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Afghanistan Weekly: The pathways to peace in Afghanistan continue to close

It is impossible to enact public policy, corporate change, or military campaigns without encountering consequences that were not anticipated and that run counter to the stated intent. Competent organizations anticipate and deal with those consequences, but competence is a rare commodity in most times and in most places. Afghanistan is a country that is built (like every country) on a hierarchy, but their hierarchy is not competence based, it’s power based. That doesn’t prevent them from coming up with sound policy or good strategy, but it does prevent studying the impact of decisions and adjusting them as the unintended consequences manifest themselves.

The Afghanistan Ulama Council is the biggest (official) religious body in the country. It has 3,000 members, both ulama and mullahs, bringing in approximately 80 from each province. A majority of the members are Sunni, but there is a sizable Shia minority of 25 to 30%. Most members of the national Council have a 1980s jihadi background, but originate from the whole range of mujaheddin factions (tanzim).

The idea behind the Ulama Council, all of whom are on paid government salaries, was to help the Kabul government generate political support and religious legitimacy. That seemed like an excellent plan for a country that holds religious scholars in high esteem. For years, Afghanistan observers like myself thought the Ulama would be a decisive factor in bringing peace to Afghanistan. We were wrong.

Last month a suicide bomber in Kabul struck a gathering of the Afghan Ulama Council, killing over 55 people and wounding another 95. The target was a gathering of religious scholars who were celebrating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. The Taliban was quick to deny responsibility and Daesh (the local name for ISIS-K) has not issued a statement on the attack. But just in case anyone thought the Taliban was hesitant about attacking the Ulama on the 28th of November, the head of the Ulama Council, Maulavi Abdul Basir Haqqani was gunned down in Kabul. The Taliban quickly took the credit for that attack.

The Ulama started out as a powerful force in Afghanistan that had more access to President Karzai then any other component of the Afghan government. They issued Fatwas against the Taliban, against suicide bombing, against women leaving their homes unescorted by a male relative (this is Afghanistan and the Mullahs are not going to go against traditional Afghan norms). Here is an example of their reach:

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This is an episode of 24 that was playing on local TV while I was chatting up the chief of Police in Zaranj – the capitol of Nimroz province. I took the picture when I saw the cleavage which I knew was haram.
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Within seconds, the guys in the TV studio got back to their jobs (which is to blur things like this out). This is a display of the the Quranic principle of amr bil-ma’ruf wa-n-nahy anil-munkar (‘promote virtue and discourage evil’). T&A in Afghanistan means toes and ankles.

How did the Ulama go from potential peace brokers to a target for every anti-government force in the land? Here’s a hint; according to the Quranic principle of amr bil-ma’ruf wa-n-nahy anil-munkar (‘promote virtue and discourage evil’), public corruption is every bit the evil as the sins the Ulama focuses on, but corruption is not a topic the Ulama has ever addressed. This article by the Afghanistan Analyst Network (an excellent source) hints to a structural problem that explains the Ulama’s selective condemnations of sin under Quaranic law:

“…60 per cent of the members are also on the regular payroll of the government in other capacities – as qazis, (judges) government advisors, imams in urban mosques, ordinary government employees, and teachers – giving them a double income. Imams also receive honorariums from their muqtadis (regular mosque attendants) – usually more than their government wage”.

The Afghan people have been calling council members sarkari (governmental) or, more pejoratively, darbari (courtiers) for years. The Taliban has been calling them puppet Mullahs for years too, and they have been attacking them (41 killed between 2003-2012) without hesitation or remorse.

You cannot establish a religious body that is supposed to be independent of government control, and yet always issues fatwas supporting the government. You cannot have a religious body that studiously ignores the biggest problem faced by the Afghan people (corruption) and expect the people accept its legitimacy. Kabul judges are known to accept bribes; Taliban judges will shoot you in the face if you offer a bribe. Is it any wonder that the people prefer dealing with Taliban qazis when it comes to land disputes? It is clear the Ulama is not going to be a factor on the path to peace.

The new U.S. Envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, recently concluded three days of talks with the Taliban in Qatar. These talks did not take place at the Taliban offices in Doha, Qatar because they were closed, at U.S. insistence, in 2013. That office was closed after the Taliban did the two things they were asked by the Obama administration not to do: fly the old Taliban flag and erect signage identifying the office as belonging to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. When America (and Afghanistan) asked the Taliban not conduct themselves like a government in exile, the Taliban ignored them. They continue to ignore every effort toward reconciliation to this day.

The Taliban have consistently demanded the removal of all NATO troops from Afghanistan before they will talk with the “puppet government” in Kabul about peace. This precondition to peace talks has not changed; the additional insistence that the travel ban for senior Taliban members be lifted was instead added. Ambassador Khalilzad is working with a sense of urgency, stating in the press that he wants an agreement signed and sealed by the 20th of April. There is no chance the Taliban will sign a peace deal by 20 April 2019 or 20 April 2029 or 20 April 2039 because they have no reason to do so.

Public statements by prominent diplomats that contrast so vividly with reality are disturbing to hear.

Winston Churchill once said that “to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war” which is no doubt true, yet the current peace talks with the Taliban resemble our attempts to “jaw-jaw” with the North Vietnamese. In the early 1970s, the government in Hanoi had no problems jaw-jawing with the Americans, for several years, while at the same time war-warring with the South Vietnamese (and their American advisors). Time gave the North Vietnamese increased leverage because they were winning on the battlefield. “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes” (Mark Twain is credited with that quote) and it seems we are seeing more rhyme than reason in the current peace talks with the Taliban.

When Kissinger finally got a deal with the North Vietnamese, he did so by selling out the South Vietnamese. All he asked from the North was that they wait a respectable interval before taking the south. I don’t see that happening with the current administration, but it is a scenario that cannot be dismissed as a future solution.

The final possible pathway to peace is the election of the “most powerful person in Afghanistan” to the presidency.  Former Afghan National Security Adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar has thrown his hat in the ring for next years presidential elections. Atmar apparently has the support of the former Northern Alliance as well as western educated technocrats in Kabul. It was Atmar who inked the deal with Hizbi-i-Islami which remains the only successful peace deal between the Afghan government and insurgents. It was Atmar who devised a strategy to fight ISIS-K in Nangarhar (which he had to sell to NATO) using Afghan SF units reinforced by American SF. He was also savvy enough to back off when the Taliban decided to go after ISIS-K and that must have been another hard sell to NATO, but it made sense.

I suspect ambassador Khalilzad would welcome the election of Atmar to the presidency, but winning that office under SNTV electoral  system (addressed in this post) is damn near impossible. It could happen if most of the other candidates are persuaded to drop from the race, but how ironic is it that the outcome I believe Khalilzad would want is impeded by a system he helped put in place.? This is another example of consequences that were not anticipated when the decision to adopt the SNTV system was made.

Managing the perceptions on the Afghan street is difficult work. Recognizing and correcting the unintended consequences of policy decisions hard to do. The price paid when the hard and difficult are ignored is where we are today in Afghanistan. At the end another horrific month for the U.S. in Afghanistan, it is difficult to see how this war will end in a way that is remotely favorable for our interests in the region.

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis meets with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani during a visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, on Mar. 13, 2018. | DoD photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith

Featured image: PAKTYA PROVINCE, Afghanistan “U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Elijah Bales, a Knoxville, Tenn. native and platoon leader with Company C, 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), speaks through an interpreter to an Afghan Uniformed Police chief during a presence patrol led by AUP and Afghan Border Patrol in a village near Chamkani, Oct. 23, 2013. The Afghan-led patrol was conducted with extensive coordination executed by the Afghan agencies while U.S. Soldiers assisted when needed. This example of success and growth is what is helping the AUP and ABP gain confidence in their own capabilities while taking the lead in combat operations. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Abram Pinnington, TF 3-101 Public Affairs) (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Abram J Pinnington (FORSCOM))

9 comments on “Afghanistan Weekly: The pathways to peace in Afghanistan continue to close

  1. Tony Airhart

    I learn so much reading your works.

  2. Thanks Tim for another very informative piece on Afghanistan. I learn more each time I read one of your articles. I confess I often have to re-read parts because there is so much to learn. It’s really a bit of a cluster** ..but I’ll remain a lady and not finish that word. Every time I read about the hierarchy in Afghanistan, I can’t help but think of the old “Who’s on First” comedy routine. And I need a flow chart to keep up with the various players. Haha.

    • It is a mess which I find disturbing because I am fond of the country and its people. I also firmly believe that as long as we continue to lose troops over there we need to follow what’s happening. I’ll tell you this – I find little comfort from writing about it weekly and hope some day soon I’ll find some positive news to report.

  3. Baba Tim, I look forward to your weekly reports because it would be a full time job to keep up with the basics on what is going on there and still not grasp. Like JoniS says it sure seems like a cluster….

    It is just so discouraging to see this war go on for so long. Theoretically, grandchildren of the first wave of Americans could be fighting in this war now. Children of for sure. Thank you for providing your expertise.

    • You are most welcome Mic-Mac and this year kids born after 9/11 will be eligible for service in Afghanistan. I still find that hard to believe.

  4. Allan Langland

    I agree with your Vietnam analogy – it increasingly looks like the U.S. is leaning towards rushing to the exit, while looking for a path that can be called a “decent interval.” I don’t agree that Hanif Atmar is a possible savior. The U.S. and other Westerners love him because he speaks English but he is a technocrat without a real political base. And Atmar has the additional baggage of having service in the old Communist regime – in his case working as an intelligence officer for the KHAD, the vicious and bloody Afghan proxy of the KGB. While overlooked by many Westerners, the divide between the ex-Communists and ex-Mujahadeen still exists, and there are probably many who would refuse to support a man that may have been involved with torturing and murdering Afghan mujahadeen. For this, and other reasons, I am skeptical of the claim that Atmar could obtain the support of the former Northern Alliance leaders.

    • That is an astute analysis Allan which is hard to argue. My experience has been that the Northern
      Alliance never takes Afghans who sat out there fight with the Taliban in other countries seriously. If I were still in the country I would have a better read on this but I’m not and have to trust The Diplomat when they say he has the support of the NA leadership.

  5. It seems that the Taliban are winning the long war. They have growing areas under their control while the Afghan government is trying to hold onto what they can. It seems like diminishing returns each time the Afghan government forces and our own advisors go against them. The Taliban has already killed so many of the government’s forces without taking such large losses themselves. They definitely have time on their side. As you suggested, this will most likely not end well…or before Pres. Trump loses patience over the money spent and US lives lost trying to protect the status quo.

    Most of the people in the US do not have sympathetic thoughts regarding the Afghan people and what they have gone through and are going through. Most don’t have any thoughts except to question why we are still there. When you go there personally and spend time there and gain some understanding of what life is like there, then you come away with sadness and sympathy and some understanding. Otherwise, there is no way to relate to their culture, their hardships, their war. It is a difficult thing to keep public opinion sympathetic to a war effort. I think everyone in the US during the Vietnam War were just happy to see it end. They didn’t get a close hand look at the desperation, disillusionment, and fear that filled the faces of those we left to fend for themselves when we “had enough”.

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