The ghastly bombings at Kabul airport Thursday resulting in the deaths of 12 U.S. Marines and as of this writing, 60 civilians, are the latest in a series of especially savage terrorist attacks reportedly by the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), the local affiliate of the Islamic State of the Middle East. The growth of ISKP faces the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan with both a threat and an opportunity.
The threat is that ISKP will attract enough Taliban defectors and foreign fighters to cause serious instability and ruin the hopes of pragmatic Taliban leaders for economic development. The opportunity lies in the fact that ISKP are feared by every government in Afghanistan’s region, as well as the United States and Europe. This gives the Afghan Taliban the chance to attract support from all of these states in their fight against ISKP.
ISKP appeared in Afghanistan and the border areas of Pakistan in 2014-15. It was founded not by Arabs sent from the Middle East (though some moved to Afghanistan later after the defeat of IS in Iraq and Syria) but by local figures and groups who adopted the name of the Islamic State to garner some of its prestige and to reflect their own international jihadi allegiance (just as previously, local groups in north Africa and elsewhere took the name of al- Qaida).
Since then, ISKP have emerged as a distinctly more ferocious and radical force than the mainstream Taliban, carrying out savage attacks on targets that in recent years the Taliban leadership have made a deliberate political decision to spare: especially schools, clinics and markets serving the Shia minority. The Taliban leadership have strongly condemned these attacks, although some analysts accuse the Taliban of benefiting from plausible deniability. In alliance with Pakistani terrorist groups, they have also conducted several major terrorist attacks within Pakistan.
In Afghanistan, ISKP have fought pitched battles against the Taliban for local power. When I visited Nangrahar province on the Pakistani border in 2017, I was told of an operation earlier that year in which the Taliban, the Afghan National Army, and the U.S. Air Force had engaged in de facto cooperation against them.
The key difference between the Afghan Taliban and ISKP lies in their substantially different national origins. The Taliban have links to international jihadi groups including al-Qaida; but the entire Taliban leadership, and the overwhelming majority of its troops, are Afghans (and chiefly Afghan Pashtuns). They embody a strong sense of Afghan nationalism, and the pragmatists among them see themselves as the heirs (in a specifically Shariah-based way) of the history of Pashtun state-building in Afghanistan.
ISKP by contrast largely took shape in 2014-15 among Pakistani Pashtun Islamist rebels against Pakistan who were driven to seek refuge among their fellow Pashtuns of eastern Afghanistan by the successful counter-insurgency campaigns of the Pakistan Army. The first Emir of ISKP, Hafiz Saeed Khan (Killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2016), was also a leader of the Pakistani Taliban. One source of deep ISKP bitterness against the Afghan Taliban has been that the Taliban refused to support their Pakistani brethren in their rebellion — for the very good reason that the Afghan Taliban depended heavily on the Pakistani state and army for shelter.
A second major element in ISKP membership is made up of Islamist fighters from a range of failed Islamist revolts in the former USSR who took refuge in Afghanistan over the past generation; notably Uzbeks linked to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Chechens, Daghestanis, and others from the North Caucasian rebellions against Russia. To these can be added a certain number of anti-Chinese Uighur militants from Sinkiang.
As in Iraq and Syria, Arab members of Al-Qaida in Afghanistan and the border areas of Pakistan have also joined ISKP. With the Taliban leadership over the past decade repeatedly declaring that it was not an international jihadi force and would not support international jihad, those international fighters who hoped one day to renew jihad in their homelands naturally gravitated to ISKP.
Coming from outside Afghanistan (though in the case of the Pakistanis, of the same Pashtun ethnicity as the Afghan Taliban), these elements of ISKP do not pose much of a threat to the stability of Afghan Taliban rule. The third element is much more dangerous. This is made up of Afghan defectors from the Taliban. Their motives for leaving the Taliban for ISKP are various, and it is very hard to say in individual cases which one predominated.
Some local commanders and fighters who joined ISKP have been ideological hardliners infuriated with the Taliban leadership’s negotiations with the Americans, Russians, and Iranians and renunciation of international jihad. Some became involved in local feuds with other Taliban commanders or were disappointed not to receive local positions of authority from the Taliban.
The danger for the Taliban lies in the fact that all these impulses to defect to ISKP may increase as a result of the Taliban’s conquest of government. Rigid ideologues will be outraged if the Taliban leadership keep any (let alone all) of their promises to include non-Taliban figures from the previous regime in government, to continue women’s education, and so on. Sunni sectarian extremists (possibly backed covertly by Saudi Arabia) will be outraged if the Taliban leadership keep their promises to Iran to respect Shia minority rights. Many local commanders will be disappointed not to receive the government positions they had expected. And if the Taliban keep their promise to suppress the heroin trade, then they can expect resistance from some of their own commanders and followers who have profited from that trade.
The Taliban will be using all of this in their appeals for international aid, especially from China, Russia, and the West, to strengthen their government against ISKP; while ISKP on the other hand will seek by further terrorist attacks to destabilize Afghanistan, prevent economic growth and eventually bring down Taliban rule and turn Afghanistan into a base for international jihad. They will doubtless focus their attacks above all on their traditional objects of hatred: Shia; Western, Russian, and Chinese offices, NGOs and individuals; westernized Afghans; and institutions of learning.
As they have demonstrated by their reported bombings at Kabul airport, ISKP can cause dreadful suffering. In terms of a struggle for power however the odds are heavily on the side of the Taliban. ISKP is a dangerous terrorist force whose attacks increased threefold from 2020-21, but a relatively small military force (estimates today are of around 2,000 ISKP fighters). The Taliban now control the central government (or whatever is left of it) and have captured enormous stocks of U.S.-supplied weapons, ammunition, and vehicles from the Afghan National Army. They have the prestige that comes from their long struggle and their stunning victory. And perhaps most important of all, in their fight with ISKP, the Taliban will have the support of every country in the region — though only as long as they keep to their own promises not to support international terrorism, to suppress heroin, and to respect Shia rights.
Or at least, so it seems at present; but it would be unwise to forget that every attempt to create an effective state in Afghanistan over the past 100 years has failed from a combination of social and religious conservatism, social fissures, kinship and ethnic loyalties, corruption, lack of education, limited state resources, and sheer poverty. The Taliban are now making yet another attempt. It is likely to be a long time before we will be able to judge how successful they have been.
Credit: Polish President Andrzej Duda (Shutterstock/BikerBarakuss) and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky (Shutterstock/Oleksandr Osipov)
September 26, 2023QiOSK
The vitriolic dispute between Poland and Ukraine brings out some aspects of the West’s approach to the war in Ukraine that the Ukrainian government would do well to study carefully.
The dispute originated in charges by Poland and other central European governments that Ukraine’s greatly increased grain exports to Europe — a consequence of the Russian closure of the Black Sea to Ukrainian maritime trade — were flooding European markets and depressing prices for Polish and other farmers.
The relaxation of EU limits on Ukrainian shipments was supposed to allow Ukraine to resume exports to Egypt and other countries where vulnerable populations are suffering from increased prices as a result of the war. A considerable proportion has in fact gone to the EU itself instead. The EU imposed a temporary ban, which, however, it refused to lift when it expired on September 15th. Poland, Hungary and Slovakia have however continued the ban, in defiance of EU rules.
The Ukrainian government has brought charges against Poland at the World Trade Organization, and alleged that the Polish move has been motivated chiefly by the government’s desire to hold onto farmers’ votes in next month’s Polish general elections. Speaking to the United Nations, President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Poland and other countries of engaging in theatrics and “making a thriller out of grain.” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki hit back ferociously:
“I want to tell President Zelensky never to insult Poles again, as he did recently during his speech at the U.N. The Polish people will never allow this to happen, and defending the good name of Poland is not only my duty and honor, but also the most important task of the Polish government.”
Polish President Andrzej Duda added:
“Ukraine is behaving like a drowning person clinging to anything available. A drowning person is extremely dangerous, capable of pulling you down to the depths…and drowning its rescuer.”
In a move widely interpreted as retaliation for Ukraine’s protests against the grain ban, moreover, Poland has halted arms shipments to Ukraine, insisting that it will now concentrate on equipping its own armed forces to defend Poland.
What makes this so extraordinary is that Poland has long portrayed itself as Ukraine’s greatest friend in the West, and has accused other Western governments of cowardice for not doing more to arm and support Ukraine.
The first lesson to be learned from all this is that even in countries whose populations are most supportive of Ukraine, that support will have limits when it imposes high and visible costs on themselves, and that politicians will inevitably exploit the resulting political backlash. This has implications in particular for Ukraine’s chances of joining the European Union.
In the case of Poland and other former Communist states of Central Europe, their path to EU membership was helped by copious amounts of EU financial assistance. The EU’s Regional Development Fund continues to support depressed areas of Poland and its neighbors. Supporting Ukraine to the point where it could enter the EU will, however, be a task of a different order of magnitude. Even before the Russian invasion, Ukraine was one of the poorest countries in Europe, with an average GDP per capita in 2021 of only $4,828 (compared to an EU average of $38,436) and its chances of joining the EU in the foreseeable future were considered vanishingly small.
Moreover, EU countries (in Western as well as Central Europe) were always fearful of cheap Ukrainian food imports. Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU explicitly barred most Ukrainian grain exports as part of the EU’s strategy of defending European farmers through its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This ban was removed by Brussels only in response to the Russian invasion and blockade. Poland has now restored it.
In March of this year, the World Bank estimated the cost of postwar reconstruction up until then at around $411 billion, and that cost will of course increase further the longer the war goes on. The whole of EU spending on depressed areas within the EU in the seven years from 2014 to 2021 was $200 billion. To judge by Poland’s latest moves, it seems improbable that a future Polish government would ask its voters to pay Poland’s share of such costs; and if Poland won’t, who will?
The other thing to which Ukrainians should pay attention is that, as dramatized by Poland’s latest actions, hatred for Russia and real sympathy for Ukraine are not at all the same thing and may even contradict each other. Concerning Polish hatred of Russia, there can be no doubt; but underlying the remarkably harsh rhetoric of recent days has been the fact that historically speaking, Poles and Ukrainians also used to be bitter enemies.
The Polish kingdom, and the Polish republic between 1919 and 1939, sought to Polonize their Ukrainian subjects just as the Russians tried to Russify theirs. Ukrainian revolts against Polish rule massacred Poles along with Jews. Political struggles between Poles and Ukrainians for control of Galicia helped undermine the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the years before 1914. After 1918, Poland annexed the Ukrainian areas of Galicia by force, and held them until they were transferred to Soviet Ukraine by Josef Stalin as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact - which is why they are in Ukraine today, and not in Poland.
During and immediately after the Second World War, Ukrainian nationalist partisans massacred tens of thousands of ethnic Poles, and Ukrainians serving in the 1st Galician Division of the Waffen SS participated in ruthless German operations against the Polish resistance. In recent years, both Kyiv and Warsaw have sought to play down this history, but memories of it continue to flow very close to the surface on both sides.
This history is peculiar to Poland and Ukraine; but with regard to the United States too, Ukrainians should ask themselves how much of U.S. support for Ukraine is motivated by real sympathy for them, and how much is devoted to killing as many Russians as possible and weakening Russia as much as possible, no matter how many Ukrainians die and how much Ukraine is weakened in the process — as some statements by U.S. politicians and officials have tended to suggest. Thus Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) recently boasted, “We are destroying the Russian army without losing a single American soldier.”
Other hawkish U.S. commentators have argued that it is necessary to defeat Russia in Ukraine in order to weaken China - which is not why Ukrainian soldiers think they are fighting and dying.
An indefinite war with no clear victor will indeed weaken Russia; but it will also ruin independent Ukraine — something that now appears to be a key Russian war aim; and a ruined Ukraine will never be able to join the EU. If this is the case, then Western promises and declarations about Ukraine’s Western path will ultimately count for nothing. Ukraine will remain — as it was for most of history — an impoverished borderland between Poland and Russia.
That is not an outcome that the West should be working towards, however much Russia may also be hurt in the process.
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September 25, 2023Middle East
During a recent House hearing on “Iran’s escalating threats,” a Democratic lawmaker completely dismantled all the myths opponents of diplomacy peddle about Iran and its nuclear program.
The hearing was dominated by hawkish voices on Iran, who urged for increasing pressure and spurned any diplomatic engagement. The only exception was Suzanne Maloney from the Brookings Institute, who took a more moderate stance.
The other witnesses, especially Behnham Ben Taleblu, from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a hardline “pro-Israel” think tank that often pushes militaristic approaches to U.S. foreign policy, called for a more confrontational U.S. stance by triggering the “snapback” of UN sanctions in October, a move that would likely drive Iran to the edge of a nuclear breakout and spark a major nuclear crisis.
Taleblu also lambasted what he said is the Biden administration’s “overall risk aversion” in response to Iranian regional intervention, which he said amounted to “signaling irresolution” to Iran. He cited several incidents where he claimed the U.S. failed to enforce what he called “deterrence by punishment.” He said they deserved a “kinetic response” (a euphemism used by the DC Blob to mean military strikes), arguing that these events eroded the perception of “American willingness to use force in general.”
Against this backdrop, one of the most striking moments of the hearing was when Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) exposed the flaws and fallacies of Taleblu’s arguments by eliciting the expert testimony of Maloney, a scholar on Iran and its politics. Connolly skillfully used a series of questions to highlight how the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), had successfully curbed Iran’s nuclear program and ensured its compliance, before it was recklessly abandoned by the Trump administration in 2018. He also challenged the notion that a military solution was viable or desirable for the U.S., especially when Israel, one of the most vocal opponents of the JCPOA, had refrained from using it when it had better options.
Connolly dismantles the hawkish myths about the JCPOA
Connolly started by asking Maloney if there was ever a peaceful solution that had rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and prevented it from reaching the threshold of a nuclear weapon. Maloney confirmed that this was achieved by the JCPOA, and added that Iran’s compliance was verified by the IAEA and by Trump’s own State Department. “Iran was complying with the JCPOA,” she said.
She also said that if the deal had been fully implemented, and if there had been an opportunity to negotiate a follow-on agreement, as “everyone who was involved in the deal had hoped,” then the U.S. would be “in a much stronger position with respect to Iran’s proximity to nuclear weapons capability.”
Maloney added: “We have far worse options today than we had in 2015 or we did in 2018 when President Trump exited from the deal.”
Connolly then turned his attention to one of the most vocal opponents of the JCPOA before it was implemented: Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu. He recalled how Netanyahu had bypassed President Obama and addressed a joint session of Congress in 2015, arguing that the JCPOA was so vital and so dangerous that it superseded politics.
He asked Maloney whether Netanyahu had been concerned about Iran’s nuclear threat when he first took office as prime minister, and whether he had the ability to launch a military strike against Iran then. Maloney admitted that Israel had better options then than it does now, but had refrained from attacking Iran.
Connolly wondered why some people were eager to advocate for a U.S.-led military option now, when Netanyahu himself had not used it when he had a better chance. He said that it would be much more complex, difficult, and costly for the U.S. to attack Iran now. Maloney agreed that this was “a fair statement.”
Connolly concluded by saying that the U.S. had to consider the consequences of its actions:
“It’s something we have to consider, and we have to take responsibility for the past. A lot of the people who opposed JCPOA were proved wrong, they didn’t cheat, they complied, it was verified by IAEA and by the Trump administration itself, and we walked away from it. We did that. Not Russia. Not Iran. And we need to take some responsibility for that and try to repair some of the damage we caused.”
The Iran Hawks’ Agenda: Sabotaging Diplomacy and Pushing for War
Connolly exposed the Iran hawks’ arguments for what they are: a collection of lies, distortions, and contradictions that aim to sabotage diplomacy and drag the U.S. into another unnecessary and costly war.
The fact that hawks like Taleblu and FDD continue to advocate for more pressure and military confrontation with Iran, despite the dismal failure of their approach, reveals their true agenda: they want to destroy any chance of peaceful resolution and force the U.S. into a confrontation that would serve only the interests of neoconservatives and the right-wing Israeli government. We need more courageous politicians like Connolly to stand up to their warmongering and defend diplomacy as the only sensible way forward.
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September 22, 2023QiOSK
The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that “Israeli officials are quietly working with the Biden administration on a polarizing proposal to set up a U.S.-run uranium-enrichment operation in Saudi Arabia as part of a complex three-way deal to establish official diplomatic relations between the two Middle Eastern countries,” according to U.S. and Israeli officials.
The article, authored by Dion Nissenbaum and Dov Lieber, largely showcases Israeli opposition to the deal. Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a group whose mission includes providing “education to enhance Israel’s image in North America…” was quoted opposing a uranium enrichment program on Saudi soil. He warned that “we’re one bullet away from a disaster in Saudi Arabia,” adding, “What happens if, God forbid, a radical Islamist leader takes control?”
Israeli sources speaking to the WSJ acknowledged concerns about nonproliferation safeguards and the potential for a regional nuclear-arms race. But the one expert who was reported as thinking “the idea is worth exploring,” is an executive at an organization that depends heavily on Saudi funding, a potential financial conflict of interest that wasn’t disclosed by the WSJ to its readers.
The WSJ quoted Brian Katulis, described as “vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington,” supporting the controversial idea.
Nissenbaum and Lieber reported:
“The concerns of a nuclear-arms race in the Middle East are very serious and real, indeed,” [Katulis] said. “The question is whether the U.S. sitting on the sidelines, crossing its arms and scolding countries in the region for pursuing civilian nuclear energy is a more effective strategy than starting a discussion that aims to build trust and confidence among key actors in the region like Israel and Saudi Arabia.”
Katulis said, “The risk of some hostile leader getting these capacities is one we’ve seen and managed in a number of places around the world, including Pakistan.”
“It’s not an ideal situation in those instances,” he said, “but the risks can be managed.”
The WSJ didn’t provide readers with the context about MEI that is provided on MEI’s very own website: the organization’s biggest funders are linked to the Saudi government, a government which, in this case, is pushing for the very nuclear deal that the WSJ was reporting on.
MEI’s website discloses that in the first seven months of 2023, its single largest contribution was $833,456 from Saudi Research and Media Group, a publishing group with close ties to the Saudi ministry of information. MEI also collected $200,000 from Aramco, the Saudi largely-state-owned oil company and $25,000 from the Saudi embassy in Washington.
To its credit, MEI has been transparent about its funding and makes the information readily available on its website.
The WSJ, on the other hand, did not inform readers that its only pro-Saudi-nuclear-deal source’s work is partially funded by Saudi sources, a potential conflict of interest that may be of interest to readers seeking to better understand the benefits and pitfalls of the Saudi-Israeli normalization framework.
The WSJ did not respond to a request for comment.
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