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Intra-Afghan Talks: What Does Pakistan Want?

Among the prevalent foreign actors involved in Afghanistan’s peace process, few have as a large of stake as Pakistan. The ascension of General Zia Ul-Haq, who served as Pakistan’s President from 1978-1988, was followed by an assertive foreign policy that sought to protect, and enlarge, Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan. Long-standing issues, ranging from territorial disputes across the Durand Line, to Afghanistan’s historically friendly ties with India, had come to define what was, and remains, a testy relationship between Kabul and Islamabad.

Yet, in the backdrop of the Cold War, the opportunity for Pakistan to redefine its interests coincided with the arrival of Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Buttressed by political support from the United States, coupled with financial support from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan served as the primary conduit with the Mujahedin throughout its war with the Soviets.

Through the flow of aid and provisions of training and supplies, Pakistan’s relationship with the Mujahedin evolved beyond the original mission to oust the Afghan government and defeat the Soviets. Instead, Pakistan’s influence increasingly took on an ideological nature, with the political stylings of General Zia’s religious nationalism serving as inspiration for the Taliban and its fundamentalist movement.

The emergence of a Taliban government in Afghanistan represented a rare and significant victory for Pakistan’s sphere of influence, much of which had gradually eroded within South Asia throughout the Cold War. Among other objectives, a pro-Pakistani government in Afghanistan created opportunities to curb India’s influence and even use Afghan territory to provide training, logistical support, and safe haven to militants from Indian Kashmir.

While pressure from the international community may have forced Pakistan into a far more muted relationship with the Taliban, its strategic objectives and interests in Afghanistan has not undergone much change from its original position. For Pakistan, the intra-Afghan talks present an opportunity to shape the post-peace trajectory of Afghanistan. Within this stage of negotiation, Pakistan’s core aims are as follows: Political legitimacy for the Taliban, tempered Indian influence, US approval for a peace agreement, subsequently followed by a very gradual US troop withdrawal.

Having earned plaudits for its efforts to mediate and bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, Pakistan’s next moves will increasingly focus on integrating the Taliban into Afghanistan’s political fabric. Doing so, under a peace agreement, would legitimize the Taliban as a political entity and give Pakistan more flexibility in openly lending its support to pro-Pakistani elements across Afghanistan.

If the Taliban is to accede to a genuine DDR (disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration) process, it will likely demand the opportunity to participate politically as a formalized party in all levels of Afghan elections. An alternative route to sustaining the Taliban’s political influence may come in the form of a power-sharing arrangement, where the Taliban embeds itself more deeply into the Afghan state, through the presence of its members in the civil service and key ministries. In either case, such a scenario would be a boon for Pakistan, providing an avenue for which elements of the Taliban would be able to legitimately obtain power, and represent Pakistani interests.

In addition to transitioning the Taliban into a legitimate political entity, Pakistan’s foreign policy objectives remain heavily driven by its animosity with India. Since the Partition of India in 1947, Afghanistan has been a staunch ally of the Indian government, with the Taliban’s brief tenure serving as an anomaly. While it is unlikely to rid Afghanistan of pro-Indian influence, the integration of the Taliban would at the very minimum, modulate India’s influence. Thus, ensuring Afghanistan’s neutrality in any future Indo-Pakistani conflicts would represent a win for Pakistan.

Finally, the principal objective of any forthcoming peace agreement will necessitate the approval of the United States. The US approval would grant Pakistan peace of mind to pursue its interests in Afghanistan openly without fears of punitive sanctions by the US, or additional scrutiny from intergovernmental organizations like the Financial Action Task Force, which is charged with curbing terrorism funding and helps inform the policies of state actors. Having brokered the US-Taliban peace deal in February, Pakistan remains cognizant of America’s fatigue with the war in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, halting a hasty withdrawal by the Americans is critical to Pakistan’s own security concerns across the Durand Line. Fears of resurgent Pashtun nationalism seeping into Pakistan’s borders would pose an endemic threat in its restive northernmost provinces.

The past two years have featured some of the most momentous events in Afghanistan’s peacebuilding process. Having long been beholden to direct and indirect influence by foreign actors, Afghanistan will not only have to balance the interests of its internal parties, but also the interests of external players, like Pakistan’s military and security establishment. In the absence of a peace deal that meets its criteria, Pakistan may instead find itself in favor of the status quo, an outcome that would represent a devastating blow to the prospect of peace in Afghanistan.

Small Steps Towards Reconciliation Matter: Lessons from Croatia

Reconciliation is often lauded as a key objective of any discussions intent on ending conflict, but it often remains elusive decades after the conclusion of decisive battles. Hesitancy to overcome hurdles that impede reconciliation are rooted in the fact that traumatic experiences typical of war are experienced differently according to national affiliation, ethnicities and dominant historical narratives. A recent event at a commemoration ceremony in Knin, Croatia highlights the reality that the path towards reconciliation is arduous and controversial, but even the smallest of steps forward matter.

Context

Each August, Croatian politicians gather to commemorate Operacija Oluja (Operation Storm). It is important to first acknowledge the events of this battle and its repercussions to fully examine the question of reconciliation later; therefore, one must place this confrontation in the wider context of the Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995).

In the simplest of explanations, the ‘Homeland War’ as it is known to Croats pitted independent Croatian forces against the Serbian-controlled Jugoslovenska narodna armija (Yugoslav National Army) as well as local affiliated Serb forces as part of the greater breakup of Yugoslavia. Croatia proclaimed independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, but local Serb rebels disagreed. Their subsequent military campaign to ensure Croatian territory remained a part of Yugoslavia captured over one third of the country — the proto-state of Republika Srpska Krajina— and displaced over 500,000 Croatians and other non-Serbs.

Operacija Oluja, conducted between August 4-7, 1995, is acknowledged as the decisive battle between the Hrvatska vojska (Croatian Army) and rebel forces of the Republic of Serbian Krajina that ultimately ended in favor of Croatian independence. Nonetheless, as in other cases of recent wars in the Balkans, accusations of war crimes deeply complicate how this battle and the wider war is reflected upon according to ethnicity.

International media showcased photographs and footage of some of the 200,000 Serbs that fled Croatia in what would become a serious humanitarian and refugee crisis. Hundreds of Serb pensioners were killed in the months after the operation. Much of the property left behind was looted, seized and sometimes burned. It is for these reasons that Serbs in the region cannot view Operacija Oluja in the same gusto or celebration as their Croatian neighbours. There are understandably disparate views on how such anniversaries should be viewed and these sentiments remain entrenched in local populaces.

25th Anniversary

Commemoration this year took on a unique tone as it was not only the 25th anniversary of Operacija Oluja, but for the first time an ethnic Serb politician in Croatia attended the memorial service. The appearance of Croatian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Milošević has been widely viewed as a small step towards reconciliation on a day that often pushes unresolved traumas to the forefront. For context, the grandmother of Milošević was killed during the incursion, so these matters undeniably hit close to home not only for him, but others in the Serb minority in Croatia.

However, there were undeniable conciliatory messages about the need to recognize the anguish of the past, but to move towards peaceful co-existence in the regional journey towards prosperity. Milošević stated that the “time has come for the politics of understanding and of respecting each other to defeat the politics of hatred.” This opinion was echoed by Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković who hoped that the first-time attendance by an ethnic Serb would “send a new message for Croatian society, relations between Croatians and Serb minority” and “between Croatia and Serbia.” Sentiments such as these are welcome after a quarter century of apprehensive relations.

On the other hand, nationalism and ethnic grievances still remain insofar that the attendance of Milošević was not universally applauded. Across the border, in Serbia, media lambasted the statements by the aforementioned leadership. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić unequivocally expressed that, “We do not want to celebrate the tragedy of the Serbian people and Serbia will never accept humiliation” whilst speaking at a memorial service that too recognized Operacija Oluja, albeit in a different manner and narrative. This statement by Vučić succinctly embodied very real hurdles deeply felt by peoples affected by conflict that make it seem reconciliation remains out of reach.

While Serbo-Croatian relations — either bilaterally between Belgrade and Zagreb or in the context of a Serbian minority in Croatia — may be considered a niche cause without wider implications, that is simply not true. Lessons can be learned from this one particular case study and thus considered in states with past or ongoing internal conflicts.

Broad Lessons

The concept of reconciliation after a period of war or ethnic strife is often bandied about as the ultimate objective by even the most well-intentioned peacemakers, but it must be viewed with the same seriousness as more distinct solutions and identifiable benchmarks. First and foremost, it is not immediate and outside actors cannot induce it until local populations are ready themselves. Those that have suffered through actions committed by national armed forces, rebel groups or extremist non-state actors have the right to remain reluctant to trust the opposition or even be willing to easily let go of their trauma. The addition of divergent ethnic narratives or religious affiliation of specific events further complicate entrenched feelings. Many seek legal accountability at relevant tribunals as an avenue, but this too is a drawn-out process. Reconciliation happens at its own pace and in the right context.

Secondly, there must be a focus on grassroots cooperation and a means for affected peoples to openly discuss any impediments to compromise and understanding. Younger generations may not have experienced the shocks of their elders, but ethnic narratives shared within communities often keep invisible barriers intact. In order for this to occur, a willingness to listen and take accountability for past infringements in the most benign manner is required. This is obviously easier said than done, but it is best achieved by civilians willing to foment coexistence through education and engagement within their respective multi-ethnic states. It is only then that tides shift at the higher echelons of governance, and reactions such as those to the attendance of Milošević in Knin will be a thing of the past.

Reconciliation is a requirement for states and societies to move past painful events that have significantly marked their history. As the case discussed here illustrates, it can take decades to reach a point for one party to make the first move — even a small act in the grand scheme of ethnic dynamics — but this should not dishearten those intent on a durable resolution and beneficial cooperation.

Reforming Afghanistan’s Higher Education Institutions

Among the institutions most affected by Afghanistan’s incessant conflict over the past four decades, few have endured as much damage as the country’s educational system. Throughout King Zahir Shah’s 40-year reign and the subsequent Communist governments that ruled Afghanistan after him, the country’s higher education system was lauded for the quality of its institutions and the high representation of females, both within the student body and faculty ranks.

The invasion by Soviet forces in the late 1970s led to an exodus of teachers, coupled with the physical destruction of schools and universities, which were often used as bunkers during the war. Throughout the Taliban’s tenure, changes in curriculum and the practice of barring females from educational opportunities reversed much of the hard-fought progress that had at one point, made Afghanistan’s higher education system one of the most advanced across Central and South Asia.

Today, efforts geared toward restoring Afghanistan’s higher education infrastructure require capital investment in facilities, specifically for labs and research centers, in addition to recruiting and retaining high-quality faculty. Whereas most contemporary higher education systems typically require a Master’s degree as a minimum requirement for faculty, survey data over the past decade reveals that well over half of Afghanistan’s higher education faculty possess just a Bachelor’s degree.

Though offerings of graduate programs have grown, they still lag considerably, compelling many of Afghanistan’s brightest minds to continue their education abroad in neighboring countries. India, as one example, remains a predominant destination for Afghan students. India’s geographic proximity, affordability, and exponential growth in postsecondary institutions make the country an attractive option. Yet, while many of these graduates often return with aspirations of joining Afghanistan’s civil service, the double-edged sword of Afghans seeking an education abroad has led to the chronic issue of “brain drain”, where young, high-skilled Afghans depart the country, with no intent to return.

Building capacity in Afghanistan’s colleges and universities is an integral part of the country’s reconstruction efforts. In just the first decade after the collapse of the Taliban government, enrollment in Afghan tertiary institutions increased by 115%, showing the domestic appetite for quality education. Yet, with just under half of the country’s territory occupied or under threat, most of Afghanistan’s higher education institutions remain heavily concentrated in just a handful of areas.

Given the correlation between geography and ethnicity, diffusing educational opportunities across Afghanistan’s most insecure provinces will be critical to preserving harmony between the majority Pashtuns and the various minority ethnic groups. Though admission quotas exist for disadvantaged students, they are not enough to remedy the acute economic and political disparities that exist between ethnic groups. In addition to filling the gaps between ethnic groups, Afghan females are also poised to benefit from expanded access to higher education. At present, females already have begun to outnumber their male colleagues in some university departments. Unlocking further opportunities would provide a boost to the female labor participation rate and provide additional economic security for Afghan households.

Given the implications of its expansive mandate, the Ministry of Higher Education’s post-peace plans will have to prioritize the expansion of institutions, while also ensuring quality control. Privatization in Afghanistan’s education system has incentivized investment and expansion, yet in the absence of a rigorous accreditation system, private institutions may offer substandard quality at a higher cost. Ensuring managed growth and a quality educational experience will yield the best results in the long-term.

Furthermore, a functioning higher education system is essential for industrialization and retaining homegrown talent. Universities can serve as useful hubs for agglomeration, where businesses and institutions cluster to collaborate and benefit from nearby talent. The opportunity for enterprising Afghans is laden in the country’s erratic, but substantial growth that has taken place in the last 20 years. Opportunities in the extractive, manufacturing, and services sectors will all necessitate domestic know-how to generate the optimal return-on-investment for Afghanistan’s economy.

Given Afghanistan’s youthful population, where over 40% of the population is under the age of 15, the future outcomes of the intra-Afghan talks will have implications for generations to come.  Providing an accessible and rigorous education provides the best path toward reconstruction and the prevention of future conflicts.

The Afghan Future Looks Promising After Decisions at the Loya Jirga

With Final Prisoner Release, Afghanistan Takes a Giant Step Toward Peace

Originally published at The Diplomat

At long last, the Afghan government and the Taliban are ready to start their long-delayed peace talks.

The Afghan Loya Jirga (grand assembly) approved the release of 400 Taliban prisoners on Sunday, and President Ashraf Ghani endorsed the decision. This hopefully paves the way for the intra-Afghan talks between Afghan delegates and the Taliban insurgency, aimed at ending the 19 years of war.

“I look forward to the intra-Afghan dialogues,” said Khalid Noor, the youngest member of the Afghan negotiating team. He added, “I believe it’s going to start in the next few days.”

On Monday, the Taliban and the Afghan government agreed on August 16 as the start date for the intra-Afghan dialogues. The 21 members of the Afghan negotiation team headed by Massoum Stanikzai (former chief of the National Directorate of Security) is likely to depart Afghanistan for Doha, Qatar once the prisoners are released — as early as tomorrow.

The 400 prisoners were the last of a group of 5,000 whose release was promised in the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, signed on February 29. The Afghan government was hesitant to release these last prisoners for various reasons, from a lack of presidential constitutional authority to a desire to hold the prisoners responsible for their actions as well as a need for leverage for the Afghan government after the U.S.-Taliban deal.

Read the full article on the website of The Diplomat


Ahmad Shah Mohibi is the Founder of Rise to Peace

Personal Reflections on the Tragedy in Beirut

Editor’s Note: Rise to Peace Research Fellow Cameron Hoffman has a close connection with Beirut, Lebanon. He spoke with some of his friends that experienced the August 4th blast and they offered their candid insights. When placed into the context of political and state security, the explosion took on more meaning than just a tragedy. These are personal reflections that will hopefully lead to an enhanced interest in the Lebanese crisis in our readers.

On August 4, a massive explosion rocked the city of Beirut, Lebanon. Improper storage of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate — an extremely explosive chemical that is found in fertilizers — ignited and caused a blast that left 135 people dead, over 5000 wounded, and displaced over 300,000. Damages are estimated to be approximately $ 15 billion USD.

This day hit very close to home as I spent my summers living in Beirut and still have friends there to this day. I spoke with them a day after the catastrophe only to learn that many members of the church I attended experienced extensive damage to their homes and one close friend is hospitalized after glass pierced his liver following the explosion. As well, the building of the church I attended (over 2.5 miles from the blast site) had its windows shattered into the sanctuary area (sitting area where pews are located). There is significant need for basic supplies like food and water.

Grief and pain turned to rage in the days following the explosion. It became increasingly clear that the accident was easily avoidable if it was not for the level of corruption and mismanagement typical of the Lebanese government. A growing number of e-mails and public court documents show that many government officials knew that the ammonium nitrate seized from a Russian vessel was improperly stored and extremely dangerous for over six years.

The Lebanese people blame the government for the disaster. My friend Moufid said that citizens can no longer tolerate the apathy, mismanagement and corruption any longer. Another friend, Jenny, stated that the protesters and people in general may be unsure of direct responsibility, but they are “fed up” with the whole system and want accountability. She offered that the explosion was merely a “cherry on top” of the deteriorating economic and political situation in Lebanon — a situation that drew millions into the streets before COVID-19 sent them back into their homes.

Indeed, this is a turning point for the Lebanese government. Popular calls for revolution continue to grow and French president Emmanuel Macron — who is overseeing French aid to Lebanon — berated the Lebanese political system as corrupt and in need of “deep change.” His trip to Beirut, and subsequent speeches, echoed the chants of hundreds of protesters that flocked in the streets. He called the explosion “a metaphor for Lebanon’s current crisis,” and said that Lebanon was in need of “a new political order.” Further, Macron stressed the need for an audit of the central bank. He expressed, “If there is no audit of the central bank, in a few months there will be no more imports and then there will be a lack of fuel and of food.”

Additionally, France is organizing an international conference to raise support and assistance for Lebanon, and all funds raised will be handled with “full transparency.” Macron stated that, “there will be no blank checks to a system that does not have the trust of its own people,” and that Lebanese leaders must provide “answers to freedom, reform, and anti-corruption.”

In asking Jenny what she thought was needed for Lebanon to recover she said, “we need new politicians. To start from scratch and remove the current structure and corruption. The people are not going to be fooled anymore, and the corrupt politicians need to be taken to court.” She is one of thousands of young adults who feel the same sentiment.

The event is undoubtedly catastrophic, but hopefully it will lead to changes that the Lebanese people desperately need and deserve. Moufid summarized his thoughts about the future, “We Lebanese are used to destruction and rebuilding again. I believe that God will use this [the explosion] in a way to help rebuild the economy. They will need to rebuild the port as its important to our economy, but we will come back.  It’s natural for us.”

Remittances: Reverberations for Conflict-Ridden Regions

Since the start of the 21st century, the world economy’s reliance on remittances has risen sharply as globalization enabled growth that created favorable incentives for migration through several emerging markets. Remittances, which refer to transfer payments made by foreign workers to their families back home, have benefitted both the likes of high-growth economies, like China and India, as well as weaker states that failed to attract investment due to incessant conflict and instability. In total, remittances (as a % of Gross Domestic Product) have increased by 105% since 1999, fueling household consumption and stepping in as a guarantor of financial security for vulnerable families located in fragile and/or underdeveloped states.

Yet, with lockdowns across the globe interrupting economic activity, the flow of remittances that sustain countries rife with crime, terrorism, and violence has been disrupted. As a result, countries with a high dependency on remittances will be forced to rely on the decisions made by foreign governments, of which they have no influence over. In addition, state-sponsored efforts to monitor and impose mandatory quarantines have disproportionately targeted migrants, limiting their movements, and in many cases, using the opportunity to impose draconian immigration reform to placate political aims.

As one example, Malaysia, which hosts nearly 5 million migrant workers (documented and undocumented), has been particularly aggressive in its COVID-19 response. As a popular destination for workers from a variety of South and East Asia countries, Malaysia’s raids of areas filled with migrants has attracted scrutiny. An Al-Jazeera documentary featuring the experiences of migrants was subsequently responded to with a police investigation of the journalists, followed by accusations of sedition and defamation. One migrant in particular who chose to share his experience with the Al-Jazeera journalists was the subject of a 2-week police manhunt that culminated in his arrest and planned deportation. Similar state-sponsored efforts targeting migrant workers have been cited in other popular migrant destinations like the United States, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Lebanon, among several others.

With migrants unable to earn, the potential economic reverberations will extend far beyond the borders of states that employ, and depend upon, migrant labor. Though several variables can be used to describe remittance-dependent economies, these countries tend to fall in one (or both) of the following categories:

  1. Countries that have struggled to industrialize, leading to a weak manufacturing base. This is often due to, or followed by poor job growth and a lack of diversification beyond the agricultural sector. Examples of such countries would include Tonga, Haiti, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
  2. Countries that are ridden with incessant conflict and chronic crime & terrorism. Such conditions drive the labor supply (particularly younger workers) to work abroad, either in nearby regional hubs or on other continents. Example countries in this category include Yemen, Palestine, South Sudan, and El Salvador.

Should remittance volumes continue to recede in the developing world, the consequences could be vast. Data compiled by the Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD), estimates that global remittances could drop by as much as $110 Billion USD, or 20% of the annual total. Sixty countries, ranging from low-income to middle-income, depend on remittances for at least 5% of their respective GDP. Furthermore, remittances are responsible for contributing tax revenue for governments, which in turn, provide funding for varied public services, many of which have become only more integral during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the absence of substantial foreign direct investment or multilateral aid, the timeline for recovery will last longest in the countries with the most acute needs. Though aid and investment remain vital sources of capital for low and middle-income countries, they are both dwarfed by the substantial inflows brought in by remittances. In the last year alone, remittances have accounted for $550 billion USD worth of funds in such countries.

Regardless of the circumstances, the consistent flow of remittances is vital for sustaining consumption and keeping businesses afloat in remittance-dependent countries. The inability to maintain remittances can result in cascading economic damage. A failure to induce job creation is one of the most oft-cited conditions that can foment, or accelerate, violence through spikes in crime and terrorism. Conflict hotspots in the Sahel region, Gulf region, East Africa, and South Asia are particularly vulnerable, given their outsized regional dependence on remittances to fulfill the most basic living standards.

To help pare the ripple effects that a drop in remittances would create, a handful of solutions could prove useful. First, governments with the capacity to enact stimulus efforts can indirectly assist migrant laborers. Stimulus programs can boost consumption, incentivizing companies that employ migrants to maintain their payrolls to meet market demand. Second, the costs associated with transferring funds across borders can amount between 7-10% in fees. State-led efforts to reduce these cross-border transfer fees ensures that more money reaches the intended recipient(s). Though efforts to establish a global compact are underway, more collaboration is required between those nations that send remittances, and those that receive them.

Ensuring that migrants are equipped with the tools needed to weather the pandemic is not just a humanitarian issue, but an economic one that sets the stage for a quicker post-pandemic transition. Businesses located in migrant-dependent economies, like those found in Southeast Asia and the Gulf region, will not be able to fulfill their workforce needs from domestic labor. Instead, these countries may find themselves competing for the very same migrants they turned away, delaying the opportunity for a global economic recovery.

Civil Society Organizations as a Possible Structure for Recovery in Lebanon

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Lebanon experienced massive protests calling for a new government in response to declining economic opportunities amongst other issues. While lockdown measures have put these protests on pause, the core grievances remain. Its survival hinges on the ability of the government to address its citizens’ concerns.

However, the disconnect between the government and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) that work to combat local issues and aid development puts the Lebanese government at a disadvantage.  To prevent Lebanon from collapsing and adding to the instability of the region a framework built on the cooperation of these two groups to create meaningful policy change must be established.

Lebanon has a long and large history when it comes to CSOs. CSOs in Lebanon are defined as organizations working to promote intra-sectarian cooperation, civic participation, and inclusion in the governance and political order in Lebanon. As of 2015, there were 1.3 CSOs for every 1000 people in Lebanon. Official records indicate that there are 8,311 registered organizations and many more loosely organized groups.  But while the number of CSOs is numerous, the effectiveness of CSOs is extremely limited is due to Lebanon’s political structure and the weak organizational capacity of CSOs.

CSOs are currently largely locked out of the policy creation process because of the Lebanese government’s structure of sectarianism.  This structure breeds tribalism and voting based on sect rather than allegiance to effective governance. Additionally, policymakers are uninterested in working with CSOs, and largely ignore the local issues for pandering to the sect of their constituents and engaging in party politics.

The internal organizational capacity of CSO’s are limited in two major ways. The first, is that accurate information on the group’s functions, membership, and influence is largely unavailable, which makes it difficult for donors to contribute. In fact, over 60% of Lebanese CSOs suffer from a lack of financial resources. The lack of resources leads to the inability to maintain full-time staff, operate offices, and other essential functions or successful organizations. The second is that over 41% of CSOs in Lebanon have problems maintaining volunteers. This makes larger community projects unachievable and limits the effectiveness of the CSO, but also its ability to influence policy through citizen pressure on policymakers.

To increase their effectiveness CSOs need to develop reliable information management, create robust strategic plans, keep volunteers engaged, and lastly, develop a relationship with the media. However, unless the government makes changes to cooperate with CSOs the changes CSOs need to make will not greatly increase their effectiveness.

The current “lockout” of CSOs from the policy making process is extremely harmful to maintaining Lebanon’s stability as it approaches a socio-economic collapse. If the crisis of a failed state is to be averted the government needs to include the CSOs to address the local issues that contribute to the larger grievances like the public health crisis (water pollution and poor healthcare) and economic fatigue (18% youth unemployment, low job creation, low wages, mismatch of the job market demands and skills earned in the education sector).

The risk of collapse is predicated on the elites of Lebanon exploiting the relatively liberal political atmosphere and absence of a welfare state to create informal dependency networks that preserve the status-quo.  The lack of cooperation between the government and CSOs allows extremist groups and parties like Hezbollah to use the same strategy to create their own dependency networks that supports the survival of these organizations and adds to the already heightened fragmentation without contributing to the overall well-being of citizens.

A lockout of CSOs from the policy process not only threatens the stability of the region, but will also lockout the inhabitants of Lebanon from experiencing real, and needed, change. Not only does the current Lebanese government need to learn and adapt, but the current situation provides a framework for other states in the region to learn a valuable lesson — failing to include CSOs in the policy making process may preserve the status-quo temporarily, but that it leads to a failure in good governance and eventually political upheaval.

How Will COVID-19 Impact Efforts in Afghanistan?

It is often surmised that modern conflict is characterized by a steady decline in inter-state warfare and increased conflict perpetrated by illegal non-state actors. In the current context, assumptions about a post-COVID-19 world and conflict add to this discussion as it will present a range of unique challenges to the international community. More specifically, COVID-19 will prove to be another factor in the decline of inter-state warfare, but provide a unique opportunity for terror cells and other illegal sub-national organizations to extort at the same time.

Due to the vast economic measures directed to fight the virus domestically as well as funding to support individuals and businesses during mandated lockdown measures, states will have to reexamine their national budgets. Countries will struggle to maintain pre-COVID-19 military spending, especially as citizens’ concerns shift from international affairs to domestic issues.

One only needs to read Geoffrey Blainey’s The Causes of War to get a grasp of his accurate argument that optimism guides a nation’s decision to go to war. Nations have been more inclined to go to war when they are more optimistic of victory and all it takes is one actor’s pessimism to favor a peaceful outcome, even if it means acceptance of conditions that may be less than favorable. COVID-19 has reduced optimism in states around the world. For example, the United Kingdom’s furlough scheme is estimated to have cost the country £60 billion (approximately $76.1 billion USD) between March and July. As nations look to rebuild their coffers, military spending will inevitably fall and with it, public support for military activity abroad.

This leads to the question: what does this mean for Afghanistan and American military engagement in the country?

Firstly, the pandemic has resulted in reduced military activity. As noted in outside analysis, COVID-19 has “prompted the United States and its partners to pause wargaming exercises that are meant to reassure allies and bolster readiness to protect the health of its military members.”

Not only does the U.S. need to keep a close watch over its military spending, but it also needs to keep a closer watch over the health of its fighters. Sailors and soldiers in the field are among the most vulnerable because they are packed together. In addition, it has been noted that, “Ground campaigns in urban areas pose still greater dangers in pandemic times. Much recent ground combat has been in cities in poor countries with few or no public health resources, environments highly favorable to illness. Ground combat also usually produces prisoners, any of whom can be infected.”

Therefore, these factors will result in a growing trend of reluctance of countries to engage, especially those like the U.S. who have entered into conflicts under the banner of the responsibility to protect. This reluctance will also result from social pressures. It is easier for a state to promote counter-terrorism operations when its citizens believe they are directly at risk of becoming a victim of terror. On the other hand, expectations of governments shift when citizens are faced by other threats to their livelihood, such as a pandemic like COVID-19. Support for actions abroad will undoubtedly waver.

COVID-19 and the reaction from the international community will inevitably impact the Afghan government, which was characteristically fractious long before the pandemic. Afghanistan has long struggled with a subpar health care system and the pandemic has only reiterated these struggles. A 2015 study determined that, “For one in five people, a lack of access to health care had resulted in death among family members or close friends within the last year.” Further, the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan reports, “Afghanistan has a total of 35,526 confirmed cases of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) and 1,185 deaths attributed to the disease (Ministry of Public Health).”

The increasing number of cases and evident lack of access to appropriate health care facilities presents an even bigger challenge to a government already stretched thin by the ongoing conflict with the Taliban. President Ashraf Ghani’s government continues to pursue medical relief and stimulus packages including the allocation of “$86 million and then $158 million in the second phase to provide food to people across the country.” However, the critics fear the program will become riddled with corruption, a disease of its own within Afghan leadership. A free bread distribution program set up earlier in the year was found to be compromised by corruption.

Whilst the Afghan government battles corruption, a pandemic and wavering international support, the Taliban continue to launch attacks and publicly blame the Afghan government for the delay in the intra-Afghan peace process. Whilst the ongoing pandemic provides challenges to governments across the world it also provides a unique opportunity for terror organizations to take advantage of these pessimistic and economically weakened states.

As the government diverts security to hospitals as the number of patients rise by the day, the Taliban has taken advantage of the situation launching a range of attacks across the country in an attempt to gain an advantage over the Afghan government before peace talks begin.

Another pressing issue is that of prisons where thousands of Taliban fighters (as well as those of other groups) are incarcerated. It is common knowledge that prison conditions are favorable to the spread of disease. This will present an even greater challenge to a government already stretched thin on the ground.

Thus, it is integral that whilst the U.S. faces domestic pressure, they remain focused on their longest war. The US will need to accept responsibility for the situation in Afghanistan and continue its facilitation of intra-Afghan talks. Though the U.S. and other stakeholders will face increased pressure to reduce military activity in Afghanistan, continued support for the Afghanistan government, especially in the run up to peace talks, is essential. This is extremely important as the Taliban strive to gain any increased bargaining power over a weakened Afghan government.

The Emergence of Sara Khitta in the Context of the US Involvement in Afghanistan

The period following the United States-Taliban agreement has provided an opportunity for the U.S. to examine its Responsibility to Protect (R2P) ethos and its impact on affected states, specifically Afghanistan. Operations on the ground have changed over this time and so have counter-efforts by the Taliban. It can be noted that the continued conflict in Afghanistan has led to the creation of a group of Taliban fighters known as the Sara Khitta (The Red Group) — an elite force created for the purpose of fighting a powerful adversary through the use of modern tactics and special weaponry.

The U.S. has seen many victories and losses since it began its operations in Afghanistan 18 years (or more precisely 6861 days as of July 20, 2020) ago. However, the legacy of its military intervention must be examined as matters surrounding troop withdrawal and abilities of the Afghan national army continue to be discussed. This is pertinent as Sara Khitta was formed with the specific mission to disrupt the actions of U.S. and Afghan forces.

Aristophanes, a playwright of ancient Athens, once said: “The wise learn many things from their enemies.” Whilst this may be stating the obvious, it is what foreign forces teach their adversaries that should be of more concern to the U.S. After nearly 7000 days of active involvement in Afghanistan, one can only assume that military tactics have been learned and inevitably exploited.

While the U.S. has always held greater firepower, large groups of semi-trained Taliban fighters have been lost during operations. As Mujib Mashal states in his article for the New York Times: “At times, the (Taliban) casualty rates went so high — losing up to hundreds of fighters a week as the Americans carried out an airstrike campaign in which they dropped nearly 27,000 bombs since 2013.” Therefore, the establishment of Sara Khitta demonstrated the need of the Taliban to strengthen their skills and firepower in the wake of these losses.

Sara Khitta have provided two major advantages to the Taliban. Firstly, the use of advanced weaponry and new tactics have “supposedly lowered Taliban casualties while allowing the group to capture large swaths of territory in Helmand”. Secondly, the force provides advantages to the Taliban propaganda campaign plastered across social media and recruitment pages.

For instance, a photo appeared earlier this year showing Ammar Ibn Yasir, the trainer of the Taliban’s Red Group, who is also known as “the Mujahideen of Mujahideen.” Photos such as this as well as others showing the unit performing various aspects of military training form the backbone of a media campaign designed to show the Taliban as a fighting force capable of taking on everyone — including a world superpower.

In addition to showing the glamour and capability of the Taliban’s fighters, the Sara Khitta social media campaign has focused on professionalism. For instance, there are photos that show fighters training in the snow flaunting full tactical gear. However, the unit is not just a photo opportunity. As Commander Murad disclosed to Reuters, “The Taliban ‘Red Unit’ are said to be equipped with advanced weaponry, including night vision scopes, 82mm rockets, heavy machine guns and U.S.-made assault rifles.”

Another aspect of Sara Khitta that has contributed to their success is the secrecy surrounding their group. Reports such as those mentioned previously touch on their weaponry, attacks and social media presence, but the Taliban has kept many details of this unit hidden from their media outlets and went as far as to forbid members from talking to the press. The U.S. military claimed it killed the head of the Taliban’s Red Unit during a strike in Helmand on Dec. 1, 2017. However, this has not drastically slowed their social media campaign and the propaganda value that this unit provides for the Taliban.

As the U.S. and the Afghan government continue on their respective journeys to create peace in Afghanistan, it is important that the U.S. considers its military legacy in the country and uphold the same responsibility to protect as it paves the way for intra-Afghan talks. Whilst fighting the Taliban, the U.S. provided the group with opportunities for growth and development (including the establishment of Sara Khitta) thus it is integral that both the U.S. and Afghan governments can appropriately counter these developments. This is essential in the transition to peace.

Problems in the Way of Progress: Uncertain US Troop Withdrawal and New Challenges Facing the Afghan Peace Process

On February 29, 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed a peace agreement, widely referred to as the ‘Doha Deal’, which is considered to have provided a foundation upon which a more stable and prosperous Afghanistan can be built.

One of the primary tenets of the ‘Doha Deal’ focuses upon the gradual reduction of the remaining 12,000 US troops currently stationed in Afghanistan, with plans for an eventual full-withdrawal. Throughout the first half of 2020, the US has already significantly reduced the numbers of its troops in Afghanistan to 8600, therefore greatly surpassing the agreed upon reduction (as defined in the Doha Deal) to 12,000 remaining troops. However, whilst this major tenet of the deal has been accomplished seemingly with no major complications, the satisfying of other primary elements of the Doha Deal can be seen to have experienced various considerable setbacks.

Even days after the agreement was originally signed, the progress was largely overshadowed by issues arising from each constitutive party. The Afghan government immediately raised concerns regarding another of the deal’s primary components: the numbers and time-span of the agreed upon release of 5000 Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government. These concerns regarding the prisoner swap have not only caused major problems in developing the peace process further in the last months, but the anticipated nation-wide reduction in violence (which was expected to arise as a direct result of the agreement) has also failed to occur.

Although there have been notable periods since the signing of the deal within which the violence between parties can be seen to have subsided (e.g. The Eid Ceasefire), the country has still experienced regular sparks of conflict. In fact, this conflict has escalated to such a point that, in mid-June 2020, the deadliest week for Afghan government forces in Afghanistan’s 19 years of conflict was recorded.

Alongside the multitude of issues which have arisen as a direct consequence of the Doha Deal’s signing, Afghanistan’s stabilization, and the progression of the Afghan Peace Process, has been largely stunted by the Afghan state’s attempted resistance to the global COVID-19 pandemic. With over 34,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 (14.07) and over 1000 deaths in Afghanistan alone, the resolution of the Doha Deal, and the progression of the Afghan Peace Process as a whole has been largely inhibited by the national prioritization of a new kind of challenge for the Afghan state.

However, aside from this aforementioned environment, which presents an array of complex new challenges and concerns for the Afghan government, trepidation surrounding the potential negative consequences of the US withdrawal of troops has retained focus in the midst of this climate. These concerns have especially been raised in relation to the remaining presence of various violent-extremist groups in Afghanistan, particularly Al-Qaeda. It has been argued that, without the support and presence of US troops, Afghanistan is vulnerable to both continued attacks from the Taliban itself and from the other aforementioned violent-extremist groups.

This concern is also not entirely unfounded as, despite the fact that under the Doha Deal the Taliban agreed to not allow extremist groups (Al-Qaeda in particular) to operate in Taliban controlled areas, recent information suggests that the Taliban has not been working towards challenging the presence of such groups. Therefore, a scenario in which violent extremist groups, such as Al-Qaeda, will re-establish/strengthen their footholds throughout Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan following the US withdrawal of troops is not inconceivable. In fact, a recent United Nations report specifically warned of the remaining active links between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. According to the report, “The Taliban regularly consulted with Al-Qaida during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honor their historical ties.”

This information, as presented by the UN, clearly states that the Taliban is failing to fulfill this particular component of the peace deal, as they have seemingly failed to sever their bonds with Al-Qaeda. This perhaps consequently suggests that, upon acknowledging this continued relationship between the Taliban and violent extremist groups, the US will consider halting the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan until the Taliban has evidently severed such relationships, which would subsequently also fulfil one of the Taliban’s key commitments to the Doha Deal.

However, the decision of the US in this case not only depends on the actions of the Taliban, but also on US domestic interests. Some US officials are concerned that, regardless of the shortcomings of the Taliban in absolutely fulfilling their agreed upon components of the Doha Deal, all US troops are going to be withdrawn before the US presidential election in November 2020. This is a direct consequence of statements made by President Trump during his 2016 election campaign and throughout his ongoing 4-year administration, in which a full withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, prior to the on-coming 2020 presidential election, was promised.

Although these aforementioned challenges are obstructing progression of the Afghan Peace Process, there is hope for the change which the long-awaited intra-Afghan talks may bring for the dynamics of the implementation of the overarching peace deal. However, due to the interdependent nature upon which each of the constitutive parties’ commitments rely, it can be reasoned that until a greater degree of dedication to satisfying key components of the Doha Deal from each party is established, the intra-Afghan talks may fail to bring the long-awaited constructive solutions which they are hoped to result in.