Afghanistan: dealing with the Taliban, ISIS, and the, ah, other Taliban

The fall of Kunduz was a big moment for the Afghan Taliban, coming as it did after the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death and his replacement by Mullah Akhtar Mansour, a guy who was believed to have something less than total support among the whole Taliban organization. Even though the Taliban abandoned Kunduz not long after they took it, their success reestablished the notion that the Taliban haven’t gone anywhere, and probably helped to solidify Mansour’s hold on the organization.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute is arguing that Kunduz, and any future Taliban successes under Mansour’s leadership, may eventually boost the possibility of real peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, because they’ll bolster Mansour’s position and give him enough leeway within the organization to reach out to Kabul — part of Mansour’s problems within the Taliban rank and file is that he’s seen as kind of a squish on the issue of negotiations with Kabul, but further military victories will alleviate that perception. Weinbaum also thinks additional Taliban victories will increase the chances of a negotiated settlement because they’ll put the Taliban in a position to dictate (some) peace terms rather than passively accepting them. Weinbaum, it should be noted, isn’t arguing that this would be a good thing.

Of course, the negotiations scenario depends on Mansour’s ability to keep the Taliban together, and despite the success of Kunduz, that’s looking increasingly impossible. Over the weekend, about 50 people were reportedly killed in Afghanistan’s southern Zabul province in fighting between Mansour’s Taliban Classic and New Taliban, a splinter group called the “High Council of the Afghanistan Islamic Emirate,” which declared its existence last week by proclaiming Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund as its leader. They accuse Mansour of “hijacking” the Taliban due to “personal greed,” and claim that his promotion was never approved by the Taliban’s Shura Council. So there’s that.

Last week the High Council said that they “urge all our mujahideens to not focus on fighting with each other,” but I guess that’s out now (to be fair, they’re accusing Mansour’s Taliban of initiating the fighting). While a war between these two groups might be good from the standpoint of distracting and degrading Mansour’s Taliban force, it would be pretty ungood from the standpoint of the Afghan people, and if both groups decide to target the woeful Afghan army in an attempt to one-up each other, that could be really catastrophic.

This is Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund. Maybe. I think. Anyway, it’s definitely a guy who may or may not be in some Taliban group or another. You’re welcome. (via AFP and DAWN.COM)

The idea of two different Taliban factions duking it out with each other is deleterious enough to the possibility of peace in Afghanistan at some point, ever, the real concern is the possibility that Akhund’s High Council group might throw in with ISIS, which is apparently operating in Zabul province. Akhund’s spokesman insists that will never happen (“we will never join them” were his specific words to Al Jazeera, and I think you can probably believe it — ISIS really isn’t very popular among other established Islamist/jihadist groups). But regardless, ISIS is a growing problem in Afghanistan. The decapitated bodies of seven Hazara Afghans were found in Zabul recently, almost certainly courtesy of whatever ISIS operatives are working there, and their deaths seem to have spurred some public outrage:

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Afghanistan’s capital on Wednesday with coffins carrying the bodies of seven ethnic Hazara demanding justice after their beheadings.

The protests included women and men from Afghanistan’s different ethnic groups – Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara – as they marched on the Presidential Palace to urge the government to take action against rising violence against Afghan civilians.

According to Afghan officials, the Hazara hostages were captured by ISIL fighters more than a month ago and held in Arghandab district of Zabul province.

The Hazara are either the third or fourth biggest ethnic group in the very multi-ethnic Afghanistan, but their 8-9% of the population (it must be said that these figures are estimates) is well below the top two: Pashtun (over 40%) and Tajik (around 25%). They’re located primarily in central Afghanistan, in a region unofficially known as “Hazarajat”:

An old, but still reasonably helpful, ethno-linguistic map of Afghanistan (US Army, via Wikimedia)

Most of the Hazara are Shiʿa, which also makes them a minority (Shiʿa number about 10-20% of the Afghan population), and they speak Hazaragi, which is closely related to Dari, which itself is a branch of Persian. What makes the Hazara so interesting is that nobody really knows for sure where they came from, but the heavy occurrence of Mongolian words in Hazaragi and their “Central Asian” appearance, whatever that means, suggests that they’re the descendants of the Turko-Mongolian warriors who traipsed through the neighborhood over and over again in the 13th-16th centuries and beyond. The Hazara suffered terribly under the Taliban, but have actually seen a bit of a resurgence since the Taliban were ousted, though Hazarajat lags behind the rest of the country in infrastructure and economic development.

As Shiʿa, the Hazara are obviously a target for ISIS, and they’re also among the groups who are least likely to accept any kind of peace deal on Taliban terms, given the history there. Afghanistan faces many serious challenges, but none more important than the struggle to knit a nation together out of all of its disparate ethnic groups.

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