The massive bomb blast in the heart of Kabul last week, which claimed about 70 lives and left nearly 350 people injured, marked the beginning of the 2016 fighting season — not that there had been much of a let-up in violence during the winter months. Since the Taliban had announced the launch of ‘Operation Omari’ a week earlier, a major attack was expected; yet the Kabul attack for which the Taliban claimed responsibility has shaken the weak National Unity Government (NUG) of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Even before the Kabul blast on April 19, Kunduz city had been subjected to a planned attack involving nearly a thousand well-equipped Taliban fighters who had managed to get hold of two old T-63 tanks as well. Unlike last September when the Afghan troops had retreated from the city under attack, this time with the help of air power (including the Mi-25 attack helicopters provided by India last December), the Afghan security forces were able to hold their ground. However, the two most effective elements in > Kunduz — Afghan Special Forces and air power — are in short supply.
Elusive peace The Taliban strategy is twofold: to inflict casualties in major cities using bomb blasts and suicide attacks to demonstrate that they can hit even the most protected targets, and to try to occupy a provincial capital for a few days to expose the limits of Kabul’s authority.
The devastating blast in Kabul near the Eidgah mosque targeted an office of the National Directorate of Security, responsible for providing close protection security detail to VIPs. A truck laden with a couple of hundred kilograms of explosives was detonated in the adjoining parking lot around nine in the morning followed by three fighters entering the compound shooting indiscriminately and engaging in a firefight that lasted more than three hours. Kabul city’s fifteen ambulances were ferrying the victims to hospitals right till the evening.
Among the provincial capitals, Kunduz is particularly vulnerable in the north as became apparent last October when the Afghan government, supported by the U.S., fought hard to regain control after a fortnight-long Taliban occupation of Afghanistan’s fifth largest city. Helmand and Farah provinces are widely expected to be major targets for the Taliban in the south.
President Ghani’s efforts at securing Pakistan’s cooperation to kick-start peace talks with the Taliban have been a failure. Notwithstanding the coy admission by Sartaj Aziz, Foreign Affairs Adviser to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, last month in Washington that Pakistan has influence over the Taliban because its leadership and their families are in the country and also avail of medical facilities, it is clear that its army is unwilling to leverage that influence.
Since the disclosures last year about Mullah Omar’s death, the Murree peace talks have not been resumed. Instead, the Pakistan army has helped Mullah Akhtar Mansour to consolidate his hold on the Taliban factions that were initially reluctant to accept his leadership. In addition to obtaining al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s backing, Mullah Mansour now also has as one of his deputies Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani group which is widely believed to be an arm of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This certainly puts the U.S. in the strange position of encouraging talks with the Taliban whose deputy happens to head a declared terrorist organisation!
Since early this year, the focus for peace talks has shifted to the newly created Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), consisting of the U.S., China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, which was expected to facilitate the process of direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The hope that China would use its influence on Pakistan has been belied. Before launching their spring offensive, the Taliban had categorically rejected talks with the Afghan government as long as the U.S. retained a military presence in Afghanistan. The QCG formally likes to sustain the myth that since the Taliban have been uncooperative, Pakistan will bring its pressure to bear on Mullah Mansour.
On the ground, however, the U.S. and Afghan positions have hardened against the Taliban. President Ghani realises that his overtures to Pakistan have only eroded his support base domestically, making any further gestures or concessions impossible. The U.S., sensing the growing vulnerability of the NUG, has announced that the current strength of its forces deployed in Afghanistan will continue till the end of the year. What is more important is its growing willingness to bring in air support to locate and target large Taliban groupings before they pose a threat to a provincial capital.
Electoral timetable The NUG enjoys American backing but appears increasingly fragile. Differences between President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah have paralysed governance. The U.S. had finessed the highly controversial 2014 presidential election by pushing the two contenders into a National Unity Government and the creation of the position of a chief executive. The Afghan constitution provides for a presidential system; however, the understanding was that within two years, by September this year, the constitution would be suitably amended to convert the chief executive’s position into that of a prime minister, and executive power would be shared. This needed fresh parliamentary elections, which were to take place after electoral reforms were introduced by an Independent Election Commission. None of this happened because the Commission has not been constituted; consequently, parliamentary elections cannot be held in 2016.
> U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Kabul in early April on a surprise visit to try to keep the NUG going. He pushed President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah to have regular coordination meetings and refrain from airing their differences in public. Both NUG leaders have suffered politically. President Ghani has seen his initiatives for a cooperative relationship with Pakistan backfire and diminish his standing; Dr. Abdullah is criticised by his followers as being too weak and not standing up to President Ghani. With a deteriorating security situation and a shrinking economy, the sustainability of the NUG experiment was always in doubt. But now with the two-year deadline approaching, questions are also being raised about its political legitimacy. This is why Secretary Kerry felt compelled to state in Kabul that the NUG agreement that he had brokered was for the full tenure of five years, irrespective of the constitutional amendment.
Not surprisingly, given that the U.S. is in the middle of its own election, and the Obama administration is on its way out, Secretary Kerry’s statement did not make much of an impact and was even criticised by some as amounting to interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Former President Karzai feels that the time is ripe for convening a traditional Loya Jirga in September to decide on what should be the shape of a future government. Former mujahideen leader Ustad Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf has engineered a predominantly Pashtun coalition that also includes non-Pashtun warlords like Ismail Khan under a Guardian Council to plan a post-September takeover. Former Vice-President Yunus Qanooni wants to build a coalition to replace the NUG with an Interim Council but will also need Pashtun partners.
Three conferences The outgoing Obama administration would not like the current situation to get out of control, at least till early next year. Three major international conferences on Afghanistan are due this year. The NATO summit in Warsaw in July will focus on the post-2016 commitments and extra funding that may be needed to enhance > Afghan forces’ capabilities in terms of surveillance, artillery and air power. The worry is that the Afghan army is suffering 20 to 30 casualties a day, and this steady haemorrhaging needs to be plugged before demotivation sets in, leading to desertions.
The European Union will be hosting an international conference in October to look at regional peace and stability and development cooperation financing needed for Afghanistan till 2020. The Afghan government is expected to present five-year plans at both these summit-level meetings, dealing with security challenges at Warsaw and economic growth needs at Brussels.
In November, Delhi will play host to the Heart of Asia Ministerial Conference which seeks to encourage regional cooperation as the path for creating stability in Afghanistan. A preparatory meet for this conference takes place in the city today.
Despite these reaffirmations of support by the international community, the fact is that the NUG is looking increasingly fragile in 2016 as the Taliban increase their presence. At present the domestic opposition is fragmented but any spark could lead to spontaneous street protests which a weakened NUG will find impossible to control.
Rakesh Sood is a former diplomat who has served as Ambassador to Afghanistan. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org