Terror Attacks, Taliban, and Afghanistan's Future

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Amidst speculation of the revival of long-stalled peace negotiations on ending Afghanistan’s 16-year conflict, two devastating terror attacks in Kabul within a week have underlined an extremely troubling security situation in the county. A suicide bombing in Kabul on 27 January killed approximately 100 people. A week earlier, more than 20 people were killed by the Taliban at Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel. Coming in quick succession, these events have thoroughly exposed the weaknesses of the National Unity Government (NUG), emboldening the Taliban. To make matters worse, ISIS is increasingly active and violent, as manifested in the suicide bombing near the Marshal Fahim National Defense University in Kabul which killed 11 Afghan National Army personnel.

While there are serious attempts by the Trump administration to escalate US military action in Afghanistan, the Taliban-claimed terror attacks make it sufficiently clear that violent insurgency continues to dominate the security landscape. With the Afghan government’s utter failure to handle the security situation even in Kabul, there is growing concern about the Afghan Taliban’s upcoming spring offensive.

President Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy, announced this past August, seeks a greater role for India in Afghan stabilization efforts while putting greater military pressure on the Taliban to initiate peace talks with Kabul. Washington has recently announced the suspension of about $1.9 billion in aid to Pakistan until Islamabad takes decisive action against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, widely believed to be sheltered inside Pakistan. The primary US aim is to prevent any Taliban military victory and force it to accept peace offers.

Following a wave of recent terror attacks, Trump declared “We don’t want to talk to the Taliban. We’re going to finish what we have to finish, what nobody else has been able to finish, we’re going to be able to do it.” But there is no evidence that the US troops and their beleaguered Afghan counterparts have improved their capabilities to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield. Despite reports of disarray in Taliban ranks due to infighting and factional disputes the Taliban is either controlling or contesting over half of Afghanistan’s districts. Fatality rates for Afghan security forces are rising precipitously. Whatever role the US-led international security forces decide to have inside Afghanistan, there is an urgent need for finding a political solution to a seemingly never-ending conflict acceptable to both the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Back-channel discussions have intermittently taken place between the Afghan regime and the Taliban, however without success. Unfortunately, the progress has been thwarted by profound mistrust between the Kabul regime and the Taliban, as well as by the double-dealing position of Pakistan’s security establishment, which stands accused by Afghanistan, India and the US of aiding the Taliban insurgents. Ending war in Afghanistan has become hostage to countless contradictions and regional rivalries.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, has stated that talks are closer than ever, which has rekindled interest in the stalled peace process. A three-member Taliban delegation reportedly visited Pakistan, holding parleys on prospects for the Taliban’s participation in the peace process. The Taliban delegation from Qatar was said to be authorised by its supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. There are also reports of a meeting in Turkey that included persons linked to a breakaway Taliban faction and a representative of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar-led Hizb-i Islami, a former Taliban ally who came over to the Afghan government side last year. The reports of the meeting in Turkey coincided with a 15-member UN Security Council delegation in Kabul which held talks with Afghan leaders. However, both the Afghan government and the Taliban have denied participation in the Turkish peace talks.

Created to steer the Afghan peace process, the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) has not been able to achieve any breakthrough in the peace process. The HPC is eager to use its successful peace talks with Hekmatyar as a model for the Taliban to enter negotiations with Kabul. In early December, when the HPC offered to facilitate the Taliban to open an office in Kabul, the Taliban rejected the offer stating that “more than half of Afghanistan is under our control and the entire Afghanistan is our office.” In early December, a conference of about 700 religious scholars from all of Afghanistan’s provinces was convened in Kabul by the HPC to prepare Afghan-led talks. A joint declaration issued at the end of the conference appealed to the Taliban to “remove all those elements from their rank and file that have ties with international terrorism,” while asking the Afghan government for flexibility with its demands.

The Afghan political scene also remains deeply fractured; the NUG agreement, concluded in 2014, with Washington’s backing, was not just a clever mechanism of resolving the electoral dispute between the two candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, it was essentially a power-sharing bargain between the Pashtuns and the non-Pashtuns (primarily Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras). This arrangement has not helped stabilize Afghanistan as the governing structure is under crushing internal strains and external attacks by the Taliban. The latest political crisis involves the governor of the northern Balkh province, Atta Muhammad Noor, who has refused to step down from his position despite being fired by President Ghani. Afghanis are beginning to view the government as incontrovertibly corrupt, fragmented, and incapable of bringing peace to the nation leading to the widespread belief that the current government in Kabul is no better of an alternative than the Taliban. These troubles plaguing Afghani political stability are exacerbated by the pervasive belief in Kabul, New Delhi, and Washington that Islamabad is encouraging peace talks, not as a means of bringing stability to Afghanistan, but to buy time until the United States withdraws.