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Afghanistan Diplomacy Gathers Steam Even as Attacks Increase
Afghanistan Diplomacy Gathers Steam Even as Attacks Increase
Kandahar Assassinations Show Rising Taliban Strength in Afghanistan
Kandahar Assassinations Show Rising Taliban Strength in Afghanistan
Taliban officials led by the movement's chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (C, front) attend peace talks between senior Afghan politicians and Taliban negotiators in Moscow, Russia May 29, 2019. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina
Q&A / Asia

Afghanistan Diplomacy Gathers Steam Even as Attacks Increase

This week the Afghan government and Taliban met publicly for the first time – albeit informally – for a peace dialogue. Crisis Group’s Senior Afghanistan Analyst Borhan Osman explains what the talks mean and what may lie ahead.

What happened in Afghan peace talks in Doha?

Negotiations to end the Afghanistan war took a step forward on 7 and 8 July as more than 60 delegates, including Taliban and Afghan government officials as well as pro-government civil society representatives, gathered in the Qatari capital, Doha, for a peace dialogue. All participants joined the discussion in their personal capacities, which allowed the Taliban to continue refusing direct talks with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, as the Afghan government is formally known. The format also circumvented longstanding concerns in Kabul about giving recognition to the Taliban’s preferred name for themselves: the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Setting aside the dispute over names and the underlying contestation of legitimacy, the two sides entered their first major – albeit informal – meeting.

Participants told Crisis Group that the atmosphere was respectful and constructive. A joint statement issued late on the second day struck a positive tone and outlined some shared principles but did not delve into specifics or point toward a follow-up meeting. Unlike previous events, which excluded Afghan government officials, and in which Taliban delegates generally restricted themselves to prepared statements, the Doha gathering turned into a conversation among Afghans about their shared future. Whether and how this ice-breaker event evolves into substantive negotiations on difficult issues, including the state’s structure and power-sharing in politics and security, remains to be seen.

Will the Taliban formally negotiate with the Afghan government?

The governments of Germany and Qatar facilitated the two-day dialogue in hopes that it would lead to direct negotiations. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah both responded to the Doha event with optimism that the Taliban would formally engage with their government. The Taliban, however, will be reluctant to sit down with Kabul’s representatives since they view that step as implying recognition of the government’s legitimacy. Taliban negotiators told Crisis Group that reaching even the current stage of informal talks represented a significant compromise on their part. Still, further shifts in the Taliban position remain possible, as the insurgents seem hopeful about progress on a related set of talks with the United States on withdrawal of troops.

"An agreement that is ambiguous about the Afghan peacemaking might hasten the U.S. withdrawal without a high probability of stability in its wake."

How are talks proceeding between the U.S. and the Taliban?

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad met again with the Taliban on 9 July, amid growing anticipation that the parties could soon announce a preliminary deal. Khalilzad then departed for travel to China and Washington. Participants say the talks have been tough but appear to be building toward an agreement that would include Washington’s declaration of a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in return for Taliban guarantees not to harbour foreign militants. The emerging deal would link these two issues with two other conditions: a Taliban commitment to negotiate with the Afghan government and other political factions, and mutual commitment to military de-escalation or perhaps even a full ceasefire. The strength of the linkages between the first two items and the two more difficult parts – intra-Afghan talks and a ceasefire – would be the litmus test of any agreement. An agreement that is clear on the U.S.-Taliban deal but ambiguous about the Afghan peacemaking to follow might hasten the U.S. withdrawal without a high probability of stability in its wake.

How quickly could the U.S. and Taliban strike such a deal?

During his June visit to Kabul, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. wants a peace deal by September, before the Afghan presidential election planned for late that month. Some U.S. officials appear hopeful that, once a peace process starts moving ahead, Afghans from all political factions would prioritise Taliban negotiations over the planned election. Otherwise, the campaigning and voting risk distracting the parties from peace efforts, particularly as electoral disputes could drag on for months. Senior Afghan officials in Kabul told Crisis Group that the September goal for a peace agreement seems unrealistic. The government has been focusing on the election schedule, while expressing less urgency about peace talks. Breakthroughs in peace talks that push the election off centre stage in Afghan politics thus seem unlikely this summer. But diplomacy is proceeding at breakneck speed – putting great pressure on the Afghan conflict parties – and the outcome is hard to predict.

"Many people find it puzzling that progress in peace talks is coinciding with intensified violence on the battlefield."

Why is there a surge in violence?

Escalating violence on both sides has punctuated the peace negotiations. On 1 July, for example, a Taliban attack in downtown Kabul killed at least 35 people, drawing the UN Security Council’s condemnation. Following the incident, the Taliban published two online commentaries describing the attack as a response to the Afghan government’s growing campaign of airstrikes and night raids. Two days before the Kabul attack, an airstrike killed religious students as young as ten years old in Wardak province.

Many people living through the surge of attacks find it puzzling that progress in peace talks is coinciding with intensified violence on the battlefield. The combatant parties, however, seem to see logic where civilians see a contradiction. U.S. and Afghan officials told Crisis Group that increased military pressure on the Taliban would improve the U.S. and Afghan negotiating positions at the peace talks. As for the Taliban, members of both the military and political wings claim that they are not coordinating their actions in response to events in Doha. Still, at a minimum, the rising Taliban attacks do seem to be an effort to demonstrate that mounting military pressure will not set the movement back on its heels.

Escalating violence risks hardening positions at the negotiating table. Following the Taliban’s Kabul attack, for example, social media users in the capital called upon government officials to pull out of the peace dialogue event in Doha. Similarly, Crisis Group has observed a small, more radical segment of the Taliban trying to use the increased airstrikes, particularly the bombing of mosques and religious schools, to discredit the entire political process. The more violence intensifies, the more such naysaying will resonate.

What will be the main sticking points as talks proceed?

In the talks between the U.S. and Taliban, the most difficult issue is the troop drawdown timetable – both how stretched out the drawdown will be, and whether it will commence and proceed unconditionally or be tied to progress in the peace process or other requirements. Both sides have been tight-lipped on progress in negotiating over this issue, but reportedly the Taliban have insisted on a nine-month timeline, whereas the U.S. has offered one two and half years long.

Among Afghan negotiating parties, reaching consensus on changes to the form of government is likely to be difficult. The Taliban insist on establishing an Islamic government, without as yet clarifying how, in their view, that would differ from the current Islamic republic. The parties will also sharply contest the timing for a comprehensive ceasefire. The Taliban prefer to continue fighting during negotiations in order to maintain their leverage, while the pro-government side seeks an early suspension of hostilities. For Afghan political groups and ordinary people who are sceptical of the Taliban’s sincerity in negotiations, progress would require the insurgents at least to commit firmly to an eventual ceasefire. Many Afghans consider a ceasefire the most visible proof that the Taliban are ready to make the transition to mainstream politics.

Afghan General Abdul Raziq (C), police chief of Kandahar, poses for a picture during a graduation ceremony at a police training centre in Kandahar province on 19 February, 2017. JAWED TANVEER / AFP
Q&A / Asia

Kandahar Assassinations Show Rising Taliban Strength in Afghanistan

The Taliban have claimed the assassination of an influential Afghan police chief and another official in an attack that narrowly missed the head of U.S. forces. Senior Analyst Borhan Osman and Consultant Graeme Smith explain the repercussions for political stability in southern Afghanistan.

What happened?

At least one gunman attacked a gathering of Afghan and U.S. officials inside the Kandahar governor’s compound on the afternoon of 18 October. The shooter, believed to be one of the governor’s guards, killed the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan, Kandahar Police Chief Abdul Raziq. The provincial chief of the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence service, was also killed. Kandahar Governor Zalmai Wesa was wounded but survived. The NATO-led mission said that three of its personnel were wounded but that the top U.S. commander in the country, General Austin Miller, who was in the meeting with Raziq, escaped unharmed. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack and insurgent social media praised the perpetrator, who was also killed.

Why does this matter today?

General Miller and his team were visiting Kandahar to discuss security arrangements ahead of the 20 October parliamentary elections. Raziq was critical to the plan to secure the vote, which involved the deployment of thousands of police and soldiers to guard polling centres across southern Afghanistan. The day after the shooting, the Afghan government announced that voting in Kandahar province would be delayed for a week. Whenever the vote goes ahead, the chaotic aftermath of this incident could make it easier for the Taliban to disrupt the elections. The Taliban abstained from violence across most of the south and south east to allow voting during the 2014 elections but have threatened attacks on this year’s parliamentary elections. The Taliban statements in recent weeks and their flurry of outreach efforts with community leaders all point to a greater emphasis on disrupting this year’s election. Ten candidates have been killed so far, although not all of them by Taliban insurgents. The most prominent attack happened earlier this week when a bomb at a campaign rally killed Abdul Jabar Qahraman, a former security advisor to President Ghani (the Taliban claimed that strike). Further attacks are expected as voting goes ahead in other provinces tomorrow.

The chaotic aftermath of this incident could make it easier for the Taliban to disrupt the [upcoming parliamentary] elections.

How close was the U.S. general?

The NATO-led mission was quick to call the attack “an Afghan-on-Afghan incident” suggesting the main targets were Afghan officials. Still, reports indicate General Miller barely escaped. The Taliban statement said their targets were both the U.S general and Afghan officials, but no credible account has emerged to indicate that degree of planning by the insurgency. If this was a carefully orchestrated Taliban operation, it would be the second at the Kandahar governor’s palace in two years. Last year a bomb planted in the palace killed thirteen people, including the United Arab Emirates ambassador, just missing Raziq.

Why was Raziq important?

Kandahar’s previous strongman, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was killed in 2011 in similar fashion by his bodyguard and Raziq replaced him. Raziq’s formal title of police chief did not fully reflect the extent of his influence in the security, economy and politics of the south. His harsh tactics brought a grim measure of calm to Kandahar city. He turned the urban zone into a heavily guarded enclave and launched a savage campaign against the Taliban in the surrounding farmland. He would often lead his forces personally, flying by helicopter to the front lines so he could battle Taliban as they advanced into towns and cities. Some in the city celebrated him for it; others in the countryside were terrified. Raziq did not fight by the rules: the UN Committee Against Torture called for his prosecution last year after he was personally implicated in torture and extrajudicial killings.

What were his politics?

A former child refugee, Raziq climbed the ranks of the Afghan police thanks to his close ties to U.S. forces. The Americans found him brutally effective against the Taliban. There were widespread allegations that Raziq was involved with the narcotics industry. Over time, he emerged as a political figure. In any election, his backing was seen as critical for candidates to mobilise votes across the south. He was expected to play a major role in the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for spring 2019. Most speculation focused on possible alliances between Raziq and the potential challengers of President Ghani, such as former Balkh Governor Atta Noor or figures close to former President Hamid Karzai.

Raziq’s death likely does the greatest damage to the morale of the Afghan security forces.

Who replaces him?

Within hours of Raziq’s death, a gathering of local elders called on the government to name his younger brother Tadin (sometimes called Tadin Khan) as his successor. His family hailed the appointment at Raziq’s funeral the following day. Still, there is widespread speculation about who will become the new Kandahar chief of police, with no formal announcement from the Presidential Palace. Tadin is understood to have working closely with Raziq, including in their home district of Spin Boldak and managing the family’s business interests overseas. Another potential successor as Chief of Police would be Rahmatullah Atrafi, the deputy police chief – but it’s unclear if either of them could fill Raziq’s shoes.

What are the implications for the coming months?

Raziq’s death likely does the greatest damage to the morale of the Afghan security forces. The Taliban now initiate roughly 90 per cent of battles in the war, meaning that security personnel find themselves routinely on the defensive. U.S. military estimates of zones controlled or contested by the insurgency grew from 29 per cent of districts in January 2016 to 44 per cent in May 2018. Recruitment of Afghan forces had already slumped amid reports of poor morale in the ranks. That made a charismatic leader such as Raziq a vital asset to the Afghan government, rallying troops and playing a swaggering role in the domestic media. His presence was credited with tipping battles in favour of pro-government forces. Without him, Taliban advances may accelerate – especially if turbulent Kandahar politics fuel a power contest in an already fragile situation.