Monday Briefing: The Afghan Taliban could bite the Pakistan hand that had fed it

The Afghan Taliban could bite the Pakistan hand that had fed it

Marvin G. Weinbaum
Director, Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies

The smashing Taliban victory was greeted with satisfaction if not celebration by a great many in Pakistan. Prime Minister Imran Khan undiplomatically and provocatively asserted that the insurgents had “broken the shackles of slavery.” The U.S. was seen as having finally gotten its comeuppance for its misguided war on terrorism that undervalued the sacrifices that Pakistan had made on its behalf. The insurance policy that successive governments in Pakistan had taken with their poorly disguised support of the Taliban insurgency would seem to have paid off. Pakistan has reason to anticipate a more friendly regime in Kabul, one willing to distance itself from India.

But Pakistan may have gotten more than it bargained for. Whatever gains in influence it may have achieved with the Taliban in power, it has inherited a neighbor with a collapsing economy and financial system, on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. There looms the possibility that hundreds of thousands of desperate Afghans will seek to force their way into Pakistan, adding to the country’s already serious concerns over security and its hard-pressed economy. Pakistan’s COVID health worries could also worsen with a large influx of refugees.

The security implications of a radical Islamic regime in neighboring Afghanistan are being taken seriously in Islamabad. There have long been fears that a Taliban win could energize anti-state militant extremists and bolster Pakistan’s ultra-conservative religious groups. It was, after all, the presence of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan after 2001 that inspired the creation of the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban. Over the last few months, the number of cross-border attacks by Pakistani Taliban based in eastern Afghanistan has notably risen. Very recently the TTP claimed responsibility for 32 terrorist attacks in the tribal areas, the northwest and Balochistan. The number of incidents is already greater than those experienced in all of last year. Now there is also concern in Pakistan that militants are infiltrating the tribal areas posing as Afghan refugees.

There are several other areas where Pakistan may encounter disappointment as well. The Taliban has already ignored Pakistan’s advice that, if only for optics sake, the government in Kabul should be inclusive of broad elements of Afghan society. The Taliban is also unlikely to satisfy Pakistan’s requests that its new government crush TTP sanctuaries and return those fighters unwilling to renounce terrorist intentions. On the enduring dispute over the Durand Line, the Taliban leadership will, as in the 1990s, be no more disposed to accept the colonial-drawn border than have all previous Kabul governments. But the cruelest cut of all for Pakistan will be when, as is already being signaled, the Taliban decides to put aside its ideological differences with India as it has with China in order to establish political ties and open opportunities for trade and investment.

Follow on Twitter: @mgweinbaum

Are Turkey and Armenia heading toward normalization?

Gönül Tol
Director of Turkey Program and Senior Fellow, Frontier Europe Initiative

After decades of frosty relations, Turkey and Armenia are signaling a willingness to normalize ties. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan recently said that he was open to discussions to normalize relations with Turkey without any conditions. Turkish President Recep Tayyip

Erdoğan responded by saying that Ankara, too, was willing to move in that direction.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries have been severed since 1993, when Turkey closed the border unilaterally in response to Armenia’s capture of Azerbaijani territory during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. The move stifled investment on both sides of the border and left Armenia with only two outlets to the rest of the world: Georgia and Iran. In 2009, Turkey and Armenia signed a landmark accord to normalize ties, but the protocols were suspended after six months. The opposition of Azerbaijan, a close Turkish ally and energy partner, to the effort played a critical role in Ankara’s decision not to move forward.

Today, however, the possibility of normalization of ties seems closer than ever. Last year, Azerbaijani forces, backed by Turkey, defeated Armenia in a renewed conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh and forced it to hand back occupied territories to Azerbaijan. The Azeri recapture of occupied territories has removed Turkey’s justification for severing ties and eased Azeri concerns about normalization between Turkey and Armenia. Baku has been quiet about the positive statements exchanged between the two in recent months.

Both countries stand to benefit economically from restoring ties. For Ankara, normalization with Armenia offers other benefits as well. The latest war between Armenia and Azerbaijan strengthened Russia’s position in the region. Ankara, however, has been left out of the post-war arrangements. Restoring relations with Armenia might boost Turkey’s role in a region that has significant economic opportunities at a time when Erdoğan’s room for maneuver has shrunk both at home and on the foreign policy front. The question is where will Russia stand on all of this? So far, Moscow has expressed support for normalization, but given the volatility of Turkey-Russia relations, that could change quickly.

Follow on Twitter: @gonultol

Egypt’s diplomatic efforts in Libya seem to be bearing fruit

Mirette F. Mabrouk
Senior Fellow, Director of the Egypt program

What happens in Libya has always been almost as interesting to the Egyptian government as its own domestic affairs. That interest stems from several reasons, chief among them security, regional influence, and the economy.

On security, Egypt and Libya share about 1700 km of extremely porous border, across which people and arms tend to travel with relative ease. Egypt has already pinpointed extremists in Northern Sinai who had direct links to Libyan groups and training camps, and therefore has continuously monitored Libyan political and security developments. As for regional influence, various countries have used Libya as an all-in wrestling ring over the past decade in a contest for power and influence. Egypt has kept a particularly close eye on Turkey and that jockeying for power led to some nerve-racking chest-thumping last year.

However, the economic front has seen Egypt put in serious and ceaseless efforts. The biggest prize, of course, is Libyan reconstruction and a resumption of the work contracts that had previously ensured employment for approximately 1 million Egyptians – the major source of migrant labor in Libya. The crisis in Libya meant that Egypt suddenly had to deal with an estimate 800,000 returnees flooding its labor market and the loss of billions of dollars in public and private contracts.

Those diplomatic efforts seem to be bearing fruit. Last week, Libyan Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dabaiba visited Egypt for high-level committee meetings being held for the first time in 12 years. Shortly after his visit, the Libyan government announced that civil aviation authorities in both countries had agreed to resume flights between Cairo International Airport and three Libyan ones: Baninah, Mitiga, and Misrata. The week before, Libyan Minister of Economy Salama el-Ghwell had told the Egyptian newspaper Amwal El-Ghad that 13 memoranda of understanding had been inked, to the tune of billions of dollars. He also noted that Egyptian banks would be leading the financing efforts for the reconstruction and that Egyptian companies would be doing the heavy lifting, among them Elsewedy Electric, which alone accounted for a whopping 30% of the total figure.

Even more significantly for Egypt, which has been struggling with unemployment, Al-Watan reported that Libyan reconstruction would be a phased effort, and while housing, telecommunications, and education were all on the list, the first phase would concentrate on infrastructure work, which would sop up a vitally important 1 million Egyptian workers.

Bilateral trade between the two countries has already picked up, increasing by 43% during the first quarter of 2021 compared to Q1 2020.

While Libyan reconstruction is good news all around, it’s vital for Egypt, which has struggled with both foreign direct investment and domestic growth. Employment had largely been bolstered by national projects and government spending but, despite some admirable mitigation efforts, the grim effects of the pandemic have meant that those figures have dropped and that the government is unlikely to be able to spend similar amounts for the foreseeable future. And while the money represents a financial lifeline for the government, it also helps bolster the regional influence that has always been part of Egypt’s Libya calculations.

Follow on Twitter: @mmabrouk

Content wars, revisited: Facebook’s “Supreme Court” upholds decision to restore content on Palestine

Eliza Campbell
Director, Cyber Program

Facebook’s Oversight Board, the decision-making body associated with the company that reviews decisions on tricky issues of content moderation, issued a decision last week with critical implications for Palestinian speech online. The Board, which is often referred to as “Facebook’s Supreme Court,” agreed that the company was correct in its decision to reverse the removal of a post that shared news about the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas. The post and its removal occurred in May 2021 amid a firestorm of attention on social media companies over the censoring and removal of Palestinian and Palestinian-affiliated content from their platforms. This is part of a larger conversation about the role of internet giants in defining the terms of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, with a particular focus on the role these platforms have played in defining and policing speech from Palestinians, who often rely on social media platforms for communication, solidarity, and the sharing of information.

The post in question was a share of an article by the verified Al Jazeera Arabic page on Facebook, and the user, an Egyptian national, simply shared the text and the photo from the original post. The text reads in Arabic: “The resistance leadership in the common room gives the occupation a respite until 18:00 to withdraw its soldiers from Al-Aqsa Mosque and Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood otherwise he who warns is excused. Abu Ubaida – Al-Qassam Brigades military spokesman.” The Egyptian user shared this post and added a single-word caption as commentary that reads “Ooh” in Arabic. The post was originally removed in May, ostensibly for violating Facebook’s policies on the sharing of information by the company’s designated Dangerous Organizations and Individuals Community Standard, since the al-Qassam Brigades and their spokesperson are both designated as “dangerous” under this definition. The original user filed an appeal of the removal, which resulted in the Oversight Board reviewing and eventually agreeing with the decision to restore the post. The decision to remove it originally seems, in this context, somewhat confusing, since the post merely shared an existing news article and added neutral commentary, raising questions about Facebook’s internal content moderation systems and relationships with governments.

So why does this matter? The post and decision to remove or restore it may seem, to an outside observer, relatively mundane, but are significant in light of the context and its implications. The user explained that their intent in re-sharing the article, which was a verified and neutral news article, was to update their over 15,000 followers on the ongoing situation, and their commentary of “Ooh” was intended as neutral, not as an approval or disapproval of the Brigades’ campaign or actions. Indeed, the original Al Jazeera article was never removed, so the intent behind the removal of the post seems unsubstantiated at best. This was simply an instance of a Facebook user sharing a news article, and the fact that it was about something related to a Palestinian armed group seems to be the only potential reason for its deletion. In its decision, the Oversight Board made a surprising affirmation of calls to carefully investigate reports of Facebook’s disproportionate removal of Palestinian content, as well as not doing enough to remove content that incites users to violence against Palestinians or Israelis. The Board’s recommendations also include a call to review Facebook’s content moderation abilities in both Arabic and Hebrew, and to review how such moderation tools, including those that are automated, may have been subject to disproportionate bias. The case raises significant questions about Facebook, arguably the most influential arbiter of online speech on the planet, and its internal influences, including a relationship with the Israeli government’s Cyber Unit, and the platform’s relationship with governments requesting takedowns in general. Advocates for digital rights and freedom of speech online have long drawn attention to disproportionate suppression of Palestinian speech online, as well as speech for people in the Middle East more broadly. This decision may be seen as one step closer to acknowledgment by tech giants that such questions matter, and that these immeasurably powerful companies are sincerely committed to working to act in a more accountable way. Some activists, of course, remain cynical. In either case, observers should watch carefully what happens next, both online and off.

US sets stage for more sanctions in Ethiopian conflict

David H. Shinn
Non-resident Scholar

President Joe Biden declared on Sept. 17 an “extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” proclaimed a national emergency, and then announced in an executive order the groundwork for imposing sanctions on certain persons with respect to the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia. The comprehensive executive order does not impose sanctions, but it sets forth the legal basis for doing so in the future on parties that engage in a variety of actions such as obstructing humanitarian access in northern Ethiopia or committing violence against civilians. The order applies to persons associated with the government of Ethiopia, the government of Eritrea or its ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Amhara regional government, or the Amhara regional or irregular forces.

The action puts all actors involved in the northern Ethiopia conflict on notice that they can expect to be targeted individually with financial and visa sanctions should they violate any of the conditions spelled out in the executive order. While some will read the order as weighing more heavily on persons affiliated with the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, it clearly includes the TPLF, whose followers in the United States or those wishing to visit the United States could be significantly impacted. It is not directed at the people of Ethiopia or Eritrea, but rather individuals and organizations causing violence and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed responded the same day in an open letter to President Biden. The thrust of his argument is that Ethiopia has declared the TPLF to be a terrorist organization and it remains unanswered why the U.S. “administration has not taken a strong position against the TPLF.” While the U.S. government has not agreed that the TPLF is a terrorist organization, it did include its followers as subject to these sanctions. The prime minister’s open letter also omits the fact that the TPLF was the most powerful political party in the umbrella Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which ruled the country from 1991 until 2018. The entire international community recognized the EPRDF as the legitimate government of Ethiopia.

Follow on Twitter: @AmbShinn