Tag Archives: Taliban

Political Autopsies on Mullah Omar and Murree

Another round-up of interesting analysis on the aftermath of Mullah Omar’s death, the politics of the Taliban, and the relationship with Afghanistan-Pakistan-Taliban talks.

Borhan Osman for the Afghan Analysts Network:

Why Akhtar Mansur agreed to this meeting in the first place, despite opposition from the Qatar office, was explained by the sources as follows: primarily, he intended to relieve the Taleban of the increasing pressure by Pakistan. But rather than agreeing to serious, formal and public talks with the Afghan government, he wanted the Murree event to remain private. He had tried not to damage the Taleban’s narrative of distance to Pakistan. He also did not want to look to be bypassing the movement’s formal channel for talks, ie the Qatar office. At the same time, he was convinced he could use the meeting, which he thought was inevitable, for something: to signal that the Taleban were willing to hold formal talks, which would come soon … endorsing the Qatar office as an autonomous entity in the wake of the Murree meeting could imply two possible aims. It would be a clear attempt to deny Pakistan leverage over Taleban leaders who, before, had lived on its soil, so it cannot drag them into further peace talks as the ‘official representatives’ of the movement. It would also allow the Qatar office to accelerate peace efforts, removing the need for the Leadership Council to supervise its activities … An external force intimidating one party into coming to the table can be no substitute for genuine interest in seeking a negotiated end to the conflict. Proceeding from a view that the Taleban insurgency is wholly a Pakistan-created phenomenon and therefore Islamabad can just deliver the Taleban to Kabul may not be very helpful. Pursuing such an approach always risked the trust-building needed for launching a more independent channel of talks with the Taleban.

Antonio Giustozzi in Foreign Affairs:

From the beginning, though, Yakub also entertained close relations with Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is leader of the Miran Shah Shura and is hostile to political reconciliation. Perhaps the many years of education Yakub spent in a Pakistani madrasah predisposed him to object to Mansour’s seemingly “unprincipled” approach to the peace process, which is increasingly focused more on power sharing and the distribution of the spoils than on principles (establishing a “more Islamic” system of government, whatever that might mean) … According to sources within the Quetta Shura, friction first arose between Yakub and Mansour in April, when Mansour initially raised the possibility of announcing to the world that Omar was dead. Mansour claimed that Kabul’s demand to meet Omar in order to obtain a clear endorsement of the peace process left the group with no other choice. Yakub, however, also understood that Mansour was laying the groundwork for his own succession to Omar. Yakub is also likely not to have appreciated Mansour’s decision to issue an Eid al-Fitr message at the end of Ramadan that was signed “Mullah Omar” and that endorsed the peace process. His [Mansour’s] message broke the unwritten agreement that the Quetta Shura would not use Omar’s name to promote policies that were still controversial among the Taliban … For now, an open split does not appear imminent. Yakub seems intent on organizing a campaign against Mansour within the Taliban, a brand name that has significant value. But if Mansour keeps breaking old rules and, most important, if he resumes the reconciliation process before gathering widespread support within the top layers of the Taliban, anything could happen. The Taliban also risks that major donors to the movement might end up so dismayed by ever worsening internal struggles that they could dump the Taliban altogether. Funding to the Taliban is already in decline this year, and a further acceleration of the cuts could have devastating effects

Barnett Rubin in the New Yorker:

It may be tempting to portray Mansur as in favor of talks, and Zakir and Mullah Omar’s family as “hard-liners” opposed to talks, but the lines are not so clear. Especially with the appointment of Mawlawi Haibatullah, Mansur seems to be strengthening his Ishaqzai tribe’s hold over the leadership rather than maintaining a careful tribal balance. Afghanistan’s history with the I.S.I. inevitably leads some to attribute differences between Zakir and Mansur to an effort by Pakistan to pressure Mansur, but a senior Pakistani official e-mailed to say, “Our main effort now is to prevent fragmentation That is lose-lose for everyone.” The Taliban Web site claimed that Mansur received visiting delegations, whose members pledged bay’at (religiously mandated allegiance) to him … The Pakistani pressure on the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government through a process in which Pakistan has a say will continue, as will differences among the Taliban on how to respond. Mansur authorized Taliban leaders with strong ties to the I.S.I. to participate in the July 7th meeting, while simultaneously permitting his official spokesman and Web site to issue statements undermining the meeting’s legitimacy. Now Mansur’s decisions, unlike those in Omar’s name, are unlikely to be met with unanimous consent, especially if they are seen as being made under pressure from Pakistan. The political office, which derived much of its authority from its close ties to Mullah Omar (its head, Tayyib Agha, is rumored to be the late leader’s son-in-law) might be orphaned. It has been under Mansur’s leadership, however, that Taliban spokesmen have stated that the political office is the only address for talks. If the office seizes its new autonomy to engage directly with the Afghan government, and the government accepts the offer rather then relying entirely on Pakistan, the office could be the government’s interlocutor in an Afghan-led effort. Any settlement will still need to safeguard Pakistan’s interests, but China’s involvement, as in the Urumqi meeting, may accomplish that more deftly than meeting under the gaze of I.S.I. generals.

Thomas Ruttig for the Afghan Analysts Network:

Mansur also gave the green light for early channels of contact, from opening the Qatar office to the Pugwash-organised talks earlier this year, also in Qatar. He also seems to have been the driving force behind the recent move to make the Political Committee independent of his own Quetta Shura. (In contrast, there was controversy about whether he had really blessed the Murree talks, too, or not. More about this in our following dispatch.) This policy of trying to make the Taleban more independent of Pakistan’s direct control, by moving its main political instrument to Qatar, has put him on the hit list of the anti-talks (but not necessarily pro-Pakistan [added on 1 Aug.]) forces among the Taleban, widely believed to be led by Mullah Qayum Zaker, and of Islamabad itself. (6) This, by the way, was a significant moment, creating for the first time something like an independent ‘political wing’ of the Taleban, if, of course, it remains credible with those fighting on the ground … Pakistan’s induction of its own favourite Taleban leaders, opponents of Mansur’s course, into the Murree talks amounted to a coup to take over the whole Taleban movement. To push forces more amenable to its own interests, it gambled on either a complete take over (in case the Mansur group would give in) or a final split of the Taleban. (Some Afghan observers AAN talked to see similarity in this move to Pakistan dropping Hekmatyar in favour of Mullah Omar’s Taleban in the mid-1990s.) This had, and still has, some chance of success, particularly as the Afghan government bought into the Pakistan-organised talks with that faction and when this faction gains more support within the Taleban. But then, the appointment of Mansur by his own group, to the disgruntlement of the opponents, was a counter-coup … For the time being, it will be insufficient to talk of ‘anti-‘ and ‘pro-talks’ Taleban, as there are now more currents with clear, distinctive agendas. We have ‘anti-talks’ Taleban who oppose a Pakistan-led approach (Mansur) but who are pro-talks when they can carry them out independently. We have ‘pro-talks’ Taleban who support the Pakistan-led approach (including those attending the talks in Urumchi and the first round in Murree). And we have Taleban apparently opposed to any talks (Zaker).

Andrew Small for Foreign Policy:

Beijing faces a jihadist world that is becoming increasingly hostile to its interests — and increasingly difficult to negotiate with. From the 1980s on, when the preeminent militant figures were headquartered in Afghanistan and Pakistan and receiving active sponsorship or tacit acquiescence from the Pakistani security services, Beijing enjoyed a number of benefits. Given that there were far more important targets, and the cause for an independent Uighur homeland was a peripheral one at best, attacking China over its Xinjiang policies seemed inadvisable. Moreover, with Pakistani facilitation, Beijing preferred buying off its potential opponents: The Taliban benefited from Chinese arms, money, and modest political support. Whether for reasons of tactical necessity or pragmatic advantage, the suffering of their Uighur brothers was a strikingly low priority for the Taliban or for Kashmiri militant groups. In 1997, even Osama bin Laden publicly dismissed bomb attacks in Xinjiang as a CIA plot to divide China and the Muslim world … That model has become far less viable.

Bette Dam interviewed in Der Spiegel:

I saw this misconception of who the real enemy in Afghanistan was. I realized that, more than we think, the corrupt Afghan government, with its warlords fighting each other, was also the enemy. Often bombs were attributed to the Taliban, but were they always behind it? Hardly any journalist was talking to the Taliban. So, I found it necessary to portray the Taliban movement and its leader, to explain who they are. As a result of that research, the book will explain why the West is losing the war in Afghanistan …  From the perspective of living in Kabul, the Taliban were scary. But after traveling extensively in the south, where many Taliban come from, I saw it differently. The Taliban were happy to talk, they felt misunderstood. For example, they considered it an important gesture that most of Taliban members surrendered to President Hamid Karzai after 9/11 and handed over their weapons. But the US and some of its allies didn’t accept a Taliban surrender and sent armies in to chase them … One of the interesting points is that Mullah Omar was a person who was very interested in the West. He really trusted the United States in the beginning, because they had helped him during the jihad in the 1980s to expel the Soviets. In 1996, when he became the leader of the Taliban, the first thing he expected to happen was the reopening of the US Embassy in Kabul. Instead, a big cultural misunderstanding ensued because what we saw, of course, was the Taliban’s treatment of women, the stonings. Although it is true these things are horrible, there was also a context in Afghanistan: the civil war. Women were being dragged off the streets, gang raped and murdered. They put women in bags and threw them in the water. A lot of tribes were killing each other.

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After Mullah Omar

Some of the most useful pieces of commentary and reporting published on Mullah Omar’s alleged death:

Michael Semple for Politico:

The development will have far-reaching consequences for Afghan politics. In the first place, the shattering of the Mullah Omar myth will embolden a dissident faction within the Taliban leadership. The dissidents have been at loggerheads with the movement’s acting leader over how to respond to Pakistani demands that the Taliban talk to the Kabul government. Safe from allegations of rebellion against the Ameer, the dissidents are now free to push ahead with negotiations and maybe even to put up their own candidate for the leadership … ISIL followers in Afghanistan and Pakistan already accused the Taliban of waging an unlawful struggle because they lacked an Ameer. ISIL will now feel vindicated and try to recruit from the Taliban fighting forces. It remains to be seen just how much of a boost it receives as, even with Omar off the scene, there are significant barriers to its progress in Afghanistan. And in any case, ISIL’s gain is Al-Qaeda’s loss. In the tussle with ISIL over the past year, Ayman al-Zawahiri has continued to insist that he and Al-Qaeda are loyal to Mullah Omar. Zawahiri, too, will have to update his narrative. Moreover, none of the potential replacements for Omar has the kind of stature likely to persuade Al-Qaeda veterans to swear loyalty … Acknowledgement of Omar’s death is likely to hasten the shift to a multi-actor insurgency in Afghanistan. That would be a bitter reality for Afghans who hope for peace. But ultimately the Afghan government, with continuing international support, should be far more confident of ultimately prevailing over a fragmented insurgency than in a fight against a unified Taliban movement.

Barnett Rubin for the New Yorker:

For the first time the Taliban, founded to end factionalism, were speaking with multiple voices, some manipulated by Pakistan more obviously than ever. Since only the hidden Mullah Omar could settle which was the true voice of the Taliban, the question of his authority became pressing … The death of Mullah Omar may allow Pakistan to put leaders it controls more fully in charge of the Taliban. It may also cause the Taliban to splinter. Some may stop fighting and enter the system, while others may join even more extremist groups, such as the Islamic State, and fight the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. If the two governments cannot gain the willing participation of most of the Taliban in the peace process, Kabul may demand that Islamabad use force to shut down whatever part of the Taliban’s military machine it does not control directly. But the Pakistani Army, which is already overstretched by its posture toward India, and by battles against the Pakistani Taliban, Baloch nationalists, and armed gangs in Karachi, will be reluctant to take on a battle-hardened Afghan group, some of whose members it hopes to use as future agents of influence. These issues may at least temporarily draw the attention of high-level U.S. decision-makers back to Afghanistan, where they will find that they now need to coöperate closely with China.

The Guardian:

“I have asked around a lot and there was no military strategy coming from Mullah Omar, not in 2001, not in 2005, not in 2010,” said Bette Dam, a journalist and author who has been researching a biography of Omar for several years …  “In the current situation there is so much at stake, the possibility of peace, and many of the Taliban want a leader who can make daily decisions for them,” said Dam … “The timing of the release of this information needs to be taken very seriously,” said Dam. “There are several groups within the Taliban and outside who want to make sure they have a share in any peace or any power sharing, lots of groups are afraid to be left out.” … “If it is true [that he is dead], it would be a major issue for the peace talks, and it would be a major issue for the Taliban, because he can’t really be replaced,” said Felix Kuehn, an author who has researched the group for more than 10 years. “He is more than a man, he is an institution,” said Kuehn. “Even the younger generation of Talibs who have never seen him, and who are not very aligned with the policies put out by the Taliban leadership – those who are more radical and less inclined to peace talks – always speak highly of Mullah Omar, and want to hear what he thinks.”

Another Guardian story:

A Pakistani intelligence official told the Guardian on Wednesday he had been aware of the reports of Omar’s death since January 2014, based on information from “close aides” of the militant chief and family members … There are also several outstanding questions about Omar’s death, with no detail on exactly how or where he died, or where he was buried – something that may not be revealed for years, his biographer, Bette Dam, said, quoting a senior Taliban official: “You can’t find the grave, the grave is secret,” he told her, after confirming the death.

The NYT:

A different American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said American officials had heard “chatter” in recent days among senior Taliban members about their leaders’ possible demise. Still, the official cautioned that the communication, which was picked up through electronic surveillance and other sources of intelligence, was not definitive … A different official at Afghanistan’s spy agency, who like other Afghan officials spoke about the matter only on the condition of anonymity, said that the agency had learned of Mullah Omar’s death a year and a half ago and that since then, “a lot of our international allies have confirmed the death.” The [Afghan] official said that Mullah Omar had been relatively itinerant and was believed to have spent some time in Rawalpindi, home to the headquarters of the Pakistani military, among a host of other places. “Because of the American drones, they were changing his place very often,” the official said. … [A European] diplomat referred to intelligence indicating that Taliban commanders were discussing among themselves, with a variety of opinions, whether Mullah Omar was alive or dead. “Almost everyone believes the chatter wouldn’t be where it is if there wasn’t something significant here,” the diplomat said, adding, “It has never been at this volume or intensity before.” That is a change from a few years ago, when Western intelligence officials said they believed Mullah Omar was active and living under official protection in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.

Sami Yousafzai ultra-revisionist account for Newsweek:

Just before the end of Ramadan this year I received an unexpected call from one of Mullah Mohammed Omar’s longtime family friends. He had ust learned a secret held by only a tiny circle of Omar’s most trusted associates: the supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban was dead … this caller was different—extraordinarily well placed to know about the Mullah’s whereabouts. His claims were also very detailed. He asked not to be quoted by name on such a sensitive topic, but he and his family are highly respected for their longtime humanitarian work in Pakistan’s Afghan exile community. Omar died in Afghanistan, my contact said. People have often assumed that the Taliban leader fled across the border into Pakistan, like most of his surviving followers, but in fact he refused to leave the country of his birth … when the end finally came, Omar was holed up for the winter among the desolate mountains of Now Zad district in Helmand province, in an area of tiny villages known collectively as Taizeini.  Few maps show the place, but it’s roughly 100 miles northwest of Kandahar. A good friend was with him, according to my source. Mullah Abdul Jabar, a native of Zabul province, had served during the years of Taliban rule as governor of central Baghlan province … Omar told Jabar what to do in the event of his death or capture—get word to Mullah Sheikh Abdul Hakim. The religious scholar, a longtime friend and advisor of Omar’s, makes his home in Quetta, the southwestern Pakistani city where the Taliban leadership resides. Hakim and Jabar quickly relayed the news to three other senior Taliban figures. One was Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the head of the Quetta Shura. Another was Mullah Qayyum Zakir, director of the Taliban’s military council at the time. And the third was another religious scholar and longtime Omar friend, Mullah Abdul Salam, who lives and preaches in the city of Kuchlak, a few miles outside Quetta. (None of the five could be reached for comment.) A week after Jabar brought his news to Quetta, the council chiefs Mansoor and Zakir held a private meeting with the two religious scholars. The family friend says Mullahs Salam and Hakim formally gave Omar’s turban to Mansoor, appointing him to be Omar’s successor as Amir-ul-Momineen—the “Commander of the Faithful.” … Zakir wanted to announce Omar’s death immediately, but the others convinced him not to talk. In order to keep it secret, the Quetta Shura went so far as to issue a decree prohibiting any questions about Omar’s fate. Violators would be referred to a Taliban court.

Casey Garret Johnson for Foreign Policy on Omar’s alleged successor:

While other Taliban leaders have been imprisoned or put under house arrest by Pakistani authorities, Mansour remains a favored son in large part because he has remained in step with ISI policy and has often served as a link between the Haqqani network of Waziristan and the Afghan Taliban of Balochistan. He is also one of the individuals to have benefited from the U.S. surge in 2010-2011. As one analyst from Kandahar notes in an interview: “More than anyone else, Mansour has benefited from the leadership vacuum that opened up after the U.S. started to take a lot of the Taliban commanders out — particularly in the south. Mansour remained safe in Pakistan and he was able to expand his network and powerbase, even though he had never really been a military commander per se.” As late as 2012, Mansour was seen as a hardliner among Taliban leaders, opposing any talks with Hamid Karzai’s government. From about 2013 onward, his position appears to have changed, putting him directly at odds with Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a Taliban military leader from northern Helmand who has for years commanded arguably the largest organized insurgent front inside Afghanistan. Throughout 2014, Mansour and Zakir bickered over the direction of the movement, with Zakir adopting a hard line and eventually being sacked, only to be re-instated after a reconciliation involving a few slaughtered goats and hearty man hugs. By early 2015, however, the two “frenemies” were reportedly at odds again. The most recent news reports of Omar’s death also speculate that Mansour and Omar’s son are involved in a fight for control. Given his historically close ties with Pakistan, Mansour’s moderation could be read as a clear indicator that Pakistan’s calculus has indeed changed.

The Express Tribune (Pakistan):

A day after the news of Afghan Taliban supremo Mullah Omar’s death broke, the powerful Taliban leadership council elected on Thursday Mullah Akhtar Mansoor as the new Afghan Taliban supreme leader, a senior Taliban leader told The Express Tribune. “The council also elected Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is known as Khalifa, the chief of Haqqani as deputy of the Taliban’s leader,” the Taliban leader told on the condition of anonymity. The Taliban have not yet officially announced the new leader. However, the Taliban leader said the formal announcement is likely to be made shortly.

See also Colin Cookman’s excellent round-up.

 

The Afghan Missile Crisis (That Wasn’t)

From the Washington Post, on 11 November 2001:

Pakistani fears of an Indian attack on its nuclear sites were so great in the summer of 1999, after Pakistani-supported guerrillas invaded Indian territory, that military officers here secretly contacted Taliban officials about the possibility of moving some nuclear assets westward to neighboring Afghanistan for safekeeping, according to a recently retired Pakistani general officer familiar with the talks.

”The option was actively discussed with the Taliban after some indications emerged that India may open hostilities at the eastern border,” the retired official said. ‘‘The Taliban accepted the requests with open arms.”

The former official said the talks were ”exploratory” and said that no nuclear-related assets were placed in Afghanistan. At the time, Pakistan’s military and intelligence services had close relations with the Taliban, providing training, weapons and other support.

The story appears not to have been corroborated by other outlets, and it doesn’t have a named byline. I can’t find anything on this episode in the authoritative books on Kargil. But an interesting counterfactual: what if the nuclear weapons had been present in Afghanistan in September 2001? 

Shifting goalposts: Philip Hammond on Afghanistan, and the Taliban’s momentum

Everything is going so swimmingly well in Afghanistan, suggests British defense secretary Philip Hammond, that British troops might start coming home early:

[H]e said British military thinking was evolving because commanders had been “surprised by the extent to which they have been able to draw back and leave the Afghans to take the lion’s share of the combat role … we have clearly built the basics of a future that will deny the space of Afghanistan to those who would seek to harm us” … The UK has closed 52 of its military bases and checkpoints in Helmand province over the last six months, leaving 34 still operating, he revealed.

Hammond says many sensible things about the need for accommodation with parts of the insurgency, and the limited nature of British objectives. Yet, though Hammond was clearly very careful not to articulate it, the impression given is that ISAF is basically winning. Is that right?

Consider last week’s analysis in the Long War Journal on whether the Taliban’s “momentum” has, as claimed, been broken. It concludes that “the Taliban-led insurgency remains capable of maintaining an extraordinary level of violence throughout Afghanistan, far worse than prior to the surge”. On balance, “the surge in Afghanistan did not achieve the same reduction in violence as was experienced in Iraq following the surge there”.

On the insurgency’s leadership:

Despite years of repeated night raids and other operations against the Taliban’s senior, mid, and lower-level leadership cadre, the group does seem to possess a remarkable capacity to regenerate its command structure in Afghanistan and continue to mount attacks. In addition, the top leadership cadre of the Quetta Shura and the leaders of the four regional military commands, most of whom are based in Pakistan, remain virtually untouched in these raids.

Terrorist attacks are up:

The number of terrorist-caused deaths in 2011 increased by nearly 5 percent when compared to 2010, and by almost 21 percent when compared to 2009. And while the total number of terrorist attacks decreased in 2011 as compared to 2010, there were still far more terrorist attacks in 2011 than in 2009 or earlier years.

On the insurgency’s changing geography:

Despite gains in the south, the overall level of violence is worse than in the years prior to the surge because of what the UN calls a “geographic shift” in the conflict. The southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, where surge forces were primarily deployed, have seen a decrease in violence, but still remain the most violent areas overall. The decrease in violence in the south has been offset, to a large extent, by an increase in violence in the eastern provinces and elsewhere.

This shift to the east also relates to another of Hammond’s claims, that “now that al-Qaida had been ‘eliminated’ from the country, it was not right to ask troops to put their lives at risk for nation-building”. The Long War Journal argues, by contrast, that “Al Qaeda remains particularly strong in eastern Afghanistan, despite President Obama’s pledge to make sure that al Qaeda will not use the country as a safe haven once again”.

Elsewhere, in relation to Hammond’s central point about the viability of the ANSF, see Kenneth Katzman’s Congressional testimony here:

Corruption, patronage, nepotism, and factionalism are cause for serious concern about the cohesiveness and performance of the ANSF after the completion of the security transition in 2014. It is ethnic and political factionalism that probably poses the greatest threat to the post-2014 prospects for the ANSF, particularly if the Taliban-led insurgency remains active and puts pressure on the ANSF militarily. It is possible that many Pashtuns in the ANSF could defect from the force, and that the northern and western minorities might leave the force and rejoin the militias and irregular forces formerly fielded by the political leaders of those minorities.

And, finally, see the assessment of Tim Foxley, who has worked for the British and Swedish governments on Afghanistan:

Although the example of the Najibullah regime is in danger of becoming the default benchmark for measuring prospects of the current government, it may not be entirely helpful. However, international military and development support will remain crucial to the survivability of the Afghan regime well beyond 2014. Neither international-backed government nor insurgent groups look likely to achieve decisive momentum. Over this five year timeframe, a messy, unresolved stalemate – government controlling cities and most communications routes with insurgents and militias dominating less accessible regions – looks to be the most likely outcome.