Meanwhile in Afghanistan, Taliban has revived and conflict escalation seems likely

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By Jonathan Alexander Hoffman, Research Associate, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs

The security situation in Afghanistan continued to deteriorate rapidly through February 2017, and risked dragging the region and international community into a revived major conflict with no consideration yet being made by Kabul or major external powers as to the possible, or desired, end state.

Fast approaching its 16th year, the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan — Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) — now faces revitalized Taliban insurgency and Al Qaida movements, coupled with the growth of a formal al-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah fī al-‘Irāq wa ash-Shām (DI’ISH, aka ISIS/ISIL) affiliate, and the threat of rising domestic/regional sectarianism.

Mullah Mawlawi Haibutullah Akhundzada.

The threat of comprehensive collapse of security and stability within Afghanistan was now possible, although clearly with significant variations of effect depending on regional issues within the country.

The Taliban has been gradually rebuilding and expanding its network and now controls more territory than at any other point post-September 11, 2001, and the subsequent launching of OEF that following October. The past year (2016) was particularly advantageous for the Taliban, which, according to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR), reportedly killed more than 6,575 Afghan military and police personnel (representing a 35 percent increase from 2015), and wounded more than 11,777.

Accompanying this dramatic increase in the deaths of Afghan personnel was the noteworthy expansion of Taliban-controlled and -contested territory. As of November 2016, U.S. Forces in Afghanistan stated that approximately 57 percent of the country’s 407 districts were under the control/influence of the Afghan government (marking a 15 percent decrease from November of the previous year), and at least 10 percent of the country’s districts (primarily, the opium-rich districts, which in turn provide revenue) were under the direct control/influence of Taliban militants, which represents more than one-million people. When added together, those numbers signified that roughly 67 percent of the country was under direct control/influence of one of these two camps, while the remaining 33 percent was currently contested and under neither group’s direct control.

The Taliban continued to exploit the predominantly Pashtun communities and their dissatisfaction and lack of trust towards the Afghan central government. While gradually rebuilding and expanding, the Taliban has exploited the Western fixation on the fight against DI’ISH and the politically-mandated drawdown of U.S. troops within the country to roughly 8,400 [the total number of troops from the international coalition within Afghanistan is currently 13,300].

The Taliban clearly intended to wait out the U.S. campaign, the future direction of which was now (in mid-February 2017) largely unknown with the recent establishment of a new U.S. Donald Trump Administration. The vast strategic gains by the Taliban represented the inability of the limited Afghan Security Forces to reverse the situation on their own, absent direct (and substantial) U.S./Coalition support and involvement. The competing self-interests of prominent northern warlords also continued to impede progress against the group, as they primarily competed to advance their own respective agendas, as opposed to Kabul’s.

An interesting dynamic to note within the movement itself was the recent evolution regarding leadership. After the formal announcement of Mullah Mohammed Omar’s death in 2013, the controversial Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour assumed leadership. Unpopular amongst various circles within the Taliban, Mansour caused great internal divisions, culminating in some factions (particularly the younger, more extreme elements) actually separating from the group as a whole. Mansour’s death by a U.S. unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) strike in May 2016 allowed a strategically important, and fervently hardline, figure to emerge as the group’s new commander: Mullah Mawlawi Haibutullah Akhundzada.

Mawlawi, a widely-respected salafist-jihadist within Afghanistan, was actively attempting to reunite the various factions that split off due to Mansour. By using his widespread popularity and various connections to other jihadist groups within the country (particularly al Qaida and the Haqqani Network), Mawlawi has successfully reunited several dissident factions with the core Taliban organization. Mawlawi also demonstrated that he was more extreme than his predecessor, and ruled out any possibility of peace talks with the Afghan government, while continuing to advance relations and ties with neighboring jihadist groups in Pakistan, namely Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (which was claimed by the Indian government to have been involved in supporting the 2008 attack at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai, India).

Most interesting, however, was the man chosen by Mawlawi to be his chief deputy and, therefore, second in command: Mawlawi Sirajuddin Haqqani, the current leader of the Haqqani Network. The Haqqani Network is an Afghanistan-based salafist-jihadist group which coordinates and operates directly with Al Qaida. If Mawlawi was to be killed, Haqqani would likely take his place, which would promote an even greater hardline stance by the group and draw all three organizations (the Taliban, Al Qaida, and the Haqqani Network) even closer together. The appointment of Haqqani (who has direct connections with Al Qaida) as chief deputy was also seen as an attempt to co-opt the younger, more extreme generation and dissident branches of the organization.

Coupled with the meteoric revitalization of the Taliban and its expansion throughout the country has been its continued and intensified cooperation with Al Qaida and the further consolidation/solidification of relations between these two groups. As the Taliban continued to advance, Al Qaida was able to take advantage of its successes, and newly-controlled areas, in order to reconstitute itself and refocus its strategy. As noted above, recent Taliban gains coupled with the rise of Mawlawi and Haqqani to power have all served to advance the interests and influence of Al Qaida within Afghanistan.

U.S. officials have continually underestimated the strength of Al Qaida within Afghanistan, typically placing the operational capacity of the group at roughly 200 fighters (directly conflicting with Afghan statements that place the number at 500) and stating that Al Qaida was primarily concentrated in the north-eastern section of the country. This estimate was contradicted by recent statements from the U.S. military which claimed at least 250 Al Qaida operatives were killed within Afghanistan in 2016, with operations being carried out as far south as the Shorabak district in southern Kandahar province.3 Several significant Al Qaida training camps were also found within the country during 2016, the largest of which consisted of more than 150 fighters. While the true operational capacity of Al Qaida within Afghanistan remains unknown, it should be considered substantial due to the group’s historic resilience and its ability to now capitalize on the Taliban’s dramatic advances.

What is significant, and often overlooked, is the presence of two distinct Al Qaida entities within Afghanistan: Al Qaida Central (AQC), and the most recently-established branch within the overall organization, Jamā‘at Qā‘idat al-Jihād fī Shibh al-Qārrah al-Hindīyah Al Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, aka AQIS). Al Qaida central (AQC) is a term used to denote the supreme organizational leadership of the terrorist group believed to be located within the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) in Pakistan, on the border with Afghanistan. This groups represents Al Qaida’s most senior leadership headed directly by Ayman al-Zawahiri, which oversees all of its various branches and affiliates. AQC has exploited both the international fixation on its rival DI’ISH and the new safe havens created by the Taliban within Afghanistan in order to direct Al Qaida’s various strategies/operations abroad and further the agendas of each of their respective branches within the Islamic world.

The creation of AQIS (formally declared an official Al Qaida branch in September 2014) represents the continuation of Al Qaida’s new “region-first” strategy by which it embeds itself within domestic popular movements/uprisings and exploits that particular nation’s grievances in order to gain both acceptance and legitimacy. AQIS’ areas of operations include: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. The previously-mentioned 250 Al Qaida operatives killed in Afghanistan during 2016 were all associated with this respective branch (AQIS), representing its apparent activity within the country after substantial Taliban advances.

Naturally, Al Qaida’s rival, DI’ISH, recognized the political and security vacuums present within Afghanistan, not to mention the historic resilience of the jihadist movement within the country, which has continued to survive against the almost 16-year-long U.S. campaign against it.  DI’ISH formally announced the creation of this entity, Wiliyah Khorasan, in 2015. The group consists of approximately 1,000 to 3,000 fighters, some of whom were actually Taliban defectors from both Afghanistan and Pakistan. They were primarily located in the eastern Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan’s FATA, and which is a known opium-producing province.

DI’ISH’s Afghanistan-based affiliate recently took credit for an attack on a Sufi shrine in Sehwan, Pakistan, on February 16, 2017, which killed at least 70 people.
DI’ISH has also attempted to appeal to non-Pashtun tribes with anti-government sentiment (people who have often been marginalized by the Pashtun-dominant Taliban), and impoverished individuals by offering handsome payments to its fighters. The threat from DI’ISH in Afghanistan is also being exploited by Al Qaida, which has attempted to lay low amid the U.S. campaign against the new entity.

As DI’ISH was being pushed from its strongholds in Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan seemed likely to remain an appealing destination for its fighters and the continuation of jihad on behalf of the caliphate. There were approximately 3,000 to 4,000 combatants currently in Syria and Iraq from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other bordering Central Asian states with long histories of jihadists fighting in Afghanistan (particularly Uzbekistanis) who were primarily fighting with DI’ISH and would, upon returning home, serve as a substantial bolster for the group.

An example of this “foreign-fighter” phenomenon within Afghanistan is the recent bombing claimed by DI’ISH outside the central government’s Supreme Court building on February 7, 2017, which was reportedly carried out by a fighter from Tajikistan.

DI’ISH not only sought to exploit the political and security vacuums within Afghanistan, but was attempting to fuel and exacerbate a sectarian war inside the country. The group had already begun to carry out large scale, mass casualty attacks against Shi’ite communities within Afghanistan, in an attempt to create and deepen sectarian divisions.

Afghanistan has been no stranger to sectarianism, and has therefore been affected by the regional rise of the phenomenon, which in recent decades has been spearheaded by Iran and Saudi Arabia, and non-state actors such as DI’ISH and Al Qaida. Approximately 75 to 80 percent of Afghans adhere to Sunni Islam, while the remaining 20 to 25 percent of the population consists of Shi’ites. Anti-Shi’ism has long served as a recruiting tool for Al Qaida and Taliban extremists, but has failed to divide the general populous amongst such rigid sectarian perceptions as seen in Syria or Iraq.
Despite this historic resilience, however, the current and ongoing regional upsurge in sectarian sentiments and rhetoric, coupled with the actions taken by extremist groups like DI’ISH and Al Qaida, along with the factional and conflicting behavior of regional heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia, now threaten to engulf the country of Afghanistan.

The U.S. removal of the Taliban from power in 2001 removed a radical Sunni threat from Iran’s borders and empowered domestic Shi’ites and Dari-speakers within Afghanistan by giving them a voice in the new democratic environment. Iran had in recent years been actively recruiting Afghan (and to a lesser extent, Pakistani) Shi’ites to fight on behalf of the Assad government in Syria and against DI’ISH in Iraq. Iran recruits both from Afghanistan directly, and amongst the sizeable refugee population located within Iran, often offering the latter official residency and monthly payments as high as US $600. Afghan Shi’ite militiamen represent Iran’s largest foreign Shi’ite fighting contingent outside of its proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and although Iranian officials claim this fighting force was numbered around 18,000, it was more likely that the actual total was, by early 2017, only several thousand strong (the true total is unknown). By submerging these militias within the heart of the sectarian conflicts In Iraq and Syria, Iran has sought to harden their ideology and create a proxy which it could continuously manipulate for its own agenda.

Iran was attempting to construct a transnational radical-Shi’ite fighting force loyal to Iran, through which it could advance its strategic agenda throughout the region. Emboldened by its victories in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere, Iran should be expected to turn this sectarian mindset towards Afghanistan, as it sought to establish a Hizbullah-like Shi’ite guerilla group.

A recent example of the Iranian  leadership’s perceived need to sustain and reinforce its deterrent capabilities in the region, particularly given the perception that the U.S. was backing away from the Five+One deal to ease sanctions and pressures against it, was the ballistic missile test which took place in early February 2017.

The Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and of NATO Operation Resolute Support there, Gen. John W. Nicholson, Jr., stated in a testimony to the U.S. Congress that he believed that Iran actively sought to undermine the U.S./NATO mission within Afghanistan.

After having received extensive training from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Hizbullah forces in Syria and Iraq, these Shi’ite Afghan forces have proven very capable of advancing Iran’s sectarian notions and agenda within Afghanistan, and would likely revel in the idea of returning to their home and continuing their mission. Iran also possesses a large pool of potential recruits from the millions of Afghan refugees in Iran for a future campaign within.

The sudden influx of these battle-tested, ideologically-driven, Shi’ite militiamen back into Afghanistan would be expected to exacerbate sectarian tensions amongst the society.

Sectarian (and therefore linguistic and cultural) sentiments on the other (Sunni) side of the spectrum were also poised to increase as a result of rising regional tensions and conflicts. As noted, approximately 3,000 to 4,000 jihadists from Central Asia have been fighting in Syria and Iraq with DI’ISH, Al Qaida, and various other ethnically-aligned militias. When these fighters decide to return home, they would bring their battle-tested skills and cemented hardline ideologies with them. Jihadists from countries such as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and China’s Xinjiang province are notorious for fighting within Afghanistan, often joining Al Qaida or forming their own ethnically-based jihadist organizations. Many DI’ISH and al-Qaida personnel may also feel compelled to journey to Afghanistan once the war in Syria has run its course.

Katibat Imam al-Bukhari (KIB), a prominent Uzbekistani-composed jihadist organization currently fighting in Syria, is one example of this phenomenon. KIB has sworn allegiance to the Taliban, and was actually directed by the group to travel to Syria in order to train and recruit fighters to eventually return to Afghanistan.

Emboldened Iranian actions vis-à-vis Afghanistan would also likely prompt Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to back Sunni groups to serve as a bulwark against Iranian influence. This, in turn, would continue to fuel sectarianism on both sides of the spectrum, while extremists on the ground serve to exacerbate the divisions between the two communities. However, it should be noted that key Pakistan government agencies’ leaders have privately expressed regret at having been coerced by the U.S. into supporting the essentially Pashtun-based jihadist movement against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, a move which they believed had severely disadvantaged Pakistan’s strategic position in the longer-term. As a result, agencies such as Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have indicated that they would not wish to be drawn again into ignoring non-Pashtun and non-Sunni groups in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s own substantial Shi’a population and Pakistan’s historically-significant ties and geographic links with Iran mean — in the absence of a strong and demanding U.S. ally (as is presently the case) — that Islamabad would take a more cautious approach to new engagement in Afghanistan. Differences between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, too, brought to the fore over disagreements on the Yemen situation, mean that Saudi Arabia’s interest in promoting Sunni solutions in Afghanistan is less likely to appeal to Pakistan, despite the closeness of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the Saudi leadership.

The conflict within Afghanistan is far from over and is poised to increase in intensity. Salafist-jihadists have positioned themselves in a way to benefit from the continuation of the war, in an attempt to wait-out the U.S.-led campaign. If not dealt with immediately (and correctly), Afghanistan risks devolving further into a failed state and another arena of competition between jihadist extremists and geopolitical/sectarian rivals.

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