How will Taliban Respond to Elections?

Tali
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by Thomas Omestad
U.S. Institute of Peace
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
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As Afghanistan moves toward April 5 elections for president and provincial councils, key questions loom: Among them, just what will the Taliban do to disrupt or distort that nation’s exercise in democratically selecting its leadership, and what might those efforts accomplish?

Two Peace Briefs recently published by the Institute lay out contrasting takes on those questions. Yet taken together, they illuminate an urgent issue that is shrouded by several factors: rapidly evolving circumstances, the internal complexity of the Taliban and the sheer opacity of its decision-making and follow-through. These two pieces offer much for anyone trying to understand Afghanistan’s internal conflict at a critical moment in its history.

U.S. and allied governments are focused on the April political contests as a vital opportunity for the Afghan government to demonstrate its legitimacy as the presidency of Hamid Karzai ends and as foreign military forces fighting alongside the Afghan Army prepare to withdraw. It is to be the first democratic transfer of power from one Afghan president to another, and relative success could provide a boost to the country’s stability as the United States and others end combat operations and Afghan forces take on full security responsibilities.

If Afghanistan can overcome logistical challenges, possible attempts at vote manipulation and Taliban threats and still run generally credible and transparent elections, then the government’s standing among Afghans will be strengthened, as will its position in future peace talks with the Taliban, should they happen.

The general Taliban line has been that elections cannot be allowed as long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan and that the United States, in particular, will have a dominant hand in shaping the outcome.

Indications of the violence to come have appeared even two months before the polls open. On February 1, two members of the campaign team of former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, one of the leading candidates to succeed Karzai, were shot dead by unidentified gunmen in the city of Herat.

“The attack came at a critical moment for Afghanistan on the eve of the election campaign,” said a statement issued by United Nations Special Representative Jan Kubis. “This cowardly action constitutes a violent intimidation of electoral candidates and their supporters, and cannot be tolerated.” Kubis called for heightened vigilance in the weeks before the elections and for efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The USIP Peace Briefs, in differing ways, anticipate moves by at least parts of the Taliban to launch violent, election-related attacks.

In the first paper, “Electoral Offensive: Taliban Planning for Afghanistan’s 2014 National Elections,” authors Antonio Giustozzi and Casey Garret Johnson note that “the Taliban have more resources and are better organized to disrupt Afghanistan’s 2014 national elections than was the case in any of the country’s last four elections. Still, there are disagreements between insurgent leaders about carrying out a campaign of violence and intimidation.”

Giustozzi, an independent researcher and expert on the Taliban who is associated with King’s College London, and Johnson, a senior program officer at USIP, offer a fascinating glimpse into Taliban thinking on the election that is based on more than 50 interviews last spring with Taliban foot soldiers, subcommanders and leaders. What they reveal is more internal disagreement—suggestive of widely varying levels of anti-election activity—than might be expected.

One group of Taliban led by Akhtar Mansur and tied to the Quetta Shura leaned toward a more conciliatory approach, at least for a period of time, Giustozzi and Johnson say. Some Taliban even met with Afghan government figures “to discuss allowing the polls to go forward.” However, disrupting the election is favored by Taliban military commander Zakir and the Peshawar Shura, the authors say. Their research indicates that the Peshawar group is more unified in its stand against elections and better funded.

The Taliban have created a network of so-called “electoral commissions” in part to convince influential elders not to vote in elections. However, in at least some areas, Taliban operatives bought rather than destroyed voters’ cards, copied them and returned them to elders with instructions to wait for orders, according to the Giustozzi-Johnson paper. That leaves at least the possibility that Taliban in some areas will seek to influence instead of undermine elections.

Adding further uncertainty, fighters in some areas might cut local deals with candidates or power brokers in which the Taliban refrain from election attacks. That sort of bargaining has occurred in past elections, they say.

In general, “the prospect of disruption is particularly worrying because Taliban influence is greatest in the Pashtun south and east. The suppression of turnout in Pashtun areas could lead to an indefinite suspension of the polls or an outcome seen as illegitimate by those unable to vote,” the authors say. Attributing attacks to particular Taliban factions will also be difficult, in practice.

The second Peace Brief, “The Taliban’s View of the 2014 Elections,” observes that the Taliban publicly reject the legitimacy of the elections and have ordered their disruption—but have also “left field commanders with wide discretion on how to go about doing so.”

This piece is written by Michael Semple, a visiting professor and conflict specialist at Queen’s University Belfast, and draws on interviews with Taliban conducted between November and January.

Semple concludes that within the Taliban there is “no scope for any faction to cooperate” with the election process, though many follow the political races and comment on them in ways similar to the political class in Kabul. And, he argues, whatever intensity of violence emerges prior to the election, it is unlikely to “derail the overall process.”

The Taliban movement is hierarchical, with Mullah Omar retaining supreme authority. At all levels, Semple notes, Taliban say they are “boycotting” the elections.

But counter to the hierarchical tendency, the movement also functions like “a fraternity [which] means that local commanders and officials can use a high degree of discretion in choosing how they will conduct this opposition [to the elections],” Semple explains. That flexibility, or variation, in how the contests are opposed is a point of agreement with Giustozzi and Johnson. This aspect of Taliban structure will mean significant uncertainty about the scope of anti-election activity, probably up to the last moment.

Indeed, Semple says that some Taliban field commanders in eastern Afghanistan “expressed dissent” about general guidance to proceed with disrupting the elections, reportedly because they depend upon “maintaining local popular consent” to operate in some areas and attacks on civilians would undermine that. At the same time, in some provinces such as Ghazni, Afghan media have described cases of Taliban targeting civilians who have registered to vote. Such violence, Semple says, did not succeed in derailing the national voter registration campaign, in which 3.4 million additional cards were handed out last year.

He also refers to “rifts between pragmatists and hardliners” within the movement over whether to plan attacks on provincial council candidates.

Semple suggests that a 25 percent rise in violent incidents during the election period over what would have happened anyway is a “realistic” expectation. “Groups in the provinces will carry out more attacks than they would have otherwise, but the increase in violence will be less dramatic and widespread than hoped for by Taliban hardliners or predicted by their propagandists,” Semple writes.

Voting would likely be reduced in the rural south, southeast and east and generally in Pashtun areas, where the Taliban has more influence.

Semple believes that “the most significant impact of Taliban pressure” ultimately may not be the mayhem they unleash but rather the opportunities for electoral fraud they creates. How? The threat of Taliban attacks “will help create a category of stations which are difficult to monitor and inaccessible to voters and polling agents.” Any efforts to commit large-scale voting fraud, he argues, are likely to be concentrated in those areas.

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U.S. Institute of Peace

http://www.usip.org/category/countries/afghanistan

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Art courtesy of Ian Boa

http://www.ianboe.com/IB.html

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Shrapnel From Afghanistan V

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As I watched the platoon struggle that morning, I realized that I had overlooked a reality of Afghanistan.  We were facing two enemies, not one.  The Haqqani Network’s fighters we could handle.  Any time they chose to challenge us, we would smite them with firepower and make them pay for the effort.  We would not give ground, and I knew we would never know defeat.

But this other enemy was more devious.  How does one do battle with FOB (forward operating base) politics?  At the moment, I was at a complete loss.  Without a doubt, we needed to figure out a way to do it, because more blows like this one would tear the platoon apart…

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from the book

Outlaw Platoon

by Sean Parnell with John Bruning

2012

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We were here to help.  This was why we had joined the army in the first place.  We hadn’t done it because we lusted to kill.  We had joined because with our flag on our shoulders and the power of the army at our backs, we thought we could help change the world.

Today, we had changed a tiny piece of it…

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The villagers watched the entire event.  In his turret, Chris Brown saw Cole die and unleashed a barrage of obscenities at the villagers.  They knew the bomb had been planted; that’s why they’d come outside.  They’d wanted to see what would happen.  Nobody had warned our platoon, despite the fact that we’d been bringing aid supplies to the village all summer long.

Brown racked the bolt on his 240 and swung it around, wailing with grief.  It would have been easy to touch the trigger and walk that machine gun back and forth until those Afghans were nothing but bloody chunks.  A less disciplined man in a less disciplined unit would have done it.  The same sort of thing had triggered the My Lai massacre of Vietnam infamy.

Those villagers who had viewed our men die and suffer wounds as though it were a soccer spectacle owed their lives to Chris Brown’s  sense of duty.  Instead of killing them all, he tipped the barrel up and strafed an empty hillside as he vented his anguish…

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Unbeknown to us, some top secret national-level assets had been tracking unusual communications coming from our area.  Over the past several months, they had narrowed those transmissions down to FOB Bermel.

Somebody on post had been using our sat phones to contact an Iranian bomb-making cell operating out of a madrassa just over the Pakistani border.  We had an enemy mole in our midst.

On August 16, the mole had made contact with the Iranian team.  In coded references, he had revealed the exact loaction at which Outlaw Platoon planned to establish an observation post that day…

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We defeated the enemy every time they challenged us.  We took to rounding up their dead after each firefight and delivering them to the local mosques.  We masked this move as a gesture honoring Muslim burial rituals that required the deceased to be laid to rest within twenty-four hours of expiring, but the truth is that we were tired of the killing and were making a point: fuck with us, and your sons, brothers, and husbands will die.  Their mangled bodies will be dumped like bloody trash at your houses of worship…

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In the pockets of the dead were documents ~ visas, passports, and notebooks that we knew would be of value.  And then we made a startling discovery.  Some of these enemy fighters were not Haqqani or Al Queda at all.

They were Pakistan Army Frontier Corps soldiers, Pakistan’s ragtag border militia.  We found their identity cards…

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Now, in January, miles inside Afghanistan, we had discovered that Pakistani Frontier Corps troops had launched a joint offensive with Al Qaida and Haqqani Network fighters against a U.S. combat outpost…

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The weapons we collected were later examined by a civilain intelligence team, who matched their serial numbers to recent production runs from Iranian factories…

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I stood behind Greeson, Cowan, Sabo, and the rest of our platoon, watching the footage we’d captured.

It started with a rousing recruitment speech delivered in a Pakistani border town.  Jihadist orators urged the crowd of hundreds of men to join the fight against America.  By the time they finished, the enraptured crowd began to dance and sing.

The next scene showed a training range, also in Pakistan.  The Haqqani fighters were practicing short-range marksmanship, a necessary skill for urban fighting.  In other scenes, teams of jihadists practiced evading simulated gunfire.

When the training scenes ended, the screen went black for a moment.  At first I thought that was the end of the DVD, and I almost turned away.  I wish I had.

The next scene showed an Afghan Border Police checkpoint in the aftermath of a night assault.  The enemy had overrun the ABP (Afghan Border Police).  Bodies lay in heaps, illuminated by flashlights.

Then the cameraman stepped in front of a screaming captive…

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Shrapnel from Afghanistan IV

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from the book

Outlaw Platoon

by Sean Parnell with John Bruning

2012

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Baldwin had not joined the army for college money.  He hadn’t joined because he couldn’t find a job.  He’d joined to kill the sons of bitches responsible for 9/11.  This was his moment, and it made him positively glow…

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Through these long and often boring days, our patrols yielded tidbits of information about the enemy we faced.  To my surprise, we were not fighting the Taliban alone.  The papers back home made our enemy in Afghanistan out to be a monolithic force.  We had made the same mistake during the Cold War, assuming that all Communist countries formed a monolithic, anti-Western bloc.  That simply was not the case.

Same thing in Afghanistan.  The Taliban was the main group aligned against us, but its influence on the border was much less substantial than that of another shadowy organization, one that the CIA knew well.  Known as the Haqqani Network, it had first taken shape during the Afghan-Soviet War in the 1980s, thanks to the acumen of its leader, Mawlawi Jalaluddin Haggani.  Charismatic, moderate in his religious views, and a capable diplomat and organizer, Haggani led a band of warriors in southeast Afghanistan that destroyed hundreds of Russian tanks and downed dozens of aircraft while playing a key role in the defeat of the Red Army.  Jalaluddin’s moderate views and proximity to the Pakistani border made him a natural fit with the CIA and Representative Charlie Wilson’s campaign to support the Afghan insurgency.  Before the end of the war, the Haqqani Network owed its funding, its weapons, and some of its training to the United States.

After the Russians withdrew, the Haqqani Network formed a loose partnership with the Taliban.  In 1996, Haqqani fighters helped the Taliban throw the Northern Alliance out of Kabul, a battle that established Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, as the most powerful man in Afghanistan.  Jalaluddin, though a respected warlord in his own right, did not have the strength to challenge the Taliban for supreme control of Afghanistan.  So they remained uneasy partners, sometimes feuding, sometimes working together if it served their own interests.

By the time my platoon arrived on the border, Jalaluddin’s sons had taken over the day-to-day operations.  They were well suited for the task, as their father had groomed them for specific roles.  One had become a fund-raiser in the Middle East.  Another had become the military commander.  A third son, Sirajuddin, had been named Jalaluddin’s successor.

Beneath the Haqqani family’s leadership, the network was managed by a core of loyalists who had fought with Jalaluddin against the Soviets and in the subsequent civil war.  Below their ranks were the young Turks, the rising leaders within the network who earned their reputation while fighting Americans along the border.

The network recruited its foot soldiers mainly from Pakistan, though there were plenty of Afghans in the rank and file as well.  Over the years, young men inspired by their mullahs to fight infidels had become the key source of manpower for the network, and under Siraj, it had been trending toward a radical Islamic orgaization.  Those devoted men, most barely out of their teens, had died in large numbers since 9/11, but there were always ample supplies of idealistic replacements waiting for the chance to leave their madrassas and join the jihad.

It took some time for us to understand how the foreign fighters we had killed on the mountaintop on May 8 fit into this equation.  Eventually, we unraveled it.  The Haqqani Network maintained a loose association with Al Qaida, which supplied it with talented jihadists from all over the globe.  These experienced men, many of whom had fought in Iraq, Somalia, or Chechnya, formed the insurgents version of an NCO corps.  They had become the backbone around which the indoctrinated, if inexperienced, sons of Pakistan coalesced.  In combat, the foreigners served as small-unit leaders.  When on the other side of the border, they functioned as the training cadre, preparing each new wave of jihadist canon fodder for the crucible ahead.

Thanks to our signals intelligence section, we’d come to know a little about Galang, the man who led the jihadists into battle against us…

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The Apaches arrived overhead.  Their crews detected the launch sites, could see the teams reloading for the next volley.  But they could not shoot.  The Pakistan Army troops on the slope were intermingled with the enemy rocket teams.

Our “ally’s” soldiers functioned as our enemy’s human shields…

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Late that afternoon, we returned to Bermel through the Afghan National Army side of the base.  The ANA soldiers had spent the day inside the wire.  We passed knots of them playing dice games and kicking soccer balls.  Here and there, others sat in the dirt with vacant eyes, smoking hash.  Their polyglot uniforms were ill tended.  They were poorly groomed.  They looked like a unit that just didn’t give a shit.

From my turret, Chris Brown exploded, “You motherfuckers!  Fight for your own goddamned country!”

“Brown, knock it off,” I said…

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Shrapnel From Afghanistan III

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Historic Shrapnel #20

Despite Pakistan’s assertion that the Taliban had solid Afghan roots, these had atrophied over time and would be hard to rebuild.  Taliban ideology was more Pakistani than Afghan, and while its popularity surged in Pakistan’s NWFP, fewer Afghans saw it as a model for the future.  Its Pakistani-based leadership could not wage an insurgency without the recruits, bases, and safe refuge it had access to there.  If Pakistan ever reversed its policy of support, as it did to Mullah Omar in 2001, the insurgency in Afghanistan would be dealt a fatal blow…

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Historic Shrapnel #21

The Taliban’s condemnation of the Karzai regime as subservient to the United States looked hypocritical in light of their own subservience to Pakistani interests…

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excerpts from the book

Afghanistan

A Cultural and Political History

by Thomas Barfield

2010

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Historic Shrapnel #22

Afghanistan had always been the “other war” under the Bush administration, starved of resources, attention, and troops in favor of Iraq.  By mid-2009 that status was reversed.  The number of casualties and war costs in Afghanistan exceeded those in Iraq for the first time.  The first surge of seventeen thousand U.S. troops was designed to both provide greater security for the Afghan election in August 2009 and lay the foundation of a new counterinsurgency strategy.  That strategy was confirmed in December when after months of deliberation, President Obama announced the dispatch of another thirty thousand additional troops to Afghanistan, putting U.S. forces over the one hundred thousand mark in 2010.  The planned size of the Afghan army and police was also greatly increased…

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Historic Shrapnel #23

Afghanistan was the only place in the region that the United States had a direct presence that could prevent the reconsolidation of Islamic extremists, and serve as a base for responses to potential state collapse in the surrounding countries of central Asia and Pakistan.  And the fear that nuclear-armed Pakistan might either disintegrate in the face of an Islamist insurgency or that its government could be seized by a radicalized military faction that supported the insurgency’s cause gave a U.S. presence in Afghanistan even more importance.  As had many foreign powers before it, the United States found its Afghan policy as much driven by events in south and central Asia as those within Afghanistan itself…

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Historic Shrapnel #24

Qandahar in the south, Mazar in the north, Kabul in the east, and Herat in the west, remain the leading cities that dominate their own large regions in Afghanistan…

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Historic Shrapnel #25

Both the United States and India have given priority to eliminating the power of radical Islamists, and hence are more in sympathy with each other than either is with Pakistan.  Such an alliance, if it were to occur, would mark the end of the cold war legacy that has undergirded U.S. support of Pakistan for more than a half century…

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Historic Shrapnel #26

Pride in the past is no bar to change in the future.  Perhaps the best recent example of this was the Pashtun leader, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, in the NWFP.  Inspired by Mohandas Gandhi, he founded the nonviolent Khudai Khitmatgar (“Servants of God”).  After taking an oath to foreswear violence, retaliation, and revenge, its eight thousand members divided into trained regiments, and devoted themselves to village improvement, education, and reform.  They also led the resistance to British rule in the region in which hundreds of their members lost their lives in nonviolent protests in the 1930s.  When the British left India, Ghaffar Khan remained a gadfly.  He was jailed by the Pakistani government in the 1960s when he protested against military dictators there.  That such a nonviolent movement could emerge and thrive in a culture that had raised revenge to a holy principle should caution anyone against believing that people or cultures are forever prisoners of the past.  It also stands as a challenge to the Afghans themselves to take the lead in breaking the cycle of violence that has generated so much suffering for so little benefit for far too long.

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edited by Rawclyde!

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Shrapnel From Afghanistan II

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Historic Shrapnel #9

The presence of international forces and outside aid had ended the civil war.  Millions of refugees had rapidly returned from exile in Iran and Pakistan.  A political process for creating and ratifying a constitution had run smoothly, allowing the popular election of a national leader, Hamid Karzai, for the first time in Afghan history.  On the other hand, the military and financial resources allocated to the country were grossly inadequate to provide security and improve one of the world’s lowest standards of living.  The large sums of money pledged for reconstruction first raised the expectations of ordinary Afghans to unreasonable levels, but as the years passed people had a right to be disappointed by how little was being accomplished at such great expense.  Worse, project priorities were set by the funders, not the Afghans, so they rightly questioned the wisdom of building schools and hospitals without teachers and doctors to staff them, or repairing roads with foreign labor while local people remained unemployed…

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Historic Shrapnel #10

The high point of the constitutional process came with the successful presidential election in October 2004.  While there had been parliamentary elections in the past, this was the first time in Afghan history that a national leader had ever sought electoral approval.  Karzai was therefore keen to see elections held quickly once the constitution had been approved despite the concerns of international critics, who doubted the ability of the Afghans to organize the balloting and feared that the elections would be marred by violence.  The Afghan people instead seemed genuinely motivated by the election process and turned out in large numbers, including a relatively high participation by women.  Opponents of the Karzai regime, including the Taliban, failed to disrupt the process, in part because it had such popular support.  Despite many irregularities the election was deemed relatively fair…

tribal-elders-gather-near-pakistan-border-eastern-afghanistan-20071

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excerpts from the book

Afghanistan

A Cultural and Political History

by Thomas Barfield

2010

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fighting_holes

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Historic Shrapnel #11

The U.S invasion that expelled the Taliban and al Qaeda from Afghanistan created an odd circumstance in its wake.  The usual priority among the Afghans of expelling foreign invaders was replaced by a tacit strategy of keeping them there to guarantee security and finance the development of the country.  This was because the Afghan population was looking for stability after decades of war and protection against predation by factions within Afghanistan as well as from neighbors seeking to exploit its weaknesses…

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Historic Shrapnel #12

The new NATO command would take responsibility for all of Afghanistan except for the east, where the United States would retain direct control…

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Historic Shrapnel #13

 Later in the summer, British and Canadian troops deployed to Helmand and Qandahar confronted a well-armed and full-blown insurgency led by a reinvigorated Taliban…

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U.S. Army outpost

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Historic Shrapnel #14

There was also trouble in eastern Afghanistan, which experienced a sharp rise in cross-border attacks from Pakistan’s autonomous tribal territories, where al Queda and Taliban forces were becoming dominant…

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U.S. Army outpost

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Historic Shrapnel #15

Indeed, the strongest base for Islamists inside eastern Afghanistan was not among the Pashtuns but instead among the more remote Nuristanis in the high mountains northwest of Jalalabad…

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A foreign presence in Afghanistan

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Historic Shrapnel #16

Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami was the best known of those factions opposing a foreign presence in Afghanistan.  It was most influential in the provinces of Kunar, Nangarhar, and Nuristan.  The lack of early U.S. resistance to Hekmatyar allowed Hizb-i-Islami forces to take control of many villages in mountainous Nuristan, where they linked up with al Qaeda forces on the Pakistan side of the border.  Despite Hekmatyar’s radical rhetoric, some members of his party joined the Kabul government, and Hekmatyar hinted at a willingness to cooperate if Karzai ceded enough power to him.  A more radical insurgency based on Pastun tribal networks arose further to the south in the provinces of Paktia, Paktika, and Khost that straddled the frontier with Pakistan’s FATA.  Commanded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a prominent resistance commander against the Soviets, its greatest influence was among the resident Pashtun tribes, particularly Haqqani’s own Zadran people in Afghanistan and FATA’s north Waziristan, where he had his headquarters.  Hazzani’s influence extended well beyond the frontier.  His network orchestrated the majority of terrorist attacks in Kabul itself (at the behest of Pakistan’s ISI, according to the Afghans).  His faction also included many foreign fighters and was closer to al Qaeda than Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami…

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Historic Shrapnel #17

The largest and most intense insurgency was centered in Qandahar and Helmand provinces, and led by Mullah Omar’s Taliban…

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Historic Shrapnel #18

The absence of any earlier economic development left the region dependent on an illicit opium economy.  This provided the Taliban with a revenue source to tax and gave them allies among those benefiting from the illicit trade.  In the absence of any significant international military presence, the Taliban were able to regroup unimpeded in any area they knew well for at least two years before NATO troops were deployed to confront them…

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Historic Shrapnel #19

While the Musharif government proved willing to hunt down foreign al Qaeda members, Pakistan still saw the Taliban as allies, and had not abandoned its goal of controlling Afghanistan through a Taliban regime or faction in the Afghan govern- ment when the United States withdrew…

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