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

9/11

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.