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Kabul twin blasts: Pakistan's role can't be ruled out; Ashraf Ghani govt-Taliban peace talks have turned glacial

When writing on Afghanistan, one tends to run out of adequate adjectives to describe the unending horror of the conflict that has been going on for over three decades. The recent suicide bombing in Kabul seemed, however, particularly bizarre. News of the event got out slow because almost all of the journalists who were present at the site of the explosion were killed in a second blast deliberately timed to hit those who hurried towards the first explosion. Those, on whom, we depend to provide us with the news, were literally blown apart. Courageous journalists are always in danger, but this 'ten at one stroke' hits particularly hard.

The attack was claimed by Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISK) via its Amaq News agency. The ISK as a group is strategically negligible in Afghanistan. If it were not, the Afghan government and diverse intelligence agencies would be queuing up with a separate 'negotiation strategy' with its leaders. As of now, no such outreach is discernible, and major ISK leaders are being picked off in drone attacks in a surprisingly short time. At any rate, the ISK’s cadres, which are an amalgam of disgruntled Taliban leaders and some 'foreign' fighters, are largely operating to the north and the east where some inchoate leadership is perceptible.

Afghan security forces stand guard near the site of a blast in Kabul. Reuters

Afghan security forces stand guard near the site of a blast in Kabul. Reuters

Qari Hekmatullah, for instance, was a former Taliban and before that, was part of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. He relabeled himself as ISK and was operating a motley group of insurgents in the north before he was killed last month. That is by and large the profile of ISK 'Emirs'.

In Kabul, however, the group seems to operate quite differently. Since 2016, since the ISK first made its presence felt in the city, the United Nations documented some 51 attacks on places of worship till the end of 2017 that caused more than 700 casualties. Prior to that, there were only 5 such incidents in six years, which is unsurprising given that Afghans are traditionally tolerant of other religions and practices.

In addition, no one really knows who the ISK Kabul reports to or the identity of its leadership. Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defence is of the view that the Kabul cell is none other than the Haqqani network itself, carrying out attacks in the name of the dreaded Syrian-Iraqi group to generate support from Iran and Russia. The fact that both countries are now supporting the Taliban in diverse ways, in a somewhat dramatic turn around of policy, seems to lend some credence to this view.

Which brings the whole "whodunit" of attacks back to the Taliban and the fact that its second-in-command is none other than Sirajuddin Haqqani who operates the hugely capable Haqqani network. Some facts on the ground need to be underlined to get a perspective on the violence. First, on 25 April, the Taliban announced their so-called "Spring Offensive" called Al Khandaq. The spring offensive is an annual military thrust to take advantage of better weather conditions — which essentially means that the passes from Pakistan are once again open after winter to bring supplies in the form of explosives, ammunition, etc.

Second, the Taliban statement announcing the new offensive explicitly states its biggest grievance as “the newly adopted war strategy of (Donald) Trump (that) has been ruthlessly implemented in the villages and rural areas… for the past nine months". The Trump strategy was announced in April last year and reiterated in the larger National Security Strategy in end 2017.

As the United Nations indicates, the Taliban did escalate violence in this period, particularly with a significant spike in large attacks between 15 December 2017 and 15 February 2018. The UN’s report also observes that the Taliban made no major gains in this period, which must annoy its leaders considerably, to put it mildly.

Third, statistics indicate that the Trump strategy is being implemented on the ground. Together with the fledgling Afghan Air Force, air strikes have gone up with 950 air strikes recorded in 2017 representing a 67.6 percent increase compared with the same period the previous year, according to UN Figures. Data by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports more than 900 close air support flights this year, and about 38 reported air strikes. That’s a lot, and it could increase. And the possibility that this could spread into Pakistan is a threat that has been held out. The Taliban has to "win", which means gaining enough ground for a strong bargaining position, and win quickly.

That requirement puts in perspective the increasingly indiscriminate attacks ever since the "new" strategy was announced. According to the February 2018 report of the Secretary General of the United Nations, 1,500 of the 2,258 civilian casualties in the first quarter of 2018 could be attributed to the Taliban and ISK, marking a six percent increase over previous figures. The so-called "layha" or Code of Conduct issued by the Taliban leadership in 2006 and updated till 2010, which advised its cadres to avoid civilian casualties seems to have been completely set aside.

After a spate of international reports accusing the group of atrocities, there had been some adherence to this code last year, when attacks mainly targeted the military and security forces. In fact, the announcement of the Spring Offensive has a reiteration to cadres that civilian casualties must be avoided and advises civilians, in turn, to stay away from foreign military targets. However, the fact that most severe Taliban/ISK attacks have been against purely civilian institutions gives the lie to this apparently meritorious statement. To that, add the fact that like the present attack, most of these have killed fellow Afghans. This means that much of this carnage is a political message to the government of President Mohammad Ashraf Ghanī Ahmadzai to showcase it as being unable to stop the violence, despite US support.

The puzzle is just who else could be sending this unambiguous message. There is enough to conclude that negotiations with sections of the Taliban have been underway for some time with Ghani’s specific peace proposals outlined in February 2018. No one is expecting anything to happen immediately, but clearly, there is some movement.

Past data shows that Taliban attacks usually do go up before political negotiations when all actors vie for dominance. Equally, there are sections, like the Haqqanis, who are not directly included in this dialogue. True, the network did release13 Afghan soldiers as a goodwill gesture early this year. However, it would also have every incentive to keep up the pressure as the negotiations proceed. However, neither the Haqqanis nor any other group represented in the Military Commission can control Taliban actions entirely, without the agreement of their mentors.

Taliban leaders who tried to double cross Pakistani intelligence have met with a sticky end. Pakistan is running out of time more than any other actor in this tragic mess.  Remember that the Trump strategy for the first time named Pakistan as a terrorist perpetrator noting, “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond. Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbour criminals and terrorists."

That’s as clear as it gets. Islamabad or rather Rawalpindi will be forced sooner than later to produce some Taliban willing to negotiate an end to this bloodbath. There is also a rumour that the Kabul attack was a 'revenge' message from Pakistani intelligence to the Afghans not to meddle in the Pashtun issue. The Pashtun resistance is an outcome of decades of being embroiled willy-nilly into the Afghan conflict and is similar, to an extent, to 'peace marches' in Helmand. Everyone on the ground wants an end to this, maybe even many of the Taliban, but try convincing the Pakistanis.

As the US administration gets more and more distracted by its own internal squabbles, Pakistan and its allies are likely to stay the course until the various other actors, who are, in all fairness, also stirring the pot, throw up their hands and prepare to get out. That’s probably not going to happen soon. After all everyone is fighting over Afghan dead bodies.

Updated Date: May 03, 2018 16:41 PM

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