China terrorism

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

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

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

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

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

Background and historical context

Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Escalating Tensions

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

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

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

Policy Shift and Regional Implications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from Tetsu Nakamura’s Legacy in Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump’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