phantom or a legitimate splinter group of the Taliban.”

Reading Karzai’s Mind

28 11 2013

27 November 2013

Below Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty quotes me on why President Karzai is likely delaying the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States.  Link available here.

Reading Karzai’s Mind

By Frud Bezhan

A contentious security deal between Afghanistan and the United States looked all but signed.

The Loya Jirga, a key national gathering of Afghan elders, had given its unanimous backing. All that was left was for both parliament and Afghan President Hamid Karzai to approve it.

But Karzai has stubbornly refused to sign the deal, a move that has infuriated Washington and baffled many Afghans. Here are several reasons why Karzai might be dragging out the process:

Reason No. 1: Karzai Thinks He Has Leverage

Karzai has played a high-stakes game over the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) — making new demands, breaking promises, criticizing Washington, and defying the wishes of the Loya Jirga.

He says he will only sign the deal after April’s Afghan presidential election — and only if his new terms are met. These include the release of all Afghan prisoners held in the U.S.-run detention center at Guantanamo Bay and a complete halt to controversial U.S. raids on Afghan homes.

David Young, an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project in Washington, says that Karzai’s tactics could suggest a man who thinks he is in a position of strength and can get Washington to back down.

“Karzai is now effectively the sole remaining obstacle to the signing of the BSA. He holds all the cards,” Young says. “He is either trying to selfishly distance himself from his makers to improve his legacy or he irrationally believes that moving the goal posts at the last minute will yield concessions that would have been impossible to obtain during the BSA negotiations.”

Three main scenarios could play out: The United States could cave in to Karzai’s additional demands or Washington could act on its threat to pull out all its troops if the deal is not signed by the end of this year. Alternatively, Karzai could abandon his pressure tactics, leading to agreement.

It’s a risky strategy. Read the rest of this entry »

The Zero Option’s Rationale

18 11 2013

14 November 2013

Below Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty quotes me on why it is tempting for the US to remove all troops from Afghanistan at the end of next year.  Link available here.

Why the U.S. Could Opt for the ‘Zero Option’ in Afghanistan

By Frud Bezhan

When the United States first suggested that all options would be considered when it came to a long-term security agreement with Afghanistan — including leaving no U.S. forces on the ground after 2014 — it was seen as bluster.

But as talks drag on, the “zero option” is beginning to look increasingly realistic. Read the rest of this entry »

Attrition Among Afghan Security Forces

6 11 2013

2 November 2013

Below Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty quotes me on the meaning of the high casualty rates among Afghan security forces this past fighting season. Link available here

Afghan Security Forces Pass First Test, But Questions Remain

By Frud Bezhan

This year’s fighting season was a crucial test for Afghanistan’s nascent army and police forces, which had assumed full responsibility for the country’s security for the first time.

With the fighting season nearly over, the results are mixed. While the Afghan security forces have managed to hold off the Taliban, they have been unable to make any major gains themselves and have suffered record numbers of casualties.

The casualty figures released in October by the Afghan government will do little to quash doubts about the ability of Afghanistan’s security forces to maintain order after the majority of international combat troops leave at the end of 2014.

The Afghan Interior Ministry on October 29 revealed that 2,052 members of the Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan Local Police (ALP) were killed and more than 5,000 were wounded between April, when fighting traditionally begins, and the end of October, when fighting slows down for winter. The figure for the whole of 2012 was around 1,800 for the police forces.

Over that time, the Taliban launched 6,604 operations, 50 suicide attacks, and 1,704 direct attacks on police — a marked increase from last year. Many casualties sustained by Afghan forces were in rural areas of the south and east, where the Taliban is strongest.

To safeguard morale, Afghan authorities have not revealed this year’s death toll for the Afghan National Army (ANA), although it was described in September by the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Joseph Dunford, as “unsustainable.”

U.S. General Mark Milley, the commander of NATO ground forces in Afghanistan, said in September that 50 to 100 Afghan soldiers were being killed every month and that was comparable to fatality rates for U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.

Last year, the Afghan government said 2,970 police and soldiers were killed. Afghan officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have admitted the number of fatalities suffered by the ANA has increased markedly, making it the bloodiest year for Afghan forces since 2001.

There have been persistent questions over the competence of the Afghan army and police, which suffer from a high rate of desertion, a poor reenlistment record, low morale, and inadequate equipment and training.

Attrition The Problem

David  Young, a civilian adviser to NATO in eastern Afghanistan and an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project in Washington, says high casualty rates are sustainable as long as Western donors fund the recruitment campaign and training to replace those lost on the battlefield.

But he says the high number of casualties is still a major concern, especially if those casualties lead to higher attrition rates, which Young says poses the biggest threat to the Afghan armed forces.

“Even before these casualty rates, Afghan security forces already had to replace a third of their ranks every year due to attrition,” Young said. “Now, because of obvious morale issues of violently losing so many forces, these latest casualty rates actually pose a bigger threat to attrition than they pose on their own as casualties.” Read the rest of this entry »

What the Zero Option Would Look Like in Afghanistan

28 10 2013

28 October 2013

Below Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty quotes me on the implications of a complete withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan at the end of 2014. Link available here.

What the Zero Option Would Look Like in Afghanistan

By Frud Bezhan

What if the United States pulled all its troops out of Afghanistan?

The general assumption is that as Washington and Kabul work to hammer out a long-term security agreement, a way will be found to maintain a U.S. troop presence after 2014.0622A3A6-1269-4CA8-8126-4ECF81AAE53B_w640_r1_s_cx0_cy1_cw0

The two sides have reached a preliminary agreement on a deal. But a key U.S. demand — that its troops be granted immunity from prosecution under Afghan law and be tried only in the United States — remains a major sticking point.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has put the final decision on a deal to a Loya Jirga — a traditional gathering of tribal, ethnic, and religious leaders — that will meet and give its verdict next month.

Washington has made clear that the “zero option” of pulling its forces out entirely — as it did in Iraq after it failed to work out a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Baghdad — is a very real option.

Graeme Smith, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Kabul, says a complete U.S. pullout would be a game changer, given Washington’s vast footprint in Afghanistan.

“The U.S. presence is tremendously entrenched in all spheres of life in Afghanistan,” Smith says. “So much of life in this country hinges on this question of whether or not there will be U.S. forces after 2014.”

The zero option, if it comes to that, would exacerbate the already formidable security, financial, and regional challenges facing the Afghan government:


The United States would not keep a residual force in Afghanistan to train, advise, and assist the Afghan National Security Forces, nor would it maintain a counterterrorism force there to pursue remnants of Al-Qaeda. Likewise, NATO would not keep a training mission, as that is dependent on Afghanistan and the United States reaching a security deal.

​​The absence of any Western forces would deprive Afghanistan’s nascent security forces of much-needed assistance with logistics, air support, and intelligence.

A complete pullout would also likely see Kabul receiving much less of the $4 billion in annual military aid pledged by foreign donors to sustain the Afghan army and police.

David Young, a civilian adviser to NATO in eastern Afghanistan and an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project in Washington, says the “zero option” would fundamentally change the whole military state of play.

“No troops means fewer people to monitor how Western military financial support is spent, which, in my eyes, translates to less financial support,” Young says. “So then, with morale sunk, attrition will be even higher, costing security forces even more money that isn’t coming in. While Afghan forces can continue a stalemate with the Taliban without constant U.S. supervision, I don’t think they can continue it without adequate funding.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Possible Contours of a Settlement in Afghanistan

23 07 2013

23 July 2013

Below is a more detailed version of my latest piece for the New York Times, available here

While most of the focus in the last three years of intermittent talks among Taliban, US and Afghan officials has revolved around simply getting the parties to the table—who will fulfill which preconditions, what confidence-building measures will demonstrate the parties’ sincerity and capability of delivering, etc.—the long-term prospects for peace are rarely discussed in detail.  Given their immediacy, it is tempting to get caught up in issues such as whether and when the Taliban will renounce violence or accept the Afghan constitution (as frequently demanded by Kabul) and whether Kabul will refuse to permit foreign forces and advisors to remain in Afghanistan (as demanded by the Taliban).  Yet even if Kabul and the Taliban find themselves sitting at the same table down the road (as America’s involvement is merely the opening act), how would they navigate the thorniest issues, what role would US support for Kabul play in the negotiations, and what might a final settlement look like?

With the Taliban gradually softening its vision of itself in a future Afghanistan, it is difficult to know just how far the group would come to secure a prominent seat at the table.  In contrast, women and minority groups (particularly ethnic Tajiks and Hazaras) have not moved an inch in their public proclamations as to what they would settle for; with memories of persecution in the 1990s, they seem to have a much greater stomach for continued war than the Pashtuns who have borne the brunt of the war’s last decade.  Instead, these groups with a history of marginalization have spent their resources insisting that the Taliban must not be trusted, no matter the cost.

To be sure, at least until the drawdown is complete, the Taliban has little incentive to negotiate in any meaningful way, despite what they may say in Doha.  Already divided internally over negotiating at all, the group will wait to see what exactly Afghan forces will be capable of with only a small residual force of western advisors beginning in 2015 before moving beyond confidence-building measures.  If the cities are deemed strategically vulnerable, serious negotiations will be highly unlikely, but if Afghan forces are getting enough Western financial support to hold down the population centers as well as regularly mount assaults on insurgent strongholds, the Taliban may feel increasingly compelled to settle.  Still, neither those Talibs favoring meaningful negotiation nor those who oppose it will be able to persuade the other until there is evidence of Afghan forces’ apparent success or failure during the 2015 fighting season, if not later.

If the parties do make it to an internationally-mediated negotiating table, however, then based on the Taliban’s history of governance, its public statements since the 2001 US invasion, and the current structure and make-up of the Afghan government, it is likely that the contours of a possible settlement would pivot on several key Taliban grievances, most of which it feels would be remedied by implementing sharia law and giving the Taliban far more influence across Afghan society, starting with rewriting the Afghan constitution.  On principle, the international community and anyone remotely interested in protecting minorities and women will not indulge talk of rewriting the constitution, but the Taliban would probably settle for a number of modifications that make the country more Islamic.

Precisely what that means in a country that is already culturally and legally anchored in Islam is unclear, but it most likely means extending certain cultural norms of rural Pashtun society (regarding education, religion and the role of women) across the country.  For instance, female education beyond middle school in the rural east and south is already extremely rare, even in the absence of the Taliban.  (In contrast, the Taliban’s history of draconian punishment is one tenet that few in Afghanistan value or miss because those measures had nothing to do with Afghan culture to begin with.)  Yet Kabul would never agree to enforce gender or education norms like those across the country, which is exactly why a more likely settlement would revolve around a different kind of modification to the constitution: decentralization of the Afghan government. Read the rest of this entry »

To the Victor Go the Spoilers

25 06 2013

25 June 2013

Below Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty quotes me on how key power brokers across Afghanistan might spoil the latest round of peace talks.  Link available here.

Taliban Political Office Raises Alarm Bells In Kabul

By Frud Bezhan

It was heralded as a significant step toward reaching a negotiated peace with the Taliban, so why has the opening of a modest political office in Qatar been met with such fierce opposition by the Afghan government?

For Afghan President Hamid Karzai, it’s because the Taliban’s Doha office stands as a threat to unravel everything his government has worked for over the past 12 years.


“[Afghan officials in Kabul] will see the Americans negotiating with the Taliban, while they’re left on the sidelines with no central role,” says Anatol Lieven, a professor and Afghanistan expert at King’s College London.

“President Karzai and his immediate followers, in particular, see a very strong risk that they will find themselves completely sidelined in Afghanistan and even eliminated politically as a result of a deal made between the Taliban and the United States — and any other Afghan forces that want to climb on board — with essentially no role for the present Afghan government at all.”

The fact that the office was opened with all the trappings of an official embassy did not help things. Before preliminary discussions could begin between U.S. and Taliban officials, Karzai objected angrily to the presence of the Taliban’s flag and insignia on the grounds of the building.

That issue was quickly resolved with the removal of Taliban symbols visible from the street, but the bigger slight remains just under the surface. It was one thing to not be consulted, and another to not be invited to the negotiating table. But why was the Taliban being allowed to act like a “government in waiting” during peace negotiations that Kabul feels it should rightfully lead? Read the rest of this entry »

Symptoms of Withdrawal in Afghanistan

28 03 2013

28 March 2013

Below RFE/RL quotes me on the changing security landscape of rural Afghanistan as both NATO and Afghan forces realign themselves in the coming years.  Link available here.

Afghans Failing Security Test in Badakhshan

By Frud Bezhan and Mustafa Sarwar

For years, Badakhshan Province enjoyed life away from the action, an island of stability as war engulfed the rest of Afghanistan. But as the broader conflict winds down, the northeastern province is offering a bleak view of the future.

8C2FC9E0-F258-4D96-9FDF-48991030842C_w640_r1_sThat’s because NATO last year handed over security duties in Badakhshan exclusively to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and National Police (ANP), but the transition has coincided with a spike in violence and increased militant activity.

It boasts the types of mountainous valleys and rugged terrain used as safe haven by militants throughout the country. It shares borders with three neighboring states — China, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. And it is an important transit route for the booming opium trade.The region is an ideal testing ground of Afghanistan’s ability to secure remote areas on its own.

Moreover, its isolation saved it from becoming a main theater of the Afghan conflict, allowing fresh troops to gain much-needed experience before Afghanistan takes over security duties across the country at the end of 2014.

But David Young, a conflict-resolution expert and adjunct fellow at the American Security Project, says the security landscape has changed as coalition and Afghan forces have focused on securing urban areas, leaving large swaths of rural Afghanistan — such as Badakhshan – vulnerable.

“NATO forces across the country are focusing their efforts and dissipating resources on the places where they can have the most impact,” Young says. “Badakhshan is not one of those places. I fear that any terrain not classified as even moderately urban will take a lower priority and open the door to Taliban infiltration.”

Read the rest of this entry »

The Coming Rise of Afghan Militias

24 01 2013

24 January 2013

My latest piece for The Atlantic, available here.

In early 1989, Dr. Mohammed Najibullah, the embattled communist president of Afghanistan, faced a choice. As the last of the Soviet forces supporting him had withdrawn, he knew the momentum of the U.S.-funded mujahideen bent on his overthrow would be hard to stave off. Moscow was offering only money, a handful of advisors and limited air support as a consolation to what seemed like impending doom. Even with a strong army, Najibullah knew success would depend on his ability to secure mujahideen territory outside of Afghan cities, and that would require the help of militias.

While centuries of fickle alliances and treacherous terrain have made unaccountable Afghan warlords and the fighters they command a double-edged sword, it was a risk Najibullah felt compelled to take. By the time Soviet financing finally dried up in early 1992, Najibullah had amassed more than 170,000 irregular fighters (not including those whose neutrality he leased), and as he knew they would, his newly poor militias switched sides in droves, signaling the beginning of the end.


President Karzai (and his 2014 successor) will soon face a similar dilemma, though in all likelihood, what surely didn’t feel like much of a choice to Najibullah will feel equally constricting to Kabul in the coming years. The numbers and dynamics on the ground speak for themselves.

Assuming Washington is able to secure a Status of Forces Agreement with Kabul, U.S. forces will draw down to an expected 5,000-10,000 advisors and counterterrorism professionals by the end of 2014. In the following three years, Afghan forces (police, military and border security) will collectively contract from 352,000 to 230,000 due to budget constraints and a lack of international donors.

Currently, Afghan forces have significant difficulty holding territory on their own even when NATO forces secure it for them, to say nothing of their ability to capture new territory independently. Worse still, Afghans are known for abandoning their outposts shortly after U.S. forces leave them in Afghan hands; in one catastrophic 2011 instance, the Afghan army abandoned a fully-stocked, well-fortified, battalion-sized base to the Taliban in Kunar. Read the rest of this entry »

Pakistan’s Cosmetic Reconciliation Attempt

16 11 2012

16 November 2012

Below RFE/RL quotes me on Pakistan’s recent release of a handful of former Taliban officials meant to facilitate the Afghan peace process.  Link available here.

Pakistan Takes Step, Not Leap, Toward Afghan Peace

By Frud Bezhan

In a move intended to encourage the Taliban to join stalled peace negotiations with the Afghan government, Pakistan this week released at least eight jailed members of that militant group.

The releases, granted by Islamabad after repeated requests, is seen by some as a sign that Pakistan is finally prepared to play a constructive role in jump-starting reconciliation efforts that have yielded little since they began several years ago. Skeptics — including the Afghan government –

say that while it is a positive step, Islamabad must do much more to prove its commitment to the Kabul-led peace process.

The Afghan government and its Western allies have stepped up efforts to find a political solution to the ongoing battle against Taliban militants. There are fears that the country could descend into civil war or face another Taliban takeover if militants are not brought into a serious peace process before 2014, when the majority of U.S. and NATO-led ISAF troops will leave.

Read the rest of this entry »

Interviews on Voice of America

21 10 2012

On 15 Oct 2012 I was interviewed by both the Dari and Pashto channels of the Voice of America – Afghanistan.  Below are the videos of each interview, and further below are the approximate English transcripts.





VOA: Given Afghanistan’s achievements and the security challenges facing the country, including green-on-blue attacks, can the transfer of security responsibility to Afghans succeed?

DHY: It can certainly transfer, yes, but its success is a different question.  It’s important to remember that only 15% of these attacks are the result of infiltration–that is, the Taliban sends one of its fighters undercover into the Afghan National Security Forces to attack NATO forces at a later time.  Another 15% are the result of coercion of existing ANSF members–either by blackmailing them and threatening their families if they do not attack NATO forces, or by bribing them with money.  The remaining 70% are due to cultural clashes.  The reason for those cultural clashes are frequently rooted in the way of training.  American forces tend to train Afghans by using a great deal of shouting, profanity and even humiliation because that’s how most armies are trained, including America’s.  In fact, Afghans train the same way, but it completely changes the dynamic when the trainer is an outsider and not from the same culture or religion as the trainee.   Read the rest of this entry »

The Future of Militias in Afghanistan

10 10 2012

Below are my remarks (click to play audio) on the future of local defense forces and militias in Afghanistan at the American Security Project on 9 OCT 2012.  I essentially argue that in two years, with few choices available, Kabul will deliberately instigate civil war in remote areas of the east and south to prevent open conflict in key population centers.

The Anatomy of an Anti-Taliban Uprising

12 09 2012

Foreign Policy
12 September 2012

[My latest piece for Foreign Policy, in Part One and Two]

Part 1

Revolt is a loaded word, conjuring up images of the Free Syrian Army, the Anbar Awakening, and the Libyan civil war.  In small pockets across eastern Afghanistan, however, farmers, shopkeepers and others are taking the fight to the Taliban over the group’s abusive tendencies.  Though entirely isolated from one another, instances of violent resistance to harsh Taliban rules have spiked this past summer—brought on by school closings in Ghazni, music bans in Nuristan, beheadings in Paktia and murders in Laghman, among other causes.  While a small number of Afghans admire the Taliban, most who support it do so because they are coerced, or believe that the group is less predatory than the government, though that’s hardly an endorsement.  So what precisely does it take for Afghans to stand up to the Taliban, and what are their options?

When I served in eastern Afghanistan as a civilian advisor to the U.S. military, I closely monitored the Taliban’s relationship with the local population and discerned a number of red lines the Taliban could not cross, depending on the retaliatory options available to their victims.  While working closely with a dozen or so of these nascent rebel groups in Laghman and Nuristan Provinces, I noted that the amount of Taliban abuse most Afghans will endure before considering rebellion in one way or another depends on a number of inter-related factors (incidentally, the calculus for whether Afghans will join the Taliban due to government abuse is similar): the severity of the grievance, the locals’ ability to retaliate, and the community’s resilience to withstand inevitable counter-attacks if they do rise up.  More specifically, they ask:

  1. Does this abuse or restriction prevent my family from earning a living or even surviving?  ‘Prevent’ is the key word here.  Afghans will walk an extra five miles every day to avoid a Taliban checkpoint on the way to a bazaar, and as long as they are able to get to the bazaar, the obstacle can be classified as a mere nuisance.  If, however, the Taliban is restricting movement to such a degree that there is a threat of being shaken down or attacked every time Afghans leave their home, the Taliban is playing with fire.
  2. Does it prevent the men in my family from receiving an education?  Again, as long as they get the education, even if the Taliban dictates that Islam should be taught in a certain way, such slights are likely to be overlooked in the face of overwhelming force.  Tactful members of the Taliban will usually encourage changes in a ‘dangerously westernizing’ curriculum through intimidation but stop short of actually closing them by force, given the value Afghans place on education and their willingness to fight for it.
  3. Do I have the support I need (fellow fighters, weapons, fortifications) to retaliate?  Afghans make decisions collectively, so if the village elders do not support a counter-attack, it will rarely happen.  If an individual retaliates without consulting his elders, he risks becoming a social pariah or being thrown to the wolves when the Taliban comes hunting for payback. When the community does approve, it is usually in the form of revenge for a very specific grievance (such as a murder), targeted accordingly and proportionately to convey to the Taliban that the community does not intend to start a war but rather to secure limited retribution and make it known that a line was crossed.  For instance, a specific Talib may be singled out and attacked for a crime he committed.  Sometimes the Taliban will allow the retaliation to go unanswered and sometimes they won’t.  If the retaliation simply entails chasing the Taliban out of an area with sticks, the insurgents are likely to let it slide and come back in a few days as though nothing had happened.  Yet frequently the leader of an uprising will be beaten or executed if he is viewed as a threat, rather than simply helping his community blow off a little steam.
  4. Do I have the support I need to retaliate continuously and maintain a heightened defense posture indefinitely?  If the goal is permanent expulsion of the Taliban or if the community knows any retaliation will be met with a harsh response, they must feel confident that their supply of ammunition and fighters runs deep.  Men have to quit work or school and devote all their time to defense; all movement and communication becomes riskier and more costly; intelligence networks of spotters and infiltrators have to be established and maintained; and savings are spent in days on matching the Taliban’s capabilities, including makeshift bunkers, RPGs, PKM machine guns and even DSHKA heavy machine guns.  If the community lacks the resources or connections to live under siege or project power at least a mile in every direction, they will not survive permanent enmity with the Taliban.

Careful not to push the community too far, the Taliban dances a fine line as well.  Abuse the population too little and they won’t fear you, but abuse them too much and you give them nothing left to lose.  Inevitably, the Taliban either misread the population’s redlines or arrogantly exceed them, confident that no one would dare challenge their writ no matter how cruel they are.  When faced with a possible rebellion, the Taliban will frequently roll back their demands (re-opening schools, for instance) and the population will resume its previous indulgence of modest though frustrating restrictions, such as the requirement to stay at home at night.  And the dance continues.

Read the rest of this entry »

Indian Guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Hopes to Teach Peace to the Taliban

16 03 2012

[Below Newsweek/Daily Beast quotes me in an article regarding a prominent Indian guru hoping to transform the Taliban...]

By Sarah Robbins

This week, as the Taliban announced they had pulled out of peace talks with the United States, an Indian spiritual guru revealed his plans for an unusual journey: a peace mission to talk to the Taliban in Pakistan. He would, he promised, try to help the fighters find inner peace

“All those who fight have fear and concerns; they want to feel valuable,” Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, whom Forbes has described as the fifth most powerful man in India, told The Daily Beast in an interview Friday. “Our techniques give them a sense of well-being and calmness, and once the inner calmness happens, the feeling of wanting to fight and the urge for revenge disappears.”

Shankar is the founder of the Art of Living, a Bangalore-based movement, which espouses breathing techniques, meditation, and yoga as ways to overcome violent tendencies and which claims to have millions of followers worldwide and around 5,000 in Pakistan. While his plans are preliminary, Shankar hopes to send Art of Living followers to meet with Taliban fighters in the Pashtun areas inside Pakistan.

“We want to talk with the Taliban in Pakistan,” Shankar said. “We’ll go in with an open mind, to find out who they are, their problems and their intentions—that has always been my approach.”

Shankar announced his desire “to stretch my hands to Talibans” during a visit to Pakistan this week. In Lahore, the guru addressed a crowd that included Sartaj Aziz, a Pakistani economist and the former foreign and finance minister, and a leader of the Pakistan Muslim League. After inaugurating the country’s first Art of Living center in Lahore, Shankar then traveled on to Islamabad and Karachi to open centers in each place. It was his first visit to the country in eight years.

Spiritual leaders have historically had significant impacts on seemingly intractable situations—from priests in Northern Ireland to rabbis in Israel to friars in Bosnia, said David H. Young, a Washington, D.C.-based analyst of international conflict. But he cautioned that the most successful peace builders have often been indigenous; the fact that Shankar is not Afghan or even Pashtun could undermine his success in the region.

“A genuine Taliban commander in Afghanistan or Pakistan would be as reluctant to meet with Shankar as he would be to meet with Pat Robertson,” says Young. “The two men are identical in the eyes of the Taliban.”

Shankar contends that a humane, personal approach could succeed at a moment when more official diplomatic efforts have broken down. “Conflict rises in the head, in the individual—it spreads to the community,” he says, adding that his position as a “neutral party,” neither representing the Judeo-Christian side nor the Muslim side, could provide a different point of view.

He cites Pakistan’s November 2011 decision to grant India “most favored nation” status as a hopeful sign of progress in the region. “There have always been barriers in Pakistan, but this time, I felt some lifted—there was a cordial, very open reception.”

For this reason, Young suggests that Shankar could be most effective by beginning to mediate within his country’s own borders: “[His] impact would be greatest if he tried to convince Delhi to make meaningful concessions at the negotiating table with Pakistan over Indian-occupied Kashmir,” he says. “That task is difficult enough as it is—both for religious and secular advocates—and there aren’t enough people doing it.”

Which is one possible way that the movement Shankar now sees as starting with an individual Taliban soldier’s stress level could also, eventually, have a geopolitical domino effect. “If tensions are reduced [between India and Pakistan], Pakistan will have less reason to train and support Islamist militant groups like the Taliban, which are a buffer in its Western hemisphere,” says Young. “Ultimately, India holds the cards for a peaceful Afghanistan.”

Divide and Conquer Negotiations with the Taliban

14 02 2012

Foreign Policy
14 February 2012

[My commentary published today on Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel]


With the Taliban close to opening a political office in Qatar for the purpose of negotiating an end to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, it is unsurprising that the Taliban’s primary rival insurgent network, Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), is now clamoring for a seat at the table as well.  Yet the Taliban and HIG are quite different from each other, both in how they think and how they operate, and HIG would play a complicated but very useful role at the negotiating table with NATO and Kabul if the process gathers momentum.

While HIG’s forces are fewer than they were in the 1980s when its leader and founder, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was America’s favorite anti-Soviet mujahed, HIG has attacked NATO forces for years with a robust insurgent and criminal syndicate throughout northern and eastern Afghanistan, where I served as a civilian advisor to NATO forces in Laghman and Nuristan in 2011. Among other attacks, HIG organized an enormous 2009 siege on an American base in Kamdesh, Nuristan in which 8 U.S. soldiers were killed, and they participated in a massacre of 10 international aid workers in Badakhshan Province in 2010.

In the last few months, Dr. Ghairat Baheer, son-in-law and long-time representative of Hekmatyar, has met with ISAF Commander General John Allen, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai to discuss prospects for HIG’s reconciliation and a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Yet with NATO’s eyes focused mainly on the southern heartland, it may be tempting for the alliance to focus on negotiating solely with the Taliban, disregarding HIG. Ultimately, however, tandem negotiations with both insurgent groups are vital for several reasons.
Read the rest of this entry »

The Price of Flexibility

24 06 2009

DAWN (Pakistan)
24 June 2009

[My commentary published in today's DAWN.]

We have seen this movie before. Invigoration is pouring out of Islamabad these days as it tries to wrap up its Swat offensive and extend the frontline deeper into Pakistan’s northwest.

Everyone says that this time Pakistan’s crackdown is different. Islamabad, Rawalpindi, the ISI and everyone else finally gets it: jihadis do not make for good neighbours. The Pakistan Army is clearing Taliban territories; militants are fleeing from their ‘entrenched’ positions to avoid the rain of artillery shells; and Rawalpindi is gearing up for the last showdown in Waziristan. Until the next one, that is.

At a time when Islamabad is insisting louder than ever that it has always been honest and sincere in its counterterrorism efforts since 9/11, other wheels are squeaking differently. Former President Musharraf told Fareed Zakaria in May that “of course” Islamabad has contact with the Taliban. “After all,” he continued, “the KGB had contacts in CIA. CIA had contacts in KGB. That is how you have ingress into each other, and that is how you can manipulate things in your favour.” Fair enough. But if today’s state of affairs is how one might describe “in your favour”, then what does a bad day look like?

The truth is that Musharraf and most of the local Islamist groups agreed to ignore each other’s consolidation of power in their respective neighbourhoods, allowing insidious ‘rogue’ elements of the ISI to cultivate and enhance their own ‘ingress’ with the Taliban. To be sure, many believe that whether these ‘rogue’ operators are officially unofficial or unofficially official, they continue informing, arming, training and trouble-shooting for the Taliban and its various jihadi brethren—ranging from self-righteous warlords to the sophisticated Jamaatud Dawa to Al Qaeda wannabes.

Granted, the government is currently putting up quite a fight in Swat, but in the meantime, the people of Sindh are terrified that droves of Taliban IDPs are on the cusp of bringing Mingora’s fate to Karachi, while Punjabis are enduring suicide bombings because the militants there typically fighting in Kashmir decided to host and train aspiring Pakistani Taliban. Once Pakistan publicly ‘turned’ on domestic extremists, the disparate militants in Pakistan found a common enemy in Islamabad and largely abandoned the struggle in Kashmir.  So who can counter this newly congealed beast?

Now that the military has put its full weight behind this offensive, potentially for the long haul, it has a chance to reverse many of the gains the Taliban made when Washington was focused on Iraq and Musharraf was focused on himself. Most importantly, this can be done without the government incurring any more wrath than it already has incurred. Read the rest of this entry »

America’s Strategic Whac-a-Mole

13 04 2009

Le Monde Diplomatique (France)
13 April 2009

[Note: an abbreviated version of this commentary was published by Le Monde Diplomatique]

It’s no surprise that President Obama’s foreign policy challenges are unsavory, diverse and numerous, but what makes them most worrisome is the degree to which they overlap in the worst ways possible.  Our allies’ concerns, our enemies’ threats and our victims’ pleas are inextricably tied to one another—if not by nature, then by the hand of political leaders and institutions across the globe.  Solving one problem seems impossible without solving the rest, or at least pretending to do so.  And ‘pretending’ may be what it comes to, though it’s difficult to imagine just whom we’d fool.  The world seems to be knocking at every American door, imploring, cajoling or threatening us to do (or not do) something.  And whenever no one’s knocking, we can’t help but wonder where everyone went.

Iraq and Afghanistan seldom wonder far from our doorstep for obvious reasons, but with Obama’s focus on renewing old alliances and engendering newer convenient ones, many others are requesting an audience.  Unfortunately, it is mathematically impossible for President Obama to address each or even most of them.  And inevitably, the process of prioritizing is going to get ugly.

Here are just a few of Obama’s more important foreign policy goals:
•    Eradicating (or rendering impotent) al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
•    Securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and some modicum of democracy there.
•    Withdrawing US forces from Iraq and preventing the Iranians from filling the void.
•    Derailing and/or deterring Iran’s development of a nuclear (weapons) technology program.
•    Spreading democracy across the globe, especially in Muslim and formerly Soviet states.
•    Reaching a final settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
•    Mitigating the heavy spillover from the drug wars in Mexico into America’s southwest.
•    Limiting the social and political upheaval of a global recession.

If only these goals could be divided on a chopping block.  But instead, they are all connected in an interminable run-on sentence.  To defeat al Qaeda, we have to remove its support structure along the Afpak border.  To do that, we have to (implicitly) convince Pakistan that it does not need an Islamist buffer in Afghanistan to ensure its own survival.  To do that, we have to ensure the economic development of southern Afghanistan.

To rebuild Afghanistan, we will need supplies, and those supplies will soon be guaranteed only when transited through Russia’s backyard.  To get that access, however, Russia is insisting that we abandon our plans to install anti-ballistic missile shields in Eastern Europe.  Meanwhile, Obama seems happy to do this as long as Russia stops supplying Iran’s nuclear development.  But for that concession, Russia is also demanding that we abandon our efforts to integrate Russia’s former satellite states (Ukraine and Georgia, specifically) into NATO and other western institutions.

We might be in a position to refuse this last Russian demand if only we could know for sure that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program.  But to obtain that reassurance from Iran, Tehran itself is looking for carte-blanche in its consolidation of Shiite influence in Iraq, Iran’s greatest historical enemy.  We might be willing to make a trade—nukes for Iraq—but the US is slated to withdraw most of its forces anyway, so we have little to offer Tehran that it won’t get by merely sitting on its hands.

Perhaps, then, the gridlock will dissipate if we manage to break off Syria from its alliance with Iran, but that requires Israel’s willingness to negotiate with Syria and other enemies—a practice which Israel’s new prime minister is apparently refusing to do until after President Obama defuses Iran’s nuclear ambitions, in one way or another.

If you are confused, join the club.  No one knows where this negotiation starts or ends, who the parties really are, and what concessions they are prepared to make.  So far, the only real sacrifice President Obama has asked of the American people is economic.  He has not asked us to tolerate an Iranian Bomb; he has not suggested we send our sons and daughters into northwest Pakistan; and he has not indicated just how far he would go in a confrontation with Russia.  After all, reset buttons might inspire a respite of amnesia, but just how far back does he expect that button will take us?  To the Yeltsin days when Russia slept in every morning?  Or to the Cuban missile crisis, when no one slept at all?

The one thing that is clear is that Russia, Iran and Pakistan are at the center of nearly every obstacle we face abroad, and we lack the military, financial and political resources to address more than one of them at a time, if that.

How Indo-Pak Tensions Might Help the War on Terror

13 01 2009

DAWN (Pakistan)
13 January 2009

[Note: an abbreviated version of this commentary was published by DAWN]

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in late November, Pakistan’s government in Islamabad is scrambling to show grief-stricken Indians and the world that Pakistan is actually able and eager to mount successful counterterrorist operations.  In the meantime, India is still considering its military options, and the US is finding itself in the awkward position of biased mediator, but a mediator with options, nonetheless.

Indian ire in the immediate aftermath of the attacks was so unmistakable that it prompted Islamabad to sound the loudest alarm bell in its arsenal: insisting that it could only fight one war at a time, Pakistan warned Washington that a vengeful India would compel Islamabad to redeploy the 100,000 troops currently assisting the US War on Terror in northwest Pakistan to its eastern border with India, Pakistan’s greatest strategic threat.  Hearing the message loud and clear, President Bush dispatched Secretary of State Rice to Delhi to calm the Indians—much as Washington had in the past—to ensure that Pakistan has the resources and flexibility to fight al Qaeda and its various supporters on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Yet from Washington’s perspective, both the political and military implications of heightened tensions between India and Pakistan—especially the kind that involves Pakistani troop movements—open many new doors to a war on terror that appears increasingly bleak.

The View from Washington

First, India is not alone in its profuse criticism of Pakistan’s failure to fight the very terrorists it bred during the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad in the 1980s.  Seven long years into the war on terror, Washington remains convinced that Pakistan is still unwilling and/or unable to make good on its counterterrorism commitments on the other side of the Durand Line.  It was difficult enough to compel Islamabad to deploy twenty percent of its roughly half-million-man army to the northwestern border during President Bush’s first term, and that contribution only led to a steadfast resurgence of the Afghan Taliban and the near-steroidal growth of the Pakistani Taliban.

Facing dim prospects, over the last 18 months the Americans have begun taking matters into their own hands, dispatching the much-resented predator drones to kill senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders with greater frequency, and deeper into Pakistan’s heartland, no less.  With President-elect Barack Obama insisting that he will allocate more American soldiers and resources to the ‘real’ war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Washington’s relationship with Islamabad has nowhere to go but down, especially as the Pakistani Taliban rip the country apart. It is in this context that a redeployment of Pakistani troops frightens Washington—regardless of who occupies the White House.

But according to a flood of recent press reports, if India seems likely to attack Pakistan, then both the Pakistan Army and the militants they are supposed to destroy could find themselves facing the same grave threat in India.  Various militant factions and supporters of the Taliban—all the way from South Waziristan up to the Swat Valley—would put their wars with NATO and Islamabad on hold and find their way to Kashmir or the Indian border. Read the rest of this entry »


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