Afghanistan (Departure) Part Two: The Doha talks

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has terminated a renewal of the intra-Afghan peace process that was undermined from the outset by the Doha Agreement between the US and the Taliban. While the US and Afghan government were working towards peace through talks the Taliban were working towards peace through victory.

The history of peace talks is one of successes, failures, and setbacks, and armed conflicts end for a number of reasons, including through peace processes, the resignation of one side, mutual disengagement, foreign intervention, and victory by one side. We cannot know what the future holds for Afghanistan, but we can be sure that the intra-Afghan talks are over as a means of substantive change and that the Taliban currently have control of nearly all of Afghanistan.

This blog is focused on the peace process in the period between 2018 and 2021, beginning with discussions about power sharing, and then the Doha process, which resulted in the Doha Agreement between the Taliban and the US and the intra-Afghan talks that followed. During this process the US was signalling its intention to leave Afghanistan while pushing the peace talks forwards. The Taliban were preparing for power through any means.

According to Antonio Giustozzi, an academic, there were intimations by the Taliban that they were willing to share power, the first in discussions with the United States in 2018-19 for an interim government in which they held a third of power, and the second in April 2021 when they stated they wanted a 50% share of power. These were rejected by the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, who chose to rely on his armed forces and rejected US pressure to reach a deal. How the power sharing would have worked in practice is a question that was never answered, and we have no way of knowing if the Taliban would have settled for power sharing or if it was merely a ploy to give them more time to pursue the military option. Ghani’s major miscalculation was to put his faith in an Afghan army that had been chronically undermined by the corruption and mismanagement of its own government. In July 2021 the Taliban announced their willingness to consider a three-month ceasefire and the drafting of a new constitution, conditional on preconditions dating back six years. By this time, they were negotiating from a position of strength, and it is not clear if it was a genuine proposal or part of a stalling tactic.

A major problem during the period after the Doha Agreement was that the Taliban were not held to account for their actions after it was signed. This was discussed in the blog published in March (see below), prior to the announcement in April that all US forces would be leaving Afghanistan by September 2021. I argued that that any credible assessment of the Taliban’s commitment to the peace deal would conclude that the criteria set out at Doha were not being met. This was based on a report by the Afghanistan Study Group and open-source reporting of events on the ground, where the violence had increased and judges, politicians, journalists, and others who might challenge Taliban authority were being assassinated.  At the time the Taliban were estimated to control 52% of Afghanistan. After the final withdrawal date was set, and the US drawdown accelerated, the Taliban offensive became more aggressive, and they started to target the urban areas. This was left unchallenged by the US, sending a signal to the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan that the US was intent on leaving and that there would be no further intervention on the government’s behalf. The only change of note was to push back the leaving date from May to September, but this had more to do with the practicalities of withdrawal, as opposed to being in response to anything the Taliban were doing.

This signalling was evident earlier. In his speech to the nation on 31st August, Mr Biden was adamant that the decision to withdraw was the right one and took responsibility for his own actions in ending the war, but also laid some of the blame at the feet of the Trump administration. He had a point as while the peace process goes all the way back to the Taliban’s ouster in 2001, there was a significant shift in the momentum towards talks with the Taliban by the Afghan and US governments in 2018. This included the US breaking away and signing a separate peace deal with the Taliban on 29th February 2019, scheduling a partial drawdown of troops by July 2020, and complete withdrawal by 1st May 2021. The agreement was endorsed by the fifteen-member UN Security Council, and the US Acting Deputy Permanent Representative described the previous year of US diplomatic engagement with the Taliban as ‘unprecedented’. There had been an escalation in violence when the peace process was revitalised, signalling that both governments were worried, and the willingness of the US to complete the deal without the Afghan government and of the UNSC to recognise it, sent an unequivocal signal to the Taliban and the government that not only was the US ready to leave, but the international community had also accepted it too.

The priorities of the US were underlined by a plan to invite the Taliban and Afghan government to Camp David and its subsequent cancelation in September 2019. This only emerged once it had been cancelled after a US soldier and twelve civilians were killed in a bombing. There had been outrage over the deaths of the civilians and the invitation of the Taliban in the first place, but such a high-risk endeavour could not be undertaken once an American had been killed. Other civilian deaths had not resulted in the abandonment of the peace process, which carried on in December and led to the signing of the Doha Agreement in February 2020. Killing civilians was one thing, killing US personnel another.

According to Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), the Taliban were ‘running down the clock’ by preparing for war as the US was preparing for peace. With their deal with the US in place, the Taliban gradually increased their attacks, while the Afghan security forces were instructed to adopt an ‘active defence’ stance, which meant that they would not go on the offensive. In the last quarter of 2020 assassinations took place in the cities, targeting people who would oppose the Taliban. Martin G Weinbaum, an academic, notes that the Taliban strategy seemed to be aimed at luring Afghan negotiators into another round of talks on their own terms. Throughout talks with both the US and the Afghan government, the Taliban refused to move substantively on their goals or core beliefs. None of this resulted in a change of stance by the US.

The peace deal between the US and the Taliban strongly favoured the latter. In exchange for a commitment to withdraw its forces, the US extracted a commitment from the Taliban to not attack foreign troops, break its links with al-Qaeda, and to engage in peace talks with the Afghan government. A deadline was set for US withdrawal and the Afghan government was expected to release Taliban prisoners, despite there being no inclusion of the government in the talks between the Taliban and the US. This was also sent a signal of US intent to leave as it was hurried, favoured the Taliban, who would have understood the Trump administration’s intent to withdraw in the context of recent behaviour elsewhere. The most notable, and arguably as catastrophic, was a spectacularly mismanaged withdrawal from Syria, which allowed a Turkish incursion that subsequently led the Syrian Kurds to reach a compromise with the Assad regime. The subsequent progress of the intra-Afghan talks was woeful: they took over six months to get to the point where procedures and protocol were discussed for three months. Again, there were no consequences and the only side making concessions was the Afghan government.

The Taliban were playing the long game, understanding that foreign forces would eventually leave, and practicing a dual strategy of negotiation and escalation. However, the negotiating wasn’t happening in luxurious surrounds of Doha, it was happening on the ground in Afghanistan, as they brought local leaders on side as they advanced. The rapid collapse of resistance in the cities was a stark contrast to the slow but sure expansion of control of the countryside and towns. They no longer needed to talk, a far cry from their position after their fall from power, when all they were asking for was amnesty for their leader, which was turned down by the US. It was also a different situation from when they were talking about power sharing, which itself may have been a ploy.

So why argue that a little more time was needed? Mr Biden was unequivocal that committing to stay a little longer would have put more American lives in danger and the argument for ‘one more push’ kept pushing withdrawal back for no discernible gain. The difference was that the peace process had accelerated since 2018 but with no benefits on the ground as the Taliban were ramping up their military campaign alongside their diplomatic efforts. On paper, the Doha Agreement was a success as it ended the war between the US and the Taliban, but it also led to the outright failure of the intra-Afghan talks as it was the foreign forces who were propping the Afghan military up. Despite the protestations of leaders in the US and the UK that the Afghan government was expected to survive for longer than it did, based as ever on ‘intelligence’ yet to be seen, there are two basic observations to be made. The first is that these assessments were about how long the government would last without outside support, and these were relatively short-term projections about how long they would ‘hold out’. There was an expectation that the end would come, the question was how long this would take. The second is that even with the support that remained the Afghan military was visibly struggling, and the Taliban were not only claiming more territory, but they also showed no intention of slowing down and were not making any notable concessions during the intra-Afghan talks. When the final withdrawal date was set, the Afghan government was doomed, and the Taliban had no reason to continue talking to the government as they were winning.

The peace process was not given time to work and there were no serious consequences for the Taliban when they failed to hold up their end of the Doha Agreement. There was an absence of any leverage from the US as a consequence, and the Afghan government was still expected to release prisoners and hold back its forces unless they were attacked. In the wake of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the peace process came to an end, and the only thing being discussed was the conditions of the surrender. The Doha process was ultimately flawed as it was an exit strategy before all else.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

The series of blogs on the Sahel will continue next month. The Talban takeover of Afghanistan, the evacuation efforts, and impact of the withdrawal of Western forces has been extensively covered in the media. This blog is partly based on materials cited in previous blogs on Afghanistan (see below).

Sources cited above are: The Guardian (Antonio Giustozzi) ‘The Taliban have retaken Afghanistan – this time, how will they rule it? at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/aug/16/Taliban-afghanistan-rule-hardline-coalition-powers ; The Afghanistan Analysts Network (Kate Clark) ‘The Taleban’s rise to power: As the US prepared for peace, the Taleban prepared for war’ at https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/war-and-peace/the-talebans-rise-to-power-as-the-us-prepared-for-peace-the-taleban-prepared-for-war/ ; The Diplomat (Marvin G. Weinbaum) ‘The 3 Myths That Sank the Afghan Peace Process’ at https://thediplomat.com/2021/08/the-3-myths-that-sank-the-afghan-peace-process/ ; An International Crisis Group chronology of the peace process since 2018 can be accessed at https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/afghanistan/afghanistan-between-february-2018-and-august-2020-timeline ; see also: The United States Institute for Peace at https://www.usip.org/programs/afghanistan-peace-process.

Part One of this blog, discussing the reasoning behind the US decision to end the military presence in Afghanistan and the consequences can be accessed at: https://turnerconflict.com/2021/08/31/afghanistan-departure-part-one-inevitable-and-mishandled/ . The previous blog on Afghanistan discussed above, written before the US decision can be accessed at: https://turnerconflict.com/2021/08/16/the-sahel-the-non-state-armed-groups-in-the-central-sahel/ .  

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Afghanistan (Departure) Part One: Inevitable and mishandled

The international mission to Afghanistan has now come to an end and the Taliban takeover is nearing completion. This has resulted in a furore of criticism focused on the handling of the withdrawal as Western politicians argue over the lack of preparation for an event that few had foreseen. There have also been criticisms of the decision to withdraw itself. The intention of the United States to leave Afghanistan has been very clear over the previous two years and there was significant pressure from the electorate to do so.

Western military interventions are unpopular at home and abroad. In the rare instances that they go well, such as Sierra Leone, they are lauded, but in the far more frequent cases where they are unsuccessful, such as Somalia and Iraq, critics call out Western politicians for their hubris and lack of understanding. There can also be transitory success, such as the French intervention in Mali in 2012 and NATO in Afghanistan after 9/11, which are then followed by reversal. The debates over intervention are not limited to ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’, and critics span the political spectrum, not being limited to isolationists, ani-imperialists, and pacifists. The people at the receiving end are as divided as some would rather risk running their own affairs and others dread the absence of the interveners. Afghanistan is what it looks like when the West leaves and it is not a pretty sight.

The Taliban return to power is a catastrophe for Afghanistan and the debacle of the Western withdrawal a disaster for Afghans who chose to work for them and the government. Despite Taliban reassurances that the returning Islamic Emirate will be different to the previous one and not seek retribution, away from the capital massacres have been reported and women are already being sent home. The desperation of the scenes at Kabul’s airport underlines the plain fact that people are literally terrified of the Taliban and would brave Taliban checkpoints and the threat of suicide attacks to get out of the country.  

The political earthquake unleashed in the capitals of the West has seen politicians react to the Afghan military and political collapse and the troops were sent back in. The spectacle of the hurried scramble to evacuate foreign nationals and Afghans was a stark contrast to the quiet exit of the US from Bagram airbase, a potent symbol of the US investment in Afghanistan, which is now in Taliban hands. The latter are now in a stronger position than they were since they last held power, controlling more territory, and reaping the benefits of equipment captured from the Afghan security forces. There is an incredible amount of blame flying around, plenty of accusations of betrayal, and shock at how quickly the final collapse occurred.

It is the consequences of the departure of international forces, itself a microcosm of the intervention as a whole, that has provoked a backlash of discontent in the West. When the decision to withdraw US troops was announced there was plenty of objections but nothing on the scale of the last two weeks. There was tacit recognition that the president had made a tough call and hope that Afghanistan would recede from the headlines as the new administration focused on other priorities. The speed of the complete collapse of resistance to the Taliban was unexpected, the evacuation an emergency measure, the troops were sent back in, parents were handing their children to troops, some of whom were killed, hundreds of civilians were killed, the US retaliated against the terror group responsible and then killed a family while defending the airport, and thousands of people didn’t make it out. The military and the diplomatic staff stepped up and did their jobs with distinction, the evacuation itself was unparalleled, but this was overshadowed by the disaster unfolding around them.

There has been little ownership of the debacle as there are political points to be garnered all round and there are plenty of critics of the ‘forever wars’ around to point out the inevitability of the outcome. An exception is President Biden, who has stood by his decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan. That US forces would eventually leave was a given, being foreign forces, they were always going to leave, it was the timing and conditions under which they would leave that were the real questions. Mr Biden has argued that there would never be a good time to leave and that a line should be drawn under US involvement in Afghanistan as the cost of intervention was outweighed by the benefits. The demise of Al-Qaeda, effectively dismembered by the US, was put forward as a mission accomplished.  

Seemingly forgotten in the furore was that there was a strong push from the American public for US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was seen as too costly in terms of blood and money, with little to show for the effort. The sentiment was shared in the UK and elsewhere. It was not limited to the conflict in Afghanistan, as demonstrated by opposition in France to its lead role in Mali and the central Sahel. While support for the armed forces has always been strong, this does not correlate to support for foreign wars, and Western publics have proved unaccepting of the casualties involved. They also react badly to civilian casualties, whether at the hands of insurgents or terrorists, the security forces, or from airstrikes. There was a general perception that the political situation was not improving despite the cost of intervention and that it never would. There was also an argument that foreign intervention was making things worse, resulting in more deaths, and aiding recruitment for the Taliban and the likes of ISIS and al-Qaeda. This puts a brake on the nature and length of foreign wars.

Politicians in the US were (and are) acutely aware of the electorates wish to leave and Donald Trump’s election in 2016 came about in part due to a promise to bring the troops home. The Doha agreement with the Taliban set the stage for withdrawal and the Biden administration followed through on it. The US involvement had already been reduced to a counterterrorism mission and training and air support for the Afghan army, and a judgement was made that they could continue without US support (against the advice of the military). Had a decision been made to extend this there would have been a clamour of criticism over remaining in Afghanistan. The US was ready and willing to leave and without them there could be no international force in Afghanistan. Once the decision was made to withdraw US forces everyone else made the decision to leave as well.

The complete and catastrophic collapse of the Afghan military and government shorty after the US withdrawal was an unexpected development that upended the rationale behind leaving. This was despite the clear warning signs that this would happen. There were three delusions that affected policymaking regarding Afghanistan, which ultimately justified the decisions made over the last two years.

The first was that the Afghan security forces could hold their own against the Taliban without outside support. On paper it seemed promising. A 300,000 strong army, trained and equipped by the US, which had been fighting since foreign combat operations ended years before. Some of these soldiers rightly deserved to be called special forces. They also had their own air support, even if wasn’t to the standard of the US. Except it wasn’t really 300,000 strong, as some of the ‘soldiers’ on the payroll didn’t really exist, the training was sometimes by contractors and of variable quality (and recruits often left in the night), and the equipment didn’t always make its way to them. When the US left, the specialists providing maintenance support for the air force left too, so no air support either. The finger of blame pointed at the Afghan army, which largely disintegrated, was a disingenuous attempt to shift responsibility for the mess onto a group of people who were fighting with one arm tied behind their back and who had suffered an appalling casualty rate, with 2019 and 2020 being the worst years.

The second delusion was that a political solution was achievable at the time of the withdrawal. This was what everyone wanted but only on their own terms. The Afghan people who were asked certainly wanted one, and they wanted foreign forces to go, with the caveat that they left after a political solution was achieved. At the risk of misrepresenting the politicians, civil society actors, and public servants working hard to make Afghanistan a democratic nation-state, the corruption dominating every aspect of life in the country crippled this. One example is that positions of authority can be bought, with the cost being borne by the local population through fees and charges. This was a bigger problem outside of the relatively cosmopolitan cities. In the countryside and mountains, where loyalties are local, the population are more conservative in their outlook, and the state has struggled to provide public services. Here the population is vulnerable to the soft power of the Taliban who will maintain law and order and eschew corruption. This is backed by subversion and a willingness to remove anyone opposing them from positions of responsibility.

The idea that Afghanistan could become a functioning democratic nation-state under Western tutelage lay at the heart of this second delusion, one all the more remarkable for not being a war aim when NATO ejected the Taliban from power. The original purpose, post 9/11, was to deal with al-Qaeda, with nation-building tacked on later. The hubris involved in embarking on such an exercise is staggering given that there had never been a situation where all of Afghanistan was ruled directly from Kabul and every foreign intervention had failed. Had the people of Afghanistan not had the misfortune of their country being host to a terrorist group they would not have become subjected to being remade in the foreign image projected onto them from afar. The reasoning behind the withdrawal was that this had been taken as far as possible and would now be in the hands of the Afghan people. The well-documented corruption and horse-trading within Afghan politics, coupled with a resurgent Taliban, meant that it wasn’t in their hands at all.

The third delusion was that the terrorist threat in Afghanistan had been effectively countered. Without this assumption the argument that US interests had been met due to the dismantling of al-Qaeda and there was no need for a US counterterrorism presence would not hold water. The Doha agreement specified that the Taliban would not cooperate with al-Qaeda and US withdrawal was conditional on this. Yet al-Qaeda still had a presence in the country and there was no evidence that the links between them and the Taliban had been broken. Then there is the matter of the Islamic State Khorasan province, an ISIS affiliate which emerged in 2015 and is opposed to the Taliban (although it does have links to the Haqqani network). This is the group responsible for the bomb at Kabul airport and whose targets have included girls’ schools and a maternity ward. They consider the Taliban to be ‘apostates’ and are unequivocally opposed to the West. It is this situation with which ‘hawks’ advocating a continued US presence in Afghanistan are concerned.

The fate of Afghanistan was ultimately decided by domestic US politics as opposed to an assessment of the situation there or the progression of peace talks. For the US to leave, as the electorate wanted, policymakers needed to be able to present a credible image of a nation-state that would survive. This relied on the above delusions of strong security forces and an achievable political solution, neither of which proved to be the case. It was very clear that the Taliban were intent on maximising their position using force and that the Afghan security forces were struggling to counter them. Maps of the areas controlled or contested by the Taliban indicated that the security forces were in a state of crisis and the government was only in control of the cities. What followed was a fait accompli as the supply lines were broken and border crossings taken over. The surprise was not that it happened, but the speed of the advance.

Mr Biden may well prove to be the fall guy for following through on the momentum towards leaving Afghanistan. While the decision rests with him, the pressure to terminate US involvement was strong and there was an expectation that he would do so when he was sworn in.  There are few people who would have questioned the need for the US to leave Afghanistan, the question was really about the timing. The debate over the merits of intervening in the first place are irrelevant in the context of what was to be done twenty years later. The President’s legion of critics are firmly focused on the manner of the withdrawal, not the decision to leave, and had the situation deteriorated at a slower pace Afghans may have been spared the trauma of the rushed evacuation, hundreds of people would not be dead, thousands more would not have been trapped in the country, and there would not have been further US casualties. There has been much criticism of the botched planning for the exit of foreign nationals and vulnerable Afghans at home and abroad, but this has only come with hindsight and the rush to evacuate civilians hasn’t been limited to Western countries. The only exception of note is that France began to fly people out much earlier and had other countries anticipated the danger they would have acted sooner by actively preventing their nationals going to Afghanistan and dealt with the sluggish process for visa applications by vulnerable Afghans.

Because of the debacle of the withdrawal, the fact that a large and complex airlift just took place and rescued tens of thousands of Afghans and foreigners has been overshadowed by the tragedy it took place in. It is symbolic of the outcome of twenty years of effort and sacrifice by Afghans and their allies working towards a democratic Afghanistan. The clamour for the withdrawal of the remaining foreign forces in Afghanistan was strong. In the US, it was decisive. Few expected that it would lead almost immediately to a Taliban victory and the return of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

The planes have left, and the dust has settled at Kabul’s international airport for the time being, but the consequences of the withdrawal from Afghanistan will be borne out for a generation of Afghans. The second part of this blog will address handling of the peace talks between the US and the Taliban and the intra-Afghan talks.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

The series of blogs on the Sahel will continue next month. The Talban takeover of Afghanistan, the evacuation efforts, and impact of the withdrawal of Western forces has been extensively covered in the media. Background on Afghanistan and data on casualties and troop levels are available at: BBC News ‘Taliban are back – what next for Afghanistan? https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-49192495.

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The Sahel: The non-state armed groups in the central Sahel

The prevalence of non-state armed groups in the central Sahel is an important contributing factor to instability in the region. Here we look at jihadist and non-jihadist groups but also consider the role of criminal organisations. It is often the case that the types overlap as conflict actors exploit the situation for their own ends.

In previous blogs reference has been made to a variety of non-state armed groups (NSAGs) and here I will look at these in more detail, categorised as jihadist groups and non-jihadist groups (which include separatist groups and government-backed militias). We should note that regarding Mali there has been a historical presence of Tuareg groups in the north and a more recent expansion of jihadist groups after 2011. Many of those described below are linked to Mali as it was the north and centre of the country that political instability and socio-economic issues led to an increase in violence, which later spread into Burkina Faso and Niger. It is also the area where the United Nations Mission to Mali (MINUSMA) patrols and has been subject to attacks.

It is the jihadist groups who are the focus of the western military missions to the Sahel region. They became more prominent during the 2011 rebellion and increased in strength in the wake of failed negotiations relating to the short-lived Tuareg Azawad state and an increasing number of Algerian militants who had rejected a peace treaty with the Algerian government. By 2017 the various jihadist groups had begun to coalesce.

Andrew Lebovich gives four distinct groupings or coalitions. The first is the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), a coalition of autonomous al-Qaeda-aligned groups, which seeks to establish Islamic law and drive out foreign forces out of Mali but has also carried out attacks in Burkina Faso and Niger. Groups in this coalition are Ansar al-Din, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Mourabitoun, and Katibat Macina. The second is two groupings of fighters linked to JNIM, Katibat Sèrma (operating primarily in an area of Mali, but also Burkina Faso) and Kabitat Almansour Ag Alkassoum (operating primarily in an area of Burkina Faso). The third is Ansarul Islam, who are predominantly drawn from the Peul ethnic group and have operated in Burkina Faso and across the borders with Mali and Niger, and whose members have worked alongside Katibat Sèrma and Kabitat AAA. The fourth group is the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which was recognised as an ISIS affiliate in 2016. It has operated in parts of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, and has recruited internationally and within the areas it operates. It originally emerged from a split within the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), itself a splinter from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Much like other conflict situations such as the Syrian War, the jihadist landscape is complex mix of alliances international and local, with an alphabet soup of acronyms, loyalty to leaders, switches between rivalry and cooperation, an overarching hostility to national and foreign forces, and a commitment to the establishment of their version of Islamic law, but with an interest in controlling their own area of responsibility.

The non-jihadist groups include separatist groups, government allied groups, and self-defence groups. They generally have an ethnic affiliation due to the need for self-reliance where government security and service provision are weak. Here I will provide examples from the sources cited below, which give a more comprehensive overview.  

In northern Mali and central Mali, there are a significant number of groups with differing stances on their relationship with the government based in Bamako. Their numbers and shifting alliances rival that of the jihadist groups, in part due to the initial success of the 2011 Tuareg rebellion, the impact of the jihadist groups, and their stance on independence and autonomy during and after peace talks, which culminated in a peace agreement in 2015. There are two major umbrella organisations that formed in 2014, the Coalition des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), which is composed mainly of pre-independence groups, and the Plateforme, composed of groups favouring Malian state authority. Both were signatories of the 2015 Algiers accord. These include ethnically based self-defence groups and there are many leaders and differences within each umbrella organisation. The CMA has been subject to splits and dissident groups have emerged. An example is Coordination des Mouvements et Fronts Patriotiques de Résistance (CMFPR), a collection of self-defence movements from the Songhaï and Fulani/Peul communities in the Gao and Mopti regions, which split into pro and anti-government factions, creating CMFPR-II, which then divided over clan issues, creating CMFR-III, which then returned to CMFPR-I. There are also other independent groups.

Most non-jihadist groups, whether part of an umbrella group or coalition or fully independent, are identarian, being linked to an ethnic group or clan, and many are dominated by the concerns of the leadership.  In Mali, the ethnic Dogon group Dan Na Ambassagou (those who put their trust in God) is a loose coalition of Dogon self-defence militias that emerged in 2016. They are known to have attacked Peul villages, which they claim have supported jihadists from Katibat Macina and have also fought Peul self-defence groups. Another example is the Koglweogo of Burkina Faso (referring to ‘the guardians of the bush’) emerged in the north in the mid-2000s, before the central Sahel crisis, and have filled the security functions of the state, with which they have a complicated relationship. In Niger, the Izala movement is a Salafist group that has moved from promoting Islamic ideals to the provision of security, social support, and other functions normally the responsibility of the state.

The patchwork of both the jihadist and non-jihadist groups is complex and overlapping and contained within it are a multitude of interests and alliances crossing religion, ethnicity, and clan or tribe, with practical concerns over social services, jobs, security, property, and land. There is also the added complication of criminal organisations, which have been able to survive the changes in governance and have actively thrived where the state has failed. Prior to the escalation in violence in the central Sahel, criminal activity in the region was seen as being more dangerous to state stability than the jihadist organisations. Smuggling routes, which include drugs, cigarettes, and people, are not limited to the central Sahel region, nor are they the most lucrative, but they are an important source of income for people living in the region. Whilst the traffickers benefit most and are visibly well off, others benefit to a lesser degree, and in northern Mali and Niger there were no sources of income to rival criminal income. Kidnapping for ransom has proved lucrative for the jihadist groups. There have been allegations of state collusion with crime across the Sahelian states in general, including Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.

Within the complex mix of interests in the region the activities of distinct organisations overlap and it is likely that actors from one type of group are involved in the activities of other types. For example, the lucrative smuggling networks are a boon for jihadist organisations looking to finance their operations and provide for the areas under their control. As one experienced observer noted, the population in northern Mali is not big enough to populate the various NSAGs in the region, indicating an overlap in personnel.  The constantly evolving alliances and feuds between the three types of groups and within the types have meant that the dynamics of the relationships between NSAG actors is fluid and subject to change.

Armed conflict is not a loss for everyone. While it carries a significant human and material cost there are winners and losers, with conflict entrepreneurs making gains at the expense of security and prosperity for all. The most obvious winners are the criminal organisations who can exploit the absence of effective governance, but where a NSAG controls territory there are gains to me made from taxing said routes. There is also the lucrative business of using one’s own manpower to muscle in on illicit activity if one feels that they have the capability to do so. The jihadist groups, despite their pious messaging, can treat conflict situations as opportunities to demonstrate the incapacity of the state to provide security and basic human needs. The leaders of separatist groups in central and northern Mali were able to leverage political capital from their inclusion in peace processes, turning armed rebellion into inclusion into the political sphere. While there religious, political, and social motivations for leading or joining a NSAG, there are also practical and down to earth financial incentives. Where leaders gain political, social, and financial capital, recruits may see the NSAG as the only way to make a living. This is particularly the case when the NSAG wields political control or influence.

As Harmonie Toros, an academic, has noted, the areas outside of government control are not simply ‘ungoverned spaces’ as they are subject to ‘informal governance’. This might include providing internal and external security, justice systems, political and economic administration, and social support and rules. The extent to which NSAG governance reaches is dependent on the resources available to them and the scope of their territorial reach. In areas neglected by the government a NSAG can gain legitimacy with the local population by meeting needs where the government has failed. They can also be more responsive, talking to tribal and village leaders and listening to their concerns, providing security where previously there was none, and assign extra judges to deal with disputes. It is functions such as these that enable a NSAG to gain influence and establish themselves as a quasi-authority. Their legitimacy amongst the people varies according to their relationship with the people governed, shared ethnicity (for example- Tuareg in northern Mali), the severity of their rule (jihadists are notorious for alienating people once in charge) and people’s attitude towards the government (some NSAGs are government-backed).

This is generally unrecognised and usually opposed by domestic and foreign governments, particularly when there is an ideological or religious element. It also an unmistakable fact that NSAGs are effectively stationary bandits, unrecognised on the international scene, and usually accountable only to themselves. In order to govern they require a mix of outside funding, extortion, and outright robbery, while the provision of food may be achieved by allowing aid to be distributed. Their informal rule is guided by dogma, with harsh punishment for stepping outside of the law, and violence is directed towards the ingroup and outsiders. The legitimacy of a NSAG is derived from identity, whether it be religious or ethnic in nature, and is often enforced with methods deemed illegitimate for any actor. One of their claims to legitimacy is to provide informal governance where the state has failed but their actions make recognised governance more difficult.  As is the case elsewhere, including Cabo Delgado in Mozambique, western Iraq, and Afghanistan, the non-state actors are able to exploit state shortcomings, replacing weak governance with stronger informal governance.

The ability of NSAGs to provide informal governance and the prevalence of criminal organisations in running parallel economies which fill the jobs goes some way to explaining their ability to survive in areas where formal governance is weak or non-existent and the failure of government and foreign interventions in countering them. It is the conflict entrepreneurs who are benefiting from this situation, and this is at the expense of the general population. The only way to do this is to effectively govern the conflict regions and provide viable alternatives to the informal governance of the NSAGs. As previously demonstrated, this is an uphill task, with many challenges, and one to be tackled over the long term.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

This blog has been written using research for earlier blogs. Sources used for jihadist and non-jihadist groups are: Mapping Armed Groups in Mali and the Sahel (Andrew Lebovich), accessed at: https://ecfr.eu/special/sahel_mapping/ ; Anarchy in Azawad: A Guide to Non-State Armed Groups in Northern Mali (Andrew McGregor), accessed at: https://jamestown.org/program/anarchy-azawad-guide-non-state-armed-groups-northern-mali/ . Sources used for criminal organisations are: Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region (Wolfram Lacher), accessed at: https://carnegieendowment.org/2012/09/13/organized-crime-and-conflict-in-sahel-sahara-region-pub-49360 ; Drug Trafficking, Violence and Politics in Northern Mali (International Crisis Group), accessed at: https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/sahel/mali/267-narcotrafic-violence-et-politique-au-nord-du-mali . The source for the concept of Informal governance was: Informal Governance of Nonstate Armed Groups in the Sahel (Harmonie Toros), accessed at: https://thesouthernhub.org/resources/site1/General/NSD-S%20Hub%20Publications/Informal_Governance_of_non_state_armed_groups_in_the_Sahel.pdf . Toros also discusses NSAGs and criminal organisations.

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The Sahel: Establishing governance in the central Sahel

The central Sahel crisis has its epicentre at the tri-border region between Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. A complex mix of non-state armed groups, including jihadists and self-defence groups, is a primary cause of instability in a region. They are the symptoms of diverse and interlinked root causes in an area where trust in government has been lost and a youthful population is vulnerable to recruitment by a myriad of non-state actors. Long-term solutions to the crisis cannot be achieved without the return of government control to the tri-state region but the governments of the Sahel require serious reform.

In the previous blog the central Sahel crisis affecting the tri-state border region between Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger was introduced. The challenges facing this region are immense: land degradation linked to climate change, food insecurity, migration, socio-economic deprivation, unemployment, and a young and uneducated population which is growing. This would present a serious problem even without the spread of non-state armed groups, whose presence is undermining the work of humanitarian actors attempting to deliver aid and development programs. The security response is also part of the problem: the security forces in the region have been accused of human rights violations and are alleged to have been more lethal than the jihadist groups they are fighting, who in turn are only one type of armed group causing trouble. It is a mess and requires serious reform but here we are putting the security side of the crisis aside and focusing on how effective governance can be brought to the tri-state region.

Violence is rarely a direct cause of armed conflict and is an outcome of other root causes, such as those noted above. The finger of blame for the crisis is generally pointed towards the jihadist groups who came to prominence in Mali in 2012 and would later gain a foothold in the tri-state region.  This is incorrect as they are a part of the crisis, are only one type of non-state armed group, and exploit existing political and socio-economic situations to gain support. In the tri-state region the absence of government authority and influence has left a security vacuum to be exploited by violent non-state actors. Bringing the government back into peoples lives, however, is not solely about security, and control will only be regained if issues such as a lack of jobs, money, and political representation (for example) are addressed. People’s lives need to be measurably better, and they need to see the prospect of a better future for themselves and their children.  This is the long-term, but without it, the security forces of the respective governments and their European allies can keep hammering away and achieve temporary success at best.

The immensity of the challenge for the governments should not be underestimated: the problems they face would also challenge more effective governments. While it would be very reductive to place the blame for the crisis upon climate change and non-state armed groups, both alone would be a significant challenge without the myriad socio-economic and political problems. This needs to be recognised prior to any critique of governance in the area.

It is also difficult to treat the three countries separately, as despite nuances and differences in their situations, the movement of armed groups and refugees across borders and ethnic groups which straddle said borders means that the consequences of the crisis are shared and events in one country are easily transferred to another (this does not include refugees from sub-Saharan Africa transiting through on their way north). In this context, the central Sahel crisis is a conflict complex due to the movement of people across borders and solutions need to apply to all three collectively. We should not forget differences, for example Burkina Faso is seen as having the best chance of addressing the crisis and does not have the wider open spaces of Mali and Niger in the north, or a substantial Tuareg population.

Of the three, it is Burkina Faso that is the most stable, having an elected President and the most recent coup was in 2015. Niger held free fair elections following a coup in 2010 and underwent its first peaceful transfer of power in 2020. Mali is a different matter altogether, experiencing military coups in 2012, 2020 and 2021. It should be noted that all three countries have political oppositions. The inability of all three governments to counter the increasing levels of violence has brought into question their ability to provide security for their people and maintain an effective monopoly of legitimate violence. Political events in Mali have been detrimental to its relationship with France, who will be scaling back their forces and have declared Operation Barkhane over. The French military mission is unpopular at home and there will be an election in 2022, but President Macron has said that France will not support countries where there is no commitment to democracy.

More indicative of general performance is their consistently low positions in the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) with Burkina Faso ranked 182nd, Niger 189th, and Mali 184th in the 2019 Index. There are 189 countries in total and countries are measured on life expectancy, education, and standard of living. We should note, however, that our interest is not in the general performance of each government (important as this is in the overall picture) but in their ability to project their authority and reduce the levels of violence, while not being part of the problem through human rights abuses by the security forces and corruption by officials.

In the previous blog I noted that political solutions to the crisis needed to draw on upon Sahelian expertise with African and international support. International actors, such as the European Union and the aid and development agencies, have a major part to play in supporting local and regional actors, but it is ultimately down to the people of the three countries to decide on the pathway out of crisis and what support they need. It is one thing to call for representative governance, which would be expected to listen to peoples demands and act, and another to proactively take this into account when the government’s concerned are not all representative or do not show signs of becoming so. Nor do they have the resources to do so if they wished, hence outside help will still be needed.

Which brings us to the report by the People’s Coalition for the Sahel, which is ambitious in scope and specific in its targets. The foreword to the report is as scathing as one would expect given that it describes the crisis as one so severe that it warrants global attention. It is directed at the Sahelian governments and cites failures of governance as resulting in loss of life, opportunity, and dignity. As to the origins of the crisis:

‘The crisis has its early roots in the failure to build the national state and to foster integration at national and subnational levels, subsequently entrenched by governance failures such as serious deficits in the management of diversity, in citizens and imbalances in public investment. Structural adjustment programmes, growth of the criminal economy and the proliferation of military interventions not answerable to the state all contributed to the progressive weakening of states’ capacity to govern and to provide essential services, further deepening the governance crisis. In spite of this complex history and resulting frustrations and divisions, political solutions to address these underlying issues are persistently overshadowed by the priority given to military responses.’

The contributors do not rule out security responses to the crisis, and they are not alone in calling for a shift from prioritising military responses, but they do argue for a people centred approach with clear areas for improvement. These are based on four pillars, each of which has two indicators (IDs). The first pillar is the prioritisation of the protection of civilians (ID1-number of attacks on civilians; ID2- mechanisms for monitoring civilian harm), the second is the creation of a political strategy to address the root causes of the crisis (ID3- dialogue with all the conflict actors; ID4- transparency in defence budgets), the third pillar is to respond to human emergencies (ID5- funding that is commensurate, on time and responsive to need; ID6- ensuring humanitarian access), and the fourth is to combat impunity (ID7- zero tolerance of abuses by the security forces; ID8 – boosting the capacity and resources of the justice system).

All four pillars and their associated indicators form a combined approach, one which makes the governments more accountable. Political reform, accountability and a people-centric approach form the thrust of the argument. To be absolutely clear, the aims of the report are complementary to a military approach, which is still needed, and international actors still have their part to play. Indicators one, two and seven, for example, are specifically concerned with the military approach. We should also note that while the second pillar is concerned specifically with addressing the crisis of governance in the Sahel, the eighth indicator (from pillar four), which addresses the justice system, is a critical component of the strategy to improve governance. Here I will focus on the third indicator only, which is part of the second pillar.

This builds on the dialogue that is already taking place largely unheard behind the noise of violent attacks, the security actors, and the consequences of the violence. It is concerned with all the actors involved: international institutions, governmental institutions, armed non-state actors, international and national NGOs, and community level actors. Examples include MINUSMA getting communities talking to each other again, mediation by the High Islamic Court of Mali to lift a village siege and talks between the Dogon and Fulani communities facilitated by external and internal actors. There have been instances where jihadist actors have been involved in mediations in areas that they control. The emphasis is on supporting the work of civil society actors, setting out coherent frameworks to improve coordination between local initiatives, promoting inclusive dialogue, sharing what has been learned from other initiatives in the region, and for the African Union to grant a new and expanded mandate for MISAHAL (Mission for Mali and the Sahel).

The report seeks to move from a baseline of poor coordination between local dialogue initiatives to the adoption of a coordinated framework by the three governments for local political initiatives, which can then work towards a comprehensive political solution.

The emphasis on dialogue will not solve the problems in the central Sahel by itself, nor is it expected to, but it builds on mediation and negotiation that is already taking place and by placing the emphasis on local solutions enables civil society actors to return to roles that they previously occupied. It also exploits local expertise and knowledge and brings back to the fore conflict resolution measures grounded in local conditions. Improved coordination between conflict resolution actors avoids unnecessary overlap of resources and allows for ideas that have worked in one scenario to be applied to another. This is grassroots conflict resolution in action, which will benefit from improved investment and coordination. It is perhaps more important to note that it has produced results in the central Sahel, as it does elsewhere.

How this will work in relation to criminal gangs and the jihadist groups, alongside other conflict actors who have vested interests in the status quo, is another matter. The ultimate end is to bring the territories of the central Sahel back under the control of their governments, but with the caveat they are legitimate representatives of the people of the region. This is a huge ask, requiring change respective to all four pillars and the rebuilding of the social contract between the state and the people. It can only happen from the ground up and greater emphasis needs to be placed on the return of effective governance accountable to the people.

The complicated conflict environment of the central Sahel with its multiple actors and factors has proved impermeable to top-down approaches, but local initiatives are taking place regardless. The financial cost of providing support for this is tiny when compared to the military expenditure on the crisis and a significant amount of money is lost through corruption related to defence spending. A coordinated local, regional, and international financial and political investment in the non-military solutions to the problem of governance will not resolve the crisis alone, but nor will any solution be found without it.

The next blog will look at the non-state armed groups in the region.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

This blog has been written using research for earlier blogs and news sites, which includes BBC News. A report by the People’s Coalition for the Sahel has been introduced above and discussed as the main focus of this blog. It can be accessed at: http://www.africansecuritynetwork.org/assn/the-sahel-what-needs-to-change-new-report-by-the-peoples-coalition-for-the-sahel/.

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The Sahel: The crisis in the central Sahel

In the previous blog the crises in the Sahel were introduced. This blog addresses one of these: the central Sahel crisis affecting Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. A rebellion in northern Mali, which began in 2012, was the beginning of a wider crisis and despite a strong military response, the crisis has changed and grown worse over time.   

The central Sahel crisis is an example of how a conflict situation changes and grows over a short period of time, despite military intervention and conflict resolution measures. The 2012 rebellion in northern Mali by Tuareg nationalists and jihadist allies was followed by a series of events, which included: a nationalist-jihadist split, the ouster of the Malian government in a military coup, condemnation of the coup by regional and international actors, a commitment by the Malian military to return Mali to civilian rule, a realignment by Tuareg nationalists with the government, foreign intervention, the deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission, and the signing of a peace deal between nationalists and the government (jihadists were not included). There was a lot going on and this cursory description only covers the period between the 16th of January 2012 and 18th June 2013.

Prior to 2012, there had been four Tuareg rebellions in the desert north of Mali since independence from France in 1960. The Tuareg claim they have been excluded from power by black African governments based in the more densely populated south. Jihadist groups had been prevalent in neighbouring Algeria for decades, becoming Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) amongst others, and the overthrow of Gaddafi and subsequent civil war had released heavy weapons into circulation. The government’s authority and reach were weak in the wide expanse of the north and the mix of Tuareg separatism and jihadist militancy was a potent mix (reflected in Ansar Dine, a predominantly Tuareg jihadist group). We should not forget socio-economic issues and food scarcity in the north, but the political situation meant that the real shock was not that there was a rebellion but said rebellion’s (temporary) success.

Fast forward to 2020 and 2021, and the situation is very different. The events of 2012 and 2013 were dramatic enough, but instead of being contained in northern Mali they have spread into southern Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The impact is being felt further afield: Mali’s neighbours on the West African coast are eying the conflagration nervously. There has also been a proliferation of jihadist groups, some of whom have merged. Farmers and pastoralists are in conflict, a factor prevalent throughout the Sahel, and linked to an increasing scarcity of fertile land. The Tuareg opposition to the government in Mali continues and there are more groups (their agreement was quick to break down). There are also armed militias, some of which were formed at the behest of the Malian and Burkinabè governments as self-defence groups, but which engage in inter-ethnic violence. On top of this are the criminal networks, with two major people smuggling routes crossing Mali, and drug and cigarette smuggling and other lucrative ventures. When a bombing happens, or a military installation is attacked it is likely to be a jihadist group. When a village, town or convoy is attacked, or humanitarian relief stolen, it is not so clear who is responsible.

The consequences are dire. There were 4122 fatalities linked to extremism in the central Sahel during 2020 alone, representing an increase of 57 percent on the previous year. Across the three countries over 2.1 million people have been displaced, and 4000 schools and 150 medical centres have been forced to close due to insecurity. This has also affected humanitarian responses in a region beset by food insecurity and suffering from land degradation related to climate change. A recent example of the sudden and brutal violence which takes place was an attack on a village in northern Burkina Faso, during which over 160 people were killed, and homes and a market were burned to the ground. While jihadists are suspected it is not known who the attackers were. The increase in fatalities in the country has been severe. There were less than 200 killings in 2018 but in 2019 there were almost 2,000.  

The security response to the crisis has also undergone change. In 2012-2013, Malian forces were backed by foreign intervention in the form of the UN authorised intervention by the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), France (Operation Serval), and with logistics support from other countries. They were successful in retaking northern Mali and AFISMA was replaced by the United Nations Mission to Mali (MINUSMA). This is now the largest UN peacekeeping deployment, with over 13000 military personnel alone and a total complement of over 18,000. It is also the most dangerous, its troops having sustained 158 deaths and 426 serious injuries by the end of March 2021 (UN figures).

MINUSMA is there as a peacekeeping operation and is focused on security and stabilisation in Mali. French led involvement is another matter. With the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, the Sahel will also have the largest Western deployment in the world. France’s Operation Barkhane is at the forefront of this and dominates the Sahel G5 force, comprised of forces from Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. The European Union has deployed training missions to Niger and Mali and a European task force (special forces) has been deployed to support French operations in Mali (Operation Takuba). The US has also been active in the region, building an airbase in Niger, and the African Union has considered sending a force. While the Western forces are a focus of attention, the combination of Western and African troops, and the multinational contributors to the UN mission in Mali, means that the forces on the ground are a complex mix of actors working under different masters.

The presence of the Western military missions has proved controversial and much of the criticism has been towards France, as the lead country and former colonial power (MINUSMA less so as it is a UN mission). Prior to a summit in Pau, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, hinted that without support from the G5 France would consider withdrawing its troops. As summed up by the Economist: ‘The French would not be thanked for staying, but nor would they for packing up’. In a scenario not unfamiliar to students of Western interventions, France is fighting alongside government forces that are accused of having killed more civilians than the jihadists, backed the training of armed militias that have proved to be dangerous, the violence has increased, and Paris has had to turn a blind eye to governance problems. Military coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021, and Chad in 2021, are but two recent examples of problems with government legitimacy in the region. There have been popular protests in all three countries.   

There have been calls for a more multifaceted response in the central Sahel, particularly concerning the question of governance. To be fair to France and the EU, strengthening governance is part of the stabilisation strategy, which has since been revised, but there has been an emphasis on defeating jihadists and providing security at the expense of governmental reform. The Sahelian elites have allegedly proved more interested in maintaining their own power and influence, have utterly failed to deal with corruption, and are unable to maintain control over large areas of their countries. This leaves their citizens vulnerable to armed groups, jihadists, and criminals. When they have shown an interest in talking to jihadists their Western supporters have balked. As the International Crisis Group puts it, military operations should be at the service of a stabilisation strategy but since the Pau summit there has been a doubling down on the military approach. A report by the People’s Coalition for the Sahel argues for a people centred approach and identifies areas for improvement. They also set targets by which improvement can be measured. Much of this is directed as the central Sahel governments. A recent letter from a group of African intellectuals called for the African Union to act more decisively in the region, coordinate the many interventions that are taking place, and act to improve governance and support dialogue. In its conclusion to a conflict assessment of the tri-border region, the Catholic Relief Services noted that Sahelians needed to rebuild the tattered social contract between the people and the state, and that peacebuilding should be the mandate and responsibility of ordinary people. In its recommendations the report also noted the need to link foreign peace actors with Sahelian knowledge. None of these rejects security measures but they do put the emphasis on political reform and African ownership of the crisis.

The international response to the crisis has in fact been more general than it is in given credit for and has had three aspects: security, development, and diplomacy. We have already seen the complexity of the security aspect, but this applies to the development and diplomacy aspects as well. As of the end of 2020 there were twenty envoys to the Sahel, including from the UN, AU, US, and many European states. There are also many forums. While the challenges facing the central Sahel are complex, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has noted that without agreement on concrete goals and a path to progress between Sahelian countries and their international partners, it does not matter how many soldiers and diplomats are involved. Having too many diplomats and forums is counterproductive and distracting. It remains to be seen if the Sahel Alliance (launched 2017, related to development) and Coalition for the Sahel (launched 2020, related to diplomacy) facilitate a more effective response.

Given the number of international actors involved and their commitment to resolving the security crisis in the central Sahel, it is not unreasonable to ask why it has gotten worse instead of better. One thing that most are agreed on is that the current strategy is heavily focused on counterterrorism and is not working. Another is that the international responses are complicated, overlap, and require consolidation. A third is that addressing governance issues is crucial. This will not remove the complex challenges facing the region, but it will make them easier to deal with.

There appears to be a common understanding on what the root causes of the crisis are and what needs to be done to resolve it but getting from one to the other is no straightforward task. The jihadists are generally treated as a symptom rather than a root cause and are seen as exploiting differences between groups, economic problems, and mistrust of the government for their own ends. They remain a key concern for the foreign governments and are a genuine problem, even when their ability to alienate people once they take power in an area and the lack of appeal of their interpretation of Islam to the Sahelian population is considered. The real root causes predate 2012 and include socio-economic issues, demographic change towards a younger population, political marginalisation, food insecurity, and the impact of climate change. The lack of security in the tri-state area is a major contributing factor, enabling all manner of non-state armed groups to exploit the population and inhibiting development and aid. That effective governance needs to return to the area is obvious, hence the focus on security, but there is more to this than combatting the jihadist groups.  

The next blog with look at how effective governance can be brought to the tri-border region. Regaining the confidence of the people and projecting authority through consent are a part of this but the measures taken would be implemented over the long-term, require the combination of international, regional, and local knowledge and resources, and work in conjunction with aid and development.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

This blog has been written using open-source news sites, which include the Economist and BBC News. The International Crisis Group report concerning the Sahel stabilisation strategy can be accessed at: https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/sahel/299-course-correction-sahel-stabilisation-strategy. The report by the People’s Coalition for the Sahel can be accessed at: http://www.africansecuritynetwork.org/assn/the-sahel-what-needs-to-change-new-report-by-the-peoples-coalition-for-the-sahel/. The letter from African intellectuals is available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/5/12/a-letter-from-african-intellectuals-on-the-sahel-crisis. The report from the CRS can be accessed at: https://www.crs.org/media-center/current-issues/sahel-crisis-facts-and-how-help. The CSIS brief can be accessed at: https://www.csis.org/analysis/rethinking-crisis-responses-sahel. Information for MINUSMA was obtained from the UN’s MINUSMA page. Fatalities information is from the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies: https://africacenter.org/spotlight/spike-militant-islamist-violence-africa-shifting-security-landscape/ , the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/05/suspected-extremist-attack-on-burkina-faso-village-kills-100-people , and the BBC: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-57368536.

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The Sahel: Large scope, complex situations, and interlinked challenges

Since 2012 a complex conflict has spread from Mali into Burkina Faso and Niger. This is part of a wider crisis affecting the Sahelian nations, with armed conflict, climate change, governance issues, and demographic change amongst a multitude of problems in a region beset by state fragility. Organized violence is only one part of a large and complex picture, and it is getting worse.

I could start at a number of points when attempting to explain the crisis in the Sahel. The central Sahel crisis, involving a tri-state region encompassing parts of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger is first to mind. The crisis in the Lake Chad basin is a close second. Both have drawn in multinational alliances from across the Sahel region to deal with insurgencies. If I were to focus solely on Mali, where the central Sahel crisis originated, I would be describing a complex scenario of jihadist groups, armed militias, farmer-pastoralist conflict, and foreign intervention. Another starting point might be the recent events in Chad, where rebels have entered the north from Libya, the country’s leader has been killed in the fighting and his son has taken over (triggering popular unrest). This has brought French support under the spotlight and might result in the withdrawal of Chadian troops from a joint mission in Mali.

When reference is made to the ‘Sahel crisis’ it tends to be concerned with the conflagration in the tri-state region and/or the Lake Chad basin. The recent events in Chad have the potential to produce another crisis: the swathes of northern desert border unstable Libya, to the east is Darfur, to the south an unstable Central African Republic, and to the west is northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin. There is an incredible amount going on, much of it interconnected, and I haven’t mentioned climate change yet.

The above is a broad sweep which misses a great deal out. This blog acts as an introduction the ‘Sahel crisis’ as it affects countries understood to be Sahelian. It is unlikely that I will be able to convey the full scope of the issues facing these countries, but the reader will have a basic grasp. I intend to keep the Sahel as a theme for the remainder of this year (and possibly the next). The reason for this is the same reason that I haven’t addressed the Sahel crisis in this blog so far: it is so big and complicated that it requires multiple blogs to do so. It is also poorly defined. I will introduce the subject using three points, treating conflict in the Sahel as big, complex, and interlinked.

Speaking geographically, the Sahel is a distinct semi-arid band stretching across northern Africa from Senegal and Mauritania in the west to Eritrea in the east and is a transition zone between the deserts of the north and sub-Saharan Africa. Some countries, such as Algeria and Nigeria, have fringes in the north and south within the Sahel, others such as Chad and Mali straddle it, with deserts to the north and a savanna in the south. It is a huge space, and while few countries are almost entirely within the region, changes within the Sahel affect the areas around it and cross borders in a reciprocal fashion. The ‘Sahel crisis’ means different things according to where you sit and what your interest is, but in terms of armed conflict, its origins and root causes, cross-border linkages, responses, and attempts at conflict resolution, the geographical scope is unprecedented.

For those interested in the relationship between climate change and armed conflict the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region, fighting in the Lake Chad basin, and earlier rebellions in Mali and Chad have all centred on a region clearly affected in a negative manner by climate change. I should stress that I am not advocating a causal link between climate change and conflict, but I am treating it as a significant factor amongst others, with governance issues near the top of the list.

From the perspective of terrorism and insurgency, the connections of al-Qaeda and ISIS linked groups in Algeria, Burkina Faso, and Mali, is of the same interest as those in Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. The two clusters are separate, with different armed groups and governments, but similar in that a governance crisis in one country (Mali/Nigeria) has contributed to the emergence of Islamist groups, which has been exploited by the global extremist organisations, and also drawn in its neighbours. Other armed groups, sometimes ethnically linked militias, sometimes government backed, control areas where governmental authority is lacking. If we were to look at communal conflict such as that between farmers and pastoralists, then we are looking at a problem which includes all these countries and would also take us farther afield.

What happens elsewhere can also have an impact: the Algerian civil war, instability in Libya, and conflict in Sudan have all had spill-over effects outside of their borders. The first point is that however we look at it, the ‘Sahel crisis’ is big, and there are more than the examples I have given to consider.

I should add that I have drawn a misleading picture by aggregating distinct crises into a whole covering much of Africa north of the equator. I might get away with this If I was looking at the impact of climate change, but organised violence is more specific geographically and occurs over a shorter timescale. If we were to limit ourselves to Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali, the scope would still be large. We are better served by disaggregating the bigger picture into smaller ones, while recognizing that there are common factors and linkages, which are transnational and international. This not only makes analysis more specific but also aids conflict resolution as local solutions are more achievable than grandiose international ones. We should forget about the ‘Sahel crisis’ and start thinking about ‘Sahel crises’.

None of the examples I have given above is necessarily a root cause of conflict and we would need to consider them in the context of socio-economic and political factors. The second point is that the crises in the Sahel are hideously complex. While organised violence is taking place in areas under stress due to climate change, terrorism and insurgency represent an immediate threat, and farmers and pastoralists are in conflict, this is all taking place in the context of something else. The list is long: governance problems, state fragility, food insecurity, displacement, and a booming population, are examples. The complexity of the crises are as daunting as the geographical scope.

The aspect that hits the headlines the most is the violence, and this is frequently when jihadists or an ethnic militia have attacked a military installation or committed an atrocity. To be clear, while there are several jihadist groups, which I define here as seeking Islamist goals through violent ends, there are also inter-ethnic conflicts, farmer-pastoralist conflicts, and opposition to governments, and these are more often than not intertwined. In Mali and Burkina Faso in particular, the governments have encouraged the formation of local militias for self-defence where security is sparse, but they are prone to attacking civilians and members of other groups. The violence of the militias is inter-ethnic and brutal. To this can be added the human rights abuses of the security forces, who have killed more people than anyone else. Even when limited to violent actors, the complexity is unmistakeable.

The complexities of the Sahel crises prevent us from defining it as one conflict or even a given conflict category. We will take Mali as an example. The 2012 insurgency was led by Tuareg nationalists allied with jihadist groups, who would start fighting with each other once they had taken the north. The Tuareg declared independence and the Malian military, unhappy at the handling of the crisis, overthrew the government. Neither were recognised as legitimate, and Mali was subjected to sanctions until a commitment was made to reinstate civilian rule. The Tuareg, meanwhile, lost out to the jihadists, who implemented sharia law. The UN authorised intervention by the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) and the Malian government also requested French intervention. They were successful in reclaiming the north of Mali, the French withdrew, the Tuareg signed a peace deal, and AFISMA was replaced by a United Nations mission (MINUSMA). Tuareg separatism predates the 2012 rebellion, ethnic conflict between pastoralists and farmers is linked to scarcity, and jihadists have their own agenda but exploit existing divisions.

My third point is identifiable above and requires less explanation. Despite my intention to disaggregate a wider picture into manageable pieces there are obvious linkages, which cross borders and are regional and international in scope. The largest is the effect of climate change on the Sahel, where temperatures are rising, which affects the viability of the land for agriculture. The conflicts between farmers and pastoralists cross borders and, more often than not, they are ethnically based, producing a proliferation of armed groups small and large. The presence of jihadist groups draws in Western militaries, making a local conflict part of the terror wars, obscuring local causes, and effectively burying any chance of negotiation. A rebellion in northern Mali has transformed to instability on the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, and it is no exaggeration to say that the neighbouring coastal countries are eyeing this nervously. Not surprisingly, this all results in people being on the move, hence internal displacement is severe, and migration is high, crossing borders, and reaching the EU via dangerous migration routes. Meanwhile, smuggling, the drug trade, and other lucrative activities continue, often controlled by the jihadists, armed groups, or corrupt officials.

This description of a trinity of size, complexity, and linkages across borders is incomplete but hopefully conveys the immensity of the task involved in understanding the crises in the Sahel and some of the challenges facing conflict resolution. There are three things missing above that are going to form the subject matter of future blogs: the humanitarian consequences (the most important of all), the responses to the crises (military and otherwise), and the successes and failures of attempts at conflict resolution and what can be done in the future. This is better served by focusing on a given crisis (for example, the central Sahel crisis), a country (such as Chad), or an aspect (climate change or armed groups in Mali). The next blog with look at the central Sahel crisis involving Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.

This blog has been written using open-source news sites, which include BBC News, the Economist, the Conversation,andthe Guardian.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

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Mozambique: The Cabo Delgado Insurgency Internationalizes

In a dramatic and deadly development, insurgents in Cabo Delgado have attacked Palma in northern Mozambique, causing a mass evacuation from the town. It is the most publicised attack yet and has comes about shortly after the US designated the insurgents as a terrorist group. The dynamics of the conflict may have changed and foreign intervention could prove to be critical in preventing it worsening. It could also fuel the insurgency.

In a previous blog posted in January the Ansar al-Sunna insurgency in Cabo Delgado was discussed but the situation has changed substantially since then with two events occurring that may alter the course of the conflict. The first was the designation of the insurgents as a terrorist organisation by the United States and the deployment of a special forces training team. The second was the Ansar al-Sunna attack on Palma. This blog can be read separately or in conjunction with the previous blog, which goes into more detail on the origins of the conflict and the government’s response. Here we are focused on the potential impact of recent changes and what this means in the context of conflict resolution. We start with the attack on Palma, which began on the 24th of March.

Mozambique’s rainy season had come to an end and this meant that an increase in violence was expected. The coastal town of Palma was already isolated due to insurgent activity and its population, estimated at 111,000, included 43,600 people already displaced by fighting. When it came, the attack was well organised and came from three directions and a frantic evacuation effort began to evacuate residents and foreign workers. Those that were unable to get out by helicopter or boat either tried to run or joined a convoy escaping the town, which was subsequently ambushed. Eyewitness accounts tell a lurid tale of beheadings, the targeting of civil servants and of much of Palma being put to the torch. The French oil and gas company Total had announced the full resumption of its operations barely hours before the attack began and has since announced its withdrawal. As of the 30th March ACLED has reported 2689 fatalities since the insurgency began and Reliefweb reports over 670,000 people have been displaced. The insurgents control Mocímboa da Praia, having occupied it late in 2020, and had threatened the provincial capital, Pemba.

It is the most serious attack this year and it has drawn an unprecedented amount of media attention. This means that more people are talking about it than before, but they are running through the same arguments as before. The difference between the assault on Palma and other brutalities that have marked the insurgency is that it involved foreign workers and an undetermined number have been killed. The government had targeted the media previously in order to control reporting on the conflict. It had recently proposed a draconian new media law that would ban foreign broadcast media and expelled the founder of Zitamar News from the country. The restrictions were undoubtably aimed at hiding the scale of the problem and what the security forces were doing, but this had already failed: the media were reporting, human rights organisations were documenting insurgent atrocities and abuses by the security forces, and academics were asking questions. The picture that emerged was one of a violent Salafi-jihadist insurgency, one which was gaining strength, ambushing the security forces, and robbing, burning and beheading almost at will. The government reacted clumsily and employed private military contractors but has not been able to provide security for the people in the affected areas and its forces have also been accused of human rights abuses.

There has been a long running debate over the involvement of ISIS in the insurgency, which has local origins and regional influences, but regardless of whether ISIS are involved in influencing or organising the insurgents it is unmistakable that they are Salafi-Jihadists and ISIS has claimed them as an affiliate. How deep this actually runs is another matter, but the appearances of the ubiquitous black flags, multiple cases of beheadings, and the surge in capability since the middle of 2019 indicates that if it isn’t ISIS then it’s a Mozambican version not dissimilar to the real thing. Little is known of the group’s inner workings or demands as they are generally secretive and uncommunicative but when the pronouncements do come, they call for Islamic teaching and rejection of the government. The tactics used and the increase in capability indicate foreign training, which may have come about through links with other organisations in Africa.

The United States is convinced, naming Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammah (ASWJ)* as an ISIS franchise, designating it as an overseas Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and a Specially Designated Terrorist Group (SDTG). The US is the only state to designate the insurgents as part of ISIS, which is a boon to a Mozambican leadership that had claimed they were ISIS prior to the escalation and patchy claims by ISIS of responsibility for attacks. This conveniently deflects responsibility from the government, which according to critics, had neglected the region, failed to listen to reports from local Islamic leaders of an emerging militant sect, treated the 2017 attacks as banditry, and then oversaw a confused military response riven with human rights abuses.

The rampage through Palma and the FTO designation by the US are two developments that may affect the course of the conflict in Mozambique’s north. To be clear, the Mozambican government has responsibility for the security of its citizens, the question is not whether it should but how, and it should be given the support it needs to restore order. There are caveats to this and top of the list is that coercive element of the response needs to be open and accountable and target the insurgents only. The government has been resistant to foreign intervention in the form of ‘boots on the ground’ but it has utilised private military contractors (Dyck Advisory Services (DAG) helicopters were involved in the Palma rescue) and accepted training support from South Africa. Portugal and the US have also sent training teams (or special forces). The training is crucial and reform of how the Police and Army work needs dealing with, but this will take time to have an effect and will be a reformation of how they are organised.

The SDTG designation by the US risks changing the context and dynamics of the conflict as from the perspective of the US, the insurgents are IS-Mozambique and they have added Mozambique to the Partnership for Regional East African Terrorism. This hints at an increased involvement and rolls the insurgency into the narrative of the terror wars, risking an escalation and a misreading of the roots of the conflict. The arrival of the US comes alongside the Portuguese deployment and a promise to lobby for Mozambique within the EU, the British have noted a ‘strategic concern’, and the French navy has been active in the area. While no one doubts the need for the need for action, or the counter-insurgency capabilities available to the US, foreign interventions in local wars have a tendency to escalate them and turn local grievances into an unambiguous affiliation to the ‘Islamic State’, as was the case in the Sahel and Nigeria. The insurgency in Cabo Delgado is firmly rooted in the conditions there and its recruits are Mozambican for the most part. It is linked to ISIS but is not definitively a part of it. This can change. For example, the presence of Western soldiers, however small the number, gives fuel to the cause and attracts foreign fighters. The STDG designation has another impact as it runs the risk of inhibiting the humanitarian response and the US should endeavour to reassure humanitarian organisations that they will not run foul of sanctions during their operations.

Which brings us to what else can be done aside from attempting to defeat the insurgency through military force.  The coercive approach is clearly going to be at the forefront of the government response, but an effective strategy also needs to incorporate conciliation and reform. Part of this is gaining the trust of a population that has been neglected, does not trust the elite at all, and has been infiltrated by radicals espousing Salafi-jihadism. This took time and is hard to unravel, even with the insurgents delegitimizing themselves through their own brutality. To be fair, the government appears to have seen the merit in this, it has done little, but this is a start. Conciliation is directed at the insurgents and their supporters and offers a way out of the group. The government appeared to be leaning towards this when it made an offer of amnesty to militants, but this has not been taken up. Such measures are controversial as they can mean that people with blood on their hands are not brought to account, but they have been applied to other conflict situations. Nothing has been heard yet of three fighters who surrendered and said that their communities would not accept them back because of their crimes. Amnesty is not the only measure and can be partial, conditional, or even part of a wider disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration program. There are inevitable and fully justifiable questions over justice and accountability, but they have the advantage of removing fighters from the insurgent ranks, saving lives in the future.

Reform, which is directed at the population at large, is a long-term mission that requires significant investment and any future assistance from organisations such as the European Union (EU) and South African Development Community (SADC) will be conditional on it. Any gains made through coercive measures will also be undermined if socio-economic issues are not addressed. To take economic marginalisation as an example, a population in which the young have few opportunities, are poorer in contrast to other regions, and experiences corruption, is one where the young are downtrodden and the elders have lost their authority. This is open to exploitation to radicals offering status and money and receiving a wage and being able to send money back to one’s family is a strong motivator to join a group (which may not have become violent yet). We should note that this is not a predetermined trajectory: not everyone responds to socio-economic grievances by being radicalised as there are other ways to respond (including doing nothing). The point is that there are enough that do to cause a problem. As a measure, reform is targeting the conditions from which the minority that are violent emerge, but it also has the much wider benefit of improving the lives of the population at large.

This is one example of a wider program of reform that is required in order to counter the insurgency, prevent further escalation, and stop a re-emergence in future years. The size of the task cannot be underestimated, or the complexity of the coercive approach that targets the insurgents directly. It will also take time to take effect. The government has made a start with its Northern Integrated Development Agency (ADIN), but this has made little progress since its inception and has a wide brief, including the reconstruction of areas pillaged and destroyed by the insurgents. One hurdle the government faces is gaining peoples trust and this will require investment and results, people will want to see that their lives will be measurably better. If, and when, the natural gas and oil is exploited, they will want to see tangible benefits in their lives in the form of jobs and infrastructure, instead of the money flowing to the elite and abroad.

The two organisations that should be at the forefront of a collective response to the situation in Cabo Delgado are the African Union (AU) and SADC, but they have generally been absent. The AU has a lot on its plate elsewhere and limited resources, but it does have an authority to speak for Africans in a way that the UN and EU does not. As a rule, the AU gives primacy to regional organisations such as the SADC, although it does have a Peace and Security Council and has authorised peace support missions in the past. Thus far, it has barely acted at all. The sixteen member SADC is due to hold a special meeting on the situation in Cabo Delgado but has also been lacklustre in its response. The Palma attack has drawn its attention as the insurgency is increasingly seen as a regional problem as opposed to a local issue that everyone had hoped would simply go away. When the SADC does meet, its members may want to treat the recent Amnesty International report as required reading. Two things near the top of the agenda would be the logistics of dealing with the consequences of the insurgency (and the response thus far) and the porous Tanzanian border, which allows refugees to escape the fighting but also allows the movement of fighters and the idealogues who helped to fuel radicalism in the first place. There has been some coordination between Tanzania and Mozambique, who seem to recognise that the problem is one that transcends borders and affects them both.

The Cabo Delgado insurgency is at a critical point in its trajectory and, shocking as it may seem, it has the potential to worsen as opposed to getting better. It is not the first Islamist insurgency to emerge in sub-Saharan Africa, happen close to a lucrative oil or gas development project, attract the attention of an actor such as the United States, or the first to have its roots in local socio-economic and political grievances that are then exploited. Having all four together does not mean a predetermined path to further escalation but the risks are there, and the Cabo Delgado insurgency has escalated quickly, tipping over from terrorism within two years of the first attack in 2017. The government needs to acknowledge that it needs help. The AU and SADC need to be at the forefront of this.

*This is also the name of a Somalian group and Ansar al-Sunna (Supporters of the Tradition), as used here and by Human Rights Watch, is the sect that emerged in Mozambique and preceded the insurgency. Locals refer to the group as ‘al-Shabaab’ (youth). This is unrelated to the Somalian organisation of the same name. The US also named the group’s leader as Abu Yasir Hassan (a Tanzanian), although he may be an influential member of the Ansar al-Sunna leadership only.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (#ACLED) provides data for the Cabo Ligado Mozambique Conflict Observatory. This is updated weekly and can be accessed at: https://www.caboligado.com/ . This blog has been written using open-source news sites, which include Zitamar News, Club of Mozambique, The Daily Maverick, All Africa, DW, BBC News, and The Guardian. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International articles and reports were also used. The January blog can be accessed at:  https://turnerconflict.com/2021/01/04/mozambique-the-cabo-delgado-insurgency/

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Afghanistan: The US-Taliban peace deal and the intra-Afghan talks

The intra-Afghan peace talks have resumed in Doha against a background of increased violence. The US-Taliban deal that paved the way for the intra-Afghan talks is under review by the Biden administration. They are unlikely to conclude that the conditions for a withdrawal of foreign forces have been met.

President Biden will soon face a decision reading United States involvement in Afghanistan that will also impact on the international force currently in the country. In February 2020 negotiations between the US and the Taliban led to the signing of a peace deal, which resulted in a reduction of US forces and a commitment to a conditional complete withdrawal on the 1st of May 2021. One of the conditions for this was that intra-Afghan talks would be underway. Not withdrawing means the US and the coalition remain mired in a cycle of violence and the continuation of the ‘forever war’, withdrawal leaves the country without a political settlement and the US open to accusation of abandonment. The most likely scenario is that withdrawal is pushed back as no credible assessment of the Taliban’s commitment to the peace deal would conclude that the criteria are being met. An influential report by the Afghanistan Study Group advises that the withdrawal be delayed.

The advice being given to the President is thorough, although options other than postponement of withdrawal are given short shrift- arguments for the recommittal of forces, withdrawal, and a complete washing of hands are briefly covered. The rationale for extending the withdrawal date is that the counterterrorism mission should remain, the Afghan government needs to deal with elite-level corruption, and as the intra-Afghan negotiations started late the US can extend, buying time through an agreement with the Taliban, and continuing to provide civil and military financial support. This will result in criticism at home for not following through on the Trump administration’s commitment to exit from foreign wars and from the Taliban who clearly want the US to leave. The government of Afghanistan will be wary of losing US support.

If we set aside the US counterterrorism mission and domestic concerns in US politics and concentrate on what the people of Afghanistan want, it tends to be what the US and other countries in the region also want: the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan but with the caveat that a peace deal be concluded.  Few want to see the Taliban take control or for a civil war to begin between opposing interests outside of the Taliban. When asked what they want, the people of the country lean towards a US withdrawal, but only after a peace deal is reached. In a 2020 survey 80% stated that they thought the conflict would only be resolved by a political solution. Generally, they see the intervention by the US and its allies as having been harmful and there are those in the US who agree with them.

The big question that looms over the decision is what the Taliban will do in the absence of foreign support for the government and its forces. The group is far from transparent, and while we can speculate as to their intentions, we can never be certain.  As one experienced analyst noted, the Taliban’s founding leader had been dead for two years and no one outside of the leadership knew. If we are to judge the Taliban by what they do as opposed to what they say, then the evidence for the Taliban seeking a political solution in which power is shared is lacking. The Biden administration’s review of the peace deal is unlikely to conclude that there has been Taliban compliance with its pledges in relation to the deal. Nor are they likely to have much faith in the Taliban’s claim to have more progressive attitude towards the rights of women. The group’s opacity makes their intentions hard to assess and internal divisions might make commitments to women’s rights transitory at best. Thus far, what talking there has been, has been with other countries in the region, and there has been a shocking increase in the level of violence, which includes assassinations of people who are rivals or critical of the Taliban, or simply doing their jobs (including journalists, judges, and politicians). In the areas that they control women are facing tighter restrictions.

While it is conceivable that the Taliban are trying to put themselves in the best possible position should a deal with the government be reached, the fact that they are not living up to a deal with the US that was in their favour is unmistakable. Despite being in a position where they control an estimated 52% of Afghanistan, foreign forces want to leave, and the government wants to talk, there has been no reduction in violence due to attacks on Afghan forces and civilians. That there is no clear mechanism for monitoring compliance is a problem that is resolved in part by one side to the deal being demonstrably in violation of it. A pragmatic course of action would have been to cut the deal with the US (of which the government had little say) and then sit tight in the territory under Taliban control while the intra-Afghan talks take place and foreign forces withdraw. The Taliban clearly did not bother to read the script, if they even cared about it in the first place.

As to the intra-Afghan talks, the people of Afghanistan have a lot to be unhappy about. Their government had little input into the US-Taliban deal, agreements were made about prisoners, deadlines were set for the complete withdrawal of foreign forces, and the whole thing looked very much in the Taliban’s favour. By arranging for the talks in Qatar the Taliban has already been granted a de facto recognition. While there are criticisms to be made of their leaders, the progress made in rebuilding the country’s civil society has come alongside a great cost in life and limb and Afghans have serious questions about the intentions of an insurgent group whose time in governance saw women marginalised and sports stadiums turned into scenes for executions. The US-Taliban deal looked much like an exit strategy. Very much so.

The progress of the talks has been turgid, it took six months longer than expected for the intra-Afghan talks to get going, another three months to deal with procedures and protocol and then a break before the talks began again. All the while, the violence was escalating. While the timescale set by the US in which a peace agreement can be reached was unrealistic, one can be forgiven for being underwhelmed. To add insult to injury, the talking that the Taliban has done has been with other countries in the region, not the Afghan government. Now a Biden administration review hangs over the process. To call it a disappointment is an understatement. The 1st of May deadline for complete withdrawal was a problem from the off as it was far too short a time to allow for effective negotiations between the government and the Taliban and it also gave little time to withdraw the troops, most of whom would have to be withdrawn beforehand to allow for a complete withdrawal by the date set. We should note that peace talks are not like conducting business and as such are usually imperfect: a bad peace deal is better than no deal.

From a US perspective, two factors push the decision in the direction of withdrawal. The first is that despite trillions of dollars in investment and military aid, the political elite in Afghanistan is fractured and riven with corruption and the Taliban is in control of swathes of southern Afghanistan. The second, is that the mission in Afghanistan shifted to an advisory role years ago and the US presence is a training and support mission with a counterterrorism element and airpower. If we drop US interests and focus solely on Afghan needs, there is little further difference that a training and support mission can make to fighting the insurgency without increasing the number of troops and changing back to a frontline mission. As to concerns about human rights, the government does not exercise control outside of the urban centres, where more traditional means of authority hold sway, particularly in the mountainous areas that are self-sufficient and resist central control. The longstanding issue of elite-level corruption that permeates through Afghan politics undermines the government and its allies both. As to the counterterrorism mission that dominates US thinking, there is no consensus as to whether it is working or actually makes things worse. It is more a strategic interest for the US than a need for the people of Afghanistan.

The US approach to Afghanistan is about far more than military operations and it is here that the Afghanistan Study Group has much of value to say. The US has significant leverage outside of the military. One of these is diplomacy, and it is notable that of all the countries in the region, only Pakistan has an interest in a strong Taliban, while the likes of India, Iran, Russia, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan do not. These are far from insignificant actors, whose interests in a stable and prosperous Afghanistan are arguably greater than those of the US. Another is supporting facilitation, mediation, and negotiation efforts towards reaching a political solution. There has been a considerable amount of diplomatic activity in this regard, one example being a five-nation facilitation group (comprised of Germany, Indonesia, Norway, Qatar, and Uzbekistan) that supports the Doha talks. These do not have a mediator and there have been calls for an international mediator to be assigned to the intra-Afghan talks, preferably one appointed by the UN. The position of the US special envoy for Afghanistan, currently Zalmay Khalilzad, should be maintained and empowered. Finally, non-military support, including financial incentives for compliance can be tied to building towards a post-agreement Afghan state. The Afghanistan Study Group report recommends these measures in conjunction with a continued military presence in Afghanistan while the conditions for a political settlement improve. They can also be applied in the event of a withdrawal and would be more effective without a military footprint. There is a strong argument that the presence of foreign forces makes the insurgency more violent and benefits the insurgents. Their removal undermines the insurgent argument that they are fighting against foreign invaders.

The deal between the US and the Taliban failed to please everyone and any future deal between the government and the Taliban will also divide opinion. It is not possible to make everyone happy and there is no such thing as a peace deal that will be accepted by all. The best that can be aimed for is one that is accepted by the key parties, avoids spoilers, and protects life. As things stand, this is a long way off and the Presidential decision regarding the withdrawal of US forces, which will effectively determine what happens with other foreign forces, will also divide opinion. It will be determined by US interests and an assessment as to whether it will help the peace process or cripple it.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

This blog has been written using open-source news sites, which include the BBC, The Guardian, Al-Jazeera, the Fair Observer and news media in Afghanistan. The situation in Afghanistan and the intra-Afghan talks are discussed in depth in the following sources: The United States Institute for Peace at https://www.usip.org/programs/afghanistan-peace-process, the Council for Foreign Relations at https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/war-afghanistan, and the International Crisis Group at https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/afghanistan/. For some viewpoints of Afghan’s on the peace process see: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/southasiasource/what-do-afghans-think-of-the-ongoing-doha-peace-process-as-well-as-the-us-taliban-peace-deal-and-what-do-they-expect-from-the-biden-administrations-review/. The Afghanistan Study Group Final Report can be accessed at the USIP website cited above.

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Syria: The beleaguered Syrian Constitutional Committee meets again

The Syrian Constitutional Committee is the UN’s primary means of keeping the Syrian government and opposition talking but remains stalled after five rounds of talks. The problems of the SCC are many and the search for a political solution to the conflict in Syria is an uphill task. Despite the many criticisms and setbacks, the SCC should continue as it is currently the only viable intra-Syrian forum and its benefits might only be seen in the long-term.

It can be argued that the history of mediation and negotiation in the Syria conflict is as convoluted and interlocked as the fighting itself. The Arab League intervened unsuccessfully during the 2011 uprising and there has been two distinct international processes in the form of UN-led talks, primarily held in Geneva, and that of Russia, Turkey, and Iran, primarily held in Nur-Sultan (previously known as Astana). There have also been bilateral talks between various actors, international conferences such as the Friends of Syria, opposition conferences, negotiations leading to the lifting of sieges of towns held by opposing sides, and so on. Mediation and negotiation have taken place within Syria and at the regional and international levels, usually dominated by the interests of third parties, and hobbled by the fact that while many profess to wanting peace, they also want it on their own terms. One outcome of talks at the international level is the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which has been slow to get off the ground and after five rounds is gridlocked.

The SCC consists of 150 members acting as a ‘large body’ and a smaller 45 member ‘small body. The large body is split evenly between 50 government nominated delegates, 50 opposition delegates nominated by the Syrian Negotiations Commission, and 50 members of civil society nominated by the UN. The small body is split evenly with 15 members from each of the three groups and prepares and drafts constitutional proposals for the large body to discuss and adopt. The SCC talks are understood to be intra-Syrian talks and are co-chaired by a government and an opposition representative.

The idea of a drafting a new Syrian constitution is specified in UN Security Resolution 2254 of 2015, which drew on the earlier Geneva and Vienna communiques. It is seen again as one of the four ‘baskets’ from the fourth and fifth Geneva talks in 2017. During the Syrian National Congress of 2018 in Sochi the formation of a committee to write a new constitution was introduced as part of a twelve-point plan. In October of 2018 objections from Damascus over the choosing of civil society actors led to the UN Special Envoy to Syria (then Staffan de Mistura) accusing Damascus of obstructing the formation of the constitutional committee and in November de Mistura set a deadline of December for the government and the opposition to reach an agreement on the formation of the constitutional committee. This remained unresolved at the Astana talks in November. It was not until July of 2019 that the current Special Envoy, Geir Otto Pederson, was able announce progress in forming the committee and its actual formation on the 18th of September. In all, there has been five rounds of talks, with little produced beyond discussing the ‘basic principles’ of a future Syrian constitution.

Much of the blame for the failure of the constitutional talks to progress beyond basic principles has been laid at the door of the Assad regime. Its intransigence is a problem that has been present since the uprising of 2011 and is for two reasons. The first, evident during the uprising and early attempts by the Arab league and UN, is that the regime had no intention of relinquishing an iota of control. The second, coming to the fore once the regime had survived and begun to take back control of the cities, is that the regime believes itself to be secure and that it can also win the war. Its incentive for attending talks is that it wishes to regain complete control over Syria and seeks to achieve an opposition surrender via negotiation. There is also the matter of Assad’s government being nudged into attending talks by their Russian backers. The regime has much experience in negotiating surrenders once its opponents have been hammered into the ground. The establishment of four de-escalation zones proved to be a means for the government and its allies to eliminate the opposition piecemeal, leaving a zone centred on Idlib province in the north. The defeated opposition were given a stark choice: remain under government and Russian supervision or be bussed to the northern de-escalation zone. A general understanding in conflict resolution is that for the parties to a conflict to reach the point where they will negotiate, they need to have reached a realisation whereby a military victory is unachievable, but a political solution is. This has never been the case for the government side and critics who argue that the government has no genuine interest in negotiating a new constitution point to the fact that with presidential elections due in 2021, the regime simply needs to stall the constitutional talks until then.

A further problem is the division amongst the opposition over the constitutional committee. This does not count as a surprise in any sense as the complexity of the opposition to the Assad regime dates back far before the constitutional committee was conceived. There are four Syrian groupings vying for territory in Syria: the government, the Kurds, ISIS, and an opposition that encompasses a spectrum of shifting groups and alliances ranging from moderate, through Islamist, to Jihadist. This is the simplest description that can be made of the actors at the national level and excludes regional actors such as Turkey and Iran, and global actors such as Russia and the United States. While ISIS and the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) can be discounted in terms of participation in the constitutional committee, and the underrepresentation of the Kurds (divided within themselves and in conflict with Turkey and some opposition groups) noted, the differences within what we understand as ‘the opposition’ are stark. While some see the SCC as a critical turning point towards achieving a political solution, others have criticised the qualifications of the participants and see it as futile. The opposition membership of the SCC itself are a mixture of delegates from different ‘platforms’ and it can be argued that the opposition members are a constitutional committee in themselves.

The Syrian Negotiations Commission is clearly committed to the SCC but there has been criticism from human rights groups and activists that if the SCC were successful it would prevent a transition of power, allow war criminals to evade justice, and the regime to fulfil its military objectives. One argument is that is that the declaration of a transitional body for Syria should precede the establishment of a constitutional committee as the current situation means that UN Resolution 2254 would be bypassed, along with its requirement for the creation of a political process leading to an elected governing body and a new constitution. Despite the enthusiasm of the UN Secretary General and Pederson for the SCC, it is a far cry from the political transition called for in the early days of the war and has little prospect of resulting in Assad relinquishing power or human rights violations being addressed. It is also the case that while the SCC draws on the major components of the opposition and includes the Syrian Negotiations Committee, the High Negotiations Committee, Moscow Platform and National Coordination Committees, these are backed, respectively, by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, meaning that there is a heavy foreign influence on what should be intra-Syrian talks. It is not much of a stretch to say that the international influence on a purportedly Syrian-led constitutional committee is not far removed from that seen in Syria itself.

Given all the above, why would there be an argument to continue with a process some see as illegitimate and a dead end? This would have to go beyond ‘because this is all that we have’, as the likelihood of any agreement being reached before the presidential elections put Assad back in power for another seven years is low and means that any benefits might not be seen before 2028.

Firstly, we must consider that the existence of the SCC means that Syrians are in a room talking about the future of Syria, however limited the scope of their discussions or the current prospects for an agreement. The only people who should have the ultimate say about the future governance of Syria are Syrians themselves, not the interested parties that contribute to the conflict and have their own desired outcomes. Secondly, support from amongst the opposition for the SCC is strong, despite the divisions and the objections of critics and they should be allowed to continue talking but with the voices of critics heard. Thirdly, the situation in Syria is not stable and may change. While the regime believes itself to be secure it is dependent on foreign support, reliant on the cooperation of opposition groups reconciled to the regime to govern some parts of the country, cannot advance in Idlib due to Turkish involvement and where HTS holds sway, must accept de facto Kurdish self-governance, and still has an ISIS presence in the east. The assumption that the Assad regime has won its war or that it is a permanent fixture is flawed. Any change in its situation may affect its stance in talks and abandoning the slither of hope that is provided by the current forum could also mean abandoning unanticipated gains in the future. This relates to a fourth argument, which is that peace processes crystalise into a visible termination of armed conflict only after they reach their end. There are successes and failures along the way and the outcome may simply shift the conflict from the military to the political, but the violence does end. Having the warring parties in the same room or forum is major step towards this.

This said, the voices of the critics should be heard and arguments that the current focus of the SCC leaves an unaccountable government in charge and offers little prospect of reform addressed. A major flaw in the early UN-led process was that it assumed from beginning that Assad would go, deciding the outcome of the talks before they took place and leaving the regime with little to talk about. For now, it looks like Assad is in fact staying where he is and the regime remains in place, with the discussion of constitution taking place instead of talks on political transition and effectively replacing them. The assumption has been reversed. This does not mean that the talks should not continue, far from it, but it does mean that the remit of what the UN-led process is looking at needs to widen. The Geneva talks presented three more ‘baskets’ alongside that of drafting a new constitution. Two of these were free and fair elections and the creation of a non-sectarian government, drawing on resolution 2254, which called for a political process and a transitional government. What were once seen as credible solutions now seem ambitious to the point of absurdity but as noted above, circumstances change, and the future is unknown.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

The above is part of ongoing research on mediation and negotiation in Syria and draws on a working paper to be published on the CARIS website. This blog has been written using open-source news sites, which include The Syrian Observer, The Arab Weekly, and Al-Monitor. The formation of the SCC and critiques were sourced from Syria Direct https://syriadirect.org/news/%e2%80%98the-constitutional-committee%e2%80%99-a-return-to-a-political-solution-or-evasion-of-international-resolutions-a-timeline/,  North Press Agency https://npasyria.com/en/53453/ and the UN https://undocs.org/en/S/2019/775.

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Mozambique: The Cabo Delgado insurgency

An insurgency in Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado increased in its ferocity during 2020. When the violence began in 2017 the government treated the situation as one of Salafi-Jihadist revolt and blamed foreign influences. This missed the root causes of socio-economic marginalization entirely and has left the government facing a classic insurgency that requires a multifaceted response beyond the security option pursued thus far.

The government of Mozambique would be expected to understand insurgency better than many others. Since independence from Portugal there has been a bitter civil war from 1977 to 1992 between FRELIMO and RENAMO and a return to fighting in 2013, with peace deals signed in 2014 and 2019. The insurgency that emerged from Cabo Delgado was different when taken at face value. Mozambique is majority Christian but with a significant Muslim minority, but in the northern region of Cabo Delgado this is reversed with 58% of the population being Muslim. There, a militant Islamic sect called Ansar al-Sunna had emerged and began to challenge the established Muslim authorities, drawing in the young and known by locals as al-Shabaab, but having no links with the Somali group of the same name. When some of the militants turned to violence the government treated it as a case of Salafi-Jihadist terrorism and responded in force and later also reached the conclusion that ISIS was also operating in the country. The focus on Islamic fundamentalism shifts attention from more local grievances about socio-economic marginalisation, lack of opportunity and an abject loss of trust in the local elites and the government. There is no consensus amongst analysts on the claims that ISIS is active in Mozambique or that the insurgents are an affiliate, but in 2020 the insurgents began to adopt a strategy of taking but not holding towns.

Gaining an understanding of the group responsible for the insurgency is difficult as it is particularly secretive and has avoided public pronouncements characteristic of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The names ascribed to the group point to a distinct group that is focused on tradition and is young and local in its origin. Locals are reported to have distinguished between the militants of Ansar al-Sunna (supporters of the tradition) with a long presence and al-Shabaab (youth) that appeared more recently. One thing that is clear is that it is distinctly Mozambican in its origins and set up, although it does have foreign links and fighters and had brought in trainers from abroad. The little communication there has been asserted the rejection of state education and taxation and advocates the implementation of Sharia law. The most accurate description of the insurgency would be as coming from a situation in which local grievances about socio-economic marginalisation, lack of opportunity and an abject loss of trust in the local elites and the government have been exploited by a Salafist-Jihadist movement.  

The Mozambican security forces have struggled to deal with the insurgency and have sought help from private military contractors, first the Russian Wagner Group and then Dyck Advisory Services. The numbers of PMCs involved has been small, with the Wagner Group deploying approximately 200 before their withdrawal and Dyck Advisory Services providing helicopter support. Special forces from the South African National Defence Force and the South African arms manufacturer Paramount Group are reported to be assisting the Mozambican military. Recently, Tanzania has begun cooperation with Mozambique and a request for assistance has been sent to the European Union. Portugal is to become involved in training and logistics and has pledged to use its presidency of the European Union to push through EU assistance.

There are five issues that have affected the ability of the government’s counter-insurgency efforts. The first, and most damning, is the clumsy response of the police and armed forces when initially responding to the outbreak of violence. This includes attacks on civilians and indiscriminate arrests, with the full facts hard to come by due to the second issue, which is a clampdown on reporting and investigation by journalists and human rights organisations (in turn, not helped by the insurgent tactic of cutting communications). A third problem was the focus on two other security matters in the form of suspected piracy off the Mozambican coast and a RENAMO insurgency elsewhere in the country. Both these situations drew the attention of the government away from a deteriorating situation in Cabo Delgado where local civil society was warning of increasingly influential fundamentalists gaining ground in the region. This was due to a fourth issue, which is widespread grievance over inequality, widespread poverty and corruption that provided the antecedents for the insurgency in the first place. A fifth is the competing approaches and rivalry between the Mozambican military and the national police to the point of them launching separate air assaults. Local militias are adding to the complexity of the counterinsurgency efforts and there have been friendly fire incidents.  

Despite the secrecy and inconsistency of the insurgents and the attempts by the government to keep its counterinsurgency efforts under the radar of accountability, a picture has emerged of a major upheaval and an increase in insurgent capability and activity in 2020. The beginning of the insurgency can be pinpointed as the 5th October 2017 when three police stations in Mocímboa da Praia were attacked by insurgents, triggering a series of arrests and skirmishes. By the 13th December 2020 ACLED had recorded 698 organized violence events, 2441 fatalities, and 1237 deaths as a result of civilian targeting. While the insurgents have been responsible for a significant number of attacks on civilians as part of their strategy the security forces have also been accused of causing civilian deaths. Over 560,000 people are estimated to have been displaced. It has also brought the violence close to an international gas project, which promises to be the largest in Africa and could provide a hitherto unseen prosperity to Mozambique if the government managed it properly. As it stands, the riches from offshore gas exploration are more fuel for the fire of the insurgency as ordinary Mozambicans are unlikely to trust the elite to share the benefits.

The government has made two critical mistakes that are common, almost ubiquitous, when dealing with organised violence. The first is ignoring the warning signs that a situation is developing in the first place, including when civil society actors are warning of an increasingly militant sect that is gaining followers. The second is a counterterrorism dominated response to the problem that involves mass arrests and hits the general population as hard as it does the militants but fails to look at the root causes, or adherents in the situation. In this case it involved documented human rights violations by the security forces that go all the way up to killing non-combatants. The response is both heavy handed and inadequate – force is being applied that affects the general population, yet it is not focused and has not proven capable of slowing down an insurgency that is gaining in strength.

That the military approach has thus far not worked is clear, although the government is working on increasing the resources available to it by cooperating with neighbouring countries, including recent coordination with Tanzania, and freeing up the military through an agreement with RENAMO. There are also signs that they are working towards addressing the marginalisation of the population in Cabo Delgado and have approached the EU regarding this. They have also abandoned the idea that the insurgency is the work of foreigners and that the end goal to implement an Islamic state in the north. They are right to tackle violence head on, as it is their responsibility to ensure the security of the general population of Cabo Delgado, but this coercive element of the response needs to be open and accountable and target the insurgents only. This means that the open harassment of journalists and other critics of the government’s approach needs to stop. A government at war with the people it is trying to protect is one that is providing recruits to the insurgent cause. We should note that the security forces also need to be working together under an overall strategy and not as competing factions. The other two prongs of a joined-up strategy are conciliation and reform, the first gives those not involved in killing a way out, the second deals with root causes and is directed towards the general population. The insurgents have a limited support base but are tolerated by a population that sees the local elites as self-serving, exploitative, and corrupt, and the government itself as no better. For this to change requires an investment in the reform of civil governance and its visible accountability to the people.

The problems that the government faced prior to October 2017 are different to those that they face now as they now have an insurgency to resolve on top of dealing with the local issues that provided the fuel for the insurgency in the first place. This is difficult but not impossible, although the approach needs to change from one of oppression to one that combines coercion, conciliation, and reform. The established Muslim authorities have been battling Ansar al-Sunna for the hearts and minds of the young in Cabo Delgado. Their task will become easier if the government refrains from conduct that undermines their authority.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (#ACLED) hosts the Cabo Ligado: Mozambique Conflict Observatory. This is updated weekly and can be accessed at: https://acleddata.com/cabo-ligado-mozambique-conflict-observatory/ . This blog has been written using open-source news sites, which include Zitamar News, Club of Mozambique and The Conversation.

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