Taliban attack threatens Afghan peace talks

On July 1st, 2019, the Taliban committed multiple attacks in Kabul, Afghanistan which killed at least forty people and injured over 100 more. The facilities damaged included the Private War Museum, a local television station, as well as a primary school. 

Soon after the attack, American and Taliban negotiators met in Qatar. The Taliban stated that their intended target was the logistics and engineering unit of the Ministry of Defense. The Interior Ministry reported that the car bomb detonated near the museum and television station after attackers entered the Defense Ministry building. 

Wounded children are taken to the hospital by the Kabul residents after the Kabul blast on July 1, 2019.

Recent peace talks involving the United States and Taliban negotiators have focused on four key issues:

  1. The Taliban will not allow fighters to utilize Afghan soil to launch attacks outside of the country
  2. Withdrawal of U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces from Afghanistan
  3. An Intra-Afghan dialogue
  4. A permanent ceasefire

During the latest round of peace talks in Qatar, the Taliban restated their concerns and reasons for their bombing in Kabul. They expressed that they wanted an immediate timeline for the withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan.

Taliban representatives, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, Taliban’s main negotiator is eating lunch with the Afghan delegates. in Doha peace conference. July 8, 2019 (Rise to Peace).

The American government has responded with the timeframe of at least one year to eighteen months to remove troops from the country altogether. The Afghan peace process remains challenging as there is logistical planning behind each party’s wants and needs. 

If the United States continues peace talks with the Taliban, there are significant consequences that could take place. If the American government removes troops from Afghanistan, the international civilian presence will also be significantly reduced

This is important because if NATO members leave, it will affect the security risk of civilians working in the US embassy in Afghanistan. US employees rely on NATO for threat intelligence for potential evacuation in the workplace.

Therefore, if NATO leaves, that puts all US employees at risk against extremist groups in Afghanistan- which will then cause the US and other international civilians to leave. The majority of these employees work in the intelligence community, meaning that the US would also lose sight of the security threats coming from Afghanistan. 

Consequences for the US also affect the implications for the Afghan government. For instance, the loss of external economic and security assistance. US assistance in Afghanistan is based on US security interests. Therefore, if the US military presence no longer continues in Afghanistan, then there is no further commitment to help the country’s stability. Moreover, if the amount of US civilian personnel decreases, it will limit their ability to account for funds and other logistical matters that support assistance. 

Losing such assistance will directly impact the capacity of the Afghan government,  which could lead the government to lose its legitimacy.

If the Taliban wants a negotiation with the United States, they need to take into consideration the factors that could negatively influence a potential negotiation.

In recent talks, Taliban negotiators communicated that they want intra-Afghan dialogues, but later changed their mind calling the government of Afghanistan puppets of the US. If the Taliban then decided to have a conversation with the Afghan government, this action would contradict their previous statement. 

Taliban should consider the amount of collateral damage caused by their attacks.

Furthermore, the Taliban should consider the amount of collateral damage caused by their attacks. For instance, killing innocent people, including children, in their most recent attack in Kabul, does not help alleviate the situation between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

With the costs closely outweighing the benefits, should the U.S. continue peace talks with the Taliban? Yes. The overarching goal of Afghanistan Peace Talks is an eventual ceasefire. 

If the U.S. decides to take an immediate departure from Afghanistan, then the American government is choosing to lose, and leave Afghanistan vulnerable to terrorism. 

US-Iran Relations No Longer Have Use for Sanctions

Image Credit: Gulf News

All is not well on the eastern front, as Iranian-American relations have hit their lowest point in decades.

The current round of escalation began on June 20th, when it was reported that Iran shot down an American drone over the Straits of Hormuz, in international waters. In response, the United States prepared to retaliate against three Iranian targets. However, the attack was called off at the last minute by President Donald Trump, allegedly because of the estimated death toll. Instead, the US response included cyber attacks and new sanctions on Iranian leaders, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, preventing them from using international fiscal institutions. While the cyber attacks have been described as a “game changer,” the sanctions are frankly an ineffective stick in the US policy deck of cards.

It would be an understatement to describe the new sanctions as “unsurprising,” as every US president since Jimmy Carter (barring George H.W. Bush) has imposed sanctions on Iran in response to its unacceptable behavior. In recent years, sanctions have been imposed with the intent of creating an economic chokehold that would force Iran to halt its nuclear program.

However, it appears this tactic is ineffective, as countries such as China continue to buy Iranian oil in violation of the sanctions. Iranian citizens mocked them, one of them declaring, “The only people left to sanction are me, my dad and our neighbor’s kid.” Furthermore, just a week after the newest sanctions were imposed, Iran announced it had exceeded the enriched uranium limit previously imposed by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Deal.

Whereas in the past the United States may have responded to events such as the Russian invasion of Crimea, or the use of chemical weapons in Syria with military force, the generational trauma of Iraq and Afghanistan have made the Obama and Trump administrations reluctant to use force, for fear of entering into another seemingly endless, unpopular war. As a result, unfriendly ambitious states such as China take advantage of the United States’ retreat from its role as the world’s policeman to further territorial ambitions without fear of violent escalation with the world’s most powerful army.

A decade of avoiding confrontation with rising powers, even in circumstances in which the use of force could have been legitimate, has undermined US deterrence credibility. Iran is now emboldened to upend the status quo, violating international law by shooting down the drone over what were technically international waters; enriching uranium despite anti-proliferation norms; and, increasingly worrisome, growing Iranian military presence in strategic areas in its regional neighborhood.

The sanctions policy has become reflexive and ineffective, as only part of the world abides by them; releasing new ones is widely viewed as symbolic, and has no real deterrence value. If the United States and its allies wish to maintain an international order based on democratic values, sovereignty, and diplomacy, they must give up the façade of national and personal sanctions. Instead, the threat of retaliatory cyberattacks, like the one carried out in response to the drone attack, must become the new US deterrence against states violating international norms.

The Hezbollah Dilemma

On March 22, American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Lebanon to convince countries in the region to join the United State with enacting harsh sanctions against Iran. The US believes that Iran is funding terrorist organizations around the world and believes it must be stopped.

Under the Trump administration, the US has been hard against Iran by increasing sanctions and pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Deal. Pompeo discussed Hezbollah with the Lebanese government. According to Pompeo, Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and will start wars, end democracy in Lebanon, and allow Iran to rule it.

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri understand the United States’ perspective with the issue of Hezbollah, but they view Hezbollah as a legitimate party organization, not terrorists.

Hezbollah has 70 of the 128 seats in the Lebanese Parliament and has gained momentum in recent years. However, the US continues to sanction them and Iran. President Aoun has said that even though these sanctions target Hezbollah, Lebanon suffers as well. Pompeo says that if the Lebanese government helps him, the US will help Lebanon.

The issue Lebanon faces is quite difficult because Hezbollah is an important actor since the Lebanese Civil War. Their military power is also important because they help defend Lebanon against its enemies, such as Israel.

Lebanon does not want to cut ties with the US but they cannot afford to lose an important military and political actor. But Hezbollah is not just invested into Lebanon, they also have a presence in Syria and support Al-Assad militarily. This is also a conflict of interest for the United States.

In previous administrations, they have all condemned Hezbollah and deemed them to be a terrorist group, but no other president has been so severe against the group and Iran than Trump.

This dilemma has been shrugged off year after year by both the Americans and the Lebanese, but it could change today. The economy of Lebanon could suffer under the sanctions posed on Hezbollah; thus, forcing the Lebanese to change their political affiliations with the group.

The country has not been this stable in decades. Lebanon is open for commerce, tourism, and development. They do not want Hezbollah to be in the way of being more connected with the rest of the world.


Nick Webb is the Research Fellow at Rise to Peace.

 

Photo Credit: RadioFreeEurope/Radio Library

Does Designating the IRGC as a FTO Help or Hurt the US?

IRGC troops marching during the anniversary of the 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in Tehran

Photo Credit: RadioFreeEurope/Radio Library

On April 8, 2019, President Trump designated Iran’s most powerful security organization, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). He believed it was necessary as America has already labeled Iran a state sponsor of terrorism. This is the first time that the United States has ever designated another government entity as an FTO. In response to this designation, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) ordered that American troops in the Middle-East be designated as terrorists.

According to Daniel Benjamin and Jason M. Blazakis, two experts in terrorism and counterterrorism, designating the IRGC as an FTO was unprecedented and counterproductive. They stated that “FTO designations are supposed to be apolitical and preventative.”

The Trump administration didn’t act immediately to these attacks, therefore making this designation seem more as a punishment for Iran’s retroactive actions rather than focusing on other factors that pose a terrorist threat to the United States. Before imposing this designation on the IRGC, there have been executive orders long predating this Administration that have been taken by the State Department allowing the US to take further legal and financial actions against Iran.

The current policy states that the US will continue to place maximum pressure through sanctions to manipulate Iran to change its behavior. It’s hard to say when diplomatic relations will be restored but the US has rebuilt its relationship with both the Soviet Union and China.

The Secretary of State should revoke the designation within a specific time frame. The United States has a list of conditions for a policy change with Iran that include a revised nuclear deal and normalization of US relations. If the US and the Iranian government can engage in conversation within this time frame, it could leave room for negotiations.

There could be a significant backlash because of the absence of proper reasoning for this FTO designation. Benjamin and Blazakis believe that American troops in Iraq and Syria could be attacked by Iran. Others state that Tehran’s participation in the 2015 nuclear deal can’t stop Iran from retaliating in domains outside of proliferation. They could detain and imprison US citizens, assassinate people, and harass American ships in the Persian Gulf, or even exploring in the cyber realm.

Due to this being the first time that the United States has designated a foreign country’s government entity as an FTO, it should have been examined more closely. Rather than keeping the IRGC designated as an FTO, maybe the Administration should look at reopening dialogue with Iran. Having an open conversation on revoking the designation on the IRGC in return of some negotiation may lead to less or no negative effects toward the United States.

IRGC

US Deems IRGC “Terrorists”

As part of the Trump Administration campaign to isolate Iran, Secretary Mike Pompeo declared the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist group.

The IRCG was created in 1979 to protect the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran. Today it does much more. In Iran, the IRCG is an important actor for business including telecommunications, and energy.

They have close ties with the current Supreme Leader of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which gives them influence beyond the Iranian boarders. For example, their sub-group Quds operates in Syria, Israel, and other Middle Eastern states.

Pompeo cites the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia and the 2011 foiled plot by the Quds to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US. It seems as if this move has been a long time coming due to previous attacks relating to the US and its allies.

Trumps use of ‘maximum pressure’ is a part of this move to add IRCG to the list of terrorists and it is used as a way to stabilize the region to create peace.

However, the timing suggests this action may be political to support Benjamin Netanyahu, who was running for Prime Minister of Israel. Trump and Netanyahu have very close relations since the end of the Obama administration, so it would be plausible for Trump to make this move to support his friend in the Middle East, while continuing his campaign to isolate and threaten Iran.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has also responded in word and action with Trumps decision to designate the IRCG as a foreign terrorist group. In return, the Iranians have declared all American forces in the Middle East as terrorists.

This latest development increases the already heightened tension. This could be catastrophic in the Middle East. Since both militaries consider their counterparts terrorists, it could lead to war between the US and Iran.

The US has made many harsh moves to isolate Iran since the election of Trump. Although, it seems that tensions between the US and Iran are at an all-time high. President Trump just might want to reevaluate the way he’s using his power.

 


Nick Webb is the Research Fellow at Rise to Peace.