Will the United States – Iran Stalemate Impact the Afghan Peace Talks?

Photo Credit: ABC News. US President Donald Trump is pictured with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton.

On 5 May 2019, United States National Security Advisor, John Bolton, announced that the US would deploy a series of aircraft carrier and bomber planes to the Persian Gulf. Bolton added that this move was meant ‘to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime’, although the United States, ‘is not seeking war with the Iranian regime.’  While US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo reaffirmed that the United States is indeed not seeking warfare with Iran, these weapons of war remain present in the country.

This affirmation of non-conflict made by Bolton contradicts the information stated in a 2015 Op-Ed that he himself published in the New York Times. In this article, Bolton clearly expressed his disbelief that Iran would consider any negotiating to deviate from its perceived nuclear program, and therefore, as the title of the 2015 Op-Ed alludes, ‘To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.’

Approximately two weeks after Mr. Bolton’s May 2019 statement, a United States intelligence assessment, sourced from three unnamed United States officials, stated that the presence of these weapons were ‘having an effect on Iranian posture and behavior.’ This irrefutable tension and foreboding of conflict between these two countries brings into question the direct and potentially detrimental impacts of this decision regarding the concurrent United States Peace Talks with Afghanistan.

International partnerships between significant national powers such as Russia, Iran, Iraq and United States remain the crux of the success of the United States peace talks with Afghanistan, yet the United States’ current situation with Iran threatens to hinder the progress greatly. Examples of the potential impact were seen in late May 2019, where Iraq held its ground, vowing they would stand with Iran amidst the United States’ fears of the ‘Iranian threat’.

It is likely and predictable that similar allegiances could be established between other nations, including those that would stand against the United States, consequently harming the progress of any reconciliation or peace-determining efforts with Afghanistan. With the Taliban exhausting Afghan and international forces, it was suggested that the United States should focus a joint effort with the Afghan government in order to negotiate with the Taliban.

Vital to mention is the relationship between Iran and Afghanistan, two nations who share a language, religion and border. Iran’s discontent, lightly put, with the United States has been demonstrated through Iran’s support for Taliban factions, which in turn contradicts the Afghan Peace talk efforts. It has even been warned by Qatar’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, that the United States and Iran are at a ‘stalemate’ and must quickly de-escalate the situation with a mutual settlement and compromise that both parties can agree upon.

It is therefore proven that absent an amicable relationship between the United Stated and Iran, the likelihood of negotiations and further progress in the Peace talks with Afghanistan diminish without say. Considering the foregoing, the presence of weapons of war in Iran, despite intention, speculated or confirmed, will continue to hinder United States peace talk progress with Afghanistan, and this vicious cycle will not cease until the United States and Iran reach a harmonious settlement.

Rise to Peace: Afghanistan, Pakistan Conference

Winning Peace in Afghanistan Requires Pakistan

Afghan politicians, from left to right, second deputy chief executive Mohammad Mohaqeq, Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, former Balkh governor Atta Mohammad Noor, Haneef Atmar, Mohammad Karim Khalili the opening session of an Afghan Peace Conference, Bhurban, Pakistan, June 22, 2019. (Rise to Peace).

On June 22nd, the Center for Peace Research (LCPR) and the South Asian Strategic Stability Institute (SASSI) in Pakistan hosted the Afghan Peace Conference. This effort sought ways to achieve meaningful Afghan dialogue. Senior Afghan leaders and politicians — Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, former Balkh governor Atta Mohammad Noor, second deputy chief executive Mohammad Mohaqeq, and presidential candidate Abdul Latif Pedram — attended this conference.

The summit was opened by the Foreign Minister of Pakistan Shah Mahmood Qureshi. “Pakistani prime minister told us that we should not doubt their intention and determination. He said that Pakistan will hold talks with the Taliban leadership to engage in direct talks with the Afghan government,” said Abdullah Qarloq, a participant of the meeting and an Afghan politician to TOLOnews.

Without a doubt, Pakistan is the foremost player in the Afghan situation. Holding such summits helps the Afghan peace talks process, but it also strengthens the Afghan-Pakistan bond.

Both nations are primarily Muslim dominated societies with shared values — so there is no need to spark hostility, as has been a theory for the past decades, as subsequently resulted in violence on both sides. Every Afghan simply blames Pakistan for the ongoing war in Afghanistan due to the rise of terror movements in the 1970s, the proxy war pitting East against West, the creation of the Taliban and the post-9/11 conflict.

Pakistan has been accused of supporting terrorists by the United States, the Afghan government and the international community. These suppositions are based on factual evidence and findings.

Pakistan’s connection to terrorism stirs fear in Afghans. Former Afghan National Directorate of Security and current presidential candidate in the upcoming Afghan elections Rahmatullah Nabil said, “Pakistan has been using terrorism as a tool and tactic.” In September 2018, the Trump administration cancelled $300 million worth of aid to Pakistan over its terror record. Further, Islamabad was accused of “not doing enough to root out militants from its border region with Afghanistan.”

Former US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has also accused Pakistan of playing a “double game” on combating terrorism. She accuses Pakistan of “harboring terrorists that attack American troops in Afghanistan.”

Like the United States, the Afghan government calls Pakistan’s game “toxic” and repeatedly asks for a clear stance on terrorism.  After the Ghazni offensive — where 400 terrorists, as well as 70 Pakistani nationals, were killed — the Afghan General Chief of Staff Mohammad Sharif Yaftali stated, “Pakistan is the springboard of international terrorism. All terrorists first land in Pakistan, where they get armed, equipped and then sent to Afghanistan to fight.”

Anytime there is a terrorist attack, Afghans blame Pakistan. These accusations are simply rejected. “Blame games” and “double standards” exist between the Afghan and Pakistani governments. While Afghans hold Pakistan responsible for terrorist attacks and their ongoing support of terrorism, Pakistan accuses Afghans of volatility and blames the US for the creation of this “mess.”

Neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan can breathe peace if they continue with this rhetoric. Confidence must be first built between Afghans and Pakistanis because peace is mutually constructive. A peaceful Afghanistan steadies the region.

Any attempts to bring the Taliban and Afghan political leaders to a negotiation table are laudable no matter who brokers a deal. The Pakistan factor is critical due to the historical background of the Taliban and its movement for the following reasons:

  • Taliban was founded in Pakistan and later, in 1996, was recognized as a legitimate government to operate in Afghanistan. They remain supported by the Pakistani intelligence agency and their religious elites.
  • Pakistan harbors the Taliban leadership and its easier for Pakistan to pressure them if they want.
  • Taliban are equipped, trained and deployed to Afghanistan from Pakistan. If Pakistan offers to help, a full stop is required.
  • Pakistan is the Taliban’s safe haven. Anytime the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) defeat a group or insurgent groups are out of ammunition and financing, Pakistan provides the necessary support. In a recent operation, a wounded Taliban fighter was treated in Pakistani border clinics after their defeat.
  • Pakistan and India utilize Afghanistan as a battleground their foreign policy and interests. Per Afghan intelligence, Pakistan and India support insurgency grounds that operate in Afghanistan.
  • Pakistan served as the center for Afghan political leaders to regroup, obtain foreign aid (weapons and money) to fight against the Soviet Union from the 1970s until the late 1989s. Pakistan knows the politics of war and the Afghan conflict more than any country in the world. If they truly wanted, Pakistan could bring significant results to the peace talks.
  • The leader of Hizb-e-Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was sheltered and protected in Pakistan since the 1990s until he was deleted from the CIA’s blacklist to enter to Afghanistan.

There are numerous other elements that demonstrate the critical the role of Pakistan in the peace process but those listed are especially important. Pakistan’s offer of support is potentially positive but going forward, the Pakistani government must take a strong stance on terrorism. Supporting terror is simply non-Islamic, toxic for both nations and a peaceful Afghanistan is beneficial to Pakistan.

Conversely, Afghanistan must work to bridge the gap and end the hostility. The requirement of two sides working in unison against terrorism and toward mutually held national interests remains the bottom line.


Ahmad Mohibi is Founder and Director of Counter-terrorism at Rise to Peace, a non-profit organization, and a national security expert. He is a published author, journalist and news commentator on TOLONews, and an alumnus of George Washington University and George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadsmohibi

Pakistan: A Crossroads for US Defense Strategy

President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House Photo: PETER SOUZA

May 1, 2011: United States Navy SEAL Team 6 boarded two helicopters and crossed the Afghan border. They flew low, evading radar coverage on their way into Abbottabad, Pakistan (a military town home to the Pakistani military academy) and the location where U.S. intelligence believed they would find America’s most wanted criminal, the man responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

The excitement of the day eight years ago masked the fact that modern US-Pakistani relations were laid bare. A clearer picture emerged as the public discovered that the mission to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden was conducted without the knowledge or involvement of the Pakistani government and that this lack of transparency was not an anomaly in the era of the War on Terror.

During the Obama presidency, U.S. policy was designed to elicit Pakistani support in order to facilitate a renewed focus on winning the war in Afghanistan, as many Taliban elders sought refuge in the tribal regions of Pakistani northern Waziristan.

This entailed limited appeasement of the Pakistanis, in order to try to develop the partnership through billions of dollars in aid and support. Former Obama administration national-security council advisor Joshua White, now at The Brookings Institution, explained that at that time “the duplicity of Pakistan’s intelligence services was baked into the stock price of U.S.-Pakistan relations.”

Despite this understanding, as time went on inaction and opposition to US policy in Afghanistan would strain the relationship. It seemed the Obama Pakistan policy was doomed by a fundamental reality of US relations in the region: Security issues have always been the most pressing impetus for diplomatic relations, and they will always find a way to dominate the agenda.

The problem then and remains today that tensions will inevitably arise from a mismatch in security interests between the two countries. Several more diplomatic incidents involving CIA assassins and an unintentional attack on Pakistani forces by a NATO warplane would later underscore the reality of relations with Islamabad for Obama, who would later acknowledge that he questioned why the alliance existed at all.

The Trump administration benefits strongly from the hindsight of the Obama years. For them, the problem of demanding greater Pakistani action is much more one of stop-losses. Despite bilateral failings and differing priorities, the Pakistanis outstrip most other allied nations in counterterror action against organizations like Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, the Haqqani Network and other mutual nuisances, but less so when it comes to unilateral US concerns like the Afghan Taliban.

A senior US intelligence official interviewed by The New Yorker last year described the “maddening truth” that despite the willingness to give funding and sanctuary to Taliban leaders, “Nobody had taken more bad guys off the battlefield than the Pakistanis.” Islamabad’s willingness to prioritize their own interests has long been tolerated, but that may be coming to an end as the new administration’s foreign policy is seen as less flexible.

President Trump appears to be comfortable taking a hardline position with Pakistan, raising the bar for access to US aid in the hopes of greater support, while seemingly willing to accept diminished returns if they are not willing to step up counterterror efforts. Last year he spoke out on Twitter condemning Islamabad’s lack of commitment as he announced a wave of significant cuts to economic and military aid in an attempt to underscore the seriousness of his administration’s new policy.

For the administration, a diminished – but not severed – the alliance has some advantages.

The US occupies a precarious position, balancing concern for regional partners like India and the desire to continue efforts to develop an exit strategy for Afghanistan, which are heavily predicated on Pakistani support to the Taliban.

Reducing military aid while enjoying the benefits of the somewhat diminished counterterror efforts Pakistan carries out on its own would allow the U.S. to reassure commitments to India but would cost the U.S. significantly in negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan. For now, Trump has not yet made clear which is the ultimate priority in the region.

Continued indecisiveness will threaten new bilateral economic agreements with India.

Given the mandate Indian PM Narendra Modi holds from his recent victory, he is likely to extend his hardline anti-Pakistan rhetoric, particularly after the widely condemned Pakistani sponsored JeM attacks on a bus of Indian troops in April.

As India rachets up tensions, Pakistan stands squarely in the crosshairs of this emerging and potentially invaluable alliance for Washington. India’s position as a regional power makes it a priority, as their capability to check back against the rise of China can resolve a signature Trump policy goal. Sacrifices are going to have to be made. The result of such decisions may be grave for Pakistan.

As future US-Pakistani relations evolve, there must be a greater focus on bilateral accountability, commitment, and anti-corruption efforts.

Without them, future efforts to combat terrorism in the region will likely remain productive when there is an ongoing mutual interest, but continue to be hampered by distrust and lack of commitment when U.S. attention turns to groups with which Pakistan finds strategic convenience in turning a blind eye, particularly with the Taliban.

Likewise, if the rift between the nations were to exacerbate, the Pakistanis may find limited access to important trade and economic aid which has been essential to the local economy and may struggle with counterterror coup-proofing to resist regional insurgents bent on vying for control of the country.

A significant part of the decision to retain the support of Pakistan needs to be made with respect to the continuing goals and strategy in Afghanistan. Pakistan has never made secret its efforts to back regional extremists in the northern tribal areas of that country and has long given refuge to Taliban elders within its borders.

Obama set the course for a slow withdrawal from Afghanistan, along with the legitimization of Taliban rule in exchange for the closure of terror camps – the pre-9/11 US strategy.

If Trump wants to take the position that there cannot be legitimate Taliban rule in Afghanistan under his watch, then he will have to put increasing pressure on Islamabad to force greater counter-terror participation.

If the administration is content with the settlement being developed by the US special envoy for Afghanistan – a plan albeit widely unpopular with Congress – then it may be wise to dissolve much of the alliance in favor of broader support of India.

This reflects a much bigger crossroads in the future of US threat analysis: does the administration believe it necessary to remain engaged in widespread counterinsurgency, or is it time to cut losses in favor of a solution to emerging great power woes?

A Profile of John Walker Lindh — The American Taliban

John Walker Lindh in January 2002. Image Courtesy of the Associated Press.

On February 9, 1981, the man who would become known as “The American Taliban” was born in Washington, D.C. John Phillip Walker Lindh is a former foreign fighter for the Taliban, often known for his involvement in the Battle of Qula–i-Jangi; a Taliban uprising which resulted in the death of CIA Officer Johnny “Mike” Span. After serving 17 years of his 20-year sentence, Lindh was released from prison under supervisory conditions on May 23, 2019.

Lindh was raised Catholic in Marino County, California, just outside of San Francisco. He is described as a bookish teenager who began studying Islam and the Middle East through his high schools’ alternative and self-directed study programs. Lindh’s initial interest in Islam has been linked to watching the Spike Lee film, “Malcolm X”, when he was 12.

However, his earnest interest in the faith and such related topics of study could have been marred by the extracurricular research Lindh engaged in as an active user of Internet Relay Chat rooms (IRC). Using the alternate identity “Mujahid”, Lindh communicated with others online largely about hip-hop music and racial topics. However, it is known that there are IRCs dedicated to the Taliban and Jihad, which indicates such online activity could have exposed Lindh to radical ideas.

Lindh officially converted to Islam at the age of 16, around the same time he dropped out of high school and was reported as participating in the IRCs. He also began attending mosques in Mill Valley and San Francisco. He reportedly became involved with Tablighi Jamaat, a Sunni missionary group, at this time. This group had not previously been associated with al-Qaeda or the Taliban, but has recently been investigated for links to radicalized militants. While the group was not tied to radicalization at the time of Lindh’s capture, the fact that it has been investigated in more recent years suggests Lindh may have been influenced by this group’s radical ideas.

Throughout his adolescence, Lindh’s parents experienced conflict within their marriage eventually leading to their divorce in 1999. His family instability could be noted as another influence in Lindh’s turn to Islam. His participation in the online chat rooms containing extremist messaging could also have infiltrated his ideology and affected his scholarly interest in the Middle East.

At the age of 17, Lindh decided to leave the U.S. for Yemen, with hopes to study Arabic so that he could read the Qur’an in its original language. He then traveled to Pakistan in 2000, where it is said he encountered extremist groups and training that ultimately influenced his decision to move to Afghanistan and join the Taliban.

However, Lindh claims his original motivation for joining the Taliban came from a desire to fight the mistreatment of civilians by the Northern Alliance. He reported hearing about this mistreatment through various stories; While it is not clear which outlets or messages Lindh received such information, this case illuminates the importance of eliminating misinformation and propaganda from public discourse. This can be achieved through means such as media literacy programs or more robust online security and privacy measures. Since 75% of domestic jihadists knew or were in contact with another jihadist prior to becoming radicalized, it is likely that Lindh was influenced by the information shared with other users of his IRCs or people he met while traveling and studying in Yemen and Pakistan. Whether it be through online forums or verbal conversations with other extremists, misinformation is a dangerous contributor to radicalization and should continue to be a priority in counter-terrorism work.

Since Lindh’s capture, contradictory reports have emerged as to his motivations for joining the Taliban as well as his understanding of the consequences of his involvement. During his trial, Lindh condemned terrorism and indicated he never held the desire to fight against Americans. Other reports, such as one from the National Counterterrorism Center, claim that Lindh would continue to advocate for jihad and violent extremism. The confusion and lack of clarity around the context and details of such reports must be resolved quickly in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the belief system Lindh currently holds after having spent 17 years in prison. This case exposes a large question the U.S. will face in the coming years, as more extremists and convicted terrorists are released back into society without certainty of the continued existence of dangerous ideology that could pose security risks in the future.

While there are no formal procedures for re-entry of convicted terrorists and sympathizers within the U.S. Justice system at this point, there are some recommendations and best practices set in place to deal with this increasingly prevalent situation. First, counseling focused on mental health and identification of the initial causes of radicalization can be recommended; This will not only aid the individual, such as Lindh, but also provide scholars and practitioners with a broader understanding of the life circumstances that can lead individuals vulnerable  to extremist messaging.

In addition, existing re-entry programs for former prisoners involved with gangs could be modified in order to apply to violent extremists, with similar encouragement of study, job training, and programming elements. These programs could provide alternative life paths, sense of belonging, and new sources of information to help eliminate dependence and association with extremist narratives. Monitoring of compliance with such programs is necessary not only during their sentence but also upon release, ideally from mentors who have experienced a similar situation but have emerged de-radicalized.

The way in which the media and public reacted to Lindh’s initial case as well as his release should be used as an example when addressing the situation of Americans linked to terrorism reentering society. In both instances, headlines and sound bites were quick to villainize him and draw attention to his case. The recent terrorist attack in New Zealand comes to mind as an alternative example, when the Prime Minister, in an effort to reduce copycats and the fetishization of terrorism, refused to address the terrorist responsible and would not play the video of the attack. The narratives perpetuated by the media and popular discussion seem relevant to Lindh’s, and others who had become radicalized, return to society.

Since radicalization can stem from feelings of being an outsider or from being bullied, the mass public villainization of Lindh and other Americans linked to terrorist organizations seems to be counterproductive in achieving the type of reintegration that would be necessary to avoid a former prisoner’s retreat into extremist ideology. Not only will the systems and programs in place matter in how we handle re-entry, but the influence of the media and public discourse will matter as well, if not more.

Overall, the case of John Walker Lindh reminds America and the world not only of the spread of extremism but also the complex ways in which the world deals with extremism and terror. Through comprehensive research on an extremist’s path to radicalization, formalized mentorship and re-entry procedures, and an evaluation of the media’s influence on the re-entry process, the U.S. will have a chance to effectively manage the reintegration of former extremists back into society.

Nikki Hinshaw is a Counter-terrorism Research Fellow at Rise to Peace, a non-profit organization, and a current undergraduate student at Arizona State University. She has multiple years of experience in managing communications and marketing for organizations in all sectors, as well as in conducting research on topics relating to a variety of global social issues and public diplomacy policy and practice.

Special Report: Countering neo-Nazi Ideology in the United States: Waging a War of Information

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In the report Countering neo-Nazi Ideology in the United States: Waging a War of Information, Director of the Domestic Counter-Terrorism Program John Patrick Wilson and Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow Caitlyn Ryan offer in-depth analysis of the neo-Nazi movement. This broad endeavor covers many important topics required to understand neo-Nazism in the US and methods to offset it going forward. Please click the above link to view the publication in its entirety.