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Pakistan’s Support of the Taliban Might Come Back to Haunt Islamabad

The scenes from recent Taliban military successes in Afghanistan were positively received among members of Pakistan’s security establishment. While denying it publicly, these Pakistani hardliners have funneled support to the Taliban for decades. If the current trajectory of the conflict continues, they will get what they wished for: a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. A Taliban triumph, however, will provide a merely pyrrhic victory for Pakistan, a victory that it will come to regret.

Pakistan’s Support for the Taliban

Since the Taliban’s emergence almost three decades ago, Pakistan has continuously provided a safe haven and financial and military assistance to the Taliban. Following the U.S. invasion in 2001, Pakistan became a safe haven for Al-Qaeda’s leadership as well. There are a couple of reasons why Pakistan continues its support for the Taliban.

First, Pakistan’s security apparatus believes that the Taliban gives it strategic depth, securing the Afghan frontier and permitting the concentration of Pakistani forces on the Indian frontier. The Taliban is the only ally of Pakistan among Afghanistan’s political actors. Pakistan believes that maintaining positive relations with the organization will prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for anti-Pakistan militants and outside powers.

Second, Pakistan fears that targeting Afghan militant groups will invite retaliation against Pakistani targets. While Pakistan sponsors these groups, it lacks full control of them. Nevertheless, it continues to argue to the contrary, believing that this strengthens its position in international bargaining.

Third, Pakistan fears a strong and independent Afghanistan that is aligned and supported by India. Such an Afghan-Indian alliance, Pakistan believes, will encircle Pakistan. The 2011 Afghanistan-Indian strategic partnership agreement and the recent call by Ambassador Mamundzay, the top Afghan diplomat in Delhi, for India to play a bigger role in Afghanistan, increases Pakistan’s paranoia regarding Indian engagement in Afghanistan.

What Can Go Wrong for Islamabad?

Internationally, the Taliban takeover will affect Pakistan’s strategic depth and its diplomatic relations with its neighbors.

First, as mentioned earlier, Pakistan sees the Taliban in Afghanistan as its strategic depth in its confrontation with India. The Taliban, however, has its own interests. The Taliban would probably intensify its diplomatic campaign to gain international legitimacy. India has already established a new direct line to the Taliban and an Indian delegation has met Taliban officials last month in Doha. Normalization between the Taliban and India will undermine Pakistan’s conception of its strategic depth.

Second, Pakistan should expect increasing pressure from its Islamic neighbors Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. These countries have accused Pakistan of supporting the Taliban in the past, and with the intensification of fighting between the Taliban and Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen warlords, this pressure is sure to increase.

Third, with diminishing influence over the Taliban and increasing international demand to rein in and influence the Taliban, Pakistan will find itself in a diplomatic nightmare. A victorious Taliban is less likely to defer to Islamabad in its moment of victory. At the same time, the international community will increasingly defer to Pakistan to act and impose its influence over the Taliban. The failure of Pakistan to influence the Taliban will inflict a blow on its international bargaining power.

Domestically, the Taliban takeover will create economic and security challenges for Pakistan. First, escalation of the war and a Taliban takeover will propel a massive flood of refugees into Pakistan. These refugees would join the 3 million people already seeking refuge in Pakistan. As Pakistan has its hands full, these new refugees will further exacerbate its economic situation.

Second, a Taliban win will embolden the jihadists’ anti-government factions in Pakistan. In the past, the Taliban has already inspired extremist movements in Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban have launched attacks against Pakistani targets, horrifically killing 132 kids in an army school in Peshawar in 2014 in one such attack. Taliban success in neighboring Afghanistan will lead to the import of sectarian violence from Afghanistan into Pakistan.

Conclusions

While the Pakistani military establishment is cheerful about the recent Taliban successes, Pakistan might face an international and domestic blowback if the Taliban will take over Afghanistan. It might be in Pakistan’s best interest to confidentially ask the U.S. to intensify its air support to Afghan government forces operations to prevent the Taliban from taking over.

The Reemergence of Right-Wing Extremism Groups in the United States

It has been a scary realization for many people in the United States as more people are witnessing the re-emergence of right-wing extremism. We are living through a moment of profound yet positive change in attitudes toward race, with a majority of citizens coming to understand more about the deeply embedded historical legacy of racist structures and ideas.

However, there is another more dangerous, group of people. They are seeking to rehabilitate the toxic political notions of racial superiority and stoke fear of immigrants and minorities to inflame grievances for political ends. Furthermore, they are attempting to build a notion of an embattled white majority that has to defend its power. This, achieved by any means necessary.

Extremism in the US

In the United States, terrorists are usually associated with one of the six most commonly known ideologies: right-wing extremism, left-wing extremism, environmental extremism, nationalist/separatist extremism, religious extremism, and single-issue extremism. In recent years, the threat of right-wing terrorism in the United States appears to be rising at an alarming rate. More specifically, we have seen an increase in white supremacy anti-government extremists, such as militia groups and so-called sovereign citizens interested in plotting attacks against government, racial, religious, and political targets in the United States.

The terms “right-wing extremists” and “left-wing extremists” do not correspond to political parties in the United States, such as Republicans or Democrats. However, the election of Donald Trump as the President has been cited as a factor in inciting the reemergence of activists in America. These groups both reject left-wing ideology and mainstream conservatism.

The Increase in Recent Years

Another huge factor inciting this reemergence is the role of social media in promoting these ideologies. White supremacy has made its return to mainstream media, as deadly acts of violence are occuring in states all around the country. A prominent US civil rights group, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that it is currently tracking more than 1,600 extremist groups within the United States.

This has inevitably led to an increase in domestic terrorist attacks by right-wing extremists in the United States. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of such attacks was five or fewer per year. The number of attacks then rose to 14 in 2012. This remained consistent between 2012 and 2016, with a mean of 11 attacks and a median of 13 attacks. This then jumped to 31 in 2017 and has continued to rise every year since then. Most recently, in the summer of 2020, there was a specific increase in the number of attacks on protesters and street violence. This included car attacks, street fights, small explosives, and many non-fatal shootings.

How to Move Away from This Upward Trend

U.S. federal and local agencies need to shift some of their focus and intelligence resources to penetrating far-right networks and preventing future attacks. There needs to be a challenge of exposing white nationalist ideologies and the opportunistic politicians who are appropriating their language. This will demonstrate to the American people that these ideas are fundamentally un-American and are all too often a cover for corruption, graft, and racism.

In an analysis of the January 6th Capitol Hill riots, it became clear that an alarmingly significant number of members of both police and military had joined in on attacking the nation’s institutions. Consequently, many have been exposed to disinformation that led them to conclude that violent action was needed to save democracy. This kind of information will be crucial for prevention efforts. Furthermore, to stop the radicalization and recruitment of white supremacism in many countries. However, it will also be imperative in understanding how to address and remove the motivations for joining.

The New Reality in Afghanistan Requires the Afghanistan Government to Change Its Strategy

Since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement in February 2020, the Taliban has accelerated its offensive, securing major gains. The Taliban has expanded its control of the country and captured border crossings, routing entire Afghan National Army units in the process.

Clearly, the current government strategy is failing. The Afghan government should realize the fact that without the presence of U.S. and NATO troops, they are the weaker side in this war. Instead of denying it, the Afghan government should adopt a new strategy that better represents the evolving reality in its war against the Taliban.

Current Strategy

Operationally, under the authority of Joint Order 125, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) holds an active-defense posture, concentrating on defending major provisional capitals. The Active Defense consists of ANDSF patrolling forward from checkpoints, conducting limited offensive actions and counterattacks within the vicinity of checkpoints, and consolidating checkpoints. With the exception of the Special Security Forces, the Afghan conventional forces rarely take the fight to the Taliban and increasingly often surrender without a fight.

Diplomatically, the Afghan government continues to ask the U.S. to keep its contractors in Afghanistan and its air support to Afghan troops. With diminishing U.S. military presence, the government also calls on other countries to provide technical and anti-terrorism operation support. At the same time, the Afghan government maintains its commitment to peace talks with the Taliban.

Recommendations

The following recommendations are based on two of Sun Tzu’s hierarchy of strategies, attacking the enemy’s strategy and disrupting the enemy’s alliances.

First, the Taliban strives to gain international and domestic recognition. Domestically, the Taliban tries to rebrand itself as a capable government able to provide the population with basic needs. Internationally, the Taliban strives to expand its international recognition. From its Doha-based political office, Taliban officials visit world capitals and conduct negotiations.

To confront the Taliban domestically, the Afghan government should focus on the population. Using tools of propaganda, the government should portray the Taliban as corrupt, oppressive, and foreign-controlled. With more than 60 percent of the Afghan population under the age of 24, the majority of the population never lived under Taliban rule and are not familiar with the organization’s ways. With increasing reports of Taliban committed assassinations and executions of government forces and officials, oppression of women, and reports of foreign fighters in its ranks, the government could mobilize the population against the Taliban.

Internationally, the Afghan government should defame the Taliban as untrustworthy and urge world governments to refrain from negotiating with the Taliban and providing it a façade of international recognition. The continued participation in the peace talks with the Taliban should also be reconsidered. The participation of the government provides the Taliban recognition with no substantial gains for the government.

Furthermore, the Taliban knows that the government forces are static, trying to keep control of provincial capitals. While the government forces are pinned down in cities, the Taliban takes control of more territories and expands its operations in the north. This dynamic needs to change and the government needs to take the initiative.

The government should retreat from “lost causes” such as defending overrun southern districts and solidify the government’s control in the central and northern regions. Then, it should wage guerrilla warfare in Taliban-controlled regions against the Taliban’s extended supply lines, symbols of governance, and political organizations. The successful mobilization of militias is key in bolstering the capacity of the pro-government forces. The “glue” that connects the members of these militia’s together, ethnic identity and strong anti-Taliban sentiment, decreases the chances of desertion.

Second, the Afghan government needs to disrupt the enemy’s alliances. Pakistan, traditionally perceived as the Taliban’s main ally, should be the main effort. The potential Taliban takeover of Afghanistan raises concerns in Pakistan’s halls of power. A Taliban victory will embolden Pakistan’s own anti-government Islamist movements and hinder the country’s stability. The Afghan government should take advantage of Pakistan’s concerns and urge Islamabad to cease its support of the Taliban.

Conclusion

The successful Taliban offensive requires the Afghan government to rethink its strategy. Acknowledging the reality on the ground should propel the government to consider such a change. Attacking the enemy’s strategy and its alliances is a good first step in changing the tide of war.

The Crisis in Cabo Delgado: A Familiar Road to Extremism

This is the second piece in a series examining the ongoing extremist threat in Mozambique.

Cabo Delgado, the northernmost region of Mozambique, has been plagued by a radical Islamist insurgency since 2017. But it is only in the last couple of months that the conflict has become a staple of the international news cycle. This relatively low-level insurgency has been carried out by Ahlu-Sunnah Wa-Jama (ASWJ), locally known as al-Shabaab (the youth).

The dramatic siege of Palma, where they terrorized a large district capital for four days in March, and the growing identification of ASWJ with the Islamic State, has prompted a recent whirlwind of pledges and policy responses from international actors.

Though next week’s piece will discuss the methods and missteps of the government and its foreign partners in handling the crisis, we must first understand this seemingly rag-tag group that has evoked such a mass mobilization of troops and resources from around the world.

Identities Along the Coast

Islam has a long history in Mozambique, dating to the 8th century when Muslim traders and conquerors began traversing much of the Indian Ocean, including East Africa. For centuries, Sufism, or mystic Islam, was dominant among Cabo’s Muslims. But the global expansion of traditionalist Salafism and Saudi-oriented Wahhabism in the 1950s and ‘60s produced greater antagonism towards older forms of Islam in Cabo. The new imams and cadres criticized Sufism for allegedly deviating from Islamic doctrine and being too accepting of Western vices and values. 

Three such mosques became staples of the community in Mocímboa da Praia, a district in Cabo Delgado. There, preachers and coastal youth were put in touch with the larger transnational network and ideology of Salafism. Particularly, the teachings of the late Sheikh Rogo. Rogo, sanctioned by the US and UN for supporting Somalia’s al-Shabab, sought the creation of an Islamic State. Upon his death, several of his students immigrated to Cabo. Even though the three mosques have since been shuttered by authorities, many of their adherents became foot soldiers for the nascent ASWJ.

But the at-risk youth who populate Cabo Delgado, are just as vulnerable to socioeconomic pressures as they are to the ideological. ASWJ’s mixture of fundamentalism and banditry offers a sense of belonging, alongside material gains to Cabo’s youth. These young people have been largely disengaged and disillusioned with Mozambican politics, living under the same party their whole lives, with very little economic opportunity even when a trove of natural gas is discovered right in their community.

Relative deprivation theory, elucidated in Ted Gurr’s 1970 classic Why Men Rebel, holds that social upheaval occurs when communities see opportunities that they can’t access. One then understands the path connecting long-abandoned youth to an insurgency eager for recruits.

Identities Exploited for Violence

The March 2021 siege of Palma, capital of Cabo’s northernmost district, can be seen as the culmination of four years of skirmishes and terror across the Mozambican-Tanzanian frontier. ASWJ’s structure and membership originally came from the three mosques in Mocímboa da Praia. It was there that they first declared war. Since their two-day occupation of Mocímboa da Praia in 2017, ASWJ has rapidly increased the scale and number of attacks. This was from 110 attacks between October 2017 and June 2019, to 357 in the first nine months of 2020 alone.

Similar economic woes and shared communal identities have also caused many Tanzanians to come across the border and fortify ASWJ’s numbers and resources. Adding to their momentum, in 2019 the Islamic State (IS), claimed ASWJ as a branch of its Central Africa Province. Consequently, observers have noted that ASWJ uses similar tactics to IS and sometimes waves its notorious black flag during raids.

In what seems like death by a thousand cuts, the people and infrastructure of Cabo Delgado have been bled dry by hit-and-run tactics and cruel, destructive violence. Over 4,000 have died and 600,000 have been displaced thus far. Consequently, the UN recently warned that almost one million people face severe hunger in the region.

Barely able to regain Palma, Mozambican forces will likely be unable to determine the death toll from this bold assault. As a result, the government believes it will take at least $114 million to rebuild Palma. Now the government, much like the Portuguese half a century ago, is left to deal with an insurgency in a region where outside involvement has rarely been constructive or peaceful, and guerrillas are able to sustain themselves for years on end.

A great deal of troops, guns, and finances will be siphoned into the area, but blind violence will likely be unable to dislodge the insurgency. This insurgency is dually rooted in the spiritual conceptions the people have of themselves and the very real experiences they live through every day. Only by understanding this can effective policy be made.

 

The Impact of the Withdrawal of U.S troops from Afghanistan on the Hazara People

The Hazara people are a Persian-speaking, predominantly Shi’a ethnic group, a religious minority among the country’s majority Sunni population. Comprising 10-20% of Afghanistan’s 38 million people, the minority Shi’a have faced systematic discrimination from the majority Sunni population throughout the centuries and from ISKP and the Taliban more recently.After the fall of Taliban in 2001, Hazaras embraced hopes for a new Afghanistan in terms of political representation and greater access to education for women.

The ongoing peace process with the Taliban and the withdrawal of US troops pose a serious threat to the Hazara community, who now fear that Afghanistan could descend into full-scale civil war. Last but not least, terrorist networks may find fertile ground to grow or consolidate their influence in this crisis.

This could expose the Hazara to greater attacks, like the May 8th attack on the Syed Al-Shahada School in Dasht-e-Barchi, Kabul, which left 85 Hazara dead, including schoolgirls between the ages of 11 and 17.

Among the Hazara, education and civic engagement have long represented a form of resistance to oppression and injustice. For this reason, this Shi’a minority’s voice needs to be included in the Afghan peace process.

According to EASO, 3000 Hazaras were killed under Taliban rule between 1994 and 2001. As mentioned above, after the fall of Taliban in 2001, the Karzai government (2001-2014) gave more rights to the Hazara community, which led to a gradual process of female empowerment.

It is also worth mentioning some of the Hazara women who contributed to shape the political and social context in Afghanistan at that times. Sima Samar served as the first Ministry of Women’s Affairs of Afghanistan from 2001 to 2003 and was the first female Head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). Habiba Sarābi became the first female governor of Bamyan Province in 2005 and Uzra Jafari was appointed mayor of Nili (Daykundi Province) in 2008. According to the Afghan women’s activist, Zareen Taj, those women broke traditional taboos and had an impact on the political agenda of the country thanks to education, civic engagement, and the support of the international community.

But the Hazara people are seen as a significant threat to terrorist groups as “heretical”, as Shi’a, as well-educated participants in Afghan society. Terrorist groups such as ISKP would carry out attacks at hospital and educational facilities. These are ideal targets to prove that the government is not capable of protecting its most vulnerable citizens. Echoing the words of Zareen Taj, “for my people, obtaining an education is our best hope at weakening the power of terrorists in Afghanistan.”

The data reported below will help analyze the trend of terrorist groups targeting the Hazara after the fall of Taliban.

Between January 2009 and December 2015, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported five incidents targeting the Hazara community. AIHRC recorded further five attacks against Hazaras in 2015-2016, which caused the death of 156 people and the wounding of 479. In 2017, eight attacks targeting Hazaras took place and nineteen in 2018, showing a clear increase in attacks towards the minority group. According to USCIRF, ISKP attacks on the Hazara escalated in brutality, with 300 casualties in 2018.

UNAMA reported a general decline in the number of casualties in 2019. Another report from the same source recorded an increase in the number of civilian deaths in the first quarter of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.

In conclusion, all the communities of the Afghan society should participate in the Afghan peace process and together complete the puzzle for a long-term and sustainable peace in the country. In particular, the Hazaras need to be protected from possible terrorist attacks that are likely to escalate in this transition phase. Not only do they have to be defended from targeted attacks, but a more structural inclusion of minorities should be seen as a mandatory step in the resolution of the conflict and political stability. The resiliency and the cultural resistance showed by the Hazara community, during all these years, should inspire the Afghan peace process.

 

Rise to Peace