Countering Extremism with Sports: A Look at Martial Arts

The inclusion of sporting elements in preventive measures and deradicalization programs has not been treated with sufficient academic rigour, but the notion has been touted at the highest levels of intergovernmental organizations. Accordingly, initiatives that attempt to shift the use of combat sports as a means of extremist or terrorist recruitment into pathways for peaceful mentorship should be examined as well.

Why Is Sport Important?

Analysts focused on the complexity of why youth radicalize often conclude that the most vulnerable struggle with matters of identity and thus related issues of belonging, purpose and connection. These variables are often coupled with insecurity at home, economic marginalization and mental health as obstacles that young adults are unequipped to solve by themselves. While sport cannot singly resolve these issues outright, it remains a key factor in youth empowerment and thus wider social development in communities.

Empowerment from sport is intrinsically linked to lessons learned through practice and sensations of accomplishment. For instance, programs that include sport in some format highly focus on the development of confidence, self-esteem, self-control, teamwork and the continued breakdown of cultural stereotypes. Each of these characteristics and their maturation are extremely beneficial in both prevention and deradicalization efforts.

In both cases, youth and young adults come to acknowledge their roles in community settings, pursue beneficial connections, and build a sense of self that prepares them for fruitful opportunities. Indeed, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2419 adopted on June 6, 2018 acknowledges, “the growing contribution of sport and culture to the realization of development and peace in the promotion of tolerance and respect as well as the contributions sport and culture make to the empowerment of youth and women, individuals and communities as well as to health, education and social inclusion objectives.”

As hinted in the resolution, there is evidence that the most effective sport programs include access to educational classes, vocational training and employment, and opportunities to volunteer in the community. In such an arrangement, the connection between psychological and physical health of youth is addressed and in turn, reflective in the state of their communities. Strong youth contribute to community resiliency.

Nonetheless, such frameworks can only be facilitated by the involvement of reliable role model figures — teachers, coaches, volunteers — that create atmospheres of mentorship. Figures such as those that excelled in sport as well as individuals involved in their respective communities can share their personal experiences of integration, success and warn that extremism is a flawed, dangerous path. Mentorship relationships between coach and student provide yet another layer of connection that can potentially pinpoint if a youth seems atypically troubled or disaffected, especially in communities targeted by manipulative extremist recruiters.

Sport unites in a fun environment with holistic objectives. As governments typically focus on intelligence and law enforcement to counter radicalization, the inclusion of sporting programs is often a secondary — or even tertiary — afterthought prompting initiatives to seek out government funding, donations from the private sector and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It is generally considered that those youth most at risk of radicalization and recruitment are of meager socio-economic means; therefore, sports that provide the best dividends with as little investment, but requiring of strong effort and passion, are preferred.

Combat Sports and Radicalization

In recent years, law enforcement has made the link between combat sports (martial arts) and radicalization. For example, a sudden interest in hand-to-hand fighting styles or techniques to subdue an opponent have been mentioned as possible indicators of nefarious activities once taken into context with other factors. Some scholars have gone as far as to say that the topic has been previously neglected from prior study.

It is a simple conclusion as to why this phenomenon materialized as extremist groups and terrorist organizations thrive on the recruitment of fighters or those willing to carry out operations. The psychological stimuli created by striking sports can be easily exploited if not taught alongside an integrated positive lifestyle. Those already trained in the fighting arts are prepared and those that need to gain such skills can be easily taught as well.

Much attention has been paid to far-right extremist movements’ involvement in the promotion of mixed martial arts (MMA) tournaments and the participation of some perpetrators in said sports. However, those of Islamist persuasion also include combat sports in their general training and preparation, as evidenced by Daesh propaganda videos. In one particular case, “physical fitness and strength” was identified as the first stage in training to fight for the cause. The terrorist organization instructed its adherents to learn Krav Maga in one of its generally panned handbooks disseminated across social media.

Some analysts conclude that the inclusion of “power sports” (boxing, martial arts, weightlifting and wrestling) lead to anti-social behaviors due to an emphasis on fighting and strength. As a consequence, they challenge the value of martial arts in preventative and rehabilitative settings. Nevertheless, it must be argued that the fact remains that these sports are already attractive to youth and touted by those with disreputable purposes, so it would be beneficial to flip the negative and cynical messages into those that imprint positive overtones on young practitioners.

Fighting Against Radicalization

There are viable examples of associations and non-profit movements that have unified combat sports with preventative measures. Fight for Peace is the most visible organization at the international level and includes holistic programming (sport, education, employment training), but countering violent extremism is not one of their primary objectives, though their services are undoubtedly useful in this context.

The German Association of Martial Arts Schools Against Violent Extremism (DKVE) acts a touchstone project that unifies other schools across the country to train coaches as mentors. As part of their instruction, mentors are specially trained in psychology and the ability to spot any signs of the radicalization process taking root. Rather than the critique that such sports provoke negative behaviours, students are taught to de-escalate violence, embolden self-esteem and carry these lessons to all aspects of their lives.

Further, Not in God’s Name is a Vienna-based non-profit and fight club that aims to create tolerance amongst diverse ethnicities and combat radicalization through martial arts. NIGN contends that while education is extremely important, activities like sports encourage integration for youth, especially for those whose native culture seems incongruent with their new homes. “They train together, they practice. Jews, Christians, Muslims. We have here Albanians with Serbs, we have here Jews with Chechens,” explained founder Alexander Karakas. Mentorship from those who originate from immigrant communities and share their stories to youth that consequently look up to them plays an important role in their activities. Besides sports and mentorship, NIGN employs an active social media presence to counter the prolific activity of extremist groups.

As a last example, it should be noted that various combat sports associations from taekwondo to judo embraced April 6 celebrations on the UN International Day of Sport for Development and Peace. Many athletes contributed to the ‘White Card Campaign’ organized in unison with Peace and Sport; an independent organization headed by Prince Albert II of Monaco. The campaign seeks to build “solidarity and peace through our community and share the good will with the large sport movement”, in the words of the International SAMBO Federation (FIAS).

In conclusion, sport provides ample opportunities for outreach in various communities affected by violent extremism and radicalization. Programming can be amended to suit particular community needs and resources at hand for youth in question. The role of combat sports may have been usurped by extremist organizations, but there are realistic examples that their inherent lessons in self-esteem, self-control and mentorship can be reasonably shifted towards preventative objectives.

Do Terrorist Attacks Directly Impact GDP and Income?

Editor’s Note: Rise to Peace Research Fellows are dedicated to studying all matters of violent extremism and productive ways to contribute to the wider counter-terrorism conversation. Not only do they contribute to the organization, but at their educational institutions as well. Research Fellow Cameron Hoffman alongside his peers Heather Solomon, Daniel Pieratt and Gabriel Cirio at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh (GSPIA) created a data set to study the relationship between GDP and terrorism. Cameron further expounded upon the collectively created data set to reach his own conclusions of the question at hand. The following is a short explanation of the regression tables compiled by the team and the related, independent analysis of our Research Fellow.

Few analysts disagree on the implementation of measures to reduce international terrorism, but there are multiple opinions on how to properly address the issue. For years, countries relied on counter-terrorism strategies reliant on military operations, such as airstrikes and troop deployments. Accordingly, the efficacy of decapitation strikes came into question as well.

In another area of study, academics continue to investigate the connection between poverty and economic inequality in regard to recruitment tactics of terrorist organizations. Findings have already influenced policy as governments, like the United States, include the stabilization of economies impacted by terrorism in their national security strategies.

Studies that have changed national policies indicate that the relative deprivation of individuals is a crucial factor in their recruitment to terrorist organizations. Those with social mobility and economic welfare that is frustrated — or eliminated — are at a greater risk of radicalization as terrorist organizations provide social and economic roles the status-quo does not. As a result, countries with highly educated populations that are largely unemployed or underemployed are breeding grounds for extremist ideologies and terrorist organization recruitment. Therefore, building the economies of at-risk states must play a larger part in counter-terrorism strategies.

Additionally, the impact that terrorist organizations and their attacks have on the economies of affected nations has not been extensively studied. These organizations provide economic incentives and escapes from struggling economies, but do their attacks create more economic downturn? If so, it would suggest a circular self-supporting relationship and an additional benefit to the political goals of terrorist attacks.

Using a specifically created formula, this relationship was tested. A data set — including the statistics from over 175 countries within a a 20-year period (1995-2014) — was sourced with inputs from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the World Bank for income, and the Global Terrorism Database for for terrorist attacks and their descriptive characteristics.

Data was based on seven variables: netincomeusd2010 (net income per capita in 2010 USD, gdp (gross domestic product per capita in 2010 USD), count (number of terrorist attacks in a country in a given year), success (the number of attacks that were successful in their aim)(1), nkill (number of people killed by terrorist attacks in a given year), nwound (the number of individuals wounded by terrorist attacks in a given year), property (value denoting the amount of property damage in 2010 USD), year (year of observation), and countryname (the name of the country from which observations are taken).

The research concluded that terrorist attacks do not statistically impact the earnings of citizens of the affected country, but they do impact the GDP of the country at the 10% level. Additionally, when testing successful terrorist attacks independently, the attacks made a larger impact on GDP at the 5% significance level. The research model, findings, and regression tables are below.

As the above table indicates, the first regression(2) output indicates no statistically significant relationships between count, nkill, nwound, property, and in relation to netincomeusd2010. The only statistically significant relationship is between gdp and netincomeusd2010. Replacing success for count did not affect the data significantly.

The second regression table(3) testing the impact on gdp produced more interesting findings. While gdp is greatly impacted by netincomeusd2010 and is significant at the 1% level, like the earlier test, the count variable impacts gdp at the 10% level(4) and success impacts gdp at the 5% level. The variables nkill and property were not significant. The results of those tests are below.

This research supports that counter-terrorism strategies must include plans to develop regions economically in a way that positively impacts the incomes of citizens. Strategies focused on the prevention of attacks by weakening terrorist organizations militarily will not affect the economic and political environments that they thrive in. A reduction of terrorist attacks may safeguard GDP, but it has no effect on the earnings of vulnerable civilians.

More research is needed to test the relationship between increased rates of terrorism and GDP. As the relationship between GDP and income is very connected, it is interesting that terrorist attacks impact GDP, but not income. Does the GDP decline because of public funds devoted to counter-terrorism, the destruction of government facilities? Does international trade to countries decline when terrorist organizations are present, such as investor fears, and other factors?

Is it possible that terrorist attacks impact the income of the populace when they decline the GDP by significant amounts? If the second is true, then military responses that limit attacks are more beneficial than previously credited. The answers to these questions will impact economic counter-terrorism strategies.

It should also be noted that because terrorism is expressly political, terrorist motives are not simply to destroy, but to achieve specific political objectives. Influence over the GDP and average income of states where they operate are not within the goals of terrorist organizations. This is important to note as efforts to build economies of targeted regions are unlikely to be thwarted by terrorist organizations. All the same, the results of this research can aid policymakers in crafting international counter-terrorism plans.

(1) Both variables cannot be included in the same regression as count includes the observations in success, which skews the data.

(2) Regression code: areg netincomepercapitausd2010 count gdp nkill nwound property i.year, a(countryname)

(3) “areg gdp success netincomepercapitausd2010 nkill nwound property i.year, a(countryname)” and “areg gdp count netincomepercapitausd2010 nkill nwound property i.year, a(countryname)”

(4) It should also be noted that as the p-value is .054 that it is nearly significant at the 5% level.

– Cameron Hoffman

The Continued Impact of Technology on Terrorism

Technology has greatly evolved in the past decades to the point that it is fair to speak of a technological revolution. Mobile phones, personal computers, and the Internet are commonplace in everyday life. More specifically, the evolution of information and communication technology has radically changed not only the way people communicate, but also ways of thinking and understanding complex matters.

Notwithstanding the recognized benefits of new technologies, there are concerns regarding their dual use. Recent events demonstrate that technological developments have been misused by non-state actors, such as terrorist groups. In fact, many terrorist organizations have been quick to exploit rapid technological advances to aid in the manufacture of weapons, ammunition and explosives. The use of military technology by such groups is one of the most severe threats currently faced worldwide.

However, developments in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector are even more alarming. Indeed, the use of digital and Internet platforms and their possible misuse by terrorists requires significant attention in any discussion focused on the topic. Social media platforms, Internet forums and online messaging applications have undoubtedly become terrorist propaganda mechanisms.

The use of information and communication technologies as tools for radicalization and recruitment is now common. Many terrorist organizations have managed to build a vast, sophisticated network of supporters from all over the world. Moreover, such technologies provide a major source of inspiration for lone actor terrorists who either have attempted or successfully carried out attacks after watching live-streamed attacks or speeches by leading members of terrorist groups inciting people to commit violence.

Planning an attack is now much easier as there are websites that provide all the necessary information about means and methods. These sites are easily accessed by the public thus permitting would-be terrorists to download instructions, such as those related to bomb-making, from the Internet.

In addition, digital technology has influenced the media. Changes in media technology have enabled terrorists to easily disseminate their message to wider audiences. Violence may instill fear, but live images attract the attention needed to cause widespread reaction, influence public opinion and mobilize moderates around the world. For years now, terrorists avail themselves of the ability to broadcast live on television.

Real-time TV coverage of an attack helps terrorist organizations to achieve their objectives: promotion of their cause to the widest possible audience, incite fear in the intended target audience and recruitment of new members. In some cases, the over-coverage of such events may unwittingly exacerbate the problem, instead of simply providing information to the public. It is therefore important that journalists avoid the further incitement of already present public fear and the over-emphasis of the motives behind an attack while reporting on terrorism.

In their attempt to prevent terrorists from exploiting digital platforms, leading tech companies cooperate with law enforcement for counter-terrorism purposes. In this sense, working closely with counter terrorism officers and security experts, social media companies improved their ‘takedown’ policies, weeding out an enormous number of accounts with the aim to reduce or even eliminate terrorists’ presence on technology platforms.

Furthermore, law enforcement authorities have also intensified monitoring of the contents disseminated online in order to detect and remove terrorist propaganda. In fact, a new technology able to automatically detect terrorist content on any online platforms and stop it before it ever reaches the internet has recently been developed.

To sum up, while technology continues to evolve rapidly, technology and media companies should work together with the competent authorities to combat terrorism and to prevent terrorist groups from recruiting new members. Although the public has the right to be informed on matters of public concern, media professionals should be particularly vigilant when it comes to the coverage of terrorism issues. They should aim at keeping the public informed without offering terrorists the publicity they seek.

In addition, as long as terrorists exploit new technological developments and online technologies, counter-terrorism authorities must detect and delete any online material that promotes terrorism or encourages violence. It is therefore essential that everyone collaborate in order to address this global challenge.

Eradicating Illicit Crops: Lessons from South America for Afghanistan

As the world’s largest producer of opium poppy, Afghanistan’s reliance on the cultivation of illicit crops is integral to understanding the shortcomings of the country’s economic development agenda. Estimates suggest that Afghanistan alone generates over 90% of the world’s opium supply, with the crop contributing over a 1/3 of the country’s GDP and creating over half a million jobs.

Though efforts to curtail the production of Afghan poppy have gone through several iterations, dating back 47 years ago when King Mohammad Zahir Shah instituted an outright ban, few initiatives have yielded promising results.

For its part, the United States has spent nearly $10 billion USD on counter-narcotic operations since invading Afghanistan almost two decades ago. Yet, the arrival of American forces coincided with an exponential rise in poppy cultivation. In 2001, poppy production was just under 180 metric tons but ballooned to 6,700 metric tons last year. Such figures were debilitating enough to cause the US to cease its focus on Afghanistan’s narcotics trade.

In spite of the setbacks endured by the Afghan government and its allies, comparative case studies of illicit crop eradication efforts offer helpful guidance. Strong demand for cocaine in the United States sparked substantial cultivation of the coca leaf in the 1980s, throughout South America’s Andean States. An increasing amount of farmland in Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia shifted from traditional cash crops such as coffee and sugarcane in favor of coca, which provided healthier and reliable margins for the agricultural community.

Just as the Taliban’s involvement in the opium trade grew, so too did the nexus of illicit crop production and insurgent groups emerge in Colombia and Peru. Coca production and trafficking was vital to the funding of leftists-armed groups such as Peru’s Shining Path and Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The astonishing parallels between these groups and the Taliban are striking, given their rural origins, their stated aims, and their deep reliance on the global drug trade.

Nevertheless, as exhibited in both successes and failures from the case studies of Colombia and Peru, successful eradication is not always contingent on the achievement of military objectives. Instead, by addressing the legitimate grievances of agricultural workers, governments can simultaneously pare cultivation and the security risks associated with eradication.

Lesson #1: The Failure of Forceful Eradication

In 2004, amid international pressure, then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai declared war against opium production, with an objective to eradicate the crop by 2006. Karzai’s decision was primarily motivated by a determination to cut off revenue for the Taliban, who relied on the opium trade to fund operational expenses and acquire weapons.

While the Taliban’s financial stability can certainly be attributed to the prevalence of poppy, the assumption that Afghanistan’s narcotics trade solely benefits a handful of organizations is a harmful oversimplification. Instead, the poppy supply chain unveils a far more complex web of activities that include informal networks between farmers, producers, traffickers, and warlords.

Nevertheless, the typical response to eradication often includes use of force, either through manual destruction of crop fields, or aerial eradication using planes that spray fumigants. In the case of Afghanistan, Colombia, and Peru, manual destruction is often accompanied by exchanges of gunfire that endanger security forces participating in such operations. Aerial eradication was frequently used in Colombia as a way to mitigate casualty risks to ground forces. However, the environmental and health hazards associated with harmful chemicals such as glyphosate, has drawn in the Colombian government into lengthy court battles that have disrupted the program, eroding its efficacy to combat coca cultivation.

Regardless of the method employed, forceful eradication is consistent in one regard: alienation of the rural community from state institutions and security forces. Generating goodwill between the Afghan government and its farming community necessitates a productive dialogue for eradication, an objective that cannot be achieved through unilateral military action against poppy fields.

Lesson #2: Substitutions, Subsides, and Relief as Incentives

In order to deter illicit crop cultivation, it is pertinent to understand what incentivizes its continued growth. The profit margins of opium poppies can often be 10 times the amount generated by alternative cash crops. Yet, as documented in the Nangahar province, farmers do exhibit a willingness to forego the risks associated with poppy if provided with a holistic aid program. Such programs would include crop substitution, drought/disaster relief, and subsidies designed to cover the shortfalls while farmers adjust to licit crops.

Similar programs in Colombia and Peru have already demonstrated success, provided that the promises of aid materialize. Both countries have seen moderate success in efforts such as a “Coca to Cocoa” drive, in large part due to a multilateral model that includes aid, security, as well as financing options and expansion of market access for farmers to sell their crops. In the case of Afghanistan, potential crop substitutes could include saffron and wheat, but both necessitate investment in irrigation to ensure successful harvest.

Such programs tend to falter when states fail to uphold their end of the bargain with farmers. A sustainable agricultural aid program requires a long-term investment that includes more than direct subsidies. Poor profit margins of traditional cash crops are a consequence of inefficient farming practices, inadequate infrastructure, and a lack of market access. Thus, the simple provision of aid in the absence of structural investment in the agrarian economy is neither sustainable nor efficient in long-term eradication success.

Lesson #3: Pragmatism and Political Will remain Prerequisites

Afghanistan’s ascension as a “narco-state” is a consequence of poor industrialization and underinvestment in Afghanistan’s rural periphery. Instead of annihilating the industry, sixteen years of government-led war on the opium trade has only bolstered and entrenched the networks between farmers, producers, and traffickers.

The comprehensive peace deal negotiated between the Colombian government and FARC rebels offers a framework for Afghanistan’s peace process. Prior to the deal’s collapse, coca eradication in FARC territories saw a noticeable decline, serving as proof that the ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government could offer the best opportunity to bring about some level of control over the country’s narcotics trade.

Throughout its short-lived reign, the Taliban did manage to eradicate poppy cultivation in its strongholds. Yet, any joint enforcement with the government will only prove potent if supplemented by a comprehensive plan that address the root-causes of Afghanistan’s agricultural weaknesses. Furthermore, the entrenchment of poppy in Afghanistan’s economy means the timetable for eradication will be gradual and require the support and approval of tribal leaders. In exchange, it will be up to the government to provide the conditions for alternative employment, making poppy cultivation a choice instead of a sole solution.

Attacks on Education and Their Impact on Syrian Children

Education is a key pillar of development and an efficient investment in human capital of a state. As a result of ongoing civil wars in different hotspots, education systems have suffered a great deal. Schools in Syria are targeted by state forces or armed non-state actors alike. Now in its tenth year, the Syrian conflict has resulted in the death of approximately 22,075 children.

In stable countries, schools act as a safe space where children are educated and socialized. However, there is an alternate reality in Syria since schools and universities are constantly hit during air strikes. A large number of students and education personnel have also been killed while going to school or on their way back.

Some of the attacks against educational facilities may have been accidental, but most of them are deliberate attacks by the aforementioned groups: government forces, armed opposition groups or terrorist organizations. They intend to use them as detention centers, military operational bases, or sniper postings.

As a result, schools and universities have become military targets, leaving both students and teaching staff susceptible. Thousands of deaths have been reported under such circumstances. Many students stopped attending classes just as teachers refused to work for fear of being killed. This a clear violation of children’s rights to education.

In addition, public education systems have been affected in other ways. Attacks on schools are aimed at recruiting children as soldiers. Child soldiers in Syria are manipulated into active involvement in conflict where they are used as human shields, suicide bombers, or foot soldiers. This is a common trend as children are generally easier to recruit since they can be convinced or coerced to join.

Furthermore, there is another type of attack on education, conducted largely by terrorist groups, such as ISIL, who seek to control educational facilities in order to implement curriculum according to their extreme values and beliefs. In such cases, children are essentially indoctrinated into joining an armed group and fight for its cause. And while boys are brainwashed to take part in violent activities in the name of ISIL, adolescent girls are often sexually abused or used as brides.

Damage inflicted on the Syrian education system is severe and it is of utmost importance to resolve this problem. The conflict itself continues to have a dramatic impact on the Syrian population, especially on children, who show severe forms of stress and trauma. Both the physical and mental development of children have already been and will continue to be affected for a long time.

Consequently, deradicalization and social integration of children is a challenging task, especially when the education system is falling apart. In addition to programs aimed to provide psycho-social counseling focused on children, properly designed and targeted education and training projects can be effective in helping children to overcome the traumas experienced and hope for a better future.

– Vasileia Kioutsouki

Could US Retaliation for ISIL Strike Influence Afghan Peace Talks?

On April 9, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant -Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP) claimed responsibility for rocket strikes on an important United States airbase. The strikes resulted in zero casualties, but have the potential to spark retaliation from the US while it negotiates troop withdrawl as part of their deal with the Taliban. This could derail already fragile negotiations.

ISIL-KP has been responsible for some of the deadliest attacks targeting the Taliban, Afghan citizens, and the US-backed Afghan government in the past few years. Though they control little territory, their strength has been assessed at approximately 2,000 fighters limited to North-East Afghanistan. Stalled peace talks and the recent prisoner release debacle offer ISIL-KP a window of opportunity and indicate why the group chose to strike now — nearly six months since its last claimed major attack. Simply put, ISIL-KP is trying to disrupt the peace talks to keep the US in Afghanistan.

Terrorist groups like ISIL-KP thrive on instability and chaos as they develop in the shadows of larger players and conflicts. These groups utilize destruction and economic disparity to increase their numbers and influence. However, if the US leaves Afghanistan, ISIL-KP lose the cover of the US-Taliban conflict to hide their actions.

The Taliban can focus on dismantling smaller insurgent and terrorist organizations as a consolidation of power in the case that the US leaves Afghanistan. ISIL-KP is not an exception to this rule as they are unable to match the strength of the Taliban. Therefore, it is assumed that the ISIL-KP attack was an attempt to keep the US in the region by destabilizing the peace talks.

If the Taliban and the US continue to fight each other — in the battlefield or the negotiation table — then ISIL-KP survival is expected. It is very likely that violent attacks of some kind will continue because deterioration of the peace talks is crucial to the longevity of ISIL-KP. Now is not the time for the US to be sidetracked and fall into a trap set by ISIL-KP.

Any strikes in Afghanistan can be used as pretext for the Taliban to retaliate as well as lose whatever little trust they have in the US. The Taliban could pull out of the already fragile negotiations and this is not something the US can risk. Too much is at stake and too much can go wrong.

In order to demonstrate that the US will keep its troop withdrawal commitments, now is not the time to retaliate against ISIL-KP. Energy must be focused toward the present negotiations and building trust with the Taliban. The strike on the US airbase may be cause for concern, but it cannot be a distraction from the mission at hand: leaving Afghanistan.

– Cameron Hoffman

Disparate Positions Stall Afghan Peace Talks Yet Again

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

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

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

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

The United States Has Stakes in the Peace Process

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

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

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

Are the Taliban Willing To Make Peace?

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

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

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

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

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

Afghan Negotiators Are Ready To Talk to the Taliban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three key challenges most likely lie ahead.

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

Potential Risks and Rewards of the Impending Mass Taliban Prisoner Release

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

Concerns Regarding the Release of 5000 Convicted Taliban Fighters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Conclusions Can Be Drawn from the Current Situation?

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

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

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

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

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

US-Taliban Agreement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only the US can create peace in Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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