Friday, June 22, 2018

A "Remarkable" Afghan Ceasefire

By Scott DesMarais

Key Takeaway: The U.S. and Afghanistan have an opportunity to advance their strategic goal of negotiating an acceptable settlement with the Taliban, but not all Taliban members are reconcilable. The Taliban faces a potential rift between its leadership and rank-and-file militants in Afghanistan that threatens the Taliban’s cohesion. Large numbers of rank-and-file militants expressed their support for peace during unprecedented joint celebrations alongside Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) during a nationwide ceasefire for Eid al-Fitr on June 15 - 17. The ceasefire’s events exposed rifts amongst Taliban leadership concerning reconciliation. The U.S. and the Government of Afghanistan could exploit these apparent rifts in order to advance their strategic goal of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. The new momentum towards peace could nonetheless generate additional pressure for the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan amidst the scheduled 2018 Afghan Parliamentary Elections. ISIS - Wilayat Khorasan could also exploit these rifts in to bolster its recruitment of hardline Taliban militants and expand its operations in Afghanistan.

What Happened 

The Taliban and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) engaged in “remarkable scenes” of joint celebration during a three-day ceasefire observed by both the Taliban and the ANSF. The Government of Afghanistan estimated that up to 30,000 Taliban militants entered government-held cities across the country during the three-day truce in honor of the end of Ramadan.[1] The gatherings reportedly occurred in several regions that have seen intense fighting during the Taliban’s 2018 Al-Khandaq Offensive including Faryab, Farah, Ghazni, and Kunduz Provinces as well as traditional Taliban strongholds such as Helmand and Kandahar Provinces. Even “senior” leaders reportedly met with government officials in Zabul and Logar Provinces. Taliban fighters interviewed by the media repeatedly expressed their fatigue with continued violence and their growing desire for peace.

The ceasefire could validate President Ghani’s strategy to achieve a negotiated settlement. Ghani offered the Taliban full political reconciliation in exchange for a ceasefire and the resumption of peace negotiations on February 28. The Taliban refused to acknowledge the offer officially, although multiple U.S. officials have claimed that elements of the Taliban including “senior-level leaders” are “clearly interested” in talks with the Government of Afghanistan since Ghani’s peace offer. Ghani later unilaterally announced the ceasefire for Eid al-Fitr on June 7 despite ongoing operations by the Taliban that threatened at least seven provincial capitals around Afghanistan. The Taliban bowed to public pressure and announced their own nominally-unrelated ceasefire on June 9. Ghani has attempted to leverage the apparent success of the truce to spur further political progress. Ghani announced a unilateral ten-day extension of the ceasefire - until June 30 – on June 17. He also stressed that his government is open to negotiations with the Taliban on “issues of mutual concern” including the “presence of foreign forces” in Afghanistan.

The Taliban leadership has thus far rejected further extension of a ceasefire and has resumed its attacks in some remote locations. The Taliban spokesperson stated that the group has “no intention to extend the ceasefire" on June 17 and resumed offensive operations throughout Afghanistan including on June 18. Taliban militants conducted significant attacks in Faryab, Badghis, and Farah Provinces since their ceasefire’s expiration. The Taliban may intend to exploit the government’s extended ceasefire to amass fighters and launch a coordinated operation against vulnerable provincial capitals in Faryab or Farah Provinces. The Taliban also executed smaller attacks in many provinces where joint celebrations occurred such as Kunduz, Logar, Nangarhar, and Helmand.


The Taliban faces a potential rift between its leadership and rank-and-file militants in Afghanistan that threatens the Taliban’s cohesiveness. Taliban militants repeatedly violated a formal directive from their leadership to avoid government-controlled areas on June 16. Taliban fighters also demanded an extension to the ceasefire in parts of Paktika Province controlled by the hardline Haqqani Network. The Taliban released an official post-ceasefire statement stressing the organizational cohesion and control demonstrated by the “successful implementation” of the truce despite the clear violations of leadership orders.[2] The Taliban leadership also allegedly considered a ten-day ceasefire for late 2018 due to growing pressure for a negotiated settlement within the Taliban. The Government of Afghanistan and the U.S. could attempt to exploit the apparent divisions within the Taliban to split rank-and-file fighters from their leadership if the Taliban refuses to engage with Kabul.

The Taliban also faces a power struggle within its ruling Quetta Shura. The ceasefire could exacerbate a rift between Taliban leaders who are open to reconciliation and hardliners unwilling to negotiate a settlement. The joint celebrations reportedly surprised and angered some Taliban leaders including Taliban Second Deputy Leader Mullah Yaqoob.[3] Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada – a reported moderate - may use widespread support for peace amongst the rank-and-file to consolidate his control within the Quetta Shura vis-à-vis hardliners such as Mullah Yaqoob and First Deputy Leader Siraj Haqqani. This power struggle predates the ceasefire. Akhundzada reportedly reshuffled multiple shadow governors and senior leaders to increase his control over the movement in February 2018. Rumors of additional post-ceasefire leadership changes may further demonstrate shifting dynamics in favor of Akhundzada. The weakening of hardliners like Haqqani - who maintains close ties to al Qaeda and Pakistan - in favor of Akhundzada could open space for peace-inclined factions of the Taliban to pursue a negotiated settlement. Hardline elements are likely to continue the fight against Kabul.

The U.S. could exploit these apparent rifts in order to advance its strategic objectives in Afghanistan. The U.S. intends to use military and diplomatic means to pressure the Taliban to negotiate a peace settlement with the Government of Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the U.S. is “prepared to support, facilitate, and participate” in peace negotiations that would include “a discussion of the role of international actors and forces” in Afghanistan on June 16. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells reaffirmed the willingness to participate in negotiations but reiterated the established U.S. position that the Taliban must negotiate directly with the Government of Afghanistan on June 20. Incoming U.S. Forces – Afghanistan Commander Lt. Gen. Scott Miller has also testified that a political settlement must end the War in Afghanistan.

The U.S. nonetheless must remain cautious that the peace process does not jeopardize its access to Afghanistan. Members of the both houses of the Afghan Parliament have criticized the U.S. role in Afghanistan since May 2018. Some members of the upper house have called for the review or cancellation of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the U.S. and Afghanistan.[4] Meanwhile, peace protesters marching from Helmand Province to Kabul to encourage reconciliation with the Taliban have also demanded a specific timeline for the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan. Taliban sources have also claimed that a clearly-defined timeline for withdrawal could have persuaded Taliban leadership to accept a ceasefire extension after Eid al-Fitr. These converging demands for the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan could begin to spiral into a widespread populist movement ahead of the scheduled 2018 Afghan Parliamentary Elections and 2019 Afghan Presidential Elections. The U.S. must not depart abruptly or under a fixed timeline but rather through a gradual drawdown after setting and testing the conditions for sustained peace in Afghanistan.

ISIS could also exploit the ceasefire and possibility of a negotiated settlement to expand its operations in Afghanistan. ISIS’s Afghanistan branch, ISIS Wilayat Khorasan, claimed two separate attacks that targeted joint celebrations between the Taliban and ANSF in Nangarhar Province during Eid al-Fitr. The statements noted that the attacks targeted gatherings of both the ANSF and “the apostate Taliban Movement.” The Taliban later released a post-ceasefire statement arguing that the Taliban is the only movement leading “jihad across the country,” and adding that “multiple parties [are] not participating in this jihad.”[5] The statement - while directed against the U.S. assessment of a fractured jihadist movement in Afghanistan - may also highlight the Taliban leadership’s concern that the ceasefire will harm their credentials as the leaders of the jihad in Afghanistan. ISIS could position itself to recruit dissatisfied hardline members of the Taliban if Taliban leadership begin openly pursuing a peaceful settlement with the Government of Afghanistan.

[1] The Government of Afghanistan initially announced a unilateral eight-day ceasefire from June 12 - 20 before extending it to June 30. The Taliban’s “unrelated” ceasefire only lasted from June 15 - 17.
[2] “Statement of Islamic Emirate regarding end of three day Eid ceasefire,” Voice of Jihad. June 17, 2018. https://alemarah-english(.)com/?p=30455%5C
[3] Mullah Yaqoob is the son of the Taliban’s founder – Mullah Omar.
[4] Including Mohammad Alam Ezedyar – the First Deputy Speaker of the Afghan Parliament and a “leading” member of Jamiat-e Islami
[5] “Statement of Islamic Emirate regarding end of three day Eid ceasefire,” Voice of Jihad. June 17, 2018. https://alemarah-english(.)com/?p=30455%5C

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Kremlin's Campaign in Egypt

By Nataliya Bugayova with Jack Ulses

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin has successfully expanded its influence in Egypt – a historic partner of the U.S. and the West. Russia has secured approval to establish an industrial zone in Port Said; concluded major energy deals, including the construction of Egypt’s first nuclear power plant; increased weapons sales; and obtained Egypt’s diplomatic backing on a number of regional initiatives. The Kremlin is likely attempting to secure a naval base in Egypt in order to expand its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and contest U.S. freedom of maneuver through the Suez Canal. Russia cannot compete in the long-term with the U.S., which provides nearly $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt. The Kremlin will therefore focus on offering to support Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in areas of core concern for his constituencies, such as security, food, and energy. Russian activity in Egypt is part of the Kremlin’s regional campaign to expand its influence in the Middle East and Africa. The U.S. must use its leverage with Egypt not only to sustain its partnership with a key regional actor and guarantee its freedom of maneuver in the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal, but also to curb Sisi’s continued use of oppressive measures against his own population.

Read the full version of this article on the ISW website.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Russia Challenges Ukraine in the Sea of Azov

By Catherine Harris and Jack Ulses

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is conducting hybrid operations to secure a combined land and sea arc spanning from the occupied Crimean Peninsula through the Sea of Azov to Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s Caspian Sea Flotilla deployed naval vessels to the Sea of Azov in late May 2018. The ships ostensibly will defend a new bridge connecting Russia to Crimea. The Kremlin also used signature irregular warfare methods including information operations and snap military exercises to sow confusion and instability in port cities held by Ukraine along the Sea of Azov. The Kremlin holds a long-standing interest in obtaining de facto control over the region in order to secure economic resources and block Ukraine’s access to maritime industries. Russia may also intend to use these operations as a venue to destabilize Ukraine ahead of the scheduled 2019 Ukrainian Presidential and Parliamentary Elections. The Kremlin could also leverage a long-term consolidation around the Sea of Azov as a base from which to intensify military pressure on NATO in the Black Sea.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Contours of Anti-U.S. Iraqi Government Emerge

By Jessa Rose Dury-Agri, Patrick Hamon, and Omer Kassim 

Key Takeaway: Key Iraqi Shi’a and Kurdish leaders have signaled their support for a new Iran-backed political alliance, setting up a potential coalition with enough parliamentary seats to form the next Iraqi government. Such a governing coalition would further strengthen Iran’s position in Iraq and undermine the U.S. ability to secure its own interests in Iraq.

Iraqi nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Iranian proxy and Badr Organization head Hadi al-Ameri formed an alliance on June 12, 2018. Their respective electoral lists represent the two winningest alliances in Iraq’s federal legislative elections that occurred on May 12, 2018. Former Iraqi Prime Minister and current Vice President Nouri al-Maliki, Shi’a cleric Ammar al-Hakim, and two major Kurdish parties have signaled their support for the Sadr-Ameri alliance. A formal coalition emerging among these actors and the electoral lists they lead would clear the 165-seat majority threshold required to form a government. A Sadr-Ameri alliance under this scenario would not need support from blocs led by current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and secularist Ayad Allawi.

Al-Hakim’s Tayar al-Hikma al-Watani (National Wisdom Trend, NWT) is likely to join the Sadr-Ameri alliance. The NWT had previously announced its intention to ally with Sadr. An NWT leader indicated the group is a “cornerstone” of the Sadr-Ameri alliance, although the NWT has not yet formally announced its participation in the alliance. Maliki - the leader of the Itilaf Dawlat al-Qanoun (State of Law Alliance) – maintains an antagonistic relationship with Sadr but close ties to Iran and is positioning himself to join the alliance. Maliki seeks to leverage his electoral weight and strong ties with Ameri to secure a key position in the Iraqi government by overcoming a potential Sadr veto against his participation. The Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan are likely setting conditions to join the Sadr-Ameri alliance following a joint statement declaring the Sadr-alliance “a positive step.”

This emerging coalition may encounter obstacles before it can proceed to form the next Iraqi government. Disagreements over the position of Prime Minister and key ministerial posts may drive the different factions within the coalition apart. There will likely be a partial manual recount of votes following allegations of widespread electoral fraud that may change the final election results.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Iran-Backed Political Alliance Forms in Iraq

By Jessa Rose Dury-Agri, Patrick Hamon, and Omer Kassim

Key Takeaway: Iraq may form a government that undermines U.S. interests, tries to eject the U.S. from the region, and supports Iran. Nationalist Iraqi Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has allied with Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of the coalition of Iranian-backed militias and their political wings. Sadr and Ameri lead the two winningest alliances in Iraq’s federal legislative elections and are nearing the 165-seat threshold necessary to form a government if Shi’a cleric Ammar al-Hakim (19 seats) and secularist Ayad Allawi (21 seats) follow through on their previously announced intention to ally with Sadr.

Sadr and Ameri will likely attempt to woo current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi or former Prime Minister and current Vice President Nouri al-Maliki to gain support of one of their coalitions, or alternatively seek to fragment both leaders’ respective coalitions to form a government. They may also seek to gain support from some or all Kurdish parties and Iran friendly Sunni parties in order to reach the government formation threshold. Both Sadr and Ameri may push for the full expulsion of U.S. forces from Iraq and will further the entrenchment of Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces in the Iraqi security apparatus.

For the full Iraq Council of Representatives seat allocation figures, see ISW's election results graphic.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Syria Situation Report: May 2-29, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

This graphic mark the latest installment of the Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria Direct. The map depicts significant developments in the war in Syria during the period May 2-29, 2018. The control of terrain represented on the map is accurate as of May 25, 2018.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Breaking Down Iraq's Election Results

By Jessa Rose Dury-Agri and Patrick Hamon

Iraq held a federal election on May 12, 2018 – the fifth nationwide election since Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003. The election was marked by a historically low turnout rate and fraud allegations, yet witnessed fewer security incidents than elections in previous years.

None of the electoral lists secured the 165-seat majority required to begin forming the next government. Preliminary results that Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court has yet to certify indicate populist Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his “Toward Reform” list won the election with 54 Council of Representatives seats. The Iran-backed “Conquest Alliance” led by Iranian proxy and Badr Organization Secretary General Hadi al-Ameri took second place with 47 seats, while the “Victory Alliance” list led by current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi – in power since 2014 – finished third with 42 seats. Sadr and other key powerbrokers are in negotiations to form a governing coalition that reaches the 165-seat threshold.

The accompanying graphic below breaks down Iraq’s Council of Representatives seat allocation based on initial election results.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) will provide continuous updates on the government formation process and the attendant implications for U.S. interests and policy in Iraq. You can sign up for e-mail updates on ISW’s website.

Click the image below to view an enlarged version.