By: Alexander Sehmer
Afghanistan: Taliban Divisions a Boon for Islamic State
Gunmen in Afghanistan’s Jowzjan Province killed six aid workers with the International Committee of the Red Cross on February 8. Two other members of the eight-person team — which consisted of five Red Cross staff and three drivers — were reported missing following the attack (1TV, February 8). The Taliban denied any responsibility for the incident, and local officials have attributed it instead to fighters with Islamic State (IS) (Channel NewsAsia, February 8).
The IS presence in Afghanistan has been concentrated in Nangarhar Province, but several IS factions are thought to be active in Jowzjan, in northern Afghanistan. They emerged early last year, and their activities have since steadily increased, with Afghan authorities arresting Mullah Baz Mohammad, described as IS’ “shadow governor” of Jowzjan, who had apparently travelled to the province from Nangarhar in order to bolster recruitment (Tolo, August 17, 2016; 1TV, August 17, 2016).
In December, Afghan security forces killed a senior IS commander in Jowzjan following an attack on a checkpoint (Afghanistan Times, December 4, 2016). Later that month, following a clash with police, IS fighters raided a village in Darzab district, killing three people and taking two children captive (Pajhwok, December 27, 2016).
While IS in Afghanistan remains less of a threat than the Taliban, the group has been able to take advantage of a growing disarray among the Taliban leadership to extend its operations.
Following the death of the divisive Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in a drone strike in Pakistan in May, the Taliban appointed Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada as its new leader (see Militant Leadership Monitor, November 1, 2016, Gandhara, May 25, 2016). Haibatullah, a conservative cleric rather than a political actor, was intended to appeal to competing factions within the Taliban and dispel the suspicion among many of the rank and file that the insurgency had become corrupt and lost its way. He has so far struggled to do this.
Instead, he has fallen increasingly under the influence of Sirajuddin Haqqani and the Haqqani network (see Terrorism Monitor, September 30, 2016). Meanwhile, the faction belonging to former-leader Mansour — now led by the Taliban governor of Helmand, Mullah Mohammed Rahim — has grown to become the most powerful within the group, in large part as a result of its access to the lucrative opium trade.
These divisions could be exploited by international actors as an opportunity to re-start peace talks with the group, which fell apart in 2015. Pakistan, eager to maintain its influence on the process, has in recent months put pressure on the Taliban to do just that (Pajhwok, November 2, 2016).
Diplomats and politicians, however, will need to move quickly. The Taliban’s divisions are also an opportunity for IS, which recruits from a growing pool of disaffected Taliban members, to make gains.
Philippines: Communist Rebels Step Up Attacks as Ceasefire Ends
A six-month ceasefire in the Philippines between the government and communist rebels recently broke down, putting in jeopardy talks aimed at bringing an end to the long-running insurgency and raising fears of increased guerrilla attacks in the Philippines countryside.
The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) announced an end to its unilateral ceasefire with the government on February 1, claiming the government had used the deal to encroach on its territory and had failed to make good on promises to release jailed rebels (Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 2). Two days later, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared an end to the government’s own ceasefire (Manila Times, February 3). Clashes between the military and the CPP’s armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), ensued (Philippines Daily Inquirer, February 6).
The government has since amped up the rhetoric, with Duterte branding the NPA “terrorists” (Manila Times, February 7). Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana compared the NPA to Abu Sayyaf and warned of “all-out war” (Manila Times, February 8).
The conflict between the government and the communists has dragged on for decades. The NPA, established in March 1969, was initially formed by a band of poorly armed former rebels in villages in central Luzon. The area’s struggling peasant farmers were receptive to the communists’ message, and the movement expanded rapidly to set up numerous local cadres throughout the island. From there, it spread to the provinces.
The NPA’s political philosophy has developed little in the subsequent decades, and its numbers have long since declined. Defense Secretary Lorenzana put NPA membership at about 5,000 in a recent media briefing — more than the army’s official estimate of 3,700 members, but far from its Cold War peak of nearly 25,000 (Philippine Star, February 7).
While the NPA may offer little politically these days, it can still cause mayhem in the rural areas in which it operates — largely Luzon in the north and Mindanao in the south. Guerrillas abducted four people in Maco in Compostela Valley province on February 5, according to the military (Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 10). Fighters also abducted three people, one of them a police officer, and set fire to construction vehicles in Bukidnon province on February 9 (Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 10). A day earlier, fighters killed a soldier in Cagayan province.
Ceasefires between the NPA and the government have been made and broken since the 1980s and there are still prospects for talks. Before the ceasefire broke down, negotiations between the two sides, which may still go ahead, were due to take place in Norway in April. In the meantime, however, the Philippines is likely to see a stepped-up hit-and-run campaign carried out by the NPA.