Media Interviews

Below is a collection of media interviews in recent years, mostly with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Daily Beast.


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.”


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.

Graeme Smith, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Kabul, says Karzai could be making a gross miscalculation. “Politically, in Washington, attention is turning to other conflicts and other geopolitical issues,” Smith says. “I think the Afghans do not understand how tired and broke the Americans are in Afghanistan.”

Young says Washington could use Karzai’s additional demands as an excuse to cut its losses. These include Karzai’s refusal to sign the deal by the end-of-year deadline set by Washington. Another is Karzai’s insistence that Washington halt all raids on Afghan homes. That would deny Washington the right to rescue its own soldiers if they were in danger or being held captive on Afghan property.

“Just simply [Karzai’s] erratic behavior isn’t enough for [Washington] to cancel such an important and strategic agreement,” Young says. “They’ll need a tangible excuse to take to the American people and to give Afghans if and when they pull the plug.”

Reason No. 2: Karzai Doesn’t Want a Deal

There is a possibility that Karzai does not actually want Washington as a partner and his recent demands are intended to derail the agreement.

Karzai has criticized Washington for failing to establish peace in Afghanistan and bringing suffering to its people. In an interview with RFE/RL this week, he went so far as to say that “the ongoing war in Afghanistan is being imposed on us and Afghans are being sacrificed in it for someone else’s interests.”

Michael Shank, an adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, says there is a chance Karzai took the BSA to the Loya Jirga believing it would be shot down.

But Shank says Karzai could have been surprised by the gathering’s strong backing for the deal and has now made even more demands in a bid to jeopardize the deal. “I think it’s very plausible that Karzai wants the U.S. out,” he says.. “He thought U.S. home raids and legal immunity for U.S. soldiers would be deal breakers [for the Loya Jirga]. Clearly they weren’t, so he’s putting everything on the table now.”

But Omar Samad, a senior Central Asia fellow at the New America Foundation and a former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada, says that if Karzai did not want a deal he could have ensured that through the Loya Jirga, whose members were handpicked by the government.

“It’s a huge gamble on Karzai’s part to go against the recommendations of the Loya Jirga,” Samad says. “Why would he have gone to this length to convene a Loya Jirga and then try to derail a deal? That would put him in a very precarious situation domestically and with Afghanistan’s allies.”

Reason No. 3: Karzai Knows The U.S. Will Eventually Leave

It is also possible that Karzai believes Washington will leave anyway and so he is trying to demonstrate his credentials as a great Afghan defender in order to save his own legacy.

Karzai has been at pains to prove his record as an independent and patriotic leader and to distance himself from his makers in Washington. He wants to be remembered as the leader who did not sell out to the interests of foreign powers and instead freed Afghanistan from the clutches of Afghanistan’s neighbors and the West.

“If I sign it and peace does not come, who will be blamed for it by history?” Karzai asked members of the Loya Jirga on November 24. “If I sign it today and tomorrow we don’t have peace, who would be blamed by history? So that is why I am asking for guarantees.”


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.

This month a large gathering of tribal and civil leaders known as a loya jirga will be held in Afghanistan to decide on a draft security deal struck by Washington and Kabul in October.

But significant disagreements remain on the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) and accompanying Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), including Washington’s demand that its troops be granted immunity from prosecution under Afghan law.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to abide by the loya jirga’s ruling, but there are several reasons to believe the United States might not be in the mood for further negotiations.

War Fatigue

Support in the United States for the Afghan war, which is now in its 12th year and has left more than 2,150 U.S. troops dead and nearly 20,000 wounded, is at its lowest point.

According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in July, about three in four Americans think the war is no longer worth fighting. And for the first time, more than half of poll respondents said the war had failed to contribute to U.S. national security.

Mounting tensions between Karzai and U.S. officials, a bloody offensive this year by the Taliban, and the failure to start peace talks with the Taliban have all convinced the  U.S. public that the country needs to cut its losses.

David Young, a civilian adviser to NATO in eastern Afghanistan and an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project in Washington, says convincing the U.S. public of the need for continued military engagement beyond 2014 will be a tough sell.

“If the Afghan economy and Afghan security forces can’t stay afloat on their own now, then another five years or 10 years certainly won’t be able to do it — that’s the rationale,” Young says. “We’ve pumped everything we can into this situation and into this country, and if this doesn’t do it then nothing will.”

Financial Pressure

The growing unpopularity of the Afghan war largely stems from financial concerns in the United States.

The U.S. economy is struggling to climb out of a global financial downturn, and U.S. taxpayers are wary of adding to the trillions of dollars that have already been spent on the military campaign and in propping up the Afghan economy.

Graeme Smith, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Kabul, says Afghanistan is playing a risky game by delaying its decision on a security agreement with Washington.

Smith says there is a misconception in Afghanistan that the United States needs Afghanistan more than Afghanistan needs the United States. But if tempted, he says, Washington could pounce on the opportunity to cut its losses.

“These days in Washington, the mention of Afghanistan makes people sigh deeply,” Smith says. “There is profound donor fatigue. Afghans don’t realize how much the West would love an excuse to pull out and walk away. It would save billions of dollars a year for America at a time when America is hurting for cash.”

Remote Capabilities

Remote intelligence, surveillance, and strike capabilities have come a long way since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. These remote capabilities can be employed from U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf and even the U.S. mainland. Quite simply, drones have altered conventional thinking on how counterterrorism operations can be carried out.

In Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, drone attacks have been a largely successful, albeit controversial, tool in weakening Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups fighting the United States and Afghan security forces in Afghanistan.

Smith says that if the United States opts for the “zero option” it could rely on drones to protect its core interests, including making sure Afghanistan does not again become a base for Al-Qaeda.

“If push came to shove, America could pursue some limited counterterrorism in parts of Afghanistan by treating Afghanistan like North and South Waziristan [tribal agencies] in Pakistan, or parts of Yemen, or parts of Somalia,” Smith says.

New Foreign-Policy Priorities

When it comes to Afghanistan, U.S. President Barack Obama’s comments in recent years have often related to troop withdrawals and a long-term U.S.-Afghan security agreement. When it comes to foreign policy, events in Egypt, Syria, and Iran appear to have taken priority.

Young says that the United States’ reasons for entering the Afghan theater are fading in the minds of Americans.

“If and when another attack on American interests outside of Afghanistan originates from Afghanistan, it would be back on the front burner,” Young says. “The sense is that the only time Americans are affected by Afghanistan is when they are in Afghanistan. That has been the general sense in the public for the last few years. The longer that perception pervades, the less relevant Afghanistan feels to Americans.”


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.”

While Afghan forces have taken significant casualties, they have not been overrun by the Taliban as some skeptics had predicted.
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The Taliban has also largely failed to meet its key strategic goals for this year’s offensive: to kill high-level Afghan officials, carry out even more infiltration attacks against foreign forces, and break the will of the nascent Afghan security forces.

The Taliban’s assassination campaign did take a toll but mostly on lower-level police and district officials. The exception was the assassination of Arsala Jamal, the governor of Logar Province, who was killed while giving a speech in a mosque on October 15. But the Taliban have denied responsibility for the attack.

The Taliban had promised to increase so-called “insider attacks” carried out by Afghan soldiers, or insurgents posing as Afghan soldiers. The militants claimed responsibility for most of the 60 deaths attributed to such attacks in 2012. But with new security measures in place that number fell to 15 in the first 10 months of this year.

The Taliban’s pledge to carry out spectacular attacks in Kabul and other major cities has also largely failed to materialize, with many either not hitting their targets or being foiled by Afghan intelligence.

Securing The Cities 

While Afghan forces have taken the fight to the Taliban and conducted cleanup operations in Taliban-held areas, moving forward they are expected to focus on securing the mostly densely populated areas, leaving large swaths of the countryside vulnerable to Taliban infiltration.

Ryan  Evans, the assistant director at the Center for the National Interest, a nonpartisan public-policy institution based in Washington, says that is not only a reflection of Afghan security forces’ fighting capabilities but also of major cuts in foreign military funding.

The Afghan security forces are expected to be reduced in number from the present 352,000 to around 230,000 by 2015 as aid is cut from $7 billion to around $4 billion after 2014.

“This is a pattern that we’ve seen in Afghanistan for the past 30 years,” Evans said. “When the Soviets left, the Afghan National Security Forces fell back on urban centers. They’ve been making this shift in the past couple of years in anticipation of the U.S. leaving. They have formed these so-called ‘rings of steel’ around district centers and provincial capitals, and I think that will only accelerate.”


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:

Security

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.”

Economy

A complete withdrawal of U.S. troops could also translate into much less of the $4 billion in annual civilian aid pledged by foreign donors reaching Afghanistan.

Smith says that could prove disastrous for the many Afghan industries and the economy as a whole, which is heavily dependent on foreign funding.

“Just the sheer amount of money that’s going to be pulled out has the potential to be a fundamentally disruptive thing,” Smith says. “There would be an abrupt deflation of that war bubble in the economy.”

Waning international aid could compound the ominous economic conditions in the country. With most foreign forces leaving, many Afghan businesses have already closed shop and their owners have left the country, taking much-needed cash with them.

One sector of the economy that has already been hit is real estate. The housing bubble, fueled largely by the war economy, has already burst, with prices in the capital slashed by about half in the past three years.

Businesses Tied To U.S. Military

The financial effects of a U.S. withdrawal could be compounded by the absence of the U.S. military, which is a key employer of Afghan civilians and contributes significantly to the Afghan economy.

Many lucrative businesses have been propped up by military spending.

The logistics and construction sectors profit most. The U.S. military hires Afghan companies to transport supplies, equipment, food, water, and fuel to and from U.S. military bases from ports in Pakistan. Afghans have also been employed to build bases, including constructing watchtowers and other facilities.

Afghan companies have also been paid to produce supplies for the U.S. military. As an example, several large bottle factories have sprung up to provide U.S. personnel with bottled water.

Civil Society

The international presence has also allowed a new civil society to take root in Afghanistan.

Scores of women’s groups, political movements, and organizations dedicated to upholding human rights and press freedoms and fighting corruption have sprung up in the past 12 years.

Young says that without a U.S. military presence and accompanying financial support, many civil society organizations would be unable to work effectively, if at all.

“Without Western troops, there won’t be a safety net for international donors, which means less nonmilitary aid coming in,” Young says. “There would be less support for improving political institutions, government accountability, women’s access to resources, and countless other vital needs.”

Foreign NGOs

Similarly, many foreign nongovernmental organizations, which rely on protection provided by the international military presence to work, could halt their operations.

In anticipation of the scheduled drawdown, many such groups have already either left or cut their staff numbers to include only essential personnel. A complete withdrawal could deter even the most hardened NGOs from reevaluating such moves.

Regional Impact

A complete withdrawal of U.S. troops after 2014 could have a destabilizing effect across Afghanistan’s borders but might also be welcomed by powers eager to expand their regional influence.

Central Asian neighbors have already beefed up border security to stop the infiltration of militants, and also of drugs, from Afghanistan. Concern over those issues can be expected to rise with U.S. forces removed from the equation.

But as Smith suggests, the “zero option” may be welcomed by other countries in the region.

“U.S. troops withdrawals in the western provinces of Afghanistan may be welcomed by Iran, and could encourage Tehran’s cooperation with the central government in Kabul,” Smith says. “Similarly, some authorities in Pakistan are eager to see the Americans leave. On the whole, however, the neighborhood around Afghanistan is watching the situation with some concern.”


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.

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“[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?

Karzai’s Legacy

Karzai has spent years trying to convince key players in the conflict that Kabul must be central to any talks and that peace must be negotiated on terms acceptable to his government. For Karzai, an Afghan-led peace process offers him the opportunity to secure his legacy, and the challenge of orchestrating a settlement despite strong reservations from within his own camp.

One misstep, it seems, and the powerful warlords and regional strongmen who have made their way into the government will bail on the whole experiment and go their own way.

The Taliban’s political office signals a shift in trajectory that Karzai could not allow. This point was hammered home last week when Kabul halted talks with Washington on security arrangements that would determine the conditions under which U.S. forces could stay behind after most troops withdraw by the end of 2014.

Ryan Evans, associate fellow of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, suggests that Kabul has little choice but to play the role of spoiler. “This isn’t just Karzai, this is him trying to cater for the many different interest groups and factions within Afghanistan as well,” he says. “You would be getting a lot of pressure, for example, from former warlords like [Mohammad] Ismail Khan, [General Abdul Rashid] Dostum, and former Northern Alliance commanders who are against the very idea of talks with the Taliban.”

Professor Lieven notes that Karzai, who will be replaced as president in an election slated for next spring, is not crucial to negotiations. But Karzai must be mindful of the fragile state of the government. Without the approval of the country’s powerful former warlords and leaders of the country’s ethnic minorities, any peace deal could mean a government collapse and even civil war.

“The people without whom there cannot be a peace settlement in Afghanistan are the leaders of the ethnicities, which support the present Afghan government, including the Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks, and the commanders of the Afghan National Army,” Lieven says. “If both of these groups reject a peace settlement with the Taliban then, by definition, there can be no peace settlement because these are forces which will remain of permanent importance in Afghanistan, unlike Karzai.”

A Return To Civil War?

Many of those figures helped U.S.-led forces oust the Taliban from power in 2001, and have fiercely resisted any scenario that could facilitate the group’s return to the fold. Several prominent members of the Afghan government have already threatened to rearm and remobilize their forces should their power be challenged.

“If one man oppresses me, I will take my weapon and go to the mountains,” First Vice President Marshal Qasim Fahim stated publicly on June 11. “This is Afghanistan’s misfortune and problem.”

Less than a week later, a spokesman for General Dostum’s Junbish National Islamic Party said weapons were being distributed to party supporters. The statement led to accusations that Dostum, who is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Afghan National Army, was trying to carve out his own “fiefdom” in northern Afghanistan.

The influence of such elements, who have the means to scupper both the peace process and the government at any time, weighs heavily in any discussion on Afghanistan’s future.

“Even before any shots are fired, rearming in and of itself is a clear warning that [discussion] will have to consider the interests of these key power brokers across the country,” David Young, a conflict-resolution expert and adjunct fellow at the American Security Project based in Washington, explains. “If it were to ignore these warnings or co-opt only a handful of those militias then other militias could derail the process later on by unilaterally attacking the Taliban during an eventual cease-fire.”

All of which makes the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar — one that hones the ousted group’s image as a state power while exposing rifts within the current Afghan government — something that Kabul could not allow to go unchallenged.


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.”

Deadly Battles

This month, heavy clashes between Afghan security forces and militants have been reported. And the ANA has led a weeklong offensive against militant positions in several districts.

At least 50 Taliban fighters were reported dead and dozens injured in the volatile Wardooj district on March 23. The Afghan Defense Ministry, which has sent reinforcements to Badakhshan from neighboring provinces, confirmed three Afghan soldiers were killed and nine others were wounded in the course of the operation.

In one of the deadliest attacks on government troops by militants in recent years, Taliban insurgents ambushed and killed 17 Afghan troops in Wardooj on March 6. Eleven soldiers were kidnapped but later freed in exchange for Taliban fighters in government custody.

Locals in Badakhshan say the government’s presence in the province is weak, while the contingent of Afghan troops in the province is too small to oversee security in one of the country’s largest provinces.

Daily Danger

Salahuddin is a resident of Wardooj, some 60 kilometers east of the provincial capital, Faizabad. He says dozens of locals have died or been wounded in fierce fighting between government forces and militants. The instability, he says, has forced hundreds of families to flee to neighboring provinces.

“The Taliban have attacked the district. There was intense fighting in the center and on the outskirts of the Wardooj,” Salahuddin offers in an account of heavy clashes between militants and local forces on March 22, when six residents were seriously injured. “The houses were hit by mortar fire and six people were wounded. Yes, government forces and militants were involved. On one side, there were rockets used, and the other side they were firing mortars. They didn’t hit their target, so people were hit.”

Sharif, a resident of Germ district, says all the schools in the district have been shut and many homes destroyed. He says locals have fled because they fear they could be used by militants as human shields.

“Every single day there is fighting everywhere. People are pleading [to the government] to stop this.”

Really Ready?

General Mohammad Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, says that despite the deterioration in security he is confident the ANA and ANP in Badakhshan can defuse the militant threat.

“In those places where a security transfer has occurred, [militants] have tried to target those places,” Azimi says. “But thankfully, overall, the security situation in Badakhshan has become better.”

This year is a crucial test for Afghanistan’s army and police forces, who have assumed control of some 80 percent of the country.

But Young says Afghan forces’ failure to secure Badakhshan suggests they are far from ready to take control of the entire country. Afghan security forces suffer from a high rate of desertion, a poor reenlistment record, low morale, and a lack of equipment.

And that can’t bode well for Afghanistan, especially its rural regions, says Young.

“What I project is a limited civil war in rural pockets of the east and south, ” Young says. “I think that as ISAF or Afghan forces restrict themselves to the cities — because it doesn’t have the number of forces necessary to project into the rural areas — it will be like counterinsurgency, but Afghan-style. So they will protect the most built-up areas so that the Taliban isn’t able to actually take over the entire country.”


13 January 2013

Below RFE/RL quotes me on how the Afghan government can improve its reconciliation effort with senior Taliban officials released from Pakistani custody. Link available here.

Taliban Prisoner Releases are High-Risk, Low-Reward

By Frud Bezhan

After having little success playing it safe, the Afghan government is gambling on a risky new strategy to convince the Taliban that the road to peace runs through Kabul.

In recent months, scores of Taliban officials and rank-and-file have been freed from prisons in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Now, Afghanistan is upping the ante with the expected release of thousands more within its borders while pushing Islamabad to free some of the Islamist militant group’s most dangerous characters.

The prisoner releases are seen as a signal of good faith from the administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is wary of peace efforts not led by Kabul but whose overtures for direct talks with the Taliban have been refused.

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But there are no assurances that the freed detainees will, as Kabul predicts, help bring the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table or convince militants to reintegrate into Afghan society.

Analysts say the move is fraught with risk, and has little chance of succeeding.

“The worst-case scenario, which is actually quite likely, is having these individuals return to the Taliban, bolster their ranks, and increase their efficacy on the battlefield,” says Jeffrey Dressler, a senior analyst and team leader for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

“It would not surprise me one bit if the majority of these folks were recaptured or killed on the battlefield six months to a year from now.”

Dressler says that even those who might be ready to give up the fight would be highly reluctant to facilitate reconciliation.

‘Doomed From The Start’

The Afghan authorities announced on January 4 that 80 prisoners captured in operations against the Taliban and other groups had been released from Bagram military prison, which houses some 3,000 Taliban fighters and suspected terrorists. A further 1,200 prisoners, it was announced, would be freed in the coming weeks.

​​In neighboring Pakistan, 26 Taliban have been freed in recent months amid reports that Kabul had presented a 40-man wish list to Islamabad. The release of about 100 more prisoners is reportedly forthcoming.

David Young, a Washington-based conflict-resolution expert and adjunct fellow at the American Security Project, says the Afghan government’s latest effort to get the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table is “doomed from the start.”

He says that even before the detainees were released, it was unknown what role the freed militants might play in bringing Taliban leaders to the negotiating table, what connections they still have to the group’s leadership, or even their stance on negotiations.

Under a “safe passage” agreement between Kabul and Islamabad, according to Young, prisoners have been released with no conditions and many have simply disappeared. A better approach, he suggests, would have been to home in on key individuals.

​​”In order to work, a strategy like this would require the release of officials who still hold significant weight in the Taliban’s political apparatus, but are reconcilable. Secondly, it would be far more effective if Afghan officials had taken the time to build relationships with the prisoners before they were released,” Young says.

“Their sincerity and access to the Taliban could have been tested while they were still in prison. And then perhaps arrange their release once it became clear that they would be more effective on the outside.”

Key Personalities

The list of 40 prisoners Kabul reportedly asked Islamabad to release appears to contain few who would fit that mold.

The list includes Mullah Noorudin Turabi, a former Taliban justice minister who oversaw the regime’s infamous public executions.

Then there is Anwar ul-Haq Mujahid, a military commander who headed Taliban operations in Tora Bora, the reputed hiding place of Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.

Others on the list include top advisers to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

One exception could be the man at the top of the 40-man list, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. The former Taliban deputy leader was arrested in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi in February 2010, some believe because he was facilitating secret talks between Kabul and the Taliban leadership.

Young says the fact that Islamabad has not yet released nor extradited Baradar could be seen as an indication of Pakistan’s reluctance to hand over individuals truly capable of aiding Kabul’s reconciliation efforts.B8F0100B-CD60-4897-AF17-0B24F09652D3_w268_r1_cx0_cy0_cw100

“Mullah Baradar would clearly qualify. But Pakistan is not releasing him, in my eyes, because he would be more effective than all the rest combined,” Young says. “Baradar is clearly the golden goose, free of coercion, and he has already shown the intent and capability to deliver.”

What Incentive Does Taliban Have?

Afghan-led peace efforts have suffered a string of setbacks over the years.

The Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program, which offered jobs and security to Taliban foot soldiers and benefited from some $140 million from international donors, has convinced only about 1,000 militants to drop their weapons.

The assassination in 2011 of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president who headed of the Afghan High Peace Council, deprived the body of a high-profile leader.

And while some contact between Taliban representatives and Afghan officials has taken place — including informal meetings in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Maldives and, most recently, in France in December — progress has been minimal.

Despite its overtures the Taliban has refused to directly talk to the Afghan government, labeling it “illegitimate” and a “Western puppet.”

Ryan Evans, a research fellow at the Center for National Policy, an independent think tank based in Washington, says that Kabul’s recent strategy is intended to show the Taliban leadership, as well as the Afghan public, that it can act independently of its Western allies.

But with international forces preparing to withdraw by the end of the year, the timing couldn’t be worse. “The incentives for the Taliban to negotiate a deal just aren’t there,” Evans explains.

“The incentives do exist for them to talk about talking in a way to get concessions and cause friction between the Afghan government and the International Security Assistance Force and within the Afghan government,” Evans adds. “But we cannot create these incentives for them to make a deal while we are leaving.”


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.


Releases Welcomed

Islamabad is seen as a crucial player in the process. Pakistan’s ties to the Taliban date back to the 1990s, when it provided arms, training, and intelligence to the militants. Islamabad was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban government after it took power in Afghanistan in 1996. After the regime’s fall in 2001, following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, many Taliban leaders took shelter inside Pakistan.

Pakistan’s release of the prisoners, who were reportedly freed late on November 15, has been met with widespread praise — from the Afghan government to the Taliban to U.S. officials in Kabul.

According to media reports, among the released prisoners are three prominent Taliban: Mullah Nuruddin Turbai, a former justice minister; Allahdad Tabib, former deputy minister of communications; and Mullah Jahangirwal, a special adviser to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Also reportedly released were former Baghlan Province Governor Abdul Salam; former Konduz Province Governor Mowlawi Muhammad; two former government officials, Haji Qutub and Mowlawi Matiullah; and a former senior commander and deputy minister, Sayed Saduddin Agha.

Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says that although Pakistan’s action is a positive step, the release is only “a single goodwill measure and nothing else.”

Kugelman says Pakistan needs to develop a clear policy before it can be said that it has changed course and is willing to play a positive, constructive role in ending the war in neighboring Afghanistan.

“If there’s one thing we can say about the Pakistani government, it is that it really doesn’t have a clearly defined or strategic policy in terms of how it wants to proceed toward an Afghanistan endgame,” Kugelman says. “On the one hand, there’s been a lot of talk about having a key role at the negotiating table, but on the other hand there have been mixed messages coming from Islamabad for a number of months and years. It’s still unclear what Pakistan wants from all of this.”

Taliban Cracks?

Kugelman adds that the Taliban itself is sharply divided on the issue of peace talks. The Taliban, which he describes as a “very diffuse and complex” group, disagrees on how it should proceed with the peace process, with some hard-line Taliban protesting vehemently against participating in negotiations of any kind.

David H. Young, a Washington-based conflict-resolution expert and adjunct fellow at the American Security Project, says Pakistan is unlikely to abandon its policy of maintaining strategic influence in Afghanistan via the Taliban.

Young, who was a civilian adviser to the U.S. Army in eastern Afghanistan, says the prisoner deal is in keeping with Pakistani interests but is unlikely to help the peace process.

Referring to Pakistani intelligence’s long-rumored support for the Taliban, Young says that if the country really wants to encourage reconciliation in Afghanistan it should stop the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) from financing and arming the Afghan Taliban. Another step, Young says, would be for Islamabad to release Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s former deputy leader who was arrested in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi in February 2010.

Baradar was reportedly at the top of the 40-man wish list of prisoners Kabul wanted Pakistani authorities to release. Young says the fact that Islamabad has neither released nor transferred Baradar for the past two years indicates how reluctant it is to hand over the one figure who is likely to facilitate reconciliation efforts. Baradar was reportedly arrested for facilitating secret talks between Kabul and the Taliban leadership.

Young predicts that Pakistan will drag out the peace process until the Taliban is in a stronger bargaining position, namely after 2014 when international troops leave. For now, he says, small gestures like the release of Taliban prisoners strike a good balance for Pakistan between securing its own interests in Afghanistan, where it seeks a more Islamist government in Kabul, and appearing agreeable to facilitating the peace process.

Mixed Signals

Assuming that Pakistan wants to play an active role in the peace talks, Young says the country will only accept a political settlement in Afghanistan that gives it strategic influence in Kabul and minimizes the role of archrival India.

“[A policy] that involves high-level Taliban involvement in the government, a guaranteed number of officials in the various ministries, and something that enables them to save face and say that we have overthrown the [Afghan President] Karzai government or instilled a more fair and stable government,” Young says. “A government that is more reflective, in part, of Taliban values in order to keep Pakistan’s buffer in southwest and southeast Afghanistan.”

The release of the Taliban prisoners in Pakistan came after Salahuddin Rabbani, leader of the Afghan High Peace Council, the presidentially appointed body tasked with negotiating with the Taliban, held talks with senior Pakistani government officials.

Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan, Omar Daudzai, has welcomed the release of Taliban prisoners and announced on November 16 that Islamabad has agreed in principle to release even more.

The Taliban has likewise hailed the freeing of its members.

“We consider this as a good step and welcome it,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid was quoted as saying. “We wish to have more prisoners released. This will undoubtedly increase trust between two countries and people.”

The release of Taliban prisoners comes after a string of setbacks. In March, the Taliban said they were suspending talks with the United States only weeks after they opened a political office in the Gulf state of Qatar. Kabul objected to the Qatar talks on the basis that they were not Afghan-led.

The Taliban said in a statement that the U.S. approach was “erratic and shaky” and accused Washington of going against their word.


16 March 2012

Below the 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.”

 

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