Late Taliban leader’s regular trips to Iran helped US spies track him down

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad MansourFrequent trips to Iran caused the demise of the late leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was killed in a secret American operation on May 21. The death of Mansour, who had led the Afghan Taliban since July 2015, when he succeeded Mullah Mohammad Omar, was announced by the Taliban on May 26. Early reports stated that Mansour was killed while traveling to the Pakistani city of Quetta from Iran. He is believed to have been visiting family or seeking medical treatment in Iran, which he appears to have entered using a forged passport.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the United States found out in February that Mansour made regular trips to Iran, as well as the precise route that the Taliban leader took to enter the country. American intelligence agencies also received “details about the devices [Mansour] used for communications” while in Iran. They then intercepted communications from Iran that matched Mansour’s electronic signature and followed these signals across the border into Pakistan. The Taliban leader entered Pakistan’s Baluchistan province on Saturday, May 21. Once in Pakistan, Mansour entered a Toyota Corolla, believed to be a taxi, and made his way through the N-40 National Highway, heading to Quetta.

The Journal report states that the Taliban were aware that Baluchistan’s airspace is outside the Central Intelligence Agency drones’ operational area, and thus “felt more comfortable there”. Indeed, the paper claims that no CIA drones were actively targeting Mansour at the time. However, US President Barack Obama had given ordered the Joint Special Operations Command to have the Taliban leader killed. Reaper drones were deployed to launch two Hellfire missiles at Mansour’s car, which was totaled, killing the Taliban commander and his driver. According to the Journal, the White House had decided to ambush Mansour before he entered the city of Quetta, in order to prevent civilian casualties. After firing at it, the American drones hovered over the remains of Mansour’s vehicle to ensure that there were no survivors, before exiting Pakistani airspace.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 May 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: Mullah Mansour’s killing will shape future of Afghan War

Mullah MansourThe American operation that killed the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, on May 21, was unprecedented in more ways than one. It marked the first known effort by the United States to neutralize the leadership of the Afghan Taliban. It was also the first US drone strike in Pakistani Baluchistan, a region that is far removed from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where American operations have traditionally focused. Mullah Mansour’s killing also marked the most high-profile American incursion into Pakistani territory since the May 1, 2011 attack that killed al-Qaeda co-founder Osama bin Laden. Q QuoteIronically, just hours before killing Mansour, Washington was calling the Taliban to join the negotiation table for peace talks with the Afghan government. So what exactly was America’s intention in killing the leader of the Afghan Taliban?

PROSPECTS FOR A MODERATE SUCCESSOR

There is no question that Mansour represented the most intransigent and militant segment of Afghanistan’s militant Pashtuns. He consistently dismissed efforts by Washington and Kabul to strike a deal with his forces as a ploy designed to weaken the Taliban’s role in Afghan politics. So the primary outcome that the US is seeking from his death is the possibility that a more moderate figure will emerge from within the ranks of the Taliban. That, however, is far from guaranteed. Even if it does happen, it will probably come after a period of leadership struggle between different factions and tribes within the Taliban, much like the heated infighting that broke out after the announcement of the death of the Taliban’s founding leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. There are even some who believe that the death of two successive Taliban leaders in such a short period may split the group into three or more factions.

To avoid such a prospect, the Afghan Taliban have already begun internal consultations in order to quickly enthrone a new emir. Major candidates include the late Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yakoub, and his brother, Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund. The list of contenders also features the late Mullah Mansour’s deputies, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani Network, which recently consolidated its forces with those of the Afghan Taliban. Many observers believe that Haqqani is Mansour’s most likely successor, as well as the most militant of all contenders for the group’s leadership.

THE END OF PEACE NEGOTIATIONS?

If the Afghan Taliban are led by Haqqani, a man described by the White House as a terrorist mastermind, the chances of seeing Afghanistan’s militant Pashtuns join peace negotiations with Kabul are slim to none. The country’s President, Ashraf Ghani, said last week that he hoped that the death of Mansour would weaken the Taliban hardliners and open the path to negotiations with his government. It is difficult to see, however, how the Taliban could sit at the table with the Afghan government and its American allies, namely the same people who just Q Quotekilled the group’s leader.

They only way that could possibly happen is if Pakistan, which is the Afghan Taliban’s state patron, compels them to do so. But such a prospect is unlikely. In the hours after Mansour’s assassination, the US Secretary of State John Kerry described it as an “action that sends a clear message to the world that we will continue to work with our Afghan partners”. Indeed, Mansour’s killing was a source of jubilation in Kabul. But there were no celebrations in Islamabad, which was notified about the US drone strike on its soil after its completion. The Pakistani position has always been that military action against the Afghan Taliban will only push them further underground. Instead, Pakistan argues that the Taliban should be brought to the table to sign a comprehensive peace treaty that will ensure ethnic rights for Afghanistan’s Pashtun population. But the prospect of that happening after Mansour’s assassination are slim, even if a more moderate figure succeeds him at the helm.

THE FUTURE OF THE AFGHAN WAR

What are, then, the prospects for peace in Afghanistan? A notable rise in violence should be expected, as various Taliban factions lash out against the government in Kabul with the aim of augmenting their standing against internal competitors. The Taliban now control more territory in Afghanistan than at any other point following the 2001 US invasion. If their alliance with the Haqqani Network survives, they will continue to be a formidable force in the country and the surrounding region, and will become increasingly difficult to defeat militarily. The group will continue to operate with considerable force even if Mansour’s position is not filled soon, as local Taliban forces have shown that they are capable of taking unilateral initiative in times like this. In the meantime, observers in Kabul and Islamabad, as well as the Afghan Taliban’s leadership in Quetta, will be wondering whether the assassination of Mansour marks the beginning of a more aggressive approach by Washington in the ongoing Afghan war. The answer to that question remains elusive, but will likely shape the future of the 40-year-old Afghan war.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 May 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: Taliban-Haqqani alliance marks new phase in Afghan war

Haqqani NetworkAn expanding alliance between two of the most powerful armed groups in Afghanistan, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, is reshaping regional power dynamics and possibly altering the course of the ongoing Afghan war. It was last summer when it was announced that Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the notorious Haqqani Network based in southeastern Afghanistan, had been appointed deputy leader of the Taliban. The move, which brought together two groups that traditionally acted autonomously, was seen as largely symbolic at the time. But observers are now suggesting that the two groups are actively integrating more than ever before, and that their increasing cooperation is drastically changing the dynamics of the bloody Afghan war.

THE HAQQANI NETWORK

The Haqqani Network dates from the mid-1970s, when a group of pro-royalist Pashtuns took up arms against the government of Mohammad Daud Khan, a former cabinet minister who in 1973 led a coup that overthrew the country’s king, Mohammad Zahir Shah. The group, founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, was actively supported by Pakistan, which perceived Khan’s government as pro-Soviet. As it became increasingly clear that the Soviet Union would invade the country, Pakistan’s assistance to the Haqqani Network was augmented by support from Saudi Arabia and the United States. During the Afghan-Soviet War of the 1980s, the Haqqani Network formed a major backbone of the anti-Soviet resistance. The group, and the Pashtun tribes that form its base in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have remained in a state of war against various invaders ever since. Today the Haqqani Network is led by Jalaluddin’s son, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has closely followed in his father’s footsteps. He has continued to pledge allegiance to the Taliban by recognizing its commander-in-chief, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, as the Leader of the Faithful —essentially the Emir of the Islamic caliphate. At the same time, however, like his father, Siraj has maintained the Haqqani Network as an autonomous entity that operates based on its own command structure andQ Quote tactical priorities.

THE HAQQANI-TALIBAN ALLIANCE

The deepening cooperation between the Haqqani Network and the Taliban must be examined within the context of the failed efforts to broker a peace treaty between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In early 2016, the Quadrilateral Coordination Council, set up by the United States, China, Pakistan and the Afghan government, sought to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table, so that an official peace treaty could be put in place between them and Kabul. Throughout that time, however, the Afghan government has become increasingly weaker, faltering under the weight of its own ineptitude, corruption and sectarian divisions. The growing discontent against it among the people, as signified by the rise in mass immigration by young Afghans, has weakened Kabul’s trustworthiness as a national actor and strengthened the Taliban. At the same time, the Taliban, although strong, are not unilaterally capable of solidifying their power across the country unless they have the support of the many autonomous tribes and clans. For that reason, Taliban leader Mullah Mansour has spearheaded a policy of consolidation between his forces and regional groups, including the Haqqani Network.

The latter are also extremely capable militarily, having maintained a powerful armed force since the late 1970s, with its own heritage, traditions and command structure. During the 1980s, they were trained and supplied with ample war materiel by Saudi, Pakistani and American intelligence agencies, while also developing their own funding channels abroad. Today, Siraj Haqqani’s mother, who is an Arab, and many of his brothers, are located in the Persian Gulf, and are able to pursue alliances between the Network and oil-rich Arab donors. The group also maintains a large network of shell companies that operate internationally and bring in a substantial revenue to the group. Consequently, due to their strong financial backing, Haqqani forces are well-trained, well-supplied and have near-unparalleled military capabilities in the region. They are currently one of a handful of groups that have shown to be capable of striking at the heart of the Afghan government inside Kabul. Alongside their military prowess, Haqqani forces maintain an efficient, parallel administrative infrastructure in southeastern Afghanistan, which includes a justice Q Quotesystem, job centers, taxation offices and community militias. The administrative and military efficiency of the Haqqani Network only adds to the strength of the Taliban and places them in a renewed position of power vis-à-vis Kabul.

THE PAKISTANI FACTOR

Along with the Haqqanis and the Taliban, the Pakistanis have also gained strength in the past year as a regional actor. There is little doubt that the Haqqani Network, which operates a series of bases inside Pakistan’s North Waziristan region, maintains close connections with Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), Pakistan’s powerful spy agency. These links, which were forged in the 1980s during the Afghan-Soviet War, continue unabated and often —though not always— allow the Pakistanis to use the Haqqani Network as a proxy group to advance their interests in Afghanistan. Islamabad does not want India to dominate the region and has done more than any other regional actor to maintain the Taliban, Haqqanis, and other Pashtun groups as strong rivals to the central government in Kabul. By strengthening the role of the Haqqanis, which, unlike the Taliban, the US officially classifies as a terrorist group, Islamabad is making it more difficult for Washington to reach out to the Taliban in search of a comprehensive peace treaty. This development spells more violence and war in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, as local and regional actors appear to be positioning themselves for a showdown between the Afghan government and its tribal rivals.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 May 2016 | Permalink

Moscow is working with Taliban against ISIS, says Russian envoy

Zamir KabulovRussia’s official envoy to Afghanistan has said that Moscow is now working with the Afghan Taliban in order to stop the growth of the Islamic State in the region. Many Taliban fighters are direct descendants of the Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns who fought the Soviet Red Army in the 1980s, when the USSR invaded Afghanistan and fought a bloody decade-long war there. But the militant group, which today continues to control much of Afghanistan, despite a prolonged American-led military effort to defeat it, is now being challenged by the Islamic State. Known also as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the group enjoys growing popularity in Afghanistan, and some tribal warlords have already declared their allegiance to it. In contrast, the leadership of the Taliban has rejected the legitimacy of ISIS and refused to recognize its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the caliph of all Sunni Muslims. According to Sunni doctrine, a caliph is the recognized political and religious successor to Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, and thus commands the Muslim ummah, or community.

For the past two years, allegations have surfaced in the world’s media that Russia, fearing the continuing growth of ISIS in Central Asia, has reached out to the Taliban in hopes of halting ISIS’ popularity. Last week, however, Zamir Kabulov, Moscow’s special envoy to Afghanistan, openly admitted that Russia is collaborating with the Taliban against ISIS. “The interests of the Taliban completely coincide with ours”, said Kabulov, and added that Moscow maintains “communication channels with the Taliban to exchange intelligence”. It is important to note that Kabulov, who was born in Soviet Uzbekistan, is arguably the most knowledgeable Russian diplomat on matters relating to Afghanistan. Until 2009, he served as Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, having also served in Iran and Pakistan. Western observers believe that Kabulov is not simply a “career diplomat”, as he presents himself, but a former officer in the KGB, the USSR’s foremost intelligence agency. He is also believed to have served as the KGB’s chief of station in Kabul during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, and to have worked closely with Khad, the intelligence agency of Soviet-dominated Afghanistan.

Kim Sengupta, a defense correspondent of British broadsheet The Independent, argues that Kabulov’s announcement reflects the growing ties between the Federal Security Service (FSB), one of the KGB’s successor agencies, and the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s current intelligence agency. The latter maintains open lines of communication with the Taliban. There is also a question about the extent of Russia’s collaboration with the Taliban in pursuit of common goals. Kabulov implied last week that the collaboration centers on intelligence-sharing. But Sengupta suggests that Moscow may also be supplying weapons and ammunition to the Taliban, through Russian ally Tajikistan. He also notes that other regional powers, including China and Iran, are warming up to the Taliban, which they increasingly view as a more reasonable alternative to ISIS.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 January 2016 | Permalink

Political rift widens in Afghanistan as head of spy service resigns

Rahmatullah NabilThe bleak landscape of Afghan national politics became even bleaker on Thursday, after the sudden resignation of the country’s spy chief, allegedly due to “disagreements” with the government in Kabul. Rahmatullah Nabil led Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) from 2010 to 2012 before returning to the post in 2013, while his predecessor, Asadullah Khalid, recovered from injuries suffered from an unsuccessful assassination attempt against him by the Taliban. But on Thursday afternoon, Nabil posted a resignation letter on Facebook, saying that “a lack of agreement on some policy matters” made it impossible for him to continue to lead the NDS.

Nabil’s resignation could not have taken place at a more symbolic moment: it was announced just as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was returning home from a trip to neighboring Pakistan. The Afghan leader had attended part of the Heart of Asia regional conference, which was held in Pakistani capital Islamabad. But it is common knowledge that President Ghani’s visit was aimed at reinforcing the rapprochement between Kabul and Islamabad, as peace talks with the Taliban are about to restart. Critics of the Pakistani government accuse it of sponsoring the Taliban insurgency and believe that Islamabad’s consent is necessary for peace to prevail in Afghanistan. The Afghan government had entered negotiations with the leadership of the Taliban, but they ended abruptly in July, after it was revealed that Mullah Omar, the longtime leader of the Afghan Taliban, had been killed. Since that time, Taliban forces have taken the northern city of Kunduz, near the Afghan-Tajik border, while at the same time launching surprise raids against other cities, including Kandahar.

However, the NDS under Nabil’s leadership has staunchly opposed attempts by President Ghani to negotiate with the Taliban through the Pakistanis. In the past, Nabil had accused Islamabad of interfering in the domestic affairs of Afghanistan, while at the same time dismissing efforts by the Afghan government to reach out to Pakistan as “ill-fated”. Last week, Nabil accused President Ghani of surrendering Afghanistan’s “5,000-year history [to] Pakistan’s 60-year history”. But the President appeared conciliatory when speaking to reporters on Thursday. He praised Nabil for having done “a lot to improve information technology within NDS” and dismissed accusations that the service had been politicized. Nabil’s resignation would inevitably change the internal structure of the NDS, but such personnel changes were “common occurrences”, said President Ghani.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 December 2015 | Permalink

Former spy sues Dutch state for ‘abandoning’ him in Afghanistan

MIVDBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A former agent for Holland’s military intelligence agency has sued the Dutch state, alleging that it abandoned him in Afghanistan, after he had spent years providing support services to Dutch operatives there. Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf reported last week that the former agent, identified only as I.A., is a former police officer who relocated to Afghanistan while working for a Western contractor. He then stayed on in the Afghan capital Kabul, where he imported and sold cars. According to I.A., he was eventually approached by Holland’s Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) and secretly hired as an agent.

Dutch researcher Dr. Matthijs Koot, who translated De Telegraaf’s article into English, reports that I.A. claims he was tasked by the MIVD to acquire local cars with forged license plates, as well as provide forged travel documentation, for Dutch Special Forces in Afghanistan. He also says he supplied Dutch intelligence officers with weapons that “fit what was usually seen on the streets” of Kabul, thus helping them blend in with the local population.

According to De Teelgraaf, I.A. is now suing the Dutch government, alleging that the MIVD “left him to his fate” in Afghanistan, a move that allegedly cost him extensive financial damage. He wants the MIVD to acknowledge that he worked for them and furthermore that he should not have been abruptly fired when his services were no longer needed. According to the paper, I.A. threatened to release to the media details of his work for MIVD, including recorded conversations with MIVD officers. This prompted the agency to give him €500,000 ($700,000) in an attempt to unofficially settle his case. This was allegedly confirmed in a court in The Hague by Marc Gazenbeek, legal affairs director for the Dutch Ministry of Defense. However, I.A. claims the money he was given is insufficient and is suing for millions in damages. The Telegraaf says that Pieter Cobelens, who was director of MIVD at the time of I.A.’s employment, denies he was aware of his employment as a spy. The case continues.

CIA funds given to Afghan officials ended up in al-Qaeda coffers

Atiyah Abd al-RahmanBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
Millions of dollars given by the United States Central Intelligence Agency to Afghanistan following the 2001 American invasion ended up in the hands of al-Qaeda, according to documents found in the personal archive of the organization’s founder, Osama bin Laden. The documents were confiscated by US Special Forces from bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed in 2011. They were declassified this week for use as evidence in the trial of Abid Naseer, a Pakistani citizen accused of planning a series of suicide bombings in Britain and the US. The New York Times, which cited “interviews with Afghan and Western officials”, said the documents show that Washington “has sometimes inadvertently financed the very militants it is fighting”. The paper attributed this to poor oversight of the billions of dollars in cash payments that the CIA supplied to the corrupt Afghan government of Hamid Karzai for over a decade.

The letters used in Naseer’s trial concern $5 million paid as ransom to al-Qaeda by the Afghan government in 2010, in exchange for the release of Abdul Khaliq Farahi, Afghanistan’s consul general in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. Farahi had had been abducted by militants two years earlier and delivered to the hands of al-Qaeda, who promptly contacted Kabul demanding payment. In the spring of 2010, the Afghan government agreed to pay a $5 million ransom for the kidnapped diplomat’s release. According to The Times, at least $1 million in ransom money came from the several millions of dollars in cash that the CIA would deliver each month to the presidential palace in Kabul. The other $4 million came from Iran as well as from a number of Arab oil kingdoms, says the paper.

In June 2010, almost as soon as the funds were delivered to al-Qaeda’s hands, the organization’s accounts manager, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, wrote to bin Laden: “Allah blessed us with a good amount of money this month”. The al-Qaeda founder responded by expressing surprise that the US would have allowed a ransom to be paid to the militant group, and cautioned al-Rahman to check the cash for signs of poison or radiation that may have been planted there by the Americans. It appears, however, that no trap had been set up by the CIA, and al-Qaeda was able to use the funds for weaponry and routine operational expenses. The Times said it asked the CIA whether officials at Langley were aware of the ransom paid to al-Qaeda by the Afghan government, but the Agency declined comment.