February 21, 2022No Comments

To Stay or Run? What Afghanistan’s future looks like

By: Angelo Calianno.

Today, I have returned to Afghanistan after 4 years. 

In 2018, I left a country that was a constant victim of Taliban attacks; In Kabul, this happened around twice a week, but the rest of the country suffered much more frequently. I left a country at war, where roads were closed due to the sever risk of kidnapping and murder. Today in Kabul I find myself in a surreal situation. The Taliban are wandering around the city with American semi-automatic weapons and items of US Military uniform. What used to be official army checkpoints are now manned by the Taliban. The Afghan tricolor has been removed and replaced by a white flag with Arabic scripture scrawled across it. It reads:

I am a witness that no one deserves worship but Allah. I am a witness that Mohammed is his only prophet.”

Taliban representatives keep telling me at each encounter: “Now, everything is safer. We have defeated evil; The Americans were evil. We fixed the corruption and restored order. We won this war and expelled those who occupied us.”

By: Angelo Calianno.

However, it only takes a little bit of time to understand that things are not exactly as they are presented. In the capital alone, more than half of the shops, cafes and tearooms are closed; in the provinces, it is even worse. The streets, which were once a bustling scene of life, are now crowded by dozens of women and children begging to scrape together a few coins, people running clinging to taxis or simply sitting in the middle of a busy main road.

It is true that the attacks have decreased (since they were mainly carried out by the once-opposing Taliban who have now forced themselves into power), but they have not stopped. The men of DAESH, better known as ISIS-K, are now the opponents of the Taliban regime and the former Taliban insurgents are finding themselves dealing with their own insurgency. Suicide attacks occur in the most crowded places and "sticky bombs" are planted near the checkpoints. Under the Taliban the conflict has not ceased – the position of its players have simply changed.

By: Angelo Calianno.

In a country where conflict is still raging, where cash flow has frozen, where you have to wait months to withdraw only 200 dollars, where more and more people are starving,  and where no viable plan has been announced, what kind of future is possible? We asked Noor Mohammad Ahmadzai, Professor of Research, Assessment, and Language Education at Kabul University.

Mohammad, every day you go to your office at the university, but without students. How are you feeling these days?

"It is very difficult; we are all very worried. I used to earn 1000 dollars per month, now I just got 500 for 4 months and I have to support my family too. I keep coming here because I have to, but in reality, all we do is wait, it has been months now.

We Professors have also tried to have a dialogue with the Taliban, also proposing to divide the classes between men and women, even on different days in order to be able to give more education. However, the answer never came; they keep postponing the meetings or not responding at all.”

Many people, especially the young, fled immediately after the arrival of the Taliban. What do you think? Are you trying to escape too?

It is very sad for me that all those people ran away, but I cannot blame them. People try to build a better future for themselves and their loved ones, and as you can see, we know nothing here except that the Taliban are in charge and that there is no money. Furthermore, Afghanistan imports almost everything, so we are forced to always rely on the dollar. In short, our currency has no purchasing power.

About me, I would never go away. First, I love this country, I am in love with it and anyway, I am not that young to start a new life elsewhere.

Other than that, I would never leave my students. They are already having a terrible time. Generations here know nothing but attacks, bombs, occupation and wars. I couldn't leave them without even a teacher's lead".

I would like to ask you two possible solutions: an idealistic one, which you dream of, even if it may never happen, and a more realistic one, a solution that could be a real possibility

“The ideal solution would be place without the Taliban and with a democratic force. However, it is not realistic now. Of course, there would be the Tajiks: “The Lions of Panshir’, now the only group that could oppose the Taliban regime (even they are economically too weak now). Nevertheless, this perhaps means another war. Afghanistan will not survive another conflict.

This country has already suffered too much.

I think the best scenario now would be the diplomatic pressure from the international communities. Trying to convince the Taliban, perhaps through economic agreements, to integrate ethnic minorities such as Hazaras, Shiites, Tajiks and Uzbeks into the government. Above all, reopen schools and universities.

Many of the Taliban are boys who have been training and fighting since they were children. They know only weapons and hatred. I am sure that they too, connected with civilization, with more educated people, can change. Even if at the moment, this change seems so far away.”

While there are people like Mohammed still holding out hope for their country, many Afghans are now only focusing on how to escape the place they once called home. Every day, hundreds of people queue outside the embassies of neighboring countries, Iran and Pakistan,​ trying desperately to get an exit visa. Thousands more try to cross the borders illegally through the mountains.

Every time I interview someone or listen to a story, I am told a prayer:

“Don't turn your back on us. Please continue to follow what is happening in Afghanistan, it is the only thing keeping the Taliban from doing the same things they did 20 years ago. Being at the center of media attention is keeping us alive.”

December 23, 2021No Comments

Raziya Masumi on Afghanistan Part II

In this two-part series interview, Raziya Masumi, Lawyer and Women's Right Activist, discusses the current situation in Afghanistan facing women and the country as a whole by providing her own insights. Raziya also accounts her own experiences growing up and working as lawyer in Afghanistan.

Interviewers: Angelo Calianno and John Devine.

December 23, 2021No Comments

Raziya Masumi on Afghanistan Part I

In this two-part series interview, Raziya Masumi, Lawyer and Women's Right Activist, discusses the current situation in Afghanistan facing women and the country as a whole by providing her own insights. Raziya also accounts her own experiences growing up and working as lawyer in Afghanistan.

Interviewers: Angelo Calianno and John Devine.

November 9, 2021No Comments

Interview with H.E. Amb. Khaled Zekriya, Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in Italy

An interview with H.E. Ambassador Khaled Ahmad Zekriya, Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in Rome, Italy; regarding the recent events in Afghanistan and the importance of the international community's cooperation to avoid Taliban's violence and terrorism.

Interviewer: Shahin Modarres.

October 26, 2021No Comments

The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the Threat it Poses to and from the New Afghanistan

Image Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/72ccNLMJ-sU

By Adelaide Martelli, Francesco Bruno, and Zachariah Parcels

Proceeding the culmination of the Taliban’s 20-year insurgency, complete withdrawal of NATO forces, and reinstatement of the Taliban’s repressive policies reminiscent of their harsh rule in the late 1990s, domestic actors have emerged to question the Taliban’s renewed governance. Amidst the frantic evacuations of foreigners and vulnerable Afghans, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP; aka ISIS-K) or Wilayat Khorasan emerged in our public consciousness with their horrific attack on 26 August at Kabul’s International Airport. This attack seemingly inaugurated ISKP’s ongoing suicide bombing campaign currently inflicting Afghanistan. ISKP appears to represent the most significant threat to the Taliban’s already teetering “domestic sovereignty” and internal integrity. Thus, to understand the potential security threats emanating to and from the new Afghanistan, it is essential to understand ISKP’s history, operational capabilities, and radical ideology. 

The Beginning of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP)

ISKP was formed in 2014 by defecting Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP; Pakistani Taliban), Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Islam, and disenfranchised al Qaeda fighters active in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These defections were welcomed later by representatives from Iraq and Syria of the Islamic State (IS), corresponding with IS 2015 announcement of a “Khorasan” province. Among the TTP defectors were high ranked commanders previously active in Pakistan and its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), including ISKP’s first wali (governor), Hafez Sayed Khan

Under Sayed Khan, ISKP successfully infiltrated Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar Province in 2015, conquering eight Taliban districts and displacing thousands who did not conform to the group’s apocalyptic ideology. According to Lushenko et al. (2019), contradicting the Taliban’s aspirations to “Talibanize” Afghanistan and effectively counteracting the latter’s opposition to government and coalition forces, acute disagreements between the two groups has resulted in increasing violence plaguing Afghanistan and bogging of Taliban forces. The looming expansionist threat of IS, at that time, caused coalition forces and Kabul to redirect resources to eradicate ISKP from Afghanistan. This campaignseemingly alleviated and unintentionally strengthened Afghan Taliban forces.

Under Khan, ISKP rapidly consolidated territory – predominantly from the Taliban. Albeit thousands of ground and air operations against ISKP by coalition and Afghan forces – including the deployment of the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) munition – fighting with the Taliban, and the death of Khan in 2016, ISKP continued to make gains. This includes ISKP nearly capturing the infamous Tora Bora cave complex from the Taliban in June 2017.

However, by 2017, Wilayat Khorasan (ISKP) had suffered heavy casualties, including the loss of three walis, half its fighters, and two-thirds of its territory. Notwithstanding, ISKP still maintained the capability to launch consecutive terrorist attacks in Kabul in 2017, predominantly against Shi’a mosques and cultural sites to spark sectarian divisions. Nevertheless, after a sustained campaign, ISKP surrendered to the Taliban in the summer of 2018. Though, Taliban-IS relations reportedly have not been fully hostile, as parts of the Haqqani Network have coordinated with ISKP. ISKP faced further setbacks in 2019 when more than 600 fighters surrendered to Afghan forces. 

These setbacks drove the Islamic State (IS) Core to make internal transformations. IS founded new provinces in India and Pakistan in May 2019, territory formerly under ISKP’s purview; and, in June 2020, appointed the zealous Shahab al-Muhajir – who was previously associated with the Haqqani Network and planned urban attacks in Kabul for ISKP – as ISKP’s new wali, as the incumbent Aslam Farooqi was captured. 

ISKP’s Contemporary Operational Capabilities

Contemporarily, the organisation can count on a number of foreign fighters who have been smuggled into the country. The organisation has a strength of between 2000 and 4000 fighters spread across the provinces of Kabul, Nangahar, Kunar, Jowzjan, Paktia, Kunduz, and Herat, areas in which the organisation has claimed attacks.

Though when analysing ISKP’s current capabilities and operational organisation, it is possible to argue that ISKP is going towards a period development and readjustment due to Afghanistan’s changing landscape amidst the withdrawal of the US-led coalition. These changes can be both an opportunity and a risk for the organisation. Until 2020 (and illustrated above), ISKP was threatened by the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the US-led coalition, and the now-defunct Afghan government. By a tacit consensus, the three were able to repress the group and dislodge it from their main areas of influence which worked as a catalytic for fundraising

Since the US withdrawal and the Taliban takeover, the landscape has profoundly changed. There are two key elements to consider. First, Afghanistan remains one of the most prominent theatres of jihad, disproportionately increasing the number of foreign fighters moving to the country. For instance, al-Qaeda has encouraged its members to relocate to Afghanistan from Syria and Iraq, while IS has smuggled key leaders into the country. Secondly, the power and security vacuum left will consequently cause instability that ISKP aims to capitalise on. This has resulted in an increased number of attacks since the beginning of 2021. ISKP conducted 77 attacks only in the first 4 months of the year, with the most known being the attack at the airport in Kabul, which killed 170 civilians and 13 US Marines. Similarly, it is unclear if the Taliban will be able to stabilise the country and provide basic necessities to the population. This instability provides ISKP with an opportunity to gain more traction among the population, gain more recruits in their fight against the Taliban, and plan new international attacks from Afghanistan – as they have done until recently.

ISKP’s Ideological Threat

Islamic State Khorasan Province’s (ISKP’s) security threat – both to the Taliban’s governance and internal integrity and to the international community – is not only manifested in their capabilities but also their ideology. ISKP is a Salafi-jihadistmovement whose goal is to establish a global Caliphate through armed struggle. With this purpose, ISKP follows the teaching of two Salafi scholars, Ibn Taymiyyah and Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahab, who supported purist visions of Islam and the necessity of Sharia lawTakfiri strategy is their modus operandi that, similarly to other jihadist groups, allows them to kill all those Muslims declared as kafir, meaning “apostate”. Not accepting their same extremist ideology is enough to be labelled as such. Considering this, ISKP rejects the Taliban government and its rules.

ISKP has a transnational and all-encompassing goal, unlike the Taliban which they consider as a “nationalist movement” with an “impure” ideology. The latter is a pivotal factor when considering its success over the larger audience. This group does not only focus on the region – the “Near Enemy” – but adopts a global jihad mentality in which the West is seen as an urgent target to destroy. Another difference with the Taliban, which is consequential to the first, relies on its relationship with the United States (US). ISKP has always condemned the presence of this foreign power on Afghan territory while the 2020 US-Taliban peace deal represented a huge occasion for this faction to delegitimise its counterpart.

ISKP is a threat not only to the Taliban’s renewed governance in Afghanistan but its internal integrity. ISKP is very effective in winning the “hearts and minds” of its followers because of a variety factors. Furthermore, it takes advantage of the fractures inside other jihadist groups, awards compensations to its followers, and employs several platforms to spread its propaganda, such as through Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and its radio channel, “The Voice of the Khilafat”. These virtual channels are fundamental when waging global jihad, they are the main, and sometimes also the only means to incite and attract recruiters abroad

September 20, 20212 Comments

Afghanistan Fallout: Time to Rethink Pak-US Relations?

By: Mariam Qureshi

Prime Minister Imran Khan during his speech at the National Assembly of Pakistan in June 2021. 
Source: https://www.dawn.com/news/1632376

United States’ longest war in Afghanistan has finally come to a haphazard end. The Taliban remain undefeated and now control Afghanistan. How does the United States intend to utilise its alliance with Pakistan to preserve peace and security in the country without having boots on the ground?

United States’ (US) longest war came at an astronomical cost with 66,000 to 69,000 Afghan troops and 2,500 US troops killed, and over $2 trillion spent since the war began in 2001. In addition, 2.7 million Afghans were forced to migrate and another 4 million were internally displaced. Despite this, the US-backed Afghan military rapidly collapsed, and the Taliban spared no time in taking over and establishing an interim government. Taliban-controlled Afghanistan has increased the fear of terrorism and the return of Al-Qaeda to the region. The shrinking economy and curtailed women and human rights have further worsened the socio-economic situation in Afghanistan.

The Biden Administration was heavily criticised for the haphazard US evacuation before the September 1st deadline, leaving behind its’ allies and US citizens in Afghanistan. Antony Blinken, President Biden’s Secretary of State, rushed to defend the chaotic US pull-out from Afghanistan in the first official testimony to the members of Congress since the exit. In his opening remarks, he stated there was no chance of extending the US stay in Afghanistan because if 20 years and billions of dollars did not suffice, another year or five would not have made much of a difference. At this point, many have turned to Pakistan, expecting it to play a vital role in preserving peace and stability in the region.

However, the Pakistan-US relationship is at a low. Blinken asserted the need for Washington to reassess its relationship with Pakistan. Whilst acknowledging Pakistan’s contribution to the US endeavour in Afghanistan, Blinken also stated that at times Pakistan acted against US interests. “This is one of the things we're going to be looking at in the days, and weeks ahead — the role that Pakistan has played over the last 20 years. But also, the role we would want to see it play in the coming years and what it will take for it to do that,” he said. Blinken also stated that Pakistan must ‘line up’ with the broader international community in denying the legitimacy of the Afghan Taliban, unless they ensure free travel, the protection of women and children’s rights, and guarantee no safe haven for terrorism again. 

Pakistan assisted the US in its War on Terror in 2001, under the leadership of President General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan signed the framework of cooperation in terms of Air Lines of Communication (ALOC) and Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC), which granted the US Military access to Pakistani ground and airspace. This allowed for operations to be conducted swiftly in Afghanistan and the agreement remains in place to date. General Musharraf, the then Pakistani President, also allowed US troops access to airbases and granted permission for military aircraft to deploy from Pakistani soil. Then, in 2019, Pakistan took the initiative to facilitate the Afghan-US peace dialogue to reinstall peace in the region. The increased engagement with the US during the early years of the 2001 War in Afghanistan created a domestic security challenge for Pakistan. The increased terrorist attacks on Pakistani soil compromised Pakistan’s international image and the burden of incoming Afghan refugees fleeing their war-torn country crippled Pakistan’s already weak economy and limited resources. The mismanaged Pak-Afghan border, Durand Line, became the gateway for drug smuggling, human trafficking, refugee migration, and cross-border terrorism after 9/11. Although Pakistan is the largest trading partner of landlocked Afghanistan, its economic ties have dwindled over the years due to political and security tensions in the region. Pakistan also suffered a loss of 70,000 lives with a further $150 billion loss to its economyas a result of this war. Therefore, a stable Afghanistan is also in Pakistan’s best interest.

However, the tension between the US and Pakistan is evident and is hampering the creation of a viable strategy for Afghanistan moving forward. Despite being a critical ally to the US in its war in Afghanistan, President Biden has not reached out to Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan since assuming office in January 2021. Regardless of the repeated assurances from Washington in keeping close contact with Pakistan and working together in devising a strategy for Afghanistan, Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf conveyed Pakistan’s displeasure at the delay in the phone call from the White House. 

In an interview in June, Journalist Jonathan Swan asked PM Imran Khan if he would allow CIA presence in Pakistan to conduct cross-border counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda, ISIS and Taliban. PM Khan replied with a stern ‘absolutely not’.  Later, Pakistan Foreign Office officially denied any reports claiming the presence of US bases in Pakistan. In a recent speech at the National Assembly of Pakistan, PM Khan clarified that Pakistan could be ‘partners with the United States in peace but never in conflict’. PM Khan lamented that past decisions to join the US in its war against terrorism which jeopardized the security of Pakistan and came at a heavy price for Pakistani civilians and soldiers. This suggests a policy divergence from the longstanding Pak-US cooperation.  

PM Khan has reiterated his position in several interviews that he believes in a political solution to the Afghanistan problem. In a recent interview with CNN, he emphasized the need for an inclusive government and the assurance of women and human rights in Afghanistan. PM Khan clarified that he wants the international community to find a diplomatic solution to pressure the Taliban government into protecting women and human rights, exercising inclusive governance, and ensuring there's no safe haven for terrorism on Afghan soil, in exchange for international recognition and desperately needed aid. He elaborated that the conclusion of the two-decade-long war has proven that Afghanistan and its’ people cannot be controlled by outside forces and that a puppet government cannot survive in Afghanistan. 

Pakistan, under PM Imran Khan, desires a stable and peaceful Afghanistan and is not interested in negotiating with the US on future military endeavours. Moving forward, this will have implications on the Pak-US relationship, which will, by extension, also reconfigure the security situation in the region. If the Pak-US alliance is in jeopardy and the US looks towards India for a potential alliance, Pakistan might increasingly look to China for support. All key states have a stake in Afghanistan, which seems dangerously close to collapse. Only time will reveal how the alliances are reconfigured in a post-war scenario in the region.