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 »

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