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Afghanistan’s elusive peace: Measures to end proxy war

chris alexanderVIENNA, July 12, 2021 - Twenty years after the military invasion of Afghanistan, popularly named as the ‘war on terror’, Joe Biden in mid-April announced the end of Afghanistan’s ‘forever war’ and the withdrawal of all the U.S. troops before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 initiated this military intervention that led to the U.S. and its allies ousting the Taliban from power for harboring Al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups. The U.S. and its allies poured their military, political and financial resources into Afghanistan for two decades to bring peace and stability to the war-ravaged country, yet the Taliban are stronger than any time in the past 20 years and have maintained ties with Al-Qaeda. As part of the process of withdrawal, the Americans vacated their largest military base, Bagram, on Friday. Located in north of Kabul, Bagram accommodated tens of thousands of U.S. troops during the peak of the war, to fight Taliban and Al-Qaeda. On the 29th of June, the Germans, like the Americans and other NATO members, ended their military engagement in Afghanistan by pulling out all its forces too.

In recent months since the announcement of U.S. and NATO members’ withdrawing, the Taliban have made significant territorial gains. Taliban have captured more than 100 districts, mainly in the northern Afghanistan, over the last several weeks. The videos circulated on social media platforms indicate how Afghan security forces have surrendered to the Taliban without a fight raising concerns about the future of a country where peace and stability was promised by the U.S. Since 2001, Afghanistan has also suffered by the interferences of its neighbors, particularly Pakistan, providing sanctuaries and military support to their proxy warriors.

The UN report on Taliban

According to the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the United Nations Security Council report released in June, Al-Qaeda has been operating and enjoying ‘unbreakable ties’ with the Taliban. Based on the report, Al-Qaeda is active in at least 15 out of 34 provinces. There are up to 10,000 foreign fighters mainly from Central Asia, the north Caucasus region of Russian Federation, Pakistan and the Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region of China fighting the Afghan government.

The Monitoring Team of the UN Security Council report has discussed the Taliban leadership councils which are based in Pakistan, the Al-Qaeda-Taliban nexus, international terrorism, and the elusive peace efforts since the signing of agreement between the U.S. administration and the Taliban in February 2020 in Doha. The report, however, fails to identify the ‘principal and underlying’ cause of the war in Afghanistan.

In a virtual conversation with Chris Alexander, the author of “Ending Pakistan’s Proxy War in Afghanistan” and the former Deputy Special Representative to the United Nations Secretary General for Afghanistan between 2005 and 2009, I asked him what his thoughts are on the findings of the Monitoring Team of the UN Security Council report; and what the root causes of the Afghan conflict are.

Question: What is your reaction to the Monitoring team of the UN report and its findings?

Chris: It’s a report that continues not to talk about the elephant in the room, not to name the real problem by its name. Some of the Al-Qaida leaders are said to be living in Afghanistan and Pakistan border area and that is absolute hotwash. We know from countless sources documented, verified, journalists, researchers, Pakistani officials, serving and former that these people living in Pakistan and the organizational structure of Al-Qaida is based in Pakistan and has been since it was founded in 1998. There was a long set of articles four years ago about how Aiman Al-Zawahiri lives in Karachi. All of these groups whether they are Al-Qaida, Islamic states in Khurasan Province, any splinter groups we have talked about, Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, any of the leadership groups, the Haqqani Network, the leadership group that trying to split off the Taliban - they are all based in Pakistan and they all have a common back office as it were and supply chain which belong to directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). These people who are monitoring the sanctions will not be doing their jobs until they start to document the truth about how these groups operate and they operate from Pakistan with Pakistani state support.

Now this Monitoring Sanction Team efforts has been dubious in my eyes from the beginning because it always ignored these issues and the last time years ago, there was an ISI officer who was the member of Monitoring Sanction Team. So, if you want to know why this is not being reported, it’s because of that.

Question: Why the report did not mention the presence of Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan?

Chris Alexander: If they mentioned it then we might start to deal with real issues which Pakistan is waging proxy war in Afghanistan and that proxy war is a threat to international peace and security and countries that are interfering through armed groups in the internal affairs of their neighbors should face consequences under the UN Charter starting with political sanctions. Iran has been sanctioned by most countries in the world because it’s engaged in proxy war in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen and couple of other places. We could also talk about Saudi Arabia and Turkey engaging in proxy wars today and there should be probably a discussion about that but the scale and the involvement of Pakistan in this proxy war in Afghanistan is much greater than other countries. It deserves the international response that is appropriate to uphold the internal integrity and sovereignty of Afghanistan.

Look at Vladimir Putin, he invaded Ukraine in 2014 and was immediately faced with sanctions. Those are in his enraged in Russian states responsible for that invasion and face a growing range of sanctions from a very wide range of countries. Pakistan should face at least that and no one want to punish the Pakistani people. The people of Pakistan for the most part do not even know that this is happening in their name because it’s a covert war using irregular tactics. If you talk about it in the Pakistani press, you are killed and certainly censored. They (Pakistani state) work very hard to make sure the UN report don’t mention the reality. To make sure news report do not show the reality, to make sure Afghans report on this are intimidated or killed or certainly there is no freedom of press on these issues in Pakistan.

Question: Are you surprised with the high number of Al-Qaeda and other terror groups mentioned in the Monitoring Team report and their association with the Taliban?

Chris: Reports on numbers always subject to the nuance analysis. I don’t doubt that many people are involved in one way or another in the fight, but they are not active in any given day. Many of them end up being injured or killed. Let’s be honest! Thousands of them get killed every year. A lot of them spend time going back to their families, running areas across the border or earning a living because they cannot pay their bills from what they receive as proxy warriors for Taliban. I think they cross over between Taliban and Al-Qaida. It’s very easy to understand because from the ISI perspective, the most reliable group that they have been working with in the last 20 years with certain degree of ideological brutality on the battlefield and willingness to do extreme things like killing of large number of civilians, is the Haqqani Network. Haqqani is the group closely associated with the Al-Qaida. Even though the Haqqanis are Afghans from Paktia province, from Zadran tribe, they have operated from Pakistan throughout the years. Haqqanis associated themselves with Al-Qaeda because it was source of money and international military capacity. That relationship has continued, and I think there is some evidence that Haqqani group is taking some of the principle of Al-Qaeda leadership after 9/11. They are indeed partners of Al-Qaeda from the very beginning. It is not surprising to see ISI is designating Sirajuddin Haqqani in Afghanistan as of both principal leader of the Taliban military command and a major interlocutor for them with Al-Qaeda.

Question: What has been the biggest achievement of U.S.-Taliban peace deal in your view since it was signed in February 2020?

Chris: The only achievement is that the US has been able to withdraw its troops without being under attack and that thousands of Taliban fighters have been released most of whom rejoined the fight. That is a disastrous record. You know the goal of ISI and the Taliban in these talks have been to get US and NATO out of Afghanistan so that they can continue to fight and impose the military solution.

Question: What does the unconditional withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops signal to Taliban?

Chris: It signals that we have lost our way in dealing with major terrorist threats. Not just terrorist threats, but it is also a state-to-state war being waged. I think this is the issue that we are missing. We have treated Afghanistan as an issue of terrorism and the United States wanted to withdraw on a condition that Afghanistan would never be used against the U.S. and its allies. Until we start talking about the real problem, there would be no peace deal. We fought the Islamic State because it was a terrorist threat. We fought in Afghanistan for over ten years quite in a large scale because the Taliban and their allies posed security threats and these threats have not gone away. The only way is to ensure that they don’t rise again and threaten their region and the broader world. The solution is to have functioning states that are committed to ensuring that their countries are not used in this way.

Question: How do you see the future of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of foreign forces?

Chris: The Taliban would continue to fight. I think the Afghan state will resist quite effectively the way Dr. Najibullah government resisted for a while, but the Afghans would be caught in the crossfire. We had a decade of fighting and a decade of talking to the Taliban. Now the focus should be on the relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan particularly Pakistan’s role in organizing, funding, arming a proxy army that is engaged in the proxy war. There is really no credible voice today that denies Pakistan’s role. You remember that in the month of May, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani gave interview to Spiegel where he said Pakistan is the size of enabler of the Taliban. They (Pakistan) have the choice to make and if they make the wrong choice, then the countries like Germany should pose sanctions. Look at what is happening in Pakistani politics right now. The war has cost Pakistan as well not only lives but reputation and prosperity.

Question: Do you think an interim government is a solution for Afghanistan? If it is not a solution, then what is a solution?

Chris: Yes, this is a solution if it changes the Pakistani policy. If it leads to a ceasefire. It is really a solution because in a condition of a ceasefire, there can be elections and the Afghans will be able to choose their government and for the Taliban to explain themselves and they have full confidence in Afghans to choose those who sincerely want to turn the page and distinguish between those who have sincerity and those who don’t, but power sharing is the wrong approach if fighting does not stop. It does not help if a group of Taliban are inside the government and another group of Taliban are still armed. Ceasefire is all it matters. If the price of that is power sharing, be it, but I don’t see military wing in Pakistan is agreeing to a ceasefire or allowing a ceasefire to happen unless and until they come under a lot of pressure.


Written By Ali Ahmad

Photo: Chris Alexander

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