A suicide bomber attacked a rally for Balkh Province Gov. Atta Mohamad Noor in Kabul Nov. 17, killing nine. Noor, who was not present at the rally, has hinted that he will run against President Ashraf Ghani in 2019. He has not officially announced that he will run, but he is a very popular political figure in the north and would be a formidable opponent. Ghani also is a very popular leader and would be difficult to unseat should he decide to run for reelection.
As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack, there is some speculation that the target was Noor himself, even though he was not present. While this is a possibility, it is also highly likely that the attack was simply another mission of ISIS and its (fairly recently) newfound Taliban brothers in arms to foment chaos and disruption. The fact that the rally was announced, planned, and promised to assemble a crowd was a perfect opportunity for such an attack.
Though tragic in itself, the attack is just another in a recent line of operations by an ISIS/Taliban/Al Qaeda coalition that signal the advent of a protracted civil war, mirroring the “pre-U.S. invasion” of Afghanistan when the Taliban forces of Islamism ruled much of the country.
The Taliban gained power following the defeat of Russian forces in large part by attacking the seemingly pro-communist, secular leadership. In the south, beginning in the Kandahar area, they gained support and prominence initially by establishing some order and rule of law in a chaotic region where bandits, robbers, and ruthless warlords held sway. They did this by establishing strict Sharia law, however, and soon became worse than the bandits and robbers they defeated.
Having established themselves, recruits and a flow of funding from predominantly Sunni governments around the world increased. They quickly moved on the capitol and the shaky leadership left behind by the Russians. This set the stage for a bloody conflict with the anti-Sharia, anti-Islamist forces, led by the Northern Alliance.
Leaders of the Northern Alliance and staunch opponents of the Taliban included Tajik Ahmad Shah Masood, Noor (also Tajik), leader of the Jamiat forces and Uzbek Junbish party Rashid Dostum, and Mohammad Mohaqiq, commander of the Hazara, Hizb-i-Whadat forces. The individual considered overall commander of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces, however, was Masood.
Masood was assassinated by Arab-born suicide bombers sent by the Taliban five days before 9/11. Examining the similarities between that period and events today can provide some insight as to the future in Afghanistan. America and its allies have invested much in Afghanistan and will—like it or not—be involved until some sense of stability returns to the region.
The Northern Alliance were sworn enemies of the Taliban, and are more so today. Those leaders, along with their armies, all alive and still heavily involved in the present and future of Afghanistan, have signaled various levels of deep concern over the resurgences of the Taliban and its alliance with ISIS and remnants of Al Qaeda. Additionally, Mohaqiq and Dostum are in positions of prominence—both vice presidents under Ghani. Noor is a powerful Tajik ruler in the north.
The fact is, in the period before the rise of the Taliban and again immediately following defeat of the Taliban by northern alliance and U.S. forces, Dostum and Atta were sworn enemies. Mohaqiq is a less contentious leader, but he doesn’t seriously trust either of them and has used his forces to battle both over regional issues. The one thing that binds the three of them, however, is their shared hatred for—and slight fear of—a Taliban resurgence.
Following 9/11 and the assassination of Masood, the titular leader of the Northern Alliance was Dostum. Noor, a close ally of Masood, just didn’t have Dostum’s charisma and leadership ability. As such, Dostum led the three armies with the help of the CIA and U.S. Special Forces in driving Taliban leaders Mullah Omar and Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Amman al Zawahiri—along with their armies—out of the country.
The hard drinking Dostum, was always considered a brave, highly efficient and knowledgeable military tactician. He was always deferred to by Atta and Mohaqiq, even though their forces fought bitter battles and skirmishes against each other over seemingly trivial matters.
Recently, Mohaqiq and Atta, journeyed to Turkey to meet with an exiled Dostum. (Dostum fled to Turkey and remains in hiding from an arrest warrant authorized by Ghani. Dostum reportedly ordered the kidnapping and sodomizing of a political opponent with an AK-47. He is still however, legally and officially, Afghanistan’s first vice president). The purpose of their meeting was to officially reconstitute the Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan, a formidable anti-Taliban/ISIS/Al Qaeda, organization, formed by the three leaders, independent from the official Afghan governmental structure.
The objective of the coalition is to defend Afghanistan (or at the very least, northern Afghanistan) from falling into the hands of the Taliban once again. Many in Afghanistan see the current government as somewhat weak and easily manipulated by other governments who seek to see an end to fighting, in part through some type of truce with the Taliban, which would include recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate political party. Former President Hamid Karzai was heavily pressured by President Barack Obama to do just that.
People who study Afghan politics and Afghan social processes know, however, that Dostum, Atta, and Mohaqiq (the second vice president of Afghanistan), will break away from the country and fight any such move to the bitter end. They seem to be moving in that direction now.
An analytical intelligence prognostication of the current situation, including the November suicide attack involves several possibilities, all of which should concern America and its allies.
First, the Taliban and ISIS have formalized a relationship. There was no Taliban dispute of ISIS’s claim of responsibility for the bombing, which will likely move the Taliban more toward active international terror activities, or at the very least, active support of the same. Prior to this, the Taliban has always been a regional threat; not an international one.
Second, Dostum, Atta, Noor, and Mohaqiq—all highly influential leaders in the country—seem on the verge of officially breaking from the central Afghan government and on the verge of an all-out counterinsurgency operation against the Taliban and its ISIS allies. If true, this would probably result in a balkanization of the country and a much less stable central government.
Third, if this is somewhat accurate, Pakistan will become more active in Afghanistan by supporting the central government, but more so by combating efforts of the Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan, and by extension, anti-Taliban efforts. Pakistan’s ISI intelligence services have always leaned toward support for the more Islamist-like, Taliban rule.
If any or all of this is accurate, America and America’s allies might as well grab something and hold on. We will be in for a much longer stay in Afghanistan.
Dr. Godfrey Garner is a permanent faculty professor at Mississippi College, as well as adjunct in Homeland Security at Tulane University and Belhaven University. Following two tours in Vietnam and a lengthy break in military service, he rejoined and eventually retired from 20th Special Forces group in 2006. He completed two military and six civilian government-related tours in Afghanistan. He is the author of the novels Danny Kane and the Hunt for Mullah Omar, Clothed in White Raiment, and The Balance of Exodus, as well as an upcoming textbook on the fundamentals of intelligence analysis.
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