Afghanistan Quarterly – Newsletter

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Afghan Minister of Interior Sirajuddin Haqqani (also known as "Khalifa") appeared for the first time in March, in a police graduation ceremony in Kabul. Picture taken from Wikimedia.

The past three months in Afghanistan have been interesting.

The Afghan government achieved a rare feat. It attained, through its participation in the Antalya Diplomatic Forum, its peak in international acceptability. Alas, it was followed shortly by another peak, but this time in international unpopularity. In its own way, remarkable.

Three months which featured the eagerly promised, enthusiastically awaited opening of girls’ schools that lasted a few hours, to a bloody Ramadan marred by attacks on mosques.

Three months which featured the former head of ISKP surrendering to Kabul. Good news on its own, but good news which gave little respite to Afghans finding themselves ravaged by suicide attacks on targets ranging from places of worship to educational centres.

Three months in which girls’ schools were promised to open, did open, and were duly closed. A total paralysis, many questions, few explanations and practically no answers.

Three months in which The Ministry of the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice started to flex its muscles uncomfortably, amidst broader confusion as to the nature of its role in the new Afghanistan.

Three months in which Afghan soil was attacked by a foreign power and civilians killed. The perpetrator was not the United States or any other superpower. It was Muslim majority Pakistan. In Ramadan.

Let’s start.

Antalya Diplomacy Forum

On the 11th March 2022, the Antalya Diplomacy Forum kicked off. A three day conference held in the southern Turkish city, the Forum’s stated aim is to serve as a “solid platform for intellectual exchange by the ‘United Minds’ of the world, where important global and regional challenges were addressed by various experts and decision-makers.” A high-level, multilateral and important venue for liaison amongst the world’s diplomats to discuss pressing issues.

It was on 9th March that reports began to circulate that the Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mottaqi would be in attendance too. Sure enough, the reports were correct. The Afghan Foreign Minister, reflecting a greater worldwide acceptance of his government, did attend, and held a number of meetings. These included, most notably, a tripartite meeting with his Qatari counterpart and the Qatari Deputy Prime Minister, together with the US’ Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Tom West.

Mottaqi also met and sat with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu later stated that his government “was not in a rush to recognise [the Afghan government],” adding that Turkey needed to see “steps tangibly being taken,” by Kabul to facilitate its international recognition. Cavusoglu did, however, point out that aid would not suffice for Afghanistan’s looming economic and humanitarian crises could not be overcome “without recognition.” Whilst Cavusoglu emphasised recognition being contingent, the Washington Institute’s Aaron Zelin pointed out that Cavusoglu’s statement could still be interpreted as calling for formal recognition, albeit cautiously.

Lack of recognition notwithstanding, Mottaqi’s attendance was important for one key reason. It was Mottaqi’s first foreign diplomatic summit. He had previously attended the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) conference in Islamabad. On other occasions, he had met with Qatari, Pakistani and Turkish officials, amongst others. The difference, however, was that this Forum was not convened to discuss issues facing Afghanistan. It was a broader diplomatic summit, one in which Afghanistan like other countries, was a participant and not designed specifically as a gathering on Afghanistan. It was the closest to international acceptance the new government had gotten. No surprise then, that Mottaqi described the summit as “very successful.

Below is Mottaqi’s entire speech, complete with a round of applause at the end.

Counterterrorism and security expert Dr. Tallha Abdulrazaq assesses Turkey’s careful approach toward the new government in Kabul. It can be rationalised, he told me, as being one of tentative outreach. Consciously aware of years of negative publicity for its alleged role in helping extremist groups in Syria, Turkey is keen, as Abdulrazaq put it, to avoid further negative press. Despite this, Ankara’s public offer to administer Kabul’s airport, its regular international flights to Kabul and its generous invite to Mottaqi and allowing him to speak unhindered at the Antalya Diplomatic Forum displayed Ankara’s willingness to engage with Kabul for strategic as well as economic reasons. “Turkey has a great[er] willingness to engage with the Islamic Emirate as a state,” Abdulrazaq summarised, “but is less willing to engage with the Taliban as a group.”

Despite this, bilateral relations are still fraught with uncertainty. Ankara continues to host Afghan fugitive figures that use their presence on Turkish soil, as recently as 17th May, to advocate for war in Afghanistan. On 17th May, a meeting in Ankara was convened. Amongst its attendants were Abdul Rashid Dostum, Atta Muhammad Noor, Abdulrab Rasul Sayyaf, Salahuddin Rabbani and Ismail Khan, going as far as declaring armed resistance to Kabul as “legitimate.” With that in mind, to what extent Ankara can be considered amenable to Kabul’s concerns is, it seems, yet to be determined.

A possible reason for provocative steps toward Kabul could be the latter’s conclusion of an airport deal with Abu Dhabi, in a snub to Qatar and Turkey after months of negotiations.

Girls’ schools

This one was an own goal. Of epic proportions. Prior to the Taliban’s takeover, however, schools had also been largely shut as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Following the Taliban takeover in August 2021, girls’ schools were closed once more. The schools would reopen, as officials put it, as soon as an appropriate and sufficiently Islamic environment was created for girls. The date for their reopening was set for the 23rd March. The world, and Afghans, waited with bated breath.

On the morning of the 23rd March, girls entered schools. For a few hours, everything progressed as normal. Then, schools and their students were abruptly informed that they would once again be closed. The Ministry of Education put out a statement confirming the closure until further notice, and Al Jazeera English quoted Bakhtar News (an Afghan government news agency) saying that schools would reopen, once again, when a plan was drawn up in “accordance with Islamic law and Afghan culture.” Naturally, what Islamic law and Afghan culture meant in practical terms, and how these had seemingly been violated, remained characteristically and intentionally undefined.

A joint statement from the US, UK, France, Italy, Norway, and Canada condemned the move.

A joint statement of condemnation was also issued by the female Foreign Ministers of Albania, Andorra, Australia, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Estonia, Ghana, Germany, Iceland, Indonesia, Kosovo, Liechtenstein, Libya, Malawi, Mongolia, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Tonga and the United Kingdom.

A further joint communique of condemnation was also issued by the Special Representatives and Envoys to Afghanistan of the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States, who had gathered in Brussels.

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation also condemned the decision.

Pakistani scholar Mufti Taqi Usmani, who previously endorsed the Taliban and praised their takeover, personally wrote to the Amir Hebatullah to urge the reopening of schools. Mufti Usmani emphasised the practical needs for girls’ schooling and the need to dispel misconceptions on Islam’s supposed opposition to female education.

Domestically too, the head of Herat’s religious seminary issued a fatwa (religious ruling) emphasising the permissibility and need for female education as a result of practical need. The Religious Scholars’ Association of Afghanistan released a similar statement.

So far, Kabul has been unresponsive to the thundering chorus of condemnation at home and abroad regarding the schools’ closure. No date has been set for their reopening. Surprisingly, or perhaps somewhat in alignment with the Taliban’s inconsistent local-level decision-making, schools in some northern provinces (e.g., Balkh) did reopen. Yet, no date has been set for their reopening across the country. Little explanation has been provided.

On 4th May, Anas Haqqani announced that a gathering of religious scholars would take place to address the issue. This, however, inadvertently revealed the real reason for the school closure: the opposition of Taliban hardliners on religious/cultural grounds. Otherwise, why would religious scholars be needed to solve the deadlock?

On 21st May, in an event commemorating the death anniversary of the previous Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, Deputy Foreign Minister Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai was the first high profile government official to publicly urge the government to reopen schools for girls.

The Ministry of the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice

This will be a short(er) section, and not because I’m lazy. Sometimes it isn’t possible to summarise complex topics in a few sentences and paragraphs. If you want to understand more about what is by now probably Afghanistan’s most controversial Ministry, there is some mandatory reading for you to do.

It’s a long read. Make sure you get a cup of coffee or tea to hand, sit down comfortably, and read my latest article for New Lines Magazine. Once you’re done and abreast of the situation, you can resume reading this section.

Since that article, the Ministry issued an edict instructing women who were “not infants, and not elderly,” to cover their faces when encountering na-mahram, or unrelated, men. Western outlets interpreted this as the burqa being once again being made mandatory, to which Akif, the Ministry’s Spokesman, issued the following clarification.

Yet an earlier interview with the BBC’s Secunder Kermani did feature Akif explicitly stating his Ministry’s and government’s position. Classical Islamic jurists have disagreed on the necessity of face covering, and most leaned away from considering it obligatory. Bizarrely, then, Akif explained that this was not the view of the Afghan government. As far as Kabul was concerned, face covering was mandatory, and its edicts said as such. This is despite the fact that since the edict, the practical enforcement of face covering on Kabul’s streets has reportedly been lacking.

Daesh (ISKP)

The previous regime’s collapse and the end of two decades of American occupation in August 2021 heralded with it the Taliban’s takeover and the re-establishment of their second Islamic Emirate. Afghanistan, however, is yet gripped by numerous challenges. These include an ill-defined political setup, a resultantly opaque process of increasingly erratic decision making, together with a grinding economic crisis exacerbated by the gruelling sanctions of the international community.

The primary achievement characterising the post-August Afghanistan, however, has been a much needed and unusual peace. The country, as conceded by even foreign officials, is largely peaceful. Despite this, however, challenges remain in the form of the National Resistance Front (NRF) and more prominently, Daesh (ISKP).

The latter in particular have continued attacking soft targets such as places of worship and educational centres, enough to cause sufficient unrest, deteriorate trust in the new government’s ability to provide its much touted security, and incite existing ethnosectarian tensions.

On 19th April, Daesh attacked the Abdul Rahim Shahid Secondary School in a predominantly Shia Hazara neighbourhood of western Kabul. Six people were killed.

This was followed by an attack on 22nd April in Kunduz, on a Sufi mosque. 33 people were killed.

On 29th April, another Sufi masjid, this time in Kabul, was attacked. Ten people were killed

On 25th May, another mosque in Mazar Sharif was targeted. Nine people were killed.

The proclivity toward rationalising Afghanistan through a predominantly ethnic lens has been the modus operandi of many a media organisations and analyst. A closer look at the range of Daesh targets in Afghanistan, however paint a more complex mosaic. The group has attacked non-Hazara Sunnis, non-Hazara Shia as well as explicitly targeting the Shia Hazara. The reasoning for this seemingly bizarre trajectory becomes clearer in assessing the group’s ideological compass.

The predominant brand of Sunni Islam in Afghanistan can be described as being ‘Sufi’. At the very least, it’s heavily inclined toward such. The spiritual aspect of religion is heavily emphasised, and often incorporates practices which Daesh (and other groups) see as bordering heresy or polytheism. The Taliban largely fit into this Islam, and thus a cursory look at ISKP literature would reveal the group excommunicating the Taliban based on their acceptance of and participation in Sufi practices.

One such practice is the Mawlid, or the commemoration of the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) birthday. Whilst not exclusively a ‘Sufi’ practice, the celebration is one in which many Sunnis partake, one that Daesh (and others) view a blasphemous innovation. No surprise, then, that ISKP attacked a 2018 gathering of Sunnis in Kabul commemorating the Mawlid.

A similarly hostile view characterises its view toward the minority Shia; a hostility not restricted to the Hazara community. In October 2021, a Shia masjid of Qandahar’s local Farsiwan (Qizilbash) community was attacked by the group.

The attacks in west Kabul on Shia Hazara, however, are disturbing for a multitude of other reasons. The fact they take place in the capital indicates the group’s desire for notoriety, inversely denting the new government’s credibility. Furthermore, the attacks target an ethnic group historically marginalised; a marginalisation largely justified on the basis of most Hazaras’ adherence to Shia Islam.

Finally, the attacks on the Hazara are justified by ISKP based on the participation of many Afghan Hazara in the Iranian created Fatemiyoun brigade, deployed by Tehran to fight against rebel groups (including Daesh) to preserve Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. To understand more, here’s our article on Iran’s role in Afghanistan, explaining its exploitation of state-sponsored Shia sectarianism in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan alike.

The NRF Strikes

After months of activity almost entirely restricted to the internet, Ahmad Massoud’s National Resistance Front finally appeared in the flesh. The appearance, though, turned out to be somewhat underwhelming.

Led by Khalid Amiry, the group launched its spring offensive by attacking government positions in the Panjsher Valley and surrounding environs.

Amiry, a former Afghan Special Forces officer, commenced the attack on 6th May. He did it by tweeting “In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Beneficent,” customarily used whenever starting an activity. Hundreds of accounts, many anonymous and some of real figures, wished him luck.

The offensive was confirmed by the NRF’s Director of Foreign Relation Ali Nazary. Nazary tweeted that “an all out offensive in Panjshir,” had been launched under Amiry’s command.

The official NRF spokesman Sibghatullah Ahmadi followed suit.

The apparently official NRF Twitter handle was next. A mere fourteen minutes after Ahmadi, and sixteen minutes after Nazary, it echoed the latter’s tweet; government positions had been encircled in two districts, and surrenders were being negotiated. Victory, it seemed, was imminent.

Another update, less than two hours later, followed. Further advances had taken places. Two more districts, it was claimed, were on the brink of falling to the NRF.

That was the last time the official NRF Twitter handle tweeted. As expected, little to no video evidence about the claimed conquests emerged.

Adding further to the confusion, NRF spokesman Sibghatullah Ahmadi tweeted to dissociate from the above and hitherto official NRF account. Internal rifts?

What happened thereafter is unknown. The Taliban dismissed the battles as mere disturbances. Videos of dead NRF fighters, some of which are too graphic to share, were circulated on Twitter. Other videos, purporting to show Taliban fighters abusing captured NRF fighters also emerged. Ahmadi, however, claimed they were civilians.

The online discourse featured claims that Kabul was suffering heavy losses and retreating. There were also claims of genocide in Panjsher. How the Taliban can commit a genocide whilst simultaneously retreating on all fronts is a question for the philosophers to struggle with and decipher.

At the same time, Kabul’s word is difficult to take for granted. Media organisations like the BBC were denied access into Panjsher, though they did report reprisals after the failed offensive. The same treatment was naturally not forthcoming for Afghan state broadcaster RTA, which reported village elders in Panjsher strongly denying any atrocities. One villager expressed angry discontent with the NRF’s activity and claims, going as far to say that reports of reprisals was “propaganda,” by people who “if they could, would sell their honour for a hundred or fifty dollars.”

The full report can be watched on YouTube here:

As things stand, very little is certain as to what happened, and how. RTA’s report notwithstanding, its nature as a state broadcaster, together with the fact that other outlets (like the BBC) were denied entry into the province dims how much faith can be placed in such reports.

What is certain is that scarcely little evidence exists to prove the NRF did conquer any districts, whether Abshar, Abdullahkhel, Khenj or Hisa-e-Awal. Already notorious for an unhealthy proclivity for fake news, it seems that premature announcements of grand conquests also need adding to the NRF’s long list of PR woes.

Kabul, on the other hand, has a vested interest in dismissing as trivial any threat to its authority, or reports of any atrocities committed by its forces. Footage later emerged of Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Bradar personally visiting Panjsher, apparently confirming Kabul’s uninterrupted control of the province.

Loya Jirga

Elsewhere, calls for the convening of a Loya Jirga, a traditional gathering of religious and tribal elders, have grown louder, including from former President Hamid Karzai. This is unsurprising for a few simple reasons. The current government is in charge as a result of sweeping into power in a military takeover in August 2021. To use Weberian terms, it also commands an adequate monopoly on the force of violence. The legality, scope, and basis of this violence, however, are yet to be articulated, defined, or codified. The relationship between the government and citizenry (or subjects) is undefined, and the government’s broader framework itself is in an awkward transitory stage between insurgency and proper government.

On 23rd May, Minister of Petroleum and Mines Shihabuddin Delawar, in an apparent acquiescence to calls for a Loya Jirga, confirmed that a committee had been selected for the establishment of a Loya Jirga. The announcement heightened hopes across the country for a more legally and constitutionally defined governance framework can be achieved; one that breaks from the current reality of a government borne solely of a military takeover.

There is cause for optimism. Afghans from across the country’s tapestry of diverse backgrounds deliberating on a mutually acceptable form of government it can hold to account is an objectively good thing.

However, recent Afghan history has featured too often instances in which the delegates of state convened jirgas were invited due to their loyalties to the governments; they, in turn, did little more than add superficial stamps of approval on pre-decided government policies. Then there were other instances. In the 2004 jirga, foreign powers led by the US, actively meddled in ensuring its preferred outcome. The jirga’s independence however was taken for granted.

Mullah Bradar Moves Forth

Few have as hectic a life as Mullah Bradar. Born in the deep South, he fought in the Soviet jihad, joined the Taliban in the 1990s, served as Deputy Minister of Defence, spearheaded the insurgency against the Americans until his arrest in Pakistan, spent eight years in detention and emerged as a key player in the negotiations that paved the way for the Doha Agreement and the end of the American occupation. What a CV.

After a life of war, now the First Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, Bradar has been spearheading economic recovery and reconstruction, even as erraticism elsewhere in government grabs the headlines. On March 30th, Bradar announced the construction of a massive canal project. Called “Qoshtapa,”, the project aims to run through the provinces of Balkh, Faryab and Jawzjan, employ 200,000 people and irrigate three million acres of land. The project is undoubtedly ambitious, and it’s naturally too early to judge its success. Results notwithstanding, the impulse from Bradar’s office to focus on the country’s practical necessities, as opposed to an uncomfortable focus on micromanaging outward signs of religiosity, is encouraging. Frankly, a breath of fresh air.

Bradar’s office followed up on 24th May. After months of negotiations with Qatar and Turkey over Kabul International Airport, the contract was signed with the UAE; the chief rival of the former two. Bradar led the negotiations, which were finalised as he visited the UAE to attend the state funeral of former President Khalifa Bin Zayed al Nahyan.

Senior Emirati diplomat Anwar Gargash, who was the UAE’s signatory and Mullah Bradar’s counterpart in signing the contract, tweeted that the contract was “deserved.” This was despite, he said, competition from other countries. What a low blow to Doha and Ankara.

Omar Samad, former Afghan diplomat and CEO of Silkroad Consulting, stated that the deal between Kabul and Abu Dhabi was something largely unexpected, especially with the predominance of Ankara and Doha in discussions on managing Afghanistan’s airports. Ultimately, however, there were “very practical reasons,” for Abu Dhabi winning the contract signed with the UAE, Samad said. Dubai was already a centre for Afghan businessmen as well as a larger hub for trade, transit, investment and infrastructure.

“The best case scenario,” Samad concluded “is to reconnect Afghan hubs to all three countries [UAE, Qatar, Turkey] as soon as possible, and to lift part of the sanctions imposed on Afghanistan after August 2021.”

Pakistan Attacks Khost and Kunar

In the early hours of the 16th April, Afghanistan was attacked. This time, it was by Pakistan.

A range of airstrikes were carried out in Khost and Kunar provinces by Pakistani aircraft. Casualties were initially unknown but it later emerged that 47 people had been killed. According to local and official sources, those killed were entirely civilians.

A statement from the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs was released that referred to “incidents” along the Durand Line, without referring specifically to the airstrikes or the locations (Khost and Kunar). The statement “reaffirm[ed] respect for Afghanistan’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” It claimed that “terrorists [were] operating with impunity from Afghan soil to carry out activities in Pakistan,” referring to the recent surge in TTP (Tehreek Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban) activity that the statement admitted had killed seven Pakistani soldiers as recently as 14th April.

The statement went on. It urged “the sovereign Government of Afghanistan to…take stern actions against the individuals involved in terrorist activities in Pakistan, in the interest of peace and progress of the two brotherly countries.”

Paradoxically, despite the overt attack on Afghan soil, referring to the Taliban as “the sovereign government of Afghanistan,” is about as close to official recognition as we have seen.

The response to the attacks in Afghanistan was harsh. Zabihullah Mujahid, official spokesman and the Deputy Minister of Information and Culture, tweeted the following.

Elsewhere, in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Pakistani ambassador was summoned by Foreign Minister Mottaqi.

Beyond questions of whether it was correct for the Foreign Minister to have dignified the ambassador of an apparently belligerent state with his presence, the body language in the pictures below is sub-optimal. For starters, why is Mottaqi not facing the ambassador, but turned away? Why are the Afghans, who summoned the ambassador and his entourage, the ones who are looking down and taking notes, or looking away?

Inevitably, comparisons were drawn between the dark days of American occupation with the now excessive influence that Pakistan is claimed to wield in Afghanistan. These comparisons, however, even a cursory level, are weak. President Ghani became infamous for seldom criticising US airstrikes, even when they resulted in civilian casualties. The current government, for all of its flaws, made its displeasure known. It even issued veiled threats.

The TTP

Let’s keep Pakistan’s attacks on Khost in mind. The attacks were justified on the basis of alleged TTP presence . Cause for optimism remains, though. Islamabad is negotiating with the TTP. Negotiations on a new settlement across the Durand Line have gained momentum.

First, an initial ceasefire was declared by the TTP for the festival of Eid. This was later extended until 30th May, as it was revealed that TTP and Pakistani delegations were negotiating in Kabul, with the Afghan government serving as mediator.

More news followed. The ceasefire was extended indefinitely, as final details were negotiated. Pakistani journalist Saleem Mehsud shared the purported progress between government and TTP representatives, as well as remaining sticking points. Mehsud later clarified that the updates had been rejected as “fake,” by what he said were senior Pakistani security officials.

Further reports claimed the formation of a committee by the Pakistani government, the TTP, and the Afghan government.

To Wrap Up

Those were the last three hectic months in Afghanistan. Determined efforts to move the country’s economy forward featured other problems. Above all, a now overt schism between Kabul’s (or Qandahar’s) moderates versus hardliners, manifests itself from the Ministry of the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice to education for girls’.