President Karzai has staked his all on a peace deal with the Taliban. Sunday’s attacks show his efforts aren’t working.

Late one June evening last year, as Taliban negotiators hopped between Islamabad, Doha and Munich for secret talks meant to bring peace in Afghanistan, a rocket arced over the east-central city of Ghazni. It ended its journey at Khatera Rezai's home in Tauheedabad, just as the nine-year-old was getting ready for supper. She died eight hours later, her legs torn apart by shrapnel.

Musa Khan Akbarzada, Ghazni's governor later told Afghanistan's High Peace Council what had happened. “The Taliban,” he said, “were under pressure from their superiors for showing willingness to reconcile with the government, and for not firing rockets at Ghazni.” “We therefore permitted them to fire just two rockets at the city.”

Sunday's savage Taliban assaults on Kabul, mirrored by simultaneous strikes in Paktia and Logar, make clear the lesson the Rezai family learned last summer: peace, like war, comes with a price.

In spite of their spectacular media impact, the Kabul attacks mean little. Even though the Taliban retains the ability to stage complex terrorist operations, it has lost swathes of mid-level commanders in targeted operations. Most military analysts agree the Taliban no longer retains the ability to stage force-on-force operations even against Afghanistan's much-reviled army — the kinds of full-blown assaults that could lead it to overrun key towns and cities.

The real question is whether the fragile kingdom President Hamid Karzai has built will hold together when international troops begin to leave Afghanistan in 2014 — or be swept aside by dangerous political fractures his efforts to negotiate peace with the Taliban are opening up.

The searing spring

For more than a fortnight now, the fighting that has marked each Afghan spring has been joined. Kunduz residents — in particular, the districts of Chahar Dara, Dasht-i-Archi and Aliabad — have reported the presence of new groups of jihadists who have arrived from camps in Pakistan, pressuring the sons of peasant families to join their ranks. Insurgent commanders in Ghor have been imposing taxes to pay for weapons and maintenance. Fines and public lashings have been reported when residents defy the Taliban's social codes — one mandating that no family ask for a bride price greater than the equivalent of 1,50,000 Afghanis, 80 sheep and 15 cows.

Last week, Afghan special forces launched operations in Kunar — a remote mountain region which has seen a surge of insurgents from Pakistani jihadist groups. Mullah Muhammad Fazlullah's Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, local residents claim, have even resurrected a Taliban-era Department for the Preservation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice — handing out beatings and whippings for local residents who fail to trim their beards, listen to music, or eating the local naswar tobacco. Maulavi Mohammad Hashem Munib, the head of Kunar's Higher Peace Council, was killed in a suicide attack earlier this month — part of a campaign intended to degrade the Afghan state's already-anaemic presence. Haji Mohammad Dawran Safi, a Taliban commander closely linked to al-Qaeda, recently said his organisation had earlier “tried to make American targets the priority, but the damage created by Afghan forces has become more and more every day.” “Now,” he concluded, “they are our priority.”

Politics and peace

Even though the Taliban campaign presence is most felt in areas ungoverned by the state — reports that the jihadists have “occupied” regions are misleading, since these regions were not held in the first place — their creeping growth causes concern. “People who remember the Taliban years,” says Kabul-based commentator Husain Yasa, “all fear what lies ahead. Perhaps the Taliban will overwhelm Kabul, and perhaps they won't — but perhaps the time has come to prepare for the worst.”

Hours before Taliban assault teams attacked Kabul on Sunday, President Karzai announced the appointment of a suave, western-educated diplomat to head the Higher Peace Council — the body charged with negotiating with the Taliban. Salahuddin Rabbani, Afghanistan's former Ambassador to Turkey, had returned home after his father, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, was killed by a Taliban envoy who turned out to be a suicide bomber.

Few questions about the assassination have yet been resolved. Afghan military sources say it was likely carried out with the support of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, who feared that the elder Mr. Rabbani's efforts might marginalise their own clients in the jihadist movement.

Ever since that assassination, palace insiders say, President Karzai became certain of one thing: Pakistan alone held the keys to peace in Afghanistan.

Mr. Karzai's pursuit of peace was, from the outset, driven by political pragmatism, not high principle. From 2006, the Taliban began a relentless assassination campaign targeting traditional tribal leaders in the Kandahar region, Mr. Karzai's traditional power-base. The campaign, which is estimated to have claimed over 150 lives, ensured that Mr. Karzai's efforts to reach out to Alokozai Pashtun leaders collapsed, and that his prestige among his own Popalzai clan diminished. His controversial half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, was killed last summer.

In the 2009 elections, it became evident the President had little support among southern Afghanistan's ethnic Pashtuns. His victory against key rival Abdullah Abdullah was secured because of support from ethnic Hazaras, grouped around Haji Muhammad Muhakik, and Uzbeks loyal to Abdul Rashid Dostum.

In a desperate effort to rebuild his political foundations, Mr. Karzai turned to the networks of Mr. Rabbani's Jamiat-e-Islami — the centrepiece of the Islamist movement which, from the 1970s, dethroned Afghanistan's traditional elite. He also sought help from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami, a party which though still ostensibly insurgent, has proxies in the political system. Inside the palace — as it became clear western forces would draw down in 2014 — figures considered close to Pakistan acquired critical importance, among them, his chief of staff Karim Khurram.

From 2010, Mr. Karzai initiated an ever-more desperate search for peace with the Taliban, alienating large swathes of the opposition. Even though Pakistan proved unwilling, or unable, to rein in Taliban operating from its soil, Mr. Karzai continued to reach out, hoping a deal could be struck. In 2010, Mr. Muhaqiq resiled on his earlier support, warning: “the new political path that Karzai has chosen will not only destroy him, it will destroy the country. It's a kind of suicide.”

The attacks will be a moment of decision, though, for representatives of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities like Mr. Muhaqiq. Figures like 2009 presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh and Yunus Qanuni have been in talks to build a united front ahead of the 2014 elections — hoping to create a broad coalition that could include leaders from the south, like United States-based scholar Ali Jalali. “In the last ten years,” says political analyst Omar Sharifi, “there are many in Afghanistan who have developed interests in keeping the peace. There are businessman and contractors with stakes in the system; young people who have invested in an education; even druglords, whose business will be disrupted by war. The question, though, is how to keep it in these circumstances.”

President Karzai also faces a moment of decision: it is clear that the Taliban he hoped he could make peace with has no intention of accepting any kind of deal that Afghanistan's political system as a whole could live with. In 2010, Mr. Muhaqiq had warned: “the new political path that Karzai has chosen will not only destroy him, it will destroy the country. It's a kind of suicide.”

Those are words Afghanistan's President ought be carefully considering.

praveens@thehindu.co.in

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