Can crisis-stricken Afghanistan be prevented from becoming an extremists’ sanctuary again?

Could a bankrupt, unstable and internationally isolated Afghanistan once again become a sanctuary for extremists? (AFP)
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Updated 25 June 2022
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Can crisis-stricken Afghanistan be prevented from becoming an extremists’ sanctuary again?

  • Concerns growing about the future of bankrupt, unstable and internationally isolated country
  • IS-K exploiting disunity among Taliban over whether to embrace pragmatism or ideological purity

LONDON: Nearly a year into the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan following the US military withdrawal, there is mounting concern that the bankrupt, unstable and internationally isolated country could once again become a sanctuary for extremist groups and even a launchpad for global terrorism.

The US beat a rushed retreat from Afghanistan in August 2021 after reaching a shaky peace deal with the Taliban, whose leaders pledged to never again offer sanctuary to extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda, which had plotted the 9/11 attacks from Afghan soil.

The hope was that Afghanistan would not become a hotbed of international terrorism as it had been in 2001, and that a plot for an attack of 9/11’s magnitude would never again emanate from the country.

But in common with millions of Afghans, not many South Asian observers were convinced of the Taliban’s sincerity, believing instead that the country was being hijacked yet again by a violent and insular fundamentalist group.

“I do think that Afghanistan has already become a hive of terrorism,” Ahmad Wali Massoud, a former ambassador of Afghanistan to the UK, told Arab News.

“Already we can see many strands of terrorism, from Al-Qaeda to Daesh. They are already staying inside Afghanistan, they are being protected by the Taliban, they are protected by the government of Taliban inside Afghanistan.”

Massoud is the younger brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Tajik guerrilla commander who until the Taliban’s return to power last year was feted as Afghanistan’s national hero.




Daesh’s Afghanistan franchise, IS-K, remains a threat to the Taliban’s grip on power. (AFP)

“The US departure from Afghanistan was very unrealistic, very irresponsible, it was not coordinated well, and ignored the people of Afghanistan,” Ahmad Wali Massoud told Arab News.

“The US left their allies, the people of Afghanistan, the security forces of Afghanistan, which they helped for almost 20 years. They completely ignored them. They left them alone to the mercy of terrorism, of the Taliban, of extremism.”

Today, Ahmad Wali Massoud’s nephew, Ahmad Massoud, heads the National Resistance Front against the Taliban in his native Panjshir, north of Kabul, where his father had famously resisted the Soviets and the Taliban decades earlier.

Recent fighting in Panjshir does not still represent a challenge to the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan, but it is the most significant and sustained armed opposition the group has faced since returning to power.

For Massoud and others, the idea that, once in power, the Taliban would act less like an insurgent movement and more like a government for all Afghans, was not quite grounded in reality.

With political violence now rife across the country, freedom of speech curtailed, and the rights of women and girls eroding steadily, war-weary Afghans’ mood is one of deepening pessimism.

Responding to the developments since last August, the US and global financial institutions have frozen Afghanistan’s assets, withheld aid and loans, and sought to isolate the Taliban regime.




A recently released UN report says IS-K has between 1,500 and 4,000 fighters, “concentrated in remote areas” of Kunar, Nangarhar and possibly Nuristan provinces. (AFP)

As a result, the Afghan government is perpetually on the brink of economic collapse and, in some parts of the country, the specter of famine looms. Almost half the population — 20 million people — is experiencing acute hunger, according to a UN-backed report issued in May.

On Wednesday, the country faced a new humanitarian crisis when a magnitude 5.9 earthquake struck the country’s east, killing more than 1,000 people and injuring another 1,500. Most of the deaths occurred in the provinces of Paktika, Khost and Nangarhar.

Additionally, the Taliban finds itself battling a violent insurgency led by Daesh’s local franchise, the Islamic State in Khorasan, or IS-K, which in recent months has repeatedly targeted members of minority communities including Shiites, Sikhs and Sufis.

A recently released UN report says IS-K has between 1,500 and 4,000 fighters, “concentrated in remote areas” of Kunar, Nangarhar and possibly Nuristan provinces. According to the study, smaller, covert cells are located in northern and northeastern provinces, including Badakhshan, Takhar, Jowzjan, Kunduz and Faryab.

While the Taliban is satisfied with setting up an Islamic polity within Afghanistan, the goal of IS-K is to create a single state for the entire Muslim world, according to scholars of political Islam.

IS-K is seeking to exploit dissension within the Taliban ranks over whether the group should embrace pragmatism or ideological purity. The tensions are intensified by the hodge-podge of entities in Afghanistan, including Daesh, the Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

INNUMBERS

* 20m Afghans experiencing acute hunger.

* 1,000+ Death toll of June 22 earthquake.

* 1,500+ UN estimate of IS-K fighters in Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s dilemma as it tries to govern a country that has experienced 20 years of Western-led modernization was predicted by Kamran Bokhari in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 27, 2021.

“The Afghan Taliban have to change but can’t — not without causing an internal rupture,” he wrote. “Such changes ... require a long and tortuous process, and even then, transformation remains elusive.

“The risk of fracture is especially acute when a movement has to change behavior abruptly for geopolitical reasons.”

On the one hand, the number of bombings across Afghanistan has dropped since last August and Taliban 2.0 cannot be accused of directly sponsoring terrorism. On the other hand, the ensuing collapse of state authority in some rural areas and the loss of Western air support for counterinsurgency operations have been a blessing to extremist groups.

“The Taliban takeover has benefited militant groups in multiple ways,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, told Arab News. 

“It has galvanized and energized an Islamist extremist network for which the expulsion of US troops from Muslim soil and the elimination of US-aligned governments are core goals. The takeover has also brought into power a group with close ideological and operational links to a wide range of militant groups.

“This means at the very least that the Taliban won’t try to expel these groups from Afghan territory, and in the case of the one group that it is targeting, IS-K, it lacks the discipline and capacity to undertake careful and effective counterterrorism tactics.

“On a related note, the Taliban lack the capacity to operate air power, which had been the main means used by NATO forces and the Afghan military to manage the IS-K threat. Furthermore, the Taliban has no ability to ease an acute economic crisis, and the widespread privation fosters an environment ripe for radicalization. This benefits the IS-K.”




One of the deadliest earthquakes in decades on June 22 has added to Afghanistan’s woes. (AFP)

Since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the international community’s patience has flagged and attention has shifted toward the war in Ukraine and the alarming prospect of a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO states.

Kugelman believes the terror threats emanating from Afghanistan fell off the radar long before Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

“I would argue that the world was letting the terrorism threat in Afghanistan fester well before the Ukraine war, mainly because the US had struggled to build out the capacity to monitor and target terrorist threats in Afghanistan from outside the country,” he told Arab News.

“This isn’t a big problem now, given that the threat is not what it used to be. But if this neglect allows the global terrorism threat in Afghanistan to gradually grow back and the US and its partners still don’t have a plan, then all bets are off and there could be big problems.”

To be sure, the situation in Afghanistan is still very different from that of pre-2001, when the entire Al-Qaeda leadership was based in the country as guests of Mullah Omar, the founder and then-leader of the Taliban.

Al-Qaeda and its then-leader Osama bin Laden had initially been welcomed to Afghanistan by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a Mujahideen leader, after bin Laden’s 1996 expulsion from Sudan.

In Afghanistan’s political and geographic isolation inherited by the Taliban, Al-Qaeda was able to freely plot its attacks against the US.

In April 2001, just a few months before 9/11 and his own assassination at the hands of Al-Qaeda operatives, Ahmad Shah Massoud had addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg, warning the West would pay a heavy price if it continued to allow extremism to fester in Afghanistan.

Does that fateful speech have any relevance to the current situation?




Afghan residents and family members of the victims gather next to a damaged vehicle inside a house, day after a US drone airstrike in Kabul on August 30, 2021. (AFP)

“While one should never be complacent, it’s safe to say the global terrorism threat emanating from Afghanistan isn’t as serious today as it was when Massoud issued his warning in 2001,” said Kugelman.

“Al-Qaeda has become much weaker and the only other group in Afghanistan with globally focused goals is a Daesh chapter that currently can’t project a threat beyond the immediate region.

“That said, let’s be clear: With NATO forces out of Afghanistan and an Al-Qaeda-allied regime now in power, the ground is fertile in the medium term for international terror groups to reconstitute themselves — and especially if we see new influxes of foreign fighters into Afghanistan that can bring shock troops, arms, money, and tactical expertise to these groups.”

In exile in Europe, Ahmad Wali Massoud is convinced that the Trump and Biden administrations made a grave error in deciding to negotiate with the Taliban and in withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Allowing the group to return to power, he believes, will inevitably transform Afghanistan into a terror heartland — a development he is convinced, just as his brother warned, will come back to haunt the West.

“I think, by now, they must have realized, after almost a year, that they have made a mistake, because they know now that the Taliban is out of control,” Massoud told Arab News.

“I do think that if the situation remains like this, they will pay a very high price. Of course, Afghanistan has already paid a very high price. But I’m pretty sure the US will also pay a very high price.”

 


American missing in Russian-controlled east Ukraine, say local police

Updated 58 min 4 sec ago
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American missing in Russian-controlled east Ukraine, say local police

  • Bentley went missing on April 8
  • Mash cited his wife as saying he had gone to see if anyone needed help but had not returned

MOSCOW: Russell Bentley, an American who fought against Ukrainian forces, is missing in the Russian-controlled Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, police there said on Friday, adding that a search was under way.
Bentley went missing on April 8, they said. The online news outlet Mash said he had disappeared after a district in the city of Donetsk was shelled by Ukrainian forces.
Mash cited his wife as saying he had gone to see if anyone needed help but had not returned. She was quoted as saying she had found his car with his baseball cap in it along with his smashed mobile phone and a pair of glasses.
Bentley, 64, is a self-declared supporter of Russian-backed forces in Ukraine.
He joined pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and used the military call-sign “Texas,” the Russian state news agency RIA reported.
It said Bentley had later swapped his gun for journalism and had worked with the Sputnik news agency, another state-owned entity, and obtained Russian citizenship.
In 2022, Rolling Stone magazine ran an interview with Bentley titled “The Bizarre Story of How a Hardcore Texas Leftist Became a Frontline Putin propagandist.”


Four teenagers detained in Germany over ‘Islamist attack’ plot

Updated 12 April 2024
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Four teenagers detained in Germany over ‘Islamist attack’ plot

  • The trio, aged 15 to 16, had also “committed to carrying out a crime — murder and manslaughter,” Duesseldorf prosecutors added
  • Investigators did not provide further details on the alleged plot, saying the inquiry was still under way

BERLIN: Police have detained two girls and two boys — all teenagers — in western Germany on suspicion that they were planning an Islamist attack, prosecutors said on Friday.
Three arrested in North Rhine-Westphalia state are “strongly suspected of planning an Islamist-motivated terror attack and of having committed to carrying it out,” Duesseldorf prosecutors said in a statement.
The trio, aged 15 to 16, had also “committed to carrying out a crime — murder and manslaughter,” Duesseldorf prosecutors added.
Separately, prosecutors in Stuttgart said a 16-year-old suspect is in custody on “suspicion that he was preparing a serious crime endangering the state.”
Investigators did not provide further details on the alleged plot, saying the inquiry was still under way.
But Germany’s biggest-selling daily Bild reported that the four youths were allegedly planning to carry out Molotov cocktail and knife attacks in the name of the Daesh group.
Their targets are believed to have been Christians and police officers, according to the report, which said the suspects were also weighing whether to obtain firearms.
Germany has been on high alert for Islamist attacks since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war in October, with the country’s domestic intelligence chief warning that the risk of such assaults is “real and higher than it has been for a long time.”
The country is also particularly nervous about security breaches as it prepares to host the European football championships from mid-June to mid-July.
Police had already foiled a suspected plot earlier this year.
Investigators in January arrested three people over an alleged plan targeting the cathedral in Cologne on New Year’s Eve.
Bild reported that the suspects were Tajiks acting for Daesh-Khorasan, the same group believed to have been behind March’s deadly massacre in a Moscow concert hall.
“The danger from Islamist terrorism remains acute,” Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said at the time, describing the Khorasan offshoot as “currently the biggest Islamist threat in Germany.”
Islamist extremists have carried out several attacks in Germany in recent years, the deadliest being a truck rampage at a Berlin Christmas market in December 2016 that killed 12 people.
More recently, two Afghans linked to Daesh were arrested in Germany in March on suspicion of planning an attack around Sweden’s parliament in retaliation for Qur'an burnings.
In October, German prosecutors also charged two Syrian brothers for planning an attack inspired by Daesh on a church in Sweden.
In December 2022, a Syrian-born Islamist was jailed for 14 years for a knife attack on a train in Bavaria in which four people were injured.
The number of people considered Islamist extremists in Germany fell from 28,290 in 2021 to 27,480 in 2022, according to a report from the BfV federal domestic intelligence agency.
However, in presenting the report, Faeser said Islamist extremism “remains dangerous.”
Germany became a target for militant groups during its involvement in the coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, and its deployment in Afghanistan.


German lawsuit calls for end to Israeli arms sales

Updated 12 April 2024
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German lawsuit calls for end to Israeli arms sales

  • Country is second-biggest weapons exporter to Tel Aviv after US
  • Rights groups representing Palestinian plaintiffs say Berlin violating humanitarian conventions

LONDON: A lawsuit filed in Germany is asking judges to demand an immediate end to arms sales to Israel by the national government, The Guardian reported on Friday.

The suit is a sign of growing pressure on Berlin’s ties with Israel amid rising discontent over Tel Aviv’s prosecution of its war in Gaza. Germany is the second-biggest arms exporter to Israel after the US.

The lawsuit is requesting judges to demand that the German government revoke all weapons licenses issued to Israel since Oct. 7 last year.

It was filed by four human rights groups, representing five Palestinian people in Gaza who say they are victims of collective punishment by Israel.

One of the lead litigants, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, said in a statement: “It is reasonable to believe that the German government is in violation of the arms trade treaty, the Geneva conventions and its obligations under the genocide convention — agreements that have been ratified by Germany.”

The center’s general secretary, Wolfgang Kaleck, said: “A basic prerequisite for a rules-based and human rights-oriented German foreign policy is respect for the law in its own decision making.

“Germany cannot remain true to its values if it exports weapons to a war where serious violations of international humanitarian law are apparent.”

One of the major transfers that could be impacted by the suit is the sale of 3,000 anti-tank weapons from Germany to Israel.

Some of the Palestinian plaintiffs have lost relatives in the war, as well as homes and jobs. “All five of my children were killed when Israel fired on the refugee camp where we were staying after fleeing from the north,” one said.

“Germany must stop sending weapons that fuel this war. No other mother should suffer such a terrible loss.”

The country, due to the Holocaust, has described “Israeli security” as “at the heart of its foreign policy.”

In response to the suit, the German government told the court it had received and approved of Israeli assurances that it had taken precautions in the use of German-sold weaponry.


Notre-Dame nears re-opening five years after fire

Updated 12 April 2024
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Notre-Dame nears re-opening five years after fire

  • On the evening of April 15, 2019, the cathedral’s roof burst into flames
  • Macron, whose second and final term ends in 2027, wants the cathedral’s restoration to lift the nation’s mood — and his government’s approval ratings

PARIS: Five years after a devastating fire, the restoration of Notre-Dame cathedral is nearing completion as the world’s eyes turn to Paris for the Olympic Games.
On the evening of April 15, 2019, the cathedral’s roof burst into flames. Soon, it had engulfed the spire and almost toppled the main bell towers. Around the world, TV viewers watched with horror as the medieval building burned.
Macron, whose second and final term ends in 2027, wants the cathedral’s restoration to lift the nation’s mood — and his government’s approval ratings. “Only once in a century does one host Olympic and Paralympic Games, only once in a millennium does one rebuild a cathedral,” Macron said in his 2024 New Year speech.
It remains unclear what exactly caused the fire. French authorities have said an electrical fault or a burning cigarette may have been responsible.
“A firefighter told me ‘Sir, take a close look at the facade because if we don’t manage to put out that fire, it will all go to ruin’,” remembered Laurence Alsina, who owns a bookselling stand close to the cathedral on the banks of the River Seine.
The facade held, but the damage has needed five years of intense stabilization and restoration works.
The pride of those working on the project shines through.
“This is the construction work of a lifetime, because restoring an entire monument in all its three-dimensionality, that’s quite exceptional.” Emma Roux, an artisan working on the iconic stained glass windows said.
The re-opening is scheduled for December, and is currently running on schedule, according to the official leading the project.
“We are on time and on budget,” Philippe Jost said last month at a Senate hearing. Jost told lawmakers that the project had so far cost 550 million euros ($587 million), funded in part by massive donations, including from luxury sector billionaires Francois Henri Pinault and the Arnault family. So much money has been donated that there will even be funds left over for further investment in the building, he said.
“An additional 150 million euros should be made available and — provided the approval of our sponsors — it will be used to restore the cathedral and tackle problems that predate the fire, which mainly concern the exterior stonework,” Jost added. Jost, 63, a trained engineer who spent much of his career in the defense ministry, took over the job after his predecessor, General Jean-Louis Georgelin, died in a hiking accident in August 2023.


Pope Francis will travel to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Singapore in longest trip of papacy

Updated 12 April 2024
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Pope Francis will travel to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Singapore in longest trip of papacy

  • Pope Francis’ health has become a source of increasing concern and speculation
  • Pontiff wants to return to his native Argentina, but no plans or dates have been announced

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis will visit Indonesia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and Singapore in September, the Vatican announced Friday, confirming the longest trip of Francis’ papacy that is sure to test his health, stamina and mobility.
The Vatican confirmed the Sept. 2-13 visit, saying the 87-year-old pope would visit Jakarta, Indonesia; Port Moresby and Vanimo, Papua New Guinea; Dili, East Timor; and Singapore. Further details will be announced later.
Francis’ health has become a source of increasing concern and speculation, even though the pontiff is able to carry on with a rigorous schedule of meetings at the Vatican and even excursions to local parishes.
Francis, who had part of one lung removed as a young man, had to cancel a planned visit to Dubai late last year after he came down with a bad case of bronchitis. He suffered from respiratory problems all winter and had to curtail his participation in Holy Week events to save his energy for Easter.
Francis has also been using a wheelchair for nearly two years because of bad knee ligaments, and has said that traveling has become increasingly more difficult.
And yet at 11 days, the trip would be the longest of Francis’ papacy, outpacing by a few days some of his long trips to the Americas early on in his 11-year papacy. It will bring the Argentine Jesuit to the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, as well as the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, where the Catholic Church wields enormous influence.
In a statement announcing the visit, the Indonesian foreign ministry welcomed the visit and recalled that it had originally been scheduled for 2020 but was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The visit of Pope Francis to Indonesia holds significant importance to the Indonesian people, not only for Catholics but also for all religious communities. The visit is also expected to strengthen the message of tolerance, unity and world peace,” the statement said.
Indonesia is home to roughly 242 million Muslims and 29 million Christians — 8.5 million of whom are Catholics — according to a 2022 report by the Religious Affairs Ministry.
East Timor, which today has a population of about 1.2 million people, is Southeast Asia’s only predominantly Christian nation with the exception of the Philippines. According to the 2015 census, 97.6 percent of East Timor’s population is Catholic.
The visit to East Timor will likely reignite attention over a clergy sex abuse scandal involving its revered independence hero and Nobel Peace Prize winner. The Vatican confirmed in 2022 that it had sanctioned Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo following allegations that he sexually abused boys there during the 1990s. Belo is believed to now be living in Portugal.
Francis will be the first pope to visit Papua New Guinea since St. John Paul II went there in 1984. The country, in a strategically important part of the South Pacific, has struggled with tribal violence and civil unrest.
John Paul also visited Singapore, in 1986. The country today is home to some 395,000 Catholics.
The Vatican has planned only one other papal trip this year — to Belgium to celebrate the anniversary of the country’s Catholic university. Francis has also said he wants to return to his native Argentina, but no plans or dates have been announced.