The Day After the Islamic State

Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Strategic Assessment, Vol.20, No.3, October 2017

 

 Marta Furlan, Carmit Valensi

 

Abstract

The territorial losses suffered by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) over the past year, the fall of the Caliphate’s stronghold of Mosul and the encirclement of its de facto capital al-Raqqa indicate the imminent military defeat of the Islamic State. However, the ideological vacuum, frustration, and alienation that have been characterizing communities in the Middle East since the “Arab Spring”, the absence of a political alternative and the lack of a local effective governance to replace IS, raise the possibility that IS will survive its military defeat. In this context, it becomes imperative to assess how this entity is most likely to evolve. In providing such assessment, attention will be devoted to IS’s past evolution to deduce from it about its future. This will be followed by a discussion on which measures should be taken to deal with the “new” form of IS.


Key Words: IS, Al Qaeda, Jihadi Terrorism, War against IS


The Evolution of ISIS: 2003-2014

Before analyzing how IS is most likely to react to its military defeat in Syria and Iraq, a brief overview of the group’s evolution will allow to shed light on its capacity of adaptation and re-organization as a possible indicator for its future transformation.

The origins of IS are to be traced back to the 2003 Iraqi context and to the insurgent group al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad (TwJ) that under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi initiated a ruthless campaign of terrorist attacks against the forces of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).[i] However, the group’s operative capability was constrained by the lack of financial resources and by an excessive reliance on foreign fighters that impaired the group’s integration in the Iraqi insurgency.[ii]

It was to deal with these weaknesses and enhance the image of TwJ among the Iraqi militancy that in 2004 al-Zarqawi pledged baya’a (allegiance) to bin Laden, who on his part was interested in extending Al Qaeda’s influence over the Iraqi theatre after the setback suffered in Afghanistan. After this association with Al Qaeda, TwJ was rebranded the Land of the Two Rivers or Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and became a prominent actor of the Iraqi militant scene. Its influence grew particularly after the parliamentary elections of December 2005, when al-Zarqawi united the insurgent groups close to him under an umbrella organization known as Majlis Shura Council (MSC) in order to co-opt the other jihadist organizations[iii] and increased AQI’s violent attacks on Shiite targets in order to create inter-communal tensions that would strengthen the Sunnis’ support for the insurgency.[iv]

Against this background, in 2006 al-Zarqawi was killed in a targeted killing by a joint U.S force and his death turned into a major hindrance for AQI. Since the outset, in fact, the group’s internal cohesion, the inner coordination between its ranks, and the identity unifying its members had been dependent on the presence of a centralized structure built around the figure of al-Zarqawi. With his demise, the centralization that had enabled the group to assert itself as one of the most prominent actors of the Iraqi insurgency collapsed and AQI underwent a significant process of organizational restructuring and strategic re-thinking.[v] The group was re-organized under the dual leadership of Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi; its cadres were “Iraqified”; and its cells underwent a process of “bureaucratization and dilution” that subjected them to an inefficient bureaucratic apparatus and that led them to be unduly widespread across Iraq.[vi] As a result, AQI came to experience a high level of internal fragmentation and a fundamental lack of coordination that restrained its operational capability and that became the major weakness of the group.

In terms of modus operandi, the military and terrorist operations that had characterized the activity of the group since its earliest stage remained the core of AQI’s strategy but were redirected towards a new objective as the group endeavored to create an Islamic State in Iraq and in 2006 rebranded itself ISI. However, the violent military campaign embraced by the group was met with resistance in several areas of Iraq, such as the Anbar province. There, the local Sunni tribes resisted ISI’s attempt to impose its rule and in 2008 created military councils (sahwa) that fought the group, undermined its operative capacities, and damaged its credibility.[vii]

Therefore, when in 2010 al-Masri and al-Baghdadi were killed the general perception was that ISI was doomed to dissolution. However, in that same year Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the new leader of the group and promoted a comprehensive re-organization thereof on the basis of the past successes and mistakes: he strengthened ISI’s internal bonds so as to increase its cohesiveness; re-introduced a centralized leadership revolving around his figure that enabled to reach high levels of operational capability and coordination; and simplified the inefficient bureaucratic apparatus of the previous stage.[viii] On the strategic level, he moderated the brutal approach that al-Zarqawi had adopted against his enemies –and in particular against the Iraqi Shias- and that had ultimately alienated the support of much of the Iraqi people’[ix] divided the ranks of the Iraqi Sunni resistance,[x] and aroused the criticism of al-Zarqawi’s mentor al-Maqdisi and of most of Al-Qaeda’s leadership, including bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.[xi]

In addition to this re-structural endeavor and strategic re-thinking, al-Baghdadi adapted the group’s goal of building an Islamic State to the destabilizing changes occurring throughout the Levant in the immediate aftermath of the “Arab Spring” erupted in December 2010, and in particular the collapse of traditional nation states; the loss of legitimacy on part of most regional governments; and the exacerbation of the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide. On the background of these developments, al Baghdadi extended ISI’s tactics beyond the purely militant-terrorist dimension in order to enhance the effectiveness of the group’s action. After identifying in the Sunni heartland encompassing western Iraq and eastern Syria the preferred location of his future Islamic State, al Baghdadi focused the group’s activities on both countries thanks to the high coordination enabled by the renewed centralized leadership. In both contexts, ISI proved its capabilities at the military as well as at the social level: on the one hand, it fought successfully against the enemies encountered on the ground; on the other hand, it attempted to adopt a more state-like structure and provided the population with goods (e.g. food) and services (e.g. education) that their governments were incapable of providing.[xii] Exploiting the incapability of the governments in Baghdad and Damascus to address their people’s basic needs and political demands; the weakness and ultimate collapse of the state structure in Iraq and Syria after the “Arab Spring” revealed the illegitimacy of their central governments; and the alienation experienced by the local Sunni communities, IS managed to present itself as the only legitimate alternative and to gain popular support among the Sunnis. In this way, ISI succeeded in extending its territorial control over several portions of Iraq and Syria and, after disassociating itself from al-Qaeda,[xiii] on 29th June 2014 it proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate of Iraq and al-Sham (IS), thus realizing the aspiration of its founding father al-Zarqawi.


From the Early Successes to the Latest Defeats: 2014-2017

 

Having reviewed IS’s emergence from the ashes of AQI and ISI, it is informative to delve briefly into the Caliphate’s history from the conquests and strengths of the initial period to the defeats and weaknesses of the past months.

With the proclamation of the Islamic Caliphate, the group led by al-Baghdadi completed its transition from traditional terrorist group engaged in violent military activities to quasi-state organization engaged in the provision of governance, including goods and services as well as order and security through the use of policing and law enforcement apparatuses. In completing this transition, the group adopted an efficient governmental pyramidal structure; it established ad hoc state-like institutions; and it expanded the range of its non-violent activities.  At the top of the pyramidal structure there are al-Baghadi and his two direct deputies who constitute the executive branch known as al-Imara and who are in charge of transferring al-Baghdadi’s orders to the provincial governors. Below al-Imara, the pyramidal structure is composedof eight councils: [xiv] The Shura Council (responsible for religious affairs); The Legal Council (responsible for resolving family disputes, violations of law, and the imposition of penalties); The Security Council (responsible for internal security and the enforcement of public order); The Intelligence Council (that supplies and conveys information to the leadership regarding rivals and opponents); The Military Council (that deals with warfare and preparations of the territories of IS); The Economic Council (responsible for the movement’s financial resources, including the sale of oil and weapons); The Fighters’ Aid Council (responsible for receiving foreign volunteers, smuggling them to different areas, allocating housing and addressing their different needs);  The Media Council (responsible for the dissemination of IS’s messages and official declarations and managing the group’s accounts on social networks and monitoring other sites in coordination with the Legal Council)[xv]

At the bottom of the pyramid, there is a large pool of both foreign and local fighters who are organized in three levels. This structure enables the leadership to control members more tightly, to assign military and governmental tasks more efficiently, and to deploy fighters more effectively in the areas of combat.

By means of this coherent state-like structure that distinguishes IS from traditional terrorist entities, the group led by al-Baghdadi has managed to assert its control over large spheres of public life and to expand its social activities[xvi]: it has built roads and bridges; organized recoveries for the poor; provided electricity; established lines of telecommunication; set up markets for the trade of goods; created offices for the collection and the distribution of the zakat; opened schools; maintained public order and security through the deployment of police forces; and guaranteed law and order through the establishment of sharia courts.

Additionally, besides providing services to the population, IS has also continued to rely on military means to fight its enemies and to employ violent tactics such as public executions and tortures to spread terror among the population and thus prevent popular uprisings against its rule. By means of this duality of tactics, IS has managed to consolidate its territorial control over the Sunni-dominated Jazira region and enforce its rule thereupon[xvii]; to seize control of the natural resources of the conquered territories and exploit them for purposes of self-financing[xviii]; and to obtain support, or at least acquiescence, on part of a frightened and disaffected local population.[xix]

However, IS’s early success began to decline after the group reached the maximum of its expansion in mid 2015. Since then, IS has been suffering several defeats that have considerably reduced the territories and the population under its control: as reported by HIS Conflict Monitor[xx] and by RAND Corporation,[xxi] IS’s territorial control has declined by 60% from 2015 to 2017 and the number of people living under IS has decreased from 9.6 million in fall 2014 to 2.6 million in winter 2016-17. Besides these territorial losses, the group’s income has similarly declined over the past few years, dropping from $1.9 billion in 2014 to $870 million in 2016.[xxii] As a recent study by ICSR has highlighted, in fact, the loss of territorial control has implied for IS the loss of its major sources of revenue, above which the oil reserves on which the group’s income was highly reliant and that contributed to making it the “richest terrorist organization in the world”.[xxiii]

This combination of territorial and financial losses has undermined IS’s governance capabilities because the group has found itself without the territorial control necessary to enforce a credible rule and a viable state-like structure and without the financial resources necessary to sustain an efficient governance apparatus. As a consequence, IS has diminished its governance dimension and has focused instead on military activities aimed at ensuring the group’s survivability and rebuilding its presence in the lost areas.[xxiv] At this respect, it is noteworthy how IS’s territorial and financial losses have led it to abandon the conventional military campaigns mounted by al-Baghdadi since the early days of his leadership and to return to the guerrilla warfare launched by al-Zarqawi during AQI’s first phase.[xxv] Guerrilla warfare, in fact, has considerable advantages vis-à-vis conventional military operations: it can be sustained by a group even when the financial resources are limited; it can be carried out effectively by small cells; it does not require the group to have territorial control. This shift in IS’s modus operandi could be seen during the battle for Mosul, when the group relied mostly on tactics of asymmetric urban warfare, including mortar shells, booby traps, IEDs and suicide car-bomb attacks.[xxvi]

Finally, in the framework of the recent territorial losses, IS has undergone an adaptation of its strategic thinking whereby it increasingly emphasizes the importance of striking the “far” Western enemy and the necessity for its fighters to spread beyond the Jazira region and join jihadists all over the Muslim world.[xxvii] In other words, IS seems to have extended its previously localized strategy and to have embraced a more internationalized strategic discourse similar to the one traditionally espoused by Al Qaeda. It is in the context of this rethinking that IS-inspired individuals have directed their terror activities against major European cities such as Paris, Brussels and London and that IS loyalists have joined the jihadist battlefields in places like Libya, Afghanistan and South-East Asia.

Nevertheless, IS continues operating in the Levant area and has not completely abandon its local-territorial feature so far. According to the Pentagon, about 20,000 IS fighters still control several areas in Syria and Iraq (August 2017). Between 5,000 and 10,000 fighters are now in the middle Euphrates Valley area running from Deir Ezzor to the Iraq-Syria border region[xxviii].

These recent developments and adaptations that have occurred within IS raise important questions over the next phase of the group’s life and make it imperative to provide an assessment of how IS is most likely to evolve.


What Future for IS After its Military Defeat?

In light of the above-seen resilience and capacity of adaptation that the group has displayed over its 15 year-long existence, the present paper argues that, once militarily defeated, the group will not disappear but will rather change its form and adapt to the changed circumstances: the most likely scenarios in terms of the group’s internal evolution as far as its organizational re-structuring and strategic re-thinking are concerned are the following:

 

  • “Mini-emirates”– Evolution of the group into several mini-entities scattered across the Middle East and beyond (e.g. North Africa, South Asia) in what would be a much lose network highly similar to the post-2001so-called Al Qaeda Nebula. Rather than surviving as a single and unified group, IS might split into more sub-groups ideologically-linked one to the other but inherently independent in terms of financing, definition of objectives, strategic planning, and actual conduct of operations; at the core of this scenario lies the assumption that the Salafi-jihadi current is too rooted and established in the Islamic world, hence does not necessarily dependent on a central and well-structured organization in order to flourish.
  • “Jihadi merger” – Rejoining -in a more or less tight way- of al-Zawahiri’s Al Qaeda in order to regain the lost status and deal with the setbacks suffered in terms of financial sustainability, ideological credibility, and recruitment ability. Once defeated militarily, IS might find it convenient to pursue again that “marriage of convenience” with Al Qaeda that first took place in 2004 so as to expand its ranks, acquire more operational capabilities, and enhance its status in the global jihadist world. This scenario lies on the assumption that despite some setbacks, Al Qaeda remained strong, resilient, and guided by a prudent strategy of winning over populations and subverting local conflicts to its own ends. This move not only would give new life to IS but it would also reassert Al Qaeda as the uncontested leader of the jihadi movement and probably encourage it to learn from IS’s experience and adopt more state-like tasks and features. It is important to stress however that this scenario is less likely to be manifested in the short term as the level of mutual hostility between IS and Al Qaeda would be hard to Al Qaeda loyalists describe IS operatives as “extremists,” “Kharijites,” and “takfiris”; the Islamic State, in turn, has named Al Qaeda devotees as “the Jews of jihad” and loyalists of the “Sufi” leader of the heretical Taliban. Hence, this split could be simply unbridgeable.
  • “IS.com” – On July 2017, IS information office in Raqqa province, Syria released a 30-minute video that focuses particularly on presenting foreigners from various countries who came to join IS: “This is a message to the new pharaoh of today, Donald Trump, you may have your eyes on Al-Raqqah and Mosul, but we have our eyes on Constantinople and Rome. ’Bi Idhn Allah, Bi Idhn Allah [with Allah’s permission], we will slaughter you in your own houses.”[xxix] This scenario includes the maintenance of a small and underground nucleus in the Jazira region (namely the Sunni tribal region stretching across western Iraq and Eastern Syria) where IS first emerged and expanded and shift of the strategic focus on the inspiration of attacks in foreign countries (e.g. European countries, USA etc.) by means of an ad hoc ideological propaganda mostly conducted on-line. The end of the “Caliphate dream” will thus lead the group to revise its original objectives and strategy and to shift from aiming at hitting the “close enemy” by means of military campaigns and territorial conquests, to aiming at hitting the “far enemy” by means of on-line radicalization and recruitment of sympathizers residing abroad. Fairly robust external operations arm that has really been built over the past three or four years even before the caliphate or the Islamic State was declared. And this network certainly exists in Europe and elsewhere – in South Asia, North Africa as well. Last September, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, called upon his followers not to come to the Levant in Iraq to fight, but instead to migrate to the branches and to strengthen the branches so that precisely the branches could continue the struggle.
  • “The Comeback” – Resurgence of IS in the areas from which it was expelled. This resurgence is a possibility that is likely to concretize under three specific circumstances: Firstly, if the international coalition fighting against IS makes the same mistakes that it did in the past when it withdrew too promptly from Afghanistan because assuming erroneously that the Al Qaeda menace had been eradicated successfully and permanently and that the mission had been accomplished. However, that assumption stemmed from a fundamental underestimation of Al Qaeda’s capacity to survive and re-invent itself and indeed Bin Laden’s group proved able to transfer its base to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and to evolve into a more complex and less easily-detectable “Nebula”; Secondly, IS’s resurgence might occur if the different actors that are currently involved in the fight against IS refrain from addressing properly the problem of which path to follow in the “day after IS” and do not draft any coherent and viable politico-social plan of reconstruction for the liberated areas. Thirdly, is the permanence of the factors that enabled IS’s rise in the first place. In other words, if the root causes that created a fertile ground for the group to find support among a Sunni population that felt marginalized and estranged from the Iraqi nation-state are not addressed it is likely that the remnants of IS will regroup. Similarly, if the Salafi-jihadist ideology inspiring IS’s weltanschauung is not countered with a credible and appealing ideological-religious alternative, IS or new IS-like manifestations are likely to (re)appear on the scene.

Conclusions and Recommendations

This paper argues that IS’s imminent military defeat will not imply its disappearance tout court. Rather, it will imply the end of its existence in its actual form and the emergence of a different but not less threatening entity.

In light of the possible scenarios that were proposed as far as IS’s future development is concerned, the following measures will need to be taken in order to deal effectively with the group’s new threat at the local and international level:

  • At the local level, reduce the likelihood of a resurgence of IS (or like entities) by addressing the causes that paved the way to the group’s emergence and the factors that favored its consolidation. In this regard, it will be crucial for the Iraqi government to address the grievances, alienation and disaffection that the Sunni communities felt under Nuri al-Maliki’s tenure and that led many among them to see in IS a desirable alternative to the sectarianism of Baghdad. For this to be done, a political compromise that ensures power-sharing between the country’s ethno-religious groups; reforms that guarantee that state institutions offer national rather than sectarian representation; and the effective implementation of a 2013 decentralization law[xxx] that devolves more autonomy and responsibilities to the single local governments will need to be encouraged and emphasized as the only way to resolve those inter-communal tensions that foster insurgencies and state failure;
  • Rebuild the areas – both urban and rural–freed from IS by means of an ad hoc cooperation among the Iraqi government, its partners of the U.S.-led coalition, the United Nations and aid agencies so as to address effectively the economic, security and social needs of the local communities and offer to them credible alternatives to the institutions and services provided by IS at the apex of its state-building project;
  • Continue and improve further the training, equipment, assisting and advise of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) as developed in the framework of the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) in order to enhance the effectiveness of the ISF in countering terrorism and countering insurgencies and to increase their legitimacy, credibility and trustworthiness in the eyes of the local communities;
  • At the international level, confront the security threat posed to Western countries by IS, IS-inspired individuals and returning “foreign fighters” by addressing both the pre-recruitment and the post-recruitment phase. and obstruct IS’s on-line propaganda; increase intelligence cooperation and database sharing to detect radicalized individuals; address the problem of returning “foreign fighters” by adopting responses that can range from “hard” measures such as revoking citizenship, confiscating passports and issuing arrest warrants, to “soft” measures such as developing programs of de-radicalization, psychological counseling and social re-integration.

Finally, past experience shows that these measures are more likely to be effective when local actors and international actors manage to coordinate their endeavors and share responsibilities. Therefore, while preparing for the “day after IS”, efforts need first to be invested in building this crucial coordination.


 

Notes

 

[i] Angel Rabasa et al. Beyond Al Qaeda. The Global Jihadist Movement (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2006) p.139

[ii] Brian Fishman, “After Zarqawi: The Dilemmas and Future of Al Qaeda in Iraq”, The Washington Quarterly 29, no. 4, Autumn 2006

[iii] Nibras Kazimi, “The Caliphate attempted”, Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 7, July 21, 2008

[iv] Brian Fishman, “After Zarqawi: The Dilemmas and Future of Al Qaeda in Iraq”, The Washington Quarterly 29, no. 4, Autumn 2006

[v] Andrea Plebani, New (and Old) Petterns of Jihadism: al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State and Beyond (Milano: ISPI, 2014) p.8

[vi] Brian Fishman, Dysfunction and Decline: Lesson Learned from Inside Al Qa’ida in Iraq (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, March 16, 2009)

[vii] David Kilcullen, “Field Notes on Iraq’s Tribal Revolt Against Al-Qa‘ida”, CTC Sentinel 1, no. 11, October 2008

[viii] Andrea Plebani, New (and Old) Petterns of Jihadism: al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State and Beyond (Milano: ISPI, 2014) p.10

[ix] Ibi., p.7

[x] Emily Hunt, “Zarqawi’s ‘Total War’ on Iraqi Shiites Exposes a Divide Among Sunni Jihadists”, PolicyWatch 1049, Washington Institute [online], November 15, 2015, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/zarqawis-total-war-on-iraqi-shiites-exposes-a-divide-among-sunni-jihadists

[xi] https://fas.org/irp/news/2005/10/letter_in_english.pdf

[xii] Andrea Plebani, New (and Old) Petterns of Jihadism: al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State and Beyond (Milano: ISPI, 2014) p.23

[xiii] Aaron Zelin, “The War between IS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement”, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy Research Notes, no. 20, June 2014

[xiv] Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium

[xv] Christophe Reuter, “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State,” Der Spiegel, April 18, 2015, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/islamic-state-files-show-structure-of-islamist-terror-group-a-1029274.html [accessed: November 29, 2015].

[xvi] Laith Alkhouri, Alex Kassirer, “Governing The Caliphate: The Islamic State Picture”, CTC Sentinel 8, no.8, August 21, 2015

[xvii] James Denselow, “Mosul, the Jazira Region and the Syrian-Iraqi Borderlands”, in An Iraq of its Regions. Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy?, eds. Reidar Visser and Garteh Stansfield (London: Hurst Publishers LTD, 2007) pp. 99-122

[xviii] Stephan Heissner, Peter R. Neumann, John Holland-McCowan and Rajan Basra, Caliphate in Decline: An Estimate of Islamic State’s Financial Fortunes (London: International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 2017) pp.5-8

[xix] Stephen Wicken, Iraq’s Sunnis in Crisis, Middle East Security Report II (Washington: Institute for the Study of War, May 2013)

[xx] “Islamic State Territory Down 60 Percent and Revenue Down 80 Percent on Caliphate’s Third Anniversary, HIS Markit Says”, IHS Markit, June 29, 2017, http://news.ihsmarkit.com/press-release/aerospace-defense-security/islamic-state-territory-down-60-percent-and-revenue-down-80

[xxi] Seth G. Jones et al., Rolling Back the Islamic State (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2017) p.20

[xxii] Stephan Heissner, Peter R. Neumann, John Holland-McCowan and Rajan Basra, Caliphate in Decline: An Estimate of Islamic State’s Financial Fortunes (London: International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 2017) pp.7-8

[xxiii] Ibid., p.7

[xxiv] Andrea Plebani, After Mosul: Re-inventing Iraq, (Milano: ISPI, 2017) p.132

[xxv] Seth G. Jones et al., Rolling Back the Islamic State (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2017) pp.14, 32

[xxvi] Josie Ensor, “Isil ‘launches suicide attacks’ on Kurdish forces in Mosul as bloody battle to retake terror group’s Iraq stronghold begins” The Telegraph, October 17, 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/17/bloody-battle-to-retake-mosul-begins-as-iraqi-forces-move-to-wip2/; Tim Hume, “Battle for Mosul: How ISIS is fighting to keep its Iraqi stronghold” CNN, October 25, 2016, http://edition.cnn.com/2016/10/24/middleeast/iraq-mosul-isis-tactics/index.html

[xxvii] Andrea Plebani, After Mosul: Re-inventing Iraq (Milano: ISPI, 2017) p.130

[xxix] “ISIS Video Shows Its Fighters Of Various Nationalities In Raqqa, Syria; Somali Fighter Threatens Trump Says ISIS ‘Will Slaughter You [Americans] In Your Own Houses’, Memri, July 31, 2017, https://www.memri.org/jttm/isis-video-shows-its-fighters-various-nationalities-raqqa-syria-somali-fighter-threatens-trump#_ednref2

[xxx] In August 2013, the Iraqi Parliament approved amendments to Law 21 (also known as Provincial Powers Act) that increased the powers of provincial councils and governors. According to the law, local governments should choose their own judiciary and heads of security; provinces should have more control on and autonomy in the management of its financial resources; in areas of shared competency between local governments and the central government, in case of disagreement the decisions of the local government should prevail; the governorate should have responsibility for all state officials in its jurisdiction; within two years, control over housing, employment, education, health and finance should be transferred to local authorities.

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The “mother of all bombs” is daughter of no strategy

The US dropping of its largest non-nuclear bomb in Afghanistan reveals all the weaknesses of Washington’s Afghan policy and the need for a more comprehensive strategy capable of responding to the country’s many security challenges and political problems

 

One day after ISIS-Khorasan (the Afghan branch of ISIS) claimed responsibility for an attack near government offices in Kabul that killed five people and wounded ten, the United States dropped a GBU-43 bomb in the eastern province of Nangarhar, where ISIS-K is based. The GBU-43 bomb is a 9,797kg GPS-guided munition that was first tested in 2003, before the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It is the largest non-nuclear bomb that the US has ever used in combat, and because of its destructive potential it has gained the nickname “mother of all bombs”.

After the bomb was dropped on Thursday, the head of American and international forces in Afghanistan Gen. Nicholson said that the operation was intended to damage the operational capabilities of ISIS-K and to increase the protection of international and Afghan forces against its terrorist attacks. On the same line, spokesperson within the Pentagon stressed the efficiency that deploying such a powerful weapon can have in the framework of countering terrorism in Afghanistan and the contribution that it can give to ending a “war on terror” that begun sixteen years ago and that still lacks a clear winner.

 

However, the massive military attack of Thursday does not seem to be part of any broader US Afghan strategy and it is difficult to see how a similar show of military might on part of Washington can respond to the exigencies and the challenges of the Afghan war. The bombing in Nangarhar might perhaps respond to Trump’s foreign policy narrative of an assertive and credible American military power and to the expectations of those voters who supported his project of making America “great again”, but it certainly does not respond to the needs of Afghanistan. Indeed, the problems in terms of terrorism, security, and stability that Afghanistan is facing are too complex for a mere militarist approach to be sufficient.

 

Firstly, there is to consider the weakness of Afghanistan’s democratic experiment and the stalemate that continues to paralyze policy-making in Kabul. Despite the important and undeniable step forward that the instalment of the NUG in 2014 under the leadership of Ghani and Abdullah represented, the country is still characterized by a political system made of patronage and ethnic rivalries/alliances that find their roots in a culture traditionally dominated by tribalism. In this context, it is necessary to embrace a strategy that encourages –as the NUG tried to do, but in a more credible and effective way- the development of a political system based on actual (not merely fictional) power-sharing across ethnic groups, so as to give equal representation to the country’s diverse realities. Only in this way it will be possible to make of the government in Kabul an inclusive one, in which all Afghans can recognize themselves and which all Afghans can come to trust and respect.

Secondly, adding to the NUG’s limited inclusiveness and worsening its low credibility, is the rampant corruption within the government and the military that has created over the years a wide gap between government officials and security forces on one hand, and the population on the other. This gap has eroded the trust of Afghans in the political class and the security apparatus, since they regard both of them as distant, detached from people’s grievances, and exclusively focused on furthering their interests and broadening their privileges. Unsurprisingly, this has helped groups such as the Taliban to gain a considerable degree of popular support, or at least connivance. What the Taliban (and more recently, though to a lesser extent, also ISIS-K) managed to do, in fact, was to exploit the Afghans’ distrust in the government, in the army, and in a political system perceived as corrupt and inefficient, in order to present itself as a viable and better alternative. It is on this background that a battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people –especially in those rural areas that Kabul struggles the most to reach and control- ensued, and no strategy in Afghanistan can successfully deal with the country’s internal conflict without addressing this major challenge. It is indeed crucial to replace the existing political culture of favoritism and nepotism with one of accountability and responsibility that –together with better systems of checks and balances- might restore the Afghan people’s trust. Unless this trust is restored, in fact, non-state groups such as the Taliban and ISIS-K will easily exploit the situation at their advantage, giving to people what corrupted politicians and security forces fail to give and gaining in this way their support.

Finally, there is an exogenous factor to be taken into account when attempting to frame a successful strategy for Afghanistan, and this is the role of Pakistan and its historical use of Afghanistan to gain strategic depth vis-à-vis India. In the specific, since the early ‘90s Pakistan has been doing so by backing the Afghan Taliban in their struggle to control Kabul, and the continuation of this policy up to this date reveals the necessity of a strategy that uses diplomatic and economic leverages to encourage Islamabad to change its traditional Afghan policy. At this respect, though, the picture is made more complex by the need to consider two other major players: China, that has recently supported Pakistan’s economy with investments for $57 bn, and Russia, that is tightening its ties with Pakistan in the attempt of increasing its influence in South Asia. An effective Afghan strategy is thus one that looks not only at what happens within the country but also at the broader set of actors that rotate around it and whose influence on the conflict’s prosecution/ending is of primary relevance.

 

In conclusion, Afghanistan is a country facing an extremely wide array of problems and challenges and if the US is determined to address them in order to bring an end to the conflict, a mono-dimensional and militarist approach such as embodied by Thursday’s attack is not viable nor effective, and a broader and multi-dimensional strategy is required in its stead.

 

[Photo: AP]

 

 

Islamabad and the fight against terrorism in FATA

 

A travel through the FATA to understand the geographical, political, economic and social peculiarities of the region; the role played by jihadist terrorism; and the answers of Islamabad to this complex set of interconnected issues

 

THE TRIBAL AREAS OF THE NORT-EAST – FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) is a semi-autonomous region of north-western Pakistan, bordering Pakistan’s provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan on the east and south, and Afghanistan to the west and north. Geographically, FATA is crossed by the Hindu Kush, one of the world’s highest mountain ranges This mountain range, which has in Pakistan some of its highest peaks, is characterized by rocky where impervious passes are often the only transport route for the region’s inhabitants.

Demographically, FATA has a population of about 4.5 million, the majority of whom belong to the ethnic Pashtun group and to the Sunni branch of Islam. The almost totality of FATA’s population lives in rural areas, where it has been possible to preserve a century-old tribal lifestyle and historic clan ties. However, this rural anchoring has hindered FATA’s industrial and urban development and the region is today Pakistan’s poorest and most underdeveloped one.

On the political-administrative level, FATA is divided in seven Tribal Agencies and six Frontier Regions, administered by the Pakistani federal government according to laws known as Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) that date back to 1901. These laws were introduced by the British Colonial Empire to make of FATA a sort of “buffer” along the border with Afghanistan, so as to protect British India from the threats of Russian expansionism. Since then, the FCR have placed a significant degree of power and autonomy in the hands of local tribal and religious leaders and they continue today to make of FATA an exceptional case of semi-autonomous government within the Pakistani political system.

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TRIBAL AREAS AND JIHADIST TERRORISM – A considerable gap exists thus between FATA and the rest of Pakistan. FATA is characterized by exceptionally high rates of poverty, underdevelopment, and illiteracy; by a rural population mainly Sunni and Pashtun that is still organized according to old clan bonds and that lacks the ethnic and religious diversity observed in other areas of the country; and by an administrative semi-autonomy that renders FATA’s people excluded from constitutional rights.

This situation, made of a dangerous mix of chronic poverty and political vacuum, has created over the past decades a fertile ground for various terrorist groups seeking a safe haven in South Asia. Especially after 2001, the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom against the Taliban Emirate in Afghanistan forced the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other linked groups such as the Haqqani Network to abandon their Afghan bases and seek a safe haven somewhere else. This safe haven was found in the AfPak area and, in particular, in FATA. Here, in fact, those terrorist groups could find an ideal ground for their settlement thanks to two main elements: the mountain passes that allow an immediate connection between FATA and the Taliban traditional bases in eastern Afghanistan; and the limitations imposed by the FCR upon Islamabad’s possibility of control and intervention in FATA.

Moreover, the Tribal Areas have revealed to be also an ideal ground for recruitment for those jihadist groups. Exploiting the poverty of the local people; the lack of any prospect of economic improvement; the low schooling rate and weak religious awareness; the alienation towards Islamabad due to the exclusion from constitutional rights; and the absence of reliable judiciary institutions, the groups led by Mullah Omar, bin Laden, and Shirahuddin Haqqani found in FATA many new recruits and broad popular support. These groups, in fact, were able to provide to the locals an alternative to the low-paid work in the fields and to set up satisfactory structures of shadow governance capable of providing the lacking health, education and judiciary services.

The Taliban, in particular, also managed to exploit their decade-long relationships with the local imams of Sunni madrassas to spread their message of religious extremism, so as to obtain from FATA’s people a strong ideological support.

 

CHANGE OF ROUTE IN ISLAMABAD… – In March 2004, after the pressures coming from an American power just hit at its heart and an international community ever more sensitive to the threat of jihadist terrorism, the Pakistani government had no choice but that of intervening with the army in FATA against the terrorist groups hidden there.

The series of military campaigns that the Pakistani army has carried out since then has curbed the process of Talibanization that was interesting the Tribal Areas and has driven out of FATA many terrorist cells. Nevertheless, the fight against terrorism in FATA is not completed and the recent attacks perpetrated across Pakistan by groups such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) have reinforced in Islamabad the voices of those who were calling for a political approach to be combined with the military one in dealing with FATA.

On the wake of this new approach, in November 2015 the government established an ad hoc Committee (FATA Reforms Committee) that after ten months of discussions proposed to integrate FATA in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; to extend to FATA the Pakistani jurisdiction; and to suppress the FCR. The laws of the British Raj should be replaced partly by the Pakistani laws applied to the rest of the country, partly by a set of laws based on local Riwaj (traditions).

 

… AND ATTEMPTS AT HIJACKING – However, the proposal of integrating FATA is opposed both outside and within Pakistan.

Among the external opponents, there is Kabul. Afghanistan in fact never accepted the 1893 Durand Line that marks the border with Pakistan, so that accepting the inclusion of FATA in the Pakistani administrative and political system would be for Kabul a diplomatic defeat and would imply a cost in terms of internal political support that Ghani cannot afford to pay.

Within Pakistan, the main opposition comes from FATA’s tribal, political and religious chiefs. These local heads, in fact, do not want to cede to Islamabad the advantages obtained thanks to the FCR, since those laws placed in their hands almost unchecked powers. To this, it is then to be added that local religious and tribal leaders are worried about losing the advantages (in terms of influence and military edge) given to them by the relations that they have established with extremist and powerful Pashtun militant groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.

 

It thus emerges that fight against terrorism in FATA cannot succeed until other steps are taken:

 

  • Pakistan should embrace a strategy of fight against terrorism that aims not only to physically eliminate terrorist groups but also to cancel the popular support they found in FATA. To do so, it is necessary to take measures such as a tighter control over the religious messages promoted in local madrassas; the implementation of development plans so as to avoid situations in which local youth see in terrorism the only way to earn an income; the promotion of a secular education; the spread of non-extremist religious narratives…

 

  • Pakistan and Afghanistan should abandon the dangerous distinction between “Afghan terrorism” and “Pakistani terrorism” and rather initiate a dialogue aimed at addressing jointly the common problem of terrorism in the AfPak area, so as to avoid that terrorist groups continue to exploit the porosity of the Afghan-Pakistani border to conduct attacks in one country and find easy refuge in the other.

 

  • The international community should be more active in helping Pakistan (not only financially but also in terms of shared expertise) to cancel the popular support that terrorists still find in some areas of the country, emphasizing in particular how religious moderate leaders and the civil society can positively work with the Pakistani government in countering terrorism.

 

The Afghan-led peace process: reality or illusion?

 

How to read the just reached agreement between Kabul and Hekmatyar in the framework of a broader Afghan-owned peace process

 

When looking at a map of Afghanistan, the first geographic feature that comes to one’s attention is the mountainous landscape. Especially in the North East of the country –there where the high peaks of the Hindu Kush are- the landscape is made of harsh mountain passes, hidden caves, and isolated provinces where tribal allegiances still regulate daily life and where Kabul’s arm cannot reach.

Since the civil war that tore the country apart in the ‘90s, these geographic features have rendered the north-eastern regions of Afghanistan an attractive hideout for terrorist groups and warlords seeking a secure base. After 1989, many political and military leaders who refused to recognize the government established in Kabul managed to exploit the physical isolation and the political tribalism of the country’s North East to settle there.

 

Among those warlords, a special role was played by Hekmatyar, a powerful Ghilzai Pashtun who in 1977 had founded the group Hizb-i-Islami and who was one of the most prominent and most controversial protagonists of Afghanistan’s civil war. As many other warlords, when in 1996 Kabul fell to the Taliban Hekmatyar left the capital and found a secure base for his group in the Eastern regions of Kunar, Paktia and Laghman. Since that moment on and even after the Taliban’s fall, Hizb-i-Islami became one of the many groups that, exploiting secular ethnic-tribal ties and the disaffection of the local people with a central government incapable of providing security, compete with Kabul for influence and power.

 

Yesterday, though, a turning-point was reached as Kabul and Hizb-i-Islami reached a peace deal.

According to the agreement, Hekmatyar commits to the acceptance and respect of the Afghan constitution, to the rejection of violence, and the abandonment of any military and financial support to terrorist groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda (with whom Hekmatyar has a long history of collaboration). On its part, the Afghan government accepted to grant impunity to Hemkatyar (who is accused of committing several war crimes during the civil war’s years), to encourage international actors to lift any sanction and restriction against the group, to release several members of Hizb-i-Islami who are currently in jail, and to allow Hizb-i-Islami to run in elections.

 

As soon as the agreement was announced, it was met with enthusiasm and optimism worldwide. Spokespersons for the EU and the US praised the agreement as a crucial step towards Afghanistan’s stability and the defeat of terrorism, and as a proof that “peace is possible” and that a “new narrative” is now being created in the country.

However, within Afghanistan, voices were less optimistic and many protesters took to the streets to denounce the agreement. Many Afghans, in fact, regard the deal as the unjustified forgiveness of one of Afghanistan’s bloodiest warlords and as the dangerous inclusion in the country’s politics of one of Afghanistan’s most controversial political figures.

 

As in most such cases, the truth lies probably in between.

Over the past few years, Hekmatyar and his Hizb-i-Islami have played a limited role in the Afghan insurgent dynamics, that were rather dominated by the Taliban’s re-emergence and by ISIS’s appearance. In this context, Hizb-i-Islami did not expand beyond its powerbase in the North East and limited itself to giving support to one warring group or the other according to the moment’s convenience. Due to this limited active role on part of Hektamyar’s group, it is difficult (and somewhat naïve) to think that yesterday’s agreement will bring Afghanistan closer to stability and peace.

Nevertheless, the agreement cannot and should not be dismissed as Ghani’s latest vain effort at peace.

Firstly, the deal is important because it was reached without any UN or international mediation and was the result of a long-waited Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peacebuilding effort.

Secondly, the agreement has a crucial symbolic value: in the eyes of the Afghan people, the deal strengthens the credibility of Ghani as security provider and his image as President capable of healing the factionalism of the Afghan politics and of pursuing inclusiveness; in the eyes of the international community, the deal reinforces the perception of Ghani as reliable partner of a peace process centred on dialogue and negotiations.

Finally, the agreement is especially commendable because granting immunity to Hekmatyar and allowing Hizb-i-Islami to participate in the political process it might encourage other insurgent groups to put down the arms and seek dialogue with Kabul.

 

For this to happen, though, a simple signature on a sheet of paper is not enough and the real challenge lying ahead for Ghani is the implementation of the deal. In order to make the rapprochement to Hizb-i-Islami acceptable to all Afghans and attractive to other insurgent groups, in fact, Ghani will have to follow a two-pronged action: on the one hand, give to Hekmatyar’s faction the promised access to the country’s political system; on the other hand, prevent the delicate -and by some contested- inclusion of Hizb-i-Islami from turning into a further cause of instability and stalemate.

 

The above challenge is a crucial one, since a failure in implementing the deal fully and smoothly will translate into a loss of credibility for Ghani and his government, and into a consequent increase of support for those insurgent groups that still reject talks with Kabul and pursue armed struggle.

Reaching the deal was thus just the first step of that Afghan-led peace process that the country desperately needs.

Pakistan’s internal and ever-lasting war

PAKISTAN’S INTERNAL AND EVER-LASTING WAR

 

The attacks of Monday are a reminder of how terrorism continues to be the main challenge for Pakistan and how Islamabad has more than one reason to embrace a non-ambiguous and effective policy of counter-terrorism

 

On Monday morning, the Pakistani city of Quetta became (once again) the theatre of a brutal terrorist attack that claimed the lives of 64 people and wounded dozens more. The target of the attack was a gathering of lawyers who had gone to a local hospital where a colleague of their – the President of the Balochistan Bar Association, Mr Bilal Anwar Kasi – had been brought after being shot while on his way to work.

The terrorist attack was claimed within some hours by spokesmen of both a branch of the Pakistani Taliban and of ISIS. Nevertheless, whoever the actual responsible is, what the attack of Monday pointed out is that – despite the shy improvements in terms of crackdown made by the Pakistani government – terrorism continues to be a major source of internal insecurity for Pakistan and a major threat for the Pakistani population.

 

The terrorist threat, embodied mainly by the Tareek-e-Taliban Pakistan but also by emerging groups such as the South Asian branch of ISIS, is particularly problematic in volatile provinces such as Balochistan (where the city of Quetta indeed is). Here, in fact, the central government has always faced difficulties in extending its control due to the existence of tribal insurgence movements who reject Islamabad’s legitimacy – and this has made it easier for terrorist groups to find ground for recruitment, training and action.

 

However, in order to understand how this state of things has come into being and has evolved one cannot only look at Islamabad’s difficulties in controlling the country’s tribal areas (with FATA being the most emblematic case) but needs to look deeper into the government’s traditional approach to regional terrorism.

As far as terrorism is concerned, in fact, Islamabad has always played a dangerous “double game”: elaborating a non-sense distinction between the so-called “good Taliban” who operate within Afghanistan and the so-called “bad Taliban” who are instead active in Pakistan, Islamabad has traditionally maintained an opposite approach to the two groups. On the one hand, it has (not even too covertly) supported the Afghan Taliban and, when needed, given to them a safe haven where to hid and re-organize. On the other hand, instead, the Pakistani government has always considered the presence of terrorists in Pakistan as a major threat and a destabilizing factor and has tried to act militarily against them (or at least keep them confined to peripheral areas only).

 

But what are the roots of Pakistan’s double approach to the jihadi terrorism espoused by the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban? For that, one needs to look at the country’s historical relations with its immediate neighbours – Afghanistan and India.

With respect to Afghanistan, Islamabad has always tried to exploit the threat posed by the Taliban to Kabul’s credibility and the destabilizing effect of their activity in order to turn the Afghan government into a puppet eager to follow Islamabad’s guidelines (read impositions), such as the undiscussed acceptance of the 1893 Durand Line (the line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan for a length of 2640 km) and the adoption of an anti-India foreign policy. This last element is especially important: Pakistan, indeed, has always tried to use the Taliban and to take advantage of their presence in Afghanistan in order to gain strategic depth in an anti-India logic.

In other words, treating the Afghani Taliban as “good terrorists” and sustaining (or at least not refraining) their activity so as to weaken Kabul has always been part of Pakistan’s calculations to strengthen its position vis-à-vis the Indian enemy and turn in its favour the regional system of alliances.

 

However, what the wave of attacks that has been hitting Pakistan over the past years highlights is that Islamabad is now paying the price (and an extremely high one) of its “double game” with terrorism. Over the past years, the country has become a preferred target for many terrorist groups operating in the region and this is now starting to make Islamabad aware that no such distinction between “good” and “bad” can exist when terrorism is concerned and that a single approach aimed at its defeat is rather needed.

 

Pakistan today cannot escape the reality of facts that a serious fight against terrorism is vital to protect its own national security and its international credibility.

 

In addition – as if the above was not enough – Pakistan now has also economic motivations to pursue a harder line against terrorists, and this is evident if the Pakistan-China relationship is taken into consideration.

China is not only a long-time political ally of Islamabad but it is also the number one investor in Pakistan’s economic development, with a recent plan of a 46-billion-dollar investment for the construction of ports, railways, roads, telecommunication and energy infrastructures.

Thanks to these massive investments, Pakistan would see its potential of economic development fuelled and it could retrieve the levels of economic growth that it had known in the past and that had led many to see in it the next Asian economic power. However, nothing of this will become reality if Pakistan does not create a stable and reliable security environment: the waves of terrorist attacks, in fact, risk discouraging China from proceeding with its investment plans and if this were to happen and China’s projects were stymied, Pakistan economy would lag behind that of the other Asian countries for the next future.

 

Islamabad’s double game has thus security and economic costs that cannot simply be ignored.

 

 

 

[Picture: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2016/08/pakistan-mourns-victims-hospital-attack-160809070245225.html%5D

From Sykes-Picot to the Chilcot Report

The lessons that the West must learn when intervening in the Middle East’s complexities

 

Fifteen years after al-Qaeda’s attacks led the West to a “war on terror” that ended up creating more damages than those it had aspired to heal and taking more lives than those it had aimed to protect, the Chilcot Report -commissioned by the British House of Commons to assess the government’s decisions with respect to the war in Iraq – brought to light new evidence. The Report is an open (and due) condemnation of Blair’s foreign policy, but –more importantly- is a crucial document containing lessons that need to be learnt to develop more aware and informed foreign policies (especially when it comes to delicate regions that rest on ever more fragile balances such as the Middle East).

 

The UK, under the leadership of then-PM Tony Blair, intervened in Iraq in 2003 following the United States and remained in the country until 2009. Of the Report published on July 6th by Sir John Chilcot, two things particularly stand out. The first is that – contrary to what had been claimed by the USA and the UK governments at that time – the attack against Saddam’s Iraq was not a last resort; the second is that no clear nor informed planning had been made by Blair’s cabinet in terms of post-conflict reconstruction.

 

As far as the decision to go to war is concerned, the Report highlights how PM Blair decided to attack Saddam regardless of the fact that the international community was still trying to deal with Iraq’s putative WMD without resorting to war, regardless of the fact that the UN was still conducting its enquiry, and that the UN Security Council (as well as the majority of the EU partners) was not supporting military intervention.

According to the Report, the reason for Blair’s decision was that in the previous year the British PM had pledged to President Bush his country’s unshakable support, and that maintaining such pledge had therefore become unescapable to preserve the Anglo-American special relationship.

 

As highlighted by the Report, though, the mistake was not only the decision to intervene in a war that was not necessary nor unavoidable. The other major mistake (and one that proved to have a dramatic long-run impact) was that no clear plan had been conceived in terms of how to deal with Iraq in the post-intervention phase.  Rather than elaborating an aware and coherent plan of reconstruction before going to war, the UK government missed this crucial step on the basis of the (wrong and unjustified) assumption that Washington would deal with the issue and that the UN would play a major role once the military intervention was over.

 

After the toppling of Saddam, though, none of this happened: the UN revealed little inclination to intervention and the USA had no reconstruction plan.

 

After winning against Saddam’s Baathist forces in a matter of weeks, in fact, the USA created and led a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) within which the UK had basically no relevant say and that failed to serve the interest of the Iraqi population (thus failing to win the people’s support). In a moment of delicate transition in which fair elections were needed to create a government that could give representation to all Iraqis and that could be accepted by Sunnis and Shias alike, nor the UN nor the USA succeeded in supporting the country through its delicate transition. A Shia government led by Nouri al-Maliki took power in Baghdad; the tensions between Shias and Sunnis and between Arabs and Kurds were exasperated; Sunni jihadist groups (such as al-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Iraq) managed to exploit sectarian divisions to increase their action capabilities; and former soldiers who found themselves unemployed after the army was disbanded became easy recruits for jihadist groups.

 

Thus, the result of the war that the Bush administration had pursued and that the UK had decided to support was not a mere regime change in Baghdad but the collapse of the Iraqi state as such.

What the Chilcot Report makes clear, in fact, is that, in the moment in which the UK and the USA intervened in the Iraqi theatre without a clear and informed strategy for the post-intervention/post-Saddam phase, they set into motion a chain of events that paved the way to the rise of ISIS in 2014 and that changed (perhaps forever) the geopolitical map of the Levant.

 

Forced to face the mistakes made by the West back in 2003, what lessons can now be drawn to avoid their repetition and develop more aware foreign policies?

 

If one major lesson can be derived from what is contained in the Report is that, when intervening abroad, three elements are especially crucial.

Firstly, it is necessary to understand the dynamics of the theatre of intervention from any point of view: geopolitical, geostrategic, ethnic and religious. This understanding –especially as far as the religious and ethnic complexities of the Iraqi state are concerned- was clearly lacking on part of the UK and the USA in 2003 and explains how it was possible for power to end up in the hands of a Shia-dominated and sectarian government such as al-Maliki’s.

Secondly, it is necessary to develop realistic objectives and to embrace a relevant strategy that deals not only with the military aspect of intervention but also with the political and civilian ones – two dimensions to which the UK and the USA gave little importance when planning their intervention in 2003 and which continued to underestimate thereafter.

Finally, the third necessary step is to elaborate a post-intervention strategy that deals with the long-term and that gives to the country in which intervention was carried out and to its institutions all the support needed in a phase as delicate and crucial as that of reconstruction.

 

With 2016 marking the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot – the infamous Agreement with which France and the UK divided the Middle East into artificial states whose ethnic and religious contradictions have exploded over the past few years – we are now painfully reminded that there are mistakes we cannot afford to repeat anymore, and that our approach to the Middle East cannot be successful if History’s lessons are not learnt.

Afghanistan today

An analysis of the actors, of the dynamics and the complexities of a country in continuous evolution and (for now) at constant war

 

Afghanistan is a country whose political, ethnic, and religious peculiarities have their roots in geography. Indeed, thanks to its privileged position in the heart of Asia, Afghanistan has always been at the core of those routes that merchants used to trade and exchange ware, innovations, and tendencies across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. This inevitably exposed Afghanistan to many – and diverse – cultural, linguistic and religious influxes that favored the emergence in the country of a multiform reality, characterized by the coexistence – often tense and difficult – of different identities.

The ethnic and tribal side is where diversity and fragmentation are deep the most: alongside the Pashtun majority, many other groups – such as Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimaks, Turkmens and Baluchis – do live in the country. In addition, the fact that each area of the country is traditionally inhabited by a specific tribal group gives to the ethnic map of Afghanistan neat and clearly demarcated borders.

However, the impact that geography had – and has – on the country involves also the political reality. Afghanistan, in fact, has a territory which is mostly mountainous and this peculiar topography has historically made it difficult to bring under the control of the central power those areas that geography has doomed to be distant from Kabul. This reality, so inherently fragmented that each area is de facto under the control of local militias and groups, continues to be one of the toughest challenges for the Afghan state (and its allied forces), that struggles to establish an undisputed presence in the whole country.

 

2015 was a year of changes for Afghanistan: ISAF, the mission with which NATO intervened in Afghanistan in 2001, reached its end in December 2014 and the new Resolute Support Mission brought with it a considerable reduction of the NATO forces deployed in the country. The responsibility of defending Afghanistan from the Taliban insurgence shifted in this way (at least to a great extent) to the Afghan forces (ANSF). The ANSF, though, seem not to be ready yet for such a tough mission: despite having significantly improved their operation capacity and having in more than one case retaken territories occupied by the Taliban, there are a series of weaknesses and internal problems that limit their capacity of acting autonomously and efficiently.

On the one side, there are external challenges such as the tactic difficulties inherent in the deployment of forces on a territory whose geographic characteristics – as seen above – make connection, the movement of troops and military communications hard. On the other side, there are internal problems, such as the declining recruitment and and the growing problem of the so-called ghost soldiers. In addition, the withdrawal of American trainers and advisors has deepened the problems related to leadership within the army, where most appointments to the highest ranks are still largely influenced by political calculus and tribal affiliations.

If to all this, then, the qualitative and quantitative limits in terms of equipment and weapons are added, it is possible to find an explanation for the losses suffered by the Afghan forces throughout 2015 and the low credibility of the national forces in the eyes of the population (especially in those rural and peripheral areas that are most difficult for the army to reach).

 

Conversely, the reduction of NATO and American presence benefited the Taliban. Taking advantage of the lower number of foreign forces active on the ground and of the limits of the Afghan forces, Mansour founded the cohesion and credibility of the Taliban on a series of military victories and territorial conquests that have interested not only the usual provinces of the south, but also a number of provinces in the north. Under the leadership of Mansour, thus, the Taliban obtained major successes (emblematic the temporary occupation of Kunduz) and achieved the maximum level of territorial expansion since 2001: to date, the group controls seven districts in the provinces of Paktika, Zabul, Kandahar and Nimroz, and threatens crucial urban centers such as Lashkar Gar and Mazar-e-Sharif.

This Taliban resurgence, moreover, led also to a rise in the number of terrorist attacks. These attacks – from which not even Kabul was spared – confirm how the capacity of planning and operation within the Taliban front has been growing over the last year, and they also remind how the Taliban find a significant strength in the blind ideological-religious commitment of their combatants.

 

2015 saw an increase in the number of civil and military casualties, revealed the weaknesses of the ANSF, and highlighted the Taliban’s resilience. This trend seems likely to protract throughout 2016, but its future development will depend on four main factors:

 

  • The cohesion within the government – Two years after the formation of the National Unity Government of Ghani and Abdullah, many of the programs and reforms that had been promised are still in stalemate, reminding how the Afghan policy continues to be conducted largely on the basis of personal and tribal bonds, and how state institutions and their functioning are dependent on such bonds. This incapacity on Ghani’s part of breaking with the traditional rules of power has inevitably widened the gap between Kabul and the Afghan population. In particular, in many rural and peripheral areas the central government lacks credibility, and the Taliban have often exploited such state of things to win the locals’ support through institutions of shadow governance. Only a central government cohesive and independent from power games could thus gain the people’s trust and thus cancel the support that the Taliban have in many areas and that allows them to expand influence and territorial control.
  • NATO and USA presence – The reduction of the Western presence in Afghanistan was accompanied by a serious deterioration of security within the country, with an Afghan Army and an Afghan Air Force not ready yet to fight autonomously (or at least not fully and not everywhere) against resilient and ideologically-motivated enemies such as the Taliban are. This situation led Gen. Nicholson (USA commander in Afghanistan) to ask President Obama a re-thinking of the American plan to further reduce the troops on the ground. An immediate revisal of both the NATO and the American strategies is indeed necessary to avoid the future collapse of the Afghan state, and it should take into account not only the military dimension but also the civilian and the political ones. Only in this way it is possible to prevent the legitimate non-intrusion in the Afghan affairs from becoming a dangerous de facto abandonment.
  • The cohesion within the Taliban – The election of Mansour as “commander of the faithful” in summer 2015 caused divisions and defections on the Taliban front. To deal with this situation, Mansour tried to strengthen the cohesion of the group and the credibility of his own leadership by rejecting the dialogue with Kabul and embracing instead a brutal strategy. His killing last May came thus at a delicate point of the Taliban’s life, and the future developments in Afghanistan will depend in large part on the level of cohesion that the new leader Akundzada will be able to give to the group: the more Akundzada is able of making the group united, the more difficult it will be for the ANSF to sustain the fight.
  • The role of Pakistan: “terrorist haven” vs. “peace broker” – Since the first days of his Presidency, Ghani has made of the rapprochement to Pakistan one of the firm points of his foreign policy, to build a cross-border cooperation in the fight against terrorism. However, Islamabad’s commitment to induce the Taliban to negotiate and to deny them any safe haven has appeared more than once to be weak and dubious. An increased and less ambiguous commitment on part of Pakistan would play a crucial role in changing the balance of forces and the international community should push in this direction, aware that no victory can be obtained as long as the Taliban enjoy a safe haven in Pakistan.

 

Further variables that should be taken into account in evaluating the balances of forces in Afghanistan are:

  • The role of the Northern power brokers – Especially in the North of Afghanistan there are political and military leaders (such as Dostum and Atta) who – being each strong of the support of his own tribal group – fight against the Taliban and compete among themselves for the role of security providers and the locals’ support. Their preeminence on the local scene is thus the manifestation of two realities: the persistence of secular ethnic-tribal bonds, and the incapacity of the government of ensuring security to its people. Getting closer to those power brokers is thus necessary for the government if it wants to strengthen its legitimacy and to make more efficient and coordinated the fight against the Taliban;
  • The role of the Haqqani network – Since the appointment of Sirajuddin Haqqani as deputy of Mansour, the role and influence of the Haqqani Network within the Taliban has been growing and has led to an increase in the number of attacks against civilians. The recent death of Mansour and the ascent of a new leader will difficultly reduce the role of the Haqqanis, who – being traditionally hostile to any negotiation and supporting instead a total war against Kabul – could exploit new rooms of actions created by the current stage of transition and exasperate even more the security scenario;
  • The presence and strength of ISIS – After entering Afghanistan with the name of ISIS Khorasan, ISIS is now the common enemy of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Afghan government. At the moment, its presence in the country is still limited, but a future expansion of its ranks might lead the NATO and the USA to rethink their presence in Afghanistan, and – in the long run – it might even lay the foundations for a dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban, on the basis of their common interest in defeating ISIS.