Why the latest attacks have brought Afghanistan to a crossroads




The attack

  • Bombings between 7-10 August killed over 50 people in Kabul
  • It was seen as a show of strength by new Taliban chief Akhtar Mansour
  • Outraged, President Ashraf Ghani accused Pakistan of importing terror

The conflict

  • Despite Ghani’s recent efforts, Pak-Afghan ties are far from friendly
  • Pakistan sees Kabul’s ties with India as a threat to its security
  • The Taliban is talking to Kabul, yet there is no let up in violence
  • It won’t settle for anything less than complete control of the country

Beginning 7 August, a series of bombings over four days bloodied Kabul, leaving more than 50 people dead. And they shattered any hope Afghans had of peace with the Taliban.

The attacks were the first show of strength by Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the new Taliban chief who has succeeded Mullah Omar, whose death was announced on 29 July.

The violence has sparked a debate in Kabul: should the government continue its seemingly fruitless negotiations with the militant group or call off the process?

If President Ashraf Ghani’s reaction to the attacks is any indication, consensus seems to be veering towards the latter position.

Ghani had invested great hope in the talks. He was confident that with the help of Pakistan, he could persuade the Taliban, some if not all, to accept a power-sharing deal.

If nothing else, the process itself could fissure the group up, or so he believed. His main objective was to reduce violence and, of course, to consolidate his base among the Pashtun.

The Pashtun are the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, and both Ghani and the vast majority of the Taliban belong to it.

The peace talks were started by Ghani’s predecessor Hamid Karzai and though they didn’t yield much, this president stayed the course.

To ensure the negotiations made progress, Ghani went out of his way to improve relations with Islamabad, which is believed to be directing the Taliban through its army.

The latest attacks seem have exhausted his patience. After another bomb blast, this time outside the Kabul airport, on 10 August, Ghani let go at Islamabad.

The country, he said, “remains a venue and ground for gatherings from which mercenaries send us messages of war”. “We can no longer see our people bleeding in a war that is exported from outside,” he added.

So, is it curtains on the peace process? Analysts believe the process is more complicated. The process is influenced by several factors:

Relations with Pakistan

The Pak-Afghan relations have never really been friendly. Afghanistan has long claimed a part of Pakistani territory, which it says was wrongfully annexed by the British in 1893.

Not surprisingly, the two sides shelter each other’s rebels. Baloch and Pashtun leaders fighting the Pakistani state are treated as guests of honour in Afghanistan while Kabul’s adversaries enjoy good lives across the border.

The Afghan government claims that Pakistan is a sanctuary for insurgents who are fighting it; the Haqqani Network operates out of the northwestern tribal region while a faction of the Taliban is based in Quetta.

Islamabad, on the other hand, accuses its neighbour of sheltering the Pakistani army’s nemesis, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, in Kunar province.

We can no longer see our people bleeding in a war that is exported from outside, says @ashrafghani

The group was responsible, among scores of other attacks, for the massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar in December 2014.

In the past few years, Pakistan has gone to the extent of firing rockets to target the rebels in Kunar, much to the outrage of Kabul, which has decried it as violation of its sovereignty.

In May 2015, the spy agencies of the two countries, the NDS and the ISI, singed an agreement to share intelligence to curb the insurgency. The latest attacks show it hasn’t helped much.

Relations with India

For some years now, Pakistan has been concerned about Kabul’s growing ties with India.

Islamabad sees any Indian presence in Afghanistan as a threat to its security interests despite Kabul’s protestations that its relations with New Delhi are not meant to undermine Pakistan.

India is the 5th largest donor to Afghanistan’s rehabilitation projects as well as capacity-building programmes for civilian and military sectors.

North vs South rivalry

Right since the Taliban’s fall in 2001, northern and southern leaders have held divergent views on the peace talks.

The parties that once gathered under the flag of the Northern Alliance – which helped the US-led invasion forces to topple the Taliban – have never been keen on talks with the Taliban. The alliance was mainly composed of non-Pashtuns.

Though leaders of the alliance have been the part of the government, they have long criticised the “ambiguity” in the peace process and the “ethnic-oriented approach” towards the Taliban.

They want the Taliban to be dealt with an iron fist, but the Pashtun-dominated political elite is loath to go too hard on their fellow kinsmen.

Taliban’s brand of politics

Negotiation is meaningful only when those around the table share at least a few fundamental things. That’s not the case with this process.

Kabul wants to integrate the Taliban into a system that it doesn’t even recognise; it’s anathema to its Stone Age interpretation of the Sharia.

Kabul accuses Pakistan of supporting the Taliban; Islamabad says the Afghan state is sheltering the TTP

The group’s whole existence depends on two things: the Sharia and guns. Give up either – as the talks are intended to achieve – and it won’t have a purpose to exist.

The Taliban’s ultimate aim is to take complete control of Afghanistan. It won’t settle for anything less, not while it retains the capacity to strike at will.

Finding a way

How then can the Afghan government negotiate this quagmire without risking the security of its people?

First, Ghani shouldn’t waste time trying to buy the Taliban’s loyalty and strengthen cooperation with his Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, his partner from the north.

He must fulfill his promise of reforming the political and electoral systems, which will strengthen the state against its enemies.

The Afghan National Security Forces are being stretched. The government should, therefore, encourage non-Pashtun communities to train in self-defence. This would not only deter the insurgents, but reduce the pressure on the security forces as well.

The intelligence cooperation deal with Pakistan seems to be little more than paperwork. This underlines the need for the two countries to resolve their key differences before talking about secondary issues.

There are reports of a conflict between the Taliban and ISIS fighters in some areas of the country. Yet, the IS offers an option to the Taliban fighters who never want to negotiate with Kabul to continue their war.

It is, therefore, imperative, that Kabul curb the violence now before it erodes its writ.

The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation

Dr. Hussain Yasa The writer is the Chief Editor of the daily Outlook Afghanistan.