The Coming Civil War in Afghanistan

At ForeignPolicy.com, I discuss the dangerous centrifugal forces inside Afghanistan that could push the country toward civil war once again. I conclude with some advice on how to avoid such a scenario. The article is available here.

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Uncertainty Looms Amid Progress in Talks With the Taliban (Open Democracy)

Here’s an excerpt from my piece last month at Open Democracy on the U.S.-Taliban talks:

“The Afghan Taliban and the United States have begun talks, advancing prospects that coalition forces can withdraw from Afghanistan. But there are many potential pitfalls on the road to peace: a real risk of a political and military stalemate in Afghanistan, forcing the United States to leave the region under uncertain and possibly dangerous terms.”

Click here to read the remainder of the article.

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Attacks on Pro-Taliban Politician Point Toward Intra-Jihadi Divide

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a leading Pakistani Islamist politician, was the target today of a second suicide bombing attack in as many days.  The attacks on Fazl, who heads his own faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam, a pro-Taliban Deobandi party, come days after State Department cables provided by WikiLeaks to The Hindu reveal that he wanted to mediate between the United States and the Taliban outside of Pakistan in 2007.

No group has claimed responsibility for the two atacks, but they are most likely unsuccessful assassination attempts by irreconcilable Pakistani jihadists who disapprove of his attempts to engage the United States and push for a political settlement for the war in Afghanistan.  Fazl, the bearded, burly son of a prominent Pakistani cleric and politician, is known to be a smooth political operator and has been on the Pakistani Taliban’s hit list since 2008.

This week’s attacks on Fazl are the latest in a series of violence that suggest a deepening intra-jihadi war inside Pakistan.  On one side are jihadists aligned with al-Qaeda and its borderless conflict; on the other are jihadists and their supporters who cooperate with the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment and see jihad as an instrument of state policy or believe that the Pakistani state is an effective agent of jihad.

This intra-jihadi conflict is best demonstrated by the recent execution of Colonel Imam,  a former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officer who worked with Afghan militants in the 1980s and 1990s but also spoke out against the Pakistani Taliban in recent years.  A Pakistani Taliban video showed the Afghan Taliban supporter being shot at point-blank range as the organization’s amir, Hakimullah Mehsud, watches approvingly.

While the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment (PakMIL) seeks the formal integration of its allies within the Afghan Taliban into the power structure in Afghanistan, it has no such plans inside its own country for the Pakistani Taliban.  A political settlement in Afghanistan could leave the Pakistani Taliban as the odd man out — hence their attacks on those who support the Afghan Taliban but oppose the Pakistani Taliban.

An alternative but far less probable explanation for the attacks on Fazl is that they are intentional near misses by the PakMIL designed to serve as deadly warnings to Fazl to not play his own game and unilaterally engage the United States on the Taliban. According to the State Department cable, Fazl wanted to serve as an intermediary between the United States and the Afghan Taliban — but outside of Pakistan.  This could cut the PakMIL out of the picture, if he was not covertly speaking on its behalf.  As the arrest of Mullah Baradar demonstrates, the PakMIL has reacted and will continue to react strongly when it is believes it is being excluded out of an Afghan settlement.

With that said, the cable is now outdated. Fazl’s outreach to the United States occured nearly five years ago, and in recent months, he appears to have re-aligned with the PakMIL to put pressure on the secular Awami National Party (ANP) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).  For the PakMIL, he and his party remain essential counterweights to the ANP in the Pashtun belt and inevitable players in talks with both the Afghan Taliban and reconcilable elements of the Pakistani Taliban.

Fazl has used the attacks as an opportunity to rally his base.  Playing the anti-American card, he blamed the United States and also held his political rivals, the ANP and PPP, responsible for the attacks.  In preparation for possible early parliamentary elections later this year or early next year, Fazl has held large rallies on contentious issues, such as the blasphemy law, and hosted a dinner party with representatives of a broad spectrum of opposition parties.

Ever the political machinator, Fazl is trying to leverage in this life two near-early trips to the next one. Despite his tough public face, the maulana is probably praying that his third strike won’t be coming anytime soon.

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OPED — Only way to end the Afghanistan war: US peace deal with the Taliban

Here’s my latest, an oped in the Christian Science Monitor.  I will try to discuss the topic more expansively in a blog post here.  Stay tuned.  My apologies for the extended absence.  I’ve been busy.

“Nearly six months into the United States surge in Afghanistan and six months prior to the White House’s review of the Afghan war strategy, it’s clear our mission in Afghanistan is not only failing, but beyond repair.

Only a political solution can bring lasting peace to Afghanistan and extract the US from this messy conflict. And given Washington’s bleak military predicament, it must begin to give precedence to a political reconciliation process with the senior Taliban leadership now, rather than next year…”

Read the rest here.

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Pakistani-U.S. Raid Nabs Mullah Baradar: Kayani Doctrine in Full Effect

The New York Times reveals this evening that the Afghan Taliban’s second-in-command, Mullah Baradar, was arrested in Karachi on Thursday in a joint raid by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.  The move is clear demonstration that the Pakistan Army, under the command of Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, has a more flexible approach toward Afghanistan, guided by the realization that it has permanent interests, not permanent allies in its neighbor to the northwest.

In a recent briefing to foreign correspondents, Kayani said that Pakistan seeks a friendly government, stability, and ”strategic depth” (meaning, at the very least, that Kabul is not allied with New Delhi) in Afghanistan.  The Pakistan Army is willing to play by more conventional rules and begin to engage so-called good actors to secure these goals in Afghanistan.  Toward this, Kayani offered to train the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.  Having denied India a strategic pivot into Central Asia and northwestern/western Pakistan via Afghanistan (note India’s minimal role in the London talks and absence from the Istanbul talks), the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment feels more secure to broaden its ties in Afghanistan and engage the current Afghan leadership.

In addition to having been provided an opportunity to diversify its contacts in Afghanistan, the Pakistan Army likely also feels a need to do so.  In my previous post, I speculated that Kayani’s overtures to the Karzai government possibly contained the following “implicit message” to the Afghan Taliban: “you are not our only option, so don’t take us for granted.”  And so the arrest of Baradar is perhaps part of an attempt by the Pakistan Army to induce behavioral change on the part of the Afghan Taliban, and particularly its obstinate leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar.  These desired changes likely include: giving up maximalist goals, such as the re-establishment of an emirate; and clear movement toward the bargaining table with Karzai and away from al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban.  And equally important, as Afghans have engaged in a multitude of secret peace talks in the region, the Pakistan Army would like to ensure that it, to the exclusion of India, is part of the glue that holds together any power sharing arrangement in Kabul.  In other words, it doesn’t want the Afghans to make their own peace and shut Pakistan out of the process.  If Pakistan were excluded, then what was the trouble of the past eight years for?

The arrest of Baradar helps bring U.S. and Pakistan policy toward Afghanistan in closer alignment.  The Pakistan Army is willing to work with Afghan moderates and, at the same time, retains significant leverage over the country’s insurgents.  It has the capacity and willingness to engage, if not manage, a broad spectrum of Afghanistan’s major Pashtun actors — both “good” and “bad.”  One would imagine that Pakistani diplomatic, military, and political officials are also engaging Afghan Tajiks and Uzbeks, particularly ex-mujahideen.

With its contacts, geographic location, and new-found “responsible” approach, it’s Pakistan — not Iran, India, or Russia — that is positioned to play the role of stability guarantor in a post-American Afghanistan, especially as it pertains to U.S. interests.  Pakistan has an opportunity to come in from the cold and project its regional influence through more conventional and “legitimate” means.  In doing so, it can secure its interests and the respect and trust of others, while also containing the Taliban contagion infesting its border areas with Afghanistan.

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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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