Mapping Terrorism in Afghanistan

Posted on: 13-03-2018

By Omar Sadr

Typology of the Terrorist Groups

An atmosphere of ambiguity surrounds the understanding of the nature of conflict and typology of organizations involved in terrorist activities in Afghanistan. With the absence of a vibrant and dynamic academia, the public sphere is covered by media, aid-driven civil society and parochial ethno-nationalist lobbies. The media has provided space for unverified predictions, assumptions, accusations and convictions. Much of the assumptions with regard to the peace process and conflict in Afghanistan is hijacked by the prejudgments coming from an ill-informed vantage point.

A key ambiguity in this regard concerns the nature and number of terrorist groups involved in the conflict in Afghanistan. The National Unity Government time and again flags the organizations involved in the conflict as 20 terrorists, international criminal networks and insurgents, however, it has declined to provide the names and details of these 20 groups. The US has also claimed the same number of organizations,[i] out of which seven are hosted, supported and sponsored in Pakistan.

Such ambiguity is not limited to this stage of the conflict, however, as it did exist since 2002. During early stage, a series of disparate events led to the insurgency that traced their roots to a variety of groups. Amin Tarzi argues that both ‘Taliban’ and ‘neo-Taliban’[ii] terms were used to characterize the insurgency on post-2001. He argues, ‘whereas use of the word Taliban may limit understanding of the motivations and makeup of the varied actors that have surfaced since 2002 to oppose the post-Taliban order, the category ‘neo-Taliban’ better characterizes an opposition that has evolved beyond the old regime to encompass new groups with new agendas.’ Subsequently, he stratifies the neo-Taliban into groups: the radical group who is aligned with Al Qaida and the traditionalists who want to go back to their tribal values or may be driven by ethno-nationalism.

In his newly published book, Taliban Narratives,[iii] Professor Thomas Johnson provides a typology of Taliban based on the local communities’ standpoint. He divides Taliban into eight categories namely, Disaffected Taliban (Naaraz), Sitting at Home Taliban (Taliban-e Khana-neshin), Forced Taliban (Najburi), Local Taliban (Taliban-e Mahali), Thief Taliban (Taliban-e Duzd), Fighting Taliban (Taliban-e Jangi), Ideological Taliban (Taliban-e Maktabi) and Real or clean Taliban (Taliban-e Pak ya Asli). This typology indicates how Taliban are mixed of terrorist groups, criminal networks, and disaffect or forced ones.

Negotiating with Terrorists

Peter Wallensteen and Eriksson at Uppsala University distinguish four types of terrorism based on their linkages with the types of armed conflict in Uppsala. This typology helps to make sense of the terrorist groups in Afghanistan. The first type of terrorism is the one which is unavoidable dimension of most armed conflicts. The second type is a supplementary measure in asymmetric conflict. In Afghanistan, much of the Taliban factions are the auxiliary groups affiliated with either West Asian or South Asian countries. Antonio Giustozzi in his article, the Arab Gulf Connections of the Taliban,[iv] analysed the linkages of different factions of Taliban with the Persian Gulf Countries. Third are those terrorist organizations that prefer using terror for self-serving economic purposes rather than for political ends. Like the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, a number of terrorist groups in Afghanistan are associated with drug smuggling and black economy. Fourth are dedicated terrorist groups operating internationally such as Al Qaida. Several groups in Afghanistan has been affiliated with international radical Islamists such as Al Qaida or Daesh. Oliver Ramsbotham[v] enlists Hizb Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) as Al Qaida associated group in Afghanistan and Giustozzi[vi] explore the network of Daesh in the country. While it easy to accommodate the two first types of terrorism in peace process and have negotiation with, on the contrary, the latter two are far less amenable to negotiations. In a context where the boundaries of different terrorist organizations are not rigid and the shift in the boundaries of the terrorist groups are so fluid, what do negotiations mean?

As Fredrik Barth argues with regard to ethnicity, the boundaries of ethnic group are not rigid but rather are highly subjective, and this applies equally to terrorist groups in Afghanistan. As one terrorist group lose its legitimacy or financial credentials, the members of the group shift loyalty to the other groups. In this context, negotiating with these groups is a vicious cycle, which leads to difficulty in reaching tangible positive results. For instance, Giustozzi shows how Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Shamshatoo Shura members[vii] were forced to shift their loyalty to the Taliban due to financial pressures from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. As a result, the peace accord with Hekmatyar, famous as butcher of Kabul, remained a symbolic act incapable of resulting in a positive change to the overall conflict scenario in the country.

However, peace with HIG provides us two lessons. First, negotiation with a terrorist organization is possible. HIG is considered to be one of the Al Qaida affiliated groups. While it has been argued by many scholars like Peter Neumann[viii] that negotiations with terrorists are not possible, the peace agreement forged between the government and HIG showed otherwise. Second, peace with terrorist does not enhance legitimacy of terrorist organization. While peace with HIG has provided Hekmatyar the political clout and space to justify himself instead of offering an apology and regret, it has not provided him popular support and legitimacy. The open contestation between him, and his teammates and the common people in the Farsi-Dari open TV shows and the rejection of split factions of Hizb Islami to join with Hekmatyar and accept his leadership in the post-peace accord showed HIG’s legitimacy deficit.

A Negotiation Model

Given the complex nature of terrorism in Afghanistan, drawing a peace model for the country is a critical and challenging task. Afghanistan High Peace Council’s Peace and Reconciliation Strategic Plan adopts peace with HIG as a negotiation model. It states, ‘in terms of models for peace-making, to date the most important success has been the framework brought to the negotiations with Hezb Islami…the relevant aspects of the negotiations included: discussions were carried out in Kabul, the constitution was the overarching framework for defining negotiations, no international intermediaries were involved, the High Peace Council played a key facilitating role and the final agreement was signed with the government.’ While lessons learned from peace with HIG is important, closing eyes on the international experiences of successful peace would be faux pas. On the one hand, peace with HIG did not include a process of restorative justice, and on the other hand, it provided Hekmatyar unlimited financial and moral gains. HIG has got a public platform to propagate hated speech which itself fuels the vicious cycle of violence. To prevent the failed processes of negotiation with these terrorists – carried out in different forms since 2003 – Afghanistan must make a strategic assessment of the character of the terrorist group in the country.

Audrey Kurth Cronin’s study[ix] shows that negotiation with terrorists has not given a positive outcome for the states. In her study, out of 457 terrorist group since 1968, only 18% of them entered into negotiations with the states. Hence, Afghanistan should consider negotiation and peace talks within a broader counterterrorism strategy. In the present scenario, the best recent model negotiation could be Colombia’s peace.[x] The lessons from this peace process are the following: First, the rebels should acknowledge the civilians are victim of their violence. The Taliban so far denies this. Second, victims of both side must have a seat in the negotiations process. In the Colombia peace process, a group of twelve people representing victims of both side attended the peace talks. By contrast, in the peace with HIG, the victims had not been part of the process. Third, a restorative justice should not be ignored. The process of community service is decided for the purpose of restorative justice in Colombia, on the contrary, the process of reintegration of HIG with society has been accompanied with financial, political and administrative concessions to it. Hence, the real question with regard to terrorists in Afghanistan should not be whether to negotiate or not, but rather how to go about doing so.

Omar Sadr is a Researcher at AISS. He has submitted his PhD thesis at South Asian University. His primary research interests lie at the intersection of culture and politics.

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The article does not reflect the official opinion of the AISS.