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Anxious Moments for an Afghanistan on the Brink

New York Times JULY 14, 2014
It was not long before the German concerns proved founded. Enraged by Afghan officials’ sudden announcement of suspicious preliminary results last Monday, the governor declared the breakaway government. And he was followed by similar declarations from other Abdullah supporters.
But as Western officials scrambled to respond, what was not being said aloud was that the Abdullah camp’s threats had already gone beyond talk to a plan of action. Some of Mr. Abdullah’s backers were preparing to take over the centers of government in at least three provinces, and on his word to march on and occupy the presidential palace, according to several of his supporters and former government officials.
What followed was as tumultuous a six-day stretch for Afghanistan as any since the American invasion in 2001. Interviews with Western officials, the two presidential campaigns and other Afghan officials detailed a week that went beyond any previous political crisis in carrying the risk of a factional conflict that would tear open the wounds of the devastating civil war.
Local mujahedeen commanders were urging action against the palace, expressing confidence that the Afghan security forces, including those guarding President Hamid Karzai, would not fire on them. The commanders believed that most of the security forces were sympathetic to Mr. Abdullah, and that Mr. Karzai would be loath to order guards to open fire.
"Our commanders say we do not need the palace key from the Election Commission, we can go and take it ourselves," said Fazal Ahmad Manawi, a former supreme court judge and an election adviser to Mr. Abdullah. "If Dr. Abdullah had said yes, several provinces including the palace would have fallen into the hands of his team."
According to Mr. Manawi and others, it was a call from President Obama to Mr. Abdullah just after dawn last Tuesday that helped stop a headlong rush into a disastrous power struggle. Mr. Obama warned Mr. Abdullah not to even consider seizing power and to keep calm over the three days until Secretary of State John Kerry could get to Kabul.
"Really here the U.S. government did a great favor to the Afghan people," Mr. Manawi said. "If it was not for the telephone call to Dr. Abdullah, this would not have stopped."
The American ambassador in Kabul, James B. Cunningham, would not directly confirm that American officials knew of the plan to march on the palace before Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry reached out. But he did acknowledge an acute sense of urgency.
"The reason we intervened so rapidly was to urge them to stop even thinking about going down that road, which, I agree, would have been a disaster for the country," Mr. Cunningham said in an interview with a small group of reporters. "It was serious enough that it engaged the president of the United States and the secretary of state, and that’s not an everyday occurrence."
At a political rally the day of the call, Mr. Abdullah invoked the American warnings as he struggled to curb supporters who had begun to shout their demands for a march on the palace. Beginning to tear up, he urged patience, saying that Mr. Kerry would soon be in Afghanistan, and that they should wait to see what kind of agreement could be struck with his rival, Ashraf Ghani. He was shouted down, and left the stage as the crowd’s yells heightened.
From the start, diplomats and election observers knew there were signs of large-scale fraud. After troubling reports from the first round of voting in April, things sharply escalated the day of the presidential runoff, June 14.
When the election commission announced a turnout of seven million that day, it was far higher than expected, and than plausible, given witness reports from polling stations around the country. The announcement was immediately suspicious not just to Mr. Abdullah, but to some international officials as well.
Over the next weeks, Mr. Abdullah pressed accusations of systemic election fraud, in which millions of false ballots had been arranged in a conspiracy that included Mr. Ghani’s campaign, national election officials and President Karzai himself. Mr. Ghani, for the most part, kept a studied silence other than to deny his opponent’s claims and reaffirm that he would abide by the election commission’s process.
Mr. Abdullah began unveiling evidence, including audio recordings of phone calls that his campaign officials said involved a senior election commissioner talking with staff members about stuffing ballot boxes. The commissioner resigned, but the electoral body mostly refused Mr. Abdullah’s other demands.
Then, last Monday, the Independent Election Commission announced preliminary results for the runoff, even as the candidates were still negotiating with the United Nations on a broader investigation of fraudulent ballots. They put Mr. Ghani more than a million votes ahead of Mr. Abdullah, and said the turnout was even greater than initially announced, at 8.1 million voters.
The announcement caught most by surprise. One diplomat in Kabul said it "torpedoed" the United Nations’ efforts to negotiate a deal, and left Mr. Abdullah "extremely vulnerable in his own camp." The diplomat, along with some other officials interviewed about the crisis, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
As Mr. Abdullah’s supporters began agitating for action, the Germans sounded their note of alarm, followed by other Western officials. Then Mr. Obama stepped in, and a tense three-day countdown began until Mr. Kerry’s arrival.
Although Afghan officials were careful to say that they believed Mr. Abdullah did not personally want a call to arms on his behalf, he began publicly walking a very tenuous line. Even as he tried to calm his supporters, he also insisted that he would be found the rightful winner of the election. And he reserved the right to unilaterally declare a government if talks with Mr. Kerry did not satisfactorily address his accusations of fraud.
Mr. Kerry, whose flight arrived just before midnight, spent the first hours of Friday morning with Mr. Cunningham and other officials at the embassy discussing the situation and going over possible solutions, American officials said. "The outcome was not preordained," Mr. Cunningham said. "There really was quite a deadlock when he arrived."
Much of Friday was spent listening to the concerns of the Afghans. That night, Mr. Kerry huddled with American and United Nations officials to come up with a plan for the next day, which he would spend at the American Embassy, shuttling between the two camps in the embassy’s main meeting rooms in hopes of brokering a deal. Mr. Cunningham’s residence in the embassy’s upper floors were to be used for more private meetings.
Adding to the difficulty of the negotiations was that it was Ramadan, and the candidates and their entourages were observing dawn-to-dusk fasts for the Islamic holy month.
The negotiations on Saturday were most drawn out over the details of how to audit the runoff ballots, Mr. Manawi said. Mr. Abdullah was insisting that any box in which over 93 percent of the ballots were for one candidate should be reviewed. Mr. Ghani objected, eventually suggesting that they audit all the votes cast.
After that deal, officials said, the rest of the agreement was reached relatively easily, despite the fact that it included a sweeping plan to change the shape of the government over the next few years and to agree on a unity government in the shorter term after the results of the audit — and the election — are announced.
The winner will become president, and the runner-up, or somebody he nominates, will become a chief executive running the government. The security ministries will remain as they were for the first three months, Mr. Manawi said. The chief executive will serve for two years and the constitution will be amended to create an empowered prime minister post. The two election commissions will also be reformed.
Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah were in the compound at the same time at multiple points during the day, Mr. Cunningham said. But American diplomats kept them apart "not because there was any danger that passing by each other they would cause any problem, but just because we were trying to keep the conversations separate until the very end."
Once deals with both were secured, Mr. Cunningham said, "then we would ask them both to come together to ratify that, and that is, in fact, what happened." After weeks of intense bad feelings between their camps, Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Ghani embraced in the living room after striking the deal. They would do the same thing a short while later, at the end of news conference to announce their agreement to the Afghan people.

Delays, fights marred Afghanistan's election recount

Los Angeles Times, 28 August, 2014
Inside the hot, musty airplane hangar where international officials were supervising Afghanistan’s presidential election recount, the rival camps had sparred for days until the tension finally boiled over.
The Aug. 19 altercation was the most serious of several fights that interrupted the recount effort, which was introduced with fanfare last month by Secretary of State John F. Kerry but has been plagued by delays, mistrust and violence that have frustrated U.S. hopes of a smooth transition of political power in Afghanistan.
Abdullah withdrew his observers from the recount process Wednesday, alleging that the audit of all 8 million ballots from June’s runoff was “built in a one-sided manner” favoring his rival, Ashraf Ghani. U.N. officials then persuaded Ghani’s team to pull out its observers to maintain the appearance of impartiality, saying the review would continue without either team’s representatives present.
The developments have cast doubt on the viability of a national unity government including members of both campaigns, which Obama administration officials believe is crucial to ensuring political stability as the United States withdraws most of its troops from Afghanistan by year's end.
U.S. officials in Kabul held meetings with the candidates and said that both men remained committed to forming a unity government, which envisions the president sharing executive powers with the runner-up.
“Both teams have high-level stakeholders who are out to secure their personal and political interests,” said Abdullah Azada Khenjani, news director at 1TV, a leading private television network in Kabul.
For many Afghans, a government that makes space for both teams seems similar to what they’ve seen before. While both candidates have pledged to stamp out corruption, which has mushroomed during President Hamid Karzai’s 12-year administration, their teams are composed of many of the same power brokers whom Karzai had to appease in order to maintain stability.
Many Afghans have grown disillusioned with an election that began with promise in April, when the first round of voting featured robust turnout and few major accusations of fraud.
International monitors brought in by the U.N. were given only advisory roles, but they constantly faced accusations from the rival camps. One Abdullah observer told a U.N. monitor, “I don’t know how much the Ashraf Ghani team is paying you.”
The U.N. observers were sometimes shocked by the apparent fraud. Looking at the results from one ballot box in the eastern province of Paktika, which showed 594 votes for Ghani and six for Abdullah, a foreign observer said: “This wouldn’t even be possible in the Soviet Union.”
Experts say the messy process could benefit the man being replaced. “If these two do a bad job, if they make the situation worse, Karzai can come back and say: ‘See, I was the only one who could run this country properly,’” Ali said.


What Role Can India Play in Defusing Afghanistan's Election Crisis?


The Diplomat September 10, 2014
Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is in Kabul on Wednesday as Afghanistan grapples with a prolonged electoral crisis that began in June. Swaraj’s trip to Kabul comes at a crucial hour and could result in important dividends for New Delhi once the current crisis is resolved.
Beyond Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s attendance at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration in May, the governments of India and Afghanistan have not interacted at a high-level since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took over in New Delhi. While Swaraj is slated to meet with the outgoing Karzai government, discussing routine matters such as development assistance, Afghan reconstruction, and security cooperation, she will also convey New Delhi’s desire to see the current electoral crisis resolved via negotiation and according to the terms of the U.S.-brokered, U.N.-enforced deal.
India bears the benefit of being perceived positively almost unanimously among mainstream Afghan politicians (this, of course, doesn’t include the Taliban and other extremist groups). Both presidential candidates have a positive understanding of India’s relations with Afghanistan (as does the outgoing government). With her trip to Kabul, Swaraj makes India visible at a crucial juncture in Afghanistan’s political transition. Given her trip’s agenda, it appears unlikely that she will attempt to broker a return to the prior agreement between Ghani and Abdullah (though she will meet with them).
By backing a return to the established agreement’s procedures, Swaraj would join a growing chorus of global voices that have called for composure and negotiation during this crisis. Abdullah’s declaration could have the disastrous effect of polarizing supporters to the extent that the fragile ethnic balance of this election collapses and inter-ethic violence breaks out along political lines. This outcome, naturally, would be a nightmare for India, which wants to see a prosperous and stable Afghanistan.
Although India likely won’t be too activist on the matter of resolving Afghanistan’s political dispute, if it chose to, it might have a unique appeal with both candidate’s supporters. Many Afghans, particularly Abdullah’s supporters, bemoan extensive U.S. involvement in defusing the electoral crisis. In particular, should Abdullah be found to have lost the election (all signs point to this outcome), his supporters will see repeats of the 2009 election, when Abdullah agreed to cede victory to Karzai instead of holding out for a fair and comprehensive recount and audit. India can’t change the results of the audit, but it can encourage the candidates to stick to the unity government deal under which the losing candidate would gain some political authority under a newly manufactured chief executive post within the Afghan government. New Delhi’s status as a regional friend and a decidedly non-Western power could give it some staying power with the candidates.

Militants In Afghanistan, Pakistan Claiming Allegiance To IS

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty September 26, 2014
Amid fears the Islamic State (IS) extremist group could expand to Afghanistan, there are already signs that some militants in the region are eager to claim affiliation with the group.
One sign came this week in a video sent to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that shows three purported Afghan militants, their faces covered, sitting beneath the black IS battle flag.
Speaking in the Ghazni dialect of Pashto, the trio's spokesperson claimed to represent a group called the Islamic Organization of Great Afghanistan and stated his readiness to fight for the IS and its "caliph," Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The unidentified spokesperson called for all militants in Afghanistan, the Pashtun tribal areas in Pakistan, and in the Baluch areas of Pakistan and Iran to join together under the IS banner.
At times, however, he appeared as much focused on his own nationalistic agenda as the Islamic State's goal of uniting all Muslim lands in a new caliphate. He repeatedly called for attacks on the "Punjabi state" of Pakistan and accused the Afghan Taliban's leaders of working for Islamabad's interests, while praising IS as the only power able to "free" his countrymen.
The video was sent a week after an anonymous caller contacted Radio Free Afghanistan's correspondent in Ghazni Province and claimed to represent the IS militant group in Afghanistan. Although intended to reinforce the caller's claim, the video did not offer any details as to the size or strength of the group behind it.
That makes is impossible to know whether the group in the video has a direct link to the Islamic State's leadership. But its use of IS symbols and the reverence with which the spokesperson refers to the group does offer a measure of how much name recognition IS now has in the region and of its potential for expansion.

'Slightly Outdated Model'
Some intelligence services believe IS is actively seeking new members in Afghanistan. A Russian diplomat in Afghanistan said this week that some of his sources report that IS has already opened an office, though he did not say where.
"We know that about a hundred [IS] members have penetrated there," Zamir Kabulov, special representative in Afghanistan for Russian President Valdimir Putin, told Interfax on September 23.
"As I understand it, [IS] views the Taliban or even Al-Qaeda as a conservative and slightly outdated model," Kabulov said. "They present themselves as a new ideology, which is more offensive, aggressive, and advanced."

If IS does turn eastward, it will likely come into competition with the Taliban, currently the dominant militant movement in the region. The competition could be both for first-time recruits and for seasoned fighters.
A commander in the Hizb-i-Islami group, which fights alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, told the BBC last week that he was "sure" his leadership would announce allegiance to IS. It was not clear whether the commander, named Mirwais, was speaking for himself alone or for others.
Reuters reported last week that a splinter group of Pakistan's Taliban insurgents, Jamat-ul Ahrar, also was ready to consider invitations to join IS.
"IS is an Islamic jihadi organization working for the implementation of the Islamic system and creation of the caliphate," Ehsanullah Ehsan, Jamat-ul Ahrar's leader and a prominent Taliban figure, told Reuters on September 7. "We respect them. If they ask us for help, we will look into it and decide."

Refugee Camp Recruitment
Meanwhile, there are signs some groups already are trying to recruit for IS in refugee camps in Pakistan. A 12-page pamphlet emblazoned with the Islamic State group's black flag and written in both Pashto and Dari was distributed earlier this month in camps near Peshawar, the capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. The camps house refugees from Afghanistan and from Pakistan's restive tribal regions.
Reuters quotes Sameeulah Hanifi, a prayer leader in Peshawar, as saying the pamphlets were distributed by a little-known local group called Islami Khalifat, an outspoken IS supporter. By moving into South and Central Asia, IS would be following home the many recruits from the region who currently are fighting with the group in Syria and Iraq.
Iran said recently it had arrested Afghan and Pakistani citizens trying to join IS in Syria and Iraq. The BBC quotes Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani as saying on September 8 that the men planned to cross Iran but did not specify their number or where they were arrested.
Similarly, dozens of militants from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are reported to have made the journey through Turkey to Syria to join extremist groups battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Who Are the Pakistani Taliban?

VOA News December 18, 2014 
The Pakistani Taliban, formally known as the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, is an umbrella group of militant organizations. Baitullah Mehsud, a leading militant leader from Waziristan in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt, formed a coalition of 13 groups in 2007. At its peak, the group claimed 30 or more groups as members. Since then, the group has divided into several factions, often clashing with each other. The U.S. State Department declared it a foreign terrorist organization in September 2010. 
Pakistan’s government tried negotiating with the Pakistani Taliban in late 2013 and early 2014, but the efforts failed. Pakistan's military then started an operation against the group's stronghold in North Waziristan in June 2014.

Who are the leaders of TTP? 
Baitullah Mehsud, the first head and founder of TTP, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2009. He was succeeded by a member of his Mehsud tribe and another famous militant leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, who in turn was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2013. 
The current leader of TTP, Maulana Fazlullah, is not from the Mehsud tribe. Nicknamed “Mullah Radio,” he gained notoriety through his illegal FM channel, whose signal was broadcast through portable transmitters in the Swat Valley of northern Pakistan. Fazlullah used the channel to distribute his firebrand sermons preaching an extremist Islamist ideology. Nobel laureate Malala Yousufzai writes in her book that in the beginning, people, particularly women of Swat, were so moved by his sermons that they donated their jewelry to the cause. 
Slowly, the radio broadcasts became more and more extreme, blaming a devastating earthquake in 2005 on sinful acts like dancing or listening to music. He has routinely ordered attacks on girls’ schools and polio workers. The attack on Yousufzai was also ordered by Fazlullah.

What is their objective? 
According to their own statements, the TTP's objective is enforcement of Sharia in Pakistan "whether through peace or war.” They also want a total withdrawal from Afghanistan by the U.S., NATO and International Security Assistance Force. They consider Pakistan’s military an enemy because it supports U.S. and NATO forces. They want the military to stop its operation against them, and they threaten further violent attacks if that does not happen. 

What is their relationship with the Afghan Taliban? 
The groups have the same ideology and consider Mullah Omar, head of the Afghan Taliban, Ameerul Momineen or Leader of Muslims. 
Before the official formation of TTP, many Pakistani Taliban fought in Afghanistan — first against the Soviets, then to help the Afghan Taliban defeat other militant groups to take over Kabul and form a government,
and finally against the U.S. and NATO forces who ousted the Afghan Taliban after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Many members of Afghan Taliban, fleeingfrom the American military assault, sought shelter across the border with groups that are now with the Pakistani Taliban. The Afghanand Pakistani Taliban also share infrastructure such as safe houses, have joint training exercises and have overlapping members. 
However, the Pakistani Taliban are not the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan Taliban do not carry out attacks inside Pakistan, and do not consider Pakistan’s military an enemy. Rather, they have often worked as Pakistan’s strategic allies in Afghanistan. According to independent analysts and U.S. officials, the Afghan Taliban, particularly groups like the Haqqani Network, have long received support and safe havens from Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. However, Pakistan’s prime minister and army chief have both said that the country will not distinguish among different terrorist groups anymore. Army chief Raheel Sharif also assured the U.S. during a visit to Washington in November that the military’s operation in North Waziristan was against all terrorist groups without distinction.

Why is it hard to defeat Pakistani Taliban? 
Pakistani Taliban operate in a complex strategic environment. Their close association and cooperation with other militant and sectarian groups inside Pakistan makes it difficult for the security establishment to isolate them and root them out. 
Pakistan watcher Marvin Weinbaum of the Washington-based Middle East Institute points out that some of the Taliban groups were cultivated as an extension of the state’s foreign policy, to be used against an economically and militarily superior rival — India. State support has allowed these groups over the last several decades to expand their influence, spread their ideology and recruit members to a point that they have now become a formidable challenge for Pakistani government itself. 
This ties in with the issue of capacity within Pakistan’s governing system. The police and courts are not equipped to deal with terrorist outfits efficiently. Many terrorists have been arrested and then freed because of either a lack of evidence or corruption in the system.

What are some of the big attacks blamed on the Pakistani Taliban? 
Pakistani Taliban have either claimed responsibility or have been blamed for hundreds if not thousands of attacks inside Pakistan. Some of the more famous ones: 
— Assassination of Benazir Bhutto, December 2007. The former Pakistani prime minister was killed in a dual gun-and-bomb attack in December 2007. Even though her death is controversial and a U.N. report partially blames both former President Pervez Musharraf and her own husband, Asif Zardari, among others, for not giving her proper protection, the TTP is officially blamed for the assassination. 
— Attack on Pakistan military headquarters GHQ, October 2009. An attack on Pakistan’s most secure military complex and the headquarters of its powerful army dragged on for 18 hours as 10 militants first attacked a checkpost at the base and then infiltrated the buildings. More than 40 military officials were held hostage by terrorists before being rescued by the Special Services Group of the military. 
— Times Square bombing attempt, May 2010. A 30-year-old Pakistani, Faisal Shahzad, who had become a U.S. citizen a year earlier, attempted the failed attack. He told interrogators that he had met members of the Pakistani Taliban who had trained him in bomb making. 
— Attack on Mehran naval base, Karachi, May 2011. Taliban and al-Qaida militants, armed with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades, held off the Pakistani military for 16 hours, destroying two U.S.-made P-3C Orion maritime surveillance planes in the process and damaging other aircraft. They said this attack was revenge for the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy special forces weeks earlier. 
— Attack on Malala Yousufzai, October 2012. The Nobel laureate survived, but the TTP vowed to try again to kill her. They were against her activism for female education and consider her a tool of the West. 
— All Saints Church Peshawar, September 2013. A TTP-linked organization, Jundullah, claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed more than 120 people. TTP denied responsibility. 
— Karachi airport attack, June 2014. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which left at least 28 people dead, including 10 attackers and more than a dozen security personnel. The attack resulted in a five-hour gunbattle between the militants and security forces. 

— Karachi naval dockyard attack, September 2014. Taliban militants said they had inside help for this brazen attack, which lasted several hours.