What the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan means for volatile Iraq

Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, the Shiite paramilitary network which emerged during the fight against Daesh, is a formidable force integrated into the Iraqi political and security infrastructure. (AFP)
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Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, the Shiite paramilitary network which emerged during the fight against Daesh, is a formidable force integrated into the Iraqi political and security infrastructure. (AFP)
Iraqis take part in an event celebrating the inauguration of a street named after the late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in the southern city of Basra on January 8, 2021. (AFP)
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Iraqis take part in an event celebrating the inauguration of a street named after the late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in the southern city of Basra on January 8, 2021. (AFP)
Iraqi youths watch an event celebrating the inauguration of a street named after the late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Basra on January 8, 2021. (AFP)
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Iraqi youths watch an event celebrating the inauguration of a street named after the late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Basra on January 8, 2021. (AFP)
The Taliban’s military success in Afghanistan is reverberating across the region. (AFP)
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The Taliban’s military success in Afghanistan is reverberating across the region. (AFP)
The Taliban’s military success in Afghanistan is reverberating across the region. (AFP)
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The Taliban’s military success in Afghanistan is reverberating across the region. (AFP)
The Taliban’s military success in Afghanistan is reverberating across the region. (AFP)
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The Taliban’s military success in Afghanistan is reverberating across the region. (AFP)
Iraq's Hashd militias are an official part of the country's security forces and are funded by the government. (AFP)
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Iraq's Hashd militias are an official part of the country's security forces and are funded by the government. (AFP)
A Hashd fighter walks past a poster depicting late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (R) and Iranian IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. (AFP)
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A Hashd fighter walks past a poster depicting late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (R) and Iranian IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. (AFP)
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Updated 22 August 2021

What the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan means for volatile Iraq

What the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan means for volatile Iraq
  • The swift demise of the Kabul government has raised the specter of similar power grabs in fragile Middle East states
  • Analysts believe Iran-backed Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi will not benefit further from toppling the Baghdad government 

IRBIL, Iraq: It is perhaps just a matter of time before the volatile states of the Middle East begin to feel the reverberations of the Taliban’s swift conquest of almost all of Afghanistan. The implications of the Sunni Islamist group’s triumph will not be lost on non-state actors and violent extremists active in the countries where the US still has troops.

Afghanistan’s US-trained and equipped military failed to hold the line against the Taliban’s lightning offensive, as city after city fell in rapid succession. The government in Kabul quickly collapsed, paving the way for a second era of Taliban rule, just under 20 years after the end of the first.

The principal lesson other militant groups will likely draw from America’s bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan is this: If they can hold out long enough against the enemy’s superior technology and firepower, the latter will eventually grow weary and withdraw, leaving its client regimes to crumble.




The Taliban’s military success in Afghanistan is reverberating across the region. (AFP)

If this is the thinking among some Shiite militia leaders in Iraq, who have long demanded the departure of US forces, it can hardly be dismissed as pure fantasy. After all, there is a fairly recent precedent of a swift insurgent offensive quickly overwhelming the Iraqi military.

Daesh was able to conquer a third of Iraq, including its second city Mosul, in the summer of 2014. The Iraqi army, which was much larger and better equipped, withdrew without a fight.

Although Baghdad was able to recapture the bulk of these territories by 2017, with extensive US support, the campaign against Daesh gave rise to a new force, Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces), which could prove capable of toppling the Iraqi government.

Hashd Al-Shaabi was formed in 2014 to help fight Daesh after the army’s notorious failure to defend Mosul. The umbrella organization of predominantly Shiite militias went on to liberate large swathes of Iraq’s predominantly Sunni regions, and was later incorporated into Iraq’s security apparatus.

However, some of the more powerful factions within the Hashd have long been equipped and financed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to advance Iran’s military and political objectives in the region.

Iraq watchers fear these factions may outgun the regular Iraqi army and morph into a powerful state within a state, resembling Hezbollah in Lebanon.

They have at their disposal large stocks of Iran-supplied surface-to-surface missiles and armed drones, some of which have been used in recent years to attack US military targets within Iraq.

Fortunately for a Baghdad government burdened with the task of balancing the interests of both its American and Iranian patrons, the Biden administration does not look to be in as much of a hurry to withdraw from Iraq as it was from Afghanistan.

Moreover, according to political analysts, there are several major distinctions between the two cases that strongly suggest a Taliban-style takeover in Iraq by pro-Iran militias is probably not on the cards — at least not any time soon.

First and foremost, these factions have a lot to gain from maintaining the status quo. “The pro-Iran Hashd factions do not want to take over the government. Their goal is to join the ruling parties and get their cut of the state, both legal and illegal,” Joel Wing, author of the online blog Musings on Iraq, told Arab News.

“They are already an official part of the security forces, which means government funding. They want more fighters on the payroll. They want contracts and graft.”




Iraq's Hashd militias are an official part of the country's security forces and are funded by the government. (AFP)

Alex Almeida, an Iraq security analyst at energy consultancy Horizon Client Access, is also skeptical that Hashd will attempt a takeover.

“Barring a repeat of 2014, or some sort of militia coup scenario or a siege of the international zone (in Baghdad), it’s highly unlikely we will see a similar situation develop in Iraq, primarily because we would then be dealing with a rogue faction of the Iraqi state rather than an external takeover by an insurgent force,” he said.

Rodger Baker, senior vice president of strategic analysis at Stratfor at RANE, agrees and points out that many Hashd groups “are integrated into the security forces of Iraq, and not merely outside insurgents” like the Taliban fighters were in Afghanistan.

INNUMBERS

2014 Year Hashd Al-Shaabi was formed. 

40 Groups under Hashd Al-Shaabi umbrella. 

128,000 Strength of Hashd Al-Shaabi. 

“They do not hold territory in the same way the Taliban did in Afghanistan, even if they operate in relatively defined geographic areas,” Baker said. “They have close alliances with elements of the Iraqi parliament.

“In short, at least with many of the larger Hashd groups, they are integrated into the Iraqi political and security infrastructure. Thus, they are not necessarily seeking the overthrow of the regime, but rather the assertion of their (and often Iran’s) interests in Iraq.”

Baker is also more confident about the capabilities of the Iraqi armed forces compared with the Afghan security forces, noting that Iraq’s military has “undergone a significant transformation since it largely collapsed amid the early Daesh offensive” in 2014.




Fortunately for Baghdad, the Biden administration does not appear to be in a hurry to withdraw from Iraq. (AFP)

“After that failure, the Iraqis and the US military underwent a significant reform of training and leadership in the Iraqi security forces, and these forces largely proved their mettle several years later in their routing of Daesh from key cities and areas,” he said.

“There is today much more cohesion and sense of common purpose among the Iraqi security forces than there was among the Afghan security forces.”

There is another crucial difference between the current Iraq and (pre-Taliban takeover) Afghanistan situations. It is no secret that Pakistan’s powerful military intelligence agency, the ISI, has long supported the Taliban, often to the detriment of US strategic objectives.

However, unlike the ISI’s comparatively laissez-faire approach, Baker believes Iran holds its Iraqi militia proxies on a far shorter leash, dictating the limits of their activities.

“Iran’s support of the Hashd groups is much stronger than Pakistan’s support for the Taliban — likely stronger even than Pakistan’s Taliban support in the late 1990s,” Baker said.




A Hashd fighter walks past a poster depicting late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (R) and Iranian IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. (AFP)

Besides arming and training them, Iranian officials openly meet with elements of Hashd groups in Iraq. “This also may constrain the actions of the larger Hashd groups, as Iran is not necessarily seeking the overthrow of Iraq’s (government), and is definitely not seeking more destabilization,” Baker said.

“Rather, these groups are part of a collection of elements that Iran uses to maintain influence and protect its strategic interests in Iraq.”

Nevertheless, Baghdad should draw some broad lessons from events in Afghanistan to ensure it does not suffer a similar fate as Kabul, analysts say.

“Perhaps the most significant lesson is the importance of rooting out corruption in the government at all levels, and of ensuring cohesion among various ethnic, regional and sectarian groups in the government,” Baker said.

Afghanistan’s lack of internal unity was plain for all to see in the hours before Kabul fell. Several top officials, including President Ashraf Ghani, opted to flee the country, while others sought to negotiate with the approaching Taliban. Others still, such as Ahmad Massoud, armed themselves and headed for the mountains to launch another phase of resistance.

“The lack of cohesion and perception of corruption left many of the Afghan citizenry unable to trust the government. The same could be said about the bureaucracy and security forces,” Baker said.

Perhaps the most critical distinction between the two cases is that the US does not plan a complete withdrawal from Iraq anytime soon.

“The recent US-Iraq talks show that Washington is not planning on withdrawing from Iraq,” Wing said. “Attacks by pro-Tehran factions are complicating that because the Americans are focusing on protecting themselves rather than assisting the Iraqis right now. But even then, there’s no sign they want to end the mission.”




Placards denouncing the Hashd are shown during a demonstration by Iraqi Kurds outside the US consulate in Irbil, the capital of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. (AFP file photo)

Almeida believes the disastrous retreat from Afghanistan “will make the Biden administration a lot more cautious about how it handles the mechanics of a further US withdrawal in Iraq, particularly drawing down to a small diplomatic footprint without in-country military support.”

For his part, Baker thinks the decision to leave Iraq “will be based more on the US strategic realignment of priorities than on the political fallout from the Afghan withdrawal, particularly as Iraq is in a much stronger shape than the Afghan government was.”

“The larger risk for Iraq is long-term regional and sectarian differences, and demands for greater federalism or distribution of power,” he said.

“Economic resources are spread unequally across Iraq, and these geographic differences will continue to shape the future security and stability environment.”

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Twitter: @pauliddon


Diplomatic row heats up in Turkey over envoys’ joint declaration

Diplomatic row heats up in Turkey over envoys’ joint declaration
Updated 23 sec ago

Diplomatic row heats up in Turkey over envoys’ joint declaration

Diplomatic row heats up in Turkey over envoys’ joint declaration
  • Ankara’s foreign policy being driven by domestic political considerations, analyst tells Arab News
ANKARA: The joint declaration by 10 ambassadors of Western countries urging the release of the 64-year-old jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala continues to shape domestic politics in Turkey, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordering the Foreign Ministry to declare the envoys “persona non grata.” The move is expected to have domestic and international political and economic repercussions. Kavala, who denies the charges, is behind bars for four years, accused of financing nationwide anti-government protests in 2013. The ambassadors of France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand, the US, Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands called for a quick and just resolution of Kavala’s case on Oct. 18 — the day marking four years of the start of his detention. We “believe a just and speedy resolution to his case must be in line with Turkey’s international obligations and domestic laws. Noting the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights on the matter, we call for Turkey to secure his urgent release,” the ambassadors’ statement read, echoing the European Court of Human Rights ruling on its member country Turkey. The ambassadors were summoned by the Foreign Ministry after the release of the statement. “I gave the necessary instruction to our foreign minister and said what must be done: These ten ambassadors must be declared persona non grata immediately,” Erdogan said in a speech on Saturday. “They will know and understand Turkey. The day they do not know and understand it they will leave,” he added, noting that these ambassadors would not release “terrorists” in their own countries. A declaration of “persona non grata” — an envoy who is no longer welcome — is a diplomatic move that is one step before expulsion. The Turkish government considers the ambassadors' declaration as direct interference into domestic politics, rather than reminding European top court's ruling. In the meantime, Kavala, who served on the advisory board of US philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society’s national foundation in Turkey until 2018, released a statement on Friday saying that he would not attend his next trial on Nov. 26 to deliver his defense, as he believes his hearing would be not fair in light of recent circumstances. The ambassadors referred to the ECHR in their declaration. The top European court urged the immediate release of the Turkish philanthropist in late 2019, saying that his detention was aimed at silencing him. Last month, the Council of Europe warned that infringement proceedings against Ankara would begin at the end of November if Kavala was not released. The Danish, Dutch and Norwegian embassies in Turkey said that they had not received any notification from Turkish authorities and would continue to urge Turkey to comply with its international obligations. Experts, however, note that the expulsion of 10 European and North American ambassadors — unprecedented in Turkish political history — may trigger actions in kind from these countries. “As elsewhere in the world, all politics is local,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund of the US, told Arab News. “Turkish foreign policy has been driven excessively driven by domestic political considerations and this case is no different,” he said. According to Unluhisarcikli, Erdogan’s instruction to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to declare these ambassadors as “persona non grata” may please his voters and divert attention from domestic troubles, but it will also contribute to Turkey’s international isolation at a time when the country is already under US sanctions and came close to being sanctioned by the EU last year. Last year, the US administration sanctioned the Turkish defense industry over its purchase of the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile system. The action was taken under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. “Moreover ,Turkey is going through a currency crisis, which could trigger a financial crisis about 18 months before the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2023,” Unluhisarcikli said. In public statements, Turkey’s former ambassadors underlined that although harsh reactions could be given in diplomatic proceedings, the main goal should be the management and resolution of the crises. Abdurrahman Bilgic, a retired envoy who served as the ambassador to Tokyo and the UK, said the ambassadors in Turkey had the right to declare their countries’ stance on Kavala’s release, either individually or through a joint declaration. “In return, the Turkish Foreign Ministry can also retaliate with a declaration to show their uneasiness. But in the meantime the ambassadors should not target our ruling government and judiciary with their consecutive social media statements,” he told Arab News. However, for Bilgic, declaring these diplomats “persona non grata” would not serve Turkey’s interests and could trigger retaliation. “If the process is being handled like this, Turkey could not only loose its voting rights at the Council of Europe but even its membership,” he said. Article 90 of the Turkish Constitution provides that in the case of conflict between international agreements in the area of fundamental rights and freedoms, the provisions of international agreements shall prevail. “Expelling ambassadors is not the way to defend national interests or to explain one’s position on any given matter. Impulsive foreign policy with an eye on domestic politics has only served to aggravate Turkey’s isolation. This should not be deepened through rash action,” tweeted Alper Coskun, the former Turkish ambassador to Azerbaijan and senior fellow at Washington-based think-tank Carnegie Endowment. In the past 50 years, Turkey has declared only three diplomats — one from Libya in 1986, Syria in 1986, and Iran in 1989 — as persona non grata, while the last foreign ambassador Ankara declared persona non grata was an Iranian envoy.

Arab coalition: Over 200 Houthis killed in strikes on Juba and Al-Kasarah

Arab coalition: Over 200 Houthis killed in strikes on Juba and Al-Kasarah
Updated 24 October 2021

Arab coalition: Over 200 Houthis killed in strikes on Juba and Al-Kasarah

Arab coalition: Over 200 Houthis killed in strikes on Juba and Al-Kasarah
  • The coalition said it had carried out 88 air strikes on the districts of Juba and Al-Kasarah during the last 72 hours
  • Arab coalition said it had destroyed four explosive-laden Houthi boats in Hodeidah on Saturday

RIYADH: The Arab coalition said on Sunday that more than 264 Houthis had been killed and 36 military vehicles destroyed in air strikes on two districts near the central Yemeni city of Marib.

The coalition said it had carried out 88 air strikes on the districts of Juba and Al-Kasarah during the last 72 hours.

Juba is some 50 km south of Marib, whilst Al-Kasarah is 30 km northwest of the city.

Later on Sunday, the coalition said it had destroyed an explosive-laden Houthi boat on the Kamaran Island that had been prepared to carry out an imminent attack.

The Houthi militia continues to violate the Stockholm Agreement and the cease-fire in Hodeidah, the coalition said.

The coalition added that the hostile behavior of the Houthi militia threatens navigation in the Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the southern Red Sea

On Saturday, the Arab coalition said it had destroyed four explosive-laden Houthi boats in Yemen’s western province of Hodeidah.

Warplanes targeted Al-Jabanah coastal base, east of Hodeidah city, where the vessels had been prepared to attack international ships sailing through the Red Sea, the coalition said.


Sudan: Political tensions continue as protesters block roads

Sudan: Political tensions continue as protesters block roads
Updated 24 October 2021

Sudan: Political tensions continue as protesters block roads

Sudan: Political tensions continue as protesters block roads
  • The current crisis surfaced with a coup attempt last month

CAIRO: Pro-military protesters briefly blocked major roads and bridges in Sudan’s capital Sunday, amid growing tensions between the generals and the pro-democracy movement that fueled the uprising against autocratic former president Omar Al-Bashir.
The development came a day after US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman met with military and civilian leaders in Khartoum to find a compromise to the dispute.
The souring ties between the military and civilians in the ruling government threaten Sudan’s fragile transition to democracy since the military’s ouster of Al-Bashir and his Islamist government in April 2019 after nearly three decades of autocratic rule.
The current crisis surfaced with a coup attempt last month. Officials blamed Al-Bashir loyalists for the move. But the generals lashed out at the civilian part of the government, accusing politicians of seeking government posts rather than helping ease people’s economic suffering.
Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the head of the ruling Sovereign Council, said that dissolving the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok could resolve the ongoing political crisis. That suggestion was rejected by hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters who took to the streets of Khartoum and elsewhere in the country Thursday.
That generals’ accusations, echoed by Burhan and his deputy, Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, commander of the feared paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, have aroused fears among civilians that the military may eventually hijack the country’s transition to civilian rule.
Pro-military protesters rallied in Khartoum earlier this month, echoing Burhan’s demands. The protesters have since held a sit-in outside the presidential palace in the capital. Last week, they attempted to storm the Cabinet headquarters as Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok met with his Cabinet. Security forces dispersed them using tear gas.
On Saturday, dozens of pro-military protesters stormed the reception area of the headquarters of the country’s state-run news agency and set tires ablaze outside the agency offices. It delayed a news conference for pro-democracy activists, according to Mohamed Abdel-Hamid, director of SUNA news agency.
In an escalation Sunday, pro-military demonstrators cut off major roads and bridges, including the Mec Nimr Bridge, which links Khartoum’s downtown with other areas of the capital, according to activist and rights defender Tahani Abbas. The move caused traffic to clog the streets early Sunday, the first work day of the week, especially Nile Street, a main traffic artery in Khartoum.
“What is happening ... is an official coup sponsored by Burhan,” she said. Abbas shared photos of protesters blocking a bridge with passenger buses and vehicles being turned back.
Later in the day, security forces dispersed the protesters using tear gas to open the blocked roads. Video on social media purportedly showed protesters fleeing over the bridge and on Nile Street.
Feltman, the US envoy, met in Khartoum with Buhan, Dagalo and Hamdok and “emphasized US support for a civilian democratic transition in accordance with the expressed wishes of the Sudanese people,” the US Embassy in Khartoum said.
He urged Sudanese leaders “to commit to working together to implement the constitutional declaration and the Juba Peace Agreement” between the government and an alliance of rebel groups, the embassy said.
The tensions come weeks ahead of a scheduled rotation of the leadership on the ruling sovereign council from the military to civilians, according to the constitutional declaration that established the joint government in August 2019.


Libya’s elections commission to open registration for candidates in Nov, commission head says

Libya’s elections commission to open registration for candidates in Nov, commission head says
Updated 24 October 2021

Libya’s elections commission to open registration for candidates in Nov, commission head says

Libya’s elections commission to open registration for candidates in Nov, commission head says

DUBAI: Registration for candidates in Libya’s presidential and parliamentary elections should open in November, the head of the High National Elections Commission, said on Sunday.
Emad Al-Sayah said the registration process should open by mid-November after technical and logistical preparations are completed.
Elections have been viewed as a key step in efforts to end a decade of violence by creating a new political leadership whose legitimacy is widely accepted.
But wrangling over the constitutional basis for elections, the rules governing the vote and questions over its credibility have threatened to unravel the country’s peace process in recent months.
Libya’s prime minister and several foreign powers on Thursday endorsed the holding of a national election on Dec. 24 as envisaged in a UN-backed peace plan aimed at resolving years of turmoil and division.
However, although parliament has issued a law for the presidential election on that date, it has also issued a separate law saying the parliamentary election will happen at a later date. Other political institutions in Libya have rejected parliament’s proposals.
The first round of the presidential election is due to be held on Dec. 24. A second round, along with a parliamentary election, will then be held at a later date, said Al-Sayah.


Israel, UAE sign ‘green corridor’ agreement for vaccinated passengers — Israeli consulate in Dubai

Israel, UAE sign ‘green corridor’ agreement for vaccinated passengers — Israeli consulate in Dubai
Updated 24 October 2021

Israel, UAE sign ‘green corridor’ agreement for vaccinated passengers — Israeli consulate in Dubai

Israel, UAE sign ‘green corridor’ agreement for vaccinated passengers — Israeli consulate in Dubai
  • Passengers vaccinated against the coronavirus can travel freely between the two countries

DUBAI: Israel and the United Arab Emirates have signed a “green corridor” agreement allowing passengers vaccinated against the novel coronavirus to travel freely between the two countries, the Israeli consulate in Dubai said on Twitter on Sunday.