SHAFAQNA – Afghanistan’s developments have kept unfolding in 2015 within completely opposing courses. On the one hand there were increased efforts to push the Taliban group and the Afghan national unity government towards negotiations and reconciliation, and on the other hand the war has outstretched from the country’s east and south to cover the central and northern areas. Looking at Afghanistan’s 2014 developments in a prospective fashion, we can refer to a couple of happenings which would be influential in the country’s future developments:
1. Launching the four-nation peace negotiations, which included the US, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan itself
2. Admitting the death of Mullah Omar, the former leader of Taliban, and split of the group
3. Rise of ISIS terror group in Afghanistan
4. Redefining the US and NATO forces’ mission, and fluctuation in President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan policies
It is clear that under each of these significant Afghanistan-related events there are other decisive occurrences which need to be taken into consideration. Looking closely at the prospects of peace and stability in Afghanistan as well as the impacts of the country’s developments on the peace in Southern and Central Asia, we can predict that in the years to come Afghanistan would keep suffering from security crises imposed by three levels of conflicting interests:
1. The domestic level, which is between the central government and its armed opponents
2. The regional level, which is actually a proxy war of the region’s countries
3. The international level, between the US, China, Russia and the NATO
It is based on this vision that we can argue that war and peace, to a large amount, depend on the coordination or incoordination in three internal, regional and international sources of power. As long as the three levels of power make no efforts for coordination between them, the peace and stability would not be restored to Afghanistan, as at the same time the proxy wars and use of radical Islamist movements as strategic means by the foreign powers’ security and intelligence services would keep going.
Launching the quartet peace negotiations
The reality is that the standoff and the fact that no one of the warring sides in Afghanistan has secured a good position to claim military and strength superiority and thus victory over the others, gave rise to a willingness for resuming the peace talks. It was as a result of this development that four-nation negotiations were arranged and attended by delegates of the US, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan and were held alternately in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The outcome of the fourth round of negotiations was that the participating parties agreed to organize face-to-face negotiations between the Afghan national unity government and the Taliban group at the next session. The US and China agreed to facilitate the dialogue. But in early March, when it seemed that the conditions were right for holding the fifth round of peace dialogue, the Quetta Shura- or Quetta Council in English-, a Pakistan-based militant organization comprised of Afghanistan Taliban’s leaders, has, all of a sudden, announced that it was not going to enter a peace process with Kabul’s central government before fulfillment of its three major conditions, which included:
1. Full withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan
2. Removal of Taliban from the UN’s terror blacklist
3. Lifting of sanctions on Taliban’s chiefs
Perhaps these conditions are not new and in fact they were already highlighted by Quetta Shura, but because in the process of quartet negotiations all sides strongly rejected that there would be any preconditions and it was expected that Taliban would review its stances, Taliban’s return to its previous conditions could hamper resuming the peace talks and lead to intensification of clashes across different parts of Afghanistan. As it is witnessed, the power struggle has been ongoing since early March, almost in all of the Afghan provinces from east and south to north and center between the government forces and splinter groups of Taliban. Additionally, two Taliban’s rival groups, one loyal to Quetta Shura and leadership of Mullah Akhtar Mansour and the other splinter group led by Mullah Abdul Rasul, have started deadly clashes in Herat province, resulting in heavy tolls from the two warring factions. Nevertheless, because the Afghan and Pakistan governments have reached a point to reduce rivalry or at least work on reducing it, hopes are growing that Islamabad would encourage, or force, the Quetta Shura to rethink its standings to allow the peace dialogue reactivated afresh in 2016, especially that Beijing is desperately seeking stability in Afghanistan as it intends launching a $46 billion investment plan in Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, linking Kashgar in Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port in the Indian Ocean. At the same time, Moscow in early 2016 showed interest in reconstruction of Afghanistan on the one hand and repelling penetration of ISIS in the Central Asia and Muslim-Inhabited Russian regions on the other hand through holding contacts with Taliban and battling ISIS terror organization. This is coming while the US and NATO have made it clear that full exit of their forces from Afghanistan according to the previously announced schedule of the US president was called off for the time being.
Therefore, despite Talban’s announced preconditions for taking part in the peace process, it is very likely that negotiations would be resumed in 2016. This would not mean achievement of full peace in Afghanistan, however, especially because the Taliban group is at the present time not consistent internally, and it is not obvious yet which faction is the major power holder of group. At least two rival factions claiming Taliban’s leadership exist inside the militant group. So, it is not clear if Mullah Akhtar Mansour-led Quetta Shura wants to engage in peace talks with Afghanistan’s central government through its Qatar-based political office, other Taliban faction, which is led by Mullah Abdul Rasul and has said that it had joined the ISIS group, would accept to get involved in the dialogue. The main supposition is that Afghanistan keeps being a place for proxy battles, and that the US and NATO’ military presence in the country would not end that soon.
Announcing death of Taliban’s leader Mullah Omar
The way to reveal the death of Taliban’s previous leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who appears to had died two years ago in a hospital in Karachi, the capital of Pakistan’s province of Sindh, has caused a serious crisis inside the leadership of group. Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was appointed new leader of Taliban by Quetta Shura, has faced an opposition of the militant group’s chief commanders in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, a fresh faction in Helmand province, led by Mullah Abdul Rasul, has said that it was leading the power of Taliban in Afghanistan and that it rejected to approve of Mullah Akhtar’s leadership of Taliban. On the other side, the Afghan government for the first time on July 29, 2015, has disclosed the death of former Taliban’s leader. Following this disclosure, Pakistan’s security sources have confirmed the news. The Quetta Shura, afterwards, has declared that Mullah Akhtar Mansour would head Taliban as a new leader and alternative to late Mullah Omar. As a deputy for Mullah Omar, Mullah Akhtar Mansour was giving orders on the behalf of Taliban’s chief. After the leader’s death, Mullah Mansour was accused of cover-up, as he was accused by his opponents inside Taliban of having hand in killing of Mullah Omar. In the beginning, even Mullah Omar’s brother and son have refused to accept Mullah Mansour’s leadership, then they were forced to shift stances under strains of Islamabad.
The disputed disclosure of Mullah Omar’s death has led to split of Taliban. But that was not the only negative consequence for Afghanistan. Actually, Mullah Mansour’s struggle for strengthening his basis for Taliban’s leadership has pushed him to adopt a more radical policy and put up a more extremist face. Such struggles have fuelled the clashes in Afghanistan and expanded them to include further areas. Outstretching of the battle to northern Afghanistan, which is originally held by northern movements and non-Pashtun ethnic groups like the Tajiks and Uzbeks, was a result of such attempts. Taliban’s attacking of the strategic city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan and next to the borders of the Central Asia was the most obvious struggle of this kind by the militant group. Capturing Kunduz and saving it for three days in September 2015, while the Afghan army and security forces had huge and serious support of NATO and the US, was the most significant military triumph of Taliban since 2011, when its Islamist government was toppled by the US-led coalition. Capture of Kunduz has made it clear that Taliban was still capable of launching military operations, and in fact death of its leader had not done much damage to its tenacity to continue the fight. On the other hand, it laid bare the fact that after an over a decade-long presence of NATO and the US forces, the Afghan forces were still devoid of modern weaponry and quality training. Such a matter has begun to cast doubts on the real Washington’s objectives in Afghanistan, rising the important question that why the US and NATO have not so far equipped the Afghan forces with their necessary weapons.
Although no apparent answer has yet been given to this question, in some internal Afghan circles the notion has been that essentially the US is not interested in strengthening Afghanistan’s army to a level to have a superiority over the Taliban group. In fact, Washington is orchestrating the war in Afghanistan in a way to not allow any party secure an outright victory, to make the directed violence a justification for long-term presence of the US in Afghanistan. This strategy took place on the ground in 2015. The military standoff in Afghanistan has shown the fact that Taliban has so far failed to beat the Afghan forces and restore its so-called Islamic emirate in the country, as on the opposite side, the Afghan army has not been upgraded to a level to gain the potentials to ultimately defeat the militant group and spread the rule of national government across the country. The outcome is a kind of power sharing, namely the large cities and some of key provinces are under the control of the central Afghan government, while Taliban has tightened grasp over the rural and tribal areas in the Pashtuns-inhabited regions, forming actually a kind of parallel state in the country. NATO’s sources in early 2016 have confirmed that more than 30 percent of Afghan territory is held by Taliban and the group implements its own rules in its areas, without being afraid of presence of the Kabul-based central Afghan government’s administrative and security branches.
Anyway, the death of Mullah Omar presents a lost chance of peace for Afghanistan. Despite the fact that it was expected the Afghan government would take advantage of Taliban’s falling apart, this case did not happen, as in the early 2016, it was like the Afghan prospects of peace and stability were still dim.
Emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan
The 2015 was significant and decisive in the future of Afghanistan as the central government of Kabul has admitted that the terrorist group ISIS had appeared in some provinces of the country. There are conflicting views on whether ISIS has by itself moved to the South Asia or it was pushed there as part of an intelligence project launched by some regional and international powers. What is clear is that a large part of Greater Khurasan, which is a part of ISIS’ so-called vast Middle East-based Islamic caliphate, is in Afghanistan. Possibly, should the terror organization is defeated in the Middle East, it would resort to the ancient Khurasan, which begins from Central Asia and includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, north of India, parts of eastern Iran and continues to China’s Xinxiang province in the east. It is because of this vastness of Greater Khurasan that such important powers as Iran, Russia, China and India would see some kinds of caliphatist movements run by their Sunni populations. Such a case, in the eyes of many experts, could present a strategic means and call attention of intelligence and security networks to serve their proxy wars.
It is for this reason that it is said that appearance of ISIS in Afghanistan could be manipulated in line with Washington’s strategic policies in Southern and Central Asia, and be set on the countries which would possibly present a challenge to the US’ strength. ISIS’ efforts for penetrating in northern Afghanistan, as well as the country’s central regions and the Central Asian countries to reach Uzbekistan’s Fergana region ultimately could be interpreted as part of this strategy. It is very likely that the terror group withdraws ultimately from Iraq and Syria, and there is an understanding that the ISIS’ forces, at least the Chechenian, Uzbek, Uygur and Tajik forces, would be sent to Afghanistan’s north. It is for this reason that Russia has begun boosting its military presence in Tajikistan and it is trying to get close to Taliban to push ISIS back from its areas of security interests. The Russians are well aware of ISIS’ possibility of coordination with the US and have taken the needed steps in advance. The course of 2015 events in Afghanistan has backed the supposition that even if Taliban sincerely engages in peace process with Afghanistan’s central government, it is possible that it would be replaced by ISIS terror group and thus Afghanistan and its surrounding areas would be deprived of peace and stability. According to such an outlook, Afghanistan would remain in the spotlight of global powers, like the US, China, the EU, and the regional powers, such as Pakistan, India, Iran and Turkey, and the intelligence and proxy wars would resume in the near future in the country.
Shift of US, NATO forces’ mission
The US President Barack Obama had said that a major part of US as well as NATO combat forces would quit Afghanistan in 2016 and the remaining forces’ mission would change from combat operations to consultation, training and equipment of army and security forces of Afghanistan. So, it was expected that the US and NATO would gradually scale down their direct military intervention in Afghanistan’s power struggle, however, this did not happen in practice. In early 2016, the US forces got involved in combat missions, making it clear that the withdrawal plan of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan was given a serious amendment. That Taliban insists on exit of foreign forces as part of preconditions set for taking part in peace talks is not disconnected from fluctuating US policies in Afghanistan. Furthermore, rise of an entity, dubbed Council of Security and Stability of Afghanistan, on December 18, 2015, by former mujahedeen commanders is not unrelated to this case. Former mujahedeen chiefs including Ismail Khan, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Yunus Qanuni who organized the Council of Security and Stability of Afghanistan are concerned about Washington’s coordination with ISIS and Afghanistan’s remaining in the heart of regional and international rivalry and even more dangerously their country’s sectarian division and falling again to Taliban. They aim at entering the war if needed as they mobilize people and shore up the bases of the current political system of Afghanistan, especially that the former mujahedeen leaders have begun to cast doubts on the policies of President Ashraf Ghani and the Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, so, in 2015 there was a considerable gap developed between the mujahedeen and the Afghan government.
The 2015 was a decisive year for Afghanistan. The peace process was pushed ahead and Afghanistan’s national unity government showed a will for giving Taliban a share from the power in a bid to end the war. Also, Mullah Omar has died. Despite all these, the domestic conflicts in Afghanistan have kept unfolding, witnessing an expansion in early 2015. In addition to war between Taliban and the central government, Afghanistan saw a power struggle between the two Taliban’s splinter groups. In early March, the pro-Mullah Mansour and pro-Mullah Abdul Rasul militant groups, which each of them claimed the leadership of Taliban, have clashed in Herat province.
Moreover, ISIS became active in 2015 in Afghanistan. It attracted the dissenters of Taliban, provoked Pakistan’s Taliban and Al-Qaeda and gained enough strength to declare Nangarhar province in east of Afghanistan as the capital of the Islamic caliphate in the Greater Khurasan. In fact, in early 2016, three parallel powers were identified in Afghanistan: The central Afghan government, Taliban in Helmand province and ISIS in Nangarhar province. It is because of this that it can be claimed that Afghanistan witnessed, in practice, the split of power in 2015. This is coming while the US policy amendment and staying in Afghanistan have increased the doubts over Washington’s strategic goals in South Asia region. The dominant notion is that the peace is not easily achievable in Afghanistan and it is very likely that Taliban would be replaced by ISIS terror group, as Afghanistan would keep being a hub of regional and global rivalry.