Violence in Afghanistan and its bordering nations seems to be getting competitive. Even as Afghanistan suffered one of the worst attacks in its already violent history, terrorists hit Iran's Parliament in a severe attack. While the so-called Islamic State claimed the latter, it is still a puzzle as to who committed the outrage in central Kabul on 31 May, when a tanker filled with explosives killed more than a hundred and injured many in the heart of the city.
Officials estimate that over 1,500 kilogram of explosive was used inside a sewerage tanker. The truck was stopped by police before it could enter the diplomatic area. Though there is no clarity as to who was the target of the attack, its timing, severity and the aftermath clearly weakened President Ashraf Ghani and his objectives in various ways.
First, the attack occurred days before the president was to inaugurate the 'Kabul Peace Process', an attempt by the government to "own" negotiations with the Taliban, that threatened to be in everyone’s hands but their own. The launching of such an initiative would also have taken into consideration important allies in the neighbourhood and beyond. While the conference did take place amid a virtual lock down in the capital, the message that Kabul was in no position to demand anything of the Taliban – or even their supporters – was clear enough. Negotiations are not carried out over dead bodies of one side alone.
A second weakness of the government was spelt out by the President himself. Earlier, reports had indicated that the explosive-filled tanker had been spotted in Kabul in the early hours of the morning, indicating that security by the Interior Ministry had been lax, if not outright deficient.
In his speech at the conference attended by representatives of more than 20 countries, Ghani appealed for help to stabilise the Interior Ministry and all the organs that it controls, including the police. Corruption is rife, but this is not the first time that the Interior Ministry has been accused of indifference or worse. In July 2016, over 30 police cadets were slaughtered in a training camp on the outskirts of Kabul.
Third, the violent incidents which followed the attack were not part of a typical post-terrorism action-reaction cycle. An outraged crowd gathered to protest and observe a vigil at the attack site without however any untoward incident. The next day, individuals from other organisations joined in with their own agendas. According to reports, flags included those from the Jamiat-e-Islami, those of an earlier government, the Islamic State of Afghanistan, and groups linked to various politicians or former officials.
Protests in Afghanistan do not always turn violent, but this one did, leading to firing on the crowds by an unnamed security force, possibly elements from the Kabul garrison. The resultant death of a reported five persons, predictably channelled anger against the government, and Ghani in particular. The call from political leaders to institute an inquiry against those who fired upon the crowd will have to be considered by the government, in order to appease a (politically-led) crowd that continues to hold vigils at different parts of the city.
Fourth, matters got even more complicated when a day later, suicide bombers attacked a funeral for one of the protestors killed in firing, the son of a prominent Jamiati. Though the mourners included not only Jamiat leaders but also Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, and former intelligence head Amrullah Saleh, accusations soon emerged that the attack was a deliberate effort to assassinate Jamiati leaders.
Governor Atta Mohammed Noor was openly accusative while the reported absence of interim Jamiat Leader and Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani from the first day of an international conference indicated the party’s disgruntlement. The Jamiat itself has hardly been a united body. Just days earlier, on 23 May, it had increased its Interim Leadership Council from nine to 64 in a bid to accommodate competing ambitions, and with a view to strengthening its base for elections.
Prominent names within the expanded Council were Balkh governor Atta Mohammad Noor, former Herat governor Mohammad Ismail Khan, a former envoy of Ahmad Zia Massoud, and former vice-president Mohammad Younus Qanooni among others. Though squabbling over the appointments broke out almost immediately, the Jamiatis are united on one point – that the National Security Advisor Haneef Atmar be sacked.
Post attack, this view has been cloaked in the justification that all officials responsible for Kabul’s security – including the minister of Interior, the national directorate of security, and the defense minister – be dismissed forthwith. As of the time of writing, the government has refused their demands, leading to a higher decibel of confrontation between the Jamiat and the Presidential Palace. Meanwhile, just who launched the attack at the funeral is unclear, given that suicide bombers seem to be available to almost every group with a hand in the conflict.
Fifth, the president's plaintive call for support for his own peace initiative will flounder unless he gets the backing of a substantial number of countries, prepared not only for development assistance but also to pressure Pakistan. After his Interior Ministry squarely blamed the Haqqani group and Pakistani intelligence for the attack, Ghani rather poignantly queried the assembled dignitaries at the conference – including the Pakistani representative – that the puzzle was what Islamabad wanted to achieve in Afghanistan.
Since no one, least of all Pakistanis themselves could have had an answer to his question, the president then offered the Taliban a nationally mandated dialogue at any location and recognition of an office where both sides could meet in safety. In tandem was an appeal to the so-called "international Community" not to talk over the heads of the Afghans, as Russia, China and Pakistan had attempted.
Finally, there was a clear message to neighbours – including India – for recognition that they have a stake in what was no longer an "American war" but Afghan fought and led. In other words, it was an appeal to walk the talk, and assist Afghanistan.
Here, the problem is severe, though hardly unusual given that the phrase "The Great Game" was virtually invented for Afghanistan a century ago.
Russia is once again trying to extend its influence in the region by engaging with the Taliban, whom it had once decried as terrorists. China is supporting that bid, using Pakistan as a forward negotiator. Neither Moscow or Beijing have any love for the Islamists. But both are suspicious of United States' intentions in Afghanistan, even while neither wants to commit their own troops into what is probably the world's worst quagmire.
Both are therefore are willing to swallow a Taliban with 'Russo-Chinese characteristics', in an attempt that is based on false, not to say absurd, assumptions. An increase in United States troops – even the mercurial US president Donald Trump agrees – will be followed by demands that other countries contribute more. After berating Europe for not contributing fully to NATO, the Trump administration and its camp followers are unlikely to pull punches in Asia.
The problem with this approach is that it remains a two-step waltz. Even if all regional countries were to increase financial aid substantially to Afghanistan, Pakistan can simply increase its own assistance to the Taliban at a fraction of the cost. So far, as reports from Pakistan are available, the military believes that it can "win" in Afghanistan.
More practically, the continued reimbursement of funds by the United States for the costs that Pakistan incurs in 'supporting' its operations in Afghanistan, provides a key support to the economy by boning up Foreign Exchange reserves. So, to answer Ghani’s question, a part of Pakistan wants the Afghan war to continue, until the time Islamabad can dominate the country. Nobody of course asked the other half, the people of Pakistan, what they want.
Most long time Afghanistan watchers are calling for a bigger role for China in reining in the Pakistanis. Certainly, it has a huge influence in the country and has its own motivation in terms of the Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese projects may not benefit Afghans to the extent that is imagined but that’s another story. The problem is that this undoubted influence does not seem to have been used effectively. So far, it is Islamabad that jogs Beijing’s elbow.
Chinese and Indian objectives in Afghanistan are not dissimilar, particularly in ensuring that the present Afghan government is not toppled and replaced by political infighting. India has immense influence in Afghanistan that it may use to fulfil Chinese objectives – for a price. The core of that would be built around an effort to reduce the "all weather" Pakistan-China relationship to one that operates only during the sunshine hours. Trade across parts of the Asian continent in return for a retreat from the darkness of covert war. Surely that is fair game.
The author is former director of the National Security Council Secretariat
Updated Date: Jun 08, 2017 17:51 PM