Free fall: On the Afghan conflict

No end to the Afghan crisis is in sight as the IS emerges as the third player in the conflict

August 21, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 10:45 am IST

The suicide attack at a crowded wedding hall in Kabul on Saturday night that killed at least 63 people and injured more than 180 others is yet another tragic reminder of the perilous security situation in Afghanistan. The blast, claimed by the local arm of the Islamic State (IS), occurred at a time when the U.S. and the Taliban are preparing to announce a peace agreement to end the 18-year-long conflict. But if the IS attack is anything to go by, it is that peace will remain elusive to most Afghans irrespective of the agreement reached between the Taliban and the U.S. It’s now a three-way conflict in Afghanistan — the government, the Taliban insurgents and the global terrorists. The government in Kabul, backed by the U.S. and the international community, is fighting to preserve the existing system, which despite its faults, at least offers a semblance of democracy. But the government is a failure in ensuring safety and security of the people. The Taliban, which controls the mountainous hinterlands, wants to expand its reach to the urban centres. The IS, which has declared a province (Khorasan) in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar, has emerged as the third player. Attacks against civilians, especially the Shia minority, is the central part of its brutal military tactics. Afghanistan’s Hazara Shias were the target of the wedding hall bombing as well. The IS, which released a video of the purported bomber, a Pakistani, said he attacked “polytheistic rejectionists”, as the group calls Shia Muslims.

This complex, mutually destructive nature of the conflict is the biggest challenge before any attempt to establish order and stability in Afghanistan. As part of a potential peace deal, the U.S. is ready to pull troops from Afghanistan in return for assurances from the Taliban that they will not allow the Afghan soil to be used by transnational terrorists such as the IS and al-Qaeda. It will be left to the Taliban and the government to have their own peace talks and settle differences. Arguably, a peace deal or at least a ceasefire between the Taliban and the Kabul government would allow both sides to rechannel their resources to fighting terrorist groups. But the Taliban’s intentions are hardly clear. What if the Taliban, which ran most of Afghanistan according to its puritanical interpretation of the Islamic law from 1996 to 2001, turns against Kabul once the Americans are out? What if the country plunges into a multi-party civil war as it did after the Soviet Union pulled out in 1989? The IS has demonstrated an ability to survive and strike in Afghanistan despite the U.S.’s heavy air campaign in the east. Ideally, the international community should have strengthened the hands of the Kabul government against all kind of terrorists, before seeking a settlement with the insurgents. They should have helped alter the balance of power in the conflict. But it does not seem likely now. And Afghanistan is in a free fall.

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