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‘Our people’ in the Taliban

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Pakistan and Qatar are retreating

'Our people' in the Taliban


Written by Evgeniy Satanovskiy; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by Mona Lita exclusively for SouthFront

As usual the global media looks at Pakistan only as it relates to Afghanistan and India, and their interest in Iran comes the point of its opposition to Israel and Arab Gulf monarchies and not how it interacts with Moscow and Washington.

Their relationship determines the state of affairs in the Middle East on a number of fronts: from routes of competing cross-border gas pipelines to the effectiveness of the drug trafficking war. We will consider the relationship between these three countries and their perspectives, drawing on the work of experts N. Zamarayeva and D. Karpov from the Institute of the Middle East.

Friendship Pipelines

The official impression of Iran and Pakistan relations was reflected in a visit of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to Islamabad on March 25-26th. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who represents the receiving side, and president Rouhani both came to power at the same time in 2013. They were meeting for the third time. When Sharif became Prime Minister, he joined the regime of anti-Iranian sanctions, although his predecessor – President Asif Ali Zardari signed a contract with Tehran hydrocarbon in March 2013, at the height of Iran isolation. The Pakistani government lifted the sanctions against Iran in February of 2016, after the U.S. and the E.U.

To begin peace talks, the Taliban demands a complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, the release of its prisoners, the removal of the movement and its commanders from UN’s list of terror organizations.

Tehran is interested in the development of a two-sided trade with Pakistan (with an increase in its volume up to 5 billion dollars in five years), in strengthening regional cooperation on the Chinese New Silk Road, and also in the advancement of regional energy projects.

Islamabad is waiting for Tehran to eliminate non-tariff barriers to textiles, rice, fruit and other agricultural products and to enter into the free trade agreement. Iran is ready to provide Pakistan access to its resources: gas, oil and electricity. In particular, it proposes to increase the supply of the latter from 100 Megawatts in 2016 to 3000, especially to the bordering areas of Balochistan.

Iran expects Pakistan to implement its part of the hydrocarbon contract signed in March 2013 that is worth $ 7.5 billion, which means the completion of an 1800 km gas pipeline section on its territory. The plan is that the highway will connect the “South Pars” field with the Pakistani port of Karachi. Islamabad explains that the delay in construction is due to the lack of funding, but in fact, Sharif was taking into account the position of the United States and Saudi Arabia, who are TAPI – Turkmenistan – Afghanistan – Pakistan – India gas pipeline lobbyists.

At the same time, the Pakistani-Iranian pipeline will be built because Beijing is interested in it. The project of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor implemented in 2015 (KPEK, costing $46 billion) aims to pump Iranian gas into China among other things, assigning Pakistan both a role as buyer and transporter. In 2015, the main interested parties started construction work on the section between Karachi and port Gwadar, 70 kilometers from the Iranian border. When this section of the pipeline is put into operation, Pakistan will pave the remaining portion in the direction of Iran. Tehran is interested in construction of a highway that connects Gwadar with Iranian Chahbahar. What is most important for Tehran and Islamabad in the arena of security is a secure state border (900 kilometers).

Iran carries the main costs for its improvement. It repeatedly blames Pakistan for terrorist group activities in the Iranian provinces of Sistan and Belochestan. As it was in 2009-2013, the Afghan issue is on the agenda of the bilateral talks. Iran agreed with Pakistan’s offer on conducting a trilateral consultation with Afghanistan’s participation. With this, Islamabad designates Tehran the role of a diplomatic mediator, not responding to its offer to conduct a joint military campaign against militants.

Extremist Borders

An explosion in Lahore Park where Christians were celebrating Easter became evidence of a high level terrorist threat in Pakistan. “Jamaat al-Ahrar”, an offshoot of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility. A characteristic feature of the group is committing acts of terrorism against Christians. More than 70 people died in Lahore. Earlier objects of extremist attacks, as a rule, were Hindus or Shiites.

The attack in Lahore received a reaction from conservative religious circles in Pakistan, especially in Punjab, whose army plans to suppress the radicals. The Pakistani authorities supported the main cradle for religious fanaticism in Punjab and Kashmir, directing it against India, and before that the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. This political ideology was especially prevalent in the time of M. Zia (Pakistan’s president 1978-1988), whom the Saudis considered to be the only figure that can minimize the impact of the Soviet Union in the region, giving him 6 billion dollars a year for it. The money went toward cultivation of religious extremism and carrying out subversive activities.

As is always the case, the radicals got out of control and wanted to become their own power. The issue of regaining control of the country will only be achieved after a long struggle. In the mean time, the Pakistani authorities are conducting sporadic reforms in individual states in order to test the mood of the population in order to establish a religious tolerance regime. So, last February a bill was passed in Sindh that would allow Hindus to officially register their marriages. In March, Pakistan was allowed to legally celebrate Christian Easter and also Hindu holidays.

The situation in Punjab became a concern for the Pakistani authorities. On March 28th, Army Chief of Staff General R.Sharif received the Prime Minister’s permission to carry out a third phase of a special operation in that province with a significant increase in military presence and be to conduct extrajudicial detentions and interrogations in connection with the operation that began on February 15th to eliminate underground extremists under name of “Zarb al-Zab” in the eastern provinces of Pakistan. The attack in Lahore is a direct result of military activity. But to speak as if there is any real connection of “Jamaat al-Rahrar” militants with the Taliban would be premature. The latest seperatists are concerned for a struggle for power within their ranks and are interested in establishing their own control over Afghanistan.

It is necessary to distinguish between the Taliban and also extremist groups such as Lashkar e-Taiba in the Punjab and Kashmir. They were created for different purposes; the Taliban – for dissemination of Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, “Lashkar e-Taiba” – for subversive activities against India. There is no evidence that proves there has been interaction and coordination between them. And so the terrorist attack in Lahore is linked to Islamabad’s course in liberalization of inter-religious relations. The fact that there are nuclear weapons on the territory of the country is of particular concern. Pakistan is entering a period of political turbulence and the split of the elite, which is indicated by increased independence of military extremist groups that were previously under full control. This happens when the central control is weakened and a power struggle in the upper echelons of the establishment begins.

Who Rules the “Taliban”

The prospects for resolving the situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of American troops are absolutely unclear. The “Taliban” movement made it known that it is not ready for peace talks. This buried the hope that the international quartet (Afghanistan, China, USA, Pakistan) will have some breakthrough in this field. In February, the four members said that there were prerequisites to the official invitation of Taliban to the negotiating process, but the process does not exist and it is not to be expected. As a “consolation prize” the peacemakers received the warlord and head of party “Hizb al-Islami” G. Hekmatyar’s willingness to join the peace consultations. He himself is hiding in Pakistan, and his group only consists of several hundred fighters. He does not have a significant impact on the situation in Afghanistan.

On March 17th an audio of a nominal head of the “Taliban” Mullah Mansour suddenly appeared, who kept silent after his own fellow brethren attempted to assassinate him and who would not identify himself. There was a rumor that he was treated after being seriously injured or killed. Before the assassination attempt, he advocated direct talks and now he urges not to agree to peace and intensify the fighting until the “Taliban”s conditions are met. The “Taliban”s activity is high. Unlike all the past years, including the time of Soviet presence in Afghanistan, in 2015 they fought without a break through the winter months.

At this state, the Taliban is holding the strategic initiative. Not mentioning the success of the movement of their groups in the north of the country, where their massive presence was not noted before, they achieved military victories in the province of Helmand in February. After they captured five of the twelve districts of that province, they forced NATO to send additional body of counselors and several hundred military led by Gen. Andrew Rolling. To begin peace negotiations, the Taliban demands the fulfillment of certain conditions: a complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, the release of fighters who are in prison, the removal of the movement and his commanders from UN’s blacklist of terrorist organizations, plus conducting peaceful consultations exclusively through the Taliban office in Qatar.

Kabul is strongly against this because that means international legitimization of Taliban. But that is not it. After last year’s events related to the announcement of Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s death and his replacement by Mansour, a frond developed in the movement of the course. Among the main opponents within the movement were the leader of a military wing Mullah Kayyum and the head of the Qatari office M. Agha. Immediately after this, the Qatari office was officially closed. But in Afghanistan itself, supporters of the “Islamic State”, which was banned in Russia, appeared. The appearance of the Islamic State and the Qatari office closure are interrelated by a role of Doha in these events, which made it clear to Islamabad and to other members of the Quartet that it will not be possible to pacify Afghanistan without Qatar.

Mullah Mansour’s statement to continue the fight and the condition of Qatari Taliban office leading role shows that a tacit cooperation between Islamabad and Doha is taking place in order to overcome Taliban’s fragmentation. The words of the adviser to the Pakistani Prime Minister of Foreign Affairs S. Aziz are symbolic in this regard. He publicly acknowledged that the Taliban receives back door, medical and logistical support, but Islamabad does not have any influence on them. This corresponds with the truth. Unlike the old days when Mullah Omar was Taliban’s commander, the Pakistani security forces have lost control over a significant part of the Taliban. And that is exactly why for several years they hid the fact about Omar’s death. Mullah Mansour is an old creation of Pakistan’s intelligence establishment. All his statements are consistent with curators. And calls for further activation of the armed struggle is indicative of Islamabad deciding to return to an initial platform of a vision of peace in Afghanistan.

Recruits for Yemen

To put it simply, he recognized the cooperation with Kabul and Washington on this topic as fruitless. The withdrawal of US and NATO troops would mean taking Kabul in a short period of time. For the sake of solving this problem, the Taliban will fix the crack in its ranks. So the situation in Afghanistan is returning to civil war activation. Attempts to reach an agreement with Kabul are acknowledged as pointless by Islamabad. This is not only due to the gain of supporters’ positions, but a refusal to compromise with the Taliban. Most importantly, Islamabad does not fully control the “Taliban” movement. In this context, the idea of an armed struggle with an aim to re-secure the movement and put in under control remains a priority.

Naturally, there is no talk at all about the Taliban victory before foreign troops are withdrawn. It is necessary for Pakistan to take back control over the Taliban, without which it is pointless to go to peace talks. Although there are other regional players who are filling a vacuum that has been created. Here we return to Iran, although it wasn’t that long ago that a mere idea of establishing contacts between a Shiite Iran and Sunni Talibs seems like an enormous heresy.

Secret contacts between representatives of Iranian intelligence service and some field commanders of the “Taliban” movement have alarmed the Pakistani leadership and Arabian monarchies, especially the KSA and the UAE. According to Islamabad, representatives of both IRGC and the Iranian Ministry of Information (a special service) carry out such contacts. According to Pakistan’s Intelligence Services, consultations were initiated by Tehran. On September 2015, IRGC operatives met with Mullah Mansour. The talks ended unsuccessfully. Mansour preferred to collaborate with Pakistanis.

The IRGC messengers established contact with Mullah Mansour’s main rival, a former Taliban military wing commander Kayyum Abdul Zakir. The Pakistani Intelligence Service confirms that this field commander is receiving weapons and ammo assistance, which means that the talks were fruitful.

Kayyum’s militants carried out almost all of significant terrorist acts against foreign targets in Afghanistan. Rouhani’s visit to Islamabad did not dispel Pakistani and Arab monarchy representatives’ concerns. The head of the Afghan National Security Service and the country’s president Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai asked the head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Kabul D. Lindvall to either influence or respond to the growing Iranian expansion, but Washington remained silent.

According to Islamabad, the IRGC intelligence chief Hussein Tayeb oversees the span of strengthening Iran’s influence in Afghanistan, and where field residency guards comprising of 20-25 operatives were created on its territories. Tayeb initiated the Hazara Shia militia training in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are traditional Hazara residences. After preparations, they are being sent to join a fight in Syria, Iraq and Yemen (siding with Houthis). Recently, the flow of Hazaras in Yemen has significantly increased. And the head of IRGC intelligence is personally participating in recruiting new militants in Afghanistan. The process became active in the last two months. Additional camps are being formed for Hazaras in the provinces of Bamyan and Gerat.

The agreement that is reached with the Taliban is that they will not attack the Hazara positions. A coordination of efforts has been established against IS supporters and commanders who remained loyal to Mullah Mansour. Beside weapons and ammunition the soldiers of Kayyum brigade are receiving an allowance through an IRIS finance system provided by Iranians. Several hundred Afghanis from the ranks of the Taliban are undergoing a military training in Iran under the supervision of IRIS instructors. There are three camps that are set up for them near Tehran, Kerman and Zahedan.

The strengthening of Iran’s influence in Afghanistan was predictable. The spread of it to an unconventional area for Tehran is what was unexpected. The relationship between the Pashtuns and Hazaras has always been extremely tense. But this alliance and union of Taliban’s military wing with Iranians illustrates an obvious fact that the Pakistanis, whose brainchild was originally the “Taliban”, lost control over it, or at least over it’s most significant and efficient part.

Iran wanted to expand its presence in Afghanistan at least for safety reasons and a stretched out common border. But Tehran’s interests extend further. It seeks to create an area of influence in the compact residence areas of religious Hazaras, where a base military force will make war militia a thing of the past. An Afghani analog of the Lebanese “Hezbollah” is being formed. The IRGC is implementing this model in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, for the sake of which there is cooperation with the Taliban. The latter and Tehran’s common task is to limit, or better yet to destroy the spread of IS locally. Or rather that part of Taliban’s field commanders that remain under Qatar’s control and sphere of influence.

The Iranian secret services tried to establish contact with this part of the Pashtuns and even invited the head of Qatari office M. Agu to the consultations in the summer of 2015. The talks were successful. The failure of Doha’s attempt to play his card in Afghanistan is on a list of problems that Iranians are in the process of solving by initiating cooperation with a section of the Taliban. In his struggle for power in the Taliban and his desire to get out from under Pakistan’s intelligence services’ control, an issue to acquiesce influential foreign sponsors who would provide his troops with rare base and logistics supply would be vital for Kayyum. He is ready to turn a blind eye to the animosity as well as faith based prejudices between the Peshtuns and Hazaras. Meanwhile, Iran is gaining influence in Afghanistan at the cost of Pakistanis. This is yet another “terrarium of like-minded people”.

Evgeniy Satanovskiy,
President of the Middle East Institute

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A fascinating read for me. Definitely food for thought. I shall be watching.

Emanuela Antolini

a huge difference Afghanistan from India, indeed I would say that the Government and people of Afghanistan, joins against Pakistan, only to be against India. India invades Pakistan territory.

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