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?


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.


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.


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 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 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.


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

Taliban insurgents attack CIA station in Kabul

Afghan Presidential PalaceBy IAN ALLEN | |
Taliban assailants launched an unprecedented attack against the presidential palace in Afghan capital Kabul on Tuesday morning, which included a targeted assault on a nearby command post of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The daring attack began at approximately 6:30 a.m. outside the eastern gate of the palace, which is located in Kabul’s downtown Shash Darak district. The heavily guarded district contains, aside from most Afghan government buildings, dozens of foreign embassies and media offices. Hundreds of Afghan and foreign officials run for cover as over a dozen explosions were heard near the headquarters of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense, which is located next door to the presidential palace. The attack reportedly began when a group of about four or five insurgents approached the palace’s eastern gate with a small track laden with explosives. As the vehicle approached the gate, the passengers jumped out and began throwing grenades, while the car exploded at the gate. Afghan security guards fled the scene and the assailants were able to enter the grounds of the presidential palace and roamed around for several minutes before they were engaged in a firefight by Afghan and North Atlantic Treaty Organization security personnel. The attackers appeared to concentrate primarily on three buildings: the presidential palace, the Ministry of Defense, and the nearby Ariana Hotel, which is widely understood to host the main CIA command post in Kabul. On Tuesday afternoon, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, told French news agency AFP that “the CIA office” in downtown Kabul was “the main target” of the assault, along with the palace and defense ministry. Read more of this post

Afghan government blames Pakistan for attempt on spy chief’s life

Assadullah KhaledBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | |
The Afghan President and senior cabinet officials have described the recent assassination attempt against the country’s spy chief as the work of “a professional intelligence service” and said they would be asking Pakistan “for clarification”. Assadullah Khaled, who heads Afghanistan’s National Directorate for Security (NDS), survived a suicide attack last Thursday in Kabul. According to Afghan officials, Khaled was attacked by a member of the Taliban posing as a “peace emissary”, who blew himself up as he was meeting Khaled to discuss a possible peace deal with the government. Media reports suggest that the bomber had concealed explosives in his undergarments and that he was not searched out of “respect for [Afghan] traditions and hospitality”. Shortly after the attack, the Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility and said they would try to kill Khaled again. But speaking to reporters last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that “more professional hands” were behind the attack on Khaled. The Afghan leader described the suicide attack as a “very sophisticated and complicated act by a professional intelligence service” and said the Afghan security services “know [for] a fact” that the suicide bomber had entered the country from Pakistan. President Karzai stopped short of directly implicating the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) of directly planning the attack; but he said his government would be “seeking a lot of clarifications from Pakistan” about the bombing. Last Sunday Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Janan Musazai told reporters that Afghan officials were “100 percent sure” the suicide bomber had come to Afghanistan from the Pakistani city of Quetta. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #791

Liang GuanglieBy IAN ALLEN | |
►►India sees espionage behind Chinese cash payments to Indian pilots. According to Indian government sources, Chinese Defense Minister General Liang Guanglie gave two envelopes to the two Indian pilots, both wing commanders, who had flown him in a special Indian Air Force aircraft to New Delhi from Mumbai. After seeing off Liang, the pilots opened the sealed envelopes and found cash gifts inside. They immediately reported this to their superiors, who, in turn, informed the Indian Defense Ministry. India is now planning to lodge a protest with China over the incident.
►►NSA says foreign cyberattacks increasingly reckless. Debora Plunkett, of the secretive National Security Agency, whose responsibilities include protecting US government computer networks, has said that other nations are increasingly employing cyberattacks without “any sense of restraint”, citing “reckless” behaviors that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would have dared at the height of Cold War tensions. She also predicted that Congress would pass long-stalled cybersecurity legislation within the next year. One wonders whether the Stuxnet incident is included in such “reckless” cyberattacks?
►►Taliban ‘using Facebook to lure Australian soldiers’. According to a review of social media by the Australian federal government, Australian soldiers are being warned by their commanders that enemies are creating fake Facebook profiles to spy on them. The report says that Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan are posing as “attractive women” on Facebook to befriend coalition soldiers and gather intelligence about operations. It adds that family and friends of soldiers are inadvertently jeopardizing missions by sharing confidential information online. This is not the first such warning in recent years.

Analysis: Nepotism, ethnic favoritism impede Afghan spy agency

NDS spokesman Lutfullah MashalBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | |
Hundreds of Taliban insurgents were involved in the unprecedented attacks that shook the Afghan capital Kabul and several other key locations around the country last week. And yet not a single Afghan or foreign intelligence operative appeared to have the slightest idea the attacks were coming. No wonder that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was one of many government officials who openly admitted that the “infiltration in Kabul and other provinces [was] an intelligence failure for us”. But why is Afghan intelligence so notoriously unreliable? The answer to this question is complicated, but according to an excellent analysis piece published this week in The Christian Science Monitor, much of it centers on two chronic issues that permeate Afghan society: nepotism and ethnic favoritism. When one speaks of Afghan intelligence, one mainly refers to the National Directorate for Security (NDS), an institution established by the United States, and funded almost entirely by Washington. The roots of the NDS are in the Northern Alliance, the indigenous Afghan opposition to the Taliban, which fought alongside the United States during the 2001 invasion of the Central Asian country. Like most other institutions in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance is composed largely by members of a single tribe, namely Tajiks, many of whom are from Afghanistan’s Panjshir province. As a result, when Washington set up the NDS, it selected its leadership from among the Panjshir Tajiks. They, in turn, relied on their local networks to staff the newly formed organization. As a result, today around 70 percent of the NDS’ staff “hail from Panjshir or have ties with the Northern Alliance”, says The Monitor. This helps establish rapport and ethnic unity among the institution’s 30,000-strong employee community; but it has virtually eliminated the NDS’ ability to collect intelligence from among rival ethnic groups and factions, including the Haqqani Network and the nearly all-Pashtun Taliban. Read more of this post