Reintegration of Ex-Combatants in Afghanistan

Taliban reintegration into Afghan society is a precarious topic, thus it is prudent to devote weighty discussion towards barriers emboldened by corruption, terrorism, and political instability, as well as seek legitimate localized solutions.

Research conducted by Rise to Peace in regard to the Afghan situation strongly correlates with the educated opinions expressed by the panelists and the USIP. Reintegration is an important step for the creation of peace at the local level. Former fighters are presented with the opportunity to re-enter their communities and consequently build hope for a better life.

Afghanistan is plagued by the significant issues of corruption, terrorism, and political instability manifested in its upcoming election on September 28, 2019. Each of these matters must be highlighted and thoroughly discussed prior to the implementation of policies that seek to stabilize the Afghan situation. The Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) conducts such imperative analysis that must be considered by all with a keen eye towards Afghan affairs.

SIGAR recently released its report ‘Reintegration of Ex-Combatants: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan’ and subsequently held a panel discussion in conjunction with United States Institute for Peace. Esteemed panelists offered in-depth knowledge and understanding in regard to the current political impasse and security situation in Afghanistan. They included Kate Bateman (Project Lead for Reintegration, Lessons Learned Program, SIGAR); Erica Gaston (Non-Resident Fellow, Global Public Policy Institute); Timor Sharan (Deputy Minister for Policy and Technical Affairs, Independent Directorate of Local Governance); and Johnny Walsh (Senior Expert, Afghanistan, US Institute of Peace). Their insights generated astute discourse.

The ‘Reintegration of Ex-Combatants’ report offered such inclusive knowledge. SIGAR’s Inspector General John Sopko summarized that, “the goal of today’s report is to help U.S., Afghan, and other coalition policymakers and agencies as they prepare for the daunting task of assisting with the reintegration of an estimated 60,000 full-time Taliban fighters, as well as numerous other non-Taliban combatants, in the event that the Afghan government and the Taliban enter negotiations to reach a political settlement.”

One key point became apparent: No reintegration in the absence of a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban with the ongoing insurgencies in Afghanistan.

Rise to Peace strongly supports SIGAR’s conclusions. Further, the findings of the Office of the Special Inspector General align with Rise to Peace’s research focused on peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. Programs implemented in the past, as well as those currently in place, have irrefutably failed for many reasons, primarily the lack of an intra-Afghan peace agreement. Security threats faced by communities and those fighters who lay down their arms follow as a secondary impediment to a peaceful solution. Lastly, substantial economic barriers due to a weak Afghan economy also contribute to the failure of other reintegration initiatives.

It is fair to summarize that corruption, terrorism, and political instability — especially during an active election campaign — remain in a nexus that feeds one off the other in such an environment.

Nonetheless, failure does not mean an end, but rather, an opportunity to create a tailored solution from lessons learned. SIGAR’s report provides a series of recommendations to the US Congress and the Afghan government, that could ideally achieve a successful reintegration program if implemented.

What’s Next for the SIGAR Report?

Findings in the report provide a foundation for further action to be taken in the case that political will permits it. For example, Rise to Peace founder and president Ahmad Mohibi asked, “Where are you taking all the lessons learned? What’s next? Will be there possible action that will drive into policy? We have seen the great work SIGAR has done, so what should be done?” In response, Mr. Sopko replied:

 We try to get Congress to focus on this issue and we have been successful. SIGAR pushes for action since it continues to hold the attention of Congress, however, the Office understands that other agencies must adopt best practices for implementation in the future. Simply put, the United States government must amend its policies towards Afghanistan to demonstrate the collective lessons learned since its involvement in the country.

Some solutions remain complex and difficult. SIGAR suggests that a transitional program to reintegrate militants into a society free of fighting is a definite need in Afghanistan. Such an endeavor would foment the development of mutual connections within communities and decrease instances of regional violence. Continued support for the Afghan government is considered vital to this process as well. Nonetheless, SIGAR’s reporting advises that reintegration projects may be futile at the current time because of the lack of a peace plan and a ceasefire. It is especially difficult to pursue reintegration of fighters when the Taliban and Afghan forces remain engaged in an active conflict.

Therefore, the lack of an infra-Afghan peace agreement with the Taliban complicates any resolutions going forward. It is reasoned that the US Congress may not fund Department of Defense, State Department, and USAID programs because neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban cannot guarantee security, especially for those militant fighters seeking reintegration into civilian society. Policy decisions have real and actual repercussions on the ground.

Any attempt of reintegration in the current political environment may jeopardize any chances for peace talks as the Taliban considers such counterinsurgency initiatives to weaken their forces. Additionally, the lives of former fighters are at risk in areas controlled or contested by the Taliban. There are no guarantees that militants who choose to no longer fight will escape with their lives. For instance, most would meet an end like Zabet Khan; a Taliban commander who changed the direction of his life chose not to fight and made decisions to take care of his family. He migrated to Greece where he earned a living working on a farm until he returned to Afghanistan. The Taliban killed him and left his four children without a father.

SIGAR suggests that the United States should not support any sort of comprehensive reintegration program as long as the Taliban insurgency continues. In the current situation, it is much too difficult to vet, protect and track former fighters. It is subsequently difficult to conclude who remains an active Taliban fighter versus one who seeks a peaceful existence; therefore, it creates an identifiable security risk.

Kate Bateman of SIGAR expressed that it can be difficult to trust someone who claims to be wanting to leave the Taliban when asking for assistance. Based-off her experience and research, Bateman recommends that the Department of Defense and USAID designate a permanent office handling reintegration. As it currently stands, the US has not provided the required leadership and funding to establish such a position.

The Deputy Minister for Policy and Program at Independent Directorate Local Governance, Timor Sharan, expressed that a more localized approach is appropriate to facilitate the reintegration of former Taliban fighters into Afghan society. He elaborated upon the importance of honor in Afghan societal norms and that these ex-fighters must be treated with kindness during their reintegration back into their communities. Their decision to leave the Taliban must be respected by local populations too.

Disrespect between Afghans and the Taliban complicates the social dynamics within Afghanistan as well. It fomented a sense of distrust between the two groupings and this must be resolved before any semblance of peace can be achieved. Active interactions between the two, such as in the settings of town halls and local elections, are required to initiate dialogue as well as a sense of identity.

Afghanistan’s Senior Expert at the US Institute of Peace, Johnny Walsh reflected upon the setbacks that stalled peace talks over the last 18 years. “The United States would often revert back to the tactic of attempting to split or weaken the Taliban. History demonstrates that this approach has been applied many times and it simply does not work.” Walsh acknowledged the most recent setback related to President Donald Trump ending the peace talks and hoped that it would not result in the resumption of military activities to weaken the group, as it will undoubtedly fail. Further, Walsh — along with the rest of the panelists — agreed that post-conflict integration of Taliban fighters into their respective communities was a significant need.

In the case that the United States fails to support this agenda, the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K) would benefit. Former fighters would be left without any peaceful options if they are denied a place of employment and acceptance into regular Afghan society.

Nevertheless, reintegration remains an undertaking encumbered by its fair share of problems. The Afghan economy is a significant barrier to the fulfillment of dramatic life changes, especially those associated with the stigma of being a former militant. Economic opportunities remain bleak and the Afghan fiscal situation is often unpredictable. Unemployment remains a substantial impediment to community growth.

A lack of financial support and scrutiny from local communities mean that radicalization presents the easiest path to a purpose. This is an extremely problematic condition in Afghanistan.

The World Bank states that “a quarter of the labor force is unemployed, and 80 percent of employment is vulnerable and insecure, comprising self- or own account employment, day labor, or unpaid work.” Therefore, these factors present a situation in which former Taliban fighters will be unemployed and face difficulties in hiring due to their history. A lack of financial support and scrutiny from local communities mean that radicalization presents the easiest path to a purpose. This is an extremely problematic condition in Afghanistan.

As a result, corruption and terrorism are intrinsically linked. The lack of legitimate opportunities results in a situation where those at risk are often consumed by both. This is a challenge when reintegration projects are considered. Since it is difficult to determine the true intentions of a ‘reformed fighter’, such an individual could easily reap financial benefits or resources meant for those turning away from violence and redirect them towards terrorist activities. Therefore, Rise to Peace especially promotes evaluation of all resources aimed towards such programs, to ensure they are utilized legitimately.

The Rise to Peace Mentorship and Capacity Building Program

Rise to Peace focuses its research not only on integration measures for former Taliban but also for development and economic opportunities. The Rise to Peace Mentorship and Capacity Building Program is used to help support those who are fleeing violence and to establish themselves in a safe and secure environment. Another aspect of the program empowers women and youth through connections with local elders and important stakeholders.

Former fighters need not feel marginalized, but rather sense that they are an active member in society for the greater good of their village or city.

Safety and security is not just about physical violence, but also to feel safe and secure economically. A distinct lack of higher education, such as college graduates, hinders economic prospects in Afghanistan, therefore economic diversification must focus on an already entrenched system of capital accumulation.

In this distinct case, main sources of employment remain in agriculture and small-scale production. Entrepreneurship offers an additional pathway to financial independence. Development programs, such as USAID, need have a localized focus on the systems already in place, instead of suggestions of industries that have a little foothold in the country.

When these former Taliban fighters have a sense of purpose, such as opening a market stand in town, a sense of purpose to continue their lives peacefully because they are able to take care of themselves and their family

When these former Taliban fighters have a sense of purpose, such as opening a market stand in town, a sense of purpose to continue their lives peacefully because they are able to take care of themselves and their family. A fruitful economy is not the only conduit for reintegration, but an extension of peace, acceptance, and understanding within local communities is required also. Former fighters need not feel marginalized, but rather sense that they are an active member of the society for the greater good of their village or city.

Those actively involved in working towards peace in Afghanistan must listen to what Afghans need rather than decide what would be beneficial for them.

A focus on localized solutions is imperative too. Rise to Peace often mentions its adherence to community building and resiliency principles. Solutions must have local origins instead of those created by foreign governments or organizations. Those actively involved in working towards peace in Afghanistan must listen to what Afghans need rather than decide what would be beneficial for them. Western countries often mistakenly apply their views on state-building in societies that vastly differ from their socio-political situations.

Afghans that are connected to their villages and local societies can express what resources, educational sessions and infrastructure are required in their regional settings. For instance, those exposed to radicalization rhetoric can advise which educational tools, by way of training sessions and workshops, are most effective in countering recruitment. As well, strategies that stimulate government support can be tailored to regional groups, often distinctive in their ethnicity. Afghans hold the most in-depth knowledge that can only be accumulated through the first-hand experience.

It is prudent to establish a framework and facilities for deradicalization in regions that are not under Taliban control or their influence is negligible.

A localized approach is relevant to the discussions surrounding reintegration of former militants too. While it is a beneficial proposition to hold off on vast integration policies while the Taliban remain in conflict with the Afghan government, the situation is not the same across Afghanistan. It is prudent to establish a framework and facilities for deradicalization in regions that are not under Taliban control or their influence is negligible.

An opportunity to turn away from that lifestyle, especially in a region where the Taliban would be limited to target them for retribution, remains just as important compared to those in areas with high terrorist activity. However, if training and reintegration prospects are bleak, a former fighter might question his decision or deem it unreachable.

Lastly, if Afghans hope to achieve peace and build a cohesive society, they must take responsibility for their own country. It is prudent for them to embrace an active role in shaping the future of their homeland and voting remains an important factor. Citizens are more apt to vote when they consider their government to be legitimate and not installed by a foreign power, therefore free and fair elections are vital in Afghanistan. The ability to select their own president and representatives creates a sense of belief in their system of governance. It is for this reason that the elections on September 28 are important, especially under the current political context.

Rise to Peace reached these conclusions after significant research devoted to Afghanistan and with the respected observations of those with first-hand experience. Our non-profit organization is capable of engagement in all aspects of community building and resiliency projects that will certainly benefit Afghans at the local level through the achievement of peace in multi-faceted ways.

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

Elections 2019: Is Afghanistan Ready?

On 17 September, a blast rocked Ashraf Ghani’s campaign rally in Parwan province, echoing the words of Mohammad Ismail Khan, a former Mujahideen leader turned politician, who previously stated that “the current situation in Afghanistan is not suitable for elections.” Ismail Khan’s pessimism, as well as that of other stakeholders, is no surprise given the political activity over the last few weeks. The collapse of peace talks between the US and the Taliban as well as the increase in the number of attacks by the Taliban paint a grim picture for the region’s upcoming general election.

In addition to the uncertainty over the US commitment to security in the region, as well as the escalation of violence from Taliban forces, history demonstrates that elections are tumultuous events in Afghanistan with reports of voter suppression, intimidation and ballot stuffing. A report by European Union election observers in 2014 suggested that more than two million votes — or about a quarter of total votes cast — came from polling stations with voting irregularities. This begs the question as to how the Afghan security forces will manage the September 28 elections and whether the country is, in fact, ready for the looming deadline.

This election has been far from orderly since the beginning with many presidential candidates opting to avoid public addresses unless necessary, due to security concerns. The New York Times reported that Ghani himself “was reduced to addressing virtual rallies across the country via video-chat.”

Taliban activity increased across Afghanistan in the last few years, but their bombardment of Baghlan province in the north creates an even larger hurdle for the elections. Disruptions in the province also obstruct the AH76, one of the only highways linking the north to Kabul. The severing of communication and transport links will have a major effect on the region and heavily disrupt voters in the run-up to elections.

There is little doubt that violence will escalate in the coming weeks, especially since the Taliban have vowed to target the elections since the breakdown of talks with the US. “On any given day, there is fighting in nearly two dozen of the country’s 34 provinces” and as a result of this, over a quarter of the country’s polling stations will remain closed due to a lack of security.

The Taliban’s alleged control over 70% of Afghanistan is not the only terrorism-related hurdle that Afghanistan faces in the run-up to elections. A bombing at a wedding in Kabul that killed 63 people in August, and the assault on Mullah Habatullah Akhundzada (the younger brother of Afghanistan’s Taliban chief), presents a grave reminder of the increasing influence of ISIL in Afghanistan.

Trump’s suggestion that he may continue to withdraw troops despite the lack of a peace deal may provide Ghani with a challenge he has not had to face in many years: facing the Taliban without US support. One could expect a drastic decrease in the morale of Afghan troops who rely heavily on US airpower as well as training and heavy weaponry.

Even if the winning party survives the inevitable accusations of fraud and vote-rigging, Afghanistan’s governing structure has historically consisted of a weak central government unwilling or unable to enforce significant financial or administrative mandates on all of Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic communities. This is a result of Afghanistan’s multiethnic and mostly tribal society which consists of fourteen tribal groups.

Although intra-Afghan talks are integral to the establishment of peace in the region, foreign intervention will also play a major role. Security forces, already spread thin, cannot afford the loss of US airpower, military training and heavy weaponry. Aside from security, the election process itself riddled with accusations of fraud and vote rigging in 2014, will heavily rely on an independent commission who will, ideally, give a sense of legitimacy to the election. This would at least allow the incoming government the ability to govern without the controversy that surrounded the beginning of the current government’s term.

Foreign involvement rarely creates the sense of authentic free and fair elections. However, as elections so strongly influence the extent to which a fragile state becomes stabilized, it is integral that stakeholders (including the US and NATO) are present and continue to provide the support, or at least the security, needed to hold the September 28 elections.

Image Credit: Staff Sgt. Christopher Allison of the US Department of Defense. An Afghan elder shows his purple inked finger to show he has voted and cannot do it twice.

Extremism Assessment Series: Homegrown Islamist Extremism in the US

Summary of Extremist Assessment

  • There is no set profile of a homegrown violent extremist; can be any ethnicity and can come from any socioeconomic background
  • The need to belong, political grievances, and sense of purpose are other common factors in an individual’s radicalization
  • Individuals are often radicalized through the internet/social media or through family and friends
  • Attacks are typically aimed at political figures and monuments and are not often organized
  • Although individuals may be sympathetic to terrorist ideologies, they may not have formal ties to the organization

Brief summary of their narrative 

Homegrown Islamist extremists follow the same narrative as established Islamist terrorist organizations, such as ISIL and al-Qaeda. They are mainly motivated by a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, aiming to not only spread Islamist beliefs and establish the caliphate, but also to bring down oppressive powers such as the US as well as all “disbelievers”. Rather than travel abroad to fight with a foreign terrorist organization, they stay in their homeland and plan attacks. They use violence in order to achieve their political goals. Islamists believe Islam is the only basis for the legal and political system. They are opposed to liberal democracy and are oftentimes radicalized online and through social media.

Brief History of the ideology or group in the United States

Prior to 9/11, Islamist extremism within the US was not a primary concern. After the 9/11 attacks, the US government re-directed its security focus to counter future attacks and also declared a War on Terrorism in the Middle East. This War on Terror created a divide not only between the US and the Middle East, but also within the US with Muslim communities becoming more and more marginalized. Politicians openly spoke about the possibility of other Muslim-Americans becoming radicalized and conducting attacks on US soil. The resulting bigotry and hate rhetoric aimed at Muslims in the US produced a volatile community. This led to even more discontent and frustration among Muslim-Americans, with some individuals turning towards extremist propaganda to air their political grievances, find a sense of belonging, or a sense of purpose. More recently, homegrown Islamist extremism has been overshadowed by the threat of right-wing terrorism, although the HVE threat still lingers.

Current State of Islamist Extremism in the United States

Homegrown violent extremists that are sympathetic to the Islamic State are constantly attempting attacks here in the US. Most of these attacks have been foiled by security officials, much like Rondell Henry’s suicide-plot to drive a U-Haul van into a crowd of people on a Maryland waterfront, attempting to kill as many “disbelievers” as possible. Law enforcement officials were able to stop Henry before he could pull of his attack. Henry explained that he had been admiring ISIL’s work for 2 full years and was inspired by the van attack in Nice, France.

Over the past 5 years, law enforcement has foiled nearly 58% of attempted attacks by homegrown violent extremists sympathetic to the Islamic State. These homegrown extremists have been encouraged by the Islamic State to conduct attacks on their own within their homeland. This has been a strategic way for ISIL to pull off attacks in the West without any risk financially or structurally. Homegrown extremists are able to conduct attacks with little to no training and are not as organized as attacks conducted by terrorist cells or networks. It is the lack of intense planning/organization of these attacks that make them more difficult to uncover and prevent.

In the US today, homegrown Islamist terrorism has seemingly fallen behind right-wing terrorism in terms of immediate security threats. Although right-wing terrorist attacks have increased in frequency, the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism still lingers. The successes of local law enforcement and intelligence agencies have caused people to assume that the threat has diminished, even though individuals are found attempting to support ISIL every day.

Where are they prominently operating? 

Homegrown violent extremists operate without borders. Attacks have been carried out all over the world, some by individuals who have been described as “normal” prior to their radicalization. These individuals were radicalized either online or through personal connections and were inspired to act within their home countries. These attacks have taken place in the US and Europe, with several attacks leaving individuals severely injured or dead. The advantage of homegrown violent extremists is that they can attack anywhere at any time and are not restricted in where they operate.

A recent United Nations report stated that ISIL is planning to exacerbate existing political divisions in Western European nations. ISIL will most likely utilize homegrown extremists and foreign fighters for these attacks, carrying out reconnaissance and encouraging homegrown extremists to conduct their own operations in order to inflame discontent within the region.

What are their primary recruitment methods 

The primary recruitment methods of homegrown Islamist extremists include the use of social media to spread their radical ideology and the scoping out of sympathizers. Terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS release speeches online calling on all Muslims to join together and rid the world of disbelievers. Individuals that sympathize with these extremist ideologies are often initially exposed to this propaganda through social media. They interact with like-minded individuals through encrypted applications and are able to use training manuals from terrorist organizations to aid in their operations

ISIL also uses virtual planners who plan attacks online through encrypted apps, provide technical expertise, and assist with picking a target. These virtual planners utilize homegrown extremists to carry out their attacks abroad, minimizing the resources spent by the terrorist organization and also minimizing risk. Foreign fighters have also played a large role in the recruitment of homegrown violent extremists, often times through recruiting HVEs for specific attacks or through spreading extremist propaganda.

The recruitment of homegrown violent extremists by ISIL allows them to operate externally, even while they are losing territory in Syria and Iraq. Although a large number of external ISIL attacks against the West have been executed abroad, only 36% have been executed by individuals that had no formal ties to the terrorist organization.

Image Source: The open source image of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

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.

Trump Called Off Negotiations with Taliban: What’s Next?

Ahmad Mohibi’s news analysis on Afghanistan’s TOLOnews in regards to the 9/11 anniversary that marks the 18 years of US war in Afghanistan. 

Since talks have been deemed ‘dead’, it is a better option for the US to take a more active stance on their South East Strategy of 2017 to counter state-sponsored terror and increase pressure on countries, such as Pakistan, who actively harbor the Taliban.

September 11, 2019, marked 18 years since the 9/11 attack — a tragic day in the history of the United States. It also marked the beginning of the US’s longest war in Afghanistan. It is a wake-up call for the western world to pay deeper attention to the rise of terrorism around the world and learn from past conflicts, as the US did in the 1990s in Afghanistan — leaving allies ally while terrorism retaliates and attack. 

The United States has not been entirely successful in its counter-insurgency operations over the past 18 years. However, progress has been made. An example would be the weakening of Al-Qaeda — a group that had the ability to reach New York and plan deadly attacks. Today, their ability to carry out such an attack has been massively hindered. On the negative side, ISIL has emerged and the Taliban has become stronger than at any point since their removal from power in 2001. Thus, we see some success but at the same time, multiple failures. 

Public opinion differs in both Washington and Kabul. In the United States, conservatives, such as Senator Lindsay Graham, are against troop withdrawal and are more in favor of hitting the enemy militarily, while liberals and the majority of Americans have grown tired of a long war in Afghanistan. Everyone is clear: they want an end to this war, but differ on how to bring about that end. So far $ 2.8 trillion USD has been spent, many lives lost and energy expended — it is hard to judge whether the US Global War on Terror was a success or a failure, so let numbers and statistics speak on the matter. 

The former head of the Afghan National Security Directorate (NDS), Masoom Stanekzai has said recently that one of the reasons that the US has failed in the war against terrorism is regional barriers. 

The Afghan case is sensitive, complex and hard, but it does have similarities to Vietnam. President Richard Nixon’s “Peace with Honor” failed due to US domestic politics, the Watergate scandal, the ongoing Cold War with the Soviets, and mass Chinese support for the communist Vietnamese. The same situation unfolded in Afghanistan.

The Afghan war is not only a religious and ethnic conflict but also a proxy war with many foreign actors. It may appear that the Taliban want to bring an Islamic Emirate and defeat western democracies, but it is more complex than that. Intra-Afghan tribal differences, US economic rivalries with China and political rivalries with Russia, as well as interference from Pakistan and Iran, have all influenced conflict in the region. 

There is no doubt that the United States proudly commands the world’s strongest economy and military. During the 9/11 memorial, President Trump said

We had peace talks scheduled a few days ago. I called them off when I learned that they had killed a great American soldier from Puerto Rico and 11 other innocent people. They thought they would use this attack to show strength but actually what they actually showed us is un-reluctant weakness. The last four days we had hit our enemy harder than they have ever been hit before and that will continue.

He further emphasized that he will not use nuclear weapons to show American strength, but that the strength will come from the US soldiers. 

The Afghan war is complex and the US has not been as successful in counterinsurgency operations as they had hoped, but if we look at the achievements of the past 18 years, it is satisfying. After the Taliban was toppled, from 2004 – 2005 Afghanistan was relatively peaceful, the Taliban appeared to have been defeated, but they went to Pakistan where they regrouped and came stronger. Now they claim to control over 70% territory in Afghanistan. 

Since talks have been deemed ‘dead’, it is a better option for the US to take a more active stance on their South East Strategy of 2017 to counter state-sponsored terror and increase pressure on countries, such as Pakistan, who actively harbor the Taliban. It is vital that Kabul receives military aid in the form of aircraft and advanced intelligence to combat the Taliban. 

At the same time, the US needs to increase efforts to impede Taliban financing. This includes a comprehensive strategy that includes the use of the financial and banking system levers.

Going forward, the United States will need to focus on the implementation of this strategy while creating better counter-insurgency operation strategies in coordination with the Afghan forces and the Afghan government. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Political and economic pressure on Pakistan
  • Capacity building of the Afghan government
  • Fight corruption 
  • Intelligence information sharing
  • Provide vital equipment and training to the Afghan National Security Forces  

These are important steps the US can take going forward to see progress. This way, President Trump can see the achievements he promised in his presidential campaign and bring the soldiers home.

As we are speaking, the agenda for peace in Afghanistan is lost, said Ahmad Mohibi to TOLOnews. Whilst at an event recently, when commenting on the Afghan peace process, a former State Department official smiled and said, “What peace?… Isn’t it dead?”

President Trump is serious about national security. We have seen three National Security Advisors resign or been fired since he took over the current administration. Elections are near; both in Afghanistan and the United States. President Trump wants to show achievements, however, to avoid making Nixon’s mistake, he needs to tread carefully in Afghanistan. Following the recommendations above, he may achieve what Nixon couldn’t — make peace and bring the troops home.

The United States should not consider an immediate troop withdrawal to avoid making the same mistake as Vietnam. As Senator Lindsay Graham emphasized, “If America completely pulls out of Afghanistan, I fear the Security Forces will fracture along regional lines, creating growth opportunities for Al Qaeda and ISIS.”

In conclusion, the US should avoid a troop withdrawal and direct more pressure on regional actors, mainly Pakistan, to stop harboring and financing terrorism in Afghanistan. The US needs to support a transparent election in Afghanistan and ensure the government is chosen by the people. Ideally, the US cancellation of peace talks will be a ‘slap in the face’ for the Taliban so that they may learn from their mistakes, and be open to peaceful negotiations in the future.

The military option has not been as successful as the US hoped over the past 18 years and will only work if the Taliban’s financing is cut on a macro level, which includes pressuring state sponsors. This way, there is a possibility of peace in Afghanistan. We must stress, however, it will not happen overnight. It will require generations of Afghans to work hard and build their nation back up again.

Ahmad Mohibi on TOLOnews

Ahmad Mohibi, a writer and is the founder of Rise to Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadsmohibi


My Reflections on 9/11 Memorial

I distinctively remember the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as I was barely weeks into a yearlong youth exchange program in France. As a young teenager, it was my first solo venture abroad and I was full of excitement.

On that day, my host mother left a Post-It note on the television advising of a documentary on wild horses to watch after school. I would not have turned on the television otherwise! Once it concluded, I switched stations and could not believe my eyes as I tuned into news coverage. The images were stunning, haunting and foreboding all at once. A sense of utter horror while touching on so many aspects of the human condition simultaneously.

We closely watched the news broadcasts late into the evening. As a Canadian, I felt profound sadness for my neighbors to the south. I was a youth obviously lacking in-depth knowledge of nefarious non-state state actors, but the name Al-Qaeda was familiar due to a unit on terrorism in my high school law class months prior. Though the extent of the dramatic shift in history to come was unimaginable to a high school student, I knew significant ramifications would follow that momentous day.

A certain social anxiety rose around those from Muslim countries. This was most certainty due to the conflation between Islam and terrorism linked to the motivation of the organizers and perpetrators of those awful attacks. It was then I understood that misperception of groups of people often came from fear and misunderstanding. Accordingly, the following question was, ‘Well, what set of beliefs could compel someone to do such a thing?’

It would be improper of me to say that 9/11 has impacted my life as I only experienced the discussed emotions in the detached capacity of an external viewer. Each year I take the time to watch the televised remembrance ceremonies in solemnity of all those lives lost and to consider the plight of all the poorly first responders hampered by illness.

However, the attacks of September 11 solidified many invaluable truths, at least in my perception. Just like the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there are moments in history that change our understandings of each other and interactions on a global scale. There is a reason why we discuss the ‘post-9/11’ period because it differs from our perception of security prior.

The attacks firmly demonstrated the reach of transnational terrorism and the vast consequences of extremist ideologies when significant resources are in place. The longevity of terrorist organizations —such as al-Qaeda after the attacks— reveals that combatting terror, despite vital resources, sometimes seems like grasping in the dark since halting the spread of an ideology is impossible.

Therefore, a multifaceted approach from sound intelligence analysis, effective cooperation in areas of security and law enforcement, community engagement and knowledgeable policy decisions hopefully reduces the odds of another event and the need to say, ‘Never Forget’ once more.

Réjeanne Lacroix, Editor-in-chief at Rise to Peace is a Canadian independent researcher focusing on international security and the post-Soviet space. She earned her BA in Political Science at Laurentian University and an MA in International Security Studies at the University of Leicester. Her analysis on a wide range of topics was previously featured at the NATO Association of Canada.

US-Taliban Peace Talks: So Close, Yet So Far

The United States slowly inched toward a peace deal with the Taliban since talks in Doha, Qatar began some months back. There is a strong desire in Washington to pull its troops out of Afghanistan since the 2001 intervention turned into the longest war in US history. Peace talks between the US Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban reached what seemed to be an agreement. Such a deal was contingent upon the Afghan government and this added factor makes the process more difficult.

The Afghan government was critical of any possible resolution because they feared loss of political power and held concerns over national security. They consider it unwise to relinquish any sort of political influence to the Taliban, an easily identifiable enemy of the state for many years.

The proposed agreement consisted of four main parts. First, a timeline of US troop withdrawal. Second, the upcoming presidential elections were to be secured so that they are free and fair. Thirdly, the Taliban were to be incorporated into the mainstream government. Lastly, an overall cease-fire between the US, Afghanistan, and Taliban forces. Simply put, the key factor throughout is that US would leave at the same time that the Taliban promised to become a peaceful and cooperative actor within the Afghan political system.

This would have been beneficial for the US because they would be finally relieved from military deployment to the region. Washington had a primary goal of pulling out 5,000 troops within 135 days, where there are currently 14,000 troops stationed. Further, the agreement was advantageous to the Taliban because they would finally be considered a legitimate political group.

The Afghan government had its reservations with the proposed US-Taliban deal because they believe the country would become unstable without the US military presence and they remained skeptical that the Taliban would uphold their end. This is a reasonable assumption as the Taliban is considered an enemy that has terrorized civilians with terrorist attacks, such as mass shootings, bombings, and kidnappings for years. The government is entitled to this viewpoint as it makes little sense to place trust in a group that has tried to destroy the political system of the country.

Terror attacks in recent days support the Afghan government’s hesitation towards giving the Taliban additional political power. Bombings left 10 civilians and 2 NATO service members dead. Nevertheless, Khalilzad stated that the US will not just merely withdraw, but seek “a peace agreement that enables withdrawal.” He was optimistic about the US-Taliban talks, where he viewed both sides getting what they wanted.

On September 7, President Trump canceled a Camp David secret meeting with Taliban and Middle Eastern leaders. He called off the summit due to the recent Taliban attack that killed a US soldier and others. Since the 2016 campaign, Trump has been a supporter of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and as president, he took steps to finally complete the task. It seems all has been lost on the mission now.

Dealing with any terrorist group can be problematic because they do not play by international rules like nation-states.  In this example, the Taliban expressed that they are ready for peace and then committed an attack that killed a dozen people the next day. In this sense, Trump was justified to cancel the contested meetings because the Taliban demonstrated they are not a peaceful actor.

Trump has said that Taliban negotiations are now “dead.” This could prolong the 18 year war; already the longest war in US history. The president has been critiqued for being hawkish at times insofar as his decisions often align with National Security Advisor John Bolton. In recent weeks, the media speculated that Bolton has been distanced from the Oval Office because his hawkish perceptions of foreign policy are more severe than both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Only the future will reveal if Afghanistan can finally achieve peace.

Image Credit: Associated Press. Photographer Alex Brandon. Shutterstock.

Assassination of top commanders paves the way for Taliban to advance

Famous Afghan commander killed in Northern Afghanistan

Hours into September 1st, a mine detonated and killed General Nazir Mohammad Niazi as he made his way to watch a soccer match in Faizabad; the capital of Badakhshan province in Afghanistan. General Niazi was a well-known Jamiati commander and the former mayor of Badakhshan.

The incident occurred at the same time of other violent events and shifts in the Afghan political landscape. Kunduz province was attacked for the third time in the past 18 years yesterday. Said Husain Sarwari, Kundoz Police spoke-person — a father of four — was killed. Taliban forces were defeated after 24 hours of counter operations, but they retaliated with an attack on Baghlan soon after. They remain in an active conflict with Afghan security forces.

Further, General Niazi’s death is controversial because he met his end only hours after Hizbi Islami leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, landed in Faizabad as part of his presidential campaign. Hizbi Islami is a major political party in Afghanistan and remained in fervent dispute with Mohammad’s Jamiati party, the largest in Afghanistan, since the 1990s. 

It is prudent to mention that Hekmaytar recently returned from Pakistan and received name clearance from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)’s blacklist. The political implications of General Niazi’s death will consequently raise concerns. 

All of this is concurrent with the completed talks between the US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. These talks seek to achieve a pathway to intra-Afghan dialogue and solutions for peace.

Mass Taliban attacks such as these reveal important points:

1. Certain Taliban demands are not being met and they are increasing their use of military tactics to demonstrate their power.

  1. The Taliban lack unified leadership and simply does not have control over all its factions

The assassination of important Afghan figures is not a new phenomenon. Contemporary applications of targeted suicide bombings as a tactic became commonplace when two Arab journalists killed the leader of the Afghan Mujahidin, Ahmad Shah Masoud — a national hero two days before 9/11 incident. Most of Masoud’s influential people and commanders were subsequently assassinated as well in the past 18 years. 

A clear picture regarding the perpetrators behind these attacks begins to take shape. Osama bin Laden ‘hated’ Massoud because he was against al-qaeda and terrorism and his presence made it hard for Osama to operate successfully in Afghanistan with Taliban. According to evidence and criminal investigation biometrics, Pakistani intelligence and their proxies — the Taliban — can be linked to such instability.

Pakistan is typically pinpointed as the key strategic planner behind these deadly attacks in Afghanistan due to historic facts and the evidence found at the scene of suicide bombings and on arrested soldiers. 

At a closer look, all of the targeted leaders and commanders expressed critical sentiments against Pakistan as well as the role of Pakistani intelligence’s role in facilitating violent acts, especially in Afghanistan.

As an example, the former president of Afghanistan, Mohammad Najibullah, who criticized Pakistan for interfering in Afghan politics and supporting rebel factions, was publicly executed by hanging by the Taliban. Further, in 2018, General Abdul Raziq was assassinated in Kandahar province for his strong stance on Pakistan and terrorism. After his death, some units of the Pakistani military cheered and celebrated his death. 

The loss of experienced commanders is detrimental to Afghanistan’s future. Knowledgeable commanders are in dire need as the country seeks to gain the upper hand of a critical situation in which extremist groups gain vast swaths of territory.

The ongoing Afghan war is typical of guerilla warfare in that it is difficult to understand who remains engaged in the fighting and who is exactly responsible for key assassinations. Many suspects emerge: it could be the Taliban who killed General Mohammad or it could have been Hizbi Islami or ISIL. Only intelligence collection and further investigation will reveal the truth.


Lessons From the Past: From Feminism to Women Joining Terrorist Organizations

Women have always demonstrated capabilities of exerting powerful influence in the world. Undoubtedly, the Nineteenth Century provides a glorious example of what women can do: in this era, feminism gave birth to the Suffragette movement in England and France, gathering a whole gender in a fight against that patriarchal society which was meant to end once and for all.

Despite the examples of courage and devotion left by the Suffragettes, the role of women has somehow taken a step back due to the creation of those stereotypes that gravitate around the idea that they are the weak gender. Meanwhile, with the arrival of the modern era, the world had to face new challenges related to new security issues; among the most remarkable examples, the terrorist threat. In few years, and with greater emphasis after the 9/11 tragic events, terrorism has adopted different facets that required higher attention from the counter-terrorism field. Among these, the role of women. Mindful of the lessons from the past mentioned above, it is necessary to be aware of the strong influence that women may exert not only in relation to morally-respectable causes, but also to all those terrorist organizations that occupy different areas of the world and constitute a serious threat to societies.

Specifically, it is vital to forget the idea that women are merely victims and start considering the numerous and most diverse motivations that they may have when joining a terrorist organization. The reason for posing this question comes from the need for establishing gender perspectives in counter terrorist actions, allowing to cover a broader area of research.

Why do women join terrorist organizations?

The misconception that women are linked to terrorist for their sole role of “brides or wives for fighters” is nothing more than wrong. Surely, love can be a push factor, but it is hard to think that the eight hundred women who are believed to have travelled abroad to join ISIL were only driven by love. Therefore, to what extent are women tied to political matters? How much are they influenced by men?

The second most stereotyped reason to justify women joining terrorist organizations refers to brainwashing. With this regard, it is worth mentioning a recent study that has refuted the hypothesis that radicalization is the result of psychological illnesses and mental disorders. On the contrary, it can be pushed by social conditions, feelings of alienation and loneliness, which are highly common among women, especially in young ages. In fact, there is a surprisingly high number of women who have been raped and/or subject to violence; feelings of hate and grievance, if coupled with wrong contacts made for example on social media, may result in the decision of flying away and radically change one’s life.

Why do terrorist organizations rely on women?

As a matter of fact, once discarded the idea of brainwashing, terrorist organizations may appear attracting to women under different circumstances (e.g. financial benefits, powerful roles, protection). Indeed, there have been numerous cases of women who left countries such as the United Kingdom or Belgium to join ISIL in a fight they thought they belonged to; some of them claimed how easy their life would be under the protection of a man – for example they would not need to stay in the educational system anymore, given that their role would be limited to being housewives. Some others had political reasons and claimed they would be treated differently if ever caught by governments – receiving a less tough penalty and treatment, although there is no evidence this would be true.

Above all, there is still very little evidence on the subject, especially because it is highly underestimated. Nevertheless, research needs to be implemented both on female and male perspectives.

As far as women are concerned, it is important to keep in mind the distinction between women who support terrorism and extremist beliefs and women who join terrorist organizations. The two categories need different levels of analysis and attention: while the former necessitates greater education and support, focused on the risks that the involvement in terrorist activities may cause, the latter needs a proper intervention and eventually forms of rehabilitation into the society as part of de-radicalization missions. Furthermore, it is also necessary to consider that women may also be found in the front line as well as men; Atran (2003) provides an interesting analysis on the role of suicide bombers, considering both men and women and the increasing in the presence of the latter in the past few years.

It is imperative to understand and detect the reasons behind choices of radicalization in order to be able to spot any sign of alarm in our society, always while taking into account that female involvement in terrorist activities is not always driven by ideological concerns.

However, it is not necessarily a matter of punishment, but of providing education and support to vulnerable women that may be targeted and recruited. With this in mind, direct witnesses from women involved in terrorist-related actions should be collected to build up a correct analysis on the motivations behind the choice of joining a terrorist organization and therefore counter the threat from its origins.

What in the World Is Going On in Afghanistan?

What in the World Is Going On in Afghanistan?


Extremism Assessment Series: The Proud Boys

  • The Proud Boys participate in semi-organized violence, typically associated with political protests
  • The group has been directly and indirectly linked to several other alt-right, neo-Nazi, and white nationalist groups
  • As the 2020 election cycle ramps up, anticipate further street-level violence in furtherance of fringe political groups, including The Proud Boys


Summary of Extremist Narrative

The Proud Boys are a western chauvinist group that believes that white males are being unfairly targeted in an age of political correctness. The group is openly anti-Islamic, stating that western society and the values of Islam are incompatible. Members of the group speak out against what they call a society based around political correctness. While the group states that any male, regardless of race or sexual orientation can join, their apparent participation alongside far-right, white nationalist, and neo-Nazi groups at political protests leads to questions as to how genuine such a rule is. Fighting is considered a normal life occurrence for a Proud Boy. Going back to their anti-political correctness rhetoric, The Proud Boys believe that fighting is a necessary activity in which males should engage to avoid becoming less of a man. The group has declared on their website that they are anti-Drug War, Pro-Free Speech, Pro-Gun Rights, and even anti-Racist.

History of The Proud Boys

The Proud Boys were founded in 2016 by Gavin McInnes. The group originally formed during the political turmoil surrounding the 2016 presidential election and was viewed by some on the right as a conservative response to far-left organizations such as ANTIFA. Regardless of exactly how the idea to form the group had come to fruition, The Proud Boys have been engaged in violent political protests across the United States since the 2016 election cycle.

According to the rules and regulations of the group, any man – regardless of race or sexual orientation – can become a member, as long as they do not view the while male as the problem for the issues of modern society. The group believes that women should return to more traditional roles within society, bringing about claims that the group is misogynistic. There does exist a Proud Boys’ Girls, but this is a secondary organization that falls below the male section of the group.

While the group has often shown support for Republican political figures, the group believes in more libertarian ideals. As the group identifies a western chauvinist movement, it views itself inherently at odds with Islam and its leaders have openly expressed criticism of the faith since the groups’ inception.

The Proud Boys have been willing participants in violence at a number of prominent and controversial sites across the United States from Charlottesville to Portland. These sites have observed extremist violence, with The Proud Boys contributing to the chaos.

Current State of The Proud Boys

The group has been ripe with controversy, often related to alt-right members and their association with alt-right groups, neo-Nazi groups, and white nationalist groups. Despite their attempt to label themselves along libertarian political ideals, the group is often now associated with neo-Fascism. This has created a bit of an identity crisis amongst less hardened members and will likely impact their ability to draw followers to protests in the next election cycle.

Social media metrics of the group online represent a significant online following. At the end of 2017, the Facebook and Twitter pages for the group both had over 20,000 followers. It is important to note that this does not necessarily represent figures who actually engage in political protests, nor those who may or may not carry out an act of violence in furtherance of the group.

The Proud Boys have often rejected claims that they are ‘extremist’ in nature, despite their participation in violence during political protests. Some reports have indicated that the FBI is considering the organization as an extremist group, one that has direct ties to white nationalism. In its current state, The Proud Boys are relatively organized, with an apparent organizational structure and chapters. Those members who travel to protests likely represent small cells within the overall organization that have their own hierarchy.

Prominent Sites of Operation

As a national organization, The Proud Boys can be found anywhere a large political protest is anticipated. From major cities to college campuses, physical altercations between The Proud Boys, far-right groups, far-left groups, and ANTIFA will remain commonplace throughout the 2020 election cycle.

Recruitment Methods

 There are several steps to joining the Proud Boys. As a first degree member, a would be Proud Boy must declare “I am a western chauvinist, and I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world”. This is usually via video on a social media account linked to The Proud Boys. The second degree entails the individual enduring a physical beating until they are can state the name of five breakfast cereals. An odd initiation that is similar to the ‘jumping in’ phase of joining many street gangs. The third degree can only be completed after the individual completes the first two, and has demonstrated their commitment to the group. The third and final degree is completed with a Proud Boys Tattoo.

The recruitment methods employed by The Proud Boys are not limited to a specific area, however have been known to recruit individuals that are in areas of ongoing protests, such as the Pacific Northwest.

Image Credit: Proud Boys logo as found on their website.

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.

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