China terrorism

The Global War on Terror framework and its relationship with the Chinese model of counter-terrorism.

The narrative of the ‘Global War on Terror’ – famously coined by the Bush administration post 9/11 now appears to be adopted by the Chinese government to legitimize its campaign against terrorism in Central Asia and abroad.

In response to growing international criticism against China’s counter-terrorist policies (in particular, the use of training centers for alleged re-education purposes, the issue of mass state surveillance and the restrictions on religious practice and customs which include a ban on “abnormal” beards and wearing of veils) in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), Chinese officials often liken such policies to the American ‘style’ of counter-terrorism.

For example in 2018, amidst a barrage of accusations of human rights abuses and calls for targeted sanctions, the Chinese Ambassador to the United States defended the use of vocational training centers, denying the claim that such centers were used for detention purposes, but instead for the rehabilitation of individuals deemed vulnerable to extremism, alongside improving their employment opportunities by honing their vocational skills.

More recently, the leaked government documents known as the ‘Xinjiang papers’ highlight the same thing, revealing that some officials held the perspective that recent terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom, in particular, were a result of policies that favored “human rights above security” and the Chinese President, Xi Jinping allegedly encouraged the emulation of certain features of the American ‘War on Terror’ campaign. 

Background and historical context

Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism

In response to unrest within the XUAR, the Chinese government has periodically implemented counter-terrorism initiatives at both national and provincial levels. These measures fall under the wider umbrella of the nationwide Strike Hard (da fa) campaign with the main objectives of safeguarding the region’s peace and stability against what the central government has called the ‘Three Evil Forces’; which are separatism, religious extremism, and terrorist forces.

Key policies passed under this campaign include the 2016 National Counter-Terrorism Law, the 2016 National Cyber Security Law and the 2017 National Intelligence Law. From 2016 onwards under this security ‘package’, the Communist Party Secretary for the XUAR, Chen Quango, introduced a number of new security measures, most of which are heavily reliant on advanced technology such as facial recognition and biometric data.

Such security measures introduced in Xinjiang have been widely criticized by the international community, with the most prominent issue being the use of vocational training centers – as it stands, access for foreign observers to the XUAR is highly restricted, hindering the possibility of an independent and impartial assessment of conditions in the training centers.

In 2018, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern over reports of the detention of over a million ethnic Uighurs and testimonies from various sources allege the use of systematic torture and complete physical and mental control over individuals in the centers, with claims of indefinite detention, restricted communication to family members and attempts of ideological transformation. 

The extent of China’s ‘Global War on Terror’

These counter-terror policies are not exclusive to the XUAR, as similar practices have been observed in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Globally, there are extensive discussions regarding the extent to which China can export its model of counter-terrorism, often discussed through the lens of its intercontinental investment project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

As Chinese commercial interests abroad continue to expand, so too does its vulnerability to international terrorism, with notable cases of abduction and deadly attacks against Chinese citizens occurring in Pakistan and a number of African countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.

In the context of the BRI, not only does China have a justification for a more global campaign against terrorism, but it also has the necessary means to forge alliances with countries that share similar security concerns. In 2019, the United States’ proposal to withdraw its troops from African countries was met with concerns regarding a potential reduction in counter-terrorism collection efforts in the region, as the drawback would essentially further open up space for China, who is already a key player in the region. 

The exportation of the Chinese model of counter-terrorism abroad raises some important points for further consideration. For one, there is the prevailing criticism by various states and international organizations, such as the United Nations, that China’s domestic counter-terrorist approach constitutes significant human rights violations.

Prominent Chinese researchers have already argued that external counter-terrorism policies would not be “unilateral but must be in collaboration with the local government”, raising concerns not only about a disregard for human rights under the guise of counter-terrorism but also on the overall efficacy of China’s global counter-terrorism campaign.

The Uighur predicament has been used in Islamist extremist propaganda, with videos and articles featuring calls for solidarity with Muslims in China and threats for revenge against Chinese actions in Xinjiang. Like the problems that plague Western counter-terror efforts, growing disenfranchisement and resentment amongst the Uighurs within China’s borders only serves to provide ammunition for external terrorist organizations, casting doubt on the overall effectiveness of the Chinese approach to international terrorism.

It remains to be seen how China envisions its ultimate foreign counter-terrorist campaign, but what is evident is that human rights must be at the forefront of such strategies to maximize efficacy to ameliorate the impact of the “self-fulfilling terrorism prophecy”.  


Alya Mohamed Roslan, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow, Rise to Peace 

Could Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani’s Death Open the Pandora’s Box in the Middle East?

A US drone strike near Baghdad airport killed the Commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Qassem Soleimani and the Deputy Commander of Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. This move — more important than the assassination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi yet of similar significance to the dispatch of the former leader of al Qaeda Osama bin Laden —  is a clear sign that the United States raised its bid in ongoing Iran-US tensions. It will be a defining movement in the future of Middle Eastern affairs which could trigger other events in the region.

Escalating Tensions

The escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran had three critical breaking points in recent weeks: attacks by the PMF against US bases in Iraq and Syria, US air attacks against the PMF bases, and the showdown by Iran and the PMF in an attempted raid against the US Embassy in Baghdad. It was reminiscent of the 1979 US Embassy takeover in Tehran as these protesters attempted entry as well.

The international community was surprised by the Trump’s administration bold response to the escalating crisis in Iraq. Soleimani had been the commander of the Quds Force — an operational extension of the IRGC that has been responsible for the Iranian irregular warfare in the Middle East — therefore he was not a common general in the Iranian military.

Quds Force has been very active in training, equipping, and operationally supporting Iran’s proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen as well as bringing other proxy extensions from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Throughout the years, the Quds Force developed country-specific strategies to expand and deepen the Iranian sphere of influence in the Middle East. For instance, while Quds Force has been militarily active in Lebanon, Syria, or Iraq, their agents have recruited Turkish citizens in Turkey to target intellectuals, journalists, and Iranian opposition figures within the country.

Policy Shift and Regional Implications

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent statements regarding his efforts to build a common understanding against Iranian aggression followed by these developments are indicative of other measures and a major turning point from a passivist Middle East policy of the US.

This policy shift places substantial pressure on Qatar and Turkey; states with close relationships with Iran. The ‘either you are with us or against us’ paradigm would be enforced on these two countries and force others to make certain quick decisions about continuance of their relationships with Iran. Under such pressure, Qatar will most likely return to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) orbit, but Turkey’s choice would be more difficult given the depth of Iranian involvement in Turkey. Not only has Turkey deepened its relationship with Iran, but it openly targeted Saudi Arabia by aligning with both Iran and Qatar. Under US pressure, Ankara and Erdogan would make concessions with Saudi Arabia, and more importantly, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In this case, Erdogan’s position would be weaker though.

Soleimani had been one of the most critical individuals in Iran’s regional affairs. The other individuals killed in the strike represent the main goal of the US decision: a policy that targets Iran’s proxy operations in the entire region. Arrests of PMF leadership also indicate that targeting Soleimani is part of a larger operation to weaken Iranian affiliated groups in Iraq.

Whether these operations spur tensions or cause larger-scale military confrontations between the US and Iran remains to be seen. Iran managed to expand and deepen its footprint in Iraq and Syria where thousands of members of different proxy groups have been established over the years. Soleimani’s  death could have ramifications in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen, but more importantly, it is a very critical threshold in the future of the Middle East.

American interests in the region, such as military bases in the Gulf states, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, as well as several embassies could be directly targeted by Iran or indirectly by its proxies in a more probable scenario. Key actors in the case of a military confrontation include Lebanese Hezbollah, PMF, and other groups who have been recruited from Afghanistan and even Pakistan.

Clearly, targeting Soleimani is an attempt by the US administration to show the Iranian regime that the US military could retaliate and undertake more serious initiatives against Tehran’s aggression. Nonetheless, in response, if Iran chooses to escalate the conflict, the entire region would be affected, and Israel could be one of the primary targets.

The Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure policy’ aimed to corner the regime in Iran so that Tehran makes concessions in regard to its nuclear ambitions. These recent incidents could be considered the peak of maximum pressure policy. In a way, such a policy is also being tested, and the outcome will be revealed in coming days or weeks.

Qassem Soleimani was a point man of the regime in Iran and Ali Khamenei. By targeting him the US administration has sent a very clear message to the regime and its proxies in the Middle which could open the Pandora’s box in the region.

The Afghanistan Papers: What Do They Mean for Peace in the Region?

A recent Washington Post investigation — three years in the making — exposed a multitude of falsified positive views and deceptive action directly taken by the United States government and military officials over the course of the war in Afghanistan. Hundreds of interviews with US officials led to condemnation of the war which has cost 3804 Afghan civilian lives in 2018 alone.

“For 18 years, America has been at war in Afghanistan. As part of a government project to understand what went wrong, a federal agency interviewed more than 400 people who had a direct role in the conflict. In those interviews, generals, ambassadors, diplomats and other insiders offered firsthand accounts of the mistakes that have prolonged the war. 

The full, unsparing remarks and the identities of many of those who made them have never been made public — until now. After a three-year legal battle, The Washington Post won release of more than 2,000 pages of “Lessons Learned” interviews conducted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Those interviews reveal there was no consensus on the war’s objectives, let alone how to end the conflict.” 

In summary, the government deceived American citizens about the progress made during the war. Bob Crowley, a retired Army colonel who served in Kabul from 2013 to 2014 stated,  “The strategy became self-validating. Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible.” The fact that this was allowed to continue covertly for an extended period of time reflects the well-planned nature of the disinformation campaign, especially if one considers its effectiveness through three separate presidencies.

Setting aside the inevitable investigations and questions that will follow, it is important to assess the impact this exposure will have on the ongoing peace process in Afghanistan. This exposure will affect negotiations between the US and the Taliban, bilateral relations between Kabul and Washington and public opinion of the US within Afghanistan.

The Trump administration will need to make changes to their Afghan strategy in an attempt to rectify these mistakes. Conversely, they could seek to divert attention away from the Afghan Papers, but this will have a particularly strong effect on how the peace process unfolds. Speculation in the media that President Trump plans to withdraw additional troops from Afghanistan may be ‘part of the plan’, but it may be a rushed decision to avoid further public criticism. A quick withdrawal will have a major impact on Afghan security and regional stability. It is important that all parties put security above politics, especially in such a fragile region.

In an effort to keep the documents classified, the US State Department argued that the release of portions of certain interviews could jeopardize negotiations with the Taliban and therefore jeopardize efforts to end the war. The Washington Post, however, argued that these documents were classified only after the Post pushed to have them published, indicating a blatant attempt to cover up mistakes.

Despite differences of opinion over the reasons behind the secrecy classification, the release of the ‘Afghanistan Papers’ will undoubtedly influence negotiations with the Taliban, an organization that has been testing the US government long prior to the talks. For example, in an effort to demonstrate strength, the Taliban carried out an attack that killed a US soldier in September. Washington deemed this a step too far and consequently compelled Trump to cancel a secret Camp David meeting. The re-establishment of peace talks — after what can only be described as a cooling-off period — exemplifies that each side pushes the other over acceptable terms and those deemed unreasonable to accept.

Statements within the Afghan Papers that accuse the US of uncertainty and a lack of control over their Afghan strategy gives leverage to the Taliban; an organization so eager to gain power over an enemy that they have struggled to match on the battlefield.

“Was al-Qaeda the enemy, or the Taliban? Was Pakistan a friend or an adversary? What about the Islamic State and the bewildering array of foreign jihadists, let alone the warlords on the CIA’s payroll? According to the documents, the U.S. government never settled on an answer.”

Thus, whilst the US may have tried to keep the Afghanistan Papers hidden for security reasons or to save face, it will undoubtedly affect peace talks with The Taliban as both sides take time to reassess their respective strategies based on the new information available.

In addition to negotiating with the Taliban, the US strategy for peace in Afghanistan has revolved around the development of a close relationship with the Afghan government built on financial and military support. The Afghan government sat patiently at a distance whilst the US negotiated with the Taliban, however, accusations of fraud and corruption within the Afghanistan Papers will provoke the Afghan government to reassess their relationship with the US at the very least.

Sustainable peace in Afghanistan is distant, but it is achievable. It is integral to maintain effective security whilst at the same time allowing Afghanistan to take control of their peace process. As the US slowly relinquishes its duties in the region, they must reassess the outcome of their withdrawal and make assurances that policies and resources remain in place to ensure peace prevails at every opportunity.

Lessons from Tetsu Nakamura’s Legacy in Afghanistan

Tetsu Nakamura, a Japanese doctor who devoted his career to improving the lives of Afghans, was killed in an attack in eastern Afghanistan.

A biography published by the Ramon Magsaysay Award described how Nakamura was initially drawn to the Afghan-Pakistani border region in pursuit of his interest in entomology and posed the question, “Who would have thought that beetles and butterflies would lead a Japanese doctor to his life’s work? only for current circumstances to stir new queries. What can we learn from the life of Tetsu Nakamura? How can his example help us find peace in Afghanistan?

Leaders from around the world condemned the attack. President Ashraf Ghani expressed “utmost grief and sorrow” and ordered his security agencies to find the perpetrators. Nakamura’s death is a great loss to Afghans that lived in regions touched by his work. Hamidullah Hashemi, a resident of Khewa, stated, “I feel like they have killed my closest family member. They left us without Nakamura.”

Nakamura opened multiple clinics to provide medical service in Nangarhar Province. He identified malnutrition as a major cause for the health issues in the region. As a result of this, he broadened the scope of his work into agriculture and irrigation, such as his focus on building canals in eastern Afghanistan. Whilst discussing his irrigation projects, Nakamura stated, “A hospital treats patients one by one, but this helps an entire village…I love seeing a village that’s been brought back to life.” His work indeed brought villages back to life. Reuters reports:

 “some 16,000 hectares (40,000 acres) of the desert has been brought back to life, making Nakamura such a widely revered figure in Afghanistan that earlier this year he became the first foreigner awarded Afghan citizenship.”

Nakamura’s influence means that communities now face a lesser risk of certain diseases that ravaged the region in comparison to his arrival in 1984. The infrastructure set in place by Nakamura’s projects remains a valuable asset that Afghans will continue to use to tackle malnutrition and other health issues in the region.

His life’s work is a lesson for other stakeholders in Afghanistan. While leaders speculate about the perpetrators and security forces investigate the attack, the importance of Nakamura’s lasting legacy and how it ensures a better standard of living for generations to come must be understood. The New York Times reports:

“The killing (of Nakamura) came on a day the State Department announced its peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, was on the road again after President Trump declared the resumption of talks with the Taliban, which he had called off in September. After meeting Afghan leaders in Kabul, Mr. Khalilzad was set to travel to the Qatari capital, Doha, to resume negotiations with the Taliban.”

It is essential that the United States take Nakamura’s work into account as they continue negotiations with the Taliban and the discussions over troop withdrawal. The United States must leave behind established infrastructure to ensure peaceful and effective governance.

Regional stability currently rests on the very fragile shoulders of US and Afghan security forces, therefore their withdrawal without the provision of necessary support may lead to violent instability. The US must ensure that its longest war ends peacefully.

Rise to Peace polls and interviews reveal that the majority of Afghans support a strong US presence in Afghanistan due to the fragility and controversial history of the Afghan government. However, it is important that Afghans rebuild and take control of their nation. Crucially, the US must continue to support Afghans in capacity building, education as well as the economy, so Afghans remain resilient against any extremist regimes that jeopardize the national security of Afghanistan.

Nakamura’s legacy, especially in Nangarhar, will remain an important reminder to the US and other stakeholders in Afghanistan that the creation of infrastructure allows Afghans to rebuild and achieve peaceful solutions.

President Trump resumed peace talks with the Taliban on his first trip to Afghanistan

President Trump recently travelled to Afghanistan for the first time and announced the resumption of peace talks with the Taliban just three months after he called them off. At Bagram Air Base, Trump told US troops that the Taliban “wants to make a deal very badly.”

“We’re going to stay until such time as we have a deal, or we have a victory, and they want to make a deal very badly,” Trump said, “The Taliban wants to make a deal — we’ll see if they make a deal. If they do, they do, and if they don’t they don’t. That’s fine.

However, analysts are led to one key question: Is that what they really want?

In short, the Taliban do not want peace and their sole objective is an Islamic Emirate — a government-controlled by them and sponsored by radical actors with anti-liberal democratic philosophies. Women would not be permitted to study, work in the government nor engage in other social activities like journalism or singing under such a regime.

Simply put, the Taliban wants to instill a system of coercion and devoid of any development of Afghan society. They are capable of such an achievement as long as they have strong financial backing and hideouts to retreat to during the wider resistance to US and Afghan forces.

President Ashraf Ghani joined Trump in Bagram and emphasized: “if the Taliban are sincere in their commitment to reaching a peace deal, they must accept a ceasefire.” Further, the Afghan president said, “We also emphasized that for any peace to last, terrorist safe havens outside Afghanistan must be dismantled.”

Trump must stop legitimizing the Taliban if he has any hopes to end the United States’ longest war in Afghanistan. It is impractical to devote attention to the Taliban as they continue to engage in terrorism — which consequently augments their reputation — amidst the scenario where the Afghan government remains engaged in combatting them. As a result of this, the Taliban emerged as the key victor after nearly two years of peace talks and an unprecedented ceasefire in June 2018. The ceasefire meant little as the Taliban continued to target civilians and casualties tripled.

The Taliban continue to heighten their demands anytime the subject of peace talks is broached by U.S. officials. An increase in demands highlights the fact that the Taliban feel emboldened due to the attention focused on them. It is a similar case experienced by the Afghan government between the 1980s to the early ‘90s.

In the 1980s, Afghan mujahidin (fighters backed by the US to counter the Soviets) reportedly refused to speak with the communist Afghan government in favor of the Kremlin — the actor they considered to be key powerbroker. The mujahidin demanded that the Soviet Union withdraw and only at that point would they make peace with officials in Kabul. This was not the case and Afghan soon fell into civil war in 1992. The Taliban emerged in 1996 and continues to engage in this intra-Afghan conflict that escapes resolution. It is apparent that this scenario is essentially familiar, however now, the Taliban wants US troops to leave so that they can dismantle the Afghan government.

Therefore, the US must be hesitant in placing trust in the Taliban as history demonstrates ulterior motives are often at the core of such decisions. Going forward, the US should continue to apply pressure on the state-sponsors of terrorism outside Afghanistan by implementing the 2018 South-East Strategy while aiding the Afghan government.

Uncertainty is the best word to describe the current situation in Afghanistan. Any public perception of peace has been quashed by the Taliban’s terrorist attacks and ongoing peace talks. The US must choose its positions and policies carefully in regard to Afghanistan as it would be detrimental for Washington to be manipulated by the Taliban.


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

Trump’s Visit to Afghanistan and a Revival of Peace Talks

On November 28, President Donald Trump paid a special Thanksgiving visit to American troops stationed in Afghanistan. It marked his first trip to the country amidst a period of recent developments, including a prisoner swap with the Taliban.

Could Trump’s surprise appearance signal positive developments in the Afghan peace process and progress towards a future resolution, despite stalled talks and sense of hopelessness?

A recent poll conducted by Rise to Peace revealed that respondents did not consider the prisoner swap as an important factor in any further peace negotiations. This result likely stems from the abrupt end of productive peace talks in early September. However, as Thursday’s visit demonstrated, an opportunity for a negotiated peace settlement remains.

“We will see if the Taliban wants to make a deal. If they do, they do. If they don’t they don’t. We were getting close” Trump stated.

Trump’s visit follows unofficial talks in Doha where Sayed Akbar Agha, a former Taliban commander, told TOLOnews that discussions began, but “official negotiations were not underway like they were in the past.” Despite the secrecy of the talks and lack of formality in the revival of the process, Trump’s optimism suggests that negotiations will continue.

“The Taliban wants to make a deal,” he told troops stationed at Bagram Airbase.

Whilst in Afghanistan, Trump said he hopes to reduce the number of troops to 8,600 from the current 14,000. This will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the morale of Afghan security forces who rely on US support in the region.

Trump also met with President Ghani and confirmed the potential revival of peace negotiations. However, it was unclear whether the Afghan government would be involved in the resumption of peace talks.

As long as the Taliban and the Afghan government are unable to hold bilateral talks, the US will remain a key player in the peace negotiations. This complicates the process. Firstly, the intervention of foreign actors means that negotiations will no longer be intra-Afghan, but rather focus on ending the war.

It is unsurprising that Trump wants to make good on his promise to bring his troops home, but what does this mean for the Afghan government that struggles to counter the Taliban militarily even with US support?

In conclusion, as long as the peace talks remain informal or ‘secret’, Afghans will continue to be skeptical of the negotiations. Whilst the US will no doubt be looking to bring its troops home, Afghanistan is facing a period of great uncertainty, especially with the fragility surrounding the September 2019 elections.

Support for Afghan security forces will remain integral to the maintenance of peace in the region, even after talks are complete. Thus, if the Taliban remain unwilling to accept anything apart from a total withdrawal of American troops, the potential for successful peace negotiations slips away.

Afghanistan

An Afghanistan peace might be in reach, after all

It is a rational assumption that President Trump is likely to resume peace talks in Afghanistan after comments made during a Fox News radio interview. Trump said that the United States is “working on an agreement now with the Taliban” as well as “Let’s see what happens.”

The impetus towards this change of heart is rooted in recent events in which two university professors — an Australian and an American — were released this past week in exchange for the top three Taliban commanders, including Anas Haqqani. 

This past September, Trump abandoned the peace agreement with the Taliban due to the death of an American soldier and the high level of violence in Afghanistan. A subsequent United Nations meeting with the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and the latest hostage release compelled the US to pursue an agreement with the Taliban. 

Sayed Akbar Agha, a former Taliban commander, told TOLOnews that “the talks right now are underway secretly and I think that they are in favor of Afghanistan.” He added, “based on my information, official negotiations are not underway like they were in the past.”

Afghan presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said that “this time, we are in agreement in the sense that our goals and priorities for peace are completely clear, with issues like a reduction of violence which will result in a ceasefire, and, ultimately, the start of direct negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.”

Any effort to reduce violence in Afghanistan is in the best interest of all sides of the conflict, including the Taliban. With or without a peace deal, no circumstances justify the targeting of civilians.

A Civilian’s View

While the secret meetings are taking place, Afghans are confused, discouraged, uncertain and lost over the future of their economically unstable and politically corrupt country. Key factors fomenting these sentiments include:

  1. a lack of election results for the presidential elections that occurred two months ago
  2. a peace process without a true destiny that only results in violence
  3. withdrawal of US troops and the potential development of Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorism and a battleground for regional rivalries.

Afghan citizens remain hopeful and willing to make sacrifices for peace as it has been the norm over the past 18 years. However, dealbreakers include political manipulation, destruction of schools, mosques and the lives of their children.

Political Complications

Taliban are not the only problem in Afghanistan; political, religious and influential leaders contribute to political instability as well. Historically and culturally, Afghans have been at war with each other as the result of toxic politics and ethnic conflicts provoked by foreign interventions continue into the present day. 

Afghan domestic rivalries remain a serious concern and an obstacle to peace. The incumbent Afghan government is posed to be the victor in the latest elections and consequently aim to extend terms. Conversely, opposition parties currently boycott the election counts, are engaged in building resiliency and regrouping for a possible state of emergency in case of any attempts by President Ghani’s team to shift results in their favor. 

Opposition candidates like Abdullah Abdullah (current Chief Executive of Afghanistan) and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (leader of Hizbi Islami party and presidential candidate) chastised the government over any efforts to meddle in the elections. In any case, political leaders will lead Afghanistan into a state of chaos jeopardizing any peace effort, and more critically, contributing to a strengthened Taliban.

A clear solution requires Afghan political leaders to commit to a unity government whilst combating transnational terrorism and making peace with the Taliban.

Lessons Going Forward

The Trump administration must heed lessons learned over the past 18 years. This includes the decisive support of a specific candidate and signing any peace agreement with the Taliban.

Two points are crystal clear and require serious attention. First, the Taliban are in a war for their reputation. They want to manipulate the situation to demonstrate a significant victory in their favor. The group continues to grow and regroup due to funds generated through drug trafficking, illicit resources and donations from foreign donors to ensure the continuation of ‘jihad.’

Making peace at the macro-level is good, but it is imperative to pay closer attention to the sources of Taliban financing. This is important to stop the insurgency from gaining strength and subsequently challenging local governments.

The likelihood of the peace process is significantly reduced if the Taliban continues to fund its operations through illicit means at the same time as it negotiates with the American and Afghan governments. It is vital to cut their finances (especially assistance from wealthy foreign donors) and block their drug trafficking routes.

As long as drug trafficking remains profitable, the Taliban will continue to buy weapons, ammunition and pay fighters, which leads to a continuous cycle of war. Bankrolling the Taliban means they will not enter peace process negotiations in good faith.

American interests must determine whether the Taliban’s true intentions are peace or manipulation of the entire situation to ensure a shift of dynamics for their benefit. A deal should be struck if Taliban leaders promise to reduce violence and leave civilians unharmed. At the same time, the Taliban must respect the peace talks process. They cannot engage in lethal attacks and expect to gain the support — and hearts — of Afghans and American negotiators. All sides of the conflict should work to build trust and confidence. 

Each side desires disparate conclusions. The Taliban wants all US troops to withdraw while Afghans want American forces to remain. This is a serious issue and it cannot be pushed aside. Afghanistan is not ready for the US to leave or simply trust the Taliban to rebuild Afghanistan through a negotiated settlement.

American support is required to ensure the country does not develop into a safe haven for terrorist organizations with a wider regional reach. Simply put, the US is the main actor in this situation — acknowledged by both the Afghan government and the Taliban — so they must stay as long as it takes and broker a deal.

Second, the US should be cautious about choosing a preferred president in the next Afghan government. Any attempt to support a specific candidate in the context of a fraudulent vote and with a negative reputation will further jeopardize the US presence in Afghanistan. It is best to gain respect while implementing US foreign policy focused on combatting terrorism, building Afghanistan and stabilizing the region. 

Realistically, 2 million votes are not a true representation of a 34 million population. US decision-makers must critically think about how they will manage scenarios in which the Afghan election committee announces one candidate as the victor, nationwide protests erupt or how to quell angry candidates with strong local ties.