It is six weeks since US President Joe Biden announced that all international troops would be withdrawn by September and the reverberations of that announcement are still being felt in Afghan political and security circles. The government has been bullish in public, claiming the country is ready for the departure of the foreign forces. Yet, at the same time, some former factional commanders and leaders are speaking of mobilising a ‘second resistance’ to any push by the Taleban to take power by force. There is also, as yet, no sign of an emerging consensus within the Islamic Republic on how to move forward in the face of the US decision to withdraw unconditionally and in the absence of any sign by the Taleban that they want to negotiate an end to the conflict. As AAN’s Ali Yawar Adili (with contributions by Rohullah Sorush and Asadullah Sadat) explains, all of this has created a feeling of great uncertainty prompting some Afghans to contemplate leaving their country.Demonstrators affiliated with Jombesh-e Melli carry weapons, including RPGs, and raise the Southern Turkistan flag in Maimana city as they protest against Ghani’s appointment of a new governor for Faryab on 18 May 2021. Journalist Qutbuddin Kohi told AAN the Jombesh party had provided the photo.
This report first considers the Afghan government’s upbeat public response to the announcement of international troop withdrawal and its claims that it wanted the foreign troops to leave anyway and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are fully ready to take on the Taleban. This is followed by the responses of others within the republic, some warning of challenges and the risk of an intensifying war, and others, primarily former mujahedin commanders and leaders, especially from the Jamiat-e Islami faction, vowing to form a ‘second resistance’ against the Taleban if they seek a military takeover.
The report then looks at some attempts – and failures – at consensus and institution-building within the republic, including the creation of the Supreme State Council, the body which, according to the May 2020 political agreement which ended the months-long political impasse over the 2019 presidential election results, was to be established with a membership of “political leaders and national figures” in order to “build political consensus” and advise the president on “crucial national issues.” The report looks at how the council’s authority and membership was immediately disputed and at its controversial make-up; the members do comprise those most powerful in the country, but quite a few have been accused of war crimes.
Another impact of Biden’s decision to withdraw foreign troops considered in this report is the possible shrinkage of the diplomatic corps in Kabul. Although international humanitarian actors have asserted that they will remain, the report considers how uneasy the ‘race to the door’ by many international actors has made many Afghans, leading President Ghani to warn against a ‘brain drain’.
Finally, the report provides an update on the talks between the government and Taleban, explaining how the Biden announcement of troop withdrawal has changed the Taleban’s behaviour towards the intra-Afghan talks and weakened further the prospect of a negotiated end to the conflict.
Afghan government reactions to the announcement of troop withdrawal
On 14 April, United States President Joe Biden announced that “U.S. troops, as well as forces deployed by our NATO Allies and operational partners, will be out of Afghanistan before we mark the 20th anniversary of that heinous attack on September 11th.” The announcement was not totally unexpected given that the US-Taleban deal signed in Doha, Qatar on 29 February 2020 required the withdrawal of all foreign forces by 1 May 2021. However, the announcement was a significant departure from what many had expected given that, up to then, the US had claimed the withdrawal would be a condition-based. It was commonly construed, based on the US-Taleban Doha deal, that the conditions allowing a full withdrawal of foreign forces would be a significant reduction in violence and at least the framework for a political settlement between the government and the Taleban. Biden, however, made it clear that this was not the case, saying, “American troops shouldn’t be used as a bargaining chip between warring parties in other countries. You know, that’s nothing more than a recipe for keeping American troops in Afghanistan indefinitely.”
Afghan government leaders attempted to put a brave face on the announcement, claiming the country was prepared and ready, that this made the situation simpler and even implying that they themselves had sought the withdrawal of international troops. President Ashraf Ghani’s office’s same-day response to the announcement said the Islamic Republic respected “President Biden’s recent decision to draw down their troops by September of this year; the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan will ensure a smooth transition.” The press statement added that Afghanistan’s National Security Forces (ANSF) had been “carrying out most of the operations independently since the US-Taliban agreement of February 2020 to defend our people and country” and that they were now “capable of defending Afghanistan against current threats.”
On 18 April, four days after the Biden statement, in an exclusive interview with CNN, Ghani said the announcement had not been unexpected for him, because “we have been deliberating about [it] for two years,” but that it was an unexpected “game changer” for the region and the Taleban. The same day, while participating in the daily Kabul security meeting chaired by Vice President Amrullah Saleh (the so-called 6:30 morning meeting), Ghani made detailed remarks about the withdrawal (full transcript in Dari here), which again sought to gloss over the situation. Describing the withdrawal of foreign forces as the “greatest opportunity,” Ghani argued, “First, the national sovereignty of Afghanistan will be fully restored. Second, the role of our international partners in security decisions will be eliminated.” He even claimed that they had “told the international forces to leave.” Ghani repeated this claim in a lecture to a group of Kabul University lecturers where he said (see the full video here and transcript in Dari here), “Did I not tell you seven years ago that they would leave? Did I not send a letter to President Trump two years ago to [tell them to] leave?” Ghani’s first Vice-President Saleh also claimed, during a trip with Ghani to Kandahar on 22 April, that the fact that foreign forces were leaving was not because the Taleban had made them leave, but because Ghani had written to former US President Trump a couple of years earlier that he would welcome a decision to pull out US forces.
It appeared that both Ghani and Saleh were referring to a letter Ghani sent to Trump in January 2019 in which he actually offered a ‘cost reduction’ so that US troops could stay in Afghanistan. The letter came following reports that the American military had received orders to begin preparations to pull out half of the troops (see media reports here and here).
Several other major themes ran through Ghani’s 18 April speech, some of which continue to feature in his engagements with the media:
- To establish the Afghan government’s legitimacy and de-legitimise the Taleban’s continued role in the conflict, Ghani pointed out that “22 Islamic organisations have issued serious fatwas with full consensus [saying] that the Taleban’s war [against the government] does not have any legitimacy, not at all.” He said that no Islamic organisation had so far been willing to issue a fatwa in the Taleban’s favour and “therefore, we have clear Islamic legitimacy in our hands.”
- Secondly, he called on the countries of the region to fundamentally reconsider the future of Afghanistan and their relations with Afghanistan. While he did not elaborate, he did single out Pakistan, saying they faced a day of decision: “If they want to head towards destruction, if God forbid, our country becomes insecure, they will also become insecure.”
- About international cooperation he said, “Our mutual security agreements with the US and NATO are [still] in place. Funding, equipment and, God willing, training of our security and defence forces in foreign countries will continue. The honourable US president and NATO secretary general, the US secretary of state, all assured me that, at this time ‘You should not worry about funding’.”
- Ghani also addressed his political opponents saying: “Those who seek privileges should stay at home. Those who are afraid should leave. It will not have any effect on our nation. If a few people want to leave here to have fun, [let them] go.”
Some not only did not find this comment as reassuring but also hurtful. One notable response was from Lima Halima Ahmad whose sister Natasha Khalil, a staff member with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission was killed in a targeted attack in late June last year tweeted that people were “leaving because your government cannot provide security to them. I wish you knew how many Afghans who have lost their loved ones are leaving Afghanistan for having fun.” Her father, she said, was “ready to leave Afghanistan after giving 74 years of his life to this country” and having lost “two brothers and a daughter to the Afghan war” and now wished he had not asked his children to stay in Afghanistan, so that he could have saved his daughter.
- Ghani also tried to showcase the strength of the Afghan special forces, the commando forces and the air force. He said that, 20 years ago (sic), 99 per cent of military operations were carried out by the international forces. When he became president six years ago and faced the first Taleban attack of his presidency, in Dangam district of Kunar, he said it took “the chief of staff, national security advisor, and everyone, one week to develop a plan for Dangam. Now, every day, 100 to 500 operations are carried out by your special units and air [force] heroes.”
The president’s National Security Advisor, Hamdullah Mohib, said that the new environment had led to Taleban miscalculation. In a panel discussion (with the foreign ministers of Iran and India) of the Raisina Dialogue 2021, a geopolitical and economic conference organised by the Observer Research Foundation in partnership with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, two days after Biden’s announcement of troop withdrawal, on 16 April, Mohib claimed there was “a lot of infighting and factions appearing among the Taleban, because they have this wrong calculation that they are going to be in power and [the question among them is] who should then lead.”
Mohib thus made the point that there are several groups among the Taleban who are vying for power among themselves and that if there was going to be a peace deal with the Taleban, it needed to include all these groups. “It can’t be just Mullah Baradar, leading the Doha negotiation team,” he said.
The rosy picture painted by Ghani and his team is contradicted by the annual threat assessment by the US intelligence community, which was released by the office of the US Director of National Intelligence on 9 April 2021, five days before the announcement of withdrawal. “Afghan forces continue to secure major cities and other government strongholds, but they remain tied down in defensive missions and have struggled to hold recaptured territory or re-establish a presence in areas abandoned in 2020,” it said. It went on to say that “Kabul continues to face setbacks on the battlefield, and the Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory.” The assessment also provided a prediction for the next 12 months, saying that the Taleban were “likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”
The only dangers President Ghani has highlighted have centred on the replacement of his current government by a transitional government as a result of a possible political settlement with the Taleban. In an article in Foreign Affairs published on 4 May, Ghani highlighted what he considered were the major risks surrounding the proposal, writing that “a disrupted or disorderly transition [through a power-sharing arrangement with the Taleban that replaces the current government] could threaten command and control within the country’s security sector. There must be an orderly political process to transfer authority so that the security forces are not left without leadership and direction.” Ghani also underscored the critical importance of the United States and NATO fulfilling “their existing commitments to fund the ANDSF [Afghan National and Defence Security Forces].” He called this “the single most important contribution that the international community can make to a successful transition to peace in Afghanistan.”
In an interview with PBS on 17 May, Ghani said:
As far as the state of war is concerned, we’re ready. We have been ready for months. The US withdrawal is a strategic decision that clarifies a lot of things. The war will become simpler, because their — all their [Taleban] allegations of international conspiracy or international desire to stay permanently, et cetera, has now come to an end. We need to work together. And the other factor is the region. The region now is glad the US has no intentions of a long-term stay. Consequently, we need to get together to arrive at [a] collective security strategy.
Other leaders have been less optimistic. Dr Abdullah Abdullah, chair of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), the body tasked with leading efforts to reach a political settlement with the Taleban, on the other hand, told the Associated Press on 1 May, “I wouldn’t call [the withdrawal] the end of the world for our people, I would say that it will be very challenging…” Already on 14 April, just before President Biden had officially announced the troop withdrawal, Abdullah had referred to media reports about the imminent announcement and said that his “gravest concern” was that the Taleban would make a “miscalculation”, thinking that, after the withdrawal of foreign forces, they could “establish peace the way they wish.”
On the same day that Biden announced his decision to pull out forces, Wolesi Jirga speaker Mir Rahman Rahmani told MPs that, with the withdrawal of foreign forces, there was a “likelihood of return to the era of dangerous civil wars and Afghanistan will once again become a geography for international terrorism.” He also said that foreign forces were withdrawing at a time when a full-scale war was ongoing and “cultivation and trafficking of narcotics is funding the terrorists’ war.”
In the weeks since the withdrawal announcement, different groups and power brokers have engaged in armed manoeuvres to position themselves as part of the war and peace efforts and to jockey for political and military power. While these moves are mainly intended to rally and reassure specific constituencies in the face of intensifying threats, they have contributed to a general feeling of uncertainty and have fed into public fears that the conflict could escalate into a multi-level war.
On 18 April, Muhammad Ismail Khan, former Minister of Water and Energy and a senior member of Jamiat-e Islami, once known as the ‘Emir of Herat’ and still the most influential politician in the west of Afghanistan, organised a ceremony in his residence to celebrate the anniversary of the liberation of Herat by mujahedin (background on the fall of Herat, here). The ceremony was attended by dozens of armed men who stood and waved their Kalashnikovs as Ismail Khan ascended to the podium. The gathering, that was broadcast live on his Facebook page (see the video here), was one of the first public and brazen appearances of armed men in the post-announcement dynamic. Ismail Khan told the audience, “I announce to the beloved Heratis that your mujahedin, your jihad families, who are far more [now] than the past – more than 500,000 people, will defend you and keep your city safe and secure.” He warned the security forces in Herat that they “should never enter the homes of mujahedin, the saviours, supporters and defenders of this city, for the purpose of disarming [them]. Otherwise, you will face reactions.”
He also suggested, not for the first time, that the government should use mujahedin in the fight against the Taleban in districts, instead of deploying security forces from the provincial centre:
Last night, serious fighting took place in Adraskan district. Security forces from inside the city went to help. [But] If they were in touch with mujahedin, [they would know that] there are hundreds of armed mujahedin in each district and the government [should] trust them. It isn’t necessary to send forces from the city of Herat to the districts who then suffer casualties. We have enough forces from the sons of this land in each district and they can defend their areas.
Ahmad Massud, son of the most senior Jamiat commander, the late Ahmad Shah Massud, who is now in his early thirties, stepped into the political arena in December 2019 during the US-Taleban talks. Ahmad Massud has also been speaking about mobilisation. In a mid-April interview with Tolonews, he said he and his followers were prepared for peace, as well as for “failure of peace.” Then, on 5 May, he organised a gathering in Kabul for a belated celebration of 8 Saur, mujahedin victory day (which fell on 28 April this year).
Participants waved the Islamic State of Afghanistan flag – which is widely associated with Jamiat – and played the national anthem from that era at the beginning of the ceremony. Ahmad Massud vowed that he and his followers would be ready to fight if, as he put it, the parties to the conflict pushed for a military solution. He said (see the full video of his speech here ):
If our nation is forced and the parties see that the solution in Afghanistan is a military solution, we will also get ready militarily among the mujahedin, with the advice of the mujahedin, with the support of the Muslim people of Afghanistan and under the umbrella of the Ulema to implement Sharia. And we will bring [into existence] the real Islamic system that was the will of our martyrs and mujahedin.
Massud also referred to Piram Qol, an influential commander in Takhar who was killed on 2 May, and said he had spoken to him the night before he was killed. He said he had received from Piram Qol “reports of programmes as well as [military] front requirements, about which we had been cooperating for one year.” Piram Qol was one of a number of controversial commanders in Takhar who maintained militias post-2001; their abuses were both critical for paving the way for the Taleban resurgence in the province and used with Afghan state forces to fight the Taleban (for more detail, see this AAN report, “A Maelstrom of Militias: Takhar, a case study of strongmen co-opting the ALP”; for specific accusations against Piram Qul, see, for example, reports from the US government (2016) and UK government (2005)).
Over the last 18 months, Ahmad Massud, along with various senior members of Jamiat have been speaking of a “moqawamat-e do” – resistance two or the second resistance (their pre-2001 fight against the Taleban in the 1990s had been known as ‘the resistance’). For instance, former first Vice-President Yunus Qanuni told Tolonews in late November 2020 that if the Taleban pushed for a ‘military solution’, they – the “constituency of resistance,” referring to those who fought against the Taleban in the 1990s – would have two options. They could stand by (ie support) the country’s armed forces against the Taleban. But if the government could not “utilise this opportunity or, to the contrary, individuals within the system preferred the Taleban over us,” then they would go with their second option and muster a second resistance. A similar warning was made on 26 January 2021 by Abdul Basir Salangi, senior advisor to the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR) and another former Jamiat commander, who is probably most famous for, as Kabul chief of police in 2003, bulldozing poor people’s houses in the Shirpur neighbourhood of Kabul so that plots of land could be re-distributed to ministers and commanders (see reporting here). Salangi told an event commemorating the 32th anniversary of the Soviets’ massacre of people in Salang that efforts were underway to form a second resistance which would fight if talks failed (media report here).
Such talk has become more blatant since the US troop withdrawal announcement. Media reported on 27 April that a number of residents of Farkhar district of Takhar had taken up arms as part of the “moqawamat-e do” against the Taleban. According to the report, the armed men were led by Dr Gulestani, a former head of NDS in Takhar. Massud’s political office told the media that not only in Takhar, but also in Badakhshan, Baghlan, Kunduz and Samangan, people were preparing for a second resistance under Massud’s leadership against the armed opposition. These armed men in Takhar in a video (here) say that they support Massud’s programmes and cooperate with security forces.
Another former Jamiat commander (now leader of a recently broken-away faction), the ex-governor of Balkh, Atta Muhammad Nur, told people during the congregational Eid prayer on 13 May that there was no “pretext” for the Taleban to continue to “kill people in the name of jihad” now that the foreigners were pulling out. He warned the Taleban that if they said no to peace, the same “combination (group) that stood against you previously when the US or NATO were not there and knocked you down a peg and defeated you and took thousands of your personnel captives with rusted bullets and worn-out weapons, will once again stand by our system and government…if you seek to behave unruly, we will be forced to take up arms… and make you understand that we are still alive and that this nation defends itself.” (This is a major re-writing of history; by 11 September 2001 after which the US entered the war, the ‘Northern Alliance’ was in control only of some of the north-west and north-central Afghanistan and the Taleban had been gaining ground.)
Apart from Jamiat and Tajik leaders, one of the key Hazara leaders, Muhammad Mohaqeq, has also vowed to fight against any Taleban attempt at a military takeover. Mohaqeq, now leader of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Mardom and Ghani’s security advisor, was one of the three key factional leaders in the north, along with Jamiat’s Atta Muhammad Nur and Jombesh-e Milli’s Abdul Rashid Dostum – was speaking at an event on 28 May marking the 10th anniversary of the killing of two influential senior ANP commanders, who had both previously been mujahedin commanders with Jamiat, Daud Daud and Shah Jahan Nuri. Muhaqeq said that in the last 20 years, Afghans had embraced democracy and education and laid down everything [weapons] but “In the last couple of years, we realised that things are bad, we have also been making preparations bit by bit.” He said that now the foreigners were leaving after 20 years – “We had not invited them, we do not tell them to leave or stay” – the Taleban should not think that “others’ hands are tied.” He said the same “heroes who carried out the jihad and resistance” or a new generation would stand and “raise the flag.” Mohaqeq also said he was prepared for both peace and war (full speech here).
There are also signs of mobilisation in the relatively secure central region of Hazarajat. For instance, Zulfiqar Omid, one of the leading members of the 2016 Enlightening Movement protests (see AAN’s background on those protests here) on 13 April posted photos of himself and a local commander Muhammad Ali Sadaqat from Daikundi with armed men. He described those men as “the most experienced guerrillas” now forming the “Dai Chahar unit” (apparently referring to the four major structural units within the current and former Hazara regions: Daikundi, Daizangi, Daichopan and Daimirdad) as part of the second resistance. He said this manoeuvre was in the border area between Daikundi and Bamyan, two relatively peaceful provinces. Radio Liberty quoted him on 22 April saying he supported peace efforts with the Taleban but it was “unclear what a post-war Afghanistan will look like under the current peace process.”
A somewhat different tack was taken by former president Hamed Karzai, in an interview on 22 May with Der Spiegel. “Right now, we are closing ranks in Afghanistan and organizing resistance. So my appeal to Pakistan is: Let’s be reasonable. Let’s start a civilized relationship between our two countries.” He also called on both sides in the Afghan conflict (the Taleban and the government) to “stop claiming to have the right to represent the Afghan people while holding the guns of a foreign power in their hands. My advice is this: Let the Taliban come back. Let them participate and prove themselves in public, whether in the Loya Jirga – the traditional representation of the people – in elections or in a referendum, as is customary around the world. Only then will it become clear who truly represents the people.”
Finally, and very differently, was the response of Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was himself an insurgent leader until 2016 and his peace agreement with the Afghan government. Hekmatyar’s mujahedin faction, Hezb-e Islami, also took part in the bitter stage of the conflict, known as the civil war (1992-1996), but unlike the other factions at that time, did not join the Northern Alliance to fight the Taleban. He described the withdrawal announcement as “a significant development” but said that the problem was that it was “unilateral and contradicts the Doha agreement.” In a press conference held on 17 April, Hekmatyar advised the Taleban to see the positive aspect of the US announcement of withdrawal and agree to a ceasefire on the following five conditions:
- Replacement of the Kabul government [ie the current government led by Ghani] and transfer of authority to a government acceptable to all sides;
- The phased departure of foreign forces: half of them to withdraw in May and the remaining half in the following months, with a complete withdrawal by September, provided that the forces stop all combat and intelligence activities and avoid interfering in the country’s domestic affairs during this period;
- Immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners who were detained during the last 20 years because of political or military activities;
- Removal of the names of all Afghans from the US blacklist who have been put on these lists due to their opposition to the US presence;
- Commitment [by the international community] to paying compensation for war damages – the financial and physical harm sustained by Afghans and Afghanistan – from all countries “due to their military invasion” in the last 20 years. He said this demand for compensation should have been included in the Doha agreement but that this was still a good opportunity to insist on it.
Earlier, on 14 February 2021, Hekmatyar had lashed out at those calling for a second resistance, referring to them as “a number of anti-nation and war-mongering Afghans [who] chant the slogans of Resistance Two” (media report here). It is worth noting that Hekmatyar’s party has also organised a number of armed protests, for example, a protest in Kabul on 5 March in which some of the protestors carried weapons and used military vehicles. He has been accusing the government of not adhering to the government’s peace deal (media report here). More recently, on 13 April, his party members carried weapons as they protested in Baharak district of Badakhshan (see the video here).
Struggling to build consensus
Even in the face of the withdrawal, there seems little appetite for the political class on the republic side – that large political spectrum of power brokers who have been part of the government in the past or consider themselves anti-Taleban – to work together. Divisions within the republic, as AAN highlighted in an earlier analysis , seem to be driven by a fixation on the end state of intra-Afghan negotiations and the possibility that those negotiations could lead to an interim power-sharing arrangement. The various political factions are thus trying to maximise their representation in the bodies dealing with the peace efforts, with the aim of controlling the process, and hopefully its end state.
There has been an effort to paper over these divisions by forming a Supreme State Council. The media reported on 22 May that the government had prepared a list of 18 people – 14 men and four women – who would make up a new body, the Supreme State Council. This came following separate meetings by Ghani with various political leaders (see for example with Karzai and Hekmatyar here and Khalili and Atta Muhammad Nur here). The council was envisaged a year ago in the 17 May 2020 political agreement signed by Ghani and Abdullah to end the months-long political impasse over the 2019 presidential election results. The agreement said the council would be comprised of “political leaders and national figures” to “build political consensus” and advise the president on “crucial national issues.” The document did not specify the size of the council or who would serve on it (AAN’s analysis here). It was to be in addition to the establishment of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR) led by Dr Abdullah. The efforts to implement the provisions of the political agreement, including the HCNR and the Supreme State Council, have been plagued by mistrust and power struggles. When the names of the members of the HCNR leadership committee were finally announced in late August 2020, they included Hekmatyar and Rabbani, who both refused to be part of the HCNR. Hekmatyar argued that its decisions would not be heeded and Rabbani said he had not been consulted on the formation of the HCNR (see AAN’s background here). The decision to finally form the Supreme State Council may well be because Ghani and Abdullah still need to accommodate Rabbani and Hekmatyar through another platform.
As with the troubled formation of the HCNR, the membership and authorities of the new Supreme State Council also appear far from settled. Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has insisted that the number of members should be limited and the council be mandated to take executive decisions, although without specifying in what areas. Dr Abdullah, Hamed Karzai and Abdul Rabb Rassul Sayyaf have all also stressed that the council needs to be an actual decision-making and executive body. The Palace, on the other hand, wants to expand the size of the council and make it an advisory body.
A day after the announcement of the 18 names, the Kabul-based daily newspaper Hasht-e Sobh, quoting deputy presidential spokesman Muhammad Amiri, reported that efforts were now underway to form two separate councils: the Supreme State Council, to be comprised of 15 to 25 people, and a technical council, comprised of 50 to 60 members, which would work with and support the Supreme State Council. On 25 May, member of Hezb-e Islami and Hekmatyar’s son-in-law Hamayun Jarir, told media that Hekmatyar would not participate in the council because the presidential palace had failed to keep its promises about the structure and authorities of the council. A member of Jamiat-e Islami also accused the Palace of manipulating the efforts to form the council for “personal agenda and political ambitions.”
The formation of the Supreme State Council has been further overshadowed by protests in Faryab against Ghani’s appointment of Muhammad Daud Laghmani as governor there. This brought the divisions within the republic as well as the lingering political debate about the relations between the provinces and the centre again to the fore. The appointment of Laghmani by presidential decree on 23 April, based on a recommendation by the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG), was immediately rejected by the main political party (and formerly military faction), Jombesh-e Melli Islami led by former vice president, Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum. The deputy head of the HCNR and a close aide to Dostum, Enayatullah Babur Farahmand, called the appointment a “political decision” which should not be implemented against the will of the people of Faryab and the northern provinces. The appointment was also rejected by the former governor of Faryab, Naqibullah Faiq, and has sparked protests in the provincial capital Maimana and some other provinces in the north.
Ghani tried to appease Faiq by appointing him as a senator. The head of IDLG, Shamim Khan Katawazi, travelled to Faryab on 28 April to read Ghani’s decree appointing Faiq as senator and, award him with the Ghazi Mir Bacha Khan Medal. However, this did not placate the protestors and on the same day, Farahmand said that Ghani’s appointment of Faiq as a senator was “a personal decision” and had “nothing to do with the widespread public protests,” which, he said, would continue.
Laghmani was officially introduced as the governor at the Afghan National Army (ANA) brigade headquarters in Maimana city on 17 May, after his transfer to Faryab had been blocked by the protestors the day before (see media report here). On the same day, Dr Abdullah weighed in, issuing a statement to voice concern about the situation in Faryab and called for the “views and support of the people [to] be considered in the appointment of senior officials and governors.” On 18 May, armed protestors in Maimana city waved their weapons as they demonstrated against the appointment and carried a red, blue and green tricolour, what members of Jombesh-e Melli called “flag of Southern Turkistan” (see the video here). Head of the Jombesh youth section secretariat, Nasratullah Ibrahimi, told the BBC: “The message of the protestors in raising the Southern Turkistan flag is that the people in the first place demand decentralisation of political system of Afghanistan, and if the government of Afghanistan fails to ensure social justice, the protestors can have their own federal system.” He said that if the government could not listen to the people’s voice, “it is better to be good neighbours to each other.”
Finally, in the late evening of 24 May, the IDLG announced that the deputy governor for administration and finance of Faryab, Abdul Moqim Rasekh, had been appointed as acting governor of the province. The BBC quoted a source from Jombesh-e Melli that the provincial administration offices, which had been closed by the protestors, would be allowed to resume work and the ‘small gate’ of the provincial governor’s office would be opened for the new acting governor. However, the source said that the sit-in tent in front of the provincial governor’s office would remain in place and continue to block entry through the main gate until the arrival of a new, non-acting governor who had been proposed by the people to the Palace. Now that Jombesh has been able to overturn the government’s appointment, it is unclear when and how a new governor will be appointed.
Opposition to efforts by Kabul to, as some locals see it, impose provincial officials, especially those from other provincial and ethnic backgrounds, without consulting local powerbrokers has again been sparked. This, along with hostility towards again, what some locals consider to be harmfully excessive centralisation of the political system, is nothing new (there have been repeated protests in Faryab from the early years of the Karzai administration over appointments, for detail, see for example, this 2011 report from the Feinstein Centre or more recently, the protests erupting over the use of commandos to arrest district police commander, Nizamuddin Qaisari in December 2019). Such an appointment coming now, when the republic needs to hold together, appeared clumsy at best. The flying of the flag of Southern Turkestan and the suggestion to “live as neighbours” with the government looks like a step further than the usual accusations of over-centralisation, a desire to establish their own semi-independent enclave. It is not clear how widespread such a sentiment is, or whether it was deployed as leverage to cause Kabul to change its mind. The author also heard from various sources that the protests in the north had also been driven by suspicions by Marshal Dostum that a possible political settlement might play out in ethnic terms, to the disadvantage of his and other ethnic groups. If so, he might be one of the few still with expectations of a negotiated end to the war (more on the peace process below).
Shrinking diplomatic community and the departure of some Afghans from the country
One striking response to Biden’s announcement was the decision by the Australian government to close its embassy in Kabul on 28 May 2021. In what may be a harbinger of a shrinking diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, the joint statement issued on 25 May by the Australian prime minister and foreign minister said that “The departure of the international forces and hence Australian forces from Afghanistan over the next few months brings with it an increasingly uncertain security environment where the Government has been advised that security arrangements could not be provided to support our ongoing diplomatic presence.”
While no further closures have been ordered yet, both the US and UK embassy had earlier issued advisories asking their citizens to consider leaving the country. These advisories came ahead of the 1 May deadline when the international forces were to have withdrawn according to original date agreed in the US-Taleban deal and followed the Taleban response to the 14 April Biden announcement. They issued a warning, albeit relatively softly expressed, calling the delay of the withdrawal date “a clear violation of Doha Agreement and non-compliance with its commitments” and stating that, “Now as the agreement is being breached by America, it in principle opens the way [for our fighters] to take every necessary countermeasure, hence the American side will be held responsible for all future consequences.” This somewhat ambiguous threat resulted in some fears that there might be ‘retaliation’ by the Taleban on or around the original withdrawal date.
On 27 April 2021, the US Department of State ordered the departure of US “government employees whose functions can be performed elsewhere. U.S. citizens wishing to depart Afghanistan should leave as soon as possible on available commercial flights.” Earlier on 22 April, UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office also advised “British nationals in Afghanistan to consider leaving by commercial means as the security situation remains uncertain, with the possibility of heightened threats.” Local employees of the US and UK embassies were told to work from home. Reuters reported that Kabul was “braced” on 1 May “for a reaction from the Taliban, with a visibly increased military presence and security at checkpoints.” The article quoted a security source saying that the “capital was on ‘high alert’, while military patrols and security were being increased in main cities around the country.”
In the end, only Kandahar Airfield received ineffective and indirect fire in the afternoon of 1 May which, according to the spokesman for US force in Afghanistan Colonel Sonny Leggett, did not cause any injury or damage. He tweeted here that the US forces had destroyed “additional rockets aimed at the airfield” through “a precision strike.”
While the diplomatic cadres may be getting ready to shrink, humanitarian organisations have, so far, said they will stay in the country. For example, on 24 May, a day before Australia announced the closure of its embassy, the United Nations and ACBAR, the NGO coordination agency, issued a joint statement, saying that “Humanitarian actors in Afghanistan (the UN and national and international NGOs) are committed to staying and delivering impartial and neutral assistance to millions of people in need.” The statement said that due to ongoing “conflict, spiralling food insecurity and the adverse impact of the COVID19 pandemic,” the number of people in need had almost doubled, from 9.4 million in January 2020 to 18.4 million in January 2021. The statement was also an implicit appeal for funding. In 2021, they said, the UN and humanitarian partners in Afghanistan would require 1.3 billion US dollars to help 15.7 people in need, but only 166.8 million (13 per cent) of the funding has been received so far.
The withdrawal of foreign forces and the likely reduction of the diplomatic presence may also lead to the departure of Afghans who worked with them. On 27 May, the US embassy in Kabul issued a statement saying it had a “commitment to Afghans who have worked for the U.S. government at great personal risk to themselves and their families” under a “legislation that authorizes Special Immigrant Visas for those Afghans who served with us” and that they were processing “visa applications as quickly as possible.” It is not clear how many people would be relocated as part of this programme. Similar relocation programme has been announced for Afghans who have worked with the UK. “Including family members, more than 3,000 Afghans,” reported the BBC, quoting UK sources on 31 May, were “expected to be allowed to settle in the UK” as part of “accelerated plans.” They would join “1,300 who have already done so.” Germany has yet to follow suit, but a campaign urging the government to bring Afghan local employees of German mission to a safe place, given that the Taleban see the employees as “collaborator with the West” was launched in early May by a Support Initiative for the Admission of Germany’s Afghan Local Employees (media report here).
Apart from these special protection programmes for those who have worked with foreign armies and embassies, anecdotes indicate that other Afghans, not eligible for such programmes, have started or are contemplating leaving the country. In his article for Foreign Affairs, cited above, Ghani acknowledged a possible brain drain as one of the risks associated with the troop withdrawal announcement.
For one, the perception of uncertainty, fueled by dire predictions in the media, may incline many Afghans to leave the country. This could lead to a repeat of the refugee crisis that unfolded in 2015 and would deprive the country of talented people right at the moment when they are most needed.
Updates on peace talks
The Biden administration’s announcement of a fixed date for full troop withdrawal also seems to have changed the Taleban’s approach towards talks with the government. After the first round of intra-Afghan talks (12 September to 14 December 2020) agreed only the rules of procedure (see AAN’s reporting here), the Taleban have been reluctant to engage in any serious negotiations during the second round, which began on 5 January 2021. Biden’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, had been urging Turkey, Qatar and the United Nations to convene a high-level conference on Afghanistan in Turkey in what seemed a last-ditch attempt to get a quick-fix deal over the line (AAN’s background here). A day before Biden’s announcement, Turkey said a conference would be held from 24 April to 4 May, with the “overriding objective” of “accelerat[ing] and complement[ing] the ongoing intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha on the achievement of a just and durable political settlement.”
After Biden’s announcement, the Taleban have appeared more dismissive towards the talk with the government, including by:
- Refusing to participate in the Istanbul conference. Right after Biden’s announcement, the Taleban declared they would not participate in “any conference that shall make decisions about Afghanistan” until “all foreign forces completely withdraw” from the country. The co-convenors still tried to convince the Taleban to attend the conference but to no avail. Therefore, they issued a joint statement on 21 April saying that “In view of recent developments, and after extensive consultations with the parties, it has been agreed to postpone the conference to a later date when conditions for making meaningful progress would be more favorable.” A new date has yet to be proposed. While efforts to convince the Taleban to participate in the conference in Turkey have not stopped (see, for example, this 27 April media report about Pakistan assuring Afghan authorities it would do its best to persuade the Taleban to attend the conference here), the Taleban have set three conditions for their participation in conference in Turkey (see a 25 May report by VOA quoting a senior Taleban leader): the conference should be short; the agenda should not include decision-making on critical issues; the Taleban should be allowed to send only a low-ranking delegation. In other words, it seemed the Taleban did not want to refuse the conference absolutely, but would only show up if it was made pointless.
- Inviting individual political leaders to bilateral talks. The Taleban, as reported on 28 April, had sent letters to Afghan political leaders, including HCNR chairman Dr Abdullah , and former President Hamed Karzai, asking them to engage in direct talks. A spokesman for Abdullah, Faraidun Khazun, while confirming the Taleban letter, dismissed it as an unsuccessful attempt at sowing discord within the republic side.
- The Taleban’s negotiation team also stopped engaging in discussions with the Islamic Republic’s negotiation team in Doha. This was also highlighted by Dr Abdullah on 2 May when he told Voice of America (VOA) that “with the announcement of the withdrawal, the Taliban position has changed. Their chief negotiator has gone to Pakistan to consult with their leaders, to take directions, to shape up their position.”
Given the lack of activity in Doha, almost all the members of the Islamic Republic’s negotiation team in Doha returned to Kabul or travelled to the US. More recently, there seems to be a little movement. On 26 May, a member of the negotiation team who is currently in Kabul told the author that the Taleban negotiation team was now showing interest to continue the talks after the return of their chief negotiator to Doha from Pakistan. Some Islamic Republic team members also travelled back to Doha on 1 June. However, the spokesman for the Taleban team, Muhammad Naim Wardak, has told media that no date for resumption of talks has yet been set (see media reports here). According to Republic team member whom the author spoke to, the Taleban are only interested in slow-moving negotiations, but fear a fast-track conference like the one that was to be held in Turkey, in case they are ambushed into making concessions. Other interpretations would be that they are only interested in talking if more concessions such as release of their prisoners and removal of their officials from the UN sanction list are on offer. Or they may have secured what they wanted from the talks – the withdrawal of US forces – and are now focussed on fighting.
Conclusion: Deep uncertainties
The Biden administration’s withdrawal announcement, while not unexpected, has set in train a series of responses, affecting the political and security landscape in Afghanistan. The decision to make the troop withdrawal total and unconditional coupled with the Taleban’s persistent refusal to engage with the Islamic Republic in serious negotiations aimed at a political settlement has created the perception that the Taleban will push for a military takeover of the country following the full withdrawal of foreign forces in September. The government’s attempt to put a brave face on the situation has not prevented the setting in train of various dynamics, none of which reassure the public that they face a stable future. Concerns over the mobilisation of armed men by powerbrokers, failure to establish a consensus among government and opposition, signs that the diplomatic community may be shrinking and special programmes to offer protection to those who have worked with foreign armies and embassies, and the apparent reluctance by the Taleban to engage in serious negotiations all make Afghans wonder if the situation could deteriorate. Many people are again looking to leave the country, a dynamic noted by the president himself.
Of particular note is that, for the first time in 20 years, powerbrokers are speaking publicly about mobilising armed men outside ANSF and government structures. While the presence of militias has been a local fact of life for many Afghans for years (see AAN/GPPi report, “Ghosts of the Past: Lessons from Local Force Mobilisation in Afghanistan and Prospects for the Future” for detail), never have public pronouncements about the need to mobilise, nor the wish to establish autonomous spheres of influence been expressed so brazenly. Disenchantment with the current highly centralised and factionalised political system has been a constant theme in some communities over many years, but appears to have hardened recently. Whether those communities want a re-arming of the old factions is another question. Given fears that the Taleban may be aiming at a military takeover, sentiments may be more mixed than in the past. Yet it all adds to uneasiness in the country and to fears of an unravelling.
Edited by Aunohita Mojumdar, Martine van Bijlert and Kate Clark
This article was last updated on 12 Nov 2023