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ISIL

Decapitation of the Leader of ISIL and Its Potential Implication?

In a successful operation on October 26, United States special forces killed Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL) in Idlib, northwestern Syria. What could be the implications of this very critical operation for the actors in the conflict and the impact on ISIL itself?

From a strategic perspective, this operation could be a sample of the model that the US applies to Syria in the coming years. The United States coordinated the operation with the parties in the conflict, including Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Syrian Kurds. Given Russia’s dominant role in Idlib, the Assad regime’s presence and Turkey’s control over the northern Idlib, the United States notified them about the US military presence in the area.

The US military launched the operation from Erbil in the Kurdistan Regional Government. Although the Incirlik military base in Turkey is closer to Idlib (around 100 miles) than Erbil in northern Iraq (more than 400 miles), the US military chose Erbil over Incirlik which indicates the United States’ distrust of Turkey given Turkey’s long-time involvement with al Qaeda and ISIL affiliates.

According to President Trump, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were involved in the operation by providing intelligence. Although Turkey has been trying to push the United States against the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), it seems that Turkey’s move has not proved successful at all. On the contrary, SDF and the Syrian Kurds will continue to stay as partners of the United States. In short, although the US military pulled out of northeastern Syria, it will continue to be actively involved in the country.

As for the impact on the group, of course, the operation could trigger a chain of events that could affect ISIL in several ways. Because the group emerged in Iraq as the Islamic State in Iraq and then became ISIL under Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s leadership, his death would be a devastating blow for its members. However, given the decision-making structure of ISIL, they could survive this.

Decapitation or targeted killing of a leader of a terrorist organization is considered an effective counterterrorism tactic in the short term. On the one hand, as a short-term effect, it could disrupt activities of the group, create panic and mayhem among the members, resulting in intra-group conflict.

On the other, it could mobilize group members toward more actions and pursuing new attacks against their targets. When the target is a highly charismatic leader, then this could act as a catalyst for future attacks. In fact, research showed that the decapitation of leaders of ISIL may not lead to the intended results unless other steps are taken.

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was not the founder of ISIL and had not been as charismatic as Osama bin Laden, the founding leader of al Qaeda, nevertheless, he has been the most important figure in the organization. Since the founding leader of IS — then it was al Qaeda in Iraq — Abu Musab al Zarqawi was killed in 2006, ISIL transformed itself into a hybrid organization under Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s leadership between 2010 and 2016.

Unlike his three predecessors, under al Baghdadi’s leadership, ISIL’s impact on the region exceeded the boundaries of Iraq. ISIL became the leading terrorist group that created its so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria and attracted thousands of foreign fighters from more than 100 countries.

However, given the continuing decline, loss of territory and recruitment, his death may not create significant repercussions among current membership. But, the fact that he detonated a suicide vest and killed himself could be seen as a sacred sacrifice by other ISIL followers in the region and around the world, which might act as a catalyst for future attacks.

In Syria, between 2013 and 2015, ISIL had been the focal point for those who wanted to join the ‘jihad’ in Syria. Now a reverse trend might be seen in which ISIL members could leave the group and join other local groups in Syria.

According to some sources, al Baghdadi nominated Abdullah Qardash as his successor in August, but his death could lead some members to leave the group and trigger fragmentation within the group, especially if the leadership position is not filled soon. Because of the nature — what I describe as — of the transitivity character of these members, it would not be a surprise to see some of these members joining in the ranks of the al Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria.

Localized ISIL affiliates could take further steps to fill the vacuum and emerge as the dominant group. However, this will all depend on the territory where they are active. For example, IS in Khorasan Province could become the more prominent group within IS.

Successful targeted killings could provide states with the window of opportunity to inflict further damage against organizations like ISIL operationally. But more importantly, such developments could also enable governments and other concerned parties to spend more time and energy on prevention and de-radicalization efforts, reaching out other countries to strengthen cooperation and collaboration to tackle the underlying causes that terrorist organizations have been exploiting.

Regardless, from a counterterrorism perspective, the death of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is a success. While it is critical, the true definition of success in counterterrorism is not just about the decapitation of the leadership.

Like the previous examples, including al Zarqawi and Abu Omar al Baghdadi, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi will be succeeded by another leader. The real challenge is to come up with policies, strategies, and tactics that address the underlying causes, terrorist organizations exploit.

What Does a Chinese Invitation to the Taliban Mean for Afghan Peace Talks?

In a sudden development, China invited the Taliban to a two-day intra-Afghan peace conference in Beijing. This is a peculiar development as Beijing demonstrated little interest towards the prior peace process and Afghans remain critical of any potential for peace with the Taliban. Peace talks resumed weeks ago in Islamabad, Pakistan, however, the addition of Chinese interests reflects the international nature of what is at stake with stability in the region.

The Taliban publicly announced that they would travel to Beijing to initiate another round of peace talks.  Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban political spokesman, said on September 23 that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s co-founder, met with Chinese diplomats in Doha, where the group has a political office.

This is concurrent with information received by Rise to Peace. A source from Kabul stated that there will be another round of talks with the Taliban soon. They expressed that,

[pullquote]“It’s going to be different to before, stating that the conditions of peace would be different now. Thus, it would appear that the Taliban are open to a new round of peace talks, but not only with the US.”[/pullquote]

China’s abrupt involvement in the Afghan peace process will undoubtedly impact the US counter-terrorism strategy in the region. Recent visits to Afghanistan by United States Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Defense Secretary Mark Esper already reveal the differences of opinion offered by US foreign policy decision-makers.

Trump’s growing impatience with the presence of American armed forces still entangled in the Afghan conflict — fueled by the 2020 presidential election — is matched by Pelosi’s urgency to maintain a presence in the region. Pelosi counters that US troops are needed for the sake of stability and the possibility that Afghanistan might return to its previous role as a haven for terrorism.

Despite multiple stakeholders in the Afghan conflict — including multi-national organizations and numerous nation-states — China’s active interest in the region reveals the vast reach of regional instability and as a result, could provide an alternative to the peace talks that have already failed.

Beijing has cooperated with Kabul over the years in regard to economic development and trade, therefore Chinese interests in a stable Afghanistan are easily identifiable. As one of the co-heads of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), China — along with Russia — considers Afghan concerns as innate to discussions on security in the Central Asian space. It is logical that they would pursue a proactive stance in regard to inviting the Taliban for peace talks, as well as meetings with Chinese diplomats, due to ongoing diplomatic efforts between the two states.

Mainstream media coverage of Afghanistan has faded since the end of a turbulent election period and the rise of conflict along the Turkey-Syria border. However, July 2019 witnessed the highest number of civilian casualties that the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has ever recorded in a single month. The third quarter of this year saw an unprecedented spike in civilian casualties, with 1,174 civilian deaths and 3,139 injured.

It appeared that a revival of peace talks between the United States was possible last week despite hostile rhetoric between the two camps and an increase in violent attacks. Zalmay Khalilzad, the top US envoy for Afghan reconciliation, met with the Taliban in Pakistan. Each side is alleged to have discussed confidence-building measures that could include a possible prisoner swap or a reduction in violence to help with the peace process.

The EU Perspective 

Tadamichi Yamamoto, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, has decried “the tragic uselessness of such death in the face of widespread recognition that there can be no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan.” His words were echoed by Khalilzad and EU envoy Roland Kobia, among other representatives from the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United Nations. All acknowledged that “a sustainable peace can only be achieved through a negotiated political settlement.”

Aftermath of US-Taliban Peace Talks Collapse

The breakdown of talks between the US and Taliban earlier this year led both pro-government troops as well as other insurgencies within the region to step up attacks. Last week, Afghan forces performed a clearing operation in Baghlan province.

The operation took place in the areas of Dand-e-Shahabuddin, Dand-e-Ghori and the Kela Gai areas where at least 16 Officers were killed. A Ministry of Defence spokesperson justified the military action by citing previous successes in which dozens of Taliban insurgents, including commanders and shadow district governors, had been killed during operations in Badakhshan, Takhar and Kunduz provinces.

US-Afghan Relations  

Given the nature of the relationship between the US and Afghan security forces, it is clear that the US was aware of the provincial ‘clearing’ campaigns and likely provided support. This emphasizes their stance as being currently committed to military action in the region despite the fact the Pentagon released a plan for an abrupt Afghan withdrawal. Officials cautioned, however, that the planning is a precaution and there is currently no directive from the White House to pull American troops out of Afghanistan.

Taliban Military Action

In addition to US and Afghan government military action, the Taliban have also increased attacks. A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, confirmed in a statement that fighters used a large truck packed with explosives in an attack near a police headquarters, leaving dozens of Afghan security forces dead and wounded. The attack occurred during a relative lull in violence in the post-presidential election period that saw a surge in attacks by the Taliban, who denounced the vote as a sham. Severe attacks continue as sixteen police officers were killed in attacks on security checkpoints in Northern Kunduz province this week.

US-Taliban Relations

The New York Times reported that “a news website with deep access to senior Taliban officials reported that Mr. Khalilzad had met “repeatedly” with the Taliban during his time in Islamabad,” suggesting it was more than one meeting. This, in addition to the EU/UN urging immediate steps to reduce violence and civilian casualties, resulted in a call for a ceasefire while intra-Afghan peace talks take place.

Peace Talks vs Violence: The Challenges Facing the New Afghan Government 

The Taliban and the Afghan government remain in a cycle of violence where one attacks and the other retaliates, sometimes with foreign support. This continues to happen despite demands for peace from Afghan civilians, hints towards resolution from the Taliban, US interests and now China in favor of the resumption of peace talks.

The key factor influencing the cycle is the lack of intra-Afghan dialogue. Talks between the Taliban and the US did not lead to discussions between the Ghani administration and the Taliban. Therefore, it could be argued talks produced little progress, if it all, and the two remain more divided than ever. This is a result of the state of limbo faced by the government as they await the results of the September 2019 election.

Engaging in dialogue with the Taliban will be one of the major challenges facing the victors of the Afghan presidential elections. However, it is integral that such lines of communication are opened to maintaining peace in Afghanistan whilst allowing a US withdrawal.

As China readies itself to engage, President Trump remains confident in his relationship with Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan, and in the ability of the Pakistani government to play a positive and productive role in the negotiations between the United States and Taliban stakeholders.

Conclusion

As Afghanistan awaits the results of the September election, it will be crucial for political parties to ensure they are represented at the Beijing talks and in any potential talks between the US and the Taliban. This ensures that the winning party is able to open up direct discussions between the government and the Taliban.

However, if efforts in Beijing or with the US are successful — subsequently transitioning to intra-Afghan dialogue — the US must maintain a presence and military support in the region, as peace between the Taliban and the Afghan government does not necessarily mean peace for the other 21 active terror organizations in the region. Afghanistan’s fragility due to terrorism means that foreign support for counter-terrorism campaigns remains crucial for the foreseeable future.

Nancy Pelosi in Afghanistan

Pelosi and Esper in Afghanistan: To Leave or Not To Leave?

Two United States envoys visited Afghanistan this week: the Secretary of Defence Mark Esper under the direction of President Trump and a congressional delegation headed by Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. These trips signify the growing divide in opinion related to the US strategy in Afghanistan.

Trump’s growing impatience with the presence of American armed forces still entangled in the Afghan conflict — fueled by the 2020 presidential election — is matched by Pelosi’s urgency to maintain a presence in the region. The Speaker counters that US troops are needed for the sake of stability and the possibility that Afghanistan might return to its previous role as a haven for terrorism.

Esper’s unannounced trip on Sunday marks his first visit to the country since being confirmed as Pentagon chief. His unannounced arrival comes amid uncertainty about the administration’s strategy after the collapse of peace talks with the Taliban.

The Secretary told reporters on Sunday that the number of US troops in Afghanistan could be reduced to 8,600 — while maintaining counterterrorism operations — but the reduction would have to coincide with a peace agreement. The United States currently has 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. This is significantly less than the 130,000 troops that were stationed there in 2009 as part of broader counter-insurgency operations.

The Pelosi-led delegation met with President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, Afghan women and ‘briefly compared notes’ with Secretary Mark Esper. Pelosi concluded: “While Afghan women have made some progress in some areas, more work is needed to ensure their security and durable economic and educational opportunities for women and girls in Afghanistan,” which highlights her belief that US support is integral to peace and development in Afghanistan.

Trump consistently critiques any US involvement in the Middle East and a series of tweets reflected that sentiment. He noted: “Fighting between various groups has been going on for hundreds of years. The USA should never have been in the Middle East. The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!”

Although these tweets were specifically defending his withdrawal from Syria, the president’s view on US military involvement in Afghanistan is clearly in support of exiting the region. Meanwhile, Pelosi’s comments — especially those urging the need for support of Afghan women — appear to support the need for extended US involvement in the region, providing both military and societal support.

Esper told reporters “the aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, a political agreement.” However, the Taliban’s propensity for violence continues to divide opinion in US circles as Trump’s initial decision to host a Taliban delegation at Camp David was met with heavy criticism.

The Taliban refuses to compromise on their demands, such as their desired institution of the patriarchal Islamic Emirate, characterized by strict social and cultural policies based on man-made principles and radical ideologies. As long as their use of violence and patriarchal political ideologies continue, the US will face divisions over its Afghan strategy.

The US is by no means the only international stakeholder in Afghanistan. The European Union envoy to the region Roland Kobia said, “The EU would like to see a swift resumption of the US bilateral talks with the Taliban and the start of negotiation between the government and the Taliban.”

The EU diplomat also called on the Afghan presidential candidates to contribute to the transparency of the electoral process and avoid any moves that could create problems for the election results.

Kobia’s comment on the presidential candidates re-enforces an important factor to consider when assessing the differing US opinions on the region: the Afghan elections. Putting aside the US-Taliban talks and the conflict itself, it is important to note that all of this is taking place while the country’s politics are in limbo.

Afghanistan is awaiting the results of the September 28 election. Riddled with accusations of fraud and voter-discrepancies, the post-election period has been tumultuous. This chaos is multiplied with the constant onslaught of Taliban instigated violence.

Opening a dialogue with the Taliban will be one of the most significant challenges facing the victors of the September 2019 elections.

Dialogue between political actors is integral to the maintenance of peace in Afghanistan whilst allowing a US withdrawal. However, intra-Afghan dialogue will be impossible without continued support from the US. It is integral that the US keeps its policy towards Afghanistan distinct from its withdrawal from Syria, despite growing criticism and support for Trump’s decision in the Middle East.

Military support in the region remains crucial, especially during this fragile transitional period as Afghanistan nervously awaits election results.

Although the envoys are divided in opinion, they must focus on insight gained during the 18-year Afghan intervention and put domestic political conflicts aside for the time being.

Afghanistan Strategy

Afghanistan: An Exit Strategy Is Not a Strategy

Afghanistan: An Exit Strategy Is Not a Strategy

The US secretary of Defense Mark Espers traveled to Afghanistan this Sunday on unannounced trip weeks after the US special envoy for the Afghan peace and reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, met with Taliban in Pakistan to eventually resume the peace talks.

Esper told reporters that the US will reduce its troops to 8,600 and withdrawal will take place in case of a peace agreement with the Taliban. The United States currently has 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. This is significantly less than the 130,000 troops that were stationed there in 2009 as part of broader counter-insurgency operations. 

“The aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, a political agreement. That is the best way forward,” said Esper.

In early September, President Donald Trump declared the Afghan Peace Talks ‘dead.’ This decision unfolded when Trump allegedly planned a secret Camp David meeting with the Taliban. It was then abruptly canceled because the Taliban committed acts of terror that killed 12 in Afghanistan, including an American soldier. While the US left the negotiating table and then re-entered, the Taliban met with Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and China; major adversaries of the US. It is best for the US to resume peace talks to ensure America’s global leadership and national security.

What’s Next?

Taliban’s intention of violence has not changed at all —and they have repeatedly targeted populated areas of the cities including schools and mosque, like yesterday’s mosque suicide bombing that killed 62 in Nangarhar province. In July of 2019, at the Doha peace conference, the Taliban agreed to reduce violence by withholding attacks on religious centers, schools, hospitals, educational centers, bazaars, water dams, and workplaces.

Hopes for a resumption of the talks between the US and the Taliban were sparked when a Taliban delegation met with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad last month. This was a potential step towards discussion between the US, Afghans, and the Taliban, but no decision has been made yet. 

American forces provide a reliable partnership in the path towards Afghan stability, therefore the United States should not step away from its presence in Afghanistan, even in the instance that a cohesive agreement is reached between the Taliban and pertinent regional actors. A framework such as this is essential to ensure that Afghanistan does not turn into a battleground for terrorism as it was between the 1980s and 1990s.

The Taliban refuses to compromise their demands, such as their desired institution of the patriarchal Islamic Emirate characterized by strict social and cultural policies based on man-made principles and radical ideologies. 

This form of governance is not religiously endorsed as it is incongruent with the Muslim society and strong Islamic beliefs inherent in Afghanistan. For instance, Islam does not prohibit girls from attending school, nor does it call for the slaughter of innocent civilians. The Taliban engages in both.

Afghans do not want to lose the achievements of the last 18 years and that is their proverbial ‘red line.’ The Taliban have not openly expressed at any point — even during any of the high-level meetings— any of their visions of an ideal Afghanistan or how they would cooperate with fellow citizens to achieve prosperity. 

All the Taliban has done is repeatedly assert demands for the withdrawal of foreign troops. In their terms, they argue to ‘end the foreign occupation in Afghanistan.’

It is imperative that the US understands what is at stake if they decide to leave Afghanistan. Important questions arise: Will the Taliban remain loyal to their promises? Will there be a guaranteed agreement that the Taliban will no longer harbor terrorism? These are some of the main challenges in the Afghan peace process that resulted in the suspension of the talks. 

Numerous elements are at play since Afghans do not want a life in a bleak regime devoid of good fortune; the US does not want al-Qaeda and terrorists to use Afghanistan as a base, and the Taliban does not want a US presence.

Everyone is currently waiting for the votes to be counted and finalized in the recent Afghan presidential election prior to any conclusion. Important players await to learn the winner and if Afghanistan will go into crisis. 

It is only proper that the United States provide a peace deal for the sake of the future of Afghanistan. This remains the sole solution available to American policymakers as an assurance that the last 18 years of post-9/11 intervention were not spent in vain. Further, the current global political atmosphere commands that the United States adapt its commitments within Afghanistan and focus greater attention towards the East. China continues its ascendence and an ever-stronger India are taking their places on the world stage. In the case that Washington chooses to leave Afghanistan, another regional power may quickly supplant their former position and advance to this strategic location. 

Peace talks can play a pivotal role in America’s shifting foreign policy priorities. Though there are opportunities to be had, the United States should not rush the negotiation process for the sake of a deal ahead of the 2020 presidential election. 

The advancement of democratic processes and norms in the fragile nation-state, as well as a guarantee that any government charged with the future of Afghanistan and its people are held to account in the face of human rights abuses and governmental shortcomings, are key priorities that must be upheld. This is an identifiable challenge that is sure to be realized as Afghanistan’s central government in Kabul seeks to rebuild and strengthen itself in the wake of a 4th Presidential election. 

American values must not be sacrificed at the negotiation table also. Girls and women must be protected so that they are provided with the opportunity to succeed in Afghanistan’s economic, social and cultural institutions. 

The ability of girls and women to attend school, enter the labor market, and contribute to the societal success of Afghanistan should be of the utmost importance to all vital stakeholders. This has not been the view of Taliban leaders, but this particular belief must be strongly resisted if Afghanistan is to move past the challenges and strife of past decades towards a new, vibrant and more peaceful future. 

Afghanistan presents a complex situation on many levels, therefore it is important to employ both hard power and diplomatic approaches. Negotiations should only be engaged with those Taliban factions that want to negotiate while military pressure must be applied to those factions unwilling to lay down their weapons. Additionally, Afghan soldiers must continue to be trained and provided with badly needed heavy weaponry and air support. 

American interests must do all they can to support transparent elections in Afghanistan. A strong leader elected in a free and fair manner will contribute to a sense of legitimacy that is required for Afghan citizens to respect the leadership in Kabul.

Finally, it is essential that US policymakers pressure Pakistan and Iran in a variety of manners so that they stop harboring and funding the Taliban. All of these measures combined can lead to a long-term ceasefire and the inception of continued prosperity in Afghanistan.


Ahmad Mohibi is the founder of Rise to Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadsmohibi

David Saul Acosta, Research Fellow at Rise to Peace and a graduate student at Harvard. Follow him on Twitter at @davidsaulacosta

Turkey

Turkey’s Offensive in Syria Risks the Region’s Stability

For some time, President Trump sought an opportunity to withdraw United States troops from northeastern Syria. He considers regional security issues to be the responsibility of local actors, and thus no longer saw any purpose to remain after the defeat of Daesh.

Trump began the extraction of an estimated 100 to 150 military personnel from the 1,000 US troops stationed in the area despite the perception that this decision could leave the region vulnerable.

The withdrawal of troops provides a little motive for the US to continue its alliance with the People’s Protection Units (YPG). These Syrian Kurdish Forces —along with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — have been instrumental in the fight against Daesh. With the US abandoning them, it gave Turkey the green light to enter Syria.

Why is Turkey moving into Syria?

Only days after President Trump ordered the retreat, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan commenced a ground offensive. The intent of the operation is to clear the Kurdish militias holding the territory in northern Syria. Erdogan planned this action for the last two years, with the end goal of a designated “safe zone” to house at least 2 of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees living on Turkish soil.

Nonetheless, the Kurds explain that Turkey’s actions are risking all the gains made against Daesh. For example, the Kurdish forces have thousands of Daesh prisoners, including fighters and their families, under their control. If a conflict occurs, it is unclear if they will have to withdraw to battle the Turkish forces. The prisoners could escape, and liberated cities could fall back to Daesh.

syriamap - Turkey’s Offensive in Syria Risks the Region’s Stability

The green area on the map is the “safe zone” that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is attempting to create.

What does this mean for the region’s stability?

Trump’s decision and Turkey’s subsequent assault could result in dire consequences to regional stability. The reemergence of Daesh remains a significant security threat in the wake of this offensive. As SDF deploys forces into northern Syria to battle Turkey, this will leave other parts of the country vulnerable. In recent months, there have already been instances of erratic attacks from the Daesh prison cells as well as tensions rising between the SDF and local Arab tribes.

According to the SDF, there are over 12,000 suspected Daesh members housed across seven prisons, with at the very least 4,000 of them being foreign nationals. These prisons are scattered across the country, but at least two camps — Roj and Ain Issa — are located inside the “safe zone.”

According to the White House, these camps will become Turkey’s responsibility; however, chances of a smooth handover from Kurdish forces to Turkey are unlikely. This situation could potentially lead to hundreds of escapes of alleged Daesh fighters and sympathizers.

Another possibility is an increase of Russian influence in the region, and consequently, the consolidation of the Assad regime. The United States will renounce an essential aspect of its sway in Syria without receiving any concessions in return from the government. Therefore, Russia will be able to extend its influence over Syria’s future.

It is likely that the Kremlin will forge a closer relationship with the SDF, as they search for new allies during the conflict. Damascus could spread its jurisdiction over Syria’s territory and potentially increase control over the country’s oil fields as well as other crucial economic resources.

Finally, the humanitarian aspect of the Turkish operation will likely be catastrophic. The United Nations claims that many of the 758,000 residents along the Syrian border were displaced at least once from conflict. Further action from Turkey could only exacerbate the situation.

It can cause civilians to seek refuge in Arab-majority areas south of the border, or in Iraq, which is currently undergoing violent protests throughout the nation. Also, Erdogan’s plan to relocate over a million Syrian refugees to the “safe zone” could cause further instability by dramatically changing the ethnic composition of the region.

Overall, the decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria based on an erroneous assumption that the Islamic State has been wholly eradicated may only fuel the group’s resurgence. There are already signs of Daesh regrouping, with no changes to its ideology, and with most of its operating structure intact. Therefore, US troops leaving the region will only lead to them reemerging as a threat.

For this reason, Group of Seven (G7) countries must attempt to shift Erdogan’s advances through economic means or political pressure to avoid further instability in the region. Also, for the US to continue to have reliable allies along with some influence over the Middle East, they must not abandon the YPG by withdrawing all troops from northern Syria.

Turkey

Turkey’s Military Incursion into Northeastern Syria Poses Many Risks to Regional Stability

President Trump’s decision to outsource the mission to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to Turkey caught many observers off guard. In fact, allowing the Turkish military to carry out a military incursion in northeastern Syria has faced strong reactions in Washington D.C. and around the world. President Trump, who saw little justification in keeping the United States’ military in Syria after his declaration of victory against ISIL, gave a green light to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to realize its long-awaited ‘safe zone’ in the area.

Having two major goals, Turkey aims to prevent the Kurds — Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — from having autonomy in Syria and resettle 1-2 million refugees in the safe zone. This is an especially complex political situation because Ankara considers the YPG as a terrorist organization under the guidance of the PKK, a far-left political entity with a contentious reputation internationally.

The initial plan is to establish a safe zone that will be 30 km (18 miles) and a length of 480 km (298 miles) that will allow resettlement of up to 2 million Syrians refugees who have been in Turkey. But according to Erdogan, the safe zone could be extended to Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor which could host the Syrian refugees in Europe as well.

As ambitious as it sounds, the plan has received little support from any country, including the United States, European Union (EU) member states, and several Middle Eastern countries. In the United States, except for Trump’s consent, the entire US Congress and most of the administration oppose the incursion.

Erdogan is attempting to balance numerous diplomatic interests in the Syrian conflict. For example, he proposes to the United States that Turkey could claim leadership of fight against ISIL while offering the Europeans a path to ease their burden of hosting refugees. He also proposed building hundreds of thousands of homes for the refugees in the safe zone which could boost the Turkish economy. So, it was supposed to be a ‘win-win’ for everyone.

The military incursion embodies several risks. For example, fighting between the Turkish military and the Kurds in Syria could create more refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP) in northeastern Syria. Particularly if the incursion will be extended and prolonged, this will force thousands of people to leave their homes which could mean that Iraq, Turkey, and eventually Europe could see another influx of refugees. Even more concerning is the idea that the safe zone would be used for resettlement of up to three million refugees. While there are Arab-majority areas in northern Syria, resettling Arab refugees in the area could lead other ethnic tensions and possible conflict between Arabs and Kurds.

Second, the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) could carry out attacks in Turkey which could create another chaotic situation. While PKK has allocated several of its militants in the Syrian conflict, with sensational attacks, PKK could ignite a nationalist backfire against the Kurds given the emotional and heated psychological climate in the country. If the incursion leads to even a small-scale uprising in Turkey, the PKK would engage in opportunistic attacks. If the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds endures, Kurds in other countries, including Iran and Iraq, could rally around the Syrian Kurds. Contrary to what Erdogan and his government are trying to do, the operation could consolidate the Kurds in such a way that it could have several consequences for Turkey.

Fourth, feeling betrayed by the United States, the PYD would reach out to Damascus to seek closer relationship with Russia and the Assad regime which also would strengthen the Iranian influence over the Syrian Kurds. Syrian Kurds would rather have the Assad regime forces patrolling the Turkey-Syria border in the northern Syria than the Turkish military and Turkey-backed forces.

For Russia, the Turkish military incursion presents new opportunities. According to Moscow, while Turkey has a right to address its security concerns, it also should respect to the territorial integrity of Syria. In Russia’s view, Turkish military incursion can be tolerated as long as the Turkish military presence will not be prolonged. In other words, Russia sees Turkey’s move as an opportunity.

On the one hand, Turkey’s unilateral action contradicts with Moscow’s support for the territorial integrity of Syria and upsets the regime in Damascus. On the other hand, Russia sees the incursion as another opportunity to weaken the Western Alliances in which Turkey had been an important actor. Erdogan’s recent foreign policy decisions since the July 15, 2016 coup attempt have favored Russia in that Turkey aligned with Russia on many issues, including the Astana process; a series of initiatives and plans aimed to end the Syrian civil war.

Iran could benefit from the United States’ decision to pull out of critical areas in northeastern Syria too. This action provides Tehran with significant political capital to expand and deepen its area of influence in the entire Middle East.

Fifth, the region could witness another resurgence of ISIL. Recent experience in the region demonstrated that whenever there is ethnic and religious tension or a conflict, ISIL benefited from it. More importantly, Turkey’s record on fighting against ISIL is far from encouraging. Throughout the Syrian conflict, Ankara had turned a blind eye to the foreign terrorist fighters who have used Turkey as a transit country. Grave allegations that the Turkish government has provided extremist groups with weapons and other ammunitions discourage any expectations about the capability and willingness of the government to handle the ISIL threat in the region properly.

While in the short term the military incursion is helping Erdogan to consolidate popular support in Turkey, in the long term it could weaken his position both domestically and internationally. Already facing a lot of criticism and potential sanctions by the United States, if Erdogan cannot deliver the intended outcome of the operation, the military incursion could be very costly for him and Turkey.

Editor’s Note: Suleyman Ozeren, the Director of the Middle East and North Africa Counterterrorism program at Rise to Peace, provides comprehensive analysis of the many repercussions of the ongoing Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria. It is especially important to consider conditions on the ground and the consequences faced by average civilians in the wake of recent developments. Shifts in the regional balance of power in the Middle East are connected to the quality of life for many people, therefore this topic must be seriously discussed.


Taliban

A revival of peace talks between the US and the Taliban

A revival of peace talks between the US and the Taliban

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, his chief negotiator and a team of 12 influential members recently engaged in meetings with the United States’ geopolitical adversaries. In less than a month, they have met with the regional powers of Iran, Russia, China and now, Pakistan, in efforts to secure their political and military support ahead of negotiations with the United States. The backing of regional powers could potentially lead to a favorable political solution for their organization and cause.

As noted, these encounters are closely timed alongside the resumption of peace talks between the United States and the Taliban in Islamabad, Pakistan. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special envoy for Afghanistan peace and reconciliation, is currently in Pakistan to meet with Pakistani officials and government heads as the Trump administration looks to restart the negotiation process on a positive note.

Negotiations between the United States and the Taliban were placed on hold last month after a Taliban-coordinated attack killed a US soldier. The goal of renewed diplomatic discourse is to overcome the political setbacks of recent months and salvage the possibility of a political settlement for the Taliban in a new, modern and democratic Afghanistan.

President Trump remains confident in his relationship with Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan, and in the ability of the Pakistani government to play a positive and productive role in the negotiations between the United States and Talibani stakeholders.

Recently, the two leaders were able to hold a joint meeting at the United Nations as the global community gathered in New York City for the 74th General Assembly (UNGA). Khan expressed that “Stability in Afghanistan means stability in Pakistan.” At UNGA, President Trump echoed similar sentiments in his statement, “With that goal in mind, my administration is also pursuing the hope of a brighter future in Afghanistan.”

The political environment has somewhat shifted since talks stalled. Negotiations are set to resume in the immediate aftermath of Afghanistan’s fourth Presidential Election; an election that was often debated in intra-Afghan dialogue prior to reaching a prospective deal.

Despite the fact that the 60,000-strong Taliban were outnumbered by security forces, Afghan voters still feared the threats issued by the Taliban. The Afghan presidential election produced a dismal turnout as only 2.2 million out of 9.6 million registered voters cast ballots.

Following a ceasefire in June of 2018, the United States opened lines of communication with the Taliban in an effort to end the Afghan conflict through a negotiated settlement by way of intra-Afghan dialogues.

The US and Taliban met nine times and an agreement was reached between them at the last meeting held in August 2019. If the agreement was bilaterally approved, the US would withdraw its 14,000 forces from Afghanistan over a timeline and the Taliban would have participated in the elections. Additionally, the Taliban would have agreed to no longer harbor terrorists in their controlled territories and cut ties with al-Qaeda.

A negotiated settlement is in the best interest of Afghanistan given the situation that Afghans remain hopeful for peace, yet remain in fear for their lives. The noticeable low voter turnout depicts this. “I did not vote because I did not want to get killed,” said a 25-year-old shopkeeper in District 11 of Kabul City to a Rise to Peace researcher.

Conditions of negotiation and set agreements must be implemented in the case that peace talks are to be restored between the Taliban and the US. It is unfair to discuss peace in Doha while innocent civilians continued to be killed in Afghanistan because the Taliban feel emboldened enough to carry out such attacks whilst engaged in negotiations. This type of manipulation and plays for power are futile as they will instill hate and fear among Afghans instead.

Over 84 percent of Afghans believed President Trump’s decision to call off peace talks with the Taliban was correct. This number must be placed into context because a similar number of respondents believed that negotiations were in the best interest of the country prior to a series of deadly Taliban attacks. Public opinion shifted due to the Taliban’s barbaric attacks on congested areas, therefore Trump’s decision became well-regarded.

It must be acknowledged that the past four peace agreements over the last four decades with different actors and regimes were unsuccessful in all regards. Rather, they triggered further violence and war that undoubtedly created the contemporary situation — an unstable Afghanistan with over 22 terrorist groups operating across its territory that pose a serious threat to the national security of Afghanistan, the region and the rest of the world.

Peace is on the agenda for every candidate and political leader in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, but its achievement remains problematic. Historically speaking, Afghans create their own impediments to peace, such as difficulties in accepting defeat, aversion to power-sharing and an unwillingness to compromise.

Afghans are the key to a peaceful Afghanistan; therefore, all parties must be dedicated to that unitive goal. For instance, Ashraf Ghani, the incumbent Afghan president, expressed cynicism towards the peace talks and citizens viewed this skepticism as a “thirst for power.” At the same time, the Taliban accepted the US offer to negotiation, took it for granted and engaged in attacks against innocent civilians that just in one week over 500 people were killed in Afghanistan.

A lack of cohesive rhetoric and actions is undoubtedly apparent; thus Afghanistan remains in a perpetual state of disorder.

Finally, it must be expressed that previous examples and this most recent case are prime examples of how selfishness and a lack of compromise can lead to crisis. The United States and the greater international community are greatly invested in efforts to aid Afghans to achieve peace, but Afghans need to contribute to the goal as well. Those in leadership positions must compromise and factions of Afghan society should cooperate towards the objectives of national unity, peace, and prosperity.

Conflict based upon ethnic allegiances — such as identification as Tajik or Pashtun, rather than Afghan — will foment civil grievances and extinguish any hopes for peace.


Ahmad Mohibi is the founder of Rise to Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadsmohibi

Afghanistan

Afghanistan election: A huge victory for the Afghan forces

As the vote-counting commenced, it brought about the end of election day in Afghanistan. The precarious security situation and the struggling economy seemed to be on top of the minds of voters. The Taliban made every effort over the last few weeks to ensure this election would not be a peaceful affair.

More than 72,000 security personnel were deployed to 49,402 polling booths nationwide. The threat of attacks remained on Afghan voters’ minds, but some said they were determined to go out and vote.

Despite efforts to ensure the election ran smoothly, including the use of equipment such as biometric fingerprint readers and better training for poll workers, 445 polling stations remained closed due to security concerns. Chaotic disruptions at polling stations and scare tactics from Taliban forces led to fear and anxiety across the country’s electorate.

“I did not vote because I did not want to get killed,” said a 25-year-old shopkeeper in District 11 of Kabul City.

The increased security presence did not prevent all manifestations of violence. TOLOnews reported over 260 incidents and that 90 of them were a direct attack on polls. In a single attack, at least 17 people were wounded when a bomb exploded outside a polling station in the southern city of Kandahar hours after the polls opened.

As Abdul Qadir Sediqi, a Reuters correspondent in Afghanistan correctly states, the election was “a major test of the Western-backed government’s ability to protect democracy.” As the votes continue to be counted, Afghans cautiously await news to find out who their next president will be, and if this leader can improve the security situation.

Local officials in Helmand said that voter turnout was weak. The presence of the Taliban in the province prevented citizens from casting their votes in at least five districts. There were also multiple reports from provincial officials in the north of Afghanistan that stated insurgents fired mortars on the city of Kunduz in attempts to interfere with the casting of ballots.

Ghulam Rabani Rabani, a council member for Kunduz province, stated on election day that the Taliban “are attacking Afghan security forces in two locations outside the city, in running gun battles.” He confirms civilian casualties, but couldn’t immediately provide a number.

In Baghlan, a province frequently attacked by the Taliban, 12 polls remained closed due to their threats. Fewer people voted at open polling stations as the Taliban fired several mortars to disrupt the electoral process. Further, security was especially tight in northern Afghanistan, particularly in Kunduz due to a recent attack by the Taliban. However, telecommunication networks were down in Badakhshan, Takhar and some areas of Kunduz province until September 30.

Furthermore, only 225 people voted in Zabul province because of the strong insurgency presence and the lack of civic engagement. The telecommunication networks were disrupted or completely down intermittently. Afghanistan Independent Election Commission (AIEC) stated it lost contact with 901 of the country’s 5,373 polling centers.

On top of this, the Taliban threatened to close highways and disrupt polls. Nevertheless, despite a few claims of Taliban activity on the Kandahar-Kabul highway in Zabul province, they were unable to disrupt the election drastically.

The Afghanistan National Security Forces scored a marked success as they prevented any major terrorist attack in a country where various terrorist groups operate and the Taliban controls over 60% of the territory. Their actions proved their capabilities to defend Afghan citizens.

Security concerns, election fraud, and a lower voter turnout can easily be depicted as backsliding in Afghanistan, however, the presidential elections of 2019 were a positive step compared to previous events. Elections in 2009 and 2014 may have produced higher turnout, but they were hampered by mass corruption, fraudulent votes, and deadlier attacks.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan near crises now that election is over

Afghanistan near crises now that election is over

Editor note: The information in this article is based on our research, interviews, and analysis. It is a collaboration between our Afghanistan team, including two field researchers and a journalist in Kabul, as well as the Washington D.C. team. This piece provides in-depth knowledge and on the ground reporting that neatly summarizes the events of the presidential election of September 28th, pinpoints local regions of concern and identifies the role of the Taliban in thwarting an increased voter turnout. Key impediments to democratic participation are highlighted and build toward the burning question: does Afghanistan face yet another crisis of governance in the wake of this contested election?


Security concerns, technical difficulties related to voter registration irregularities, and apathy due to entrenched fraud contributed to a low voter turnout in the Afghanistan presidential elections held on September 28. Total votes only accounted for half of those placed in the 2014 election.

“Lowest turnout ever,” said Sayed Mujib Faizy, a reporter for Salam Watandar radio and a Research Analyst for Rise to Peace.People were scared, less motivated to vote due to possible terrorist attacks and also bad past experiences from previous elections.”

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Residents of District 15 of Kabul city are voting at an election poll in their communities. Photo by Rise to Peace. September 28, 2019

While all the votes remain to be counted or transferred to the central tally, front runners Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani both claimed victory. Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (AIEC) is set to announce the primary results on October 17 and the final results on November 7, 2019. 

A similar scenario happened in 2014 in that both candidates claimed the higher number of total votes, and thus victory. High tensions after the second round of voting consequently resulted in a power-sharing agreement brokered by former United States Secretary of State John Kerry. This facilitated the establishment of the National Unity Government (NUG) which was not entirely a democratic solution. It was the first time in the history of Afghanistan presidential elections and governance that two candidates challenged for one seat, therefore it was uncharted territory.

The past four years have been difficult for Afghanistan under the National Unity Government. According to the incumbent president, 45,000 security personnel have been killed since he took office. As well, ethnic discrimination among tribes tripled, unemployment continued to rise and there have been increases in violence, as well as corruption. All of these factors leave Afghanistan vulnerable to terrorism.

Despite the fact that the 60,000-strong Taliban were outnumbered by security forces, Afghan voters still feared the threats issued by the Taliban. Their aim to intimidate and spread fear in the Afghan people included warnings that they would conduct bombings and mass shootings, as well as cut off fingers, to express their opposition to the elections. The AIEC reported that nearly 2.2 million out of 9 million registered voters cast ballots in the election, proving that the Taliban’s fear tactics were successful.

For instance, in Kabul — the headquarters for all security agencies such as the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior Affairs, the United States embassy and military bases — the Taliban successfully carried out several minor explosions with the one intended to keep the people away from the polls. This undoubtedly weakened the credibility of the democratic process and heightened the power, as well as legitimacy, of the Taliban since they could execute such attacks in the capital city.

Cautious authorities placed an uneasy Kabul under partial lockdown, tightening security and banning trucks from entering the city. Nevertheless, Taliban threats did not stop many from voting. Mohiuddin, who is 55 years old, told AFP, “I am not afraid, we have to vote if we want to bring changes to our lives.” 

“These elections are important to us because we want a leader who will negotiate peace with the Taliban and end the years-long war in the country,” expressed Ismatullah Safi, a taxi driver in the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul.

Shoaib Sharifi, a journalist in Kabul, described the security presence as strong. He noted, “In the big cities there seem to be more police and army deployed than voters.”

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Poll officials in this part of Kabul city have been waiting for over an hour now to receive voters. Photo and report by Sayed Muib Faizy of Rise to Peace. September 28, 2019

Here is a breakdown of the three main problems that led to a low voting turnout: security challenges, voter suppression and fraud, and women’s participation in the election.

We have conducted interviews, gathered data, and examined local voters who contacted Rise to Peace via social media and by Afghans posting their experiences on Facebook. 

Security Concerns and Challenges: A huge victory for the Afghan security forces

As the vote-counting commenced, it brought about the end of election day in Afghanistan. The precarious security situation and the struggling economy seemed to be on top of the minds of voters. The Taliban made every effort over the last few weeks to ensure this election would not be a peaceful affair. More than 72,000 security personnel were deployed to 49,402 polling booths nationwide. The threat of attacks remained on Afghan voters’ minds, but some said they were determined to go out and vote.

Despite efforts to ensure the election ran smoothly, including the use of equipment such as biometric fingerprint readers and better training for poll workers, 445 polling stations remained closed due to security concerns. Chaotic disruptions at polling stations and scare tactics from Taliban forces led to fear and anxiety across the country’s electorate. 

“I did not vote because I did not want to get killed,” said a 25-year-old shopkeeper in District 11 of Kabul City.

The increased security presence did not prevent all manifestations of violence. TOLOnews reported over 260 incidents and that 90 of them were a direct attack on polls. In a single attack, at least 17 people were wounded when a bomb exploded outside a polling station in the southern city of Kandahar hours after the polls opened. 

As Abdul Qadir Sediqi, a Reuters correspondent in Afghanistan correctly states, the election was “a major test of the Western-backed government’s ability to protect democracy.” As the votes continue to be counted, Afghans cautiously await news to find out who their next president will be, and if this leader can improve the security situation.

Local officials in Helmand said that voter turnout was weak. The presence of the Taliban in the province prevented citizens from casting their votes in at least five districts. There were also multiple reports from provincial officials in the north of Afghanistan that stated insurgents fired mortars on the city of Kunduz in attempts to interfere with the casting of ballots. Ghulam Rabani Rabani, a council member for Kunduz province, stated on election day that the Taliban “are attacking Afghan security forces in two locations outside the city, in running gun battles.” He confirms civilian casualties, but couldn’t immediately provide a number. 

In Baghlan, a province frequently attacked by the Taliban, 12 polls remained closed due to their threats. Fewer people voted at open polling stations as the Taliban fired several mortars to disrupt the electoral process. Further, security was especially tight in northern Afghanistan, particularly in Kunduz due to a recent attack by the Taliban. However, telecommunication networks were down in Badakhshan, Takhar and some areas of Kunduz province until September 30.  

Furthermore, only 225 people voted in Zabul province because of the strong insurgency presence and the lack of civic engagement. The telecommunication networks were disrupted or completely down intermittently. AIEC stated it lost contact with 901 of the country’s 5,373 polling centers. On top of this, the Taliban threatened to close highways and disrupt polls. Nevertheless, despite a few claims of Taliban activity on the Kandahar-Kabul highway in Zabul province, they were unable to disrupt the election drastically. 

The Afghanistan National Security Forces scored a marked success as they prevented any major terrorist attack in a country where various terrorist groups operate and the Taliban controls over 60% of the territory. Their actions proved their capabilities to defend Afghan citizens. Security concerns, election fraud, and a lower voter turnout can easily be depicted as backsliding in Afghanistan, however, the presidential elections of 2019 were a positive step compared to previous events. Elections in 2009 and 2014 may have produced higher turnout, but they were hampered by mass corruption, fraudulent votes, and deadlier attacks.

Voter Suppression and Voter Fraud

General uncertainties over the election coupled with the continued threats of Taliban violence proved to be problematic obstacles that hindered citizens’ eagerness to vote. Efforts to mobilize the more than 9 million registered voters were proven to be unsuccessful as broad and diverse swaths of the Afghan population chose not to partake in the nation’s fourth Presidential election.

It is still too early to measure the extent of electoral fraud that was committed during this particular election as not all of the ballots have been counted. On the other hand, citizen journalists reported instances of fraud on social media sites, such as Facebook. Videos depicted supporters casting numerous ballots in favor of their preferred candidate in several places across Afghanistan. A group affiliated with Ashraf Ghani’s campaign team, or other supporters, can be viewed filling out ballots whilst sitting under a tree in this video posted to Facebook. 

Biometrics

Though new safeguards and technological improvements were incorporated in order to strengthen the electoral processes of Afghanistan’s critically important governmental elections, fraudulent practices and technical glitches with voting machines caused for flawed executions and untrustworthy outcomes. These significant setbacks undermined the integrity of Afghanistan’s presidential election, and further proved the need for more reforms to be undertaken in order to ensure the viability and legitimacy of Afghanistan’s future democratic elections and institutional practices. 

Technical difficulties, such as computer system glitches and faulty software programs, led to miscalculation of vote tallies and distrust in the technology. As a result, these instances put into question the role computer-based systems should have in ensuring the legitimacy and success of Afghanistan’s electoral processes. 

Registration ballots 

Apart from security concerns and biometric failures, most people in Afghanistan were unable to vote simply because their names were not in the system of registered voters, where these individuals have been registered within their respective communities and designated polling stations. Poll administrators were unable to verify or find records proving voters’ registry and citizenship within the election data systems, which delayed the designated polls, and as well as frustrated passionate voters that risked their lives to cast their votes. 

“Our names are not in the system… this is fraud,” said a 60 year old man in Nangarhar province to TOLONews. Another voter said that his name was not on the list, even though he was registered and voted in last year’s parliamentary election. 

The AIEC voter registration database had difficulties throughout the country and as the result, most registered voters could not vote. Administrative failures such as these led to voters questioning the legitimacy of the election, with Afghan voters vocally chastising the AIEC for their failures and inability to manage a presidential election through effective, trustworthy approaches and applications. 

Role of women: lower compared to previous elections

If men face extreme difficulties to vote in Afghanistan, it is even less likely that women will vote given the security challenges and cultural barriers, primarily in rural areas, where they are vulnerable to terrorism and as well as stricter social barriers. Compared to previous elections, fewer voted from the 3 million women registered to vote. 

There are several factors that have impacted the female voter turnout. First, women are often victims of violence, as demonstrated by a deadly bombing spurred by the 2015 parliamentary elections, where an explosion targeted women voters in an elementary school in Wazir Akbar Khan. Second, women were disinterested in voting because they were discouraged from the results of previous elections where they voted despite security and cultural barriers. Third, cultural barriers throughout the country prevent women from exercising free will and choice as they have been historically dominated by the male dominant society.  For instance, at the household level, the majority of women are told by their husbands or fathers for whom to vote.

This intense patriarchal culture from the local levels feeds insecurity for women to be productive members of Afghan civil society.  It can lead to further security challenges as the Taliban want to restrict the rights of women and participation in the democratic process could place women in harm’s way. On the other hand, since Taliban rule ended in 2001, women’s rights have expanded and today there are 63 women in the parliamentary body out of 320. This is a major success given how fragile Afghanistan is, where the majority of its women have lived in an extremely marginalized society. 

According to TOLONews, from 6:15 am to 8:15 am no women voted in Kandahar province. This election had the lowest voter turnout ever in Afghanistan, therefore it is unsurprising that fewer women voted. A decrease in the number of women engaged in the electoral process is a concern, yet inspiring photos of women voting, like a 70-year-old woman who voted in Kandahar despite Taliban threats, demonstrate there is room for improvement.

Conclusion

Afghanistan is in a critical moment of its history and it cannot afford another crisis while it remains entrenched in others. In addition to security challenges, general discouragement felt by Afghan citizens is a key factor in regard to low voter turnout. Throughout our interviews and analysis of data received, the majority of respondents answered that they are unhappy with corruption and fraud in the past four elections in 18 years. “Even my friends said that we do not want to vote because its symbolic and we don’t have a good experience,” said Mr. Faizy. 

“Fraud will take Afghanistan to crisis,” said Rahmutalla Nabil, a presidential candidate and former head of intelligence in Afghanistan.

Election transparency, as well as a political compromise, are needed to avoid a crisis given Afghanistan’s rich ethnic-tribal values and systems. Most of the people we interviewed expressed their concern that the crisis is possible. They urged the United States and the greater international community to continue to monitor and pressure the AIEC for transparency and voter counts to avoid any systematic fraud. In addition, the US should not support any candidate that emerges as a winner that applied fraudulent tactics. Not only would that counter democratic norms and values of a free society, but it would further damage any legitimacy of an Afghan government.

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Sayed Mujib Faizy of Rise to Peace is interviewing voters in Kabul city. September 28, 2019

Drones: Weapons of Terror?

Yemen’s Houthi rebels have taken responsibility of the drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil sites in Abqaiq and Khurais. These strikes have escalated tensions in the Middle East. Sources report that 5 million barrels a day of crude oil production were impacted; this impacted the half of Saudi’s output or 5% of the world’s output.

The Houthis claimed that the attacks were in retaliation of the years of airstrikes on its citizens and they will continue to expand their targets. They carried out the attacks via 10 drones. The claims of the Houthis have been challenged by the US, which continues to state that Iran orchestrated the attacks. Iran has vehemently denied involvement and warned the United States it would retaliate “immediately” if targeted over the attacks.

This is not the first instance of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)/drone technology by extremist groups. ISIL has made the most of advances in the field of drone technology. While organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham have their own drone programs, it took these groups a considerable time to apply the drone technology in conflict situations. Compared to the slow adoption by other groups, the Islamic State adopted drone technology exponentially. This can be partly attributed to the development, availability, and commercialization of the technology. The application by ISIL involves a modification of the existing drone’s design or even constructing them from scratch once the basic blueprint from the commercialized drones is available.

ISIL’s first use of drones was for reconnaissance purposes. By September and October 2016, they had managed to weaponize the drones by attaching explosives and releasing them on the intended target. The first recorded incident was in October 2016 when two Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers were killed, and two French special forces soldiers were injured after a drone they were inspecting exploded.

A 2017 report provides detailed insight into the ISIL drone program, identified separate centers for training, weaponization, modification, and maintenance, as well as the existence of a center for storage and distribution. Owing to ISIL’s sophistication, each of these centers, based in Raqqa, also had their own separate command structure.

The Taliban has also used the drones in recent years. Much like other groups in the region, the use of drones has been mostly for surveillance, there not many reports of the Taliban using weaponized drones against its opposers. In October 2016, they released drone footage showing a suicide bomber driving a Humvee into a police base in Helmand province, the largest province in Afghanistan.

In the latest reports, Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan have been using unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor US troops, and their coalition partners in Afghanistan, Air Force Research Laboratory official Tom Lockhart revealed.

Outside the Middle East and Central Asia, drones have also been used in Central America. In August 2018 Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said he escaped an “assassination” attempt that used an explosive-laden drone after a live broadcast showed him being escorted away by his security personnel when a bang went off during a Caracas military parade. His government said seven soldiers were wounded in the incident.

The easy access, affordability of drones, and the modifications they can undergo, make them a tricky technology to tackle. While it is the militarized drones grab headlines, the real value of UAVs lays in surveillance, according to Paul Scharre, a senior fellow and director of the technology and national security program at Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Small, cheap drones can stay in the air for a considerable amount of time. The military drones are used to get a better view of the battlefield and gain a tactical edge on opponents. That is true for extremist groups as we saw in the example of the Taliban.

Militarized drones, the kind probably available to groups such as the Houthis, are heavier and can carry several pounds of explosives at speeds up to 160km/h with a range of 650km. They have an immense tactical advantage as most can fly lower than current technology is capable of detecting, which was the case for the drone strike at the oil sites.

Countering drone attacks may lie in jamming the communication links that allow them to operate.  Drones generally rely on a GPS or radio link to a human controller, which can be blocked or hijacked. This seems like a good strategy for a conflict zone, but jamming communications in a typical civilian setting, like at an airport, can have more devastating consequences.

Whether the responsibility for the attacks lies with the Houthis or Iran, the attack on Saudi oil sites has demonstrated the difference in the adaptability of the drone technology and the lack of a fitting defensive technology.

Image Credit: Forbes

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