Many a conflict in Afghanistan, and a sanctions round
Copyright Ibrahim Moiz
13 November 2018
It is strange that the western third of Afghanistan, whose territory is both strategic and historic – see the great cities Herat and Zaranj and the timeworn Badghis plain – is almost studiously ignored or neglected in most literature on the country. The neglect is partly understandable – the west borders Turkmenistan and Iran, which has in recent decades been rather less accessible to outsiders than Afghanistan’s other neighbours, and nor does it really feature the sorts of fashionable radicals – Al-Qaeda and their fellow travelers – as does the east. Nonetheless the west has been an epicenter of momentous goings-on for years, and in particular the revamped Taliban insurgency has especially laid down stronger roots here than may have been originally expected by those who considered it a peculiarly Pashtun phenomenon. At the start of November 2018, a United States missive slapping sanctions on seven mostly important Taliban commanders brought the west back into focus. Together with these commanders, who shall be further discussed below, the sanction – which was backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – targeted the Iranian paramilitary officers Ebrahim Ouhadi and Esmail Razavi, who were described as liaisons in a growing nexus with the Taliban insurgency[i]. This article will examine the history and substance of such accusations. It focuses on three intertwined factors – Tehran’s role in Afghanistan; Taliban dispute; and the politicization that should caution against committing too strongly to such claims.
Tehran and the Taliban: A troubled timeline
It is somewhat ironic that today Tehran stands accused of collaboration with the Taliban insurgency by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi: historically, quite the opposite was true. In the 1990s Tehran was a major opponent of the Taliban emirate, funding, arming, and whipping together combination after combination of militia commanders [ii] in an attempt to thwart a movement it claimed – as would the United States and the NATO-installed regime in Kabul soon enough – was simply a puppet of Pakistani military intelligence. Along with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the only governments that recognized an internationally beleaguered emirate whose prowess on the ground was stymied by its diplomatic isolation. Indeed, while Riyadh and Abu Dhabi soon withdrew their recognition during the United States’ 2001 invasion, Tehran went further: its praetorian commander Rahim Safavi actually helped oust the emirate from Herat in November 2001, his forces to all purposes fighting alongside the same Great Satan that he was so fond of verbally lashing. Nor was this dissonance limited to Safavi: Iranian generalissimo Ghassem Soleimany, soon to be known as the architect of Iranian expansionism in the region, spearled collaboration with the United States[iii]. Afghan militias and leaders who built relations with Washington – most famously their Shia coreligionists in the Hazara Wahdat group, but also the largely Tajik commanders who coopted Afghan security and military portfolios in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 conquest – were already close to Iran and had been since at least 1995.
Iran’s overall role in Afghanistan is worth remembering. As with most Muslim governments, Tehran backed the mujahidin in the 1980s, but several factors – its debilitating and costly war with Iraq foremost – prevented it from committing the same levels of support as did Pakistan. Moreover, the main liaison with the mujahidin, Hossein Montazeri, was purged in 1988-89, and it is unclear that his policy was continued. Tehran did persuade several Hazara factions, with whom it inevitably had the warmest if not closest relations, into forming the Wahdat faction in 1989, yet sect was not necessarily a determinist in its relations: most Hazara factions were ensconced in mountainous central Afghanistan, a considerable distance from Iran. And indeed in 1992-95 Tehran abstained from supporting Wahdat’s revolt against the stopgap Afghan “ruler”, Burhanuddin Rabbani, a revolt that was backed by a former client-turned-opponent of Tehran, Hizb emir Gulbadin Hikmatyar. The Sunni leader Hikmatyar had in the early 1980s successfully persuaded Tehran to expel a Shia leader seen as pro-West, Asif Muhsini; yet by the middle 1990s the tables had turned, as Iran backed Rabbani, and Muhsini, against the Wahdat-Hizb revolt. It was not until both Wahdat and Hizb joined the Northern Alliance against the Taliban emirate that they were returned to Iran’s favour – yet when Hikmatyar opposed the 2001 invasion, he was unceremoniously expelled from Iran.
This topsy-turvy history indicates Iran’s tactical, rather than strategic, moves on a national level in Afghanistan, where even shared Shia sect is not a given clincher. At a regional level, it tended to back what can be tentatively described as “centrifugal” actors in western and central Afghanistan. The earliest Hazara mujahidin shura in central Afghanistan faced several challenges from Khomeneist opponents, while in western Afghanistan Iran simply hedged its bets. The best bet among these was the largely autonomous mujahidin commander Ismail Khan, an army defector formally linked with Rabbani’s Jamiat faction who became the preeminent regional commander in the late 1980s and the self-styled emir of a practical city-state in Herat during the middle 1990s. The main factor appears to have been Ismail’s control over Herat, a city linked economically and culturally to Iran, and the trade routes in western Afghanistan. Despite early cordiality, he had been ousted in 1995 after a major campaign against the Taliban emirate and captured in 1997, languishing in prison until a spectacular jailbreak in 2000. Ismail returned at the helm of a loose coalition of commanders in 2001 and promptly reassumed his old position.
This time, however, Ismail faced major challenges. His jealous autonomy caused alarm in the Nato-backed Afghan state, as did his social conservatism – not too different to the ousted Taliban emirate – which was doubly condemned in this period, and his systemic autocratic rule. He was also perceived, not entirely correctly, as Iran’s man, by his rivals in Kabul – among them the finance minister Ashraf Ghani, who opposed the fact that Ismail continued to collect funds in the west on his own behalf rather than Kabul’s. In 2003-04, this culminated in a major conflict between Ismail and various pro-Kabul competitors that eventually resulted in the Herat emir’s ouster. What is relevant to this article is that one such competitor was the Shindand-based Nurzai Pashtun chieftain Amanullah Khan, who Ismail claimed was backed by Hamid Karzai’s Nurzai lieutenant in the tribal affairs ministry, Muhammad Arif[iv]. Amanullah’s enmity with Ismail did not pay off, for he was mysteriously killed at about the same time as the Herat emir was ousted from power in autumn 2004. His son, Javaid Nangialai, soon joined the Taliban insurgency – though he was always autonomous from actual Taliban control, operating more as a vassal during a period when the Taliban insurgency had not yet set up strong roots in the west.
Panjpai competition in the Taliban insurgency
The Nurzai clan in western Afghanistan had always been a relatively influential and independent actor. The Taliban emirate had been careful to promote Nurzai commanders in Herat[v], and the western insurgency, which came into its own by 2007, featured several Nurzai commanders – among them Abdul-Mannan Niazi, an emirate-period governor, and Bazmuhammad Harith, a major commander in Farah Province, as well as Nangialai – who were largely independent of the Taliban command structure. In summer 2011, Harith imprisoned the Taliban military second-in-command, Qari Ismail Andar, who had tried to implement central control over the western Nurzai. But the Taliban military commander, Abdul-Qayum Zakir, declined to act – possibly because his close collaborator, Taliban spymaster Hafiz Abdul-Majeed, came from the Nurzai (albeit a different section)[vi]; in 2012, Zakir and Abdul-Majeed had Ismail dismissed for allegedly negotiating with Kabul without permission[vii]. The Nurzai were hardly a homogenous force – a leader such as Abdul-Majeed, from the Spin Boldak border with Pakistan far to the east, was much closer to the Taliban central command than his western counterparts – but they were not a factor to be ignored.
While clan should not be portrayed as a deterministic factor in Taliban spats, competition in the insurgency was often portrayed tactically in clan terms featuring three clans in particular from the so-called “Panjpai” section of the Durrani confederation: the Alizai, Ishaqzai, and Nurzai clans. The Alizai commander Zakir was engaged in a barely concealed power struggle with the Ishaqzai commander Akhtar Mansoor, then the insurgency’s deputy leader and later its emir during 2015-16. This was not a periphery-versus-centre conflict, as both belonged to the Taliban core, but rather competition over that core. Akhtar had promoted to the Taliban financier’s position another Ishaqzai leader, Gulagha Hidayatullah; while this was perhaps related to both Hidayatullah’s administrative skills and the fact that both were lifelong confidantes to the Taliban emir Umar Mujahid, many competitors to these two ambitious leaders began to murmur darkly about Ishaqzai domination. These included Zakir’s former deputy and longtime collaborator, Abdul-Rauf Khadim, who came from the same Helmand Alizai background as Zakir and who indeed broke away from the insurgency outright; he would later join Daesh and try to mount a revolt in southern Afghanistan against both Zakir and Mansur.[viii]
Khadim was replaced with Ibrahim Sadar, another commander from Helmand who was seen, rightly or wrongly, as Akhtar’s lieutenant insofar as he could pose a challenge to Zakir; this impression was reinforced when in 2014 Akhtar politely but firmly replaced Zakir, for “health reasons”, with Sadar. Sadar had only recently been released from captivity in Pakistan, as had another Akhtar lieutenant, Ishaqzai commander Abdul-Mannan Abdul-Rahim, who quickly reoccupied the Helmand command he had held during the peak of the anti-British campaign in the late 2000s[ix]. An Alizai member of the Quetta shura, Naeem Baraikh – who had commanded southern Helmand against the British and American forces while Abdul-Rahim captained northern Helmand – by contrast reportedly backed Zakir, and possibly facilitated Zakir’s links with Iran – though evidence to this effect is rather sketchy and anecdotal.[x]
At any rate Zakir’s expected conflict with Akhtar never really transpired. It took considerable mediation by a “neutral” Nurzai commander, Matiullah Nanai, to reconcile Zakir with Akhtar by 2015[xi], probably partly because both were threatened by Khadim’s budding Daesh revolt. As it happened, this revolt waned quite meekly in 2015 after an airstrike slew Khadim, though Daesh remained a bigger threat in eastern Afghanistan. Zakir’s mood was hardly helped when that summer the Afghan regime leaked that the long-missing emir Umar – to whom Akhtar and Hidayatullah had both enjoyed near-exclusive access – had been deceased for two years and when Akhtar promptly announced and won a snap election, from where Zakir stormed out in pique after the result was confirmed.[xii]
Zakir, and many – perhaps most – senior Taliban leaders resented Akhtar’s election, and briefly backed Umar’s son, Muhammad Yaqub, and brother Abdul-Mannan Umari as possible alternatives. By the end of the summer, however, both Yaqub and Umari confirmed their allegiance to Mansur in order to preempt conflict, whereupon most dissidents sullenly accepted the status quo or “retired”[xiii]. This was not the case with one senior member of the Quetta shura, however. Rasoul Mujahid was a Nurzai commander who had served as a governor in western Afghanistan during the emirate, and among the few Quetta shura members with strong contacts in the west. He drew a dramatic narrative where the dastardly Akhtar had not only usurped the emir’s position, but secretly murdered Umar. This was hardly a convincing tale, and it is perhaps for this reason that most other dissident leaders stayed away, but it was a good enough pretext for various “centrifugal” fronts in Afghanistan – most notably at Zabul and at Herat – to latch onto Rasoul’s bandwagon. His collaborators included the western Nurzai commanders Abdul-Mannan Niazi, Bazmuhammad Harith, and Javaid Nangialai; from this group, Niazi was secretly backed by Kabul, and would soon enough take a government amnesty.
The Zabul mutiny, crushed in winter 2015 by Taliban loyalists, is beyond the scope of this article, but the Herat mutiny was led by Nangialai against the Taliban provincial second-in-command Abdul-Samad Farouqi. Given Iran’s history of backing centrifugal fronts in the west, Akhtar seems to have feared that they would back the western mutineers, which could potentially open up a vast front ranging from Nimrouz, where Rasoul enjoyed support, and Harith’s stronghold Farah to Herat Province where Niazi and Nangialai were based. In spring 2016, therefore, just days before the campaign commenced, he dispatched Sadar to negotiate with Tehran, building on the theme that the mainstream Taliban shura was a more reliable neighbour than the mutineers, especially with Daesh lurking in the region and looking for affiliates. The central thrust seems to be that Iran should not back the mutiny and should preferably back the Taliban. This argument seems to have persuaded Tehran, and Akhtar’s position was further strengthened by the fact that Pakistan meanwhile arrested Rasoul. Buoyed by this and the fact that Nangialai was taking a sharp battering against Farouqi, Akhtar visited Iran himself[xiv]; when he returned to Pakistan he was slain by a US airstrike, virtually the only one in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.
It was fortunate for the insurgency that Akhtar’s succession had been already determined in order to preempt a 2015-style conflict; he was replaced with his Nurzai deputy, Hibatullah Akhundzada, who as an unobtrusive and self-effacing preacher was far more palatable. Soon enough both the senior Taliban dissidents as well as many mutineers, including Harith, had announced their allegiance to Hibatullah; reports that the Helmand-based commanders Sadar and Abdul-Rahim have opposed Hibatullah are largely circular or shakily sourced[xv], and appear to reflect wishful thinking more than anything. With Rasoul, Harith, and Niazi ousted from the picture in different ways, the revolt had shrunk merely to Shindand, where Nangialai continues to fight doggedly to the present day, possibly with covert assistance from Kabul. Its official leader, Abdul-Rauf Arifi, is another Nurzai commander but from Spin Boldak, and with weak roots in the west. It still has nuisance value – the loyalist commander Farouqi was injured in combat against Nangialai in winter 2017 – but it appears now to be more among the burgeoning independent militias in Afghanistan rather than a genuine threat to the Taliban insurgency.
The sanctioned Taliban commanders in the November 2018 resolution include, in roughly descending order, military commander Ibrahim Sadar, former spymaster Hafiz Abdul-Majeed Nurzai, military second-in-command Daud Muzzammil, shura member Naeem Baraikh, Helmand commander Abdul-Mannan Abdul-Rahim, Herat second-in-command Abdul-Samad Farouqi, and one Abdul-Aziz Zamani. With the exception of Muzzammil, an Ishaqzai commander who operates in Farah adjacent to Iran, and Zamani, who appears to be a mid-level liaison, we have encountered each commander in this tale, sometimes on different sides in inter-Taliban disputes.
This should reinforce the fact that while the reports that these commanders liaised with Iran are not baseless, they appear to be tactical and have been exaggerated for political purposes. Put bluntly, the West likes its villains in one camp, and its clients are quite aware of this and prone to exaggerate links between said villains. Much as every setback against the insurgency was once blamed on Pakistan, it is now commonplace to hear Afghan officials and government sources speak of an Iranian tryst with the Taliban, sometimes even tossing Russia into the mix – since after 2014 Russia is widely confirmed to be in competition with the West.
Yet both Iran and Russia have a long history of antipathy, or at best guarded hostility, with the Taliban group. To be sure, Russia has recently invited a regional delegation including Taliban emissaries to a conference, but this is more reflective of its desire to seize the momentum in prevailing trends than indicative of a tryst; the same can safely be said of Iran. In contrast to the Taliban link with Pakistan, which is deeply rooted and strategic, however, these links appear to have been purely tactical if not incidental. Had Sadar not visited Iran, for instance, it is perfectly plausible that Iran would have backed mutineers against the Taliban insurgency – much as they were (similarly anecdotally) rumoured to have attempted with Abdul-Qayum Zakir in 2015. Had Daesh not reared up in Afghanistan – a threat that Iran and Russia, like the West, are always happy to exaggerate – it is quite possible that Taliban diplomacy with Iran would not have worked.
Moreover Russian wariness of Sunni militancy towards its south, which has led it to pursue such merciless destruction in Syria, is hardly diminished. Much as Turkey has, building on shared suspicions of the West, tried to placate Russian forces in Syria and steer them away from outright destroying the Syrian mujahidin in Idlib, so has Pakistan energetically tried to reconcile Russia to the Taliban – but there is no concrete evidence as yet that this has worked or will work in the long run. Nor does it indicate strong pre-existing links (indeed the Taliban political department have fairly cordial diplomatic links with at least one major Syrian faction, Ahrarul-Sham, that Russia until very recently considered beyond the pale.) There is certainly greater evidence of Iran collaboration with the Taliban insurgency since 2016, but nothing to indicate that this is anything more, as with so many Iranian experiments in Afghanistan, than a tactical move.
Nonetheless, the Iranian claims – shaky though they are – have been seized upon by a Riyadh increasingly fearful of Iranian hegemony in the region, and an Abu Dhabi that is quite happy to enable its neighbour. It is also an attractive option because Riyadh’s links with the United States’ rightwing regime, as well as increasingly with Israel, are largely built on exaggerating Iranian influence. To be sure, Iranian influence – often very destructive, as in Iraq and Syria – is a threat to Saudi Arabia; and to be sure, exaggerated conspiracies are not the preserve of Riyadh and its enablers (see the ludicrous claims of Saudi collaboration with Daesh against Iran[xvi]). Nonetheless, the exaggerated, if not baseless, claims of an Iranian nexus with the Afghan insurgency say more about its authors than facts on the ground.
Taliban Sanctionees; Biographies; and Evidence
Ibrahim Sadar. Mulla Khudaidadd Muhammad Ibrahim Sadar Alakozai served as Taliban military commander since 2014; he served as second-in-command in 2012-14. Sadar came from Helmand and he lost a foot in the mujahidin campaign in the 1980s. An early Taliban member, he served as a field commander on the Bagram frontline during the emirate. He helped organize the insurgency but during 2006-07 Pakistan imprisoned him, only to release him in 2012-13 whereupon Akhtar Mansur promoted him as second-in-command to Abdul-Qayum Zakir, whom he replaced in 2014. During 2016, Sadar negotiated with Iran. During October 2016, he captained an assault on Lashkargah together with Abdul-Mannan Abdul-Rahim. Sadar’s promotion by Akhtar has put him in that camp, but he largely seems to avoid shura politics. The basis is solid for his sanction given his role in the 2016 talks. Note: An airstrike slew Sadar during 2019.
Hafiz Abdul-Majeed. Hafiz Abdul-Majeed Nurzai served as Taliban spymaster and a Quetta shura member since the 2000s. He had served at a mujahidin front – captained, incidentally, by Hamid Karzai’s Nurzai future minister Muhammad Arif – at Spin Boldak in Qandahar during the 1980s. An early Taliban member, he served as Qandahar sheriff during the emirate and conducted negotiations at the city during its 2001 siege; even after the city fell he fought on in the hospital and was later injured when he retreated to Pakistan whereupon he immediately organized insurgency, mainly in Spin Boldak’s Nurzai community. He reportedly opposed Akhtar Mansur’s candicacy and he was affiliated with Akhtar’s competitor, Abdul-Qayum Zakir, as well as coming from the same community as Abdul-Rauf Arifi, who later participated in Rasoul Mujahid’s mutiny. However, he did not join the mutiny. The basis of this sanction is weak, though if Iran has actually backed Zakir in 2014-15 it is not impossible.
Daud Muzzammil. Mulla Muhammad Daud Muzzammil Ishaqzai served as Taliban second-in-command since 2018. He had formerly served as second-in-command to his Ishaqzai clansmate at Helmand Province, Abdul-Mannan Abdul-Rahim. During May 2018, Muzzammil captained an assault on Farah city. He has taken up the insurgency command in this southwestern region, which borders Iran. The basis of the sanction is weak but plausible; given Farah and Helmand’s proximity, it is quite possible that he had contacts in Iran.
Naeem Baraikh. Mulla Muhammad Naeem Baraikh Alizai served as a Taliban shura member as well as on-off Helmand commander. He captained Taliban operations in southern Helmand against both the British and US expeditions in the 2000s and 2010s and as such was well-connected to contraband across the Pakistan and possibly Iranian border. He was close to Abdul-Qayum Zakir, though it is not certain if he supported Zakir against Akhtar Mansur, to whom he had deputized at the aviation ministry during the emirate. If Zakir was indeed linked to Iran in 2014-15, then it is possible that Naeem was as well; nonetheless there is no solid evidence so the basis is weak if plausible.
Abdul-Mannan Abdul-Rahim. Mulla Muhammad Abdul-Mannan Abdul-Rahim Akhund Ishaqzai served as Taliban Helmand commander in 2003-08 and then 2013 onwards. He had lost an ear during the 1980s campaign against the communists. A Taliban colonel during the emirate, Abdul-Mannan captained Taliban operations largely in northern Helmand against the British army during the 2000s. He surrendered voluntarily to the Pakistani regime in 2008 and he was imprisoned until 2012-13, whereupon he reassumed the command in Helmand Province and has captained the Taliban insurgency’s increasing progress in that province. He may have been promoted to the shura as a result. Abdul-Mannan’s Ishaqzai clan has given rise to speculation that he is linked with Akhtar Mansur, but otherwise he seems to have avoided shura politics. Abdul-Mannan’s various codenames have helped lead at least ten separate reports – the majority in 2007-08 – that he was killed, but finally the United States seems to have cottoned on. During October 2016, Abdul-Mannan’s increased campaigns around Lashkargah culminated in an assault on the city alongside Ibrahim Sadar. Given Helmand’s proximity with Iran and Abdul-Mannan’s reported proximity, the claim may hold, but there is no real evidence; he also operates in northern Helmand rather than the bordering south. The basis is therefore weak if plausible. Note: The United States finally slew Abdul-Mannan during December 2018; this time, the government photographed his corpse.
Abdul-Samad Farouqi. Mulla Abdul-Samad Farouqi – mispelled by the United States with typical rigour as Abdullah Samad Farouqi – served as Taliban Herat second-in-command, and probably the provincial commander in fact. He captained the Taliban campaign against the mutiny mounted by Javaid Nangialai in 2016. During December 2017, he was injured in this same on-off conflict and he was taken to Pakistan for treatment. The basis is likely given that it was the difficulty at this front that prompted Taliban negotiation with Tehran.
Abdul-Aziz Zamani. This is the only Taliban member on this list whom I do not know about and can not comment.
Citations to follow in sha Allah
[i] Thomas Joscelyn, “US and partner nations seek to disrupt Iran-Taliban nexus,” The Long War Journal, 23 October 2018. https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2018/10/us-and-partner-nations-seek-to-disrupt-iran-taliban-nexus.php; accessed 14 November 2018
[ii] Perhaps the best overview of this support comes in Antonio Giustozzi’s Empires of Mud: War and Warlords in Afghanistan (London: Hurst & Co Publishers, 2009).
[iii] Dexter Filkins, “The Shadow Commander,” New Yorker, 30 September 2013.
[v] These included most prominently the onetime Herat corps commander Abdul-Salam Majruh, a Nurzai from Helmand; his relative distance from the Taliban movement proper – he was a Hizb member before joining the emirate – did not prevent his instatement, which even puzzled other Taliban leaders. See Mike Martin, An Intimate War: An oral history of the Helmand conflict, 1978-2012 (London: Hurst & Co, 2014); and Abdul-Salam Zaeef, My Life with the Taliban, tr. Alex Strick (London: Hurst & Co, 2010). Abdul-Salam, who was often mistaken with namesakes in the Taliban movement, was later killed in Helmand against the British campaign; Bill Roggio, “Afghan forces kill senior Taliban commander in Helmand,” The Long War Journal, 5 May 2009.
[vi] Ron Moreau, “Taliban feud: tribal rivalries, limited resources split commanders,” The Daily Beast, 17 August 2011, https://www.thedailybeast.com/taliban-feud-tribal-rivalries-limited-resources-splinter-commanders; accessed 14 November 2018. While the article represented a years-long tradition in Moreau’s confident over-optimism on the Taliban insurgency’s imminent collapse, its basic facts relevant to this paper are correct.
[vii] The Long War Journal, “Taliban leader confirms infighting and vows revenge, plots to kill Quetta shura leadership,” 12 May 2012, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2012/05/taliban_leader_confi.php. It should be noted that Ismail was publicly implicated by government sources that prompted his arrest, though it is not clear how factual the allegations against him were. Dean Nelson and Ben Farmer, “Taliban paid ‘protection money’ by Afghan government,” The Daily Telegraph, 16 April 2012. Note that this source, which I parroted at the time, claimed that Zakir and Abdul-Majeed had executed Ismail. This turned out to be untrue; Ismail was simply sidelined and removed to his native Ghazni Province, where he continues to captain a front in its east.
[viii] The best source on Khadim appears in Borhan Osman, “The Shadows of ‘Islamic State’ in Afghanistan: what threat does it hold?”, Afghanistan Analysts Network, 12 February 2015; https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/the-shadows-of-islamic-state-in-afghanistan-what-threat-does-it-hold/; accessed 14 November 2018. Giustozzi’s The Islamic State in Khorasan: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the New Central Asian Jihad (London: Hurst & Co, 2018).
[ix] Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai, “Freed Taliban prisoners in Pakistan and Afghanistan return to jihad,” The Daily Beast, 6 December 2013, https://www.thedailybeast.com/freed-taliban-prisoners-in-pakistan-and-afghanistan-return-to-jihad; accessed 14 November 2018.
[x] Giustozzi, Khorasan, is the only source that confirms links between Zakir and Baraikh on one hand and Iran on the other, though he claims that this was soon eclipsed by emergent links between Akhtar – and even more so his successor Hibatullah – and Iran. While his book is valuable in its insights on internal Daesh workings and particularly eastern Afghanistan, however, his analysis on southern and western Afghanistan lack the same rigour and are often based almost exclusively on interested anecdotal sources that sometimes contradict one another. For instance, he first alleges, based off what he himself admits are allegations, that Akhtar’s network enabled Daesh commander Khadim as a counterweight to an allegedly Iranian-backed Zakir, but ignores the fact that Khadim was far more hostile to Akhtar – whose Ishaqzai network was a major reason for Khadim’s defection – than he ever was to Zakir; he also ignores the fact that it was Akhtar’s lieutenant, Abdul-Mannan Abdul-Rahim, who captained the crackdown against Khadim in 2015. He portrays what was a conflict involving at least four power centres in southern Afghanistan – the networks of Akhtar and Zakir respectively, the Daesh front founded by Khadim, and the Afghan government’s loyalists, with both Pakistan and Iran lurking in the region – with by far the most significant violence taking place between Akhtar’s network and the government, both Zakir and Khadim relatively insignificant by 2015 – into a two-sided conflict pitting Khadim on various sides of the divide between Akhtar and Zakir.
[xi] Borhan Osman, “Taleban in Transition 2: Who is in charge now?”, Afghanistan Analysts Network, 22 June 2016, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/taleban-in-transition-2-who-is-in-charge-of-the-taleban/; accessed 14 November 2018.
[xii] Syed Ibrahim Moiz. “Afghanistan: Finding peace amidst chaos,” Policy Perspectives 13, No 2 (2016): 131-47. doi:10.13169/polipers.13.2.0131.
[xiii] The “retirees” included senior Taliban members Tayeb Agha, who at until that point served as a “foreign minister” at the Qatar-based office; Hasan Rahmani, emirate-period Qandahar governor-general and a former mediator between Akhtar and Zakir; Abdul-Razzaq Akhundzada, emirate-period interior minister; Abdul-Rahman Zahid, emirate-period foreign minister; and the front commanders Saleem Haqqani, an emirate-period minister, and Abdul-Sattar Akhund. Hasan passed away in early 2016, but Abdul-Razzaq and Abdul-Sattar returned and announced their allegiance to Hibatullah Akhundzada in December 2016, while Zahid and Saleem did the same in November 2018.
[xiv] Fabrizio Foschini, “Under the Mountain: A pre-emptive Taleban spring offensive in Shindand,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, 20 April 2016, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/under-the-mountain-a-pre-emptive-taleban-spring-offensive-in-shindand/; accessed 14 November 2018.
[xv] Many such reports seem to take the fact that Sadar and Abdul-Mannan operate in Helmand while Hibatullah is based outside Afghanistan, as sufficient proof of a split. Yet this ignores the fact that Sadar and Abdul-Mannan’s official area of responsibility is indeed Helmand, and that Hibatullah’s location away from the battlefield is simply continuation of the same policy that has been adopted since at least the late 2000s, when a number of senior Taliban leaders were slain in the battlefield. As with Giustozzi’s claims on Khadim, moreover, the sources are shaky and at times contradictory; some sources claim that the Helmand commanders are pro-Pakistan, others that they oppose Pakistan; some claim that they are pro-Iran, others anti-Iran. Giustozzi goes so far as to claim that Hibatullah has relocated to Mashhad, Iran, and set up a new shura there, but this is otherwise completely uncorroborated. The point is that such claims have to be taken with extreme caution, based as they are off both contradictory dichotomy and shaky sources. For an early example of such shoddy reportage, see Jon Boone and Sami Yousafzai, “Taliban facing financial crisis as civilian deaths deter donors,” The Guardian, 29 November 2016; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/29/afghan-taliban-facing-financial-crisis-as-civilian-deaths-deter-donors; accessed 14 November 2018.
[xvi] Antonio Giustozzi, “The Arab-Gulf connections of the Taliban,” in Pan-Islamic Connections: Transnational networks between South Asia and the Gulf, ed. Christophe Jaffrelot (London: Hurst & Co, 2017). Yet in Khorasan, Giustozzi instead claims that it was Qatar, not Saudi Arabia, that backed Daesh – again based off the verbal testimony of Daesh foot soldiers, hardly unimpeachable sources, and off logic that is questionable at best. It is unfortunate that Giustozzi’s recent work, particularly when dealing with Daesh and the international dimension of the conflict, lacks the rigour and comprehensive care of his earlier work.