Lessons from Tetsu Nakamura’s Legacy in Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


An Afghanistan peace might be in reach, after all

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Civilian’s View

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

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

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

Political Complications

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

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

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

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

Lessons Going Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bosnia Needs a Smooth Repatriation Process to Benefit Counterterror Efforts

Bosnia and Herzegovina initiated significant steps recently toward repatriation of its citizens accused of being foreign fighters in the Syrian conflict. Security matters in the small Balkan nation are already complex, however this development highlights the need for deradicalization and reintegration programs, especially in a state that struggles to achieve cohesive unity. It is only through these measures that Bosnia can challenge any new allegations that it is a key source of foreign fighter recruitment in Europe.

A Short History

Bosnia is no stranger to the sensationalism of violent acts for terrorist recruitment. Barbarous events committed against Bosnian Muslims during the 1992-95 Bosnian War — part of the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia — compelled those at home to take up arms, but provided terrorist organizations, such as Al-Qaeda, with an opportunity to usurp a domestic tragedy and turn it into a transnational recruitment campaign too. The foreign Bosnian mujahideen rose from this situation. Arrival of foreign fighters from the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and the United States provided violent extremists with a preliminary foothold in the Balkan nation.

For the most part, Bosnian Muslims were immune to radicalization efforts because they follow a tolerant version of Islam. However, those that were continued to espouse extremist interpretations of the Islamic faith. They retreated to mountain villages in the north and detached from wider Bosnian society. It is in these villages that children are instructed in an extremist curriculum organized by private entities, such as clerics linked to terrorist organizations.

These factors led Bosnia to be considered a terrorism hotspot in Europe and a security failure on the brink. For instance, French President Emmanuel Macron recently expressed, “If you’re concerned about this region, the first question is neither Macedonia, nor Albania, it’s Bosnia-Herzegovina. The time-bomb that’s ticking right next to Croatia, and which faces the problem of returning jihadists.”*

Leaving Home

By 2015, it was widely reported that approximately 300 Bosnian citizens left to fight in Iraq and Syria. This was an alarming number for a country with a relatively small population of 3.3 million. Analysts highlighted that this ranked the Balkan nation as the top exporter of foreign fighters per capita in Europe. Further, continued political instability and a government often in deadlock led many to believe that the security situation would quickly deteriorate in Bosnia — as well as the wider region — were these foreign fighters to return home.

Daesh recognized the unique qualities inherent in recruitment in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Villages that purposely disconnected with Bosnian society provided recruiters with ample young minds. Extremists breathed new life into past injustices of the Bosnian War to remind confused youth that only a caliphate would protect Muslims. Some religious leaders went so far as to command that defending the caliphate was the only proper path. Fighting for a greater cause offered young Bosniak men an occasion for “self-validation, self-respect, group belonging, and purpose” in a nation struggling with ethno-nationalist divisions, economic development and unemployment. Propaganda emerged that directly targeted Bosnian citizens to travel as foreign fighters or engage in attacks at home.

To further complicate matters, many women joined to become wives of fighters. Many claim that they were manipulated whilst others fully embraced the radical ideology of Daesh. Nonetheless, it is the children of these unions that are often considered to be the most problematic, as they are stateless, as well as raised in a questionable system of beliefs.

Countering the Threat

Despite these developments, it would be unfair to deduce that Sarajevo has done little to address extremism. The country passed legislation in the early 2000s that outlawed participation in terrorist organizations and their funding. In 2014, Bosnia amended its Criminal Code to extend prison sentences for those convicted of terrorist recruitment to ten years. Those condemned for fighting overseas faced a three-year prison term. It became the first country in Europe to implement such severe penalties.

Further, Bosnian intelligence and law enforcement agencies actively conduct investigations and raids on those suspected of engagement in terrorist organizations. Extremist clerics face conviction in the courts, as demonstrated by the widely covered trial of Husein ‘Bilal’ Bosnić. These combined efforts contributed to the collapse of the number of individuals that left Bosnia to fight in foreign lands by 2015.

Repatriation Problems

As it currently stands, approximately 260 Bosnian citizens remain in detention camps holding those that travelled to be a part of the Islamic State. On November 11, Bosnian Security Minister Dragan Mektić announced that Sarajevo would accept all confirmed Bosnian citizens accused of involvement with Daesh and initiate legal proceedings against them. The Bosnian initiative to transfer these individuals spurred Macron to utter his prior statement and highlighted the need for Sarajevo to pursue specialized deradicalization and reintegration schemes once again.

A number of issues must be addressed so that Bosnia can have a smooth repatriation process for all foreign fighters returning home. Such an effort would extend into a broader counter terrorism endeavor that would benefit the entire country. First and foremost, Sarajevo must invest heavily in the development of deradicalization programs, especially in the prison system. Foreign fighters that return home — without psychological supports — will find their kin with others incarcerated and consequently remain active in terrorist movements. Additionally, clerics that speak out against extremism should be supported, consulted and their messages applied to those seeking non-extremist interpretations of Islam in Bosnia. These are more common than the loud voices of extremism.

Reintegration programming is key, however Bosnia has not exerted much effort in regard to these objectives. The fact remains that even lengthy prison sentences come to an end and former fighters must reengage with the community around them. It is a difficult task, especially for youth, that entered the battlefield young and with little life experience. Therefore, reintegration of children of Daesh fighters and wives is of paramount need. They must be exposed to common social interactions, education and civic opportunities to ensure their futures do not involve extremist rhetoric or violence. It is the only way to quash such tendencies in the future.

In general, Bosnia and Herzegovina faces significant domestic problems separate from the return of foreign fighters. The country remains chronically economically stagnant, therefore social programming in this regard may not have been high on the agenda, especially under the spectre of weak government institutions. Nonetheless, it is palpable that Sarajevo comprehends the wider consequences of mishandling the repatriation of fighters, their wives and children. Rather than a focus on the issue being a ‘ticking time bomb’, it is best to present it as an avenue towards development of a strong deradicalization and reintegration strategy, with lasting effects.

  • While a contentious term, jihadist was kept to retain the integrity of the direct quote.

Was President Erdogan’s Visit to Washington D.C. a Success?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington D.C. last week received stanch opposition not only from the Kurds and pro-democracy groups in the United States, but also both aisles of the political parties in the US Congress.

The meeting between President Trump and Erdogan included several points of tension between the United States and Turkey: Ankara’s purchase of the S400 missile defense system from Russia; their suspension from the F-35 fighter jet program, military incursion into northeastern Syria; a federal court case against Halkbank (the Turkish state-owned bank) and a Congressional sanctions bill including investigation into Erdogan’s family assets.

Erdogan has a special interest in the case against the state-owned bank due to alleged involvement of his inner circle in the scheme. Halkbank “was charged … in a six-count Indictment with fraud, money laundering, and sanctions offenses related to the bank’s participation in a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran.”

Another obvious important agenda item was the Turkish military incursion and its implications on the future of the Kurds in Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the region in general.

For Turkey, any form of Kurdish autonomy in Syria is considered an existential threat. For the United States, however, the Kurds are reliable allies in the fight against ISIL and their situation became one of the contested issues between Washington D.C. and Ankara. Erdogan pressed the position that the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) are the same and the United States should not be aligned with the ‘terrorists’.

Further, during the press conference, he tried to discredit the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, Ferhat Abdi (a.k.a. Mazlum Konabe). By discrediting him, Erdogan aimed to discredit the PYD (offshoot of the PKK). This move aligned with the objectives of the Turkish military incursion into northeastern Syria.

While Erdogan and Trump responded to questions from journalists, Erdogan explicitly criticized Trump and US officials for inviting Mazloum Kobane to the White House. Trump responded to Erdogan by stating “A lot of that is definition – what’s your definition of the various groups within the Kurds. You have various groups and some like them and some don’t.” He implicitly reaffirmed the US position that they consider the PYD very differently than the PKK.

In other words, Trump and the entire US administration have a consensus on the idea that the PYD is a legitimate actor and the sole representative of the Kurds in Syria. Mazloum Kobane and the PYD have now become more legitimate than ever in the eyes of the international community despite the objections of Erdogan and Turkey.

Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government push a narrative that was meant strictly for domestic consumption which created an opposite effect and elevated the PYD’s position. In fact, Turkey’s military incursion acted as catalyst for PYD’s legitimacy and popularity. Using the remnants of al Qaeda affiliated militants as Turkey’s proxies further damaged Turkey’s image in the international community. This had a detrimental effect because Turkish-backed forces have been accused of committing war crimes against civilians in northeastern Syria.

As discussed in my previous piece at Rise to Peace, the US withdrawal and the Turkish military incursion into northeastern Syria have already created turmoil that has taken its toll. According to the Pentagon’s Inspector General report “ISIS has exploited the Turkish incursion and subsequent drawdown of US troops from northeastern Syria to reconstitute its capabilities and resources both within Syria in the short term and globally in the longer term.”

The S400 crisis is another major issue which has overarching implications, including Turkey’s future in NATO and Western Alliance. The purchase of the S400 defense system represents a blueprint of a major shift in Turkey’s axis. Seeing that there has been no concrete response from the United States, rather than considering it as a concerning issue, Erdogan’s leadership started to use the S400 crisis as leverage and exploit it against the United States and the European allies.

However, Erdogan is walking a thin line between the United States and Russia. While he is trying to contain the tensions with the United States, he also does not want to galvanize Russia which could become very costly for him domestically and internationally.

In his most recent remarks, Erdogan downplayed tensions between the United States and Turkey. He reiterated Trump’s critical position and emphasized the importance of US-Turkey relations. For Erdogan, his visit aimed to focus on “the areas of cooperation instead of deepening the chronic problems.” He also reemphasized that Turkey would not take a step back from the S400 deal with the Russians.

So, has Erdogan gained anything from his visit to Washington D.C.? The answer is a soft yes because he did not aim for complete success anyway. Erdogan’s most important gain was to have facetime with President Trump at White House which he desperately needed. In fact, Erdogan’s entire strategy relies on President Trump’s continuing courtship.

Turkey claims that neither Russia nor the United States kept their promises and threatens to expand its area of operation in northeastern Syria. Such an attitude would again create the opposite effect which would bring Russia and the United States against Turkey. In any case, the worst scenario could be deepening instability in the region in which ISIL benefits.

As for the Kurds in Syria, Erdogan’s visit confirmed that US support is firm and will continue notwithstanding the strong objections from Turkey. While concerns over ISIL resurfacing in Iraq and Syria are rising, Turkey’s ability to maneuver and pressure the Kurds will weaken.

Veterans Day

What Veterans Day Means To Me

I had the honor to serve with the United States Armed Forces from an early age of 15. I fought in the field with Special Forces, trained Afghan Security Forces, and advised leadership on counterinsurgency strategies to enhance the peace process.

Leaving school to serve alongside the US military was my decision and it has become my passion to fight terrorism, like many other brave men and women I have come to feel a kinship with.

This day reminds us to remain strong, united and forever determined until we win the fight against extremism and global terrorism. Many heroes sacrificed their lives to protect us including my three good friends (Afghan, American).

The willingness to fight for freedom and democracy, sacrificing everything to protect countrymen, family and homeland is a Veteran.

This day brings great memories from being joked at for being a young teenager to patrolling in the mountains of Afghanistan, seeing brave soldiers frightened by scorpions to convincing the newly deployed forces to try the local food without getting food poisoning and interpreting funny local jokes into English, realizing no one is laughing but me.

We should all be proud of our sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers that have lost their lives for America and the vulnerable of the world. It is hard to outlive the ones we love and remembering their heroism is vital.

Today is not about arbitrating whether the war is right or wrong, necessary or unnecessary, who is to blame or not – it’s about honoring the brave men and women who served to protect the United States of America and its commitment to Democracy. It’s about honoring those who have sacrificed their lives to combat terrorism and keep all of us and our way of life safe. It’s about sharing condolences and supporting the families who have lost heroic loved ones. May they rest in peace!

Today is a special day to remind all of us that Veterans serve the motherland without regard for partisanship.

For this day, this year, the country needs to put aside its divisiveness, join hands, stand up wherever you are at 11:00 am and honor all who lost their lives for us.

May this day remind us that unity is our victory – being different is our beauty and diversity makes us strong.

Use this day to combat various forms of violent extremism – from lone wolves on the domestic front, to organized insurgent and international terrorist groups that operate in all corners of the globe, from the Far East and the Horn of Africa to South America, and the Middle East, for extremism has no boundary.

Ahmad Shah Mohibi

Photo: Ahmad Shah Mohibi (age 17), Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan — 2007

Narcotics and Insecurity: How the Afghan-Tajik Drug Trade Derails Peace

A special field report by Rise to Peace. 

Taliban makes 10 million Afghanis daily via drug trafficking in northern Afghanistan. For years, the Taliban continue to smuggle and traffick narcotics such as heroin  along the Kukche River in the Darqid and Khawaja Bahawuddin districts of Takhar province.

This highly lucrative black market venture relies on two important branches. Armed smugglers transport heroin to the Dasht-e Qala district of Takhar, however, the Taliban facilitate the transnational nature of these particular shipments as they cross the border into Tajikistan.

As a result, the Taliban profits 10 million Afghanis ($127, 800 US) from this black market venture daily, excluding the shares diverted to drug traffickers and armed guards.

Heroin is not the only illicit product peddled by the Taliban. In coordination with narcotics traffickers and gunmen in the province, the Taliban import alcohol, and tablets known as “tablet K” (a synthetic drug with an unclear composition that acts as a stimulant) from Tajikistan. Many Afghans have died in recent years due to the use of such synthetic drugs and their intoxicating effects. Once narcotics such as these tablets are imported to Takhar, they are easily distributed across Afghanistan.

The Taliban control trafficking routes and cooperate with narco-traffickers based on mutually beneficial terms. The importation of alcoholic beverages (such as wine) and illegal drugs (such as tablet K) typically occurs in the north-eastern provinces of Afghanistan because they offer fewer impediments. Only a body of water — the large Kukche River —  separates the borders between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. 

Is the Afghan experience unique versus other drug hotspots?

Afghanistan is the top cultivator of opium globally and a major player in the heroin trade. Countries with similar narco-agricultural portfolios, such as Mexico and Colombia, reveal that the drug trade has certain similarities no matter a state’s location. Traffickers use violence and armed groups to ensure preferred corridors remain under their control. This often conflicts with the involvement of national security forces positioned to counter this broad human security threat. 

Furthermore, like their foreign counterparts engaged in the narco-trade, the Taliban and Tajik drug lords rely on state instability and unstable socioeconomic factors to lure individuals — such as border guards, insecure infrastructure, government officials and those in poverty — to ensure the safe passage of their contraband goods. Transnational black market schemes typically ensure the largest profits.

How do officials conspire with the Taliban to garner profits?

Drug smugglers and some former government officials work together with the Taliban to smuggle Afghan heroin to the vast market of Central Asia through Tajikistan. A former Takhar governor, who does not wish to be named, stated the following to a Rise to Peace journalist: “the war beyond Takhar is a war between the mafia of power and the heroin war that the Taliban have been able to coordinate with unarmed Marines.”

Mullah Qadar a top Taliban commander who is also a graduate of the Shariah department at Takhar University  told an unarmed man, who was later interviewed by Rise to Peace, that the Taliban’s leadership strongly controls the districts surrounding Kunduz province to ensure a continuous stream of income from drug trafficking and taxes imposed on the people.

Kunduz is a key province in northern Afghanistan that connects Kabul with Takhar and Badakhshan province. As it is a strategic point, the Taliban usurped control over the region from the Afghan government three times in the past 18 years

The Taliban taxes farmers in these areas under their influence to acquire funding for military operations to ensure their presence remains. According to Mullah Qadar, who worked as deputy governor of Takhar for a long time: “Taliban have various ways of income in Kunduz. When I was with them, we collected revenue from textiles, taxed farmers, and charged small fees for some businessmen selling their products or goods in an open market.”

Further insight into the northern Afghan-Tajik drug trade was offered by those interviewed.

Why did you import wine from Tajikistan when you know it’s unlawful and illegal?

We had a deal with the heroin traffickers. They gave us the goods, we transported them and made revenue to keep our resistance going. The export of heroin to Tajikistan and the import of alcohol and tablet K into Afghanistan generated the most revenue for us and the Taliban are still doing it.

How does the Taliban smuggle heroin to Tajikistan?

Taliban receives the product from Afghan drug traffickers and then coordinate with Tajik smugglers who are on the other side of the river. According to a smuggler: “Taliban have close coordination with Tajikistan’s border guards. After they get our heroin, they ship the stuff through small boats, or in most cases, via a localized water technique called Kema that has the ability to transfer drugs. 

Karghan Tapeh, which is the capital of Khatlan province of Tajikistan, is the destination of these particular contraband materials. It acts as a transit point where alcohol and tablet K are loaded and transferred to the Taliban.

Tajikistan’s Ministry of Defense spokesman Fereidun Muhammad Aliev states that ‘more than ten’ Afghan smugglers are targeted along this route annually and their bodies are surrendered to Afghan authorities. Nonetheless, he continued that the prevention of further smuggling on this lucrative route is difficult given the Taliban’s presence in the shared forests and river areas between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

A strong Taliban presence correlates to increased trafficking in the area.

Local authorities in Takhar also confirm that the majority of regional heroin smuggling occurs along this route with help from the Taliban. Afghan officials arrest numerous smugglers attempting to transport drugs via trucks or import heroin and wine in the districts each year. A border police officer told a Rise to Peace journalist, “the presence of the Taliban has made it difficult for us to stop the import and export of illegal stuff.”

After years of presence and major funding, the Taliban now have a bazaar (market) known as Omari Town in the districts of Darqid and Khawaja Bahawuddin. This market is unlike many others in Afghanistan because people can easily buy and sell arms, ammunition, drugs, and wine. They control more than a thousand shopkeepers. Afghan security forces have destroyed most of the shops in operation, but the market continues once they are gone.

The Taliban’s next move is to create a transnational market where Afghans and Tajiks cross the border to buy each others’ goods without getting visas as is common in northern Afghanistan. They would maximize their finances and control over surrounding districts under this scenario.

Like the Afghan-Tajik border, the Taliban continuously uses Afghanistan’s borders with Pakistan and Iran for clandestine purposes. For instance, the boundary with Pakistan is typically used to facilitate the transfer of guns, donations and foreign fighters. As a result of this, the United States’ government suspended aid to Islamabad over their harboring of terrorism. 

The likelihood of the peace process is significantly reduced if the Taliban continues to fund its operations through illicit resources and narcotics while negotiating with the American and Afghan governments. It is vital to cut their finances (especially assistance from wealthy foreign donors) and block their drug trafficking routes. As long as drug trafficking remains profitable, the Taliban will continue to buy weapons, ammunition and pay fighters, which leads to a continuous cycle of war. Bankrolling the Taliban means they will not enter peace process negotiations in good faith.

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

It is apparent that these Taliban fighters engaged in the drug trade are self-serving bandits uninterested licit employment. Simply put, they do not care about the Islamic faith and manipulate the concept of jihad to suit their narrow personal interests. Their greater mission is accomplished as long as they make money and live in luxury. 

A copy of this report was provided to the Afghan National Security Council and the local government in Takhar province. For full reports and inquiries, please contact Rise to Peace.

Extremism Assessment Series: Earth Liberation Front (ELF)

  • Originally established in 1992 in Brighton, United Kingdom, ELF now operates in 17 countries and is thought to be a descendant of the Animal Liberation Front due to their increased cooperation.
  • Uses a “leaderless resistance” model to take the profit motive out of environmental destruction by causing property damage to businesses. The ELF targets companies that “exploit the Earth, its environment, and its inhabitants.”
  • Advocates for “monkeywrenching”, a euphemism for acts of sabotage and property destruction against industries and other entities perceived to be damaging to the natural environment. One of their most popular forms of attack is arson.

Summary of Extremist Narrative

The ELF is a completely decentralized group with no hierarchical structure or central leadership. The ELF mainly consists of a network of self-funded cells which carry out attacks under the ELF name. The ELF targets businesses and corporations which are thought to be harmful to the environment, such as companies working in genetic engineering, genetically modified organism (GMO) crops, deforestation, rural cluster and development, and energy production to name a few. They utilize several attack styles, with arson being the most popular form of criminal activity carried out by the group.

History of the Group

The ELF was originally established in 1992 in Brighton, United Kingdom before spreading to the rest of Europe. It is now operating in 17 countries and consists of an entirely decentralized structure. The ELF is known to cooperate with the Animal Liberation Front due to their similarities in radical ideology.

What sets the ELF apart from other environmental protest groups is their radical ideology and actions. The ELF follows two trains of thought, the first being “Biocentrism”, which regards all organisms on earth as equal and deserving of moral rights and considerations, and identifies biodiversity and wilderness as an absolute good against which all other actions should be judged.

The second philosophical approach that the ELF follows is “Deep ecology”, which calls for a general rollback of industrialization and the restoration of the ecological balance. While neither of these schools of thought are generally violent or criminal, the ELF uses these philosophies to justify their violent actions as moral. Radical environmentalist groups believe that human beings are the source of the environmental problem and advocate for the destruction of environmentally-harmful corporations and industries.

Current State of the Movement

Following 9/11, the FBI began to focus on all forms of domestic terrorism including eco-terrorism. In 2004, the ELF was ranked as the number one domestic-terror threat in the US, surpassing white supremacists and militias as the FBI’s top priority. A wave of arrests known as “The Green Scare” led to a massive crack down on eco-terrorist groups. Although these eco-terrorist groups have never killed anyone, they have caused massive amounts of property damage as well as economical damage to hundreds of corporations.

According to an article titled The Earth Liberation Front and Environmental Terrorism, the ELF and the ALF are believed to be responsible for over 600 criminal acts between the years of 1996 and 2002, causing more than $43 million in damages. Another article mentioned a string of arsons, including a fire in 2003 that caused $50 million worth in damages to a five-story apartment complex. A banner that was left at the scene of the fire made it clear that it was the work of the ELF, but those who set the fire were never found.

The ELF has an active website where they claimed responsibility for arson attacks and other criminal activity across the US. They also have a training manual that calls itself an “arson guide” for ELF members. The loose structure of the ELF group makes it even more difficult to track down those responsible for their criminal acts.

In recent years, however, the number of attacks carried out by the ELF and other eco-terrorist groups has declined. According to a START article, the number of incidents in the past few years has been significantly lower than in the early 2000’s. Looking at the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), the most recent ELF attack logged in the US was in 2009 in Everett, Washington, where an unknown assailant stole a track hoe and toppled two radio transmission towers. The attack caused more than $2 million dollars in damage and the ELF was prompt to claim responsibility.

The most recent attack logged in the GTD was in Athens, Greece in 2015, suggesting that the ELF’s momentum has dwindled in the US. This may be in part due to law enforcement’s major crackdown on eco-activists across the country. Many of these protesters have faced terrorism charges for acts such as chaining themselves to construction sites to prevent further environmental damage. The increase in eco-activist arrests is seen as a resurgence of “The Green Scare” that was seen in the early 2000’s.

The Extremism Assessment Series is an initiative of Rise to Peace’s Domestic Counter Terrorism Program. It seeks to provide short educational pieces highlighting groups or social movements linked to extremist ideologies and/or tactics. Check back for new additions to the series.


Iran’s Approach to Turkey’s Military Operation in Northern Syria

Iran joined numerous countries that scrutinized Turkey’s military operation (Peace Spring) in northern Syria. The operation has been discussed and commented on not only by the Iranian authorities, but also by the Iranian press, social media, and even in Friday sermons.

Most of these assessments and comments indicate negative views against Turkey’s actions. The level of criticism has at times resulted in what could be considered as a serious insult against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Iran sought a policy focused on stability, such as the advocation of the continuation of the Assad regime. In this context, Iran provides various kinds of support, especially in the military field to Assad. Some high-level Revolutionary Guard Army officers lost their lives during the clashes in Syria, and large ceremonies were held in Iran to honor them. To summarize, Tehran aims to use its position in Syria as a deterrent against regional and international forces.

Statements by Iranian authorities, in particular, President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, called on Turkey to end the operation as soon as possible. Emphasis on Syrian territorial integrity and that a viable political solution could only come through political negotiations was apparent.

Further, to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the events, Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani cancelled his official visit to Turkey on the day the operation began and the former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad postponed his trip to Istanbul for an event.

The conservative segment close to the Iranian religious leader used more severe expressions in their reaction to the operation. Farhikhtegan Newspaper —which is known for its close ties to Dr Ali Akbar Velayati; the international relations advisor of the Iranian religious leader Khamenei — used the title “Sultanism in the Service of Terrorism”.

The Tasnim News Agency predicted that the future of the operation would be similar to the situation of the Saudi military operation in Yemen. The Friday imams — representatives of the religious leader — also used similar language in their sermons, such as heavy criticism of Turkey, blaming Turkey of having Ottoman dreams and engaging in Mongolian-type aggression.

In the Iranian Parliament, many deputies made statements against the operation. Declarations stated that the operation was illegal and that it would further complicate the situation in Syria. However, some Azeri members of parliament expressed support for the operation. In these statements of support of Turkey, they claimed that the military operations were carried out in order to fight against terrorism.

Iranian artists have not kept their disagreement with the operation silent either. Their reactions mostly focus on the humanitarian dimension and serious allegations, such as genocide and alleged evidence of war crimes. Some Iranian singers cancelled performances in Turkey as a response to the Turkish operation in northeastern Syria.

Additionally, in some parts of Iran, civilians took some form of action. A demonstration held in front of the Embassy of Turkey in Tehran attracted a significant number of participants; even some that wrote anti-Turkey and Erdoğan slogans on walls. Other protests occurred in the cities of Senendec, Bane, Merivan, Chios and Mahabad in the west of Iran.

Such demonstrations do not occur very often and it should be noted that this expression against the Turkish military operation was permitted, or at least tolerated, by the government.

Social media revealed even broader —and often more extreme —reactions of Iranian citizens. Messages went so far as to claim that the military operation would be the downfall of Erdoğan and called for boycotts of Turkish products.

The position — or lack thereof —of the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards is an additional remarkable point to consider. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the religious leader, referred to as the rahbar (guide), and the Revolutionary Guards that act under him are significant actors in the determination of the state’s domestic and foreign policies. Therefore, it is interesting that neither the religious leader nor the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards who typically state their opinions on almost every subject, have not made any statements about the Turkish military operation so far.

This silence drew criticism from all segments of Iranian society, however this lack of public comment can be regarded as an opinion. It is important that in a country like Iran, where every action takes place under strict control by the government, at least the people were allowed to react.

Iran and Turkey —rivals throughout history — remain at odds over their respective interests in the Syrian crisis. Iran perceives Syria as the axis of resistance and it does not want to lose its interest in the territory, therefore it is of little surprise that the reaction of the Iranian public continued after the military operation concluded.

Despite the aforementioned points, the two nations attempt to follow a balanced policy towards each other due to their commercial and cultural relations. Iran currently experiences serious economic difficulties due to sanctions and it will want to maintain its influence in the Middle Eastern countries, especially Syria.

Harun Basli has a MSc. in Persian Language and Literature. He conducted important research on Turkey-Iran relations and Iranian foreign policy in the Middle East, as well as radicalization and violent extremism in the region. He worked as a consultant on security cooperation in Tehran and currently acts as a researcher at the Global Center for Security Studies.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Rise to Peace.