The announced drawdown of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan and the accompanying transition of the counterinsurgency mission to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) is a major milestone in the conflict, affecting the strategic calculus of all its participants. Recent Taliban actions suggest that they have entered a new phase in their strategic decision-making.  Their intent to open a political office in Qatar and to hold discussions with the United States may signal that the Taliban are interested in a negotiated resolution to the conflict. Recent high profile attacks, however, appear to point in the opposite direction: in particular, the September 2011 assassination of Afghan High Peace Council chairman, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and the coordinated bombings of Afghan Shi`a processions on Ashura in December 2011, a striking introduction of Iraq-style mass sectarian attacks into Afghanistan. These conflicting signals raise important questions. Are the Taliban sincere about entering into peace negotiations? Are spoilers trying to scuttle Taliban peace efforts by conducting high profile attacks such as the Rabbani and Ashura incidents? If the Taliban are not sincere about negotiations, then what is their strategy?

This article first considers the Rabbani assassination and finds it unlikely that it was conducted by “spoilers” distinct from the Taliban central leadership. The killing of the head of Afghan reconciliation efforts with insurgents is on its face a Taliban rejection of negotiations with the Afghan government, the only party with whom a meaningful peace settlement can be made. Analysis of his position within the network of government elites, however, suggests that the Taliban’s overriding motive in targeting Rabbani was not to punctuate a rejection of peace talks, but rather to exacerbate ethnic cleavages within the Afghan government, thereby weakening its cohesion and isolating President Hamid Karzai. Chipping away at Afghan national unity is a companion political strategy in service of the military objective of weakening the ANSF who, given the U.S. drawdown, will form the primary obstacle to Taliban control of either the Pashtun belt in the south and east or the country as a whole.

Although at odds with their  nationalist rhetoric that projects a message of unity among all Afghans, a strong strategic case can be made for the Taliban’s stoking of ethnic tensions. They would do so for instrumental, not ideological, reasons, as a means of undermining the support of non-Pashtuns for the government and pushing them to provide for their own security rather than relying on the ANSF. The Ashura bombings, although condemned by the Taliban, and a recent attack in Taloqan that inflicted heavy casualties on non-Pashtun civilians would be consistent with this strategy. The article concludes by outlining potential policy responses to counter such a Taliban strategy including the forging of a new consensus among Afghan government powerbrokers and the reorienting of the narrative put forth in U.S. media statements aimed at Afghans.

The Rabbani Assassination
Burhanuddin Rabbani was a former president of Afghanistan and the longtime leader of Jamaat-i-Islami, one of the major mujahidin factions in the anti-Soviet insurgency and currently the main Tajik political party. On September 20, 2011, in his capacity as chairman of the High Peace Council, he was meeting with a person whom he believed to be a high-level Taliban emissary. Instead, the “emissary” killed Rabbani and himself with a bomb placed under his turban. Although the Taliban have consistently targeted leaders who belonged to their former enemy, the Northern Alliance, this attack was exceptional given both Rabbani’s stature—he is the most high profile Afghan government figure to have been killed by insurgents—and his role as chief peace envoy. Due to its unavoidable interpretation as an assault on peace talks, the question as to whether the attack was organized by a spoiler seeking to subvert tentative but sincere peace overtures endorsed by the Taliban central leadership or, alternatively, was authorized by the central leadership itself is crucial.[1]

An examination of Taliban media statements before and after the event points toward the central leadership as being responsible. First, less than two weeks before his killing, the Taliban issued a dedicated statement critical of Rabbani, portraying him as an opportunistic liar motivated by U.S. cash.[2] This fits a previous pattern where attacks against senior Northern Alliance figures Marshal Fahim and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf were also presaged shortly beforehand by dedicated Taliban statements critical of them.[3] Second, Reuters reported an initial claim of the attack by the most prominent Taliban official spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, who said it was planned by the Taliban’s central leadership. Although the Taliban subsequently denied having made the claim in the first place, Reuters rebutted the Taliban’s disavowal of making the claim, citing repeated contact with Mujahid concerning it.[4] Furthermore, the Taliban official media has never actually denied responsibility for the attack itself, which one would expect the Taliban to do if they had not in fact executed it.[5] The final point concerns the existence of a spoiler faction itself. Despite having announced their willingness to engage the United States via the Qatar office, the Taliban have repeatedly emphasized their lack of interest in talking with the Afghan government since that announcement, although a peace settlement cannot be reached without doing so.[6] A spoiler can only really be considered as such if it is working against the dominant faction’s wish to pursue negotiations. Yet assuming that the Taliban media office reflects the interests of the central leadership (and one has little choice but to assume that), there is no reason to believe that the dominant faction within the Taliban leadership has an interest in reaching an agreement with the Afghan government.[7]

Although the weight of evidence implicates the Taliban central leadership in Rabbani’s assassination, it is puzzling as to why they would choose to do so at the same time they were exploring talks with the United States. During their rule over Afghanistan, the Taliban were not adept at the art and practice of diplomacy, but surely they anticipated that Rabbani’s killing would significantly diminish their credibility as a negotiating partner with the United States, even if their ultimate purpose is to enhance their military position rather than reach a peace settlement. Perhaps then there was an overriding factor in favor of the attack that outweighed the cost to their credibility in negotiations. As to what that may have been, it is revealing to consider another element of the public reaction to Rabbani’s death beyond the general despondency over the prospects of peacefully resolving the insurgency: the outrage of ethnic Tajiks that their most senior and respected leader had been killed.[8] It is possible that the intent of this attack was to elicit just this reaction.

Network of Afghan Government Elites
An understanding of Rabbani’s special position within the elites who are aligned with the Afghan government yields insight as to why the Taliban may have thought he was worth targeting despite the inevitable blow to the perception of their sincerity regarding negotiations. Figure 1[11] (only available in the PDF version of the CTC Sentinel) shows a “factional map” of 10 elites within the Afghan government.[9] With the exception of Karzai, they are all regional powerbrokers who have independent power bases among Afghanistan’s ethnic groups and regions. The diagram shows their relative power (circle area), significant cooperative relationships between them (links), and their stances on two key issues: 1) policy toward insurgents (i.e., how amenable they are to negotiations and accommodating insurgent political power); and 2) state centralization (i.e., their support for a strong central state, like the current presidential system, or a more decentralized one, such as a federal system). The diagram was generated on the basis of a survey that elicited the judgments of six analysts of Afghan politics, completed prior to Rabbani’s death.[10] One striking feature of Figure 1 is Karzai’s relative isolation in the issue space: only the two other Pashtun (red) co-ethnics are more dovish than he is regarding the insurgency, and he is alone in favoring a highly centralized state. Rabbani is seen to be in the middle of the issue space and, importantly, is the least hawkish of the Tajiks (green) and the other non-Pashtuns as well.

This illustrates his key position as someone who could help Karzai in getting non-Pashtun hawks to support his policy of reaching out to the Taliban and a hoped-for peace agreement. Indeed, it has been suggested that Karzai chose Rabbani as chairman of the High Peace Council for this exact reason. If that is the case, then the opposite effect should also be true: the loss of Rabbani serves to deepen Karzai’s isolation from Tajik elites, and that may have been the Taliban’s goal.

Rationale for Taliban Incitement of Ethnic Tensions
Two other attacks on non-Pashtuns in December 2011 have also seriously inflamed ethnic tensions: 1) the Ashura bombings in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Kandahar targeting ethnic Hazaras, killing more than 60 people and wounding over 200;[12] and 2) a suicide bombing in the northern town of Taloqan, striking a funeral ceremony, killing at least 20 civilians (wounding dozens more) and an ethnic Uzbek member of parliament, Abdul Mutalib Baig.[13] Neither of these attacks were claimed by the Taliban. The raw sectarian character of the Ashura attacks marks a qualitative departure for the current Afghan conflict and was claimed by the Pakistani anti-Shi`a group, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi.[14] This group, however, had never before claimed an attack in Afghanistan,  and it seems highly unlikely that they could have executed coordinated bombings in geographically disparate locations without the cooperation of a significant Afghan insurgent faction. Regarding the Taloqan attack, it is no surprise that the Taliban would target Baig, a former Northern Alliance commander.[15] Yet to do so at a funeral, heedless of civilian casualties, was sure to provoke outrage among non-Pashtuns.[16] The Rabbani and Taloqan attacks can be reasonably attributed to the Taliban and indicate, at best, that the Taliban have a tin ear with respect to the ethnic repercussions of their actions. The possibility must also be considered, however, that these incidents along with the Ashura attacks are in fact concordant notes in a deliberate Taliban campaign to incite ethnic tensions. Given that they portray themselves as Afghan nationalists, the Taliban would not do so on ideological grounds but a strong case can be made on strategic grounds.

In presenting this case, it is assumed that the Taliban, as the Rabbani assassination attests, are seeking a military solution to achieve their goals. Their ultimate goal may be a limited one of controlling only the Pashtun belt in the south and east, or a maximal one of seizing central state power in Afghanistan.[17] For either one, however, consideration of the hierarchy of their potential military foes—U.S. forces, the ANSF, and non-Pashtun ethnic militias—shows that the ANSF is the linchpin.

For the goal of Pashtun belt control, it is clear that the counterinsurgency fight will be mainly conducted by the ANSF given the announced U.S. transition plans. Weakening the ANSF would naturally be a primary objective of a Taliban campaign to consolidate power there. If the Taliban goal is to reconquer Afghanistan, the fight would be more symmetric in nature than asymmetric, as it is improbable that the Taliban could foment a broad-based insurgency among non-Pashtuns in the north and west, who are extremely wary of a Taliban return to power. A relatively small U.S. residual force and the associated air power would be sufficient insurance against a Taliban overrun of the north and west. Whereas the U.S. military can work with the ANSF, it would be much more difficult for the United States to maintain a residual force if it had to deal with a diversity of loosely controlled ethnic paramilitaries with little or no allegiance to the formal Afghan government and prone to engaging in violence against Pashtun civilians. Even if the United States were to effectively remove all of its troops from Afghanistan, the ANSF would still present a more formidable opponent than would fragmented ethnic militias and one much easier for the United States to supply and support. Accordingly, for seizing central power, the key Taliban objective is also to weaken the ANSF; both in its own right as a military foe and as a critical enabler of a U.S. residual force that would be decisive in defeating the Taliban in the conventional force-on-force battles necessary for their conquest of the north and west.[18]

Politically, the Taliban can further their objective of weakening the ANSF by eroding the sense of national unity among those aligned with the government. On an elite level, this entails weakening and isolating Hamid Karzai. President Karzai is both a symbol of Afghan national unity and an active agent thereof given his role as a bridge between Pashtun and non-Pashtun elites (as apparent via the network links in Figure 1). Raising ethnic tensions will make it more difficult for him to bridge that divide. If he sides firmly with the non-Pashtuns, then he will lose support among Pashtuns as will the ANSF, in which Tajiks are already overrepresented in the officer corps and southern Pashtuns are highly underrepresented.[19] If he sides firmly with the Pashtuns, then non-Pashtuns will increasingly pull support from the ANSF and seek to rearm their militias.

The Taliban strategy to isolate Karzai is proving effective. Although Karzai moved to a hawkish stance in line with non-Pashtuns immediately after Rabbani’s assassination, he has since drifted back to his usual dovish position, more in line with the desire of Pashtuns to reach an accommodation with the Taliban. Dissatisfaction with Karzai among non-Pashtuns is presently intense. A number of opposition multi-ethnic political coalitions are coalescing around a platform based on decentralizing government and a hawkish line versus the Taliban as would be expected from Figure 1.[20] A prominent Tajik figure and Karzai’s former chief of intelligence, Amrollah Saleh, recently spoke of Karzai losing allies and becoming isolated; he even mentioned the possibility of the political opposition overthrowing the government—hyperbolically to be sure, but a clear signal of the readiness of non-Pashtuns to take matters into their own hands.[21]

Policy Implications
In response to the Taliban’s goal of weakening support for the ANSF by creating dissension in the Afghan government, it is critical that the United States implement a political strategy that reinforces its own military objective of handing over combat responsibilities to the ANSF. An essential component of this political strategy would be forging a new elite consensus among Afghan powerbrokers, a consensus that is desperately needed. This could be achieved by revising the constitution to a more decentralized system, as has been argued is historically better suited for Afghanistan.[22] Karzai’s political opposition has not pushed for regional autonomy, mostly arguing more modestly for a parliamentary-based system and for the direct election of provincial governors. Although Karzai has stated that he will oppose a revision of Afghanistan’s political system, there is no broad-based support for his position as Figure 1 implies; he would likely back down (as he has on a number of important issues), especially if the United States were to add its weight in favor of such a change.[23] Establishing a new consensus among Afghan leaders would re-energize the Afghan government, increasing its support among non-Pashtuns and Pashtuns alike. It would also allow for a stronger, more unified approach toward the insurgency with respect to both military and reconciliation efforts.

Another key component of the political strategy would be to commit in the near future to a long-term residual U.S. force, small but of sufficient size to prevent the Taliban from overrunning the northern and western regions of the country including Kabul, thereby making it clear that the Taliban could not prevail in a civil war. It is this specter of ethnic civil war that is becoming the dominant conflict logic in the strategic calculus of Afghan political actors, and the United States needs to adapt its media strategy accordingly as another element of its response. A narrative frame should be emphasized in which the Taliban are portrayed as seeking to exploit ethnic divisions and plunge the country into civil war in a drive for central power, whereas the United States serves as a bulwark against the disintegration of Afghanistan that such Taliban ambitions could very well precipitate. A corollary to this narrative shift would be for the United States to drop its present theme stressing the fragmentation of the Taliban and Mullah Omar’s loss of control over his fighters.[24] While appropriate as part of a media strategy highlighting military success against insurgents, it could inadvertently serve to facilitate a surreptitious Taliban campaign designed to inflame ethnic tensions through violence by helping their central leadership skirt responsibility for such acts.[25]

Currently, it is the Taliban who, in a riff on their standard resistance frame depicting themselves as nationalists fighting against foreign occupiers, are painting the reverse narrative in which it is the United States that is deliberately sowing discord among Afghan ethnic groups. The Taliban resistance frame taps into the proud narrative of Afghan rebellion and victory against foreign invasion, a frame that the United States has always struggled to counter. Yet the U.S. drawdown is bringing to the fore a less proud narrative, one which all Afghans grimly recognize from their recent past: civil war. It is possible to establish the facts on the ground that would give the U.S. and Afghan governments the upper hand in the battle of narratives: on the one side, a much lighter U.S. presence buttressing a less centralized but more unified government composed of all Afghan ethnic groups; on the other, an expansionist insurgency overwhelmingly dominated by one ethnic group (the primarily Pashtun composition of the Taliban is understood and should not be emphasized). By reorienting the conflict narrative along an axis of looming civil war, Pashtuns potentially sympathetic to the insurgency may instead come to view the Taliban as leading them toward a future of bloody and fruitless ethnic conflict, and a Pashtun belt effectively cut off from the rest of Afghanistan. Although there are very important differences between the two cases, Sunnis in Iraq faced a similar choice in 2006-2007 and Iraqi nationalist Sunnis rejected the future of an al-Qa`ida-led “Sunnistan.” Afghan nationalist Pashtuns, including those in the ranks of the Taliban, may likewise choose to reject the future of a disconnected, bottled-up, and restive “Pashtunistan”; a prospect that Pakistan may also find unpalatable and which may eventually lead the Taliban to sit at the negotiating table in earnest.

Dr. Michael Gabbay is a research scientist at the University of Washington. His research focuses on the dynamics of insurgent and political networks.

[1] Al-Qa`ida has been suggested as a possible spoiler who may have killed Rabbani. See Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, “Lessons Learnt,” Arts & Humanities Research Council, January 2012.

[2]  “Liar Has No Memory,” Voice of Jihad, September 8, 2011.

[3] The Fahim attack (claimed by the Taliban) occurred in July 2009, preceded by this statement: “The Alliance of the Antagonist Brothers, the Return of the Bulldozer Assassin, Muhammad Fahim, to the Afghan Scene,” al-Samud, May 27, 2009. The Sayyaf attack (unclaimed) occurred in November 2009, preceded by this statement:  “Sayyaf: You Studied Inside Me…But,” al-Samud, October 1, 2009. Taliban statements whose title and focus are dedicated to a particular Afghan government elite (other than Karzai) are rare. A search of Taliban official online media (Voice of Jihad and al-Samud) concerning the nine non-Karzai elites in Figure 1 yielded only the three statements dedicated to Rabbani, Fahim, and Sayyaf that were followed by assassination attempts.

[4] “Taliban Says Won Rabbani Trust in Order to Kill Him,” Reuters, September 21, 2011; Michael Georgy, “Analysis: Mixed Taliban Messages on Killing May Show Divide,” Reuters, September 21, 2011.

[5] Curiously, in December 2011, the Taliban released an unusual written martyrdom statement in which neither the author nor the target of the attack were specified. This is contrary to typical Taliban practice in which suicide bombers and their targets are identified. The statement appears to come from a learned, articulate individual and refers to “rented” religious scholars who condemn suicide attacks as un-Islamic—a frequent theme of Rabbani’s in the months before his death—and then proceeds to defend suicide attacks by citing examples from early Islamic history. It is of course speculative but it is possible that this was Rabbani’s assassin, identified in press reports as Mullah Esmatullah. See “The Message of a Suicide Bomber!” Voice of Jihad, December 15, 2011, translation courtesy of the Naval Postgraduate School.

[6] Nick Paton Walsh and Masoud Popalzai, “Taliban Will Not Talk Peace with Karzai Government, Spokesman Says,” CNN, February 14, 2012.

[7] A Taliban commander reportedly said that only a “small group” within the Taliban is in favor of talks with the Afghan government. See “The Taliban Will Not Hold Talks with the Government of Hamid Karzai,” Afghan Islamic Press, January 30, 2012.

[8] As an example, the governor of Balkh Province, Atta Mohammad Nur (tipped as a potential successor to Rabbani as Jamaat-i-Islami party leader) called for “revenge” against “bloodthirsty predators.” See Michael Georgy, “Analysis: Mixed Taliban Messages on Killing May Show Divide,” Reuters, September 21, 2011.

[9] For a previous use of factional maps, see Michael Gabbay, “Mapping the Factional Structure of the Sunni Insurgency in Iraq,” CTC Sentinel 1:4 (2008).

[10] The survey was administered in the spring of 2011. The analysts consisted of scholars from academia and think tanks and independent consultants. A companion survey assessing key insurgent leaders such as Mullah Omar, Mullah Baradar, the Haqqanis, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was also administered.

[11] This figure is only available in the PDF version of the CTC Sentinel. The individuals in this figure were chosen to represent key government-allied leaders for the four largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan: Pashtuns (red) – Hamid Karzai, Gul Agha Sherzai, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf; Tajiks (green) – Rabbani, Marshal Fahim, Ismail Khan, Atta Mohammad Nur; Hazaras (blue) – Karim Khalili, Mohammad Mohaqiq; Uzbeks (purple) – Abdul Rashid Dostum.

[12] Sharifullah Sahak and Rod Nordland, “Karzai Says He Will Talk to Pakistan Over Attacks,” New York Times, December 7, 2011.

[13] Ernesto Londono and Javed Hamdard, “Afghan Lawmaker who Fought Taliban is Among 20 Killed in Funeral Bombing,” Washington Post, December 25, 2011; Matt Dupee, “Takhar Attack: Taliban Continue Their Campaign Against Political Rivals,” The Long War Journal, December 25, 2011.

[14] While the Taliban leadership council issued a statement condemning the Ashura attacks, they mostly used it as an opportunity to polemicize against U.S. efforts to create rifts in Afghanistan, directly attributing the attacks to a U.S. plot. In this light, their instruction to Taliban fighters to be on guard against such incidents rings hollow. A truly sincere and forceful condemnation would have blamed fellow insurgents, as eventually Sunni nationalist insurgents in Iraq came around to criticizing the targeting practices of al-Qa`ida in Iraq. See “Report on the Gathering of the Leadership Council of Islamic Emirate and its Statement Regarding the Recent Bombings on Ashura,” Voice of Jihad, December 11, 2011.

[15] Baig’s name had been listed in a Taliban statement accusing certain figures of being war criminals in October 2011. This bears a similarity with the pattern of criticizing government-allied leaders shortly before attacking them as noted above. See “From Torture in Government Prisons to Mass Graves in Takhar,” Voice of Jihad, October 26, 2011, translation courtesy of the Naval Postgraduate School.

[16] It should be noted that suicide bombings against funerals have occurred previously in the Pashtun belt and that many Pashtun civilians have been killed by insurgents. Although it can be fairly said that the Taliban are an equal opportunity deployer of violence, similar tactics may be used for different ends: the violence against Pashtuns is aimed at coercing their support; the violence directed at non-Pashtuns, as will be argued here, may be aimed at inciting ethnic tensions so that non-Pashtuns mobilize against the Taliban but apart from, and thereby weakening, the Afghan government.

[17] In the companion survey regarding the insurgents noted above, the majority of analysts assessed that seizing central power is the goal of Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

[18] It has been argued that the Taliban leadership recognizes that it could not prevail in a civil war even against ethnic militias. See Anatol Lieven, “Afghanistan: The Best Way to Peace,” New York Review of Books, February 9, 2012. However, this is far from clear and, in contrast, on the companion insurgent survey, five of six analysts assessed that Mullah Omar believed that the Taliban would prevail over non-Pashtun ethnic groups in the event of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

[19] “A Force in Fragments: Reconstituting the Afghan National Army,” International Crisis Group, May 12, 2010.

[20] For instance, the newly formed National Front coalition is led by the Tajik Ahmad Zia Masood, the Hazara Mohammad Mohaqiq, and the Uzbek Abdul Rashid Dostum. See “Mohaqiq Skeptical of Taliban Peace,” Daily Outlook Afghanistan, January 31, 2012.

[21] Interview with Amrollah Saleh, Tolo News, February 18, 2012.

[22] Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[23] A revision to the constitution could also afford Karzai an opportunity to continue to serve as Afghan leader (albeit one with reduced powers) after his term expires in 2014, which might attract his support.

[24] J.P. Morgan, “Battle for the Airways: Some People Say the Taliban is Winning the IO campaign War,” COIN Common Sense, ISAF, May 2011.

[25] For instance, the practice in U.S. military statements issued in response to insurgent attacks against civilians of challenging Mullah Omar to condemn such attacks implicitly admits the possibility that he is not in fact responsible. For example, see “NATO and ISAF Leadership Join President Karzai to Condemn Suicide Attacks Across Afghanistan,” ISAF Press Release, December 6, 2011.

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