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Death of Mullar Omar

August 2, 2015

Summary: Reports of Mullah Omar’s death have been exaggerated before. But recent claims of his demise, including from Taliban sources, together with the announcement that second in command, Mullah Mansoor, has taken over seem more convincing this time. The Taliban seem to be struggling with the news. Confusion and factional fighting look likely.

It seems that the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, is dead. Reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated before, over years. This has been due to combination of his need to remain in hiding, a general lack of information about him and malicious or misinformed rumour-mongering from a variety of sources. I wrote about the implications of his death here and here.

This time, multiple sources, including announcements from the Taliban website broadly considered to be the official voice of the Taliban, make it more plausible that Omar is dead. The details of his death (where, how, when and who broke the news first) remain largely – and tantalisingly – unanswered.

But a flurry of Taliban statements in the context of Omar’s death point strongly to surprise, confusion, uncertainty and inter-factional rivalry within the Taliban.

Within the space of a few days, the Taliban’s website has announced:

  • Omar’s death due to illness (with minimal detail)
  • the appointment of Mullah Mansoor as leader of the Taliban
  • the “clarification” of the loyalty of Mullah Zakir – the former leader of the military commission of the Taliban and generally seen as a rival to Mansoor for the leadership
  • the announcement that “hundreds of jihadi” commanders are endorsing Mansoor
  • that rumours that senior insurgent figurehead, Jalaluddin Haqqani, has died of illness are unfounded (although he was ill for a time)

and, just to definitively prove this latter statement,

  • a note from Jallaluddin Haqqani himself, urging unity and support for Mullah Mansoor

We should also note that the most recent Mullah Omar Eid statement, which was significant for its endorsement of talks and its multiple appeals for unity, has been taken down, suggesting embarrassment and questions over the date of Omar’s death. Afghan intelligence sources, amongst others, claim that Omar may have died in early 2013.

The Taliban are clearly struggling with their media line and their leadership succession. They have put peace talks on hold. The apparent need to denounce rumours of Haqqani death suggests over-sensitivity and over-reaction: they are clearly not learning many lessons about media management. I get the sense that many Taliban have been taken by surprise by the announcement and the speed with which Mansoor has become the leader. Small wonder there are so many pleas for unity flying around. Reports suggest that a faction that includes Mullah Omar’s son are unhappy with Mansoor’s appointment. A Pakistani paper reports that pressure is being put on Mansoor to step down and a new leader elected.

Mullah Omar more or less vanished in late 2001 or early 2002. He was an important spiritual figurehead for the Taliban – a rallying point amongst many factions – much more than he was an active battlefield commander. I suspect he may well have died months or years ago but it suited the Taliban to preserve the legend (and issue commands) in his name for as long as they could.

The indications of dis-unity and fragmentation are being demonstrated even across the Taliban’s own website. As ever, when confronted with difficult or fast-moving news, they fumble with their responses, even after many years of media experience. Denial, denouncement and deflection remain their preferred approach.

We need the dust to settle. I expect more confused announcements and rumour to swirl around for some weeks. An understanding of when Omar died and who chose to broadcast this information at this particular point in time might add to our understanding of what the Taliban are becoming. Did the Pakistanis put this out as a means of forcing the Taliban’s hand and pushing them further into the Pakistani-led talks?

But before Omar’s death is heralded as cause for hope, fragmentation and in-fighting amongst factions looks a real possibility. Some Taliban factions want to continue the fight. This, along with the growing rise of Islamic State factions within and around the region, points to ongoing (and more complex) fighting in Afghanistan.

Mullah Omar’s 2015 Eid-ul Fitr: Islam permits us face to face talks with the enemy

July 22, 2015

Summary: Mullah Omar’s Eid address gives clues as to the current pressures on his movement.  He calls for unity several times in several ways and reminds his organisation that according to Islam it is acceptable to talk face to face with your enemies.

Taliban flagA statement purporting to come from the Afghan Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, appeared on the Taliban website on 14th July sending greetings on the occasion of the Islamic ceremony Eid-ul Fitr. The personal greeting from Omar is a Taliban tradition although it has never been entirely certain whether the document genuinely comes from Omar, people close to Omar, a Taliban committee or even Pakistani intelligence. There is regular speculation that Omar may even be dead. Regardless of this uncertainty, the statement and the website upon which it is posted, is generally seen as the official voice of the Afghan Taliban.

The statement congratulates Taliban fighters for their fourteen-year resistance against international and Afghan government forces and urges continued effort and unity.

“Win over your nation with good behaviour”

The main themes addressed were:

  1. Jihad remains obligatory even though most Western forces have been replaced by Afghan soldiers – the struggle continues
  2. Talking with the enemy “Concurrently with armed Jihad” is a legitimate activity according to Islam
    Maintaining unity is important
  3. An Islamic Emirate (i.e. Taliban) administration would be transparent, professional and inclusive
  4. The Taliban want good relations with Iran and Pakistan but is not controlled or armed by either of them. Be careful of malicious rumours
  5. The Taliban do not oppose modern knowledge
  6. “…deal with your people gently, with love and good manners” – avoid civilian casualties and “win over your nation with good behaviour”
  7. Seek the defection of fellow Muslim Afghans rather than killing them
  8. Jihad is an obligation – send money and other support if you cannot fight
  9. Maintain unity and provide for the families of jihadi martyrs

The importance of maintaining unity is a recurrent theme in the statement. This likely reflects the movement’s current internal stress lines. They appear uncertain over how to navigate the controversial issues of talks. The emergence of rival jihadists, in the face of the media-savvy and wealthy Islamic State already seems to be causing defections amongst their more militant members. To compound this, the Taliban have difficulties in maintaining control of their own narrative in the face of rumours, misinformation and likely a very real confusion about what to do. Earlier this month, an editorial piece was posted on the official Taliban website. It criticised in very hostile tones Pakistani involvement in guiding the Taliban towards talks. Within 24 hours of its posting it was taken down.

The need to win hearts and minds by avoiding civilian casualties is another oft-repeated exhortation. This continues to jar with the Taliban’s standard tactics of employing suicide bombers and other improvised explosive devices.

But perhaps the most significant – and new – angle was statement that it was “a legitimate Islamic principle” for engaging in face to face talks, meetings and agreements. There was a reminder that the Taliban have established a political office (in Qatar) “for political affairs, entrusted with the responsibility of monitoring and conducting all political activities”.

Some of the media went a little too far with this. (“Taliban leader Mullah Omar hails peace talks to end Afghanistan war”).  But the Taliban do seem at least to be attempting to clear the way – at least within their own ranks – for some forms of dialogue. There seem now to be two or three centres of gravity for engaging with the Taliban (we still do not clearly know how much is genuine, what is being discussed and between whom):

  1. Qatar/Gulf States Taliban “Political Office”
  2. the Murree holiday resort/”Pakistani-led”
  3. Separately, the Taliban have been engaging in general talks in Norway

In the meantime, the fighting continues. If warring parties are starting to circle around the negotiating table with genuine plans – and I would still be highly cautious about this, given the interminable “talks about talks” saga – we may see the fighting intensify and diversify as parties scramble for tactical advantage.  A “hurting stalemate” between protagonists might helpfully push them towards credible talks. But there are many old and new parties that can influence this in a variety of different ways in accordance with a range of agendas. One outcome is that the Taliban fragment as rival factions fall out over talks. This could point to a messier and more unpleasant conflict.

The full text of the Eid statement is below:

Eid Felicitation Message of Amir-ul-Momineen, Mulla Mohammad Umar Mujahid
ago 5 days – 278 views
________________________________________
In the name of Allah, the most Gracious, the most Merciful.
الحمد لله رب العلمین و الصلوة والسلام علی سیدالأنبیاء والمرسلین محمد وعلی آله وأصحابه أجمعین وبعد
:قال الله تعالی
[أُذِنَ لِلَّذِينَ يُقَاتَلُونَ بِأَنَّهُمْ ظُلِمُوا وَإِنَّ اللهَ عَلَى نَصْرِهِمْ لَقَدِيرٌ ﴾ [الحج:39﴿
Translation: (Permission to take up arms is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged and Allah, indeed, has power to help them.) (Al-Hajj – 39)
To the whole Muslim Umma, particularly to the Muslim and Mujahid Masses of Afghanistan!
السلام علیکم ورحمة الله وبرکاته
(May peace and blessings of Allah be upon you!)
I would like to felicitate you on this auspicious occasions of both Eid-ul-Fitr and the significant conquests in the field of Jihad along with my sincere best wishes. May Allah, the Almighty, accept all your worships, donations and virtuous deeds related with the holy month of Ramadan! Amin.
All of these conquests are the result of perpetual support of Allah Almighty followed by the untold sacrifices, endeavors and backing of the Afghan Mujahid people. I pray to Allah, the Almighty, to remunerate all of them for their services and sacrifices.
It is a moment of deep gratitude and great honor for me to share my feelings with you concerning the sanctified and blessed days of the Holy Religion of Islam. The Muslims congratulate one another in these days, pray for their well-being and express their sincerity, brotherhood and sympathy in an atmosphere fraught with religious fraternity.
I would like, by seizing this occasion, to elucidate some issues about the previous and present on-going Jihadi struggle of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

1. The invasion of Afghanistan by the occupying alliance headed by America was in reality an explicit brutal aggression, contradicting all humane principles, on an integral part of the Muslim Umma and subsequently, the initiation of Holy Jihad against this aggression became a binding individual obligation upon us. As Allah Almighty says:
[ وَقَاتِلُواْ فِي سَبِيلِ اللّهِ الَّذِينَ يُقَاتِلُونَكُمْ… ﴾ [البقرة:190 ﴿
Translation: (And fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but do not transgress. Surely, Allah loves not the transgressors.) (Al-Baqarah – 190)
It was according to this religious obligation that more than fifteen hundred religious scholars of our country issued the decree of Holy Jihad to the Islamic Emirate which was subsequently approved by the righteous scholars around the world. In the light of this genuine religious decree, Jihad is as obligatory today as it was in the beginning of foreign occupation because our Muslim homeland Afghanistan is still under occupation and both its land and air space are controlled by the invaders. The only minor difference is that after suffering heavy casualties and financial losses, the foreign occupying forces have reduced their numbers and have confined themselves to heavily fortified bases, filling this void with some notorious figures of our society, mercenary forces trained by foreign intelligence agencies and some naive youngsters in the disguise of Afghan security forces who are financially, logistically and even directly supported by the very occupying forces when pressured by Mujahidin. It is therefore still obligatory upon us to continue our sacred Jihad to liberate our beloved homeland and restore an Islamic system.
It is true that large areas of the country are liberated by the Mujahidin but our Jihadi struggle will continue until the infidel occupation of our country has ended and a pure Islamic system is implemented.

2. Concurrently with armed Jihad, political endeavors and peaceful pathways for achieving these sacred goals is a legitimate Islamic principle and an integral part of Prophetic politics. As our holy leader, the beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), was actively engaged in fighting the infidels in the fields of ‘Badr’ and ‘Khyber’, he simultaneously participated in agreements beneficial for Muslims, held meetings with envoys of infidels, sent messages and delegations to them and on various occasions even undertook the policy of face to face talks with warring infidel parties. If we look into our religious regulations, we can find that meetings and even peaceful interactions with the enemies is not prohibited but what is unlawful is to deviate from the lofty ideals of Islam and to violate religious decrees. Therefore the objective behind our political endeavors as well as contacts and interactions with countries of the world and our own Afghans is to bring an end to the occupation and to establish an independent Islamic system in our country. It is our legitimate right to utilize all legal pathways because being an organized and liable setup, we are responsible to our masses, we are an integral part of human society and rely upon one another. All Mujahidin and countrymen should be confident that in this process, I will unwaveringly defend our legal rights and viewpoint everywhere. We have established a ‘Political Office’ for political affairs, entrusted with the responsibility of monitoring and conducting all political activities.

3. We insist upon the unity of Jihadi front in Afghanistan because firstly, it is the command of Allah Almighty and secondly, the fruits of successful Jihad against the former Soviet Union were lost as an inevitable consequence of the multiplicity of factions.
Allah Almighty has said about the unity of Jihadi front:
( إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الَّذِينَ يُقَاتِلُونَ فِي سَبِيلِهِ صَفّاً كَأَنَّهُم بُنيَانٌ مَّرْصُوصٌ) (4 الصف)
Translation: (Verily, Allah loves those who fight in His cause arrayed in solid ranks, as though they were a strong structure cemented with molten lead.) (As-Saff – 4)

On another occasion, the Holy Quran unequivocally inhibits from all contentions, differences and mutual disputes in the following explicit words:

( وَأَطِيعُوا اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ وَلَا تَنَازَعُوا فَتَفْشَلُوا وَتَذْهَبَ رِيحُكُمْ ۖ وَاصْبِرُوا ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ مَعَ الصَّابِرِينَ) (46 الانفال)
Translation: (And obey Allah and His Messenger and dispute not with one another, lest you falter and your strength depart from you. And be steadfast; surely, Allah is with the steadfast.) (Al-Anfal – 46)

And our Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) says:
{لاَ يُلْدَغُ الْمُؤْمِنُ مِنْ جُحْرٍ وَاحِدٍ مَرَّتَيْنِ} {رواه البخاري}
Translation: (A believer is not stung twice from the same hole.) Narrated by Bukhari.
Since maintaining the unity of Jihadi front in our country is a religious obligation, we have therefore directed all our Mujahidin to preserve their unity and forcefully prevent all those elements who attempt to create differences, damage this Jihadi front or try to disperse the Mujahidin.

4. Our Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) has said:
الْمُسْلِمُ أَخُو الْمُسْلِمِ لَا يَظْلِمُهُ وَلَا يَخْذُلُهُ وَلَا يَحْقِرُهُ التَّقْوَى هَاهُنَا” وَيُشِيرُ إِلَى صَدْرِهِ ثَلَاثَ مَرَّاتٍ، “بِحَسْبِ امْرِئٍ مِن الشَّرِّ أَنْ يَحْقِرَ أَخَاهُ الْمُسْلِمَ كُلُّ الْمُسْلِمِ عَلَى الْمُسْلِمِ حَرَامٌ دَمُهُ وَمَالُهُ وَعِرْضُهُ ) رواه مسلم و احمد
Translation: (Every Muslim is the brother of another Muslim. He should neither oppress him, nor let him down, nor insult him. Piety is here, while pointing to his chest thrice. It is enough for a man’s mischief to look down upon his Muslim brother. The blood, property and honor of every Muslim is forbidden for another Muslim.) Narrated by Muslim and Ahmad.
In view of the above saying of our Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) and being a member of the Muslim society, we look upon every Muslim as our brother and we formally recognize the legitimate rights of all Afghans including minorities as our religious duty.

The formation of Islamic Emirate comprises of virtuous and erudite people from all areas and nations of our country, learning a lot from the experiences of previous 36 years especially from the responsibilities borne over the past twenty years hence no one should fear about what will happen if the Islamic Emirate comes to power. I assure you that the upcoming changes will in no way resemble the situation following the collapse of the communist regime when everything turned upside down. There are no such disagreements inside the Jihadi ranks as were in the past. This time every legal development around the country will be preserved, national assets and the achievements of private sector will be maintained, the dignity of all individuals and communities of the country will be honored, an accountable, transparent, professional and inclusive Afghan administration will be setup to meet both the worldly and religious needs of the Afghan masses. We have always tried, in light of Islamic principles and national interests, to maintain cordial and reciprocal relations with all neighboring, regional and world countries so that Afghanistan is secured both from external malice as well as internal differences.

5. Some circles accuse Mujahidin of being agents of Pakistan and Iran. This is an utterly unjust verdict because neither our past history nor the present prevailing circumstances attest to this statement and the forthcoming history will also be a witness against these false accusations, Insha-Allah (God-willing).
Nevertheless, it is a fact that we have sought cordial relations not only with Pakistan and Iran but also all other neighboring countries. Just like towards the people of Pakistan and Iran, we have been the well-wishers of all masses of all neighboring, regional and world countries and we are determined to pursue this wise policy.
We call upon all people with intellect not to be deceived by the baseless propaganda of the enemy intelligence. Do not attribute you’re extraordinary achievements to others. The vast areas spreading from Badakhshan to Kandahar, from Faryab to Paktia and from Herat to Nangarhar, which almost covers the entire country cannot be liberated with foreign support. If foreign aid were so effective then it would have treated the wounds of the Kabul administration which enjoys the unconstrained support of fifty countries. They freely get weapons and manpower from abroad, even their leaders are brought up and trained by the foreigners. But none of these provisions stabilized them rather they are losing ground on a daily basis. Therefore if we were not supported by Allah Almighty as well as our pious masses and Jihadi spirit, how could it be possible for us to have sustained this lopsided war for fourteen years against major world military powers with the insignificant and secret support of either one or two neighboring countries? Without a doubt, no sane mind would ever accept this nonsense.
Therefore our Muslim brothers, near and far, should not be victimized by the enemy propaganda because the enemy is not only devious but also shrewd and well-equipped, able to convey and spread rumors and propaganda against Muslims and Islamic movements to the world masses. Hence all Muslims should remain vigilant and discerning equipped with faith and spiritual perspicacity.

6. Some people, without having any sound proof, think that the Islamic Emirate is against all new developments, modern sciences and resources. This despite the overall expenditure on schools and higher educational institutions being higher than the traditional religious madrassas during the reign of the Islamic Emirate. Twenty percent of the budget was allocated for education and training. Contemporary studies are recommended by our religious scholars as they are obligatory according to Islamic teachings. Allah Almighty says in His Holy Book:
(وَأَعِدُّوا لَهُمْ مَا اسْتَطَعْتُمْ مِنْ قُوَّةٍ وَمِنْ رِبَاطِ الْخَيْلِ تُرْهِبُونَ بِهِ عَدُوَّ اللَّهِ وَعَدُوَّكُمْ… )(الانفال 60)
Translation: (And make ready against them all you can of power, including steeds of war, whereby you may frighten the enemy of Allah and your enemy…) (Al-Anfal – 60)
According to the above blessed verse which stresses upon every possible preparation against the enemy and since Jihad is an indispensable obligation for the Muslims today thus modern resources to combat the enemy can neither be had nor utilized without the prior knowledge of modern sciences and new experiences. Similarly treatment of injured Mujahidin and health-care of Muslim masses, freeing ourselves from enemy dependence in technical, industrial, agricultural and various other walks of life as well as properly serving the Muslims and self-sufficiency of Islamic society needs our excellence in modern knowledge. It is a well-established rule of Islamic jurisprudence that the requisite of an obligation is obligatory.
Therefore the Islamic Emirate realizes the value and importance of modern sciences and sources in the light of our Holy Sharia law. The proof is that Mujahidin are facilitating both religious and modern studies for the young generation of our beloved homeland in all the areas under their control.

7. I would like to remind all the Mujahidin that if they abide by two things then eventual victory will be theirs. First, they should aim for Allah’s pleasure in all their deeds. They should endure their allegiance with their creed, country, the Islamic Emirate and their leaders as guided by our Holy Book:
(يَاأَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِن تَنصُرُواْ اللَّهَ یَنصُرْکمْ وَ یُثَبِّتْ أَقْدَامَکمْ.) (محمد 7)
Translation: (O ye who believe! if you help the cause of Allah, He will help you and will make your foothold firm.) (Muhammad – 7)
Secondly, our Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) says:
( لَيْسَ مِنَّا مَنْ لَمْ يَرْحَمْ صَغِيرَنَا وَلم يُوَقِّرْ كَبِيرَنَا) (ترمذي)
Translation: (Those who do not have mercy on youngsters and not respectful to elders are not from us.) Narrated by Tirmidhi
So deal with your people gently, with love and good manners. Treat their elders as your own parents and their youngsters as your own brothers and children. The protection of lives and properties of ordinary people is your Islamic and human responsibility. Particularly in your military planning, take all possible measures to avoid civilian losses and casualties. If you glance over history, you will vividly see that the one who has betrayed the sacred religion of Allah or has looked down upon this pious Mujahid nation or ignored good ethics has failed at succeeding here. The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) says:
( أکمل المؤمنين إيماناً أحسنهم خلقاً ) (رواه ابوداود)
Translation: (The most perfect amongst the pious people is the one whose behavior is sublime.) Narrated by Abu Daud
So win over your nation with good behavior.

8. O Mujahidin! As Allah Almighty has flung open the doors of victories to you, try your best to invite and guide the opponents to the right path and provide them with secured and honorable living conditions. Instead of killing them, it is better to reform (guide) them as our community will inevitably suffer due to their widows and orphans. The people who control their anger and pardon are held in high esteem by Allah Almighty as He says:
(وَالْكَاظِمِينَ الْغَيْظَ وَالْعَافِينَ عَنِ النَّاسِ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يُحِبُّ الْمُحْسِنِينَ) (آل عمران (134)
Translation: (And those who suppress anger, and pardon men; and Allah loves those who do good.) (Al-Imran – 134)

9. Muslims of the whole world and specially the pious masses of Afghanistan are requested to increase their physical and financial support to the Mujahidin amidst the current triumphant process as you constantly extended it over the past fourteen years. You should remember that Jihad is an individual obligation upon every single Muslim. If one cannot participate in the Jihadi fronts physically, he can discharge his duty by extending financial or political or cultural support to the Mujahidin. Our Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) says:
(مَنْ جَهَّزَ غَازِياً فِي سَبِيلِ الله فَقَدْ غَزَا، وَمَنْ خَلَفَ غَازِياً فِي سَبِيلِ الله بِخَيْرٍ فَقَدْ غَزَا) (متفق علیه)
Translation: (Whosoever equipped a fighter in the path of Allah, and the one who looked after a fighter’s family behind, verily he participated in Jihad.) Agreed Upon
10. To end, I request all the leaders and masses of the Muslim world to maintain unity and fraternity among themselves and not allow internal differences to weaken their ranks. The policy of tolerance, patience, acumen and strict abidance by Islamic Sharia should be adopted. I would like to remind all the well-off sympathizing brothers to extend their complete support to the bereaved families of the martyrs, prisoners, disabled, poor and orphans of frontline Mujahidin during these happy days of Eid-ul-Fitr. They should not be left alone and must be encouraged because it is the source of success and prosperity in this world as well the world hereafter. Wish good for others as you seek it for yourselves as the Holy Quran says:
(وَافْعَلُوا الْخَيْرَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ) (الحج – 77)
Translation: (And do good deeds that you may prosper.) (Al-Hajj – 77)

I once again congratulate all of you on this happy occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr and pray to Allah Almighty that all your worship and services are rewarded.

Wassalam.

Servant of Islam
Amir-ul-Momineen
Mulla Mohammad Umar Mujahid

Hekmatyar – now supports Islamic State?

July 10, 2015

Summary: Islamist warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, calls on his fighters to support Islamic State against the Taliban

“If the Taliban of the Emirate fight with those who have quit the Taliban and declared allegiance to the Islamic State, help these militants, because the Taliban are sworn enemies of Hizb-e-Islami,

“If the Taliban of the Emirate fight with those who have quit the Taliban and declared allegiance to the Islamic State, help these militants, because the Taliban are sworn enemies of Hizb-e-Islami”

I simultaneously laughed and groaned (not a pleasant sound) when I saw this headline.  Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, head of the largely marginalised Islamist faction Hezb-e Islami Gubuddin – HIG – makes one more opportunistic, self-serving and cynical move in an attempt to carve out power and influence:

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the Afghan Islamist organization Hezb-e Islami, has called on his followers to support the militant group Islamic State (IS) in the fight against the Taliban.

Hekmatyar made the announcement in a statement released on July 5…Hekmatyar’s comments come amid reports of intensified fighting between IS and Taliban militants in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangahar Province, as IS tries to gain a foothold in the country.

IS’s media wing declared in January that Pakistan and Afghanistan were part of one region called the province of Khorasan, reportedly prompting hundreds of Taliban militants to join IS.

Nangahar officials said last month that around 100 local families had been displaced by the fighting, while on July 6, local media reported that at least 49 IS militants died in separate government drone strikes in the province.

Fearing that IS is gaining traction in Afghanistan, the Taliban published a rare open letter in June in which the group’s deputy leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, warned IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to stay out of Afghanistan.

“The Islamic Emirate (Taliban) does not consider the multiplicity of jihadi ranks beneficial either for jihad or for Muslims,” Mansoor reportedly wrote.

In his July 5 statement…Hekmatyar warned that if the Taliban “fight with those who have quit the Taliban and declared allegiance to the Islamic State, help these militants, because the Taliban are sworn enemies of Hezb-e Islami.”

Hezb-e Islami, one of the strongest anti-Soviet mujahedin factions in the 1980s, has claimed several high-profile attacks in the Afghan capital and elsewhere, including a May 2013 suicide bombing in Kabul that killed at least 15 people.

A prime minister during Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s, Hekmatyar in 2003 was labeled a “specially designated global terrorist” by the U.S. State Department, which accuses him of taking part in and supporting attacks by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Most of the wider Hezb-e Islami are reconciled and back in something approaching mainstream Afghan politics.  Hekmatyar’s residual insurgent faction is very much on the outside and second (more likely third) fiddle to the Taliban, with whom everyone wants to talk.  HIG are not going anywhere and the only way Hekmatyar feels able to deal with this is to continue blowing people up.  As we can see here, he occasionally likes to vary the permutation of the those he deems worthy of attacking.

This latest announcement appears to be playing the “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” card quite strongly.  I note that Hekmatyar does not appear to be pledging allegiance to IS (in Hekmatyar-world everyone should be pledging to him).  But Hekmatyar might also be putting down a marker with Islamic State – once the Khorasan part of the Caliphate has been carved out, they’ll surely need an experienced Mujahideen to rule it for them?

But anything that undermines the Taliban, with whom he and his fighters have fallen out several times since 2001, will find favour with Hekmatyar.  I think Hekmatayar has now sided with everyone at some point – he even went over to the US during the 1980s.

It may superficially seem almost encouraging that insurgent factions are turning on each other, but it could just as easily point to even more complex and brutal fighting to come.

Taking self interest and cynicism to a whole new level…

Wikistrat paper: Russia-Greece relations

July 6, 2015

I have contributed a short piece to this paper on Russia-Greece Relations as part of the Wikistrat series of reports.

Russia-Greece Relations

Wikistrat, Russia, Greece relations

With negotiations between the European Union (EU) and Greece at a standstill and the country’s economic crisis worsening further, decision-makers in the West are worried that Athens is heading towards the open arms of Russia.  But what would Russia have to gain by improving ties with Greece?

To answer this question, Wikistrat asked four of its Russia experts to assess bilateral relations and to analyze the Russian interests in Putin’s apparent move towards Greece.

Here are the insights they generated.  Russia-Greece Relations

Key points:

  • The probability of Russia bailing out Greece is low. Russia is facing a difficult financial crisis of its own, with low foreign cash reserves and Western sanctions targeting its banking sector. It would rather buy Greek state-owned assets when they are privatized, thereby acquiring a more tangible stake in its economy. Instead of a bailout, Moscow is trying to get the New Development Bank members involved – mainly China – by promoting the move as one that would increase the institution’s prestige.
  • The $2 billion gas deal between Greece and Russia is a win for Moscow. The gas pipeline and distribution hub in Greece should be up and running by 2019 or 2020, around the time Gazprom’s contract with Ukraine ends.  This will ensure smooth gas delivery to the Balkans, Hungary, Italy and Austria, and divorce Russian-Ukrainian relations from their perpetual gas dispute.
  • Greece and Russia’s game of flirtation serves both sides when dealing with the EU. Both parties benefit from the negotiations themselves, making tactical gains at minimal cost or risk. Greece gets to pressure the EU with the threat of moving closer to Moscow, facilitating a favorable conclusion to debt restructuring negotiations, and Russia gets to cause tension among EU members, serving its agenda for Ukraine.
  • Russia’s ultimate goal is to gain an ally within European institutions, causing divisions therein. This would be a strategic asset, as the EU is a key factor in setting the tone for the West’s policy towards Russia regarding its involvement in the Ukrainian conflict and its occupation of Crimea.

Russian convoys into Ukraine – at least 30 and counting

June 26, 2015

Summary: as ever, Russian activity inside Ukraine may not be all that it seems

hiding in plain sight...

hiding in plain sight…

I am working through two very interesting papers at present:

Both papers expose in very clear, compelling, authoritative and evidence-based style the extent of covert/accidentally overt Russian political and military involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Last year there was a lot of excitement and speculation about a Russian convoy of trucks that were to enter Ukraine ostensibly to provide food, blankets, tents and other civilian humanitarian supplies for displaced people in the combat areas.  There was confusion – much of this deliberate, I suspect – over the real intentions and whether this was an official Red Cross event or an operation controlled by the Russian government.  The story sucked up lot of media interest in the aftermath of the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner Flight MH17.  There were a range of possible explanations for the convoy, stretching from genuine neutral assistance, through a timely media distraction after MH17 to support for military operations.  Casting around for explanations for the convoy at the time, I suggested, (amongst 6 possible scenarios) that simply establishing the principle of entry – that Russian vehicles could come and go across Ukraine’s border at will – could be helpful to the Russian cause.

Exciting media stories can quickly become routine, normalised and less valuable for copy.  Sometimes they may be even deliberately designed that way.  Either that or shame on me for not keeping better track of this issue.  Establishing the normality of large numbers of Russian vehicles passing into Ukraine seems to have become routine.  I see from the OSCE spot reports that the 30th Russian convoy crossed into Ukrainian territory yesterday, the 25th June 2015:

Spot Report by OSCE OM: A thirtieth Russian convoy of 47 vehicles crossed into Ukraine and returned back through the Donetsk Border Crossing Point

SUMMARY

On 25 June 2015 at 06:50hrs (Moscow time), a Russian convoy arrived at the Donetsk Border Crossing Point (BCP). A total of 47 vehicles were checked by the Russian border guard and customs services. All the vehicles had crossed back into the Russian Federation by 16:31hrs on 25 June.

***

DETAIL

Leaving the Russian Federation

On 25 June 2015 at 06:50hrs, the Observer Mission observed the arrival of a Russian convoy at the gate of the Donetsk BCP. The Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations team led the process of the convoy movement. The convoy consisted of 40 cargo trucks and 7 support vehicles. With the exception of one vehicle (refrigerated truck), all the 40 cargo trucks displayed the Russian national flag and bore the inscription “Humanitarian help from the Russian Federation”.

All the vehicles stopped at the customs control area and lined up in three lines, the backdoors of all of the cargo trucks were opened and visually checked from outside by Russian border guards and customs officers. One service dog was used by Russian border guards to check most of the cargo trucks. Ukrainian officers –­ three border guards and one customs officer – were present during the check. They performed visual observation of the opened trucks from the outside with Russian border guards. By 07:40hrs all vehicles had left the BCP towards Ukraine.

Returning to the Russian Federation

At 14:15hrs on 25 June, the convoy arrived and lined up at the customs area. The backdoors of the trucks were opened and Russian border guards and customs officers visually checked the returning convoy. Ukrainian officers – three border guards and one customs officer ­– visually checked the returning convoy. One service dog was used to check some of the cargo trucks. The returning convoy consisted of two waves: the first part, consisting of 42 vehicles, arrived at 14:15hrs and left the BCP at 14:37hrs; the second part, consisting of five vehicles, arrived at 16:22 and left at 16:31hrs. By 16:31 hrs, all 47 vehicles had returned and crossed back into the Russian Federation.

The Russian state-run media service “Sputnik” stated that yesterday saw the “31st” convoy entering the Donbass.  I am not sure why there is a discrepancy.  The OSCE provide daily situation reports from their Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) which give useful insights into the realities of the “ceasefire”.  I think it unlikely that routine transporting of Russian military equipment or similar is underway with these convoys – it seems that the Ukrainians are inspecting the contents of trucks in some way, according to their Observer Mission report.

But who knows what might turn up one day, now the principle of large cross-border Russian vehicular movements (they seem to be once a week on average) has been established?  Although it appears that Ukrainian border officials were on hand to inspect in some way the contents of convoy 30, according to the OSCE, the 29th convoy crossed into Ukraine without the presence of Ukrainian officials.  Ukrainians were reportedly present for convoy 28 and 27.

But perhaps the contents of the convoy is a distraction?  It might be more about the personnel associated with the convoy and not the convoy per se.  “Putin. War”, at page 27, in chapter 5 “Volunteers or Mercenaries?”, points quite clearly to the use of the convoys for military purposes at least on some occasions:

Yefimov [director of a veterans’ foundation and a Special Forces soldier in the Sverdlovsk Region] confirmed that one of the means used to send Russian [citizen] fighters to Ukrainian territory is the so-called “humanitarian operations.” Essentially he is saying that the military invasion is carried out under the guise of humanitarian deliveries.

“The first time they went under the guise of the Red Cross. They received papers from the local department explaining that we were the escort. When we arrived, those people then remained. They were given weapons and combat assignments. Now we are also loading guys into the humanitarian aid trucks and sending them,”

Well, whatever may or may not be going on, the trips are now “normalised”.

Snyder, Gessen and Jampol: The War in Ukraine: Propaganda and Reality

June 23, 2015

I was just listening to this podcast – thoughtfulness and wisdom in spades here.  Listen in full (maybe while you are doing exercise?).  This also from Synder.

ukraine-russia-631Literally amidst all the cacophony of propaganda some analytical clarity:

10 March 2015, Episode Summary

A year ago, Russia invaded Ukraine, destroying a peaceful order in Europe and placing its own regime at risk.  We in the West have experienced this historical turning point through a haze of propaganda.  According to Snyder, the Kremlin was perhaps wrong about the political weakness of Ukraine, but likely right about some intellectual weaknesses of Americans and Europeans.  When will the war end? This rare pairing of two essential thinkers on Eastern European politics offers a revelatory look at why what happens in Ukraine is of significant international importance.

Self(ie)-incriminating: Russians posing in Ukraine

June 18, 2015

Summary: pictures of serving Russian soldiers posing in Ukraine on supposedly secret missions are common.  But why is it happening?  Poor security or indifference?

There has been a lot of evidence pointing to a Russian military invasion of Ukraine since last year’s, er, Russian military invasion of Ukraine. Funerals of Russian soldiers, satellite imagery, social media all play their part in developing the picture.

But I genuinely do not understand why there is such a flow of incriminating “selfies” emerging regularly from eastern Ukraine. They seem to represent in large part the ego-trips of young Russian serving members of the Russian army on supposedly secret missions inside Ukraine. Some open source analytical bodies – Bellingcat, The Interpreter, the Atlantic Council – are having a fine time tracking and exposing multiple cases of foolish soldiers giving away the more cynical aspects of Russian foreign policy.  Social media is ushering in the birth of a new era of open source intelligence gathering.

This came in from Vice News. Journalist Simon Ostrovsky (who probably ought to watch his back out there now) literally traces the footsteps of a known serving Russian soldier, including to the exact spot in Ukraine where the Russian army absolutely most definitely do not have any officially presence.

I am reasonably confident that it is happening. But why? Of course security breaches can be a regular feature of military operations. But I cannot picture the British Special Air Service, or even British regular forces, falling into such regular malpractice on operations. I could see a security breach taking place once or twice but then draconian punishments and new procedures being issued immediately, including a total ban on smart phones (and laptops, and mobiles, etc, etc) and no contact with Russia other than through official military channels. Why do these faux pas continue to occur with such regularity? Why has the combined disciplinary might of the Russian military disciplinary and intelligence communities failed to stamp it out?

I have brainstormed it down to a few explanations:

  1. Quality of Russian soldier’s (many of whom are still young conscripts) training and morale is still very poor – they still don’t get the need for security in covert operations
  2. People do not yet fully understand the potential, implications and, crucially, the technology of the smart tools they now possess – photos have often been taken and then automatically (and unintentionally) geo-tagged and posted online
  3. The soldiers do not care – better to show off to your mates and family when you are doing something exciting
  4. Russian military authorities are poor at this sort of thing – inadequate security procedures are a factor of Russian military life
  5. Russian military authorities do not care so much – just one of those things. The embarrassment factor has worn off
  6. Russian militaries/politicos do not mind this happening so much – the world knows they are there but is too scared to do much about it. It is not really a covert operations anymore. And anyway, NATO satellite imagery is already identifying Russian military build-ups and activity.
  7. The unofficial low-level revelations of Russian servicemen in Ukraine serves to demonstrate Russian military resolve to the international community and to the would-be separatists in eastern Ukraine

Is it as simple as that – a recognition that the fig leaf has long since withered and died?

Oscillate wildly: the Taliban world is changing…

June 17, 2015

Summary: Things are changing for the Taliban.  Talks with internationals and a potential confrontation with Islamic State can make things stressful and unpredictable.

You have to feel slightly sorry for the Taliban. Their environment seems to be changing in ways that they are struggling to understand and control. They are now having to refute, dispute or “clarify” any meetings they have outside of Afghanistan in which Westerners and other Afghans are present. But the process of engaging in any forms of dialogue in the margins is helpful. It develops understanding between protagonists – a training session warm up before the tough issues are tackled. The Taliban’s exposure to the wider world has been limited over the years and they could certainly benefit from a little dose of political and international norms of behaviour and human rights. Ahmed Rashid gave a talk a couple of years ago in Copenhagen, in which he said: “lets open the minds of the Taliban”.

The period of an insurgency before talks start is a more fluid and potentially more nasty one. The pressure to secure military advantage and other bargaining points is high, as is the risk of fragmentation of the insurgents. Some groups inevitably will want to fight while others are weary.

IS mapBut an external dimension is emerging to complicate things. The Islamic State (IS) flag is being waved with increasing vigour over Afghanistan. This part of central and southern Asia is known as “Khorasan” to Islamic State, whose influence, once “virtual”, is picking up groups of disgruntled former Taliban, likely concerned over the lack of tangible battlefield success against the Afghan army.

ISIS logoThere have been reports of clashes between IS and Taliban in Afghanistan. Most recently an IS group are believed to have captured and beheaded a Taliban member. The Taliban have issued a letter to IS essentially (the translation I have seems to be a crude Google Translate) telling them to keep out of Afghanistan

I once asked Ahmed Rashid what would happen if the international community killed Mullah Omar. He said this would not be helpful, as the lack of a leader to talk to would put the Taliban at risk of fracture and the emergence of more extreme groups.The strengthening of an IS presence in Afghanistan could cause a similar outcome.

More Afghan police casualties

June 16, 2015

Summary: Bunker mentality.  Afghan police suffer large casualties in one night attack in Helmand.

More bad news for the Afghan National Police (ANP). On Saturday they reportedly lost 17 police officers killed in one night time confrontation with the Taliban. A base was surrounded and attacked in Helmand province in Musa Qala district. The base itself only held 19 personnel, the remaining two being wounded in the battle.

musa qala location mapPolice casualties have increased dramatically since the international forces withdrew.  A couple things to consider. Here we see the police once again being used as a second rate army. Poor command and control seems to have been a problem, with the Helmand provincial spokesman complaining that reinforcements were not sent to assist. But the Afghan security forces seem to have adopted a very static, defensive form of warfare, reliant on sitting in protected bunkers and checkpoints and allowing themselves to be surrounded.

Counter Insurgency warfare, where it has worked, seems to be a lot more about getting out on the ground – dominating it – engaging with the local populace and building up a good intelligence picture: understanding of who is who and what the dynamics are. Sitting inactive in a bunker yields the battlefield to the enemy. It is what the Soviets and the Najibullah army did. The reports suggest that the Taliban seemed to have plenty of time to take control of the area, planting IEDs and mines.

The other complaint is interesting:

“We do not have modern weapons to fight the Taliban and have no aircraft to target them”.

If you removed the word “Taliban” and inserted government”, this could easily substitute for a comment from the Taliban. Motivation and training are perhaps more important than modern weapons in this sort of conflict.  Seems like the Taliban have exactly the same problem but are still able to get an aggressive and pro-active attack going. Have the departing Europeans left a culture of technology-dependency behind?

Damned if you do…

June 15, 2015

Summary: …damned if you don’t.  Ashraf Ghani’s efforts to engage with Pakistan over the Taliban are criticised from all sides.

You have to feel sorry for Ashraf Ghani. His genuine efforts to reach out to Pakistan, recognising the key role they can play in helping to resolve his own security issues with the Afghan Taliban, are proving difficult.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (R) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (L) speak as they watch a cricket match between teams from Pakistan and Afghanistan at the Prime Minister's house in Islamabad on November 15, 2014. Pakistan and Afghanistan pledged to begin a new era of economic cooperation, with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani saying three days of talks had ended 13 years of differences. AFP PHOTO/Farooq NAEEM

The Guardian, November 2014: The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, has arrived for his first visit to neighbouring Pakistan, seeking to improve ties crucial to his hopes of reviving Taliban peace talk as US and allied troops end their 13-year war.  Ghani will hold talks with the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and the pair are expected to watch a cricket match between the two countries on Saturday in a public demonstration of better relations despite fraught cross-border tensions. Both countries accuse each other of allowing militants to shelter in the border regions and launch bloody attacks that threaten regional stability. The former Afghan president Hamid Karzai routinely accused Pakistan of continuing to fuel the Taliban insurgency to destabilise his country as a hedge against Indian influence there.

A stable – and, even better, friendly – relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan will be of great social, economic, political and security benefit to the two countries and the region as a whole.  But neither side trusts the other.  Afghanistan refuses to recognises the current border between the two countries, it (the Durand Line) being a line on a map drawn by the British at the height of their imperial powers in the late 19th century.  It bisects Pushtun tribes than Afghanistan believes are rightfully Afghan.  Pakistan cannot get over its deep-seated fear of “encirclement” by India, requiring it to seek strong control over its western neighbour, lest India does so.  This led it to nurture and support the Afghan Taliban as a potential “client” regime during the 1990s and, more controversially, after the international military defeat of the Taliban in 2001.  Afghanistan cannot forgive or forget this.  Many Afghan political groups are convinced that Pakistani assurances they do not support the Afghan Taliban any longer are worthless.  Cross-border artillery exchanges are not uncommon. The Afghan Taliban use north-western Pakistan as a safe haven in which to rest, regroup and train.  A key dilemma revolves around Ghani’s need to seek Pakistan’s help to direct the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating.  Most of the Afghan Taliban leadership are based in Pakistan and the Pakistani regime certainly has the ability to contact them.  But the Afghan Taliban – to many analysts and Afghans – remain a useful tool of the Pakistan army and intelligence services and the Pakistani/Taliban relationship is highly suspect.

Ashraf Ghani will be required to reach out to Pakistan and simultaneously take a tough line on any suggestions that Pakistan is not genuine in their efforts to push the Taliban to the peace table.

BBC, January 2015: Now that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has unveiled a new cabinet he needs to urgently talk to the Taliban – and Pakistan’s generals, on whom he has staked his political future, must do more to help than they have publicly admitted to, writes guest columnist Ahmed Rashid.

Former Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, whose own relationship with Pakistan was something of a roller coaster ride, has criticised Ghani’s reach-out

Al Jazeera, May 2015: The inking of an intelligence cooperation accord between Afghanistan and Pakistan has raised growing voices of concern at all levels in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have signed a memorandum of understanding which – according to the Afghan Presidential Palace – is aimed “mostly [at] jointly fighting terrorism”.

Expressing his deep concerns about the signing of the agreement, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in a statement called on the government to “immediately cancel” the MoU. It is said that the current and former presidents had a “very tense” telephone conversation on this issue on Wednesday.

The inking of an intelligence cooperation accord between Afghanistan and Pakistan has raised growing voices of concern at all levels in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have signed a memorandum of understanding which – according to the Afghan Presidential Palace – is aimed “mostly [at] jointly fighting terrorism”.

Suggestions that the Afghan parliament feel similarly:

VOA, May 2015: Former president Karzai said he has serious concerns about last week’s agreement signed by the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Karzai is urging President Ghani to withdraw from the memorandum of understanding, on the grounds that it is against Afghanistan’s national interests.

A majority of lawmakers in the lower house of the parliament are taking a similar stand. During Wednesday’s session in Kabul they demanded that the intelligence agreement be scrapped immediately, and they summoned top officials of the NDS and Ghani’s national security adviser to appear before the House next week.

Media reports said that NDS chief Rahmatullah Nabil declined to sign the accord with Pakistan’s ISI, leaving it instead for his deputy to initial.

The Wall Street Times notes the fluidity of the issue:

Wall Street Journal, 1 June 2105: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani warned Pakistan he would reverse a diplomatic outreach unless Islamabad clamps down on Taliban activities and puts its leaders under house arrest, venting frustration as Kabul faces an onslaught of attacks by the insurgents.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said it was committed to peace and bettering relations with neighbor Afghanistan, adding that they share a common enemy.
Mr. Ghani’s office said in an official communication to Pakistani political and military leaders that if Islamabad is serious about helping bring peace to Afghanistan, it should quickly rein in the Taliban.
“Regardless of his firm commitment to peace, President Ghani has no choice but to become a war president to ensure the survival of his country and the safety of Afghan women and children,” the letter said.
The tone of the letter, sent in recent days and viewed by The Wall Street Journal, suggests Kabul’s patience is wearing thin with Pakistan’s military and foreign-policy establishment.
Mr. Ghani spent his first months in power courting Pakistan’s leadership to end years of mutual hostility, with the ultimate goal of getting Islamabad to facilitate a peaceful solution to the Afghan conflict by bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.

It will be a fraught and generally thankless juggling act for the president, with no guarantee of tangible success during his term.

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