Disparate Positions Stall Afghan Peace Talks Yet Again

Although the United States-Taliban agreement outlined the release of 5000 Taliban prisoners, the Ghani regime stalled the process before they reluctantly agreed to the release of 100 fighters. The Taliban remain upset that the entirety of their jailed fighters have not been released and such reversals prompted the Taliban technical team charged with prisoner swap negotiations to leave the discussion table frustrated days prior.

Peace seems impossible as both sides push partisan agendas and a serious political stalemate has derailed any intra-Afghan dialogue. As a consequence of this perennial dirty politicking, violent attacks on military personnel across Afghanistan began shortly after talks collapsed.

Undoubtedly, this is a fraught period for Afghanistan in general. Citizens struggle with COVID-19 while political crisis hampers any wider development. The Afghan government has been cynical of any peace talks from the start as they consider this development as a threat to their power.

Further, the Taliban seek the complete release of their prisoners. Tremendous effort has been applied in this regard, such as the recently released list of negotiators with the Taliban and a decrease in suicide bombings after the United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal in late February. On top of this, Washington decided to boycott integral aid as a method to pressure Afghan leaders to power-share through compromise.

The United States Has Stakes in the Peace Process

Presidential administrations have different objectives in Afghanistan. Under the George W. Bush administration, the 2001 US intervention sought to topple the Taliban, eliminate Osama bin Laden, and free Afghanistan. President Trump simply wants to end the US’ longest war he deemed as a “waste” and fulfill his 2016 campaign promise to bring troops home. As a result, his administration introduced a series of policies, such as the South East Strategy and the appointment of a special envoy to sign a deal with the Taliban. In a meeting with Afghan representatives, Zalmay Khalilzad once expressed, “I’m not a representative of Bush who asked me to restore Afghanistan, I’m a representative of Trump who wants our troops out.”

The Afghan government cannot understand or refuses to grasp that Washington will fulfill its stated objectives even if Kabul refuses to release prisoners or delay intra-Afghan dialogues. As Fawzia Koofi (member of the negotiating team and former MP) states, “The Afghan government is pressuring the US to recognize the Afghan government and in return, they will release the prisoners.”

Afghans will pay the price if the current government continues to delay the peace process — such as the $1 million cut in aid and suspended projects after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to resolve the turmoil between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. Anytime the government postpones the release of prisoners or stall the peace process, the Taliban retaliate violently. In one single attack in Zabul last month, 28 Afghan forces were killed by the Taliban.

Are the Taliban Willing To Make Peace?

The US agreement signified victories for which the Taliban fought for 18 years: recognition and the withdrawal of US troops. Consequently, the Taliban have used it to disseminate propaganda against the weakened Afghan government. However, a lack of unity among the Taliban remains a barrier to peace though leadership and a sizable portion of the group are interested in further gains through diplomatic negotiations.

Taliban leadership and their masterminds understand that there is no return to the Islamic Emirate of the 1990s; therefore, they are willing to compromise on an Islamic type of regime — one that is acceptable to the wider Afghan government and Taliban interests. This is a principal topic of the peace process that is explicitly puzzling and debatable.

Something that remains misunderstood, primarily in Afghanistan, is that the Taliban agreed to a reduction of violence, but not a ceasefire. Violence remains the Taliban’s preferred tactic and remains vital in their power plays to force the Afghan government to retaliate militarily. Without violence, the Taliban is nothing.

Until they reach a deal with the Afghan negotiation team, the Taliban will continue on a violent path towards their ultimate goal of an Islamic Emirate. Peace will not prevail in the sole context of a US-Afghan agreement, as 22 other terrorist organizations, such as Daesh and increased activity by Chinese militants in new groups, continue their battles.

The route to peace in Afghanistan is complex and it will not be easy. Nonetheless, there is a sense of hope among Afghans that decades of civil war and extremist regimes, like the 1980s and 1990s, are behind them. The peace process will go nowhere if the current political stalemate does not come to an end. Leadership and cooperation are key to any ceasefire and the start of intra-Afghan dialogues.

Afghan Negotiators Are Ready To Talk to the Taliban

The Afghan government finally released the list of negotiators that should discuss peace with the Taliban. Afghanistan has been drifting from one hardship to another for over 19 years, and keeping sight of priorities amid great turmoil has become everyday practice. As the country contends with 170 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as a current hurdle, the Afghan government delivered a list of delegates intended to start intra-Afghan negotiations and secure a ceasefire.

Khalid Noor, among the designated members of the newly announced negotiating team, told Rise to Peace in an exclusive interview: “Members of this negotiating team come from all walks of society, and especially from the new generation. I think this team will work to defend the rights of Afghan women and men, their freedoms and their gains over the past 18 years, while also protecting the Republic of Afghanistan and its constitution.” Addressing Afghan citizens, Noor continued, “we are representing all Afghans in Afghanistan. To anyone in any corner of Afghanistan, we will defend and represent them. Our address is our people and our regime.”

The move shows important progress has been made towards achieving the goals stipulated in the United States-Taliban agreement. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the two competing presidents — Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah — for their incapacity to resolve the disputes that hinder the peace process, and suspended $1 billion worth of US aid for Afghanistan. Notwithstanding, after months of controversy and disagreement, Afghan leadership mobilized and put together a list of negotiators for holding peace talks with the Taliban. The list was also endorsed by Abdullah Abdullah. The start of intra-Afghan dialogues would be a premiere for the peace process, as until now Afghan parties only interacted indirectly.

The team of negotiators is part of a two-fold effort to further peace in Afghanistan. Whereas the announced negotiation team will engage directly in talks with the Taliban, the decisions regarding the substance of the discussions and their strategic goals will be decided by a High-Level Political Conciliation Committee. Consultations for the establishment of the Committee are ongoing, but government representatives have agreed already on appointing Abdul Rasul Sayyaf as the head of the High Level Committee. The decision making committee should include all major political leaders of Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, the negotiating team is itself a major breakthrough, presenting diversity among negotiator profiles and political affiliations. The list contains 21 persons coming from political parties, local leaders, civil society organizations, and the Afghan government. Both European Union representatives and the US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad congratulated the Afghan Government and expressed support for the newly established team, recognizing the importance of diversity.

The negotiating delegation is headed by Masoom Stanikzai — former head of the Afghan intelligence agency — and includes representatives of both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, as well as five women and youth. The proposed negotiations team also accommodates Kalimullah Naqibi, the deputy head of Jamiat-e-Islami party, Amin Karim representing Hizb-e-Islami in the delegation and a member of the Ulema Council (full list here).

The Taliban responded to the negotiation team proposal with reservations. While they do not contest the assignment of most of the team members, they oppose the appointment of Masoom Stanikzai, especially because of his cooperation with the communist regime in the 1980s. The list was also criticized for not being inclusive enough, and for failing to ensure participation of local community leaders and of representatives of Afghanistan’s multiple ethnicities. Nevertheless, the Taliban have no option than to accept the negotiating team proposal.

But Taliban resistance to accept negotiation goes far beyond who the negotiators are – they are fighting for broader political gains and violence is the way to it. While progress seemed to be made for the release of Taliban prisoners, the government was compelled to postpone the release once more over Taliban violence. The US-Taliban Agreement stipulated that up to 5000 prisoners of the Taliban should be released by the Afghan government before the beginning of negotiations, and during the most recent talks the release was set to start on March 31. Extensive clashes between Taliban and government forces took place across Afghanistan, Taliban terrorism culminating with the killing of 28 Afghan soldiers in four provinces.

Whereas consistent progress has been made towards achieving peace, the road ahead is complex. “It is a positive step towards peace, it is an inclusive team so far, but it is hard to predict how this is going to go” said Khalid Noor. Even if this team may not achieve a ceasefire, it can work towards a reduction of violence.

Three key challenges most likely lie ahead.

  • The type of political regime to be instituted in Afghanistan will be among the most contentious issue that will arise during intra-Afghan talks. The country’s constitution is already Islamic, but the Taliban will be reluctant to accept any form of political pluralism, further complicating decisions over the country’s future.
  • No Demobilization, Disarmament and Reintegration (DDR) plan for the 50 to 60 000 Taliban fighters has been discussed, and peace depends largely on DDR. Amid the gradual withdrawal of the US military, the Afghan government will remain — rightly so — reluctant to the release of Taliban prisoners. Peace is a trust building exercise, and the Taliban have shown little reasons to be trusted.
  • Neighboring countries are likely to influence talks, and for now external intervention remains the most uncertain and ambiguous component of the peace process.

Potential Risks and Rewards of the Impending Mass Taliban Prisoner Release

As a primary development arising from the United States-Taliban peace deal (now earmarked as the ‘Doha Deal’), on February 29, Afghanistan’s government agreed to the release of 5000 Taliban fighters from prison, coupled with the Taliban release of 1000 Afghan National Security Force soldiers. The approaching mass release of political prisoners is being heralded as a major step towards the relieving of extreme tensions between the Afghan government and the Taliban across the region, as well as a precondition for future intra-Afghan peace talks. However, questions arise regarding the potential consequences of such a substantial development in the Afghan Peace Process.

Concerns Regarding the Release of 5000 Convicted Taliban Fighters

The agreed upon mass release of the imprisoned Taliban fighters has raised major concerns throughout Afghan society, frightened at the potential threat that could be posed to national security upon their release. This is especially relevant when considering that, in the case of the Doha Deal, it is not only the release of the Taliban prisoners that has been agreed upon, but also the steady withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan, which could leave a growing security vacuum in its wake.

As a measure to prevent the feared threat of post-release violence, Afghan authorities demand a written, pre-release statement from each convicted Taliban fighter, which acts as an assurance that they will not return to the battlefield. However, the signing of an agreement, of course, does not produce an absolute guarantee that the released prisoners will not ultimately go back to fighting. This issue has been further accentuated as it also seems as though no clear strategies have been developed to counter this possible eventuality, meaning that the Afghan government’s only insurance is the written promise of 5000 convicted Taliban fighters.

Regardless of these overarching issues, the whole deal has already been overshadowed with concerns from the Afghan government regarding the time-span and numbers of the eventual release of prisoners; arguing that the release of the prisoners must be a major element of the intra-Afghan negotiations, instead of acting as a precondition.

All of these aforementioned points have one thing in common; concisely, there is major concern regarding the trustworthiness of the Taliban in this deal.

Is the Mass Release of Convicted Taliban Fighters a Major Step Towards Peace?

Certain historical comparisons can be made to illustrate the potential positive outcomes that could arise from the utilization of the mass release of political prisoners as a tool for establishing peace; a lesson that can be learnt from Ethiopia’s recent mass release of political prisoners in 2018.

Throughout the latter half of 2018, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed pardoned 13,000 political prisoners that had been charged with terrorism or treason. Many of whom were affiliated with the secessionist groups the ‘Oromo Liberation Front’ (OLF) and the ‘Ogaden National Liberation Front’ (ONLF), both of which were previously considered to be terrorist organisations.

One of the primary intentions of this decision was to establish more peaceful relations with the OLF & ONLF groups. And in this regard specifically, the benefits of this decision turned out to be highly successful. Alongside the pardoning of many of its convicted-members, and the legalization of the two secessionist groups, major steps towards peace transpired. The widespread disarming and reintegration of previously convicted prisoners, ceasefires, and an eventual peace agreement between the Ethiopian state and the OLF & ONLF subsequently came almost directly after the widespread pardons.

This example can be used in many ways, especially when compared to that of the current ‘Doha Deal’ of the Afghan Peace Process, and allow the development of certain predictions as to how the events following the mass release of prisoners may transpire. This is just one of many comparisons which can be made in order to highlight that the mass release of political prisoners in Afghanistan could result in the immediate easing of tensions between the Afghan state and the Taliban. With the agreed upon disarmament of released Taliban prisoners, ceasefires and further peace agreements would simply follow-suit if one is to draw comparisons between the Afghan situation and that of other similar cases in modern history.

However, when considering the differentiating situation in Afghanistan, in which the Taliban have violently responded to the Afghan government’s failure to immediately release all prisoners, the current instability is potentially extremely detrimental to the future progress of the deal. Steadily increasing violence, and political bartering between the parties of the agreement, could spell disaster for future negotiations; and in the midst of such turmoil, the idea of the establishment of ceasefires and further agreements between the parties seems almost too far beyond reach.

What Conclusions Can Be Drawn from the Current Situation?

The mass release of political prisoners in Afghanistan as a component of the ‘Doha Deal’ can be considered to be a major step in the Afghan Peace Process. When looking for answers from comparable historical cases, one can suggest that this could be one of the most important decisions for the pursuit of an eventual peaceful conclusion to one of the most controversial and influential conflicts in modern history.

However, considering the extreme violence and tension already arising from the newly conceived deal, and the need for mutual trust and flexibility for the success of this agreement, a predictable outcome to this prisoner release perhaps seems farfetched. Or perhaps it is all too predictable when considering the various collapses which have plagued the many attempts at peaceful negotiation throughout the ever evolving Afghan Peace process.

US Cuts Aid to Afghanistan as Leaders Fail To Create a Unity Government

On March 23, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an urgent trip to Kabul, Afghanistan in an effort to end the ongoing political turmoil in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. This political stalemate is rooted in the rivalry between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah and their inability to reach an agreement to form a unity government. As a result, subsequent negotiations with the Taliban are on hold until this issue can be resolved.

Hopes were high in the Afghan capital that an inclusive government could be formed under the circumstances of Pompeo’s visit, but in return, the US cut $ 1 billion in aid for 2020 and yet another $1 billion for 2021. In addition, American involvement in certain projects would be reduced. This latest incident induces a state of fear and uncertainty in the Afghan population over the future of their country as half of the population lives in poverty.

US-Taliban Agreement

Last month, the US and the Taliban reached a ‘historic agreement’ in the presence of the international community. It was set to pave the way for intra-Afghan dialogues.

As per the agreement, the US agreed to a reduction of its forces from 12,000 to 8,600 within 135 days of the agreement and a withdraw all of its troops in 14 months. Further, the Afghan government was obliged to release 5000 prisoners and intra-Afghan dialogues were originally set to commence on March 10.

After the agreement, the Taliban demanded the immediate release of their prisoners before March 10. The Afghan government did not release them and delayed the process while preoccupied with the election results. As a consequence, the Taliban engaged in a series of violent attacks and carried out operations across Afghanistan. In a single attack in Zabul province this week, 36 Afghan soldiers were killed by the Taliban.

“The release of prisoners in the current situation has turned into a pressure tool where the Afghan government is pressuring the US to recognize the Afghan government and in return, they will release the prisoners,” said Fawzia Koofi, former MP and leader of Movement for Change in Afghanistan.

What do the two doctors — Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah — want?

Simply put, both seek power. In the presidential elections of September 2019, 1.82 million votes (out of 9.5 million registered voters) were counted with 300, 000 of them disputed. As a result, President Ghani was declared victorious with 50.64% of the vote in comparison to the 39.52% achieved by his political rival. Abdullah Abdullah claims that the disputed votes were not in the biometric system and should not have been counted even though they were.

This is only the beginning of the political disorder, but surely not the last example. In 2014, both candidates nearly twirled Afghanistan into a political crisis as the US Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a deal to create the National Unity Government (NUG).

Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik by ethnicity, is a three-time presidential nominee while Ashraf Ghani is a Pashtun technocrat. While Ghani has foreign donors due to his strong Western ties, Abdullah Abdullah is linked to a wide range of political leaders, including ‘warlords.’ Therefore, political connections complicate any resolution to the election impasse. Besides this, mass election fraud occurred and realistically speaking, 700,000 votes are not a true representation of Afghanistan. It is imperative that the country create an inclusive system of governance given the prior situation of the failed 2014 elections and the creation of a National Unity Government. This is in the best interest of Afghanistan.

Only the US can create peace in Afghanistan

There is a strong sense in Afghanistan that the Afghan conflict could be brought to an end in weeks if the US truly wanted and decided this outcome. Behind every new government or major decision, most Afghans blame or place responsibility on the US, just as they do for the presidential elections.

“Nobody knows the future of peace in Afghanistan because the deal between the US and Taliban is classified. The two sides must be honest in their intentions of peace,” said Mohammad Almas Zahid (Haje Almas), Presidential Senior Advisor and Special Representative for National Solidarity Affairs, to Ahmad Mohibi of Rise to Peace.

While the two leaders blame each other for the US decision to cut aid, it is critical for the Afghan leaders to comprise and avert the cancellation of any further aid as the drawdown of financial support will critically hurt Afghanistan. This is akin to the Soviet cut of support to the last communist regime in the early 1990s. Removal of aid at that time was one reason directly correlated to the collapse of the Najibullah government. To put this in a modern perspective, Afghan National Security Forces Salaries, as well as others, depend on US support.

“If the government does not pay the soldiers, they will leave the army the next day”, said Ainuddin Bakir, a former commando officer who is now working in a private security company in Kabul.

It is wise for the two leaders and broader political community to set aside their differences and work towards unity. They must unite in order to save lives from Taliban attacks and the ongoing pandemic. Secretary Pompeo’s visit in the wake of COVID-19 to mediate demonstrates strong US interest in ending the US’ longest war and jumpstarting the Afghan peace process. Afghan leaders failed to do their homework and now face the risk of losing the US as a strategic partner.

Far-Right Versus Islamist Extremism: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Sonnenkrieg Division (SKD) is one of the many extremist far right groups that operate in the United Kingdom, but only the second to be proscribed as a terrorist organization. More often than not, the threat posed by the far-right is neglected, especially in comparison with Islamist extremism. There is a general tendency to minimize far-right extremist incidents and the media seem to be rather reluctant to link such incidents to terrorism. This is somewhat disquieting as the far-right has been identified as the fastest growing terrorist threat in the UK, as well as in other liberal democratic countries.

According to new research, those convicted of Islamist extremist related crimes receive prison sentences three times longer than those affiliated with the far-right in the UK. For instance, Islamist extremists convicted of online crimes receive an average of 73.4 months compared to the right-wing extremists who serve approximately 24.5 months. This disparity is due to the failure of the Home Office to ban right-wing extremist groups as terrorist organizations. As well, the UK’s counter-radicalization strategy has been severely criticized for its focus on Islamic extremism although right-wing referrals have exceeded those related to religious extremism.

In the same way, there is disproportionate academic research on far-right terrorism, as indicated by Bart Schuurman study at the University of Leiden. More precisely, a review of the nine leading academic journals within the field of terrorism provided clear confirmation of something suspected all along, namely that far-right extremism is neglected not only by the government and policy makers, but also by academia.

Serious concerns over the proliferation of right-wing ideology worldwide and the lack of attention paid to it by intelligence and security services were raised following a series of high-profile far-right inspired attacks in 2019, primarily those in New Zealand, Texas and Germany. However, despite the 300% increase of far-right terrorism over the past five years, Islamist extremism continues to be the dominant threat in the UK.

Having said that, far right and Islamist extremism could be considered as being two sides of the same coin. Despite their diametrically opposed positions, they seem to reinforce each other. The rapidly growing Muslim community is essentially perceived as a threat to those that espouse far-right beliefs, therefore provoking a violent reaction. At the same time, Muslims in liberal democratic countries feel oppressed and deprived. They seek to participate proactively in the broader struggle against the oppression of Muslim people for that reason.

Notwithstanding their opposing views, both rightists and Islamists share certain common ideological characteristics, such as the anti-Semitic rhetoric and a belief in conspiracy theories. They also pursue objectives of similar nature. Far-right extremists seek to create a homogeneous society exempt of immigrants, or people of different races or religions, likewise, Islamist extremists aim at creating an Islamic Caliphate across the world with no ‘infidels’, namely people of a different religion. In addition, they are both opposed to globalization: Islamists under the fear of losing their cultural identity and right-wing extremists under the risk of losing homogeneity.

What emerges from the above is that despite all their differences, the threat posed by these two types of extremism is of equal importance. Both Islamist and right-wing extremists deserve specific attention and impartiality is an essential ingredient in the strategy of counter-radicalization. A policy which puts a disproportionate emphasis on one could be considered biased and ineffective, therefore making it difficult for experts to tackle either of those. By neglecting or over-emphasizing only one side of the problem, policymakers risk any attempt to effectively respond to such types of extremism.

Afghanistan in 2020: Secrets and Negotiated Peace

The recent agreement between the United States and the Taliban is a significant political development that will undoubtedly shape the future of the country, the region and relations with external stakeholders. However, cracks in the pact began to show only days after its signing.

Retired US Army colonel and former member of the National Security Council, Jeff McCausland, correctly pointed out that, “American troops have been fighting in Afghanistan for nearly as long as direct US involvement in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined.” Further, he noted that the Marines sent to Afghanistan recently were not even born on September 11, 2001.

The withdrawal of forces is integral to a successful reelection for President Trump, but this is a difficult task. It is important that the US leaves an impression that they left Afghanistan a better place, but at the same time, in the words of Donald Trump, “Eventually countries have to take care of themselves, (America) can’t be there for another 20 years.”

Afghans are tired of the prolonged conflict; however, fear is ingrained in those who lived through Taliban rule, especially the growing population of women. They still support a US presence in the region and lack faith in their own military capabilities. A poll recently conducted by Rise to Peace found that the majority of respondents support US presence. Thus, there is a growing distance between Afghans who wish for continued US presence and an impatient US government that hopes to bring its troops home as soon as possible.

On the subject of this divide, mounting criticism from many fronts continues to grow against two classified annexes within the US-Taliban agreement. All this occurs while the Afghan government attempts to understand their place in the Afghan peace process and the US public come to terms with the content of the ‘Afghanistan Papers’. This exposé may have been hidden by a media storm focused on other aspects of controversy within US leadership, but criticism of the secret annexes within the US-Taliban peace agreement have not had the same fortune.

It is alleged that the annexes remain secret so that information is not shared with other insurgencies, such as the Islamic State, who claimed responsibility for a recent attack that left 32 dead in Kabul. However, critics believe that annexes give “Trump, or his successor, enormous latitude to simply declare that the war is over and leave.”

The Taliban stand to benefit significantly from US troop withdrawal. Survival of the organization certainly took a hit due to US operations, but a growing divide exists between commanders and foot soldiers too. For instance, Taliban fighters circulated messages of jubilation on messaging application WhatsApp during the early — and unsuccessful — days of US-Taliban negotiations. Junior soldiers believed that peace had been achieved whilst senior leaders knew that they were no closer to signing a peace agreement. The lack of top-down communication was abundantly clear.

The United States continues to spend a substantial amount of money in Afghanistan — approximately $2 trillion US with inflation considered. For context, with inflation considered, this surpasses US spending allocated in the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe in the post-war years. The Taliban can only match these economic and military initiatives for so long, therefore, it is difficult to predict whether the organization or US public opinion over the war in Afghanistan falters first. Thus, these negotiations serve both sides well.

Serious questions remain: will the already fractured agreement bring lasting peace to Afghanistan? Will the early months of 2020 be remembered similarly to the ceasefire of 2018, a short-lived flutter of hope? If there is one certainty in this agreement it is that the American interests and the Afghan government face an enormous obstacle. As an organization, the Taliban cannot be held responsible for individual actions and attacks. So where does the US draw the line? How will the Afghan government establish itself as a strong counterforce to the Taliban without US support?

Answers can be found in how the US withdraws its troops. In order to fulfill their end of the deal, the US must remove its forces and ensure that the Taliban make good on their promises. At the same time, the US will need to maintain readiness to provide support (financially and militarily) for the Afghan government as they prepare to contend for power with an organization that has survived close to nineteen years of sustained US military operations.

Does the Groundbreaking Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan Go Beyond the Negotiation Table?

After eighteen months of talks and nearly twenty years of war, Afghanistan looks like it has made a step in the right direction: at the end of February, the United States and the Taliban signed a historic peace agreement in Doha, Qatar. The Agreement is undoubtedly a breakthrough, and even critics of US President Donald Trump credit the administration for achieving a deal that both the Bush and the Obama administrations failed to do. Nevertheless, the three part Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan is a crucial step towards peace, but only the beginning of it.

The Agreement signed on February 29 features a commitment to end American presence in Afghanistan and guarantees that the Taliban will prevent international terrorist organizations from growing on Afghan territory. The deal also features a promise that the Taliban will engage in talks with the US-backed government for achieving a ceasefire, and a pledge to find solutions for managing the release of 5000 Taliban prisoners and 1000 prisoners from the other side.

The prospects for Afghanistan are intricate, and the fragile balance faces manifold pressures. The US-backed incumbent was declared the winner of the presidential elections five months after and led rival Abdullah Abdullah to contest results. This left Afghanistan with two de facto presidents, each assigning governors. Furthermore, Afghanistan has confirmed 4 COVID-19 cases. Given its proximity to Iran (which has confirmed over 7000 cases) and potential low detection rates, Afghanistan is adding another precipitating factor to its lengthy crisis.

The Agreement empowered the Taliban, bearing the cost of legitimizing the group by bringing it to the negotiations table. Throughout the Peace Process the Taliban have been seeking to gain back the power they lost, and the deal seems to be giving them the upper hand. Since the agreement was signed, the Taliban resumed operations against Afghan forces and beyond: last week a bomb exploded in the eastern Khost province, leaving three dead and eleven wounded, and at least twenty-nine people were killed in a mass shooting at an event attended by the country’s opposition leader in Kabul.

The US troops withdrawal from Afghanistan brings about “a long, windy, bumpy road to peace”, said Defense Secretary Mark Esper after approving the withdrawal. The Agreement promises to reduce the number of US forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 from 12,000 within the first 135 days, and a complete withdrawal in 14 months. As the Reduction of Violence Plan fell into the background, President Trump acknowledged “Taliban could ‘possibly’ seize power after US troops leave”, and sources indicate the Taliban are preparing their annual spring offensive.

Trusting the Taliban with safeguarding the interests of the US and its allies against terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda might have been foolish. Commentators point out the Taliban cannot be trusted with putting an end to terrorist sanctuaries in Afghanistan, recalling the Mujahideen civil war and the mistakes made by the US in Iraq, which opened the space for the emergence of the Islamic State. Are the Taliban trustworthy? Or will Islamic State seize the opportunity and grow stronger in Afghanistan? Previous lessons show that when radicals fight against radicals everyone loses.

The intra-Afghan peace negotiations supposed to begin in the aftermath of the Agreement are equally problematic. President Ashraf Ghani refused to accept the release of thousands of Taliban prisoners as a precondition for talks, while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed the rejection of the clause by the Afghan government. Furthermore, the list of negotiators is not ready and the Afghan political community does not show signs of compromise. Directions for a prospective power-sharing government are yet to materialize, and the Afghan government remains vague and weakened by the US promise to ‘refrain from intervening in the domestic affairs of Afghanistan’.

What Should Be Done?

US presence must be maintained until more progress is achieved in the domestic peace process. The US might have signed a peace agreement, but Afghan parties are still at war and the government is losing ground. The Peace Agreement allegedly contains two classified annexes that include a timeline for the next 18 months, details on prohibited attacks on both sides, and most important, how the US will share information about its troop locations with the Taliban. Many Afghans fear that the Agreement aids the Taliban, as the modalities of permanent ceasefire are not settled by the deal.

The US and its international partners must commit to funding and training the Afghan Army, and develop a Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program for the over 60,000 Taliban fighters. The US withdrawal will leave behind a power-vacuum, much like the Soviets did in 1989. The 1988 Geneva Accords provided a framework for Soviet departure from Afghanistan, which commenced in less than a year. The Soviets also called it a ‘gradual withdrawal’ and facilitated a Policy of National Reconciliation. Yet, in the absence of a comprehensive DDR plan, the situation in Afghanistan rapidly deteriorated leading to a fully-fledged civil war. History should not be repeated.

The US troops should not withdraw until third parties such as Pakistan are committed to and included into the peace process, and international terrorist organizations active in Afghanistan are weakened, if not eradicated. Numerous international terrorist groups use Afghanistan as their bases, recruitment centers, support and organizing their fighters, and a power vacuum would give them a boost that will transcend the borders of Afghanistan.


How Refugees Make their Way to Europe: A special report by Rise to Peace

Greek border police shot and killed a refugee as he attempted to cross the border following Turkey’s announcement that the border is open.

Rohullah, an international student studying at Trakya University, stated, “I was there when I heard the gunshots. I saw a woman knocked to the ground. We were scared and ran away. I did not know about the Syrian refugee that was killed but I saw the women that were shot.”


Rohullah is distributing food and clothing to refugees in the border of Turkey-Greece in the province of Edirne. March 4, 2020.

He added, “My school is about a 10-minute drive from the border, and as soon as the Turkish government opened the border, refugees poured into our city on their way to the border. My classmates and I went to greet the refugees on the day that the shooting took place. All of them had crossed the Turkish border and were right in the center of the Turkish-Greek border. Some children were playing football and then suddenly, a group of refugees pushed towards the border, about 15 meters, and the Greek police began to shoot and fire tear gas.”

The victim was Ahmed Abu Emad, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo. He represents one of the thousands that have left their homeland to escape ongoing tensions and terrorism in order to have a better life. Like many before him, his journey ended before he could reach his dream. So many refugees here tell our researcher “we want to study and build a new life.” This situation is a tangible example just how conflict disrupts lives, causes immense pain and pushes the human condition to its limits.

Nearly 4500 refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine and Somalia are currently seeking to enter Greece. At this particular encampment, there were around 500 refugees and our researchers interviewed as well as aided them in ways that they could. “They camp in places near the river and by resources such as wood so they can make fires to keep them warm”, said Rohullah. 

The Interview Project 

We were able to interview one young man on his second attempt to reach a better life in Europe. Ahmad Zahir, 22, from Balkh, Afghanistan is just one of the thousands leaving with or without their families to reach Europe for a better life. Since the refugee crises of 2015, thousands of these ‘dream-chasers’ have drowned in the Aegean sea, along the Afghan-Iranian border or in perilous journeys fleeing Syria to reach Turkey. It has been a difficult endeavor full of risk, but those seeking prosperity or security consider it worthwhile to attempt.

Zahir relayed that he reached Greece on the first day that the Turkish border opened, but was arrested shortly after by the Greek border police. He paid about $25 US to get to Edirne from Istanbul.

The 22-year-old summarized his experience as: “We crossed the border on the first day, but soon we were arrested. The Greek police took our money, phones and belongings and then deported us back to Edirne with one pair of pants and a shirt. I am cold and a Turk gave me this jacket to keep me warm.”  He added that, “When the Turkish government announced that the border was open, we left everything behind, but the Greek border is closed now. We cannot go back and do not know what to do.”

Why did you leave Afghanistan?
The security situation in our country is bad with an ongoing insurgency and no jobs. My family and I decided to leave for Europe mainly to live a good life and this is now my second attempt. Without money, a place to stay or live, we do not know what our destiny will be. They said the border is open, but it has been three days since we have been here.

Where do you stay?

We have no option, but to sleep here. It is not a problem for me although it is cold, but you can see children 4-5 years old, pregnant women, and older people here. These conditions are really bad for them. The weather is extremely cold as this is winter. We are lucky to be near the trees as we burn them night and day to keep us warm. 

What’s your plan for going to Europe? New life? Work?
Everybody has this plan, not only me. Let’s see if the border will open or not*. At this point, we have nothing left to lose if we go back to Istanbul or anywhere else because we already lost everything we had. Let’s see what’s going to happen. Wait for the border to open and start a new life for ourselves. I want to go to school. *He means the Greek border.

Do you have plans to go back to Afghanistan?
If we have to, we might. But no plans now to go back because if we go back, there will be no jobs or life there for us.

Why Turkey opened its borders to Greece?

The reasoning is complex and percolated for years. In 2016, Turkey signed an agreement with the European Union during the 2015-16 refugee crisis to stem the flow of refugees in exchange for the allocation of funds to help the millions of refugees from war-torn countries. (Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria had the highest number of refugees.) “All our efforts contributed significantly to the security of Europe. However, our calls were ignored by the EU and member states,” said Sami Aksoy, the Turkish foreign ministry spokesman to Aljazeera.

Turkey has subsequently pointed fingers and accused the EU of reneging on its 2016 promises and consequently opened its borders for refugees to cross into Europe on February 29, 2020. This decision came shortly after 35 Turkish soldiers were killed in an a Syrian regime airstrike near Idlib on February 27. Turkey’s decision to open its borders can be seen as a strategic move to gain the support of the EU in support of Turkish involvement in the ongoing Syrian war as well as remind them to implement the articles on the previous agreement.

Turkey currently hosts nearly 4.1 million refugees and asylum seekers, including 3.7 million Syrians. 

How do refugees cross the Turkish border? 

In 2015, when I first reported on the refugee crisis in Istanbul, Turkey was inundated with refugees from everywhere. They slept in national parks as well as beaches out of necessity and poverty. The Turkish people were generous and helped them, particularly the police. Although they came illegally to Turkey, the police did not question them unless they committed a crime.

While there, I met a human smuggler who went by the alias “Dadar.” Human smuggling is a lucrative business in Turkey and Dadar was especially prepared as he had four cell phones upon which he spent most of his time speaking with refugees. New refugees transitioned into new clients and after reaching a deal, Dadar helped them settle and provided them with food. He acted like a humanitarian aid worker, but his end goal was payment for his services.

Dadar charged refugees a fee for his services and additional charges for those traversing countries. He not only helped refugees cross the border, but also helped bring refugees from Afghanistan and Iran as well. “I enjoy doing this work because first I make good money and second I help them reach their destinations,” said Dadar.

Here are some of the fees Dadar charged the refugees for his smuggling services:

From Afghanistan to Turkey — $2000 

From Turkey to Greece — $3500

From Turkey to Germany or London — $6500

On Day 3, I went to see where he kept his clients— the refugees. We drove to a place called Zeytinburnu about 25 minutes from Sultanahmet mosque. It was there I encountered many Afghans engaged in restaurants, shops and other businesses. Thousands of Syrians and Iraqis were there too. This was the place where many new refugees from Afghanistan and Syria stayed due to the proximity to resources and the low costs.

My research has often revealed that refugees and migrants typically tend to stay in communities where there are commonalities and similarities with others. For example, there are numerous cities in the United States and European countries, such as Germany, where refugees tend to settle and create communities of their own whilst engaged in their unique cultures. They adopt these urban areas as their new home.

Dadar took me to a residential apartment complex in the crowded streets of Istanbul where he kept even more of his clients. As I walked into a unit on the fifth floor, I saw 18 people — new arrivals from Afghanistan and Iran — living together in a one-bedroom apartment. Upon arrival, Dadar greeted his clients and explained all the next steps of their journey to them.

“We will inshallah leave the city in a couple of days. Please let me know if you need anything. Your food will be on time and I’m going to buy you guys vests and then hit the road towards the border,” said Dadar to the refugees. 

The next day, I called Dadar and inquired about what to expect next. He told me to meet him for breakfast — Kahvalte. While enjoying the Turkish sultan style breakfast, he laid out his plans and offered to take me to the border. I agreed. After breakfast, he took me to the downtown of Zeytinburnu where he purchased 95 lifejackets. In order for him to transport the refugees, he worked with Kurdish Turks fluent in the language, familiar with police checkpoints and back routes.

Early morning the next day at 04:00, Dadar picked me up from the hotel and took me to a bus where we greeted the driver and 25 refugees. It is important to recognize that many refugees are not all young or travelling by themselves, but rather, families with children account for the largest number of refugees. I encountered a family of four from Kabul, Afghanistan. They sold their house in Kabul and entrusted their money with a dealer from there who would wire it upon their arrival in Germany — their final destination. For them to get to Germany, they had to go through one of the riskiest routes — the Aegean Sea.

Refugees departed by a bus while Dadar and I left in his Fiat. He chose a specific long route to avoid any ferries where a car loaded with refugees could be easily spotted by the police. After 5:40 hours, we reached our destination — Canakkale.

Canakkale was the main point of operation for smuggling refugees to Europe. From there, Dadar took them to the sea between trees and bushes. Kurdish and Afghan had already prepared the rafts and boats to depart. All 25 refugees were loaded on one boat and they were handed a knife with explicit instructions to cut the raft once they reached their destination. They were to leave absolutely no evidence behind for the Greek border police to notice.

Upon their arrival in Greece, some turned themselves in and then the Greek government sent them to different European nations. Germany received the most refugees at that time and this consequently compelled many others to risk the trip to enrich their lives. Out of the 25 refugees that I met and with whom I made the trip to the border, 8 of them are in Germany. Two added me as a connection on Facebook and we continue to be friends.

Nonetheless, not all stories have a happy ending. Thousands have drowned in the Aegean Sea whilst on their way to seek a better life, including the viral image of a Syrian toddler, Alan-al-Kurdi, whose body washed ashore on a Turkish beach in 2015.

Business continued for Dadar. This was a day-to-day enterprise for him and he continued until Turkey reached a deal with the EU to close its borders to refugees. He was able to turn a large amount of money he received to a successful real-estate business in Istanbul.

Should refugees leave Turkey?

Turkey has been generous in its support of refugees across the country and even gave that eligible citizenship to make a new life in the country. It has its merits. Turkey is a beautiful and safe country and attractive to Muslim refugees as it holds the historical significance as the place of the Ottoman Empire and the Sultan who conquered Europe and Africa. Further, it is a state with a respectable Gross Domestic Product (GDP), so refugees can make a living there if they truly want.

However, most refugees prefer Europe over Turkey and this is rooted in a drive for prosperity, rather than a search for security and aversion to terrorism. They choose this logistically treacherous path rather than settling in Turkey where the government has been generous towards them. Not all refugees can receive permanent residency or citizenship to remain in Turkey, however, there are ways to improve their lot. If they decide to stay and work hard, legal residency in the country is a possibility.

Authors note:

I left Turkey and tried to reach Dadar via the phone number he provided me as I wanted to do another interview project with him. The attempt was unsuccessful. His job was not easy as he regularly fought with Kurdish human smugglers as competed with rivals over prime territory that could act as points of departure for refugees. It was a war between smugglers as they fought to smuggle more refugees to make the most money.

Editorial note:

A researcher with Rise to Peace traveled to the border between Greece and Turkey at Edirne to file a report on Day 3 of the refugee attempts to cross the Turkish border following an announcement that the Turkish border is open. All photos and videos were taken by Rise to Peace with permission and right of usage by the refugees. As part of this initiative, we interviewed one of the refugees whose interview and video are featured below. 

Numbers: Approximately 500 families in one area on the beach. In about 4 days, they left their jobs in different parts of Turkey and came here. They are in need of blankets and I even saw a newborn baby.

Ages: A diverse range from a newborn baby to the elderly. The average age is approximately 40 years old though there are a lot of young adults. There are many families with 2-3 children though there are some traveling in groups with as many as 7.

Refugees origins: Most come from Syria, followed by Afghanistan, then Iraq, and Somalia. Those from Bangladesh, Iran, Morocco, Nepal, Pakistan and Palestine round out the rest.

Reasons for leaving: In search of a better life, security and an escape from terrorism.

Interview:  Ahmad Zahir, 22 years old from Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. This is his second time crossing the border.

U.S.-Taliban reached a historic agreement

Originally published at The Heat – CGTN America

“Within the next ten days, Taliban leaders are expected to begin negotiations with the Afghan government over a ceasefire and political settlement. This after the militant group and the United States signed a deal over the weekend in Doha in an effort to end the 18-year war.

Under the agreement, the Taliban will not allow al-Qaeda, ISIL, or any other extremist group to operate in Afghanistan, while the U.S. gradually withdraws its forces. It also calls for a prisoner swap.

But on Sunday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he would not abide by the terms of a release negotiated by the U.S. as a prerequisite for talks. And on Monday, the Taliban announced it would resume offensive operations against Afghan security forces.

The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said some violence is to be expected.

To discuss all of this:

  • Omar Samad served as the Afghan Ambassador to France and Canada and is a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council.
  • Ahmad Shah Mohibi is the founder and President of Rise to Peace, a non-profit organization.
  • Peter Mansoor served in the U.S. Army for 26-years and is the chair of military history at The Ohio State University.
  • Shuja Nawaz is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center here in Washington, D.Chttps://youtu.be/mV5-6RSq66Q


The Prison Environment and Its Role in Radicalization

In the last few years, several terrorist incidents in Europe have raised serious concerns about prison radicalization and the effectiveness of programs meant to counter it as well as de-radicalize individuals. For instance, the United Kingdom presents a number of cases where terrorists were radicalized while incarcerated or failed to be de-radicalized during their sentences.

The stabbing of two people in south London a month ago is a notable example as it involved an ex-offender convicted of Islamist terrorism related offences. A similar incident is the case of the London Bridge attacker who had been released from prison about one year prior to stabbing and killing two people in November 2019. The fact that the attacker in the second case underwent de-radicalization programs throughout 8 years of incarceration is particularly worrying and raises doubts about the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy.

There is also the case of the March 2017 Westminster attack carried out by a Briton who was previously convicted for non-terrorism related offences and is said to have been radicalized in prison. Moreover, some of the members of the 2004 Madrid attacks, the so-called shoe-bomber, and the person behind the 2005 failed attacks in London, are all believed to have become radicalized whilst incarcerated. It is therefore apparent that prison radicalization is not a new phenomenon, but rather a trend that can be reasonably explained by reasons why a person turns towards violence, or even worse, terrorism.

One of the key reasons why individuals resort to terrorism is the fact that they feel alienated and marginalized. Terrorist recruiters are often charismatic leaders that take advantage of the vulnerable situation of some people to introduce an extreme ideology and provide a sense of belonging. After succeeding in gaining their trust, it is easier to manipulate radicalized individuals and the process of radicalization may enter its final stage — the active involvement in violent acts.

Inmates are often isolated from society and many of them are open to alternative life-concepts and ideologies. Feeling alienated and frustrated, such prisoners are susceptible to radicalization and recruitment to terrorism. The sense of belonging to a group consisted of other like-minded people gives meaning to their life. Those people share the same radical ideas and they are fully committed to fight for a common cause using also violent means.

Moreover, increased levels of violence in prisons sometimes contributes to radicalization. In prisons, especially over-crowded ones, assaults on prisoners or staff are more likely to take place. There are numerous incidents where corrections officers have been attacked by prisoners and this is sometimes compounded with inadequate training of officers to challenge such behaviors. The risk posed to the safety of the prison staff gives extremists the space needed to radicalize inmates almost unimpeded.

In an attempt to prevent the proliferation of such extremist ideologies in prisons, it has been suggested that convicted terrorist should be isolated from the rest of the prison population. A number of separated wings especially for terrorists and extremists have been opened within prisons not only in the UK, but also in the Netherlands, the United States, Australia, the Philippines and elsewhere. However, there are studies which have shown that isolation has the opposite effect, namely to reinforce extremist beliefs. Sentencing is a related matter and often discussed in the matter of convicted terrorists that go on to commit similar offences after their release. Having said that, isolation and extended sentences intensify the problem as these variables only infuriate extremists.

Preventing dangerous extremists from radicalizing their fellow inmates is fundamental to the safe functioning of prisons and proper de-radicalization of prisoners before their release is essential to public protection. It is apparent that de-radicalization and disengagement programs need to be better funded and properly executed. Without an effective de-radicalization method, tougher sentences on terrorist related convictions will only delay, rather than prevent, future attacks.