The wave of Afghan refugees infringing against Europe’s unwelcoming shores

 

How the EU should frame a new approach to Afghan asylum seekers starting from a better understanding of Afghanistan’s history and Afghanistan’s diaspora

 

In the century-long history of migration crises that have interested the European continent, 2015 marked the latest turning-point: in that year alone, as reported by the European Parliament and the UNHCR, over a million refugees attempted their way to Europe in search of better lives, of more opportunities, or simply of a chance at survival. With the war in Syria sowing ever more destruction; with the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating under the Taliban resurgence; and with the security in Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa threatened by brutal jihadist terrorism and bitter civil wars, an increasing number of people found themselves with no better –and no other- option than risking everything they still had to flee the desperateness of their countries and reach the security of the European Union.

Among those flows of refugees that suddenly reversed upon Europe’s borders, according to the UNHCR Afghans were (and remained throughout 2016 and in early 2017) the second largest group after the Syrians. In 2015, about 200,000 Afghans –who according to the interviews conducted by the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) were mainly young men travelling alone along the land gateway known as Balkan route that goes from Turkey to Europe via the Aegean Sea and Greece- were amongst those seeking a new beginning in the “old continent”.

However, faced with a sudden and ever increasing number of asylum seekers, the “old continent” that had sparked so many hopes in so many people did not prove able to stand up to the salvific mission that History was entrusting upon it. At the transnational level, the EU failed to pursue the coordination among its member states that should be at the basis of its decision-making and policy-making: EU member states –each driven by its own internal concerns and political considerations- failed to reach an agreement for an equal and fair distribution among them of migration quotas that could give a new home to the refugees while preserving the internal equilibriums of hosting countries and the stability of hosting societies.

As a consequence of this failure at the EU level, European countries and governments had to address the problem at the national level, where they found themselves exposed to a two-pronged challenge: on the one hand, the requirement for all signatories of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees not to return refugees to a country where their life and freedom are threatened; on the other hand, the anti-immigration protests coming from European populist, nationalist, and right-wing parties and from ever wider fringes of the public opinion. In most countries, in fact, a climate of suspicion towards migrants took root and sparked fears about migrants depriving the locals of jobs. These fears at the national level compelled EU governments to take restrictive measures towards migration, such as tighter border controls and the setting of daily quotas. In September 2015, Germany increased its controls along the border with Austria and soon afterwards Hungary started sealing and fencing its border with Serbia and Croatia. Similar measures were also taken by Slovenia and restrictive policies on border controls were enforced by France, Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Norway.

On the background of the incapacity of coordinated action at the EU level and of the growing opposition to immigration at the national level, the situation worsened further with the agreement ratified in March 2016 between Brussels and Istanbul. According to the deal, all new irregular migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece would be returned to Turkey, that in turn would receive financial support from the EU. In this way, the agreement brought about the closure of the Balkan route and thousands of migrants saw their situation becoming ever more desperate and uncertain. In particular, Afghan migrants who had been largely reliant on the Balkan corridor were amongst the worst hit: as reported by the AAN, thousands of them got stuck in the makeshift refugee camps of the Balkan states and Turkey and entered a stalemate made unbearable by the coming of winter. Moreover, their prospects of a future improvement were crashed by the voices of several European leaders claiming that Afghanistan has “safe areas” and that therefore Afghan migrants cannot be equated with Syrians, Iraqis, and Libyans.

The truth is that Afghanistan is in a situation as complex and tough as that of Syria, Iraq, and Libya, but being it geographically further from Europe’s borders it is less of a concern to Europe’s politicians and less of an object of sympathy to Europe’s media and Europe’s public opinion. As a consequence of this general disregard for the plight of Afghans who are perceived as being too far from us for their situation to shake our humanity, the EU signed a re-admission agreement with Kabul (known as Joint Way Forward) whose aim is to return to Afghanistan those Afghans asylum seekers who are not recognized the refugee status. As reported by the AAN, after the agreement was reached last October, 580 Afghans were sent back to their country of origin and many more forced deportations are likely to be observed this year.

The measures implemented towards Afghan asylum seekers by the European Union result from a general disregard and disinformation over the current situation in Afghanistan and over the intricate and painful history of the Afghan diaspora. Promoting a better knowledge of them is therefore essential to encourage the EU to frame more appropriate policies towards Afghan refugees.

 The different waves that have characterized the Afghan diaspora are inextricably linked to the different chapters of the country’s modern history, and it is by looking at the latter that we can understand the flows of Afghan refugees throughout time.  In the modern history of Afghanistan, 1979 represented a major turning-point: after the Saur Revolution that had overthrown King Daoud Khan, the USSR’s Red Army intervened to establish and maintain a government that would be a de facto satellite of Moscow. What ensued from the Russian invasion of the country and from the Russian manipulation of its political dynamics was a ten-year conflict that saw the USSR fighting against the Afghan mujahidin. During the conflict, a first wave of Afghans began to abandon the country and to settle in the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Iran. As reported by the UNHCR, between 1979 and 1989, about 2.6 million Afghans crossed the border to Iran and 1.5 million Afghans fled eastwards to Pakistan.

In 1989, the Soviet Union –by then on the brink of implosion- left Afghanistan and its withdrawal encouraged most Afghan refugees to return to their country. However, the situation was again reversed after 1992, when a new chapter in the history of Afghanistan and its diaspora began. In that year, the fragmentation among the mujahidin front led to a civil war among the different factions of mujahidin and the country was once again suck into bloodshed and destruction. In the framework of these events, a second wave of Afghan refugees emerged and spilled over Pakistan and Iran as it had before. This time, though, Afghans were particularly unwelcomed in the hosting countries and the Afghan diaspora began to take on bleak and desperate shades. The situation, then, worsen further after 1995, when the recently-emerged but rapidly-spreading Taliban movement managed to bring several regions under its control until occupying Kabul in 1996. With the ascent of the Taliban and the religious extremism embodied by them, the wave of refugees –especially of non-Pashtun and non-Sunni Afghans- rose again, to the point that the UNHCR reports a net migration rate of -6.5/1000 over the period 1995-2000.

This Taliban-caused wave of emigration stopped in 2001, when the US-led invasion led to the removal of the Taliban Emirate. In the renewed climate of confidence that spread after the defeat of the Taliban, a large wave of voluntary repatriation interested Afghanistan: assisted by the UNHCR, 2.7 million of Afghan refugees returned from the camps where they had been hosted in Pakistan and an additional 800,000 returned from Iran. However, the climate of confidence that encouraged this wave did not last much. After 2005, as the war between the international forces and the insurgent groups within Afghanistan embittered, a new wave of Afghan refugees left the country. Peculiar of this post-2005 wave is that asylum seekers began to seek refuge not only in Pakistan and Iran -where Afghans were generally treated as second-class citizens- but also in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe – where hopes of a better life were higher.

As mentioned at the beginning, after 2015 –with the Taliban regaining considerable terrain following the decrease in the number of US and NATO forces deployed in Afghanistan- this tendency has been strengthening and Europe has increasingly become the aspired destination for the hundreds of thousands of Afghans whom the lack of security is driving away from their homeland.

Interviews to the families of Afghan refugees conducted by the AAN have in fact shown how the main drivers behind this latest wave of immigrants are security concerns. Even if some Afghans come to Europe for economic reasons, most of them do so to escape war and terrorist threats. Therefore, they qualify as refugees under international law and they should be recognized as such by the EU.

TWith respect to Afghan asylum seekers, the EU should adopt an approach that is more reflective of the values on which it claims to be founded and frame policies that stem from a sound knowledge of the recent history of Afghanistan’s refugees and of Afghanistan itself. As reported by SIGAR’s latest quarterly report, Afghanistan continues to be one of the most unstable countries worldwide, where war and terrorism are daily reality, and this is something of which the EU must be aware and cognizant. In front of Afghanistan’s tough reality, in fact, denying to Afghans the status of refugees and claiming the existence of safe areas within the country to where they can return means denying the truth. On the contrary, the EU should recognize the tough plight in which the Afghan people verse and use its channels of intra-EU cooperation not to create mechanisms that send back Afghans asylum seekers but mechanisms capable of hosting them and giving them the safe haven that they are entitled to and that they came to us to find.

 

[Photo: Radio TNN]

The return of the “Butcher of Kabul”

 

As Hekmatyar returns to Afghan politics, what hopes are there for an improvement of the country’s political stability?

Saturday the 29th of April was a crucial day in the dynamics of Afghan politics: Hekmatyar –the controversial leader of the Pashtun group Hizb-i-Islami- returned to the Afghan scene and addressed a crowd of around 200 supporters in the eastern province of Laghman where he has maintained his traditional power-base.

During the speech he delivered, which in a way is the rehearsal of the more important speech he is supposed to deliver in Kabul in the upcoming weeks, Hekmatyar touched on delicate topics such as peace, war, national unity and expressed his commitment to the first, his condemnation of the second, and his support for the third.

Hekmatyar’s return to the country’s political theatre is the result of the peace deal which was reached last year by Hizb-i-Islami and Kabul. As of the terms of the agreement, Hekmatyar committed to the acceptance and respect of the Afghan constitution, to the rejection of violence, and the abandonment of any military and financial linkage with terrorist groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda (with whom Hekmatyar has a long history of collaboration behind). On its part, the Afghan government accepted to grant impunity to the north-eastern warlord (who is accused of committing several war crimes during the years of the Afghan civil war), 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 –the most important clause of all- to allow Hizb-i-Islami to run in Afghanistan’s elections.

Many Afghans, though, are sceptical about Hekmatyar’s new discourse of peace and concerned about his return and the impact that this can have on the country’s political stability (or, rather, what remains of it). Since last autumn, when the deal was signed, the country has thus been deeply divided on whether inviting Hekmatyar to join the political process was a wise move that testifies Ghani’s political acumen or rather a hazardous gambling that proves Ghani’s political weakness- and this divergence of opinions could indeed be seen clearly on Saturday on the streets of Laghman’s major cities, where jubilant crowds of Hekmatyar’s supporters alternated with crowds of opponents tearing his posters apart.

The absence within Afghanistan of a united stance regarding Hekmatyar and, more in general, the role to be reserved to former warlords like him reveals how delicate the entire issue of political integration is and how difficult it is to assess the implications of encouraging controversial figures to take part in the country’s political process.

Obviously, if the terms of the deal were respected by both sides, then Afghanistan would have nothing but benefits to reap: a former warlord giving up his weapons for the sake of the country’s constitution; a more stable central government challenged by opponents through elections rather than through weapons; a better functioning political system made of legitimate competition, inclusiveness, and broad representation.

Yet, reality is never as easy as it is written in agreements and several problems make the road that goes from paper to reality an impervious one.

Firstly, there is the problem of implementation: no matter how brilliantly framed a deal might be, if it is not implemented it is nothing more than a precarious sandcastle. The challenge ahead for Ghani, then, is to ensure that the deal is enforced and that Hekmatyar respects his commitments and embraces the project of a modern and democratic Afghanistan. This challenge, though, is feared by many Afghans to be an extremely tough one since Hekmatyar is renowned for having betrayed all of his allies during the civil war’s years. Ensuring his unrelenting compliance will thus require to Ghani continuous checks, political firmness, and zero toleration of deviations.

Secondly, there is the already mentioned problem of divergence of opinions regarding the deal, as a considerable number of people rejects the idea of seeing the “butcher of Kabul” (as Hekmatyar is known for shelling Kabul with thousands of rockets in the early ‘90s) being granted immunity and running in electoral lists. Until the population remains divided on whether or not the reconciliation between the government and the Pashtun leader was a positive turning-point for the country’s political future, it is difficult to expect a smooth implementation of the deal. For the deal to be enforced effectively and positively, a climate of general support for it needs indeed to be created and, in order to do so, the government should promote honest and informative public debates and encourage a nationwide propaganda capable of explaining to the Afghan people the rationale that lays behind the deal and that calls for its backing.

Thirdly, the impact of the deal will largely depend on the use that Ghani and Hekmatyar will make of it. In the optimal scenario (that though is often the most utopian one) both leaders will rely on the deal’s effective implementation to cancel their previous rivalry and work towards the common objective of a more peaceful and democratic Afghanistan. In the worst scenario (that, unfortunately, is often more likely) both leaders will use the deal for their own interests. Ghani would use it to strengthen his powerbase vis-à-vis the Tajik Abdullah with whom he is forced to share powers and his other political rivals such as former President Karzai. Exploiting the support and influence that Hekmatyar enjoys within the Ghilzai Pashtuns, Ghani could easily succeed in widening his base of supporters and bringing weight in his favour – which would be especially relevant in the case in which a Loya Jirga (national assembly) on the NUG was convened. On his part, Hekmatyar would use the deal to access the political system and the channels of power in a way that his Hizb-i-Islami is no longer capable of doing by means of arms. Exploiting his entrance in the political system and his presence in the highest spheres of politics, he could pretty easily amass power and influence in his hands at the disadvantage of the central government and undermine his non-Pashtun opponents.

As Hekmatyar returns to the forefront of Afghan politics, the consequences of his return are not clear yet since much will depend on whether and how the deal will be enacted now that the “butcher of Kabul” is back.   We cannot but follow him on his upcoming trip to Kabul and see what happens next in the Ghani-Hekmatyar rapprochement’s tale.

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.

fata_pakistan

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.

Two years later: Afghanistan and its National Unity Government

Assessing the security, economic and political situation of Afghanistan two years after the NUG of Ghani and Abdullah was installed in Kabul and thinking of a way out of the chaos

 

 

Two years ago -in September 2014- the months of stalemate, violence and fraud that had characterized until then the Afghan presidential electoral process were brought to an end by an agreement that established a National Unity Government (NUG). According to such agreement, the government would be led by the two frontrunner candidates: Ashraf Ghani – former Minister of Finance and exponent of the Pashtun electorate – was appointed President; Abdullah Abdullah -former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Tajik candidate- was appointed Chief Executive Officer.

When the agreement was signed, many –within Afghanistan, in the region, and in the international arena- saw the NUG as the concretization of the long-held hope that through an inclusive government politically legitimate and truly representative it would have been possible to adopt the reforms necessary to address (and eventually solve) the country’s problems.

 

Yet, two years after Ghani and Abdullah signed the agreement in Kabul, much of that optimism has now faded: most people in Afghanistan have lost any trust in the future of a country where they feel there is no life worth living, and most people abroad have retrieved the usual narrative of Afghanistan as a hopeless country defined exclusively by terrorism, death, corruption and poverty.

 

To be fair, the picture we can trace of Afghanistan on the second anniversary of its current government is not a rosy one, nor one that (for now) leaves much room to hope for upcoming and dramatic improvements.

 

On the security level, the past two years have been extremely worrying: Ghani’s attempt to cooperate with Pakistan and dialogue with the Taliban has ultimately failed, because in Pakistan too many officials still see support to the Afghan Taliban as a way to gain strategic depth and because too many Taliban have not abandoned yet the dream (or rather the utopia) of re-building a Taliban Emirate by means of war; the NATO and the US have reduced the number of forces deployed in Afghanistan without the Afghan Army and the Afghan Police being ready to take over; ISIS has managed to take control of part on Nangarhar and entered into a bloody competition with the Taliban; many Taliban fighters defected to ISIS after the rumour of Mullah Omar’s death was confirmed; the Taliban leadership passed in the hands of new leaders (Mullah Mansour before and now Hibatullah Akhundzada) who see in war and terrorism the most effective ways to retain credibility and thus preserve the group’s unity and support.

On the background of this gloomy security environment, it should thus not surprise that 2015 became the death toll reached record high levels and the Taliban achieved their maximum territorial expansion since 2001.

 

On the economic side, the situation does not look anything better: the data released by the World Bank in the Spring of 2016 report an economic growth of 0.2% only and a youth unemployment at record high levels.

The deteriorating security environment, coupled with the NUG’s failure to deliver reforms capable of developing sources of growth and fostering production, is undermining the confidence of the private sector and of foreign investors. To be sure, some economic and trade agreement has recently been signed by Afghanistan and regional neighbours – such as the agreement with India and Iran on the development of the port of Chabahar and the agreement with China for the inclusion of Afghanistan in the Chinese One Belt One Road project. However, despite these agreements entail the potential of attracting investment in Afghanistan and promoting a regional trade of which Afghanistan is part, the security threats to which the country is continuously subject constitute a major concern and a likely deterrent in the eyes of regional trade partners.

 

On the background of this scenario of rising insecurity and lack of economic opportunities, in which daily life is rendered a struggle and violence leaves no room nor time for any hope to flourish, another tragedy has worsened over the past two years – that of the Afghan refugees and internally displaced people.

According to the UN, in Spring 2016 almost 1.000 Afghans every day were forced to leave their homes and almost 180.000 Afghans applied for refugee status in Europe – a data that makes of Afghans the second biggest group of refugees in Europe.

 

All the above-presented crises, though, are the direct expression of what is perhaps Afghanistan’s biggest problem: the NUG’s weakness.

Since coming to power two years ago, the NUG of Ghani and Abdullah has failed to bring about the promised political and economic reforms and has on the contrary remained slave to the paralysis caused by the traditional factionalism of the Afghan politics. Both Ghani and Abdullah, indeed, have been constantly trying to make the interests of their respective constituencies and have proved disposed to sacrifice national good for that of their own groups.

Moreover -as if this factionalism internal to the NUG was not enough to condemn the country’s politics to stalemate- in many rural and isolated regions (especially in the country’s North) there are political and military leaders such as Dostum and Atta who exploit ties of tribal allegiances and long-established networks of local support to compete with Kabul in the exercise of power.

The NUG’s internal factionalism, the ethnic and exclusionary politics it fuels, and the existence of many powerbrokers who act outside the legitimate institutions are all elements that have inevitably reduced the government’s governing capacity and consequently undermined its credibility in the eyes of the Afghan population.

 

Unsurprisingly, the weakness to which the NUG is currently (self) condemned is the country’s most pressing challenge, from which a great deal of the other problems stems. Indeed, it obstructs security, since the people’s little faith in the central government is easily exploited by non-state groups such as the Taliban who offer effective alternative forms of shadow governance; it obstructs economic development, since it affects the capacity of implementing reforms and measures that might create jobs, encourage private entrepreneurship, foster

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

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.

Life after Mansour: Afghanistan’s new act

What next in Afghanistan now that the Taliban have lost their leader (again)?

 

On Sunday 22 May, a US drone strike killed the leader of the Taliban Mullah Mansour in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, thus marking the opening of a new phase in the development of the AfPak region’s political dynamics. The killing of Mansour, in fact, not only will force the Taliban to go through the delicate process of appointing a new leader, but it will also have a major impact on the relations between the Taliban and the Afghan government – and therefore on the future of Afghanistan.

 

It was less than a year ago when the news of the death of the group’s founder Mullah Omar was released and the Taliban had to appoint a new leader. Far from being a smooth process, the debate on whom to appoint caused deep rifts within the Taliban, and when the final decision fell upon Mullah Mansour many denied to pledge allegiance to him and many others left the Taliban to join ISIS-Khorasan. In July 2015, thus, the Taliban had lost its traditional cohesion and appeared – to enemies and supporters alike – as a weak group.

Faced with such delicate and vulnerable situation, the new leader embraced a strategy made of deadly attacks across Afghanistan, continuous fights with the national forces, and rejection of any prospect of talks with Kabul so as to increase its credibility among the Taliban (as well as among enemies) and give to the group renewed cohesion.

 

Now that Mansour has been killed, the challenge the Taliban face is that of appointing a successor approved and recognized as legitimate by everyone within the group. A failure in this sense would make the Taliban even less united, with more splinter groups conducting their independent actions and attacks, and this would have tremendous consequences for the prospect of peace talks.

What last summer’s shift in leadership made clear, in fact, is the impossibility of having negotiations when one of the parties involved in them is internally divided. After a first round of talks held in Murree, what made it impossible to go ahead was that the internal division caused within the Taliban by the appointment of Mansour did not allow Kabul to identify in a clear and unambiguous way who its interlocutors were. With the group divided and led by a leader not recognized by all members, it became impossible for the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) to have a clear picture of which leaders/members were supporting the talks, to what extent, and how representative of the whole group they actually were.

From this point of view, thus, the killing of Mansour opens the possibility of having a new, legitimate and broadly accepted Taliban leader who could make the group more cohesive and thus make it possible for Kabul to at least identify whom pressure has to be put on to push the Taliban to talk.

 

For Ghani’s government, thus, the death of Mullah Mansour is of crucial importance both politically and militarily. Indeed, the death of Mansour represents for the Taliban a major blow in reputation and credibility capable of boosting the morale of the Afghan national forces that are involved in daily struggles against them and that had to see the terrorist group achieve important successes in 2015. Deprived of their leader, the Taliban are now immersed in the appointment process, which implies the Afghan national forces can take advantage of this temporary respite from fight to better organize themselves and strengthen their holdings on disputed regions and provinces.

In addition, Mansour’s death has not only affected the credibility of the Taliban’s operative capabilities. It has also shed light on how the Taliban’s war-based approach is inherently shortcoming if the group aims to territorial control and political say, and how the rejection of peace talks comes at a price for the group.  Many among the Taliban used to reject talks because relying on the belief that war was the only way to political influence. The killing of Mansour has proved them wrong and might now strengthen the position of those Taliban most prone to talks.

 

However, until the Taliban’s new leader is appointed it is not clear which future lies ahead for the perspectives of negotiations. The only certainty is that the death of Mansour has opened a new chapter in the AfPak’s turbulent story. The way in which the story will evolve is now dependent on the intra-Taliban decisions and on Kabul’s capacity to adapt its political and military strategy to them.

 

The Taliban’s renewed cohesion and its impact on peace talks

With Mansour’s role as leader finally recognized by many who had previously contested his appointment, the Taliban have retrieved their usual cohesion and are again a united front. How is this going to impact the possibility of peace talks?

The past ten days have been rich of events for the Taliban group and its internal dynamics.

First, there was the publication of a handwritten letter in which Mullah Zaker — who is one of the most renowned and powerful figures within the Taliban — pledges allegiance to the group’s leader Mullah Mansour. Since the announcement of the death of Mullah Omar last Summer, Zaker had in fact maintained a neutral stance, refusing to leave the Taliban (as many other leading figures did) but, at the same time, denying his open support to the new leader Mansour. However, late last month Zaker made his final decision and eventually sided with Mansour.

Then, a few days later, another major event occurred as Mullah Muhammad Yaqub – Mullah Omar’s eldest son – was appointed head of 15 provinces in the Taliban’s Military Commission and Mullah Abdul Manan – one of Mullah Omar’s brothers – was appointed head of the Taliban’s Preaching and Guidance Commission.

After months marked by internal divisions and power struggles between Mullah Mansour and many among Mullah Omar’s family and long-time loyalists, the allegiance pledged by Zaker and the new roles reckoned to Omar’s son and brother are of particular importance. They indeed reveal that Mansour’s legitimacy is on the rise, that his position as Taliban leader is getting stronger by the day, and that an inner reconciliation is eventually taking place within a Taliban front that many observers had thought (and hoped) was irredeemably fractured. This means that – even if a number of former members have left the Taliban for good and have constituted in the Eastern province of Nangarhar a group affiliated to ISIS known as ISIS-Khorasan that is now fighting against Mansour for power and influence – the group of the defunct Mullah Omar is slowly retrieving its traditional cohesion.

This recovery of cohesion, far from being a merely internal matter with no relevance or significance for the out-group environment, has crucial implications for the prospect of future negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban and therefore for the entire Afghan security scenario.

After a first round of talks held in Murree (Pakistan) last Summer, the internal fragmentation of the group that followed the confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death has since been a major obstacle to any further talk. The division emerged within the Taliban, in fact, has up to now made it impossible for the Quadrilateral Group represented by Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and China to identify among the Taliban interlocutors who could be reliable and – above all – legitimate enough to sit down, take decisions on behalf of the entire group, and implement them.

However, after the latest events that have interested the Taliban organization and power structure, that obstacle might be falling down. With the Taliban leadership now rallied around the figure of Mansour, in fact, identifying the interlocutors with whom the dialogue has to be sought and pursued has finally become possible.

This does in no way mean that the Taliban’s inner reconciliation makes negotiations likely. It just means it makes negotiations imaginable (which in a country ravaged by war as Afghanistan is not something to be taken for granted).

The possibility of engaging in talks with the Taliban has now more possibilities of becoming reality than it had yesterday, but most will depend on the moves of the Quadrilateral Group.

If they want Mansour’s group to approach the negotiating table, the four countries will need to convince the Taliban of the convenience of those negotiations. In the specific, they will need to stress how the group – despite the territorial conquests made in 2015 in some parts of the country – can achieve through negotiations more (and more durable) power and influence than that it can hope to achieve through war (especially in a moment in which ISIS-Khorasan is opening a new front against Mansour’s group).

If, on the contrary, the four countries of the Quadrilateral Group fail to present negotiation in this terms to the Taliban, then it is unlikely that talks will ever take place and the recent reconciliation within the Taliban will translate into a stronger, united, and more confident Taliban front ready to initiate the 2016 Spring offensive against its enemies. Enemies that in this case would comprise not only ISIS-Khorasan but also the Afghan national forces (and – inevitably – Afghan civilians).

It has thus come for Kabul, Islamabad, Washington and Beijing the time to engage in the most important and most difficult match with the Taliban: that of convincing them that without peace talks there is no future in Afghanistan for neither side.