Myanmar Faces Arakan Army Attacks in Rakhine State
Since intelligence agencies began observing ties between certain, albeit possibly peripheral, Rakhine [Arakan] militant groups and Islamic State (IS), jihadism has often been the focus of analyses on the Rakhine state insurgency in Myanmar (theweek.in, November 21, 2020). There was a pledge from Katiba al-Mahdi Fi Bilad al-Arakan to IS in November 2020. However, neither that group nor any other IS-loyal Rohingya groups have endured to the present that have any relevance (Twitter/@natsecjeff, November 9, 2021).
During the current phase of the insurgency against the Myanmar junta, moreover, another group, the Arakan Army (AA), is proving more operationally effective than any IS-loyal group. In early September, for example, the AA conducted a bombing of junta solders, which killed two of them, at a government office in Maebon (narinjara.com, September 8). As this was the first attack in Maebon during the insurgency, it led to a rapid and large-scale deployment of government soldiers to the town.
While Maebon lies along the southern edge of the coastal Rakhine, the state’s north is also seeing increasing hostilities between the militants and Myanmar’s army. The state’s border with Bangladesh, for example, has been exploited by AA to launch attacks against the army. This, in turn, prompted the Myanmar Air Force (MAF) to cross into Bangladeshi territory to target the AA’s hideouts (bdnews.com, September 10).
Bangladesh has accordingly lodged complaints with Myanmar concerning the MAF’s unauthorized flights into Bangladeshi air space. Bangladesh, however, is also wary of being provoked by Myanmar into a confrontation that could exacerbate bilateral relations (dhakatribune.com, September 3). Although Myanmar is ostensibly inadvertently trespassing into Bangladeshi air space, the military government of Myanmar may also be sending a message to Bangladesh to avoid supporting the AA.
In January, the AA publicly expressed the desire to improve relations with Bangladesh and called upon Bangladesh to be more proactive in supporting the AA (dhakatribune.com, January 19). Whereas IS-loyal groups desire an Islamic state, which is at odds with both the Bangladeshi and Myanmar governments as well as other separatist Rakhine militant groups, the AA has taken a more pragmatic approach. It demands autonomy for the Rohingyas in Rakhine State, but is willing to exist in some modified form of the Federal Union of Myanmar. This not only makes it more palatable for foreign countries like Bangladesh to support the AA, but also allows the AA to show its goals are consistent with other ethnic and regional militias that oppose the Myanmar junta.
The Myanmar military government, meanwhile, has been reinforcing relations with Russia, including face to face meetings between regime leader Min Aung Hlaing and Vladimir Putin. They met in Vladvistok at the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in August (aljazeera.com, September 7). Further, Myanmar has been purchasing Russian fuel, which otherwise is barred by many of the same Western countries that are currently sanctioning the junta (themoscowtimes.com, September 7). Yet, with Russia struggling, if not failing, militarily in Ukraine and becoming only more isolated internationally, Myanmar’s junta may find itself not only embattled with the AA and other insurgent groups throughout the country, but also in conflict with Bangladesh and the West. This could be a harbinger for a more tenuous grasp on the levers of power within Myanmar itself and for an increasing number of insurgent military victories.
Is the Anti-Taliban Resistance in Afghanistan Regrouping in Panjshir?
After the Taliban captured Kabul in August 2021, the two primary militant groups in opposition to the Taliban were Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the National Resistance Front (NRF). The latter was significantly more palatable than ISKP to international audiences because it is led by legendary anti-Soviet mujahedeen Ahmad Shah Massoud’s son, Ahmad Massoud, who currently calls for a democratic Afghanistan that respects minority rights. In contrast, ISKP continues to attack foreign interests in South Asia as well as the Taliban itself (Terrorism Monitor, September 7, 2021).
Since the NRF’s emergence, the group has not come anywhere close to militarily contesting the Taliban and, in fact, it suffered a major setback when the Taliban took control of its headquarters in Panjshir in September 2021 (aljazeera.com, September 6, 2021). There is, however, some preliminary evidence that suggests this is changing. In June, the NRF indicated it still maintained a presence in Panjshir by claiming to have shot down a Taliban helicopter and captured four Taliban fighters (theprint.in, June 18). Two months later, just as the Taliban was celebrating the one-year anniversary of its re-conquest of Afghanistan, the NRF announced that it captured another five Taliban fighters in Panjshir (business-standard.com, August 16). However, the largest claim from the NRF came earlier this month when on September 11 it announced that it killed 32 Taliban fighters while repelling Taliban attacks on several of its bases throughout Panjshir (khaama.com, September 11). In this same month, the Taliban launched an offensive to root out NRF insurgents throughout Panjshir, which testifies to the growing impact of NRF operations (etilaatroz.com, August 20).
The NRF has every incentive to embellish its victories against the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to show that it remains relevant, if not also to counter Taliban propaganda by issuing NRF announcements on the Taliban’s one-year anniversary and on 9/11. Beyond claiming NRF attacks against the Taliban, Ahmad Massoud is countering the Taliban’s claims that it is moderate and that it governs according to international and Islamic norms. Rather, Massoud has been busy publicly asserting that the Taliban is bringing Afghanistan “back to the dark ages” just like its rule before 9/11 (indianexpress.com, September 5).
The sustainability of the NRF will depend not only on its media efforts and ability to attack the Taliban, but also on its ability to maintain and garner foreign backing. Its most important regional backer so far has been Tajikistan, which has been experiencing rifts with the Taliban as a result of its communications with the NRF (rferl.org, May 19). Although the Taliban has threatened to host anti-Tajik government militants if the Tajik government continues to back the NRF, the two governments have not clashed outside of the negotiating table. Moreover, to assuage Tajikistan’s claims that the Taliban is oppressing ethnic Tajiks and other minorities in Afghanistan, the Taliban maintains an official position that its government is “inclusive” (tolonews.com, August 13).
As late as July, Massoud had indicated there was the possibility the NRF may hold talks with the Taliban in Dushanbe (khaama.com, July 7). Thus far, however, the only known talks with the Taliban occurred in Iran in January 2022 (alarabiya.net, January 10). Given the recent spate of NRF attacks against the Taliban, it is unlikely the Taliban will meet with Massoud, but if the NRF is conducting serious attacks against the Taliban in Panjshir, then further Taliban “counter-insurgency” operations against the NRF are more than expected.