Afghan turmoil continues without clear signs of peace
In a move to assist the Trump administration in its efforts to bring political resolution to the long and evasive Afghan engagement that has reportedly cost the United States more than 2,400 lives and more than US$900 billion since 2001, Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American and former US ambassador to Afghanistan, was appointed as President Donald Trump’s special adviser to Afghanistan in September. According to news reports, the Taliban met with Khalilzad in their political office in Qatar on October 12.
Meanwhile, parliamentary elections in Afghanistan were characterized by disruptions and violence by the insurgent group even while the election process indicated people’s desire to take the opportunity to change the character of the legislative body in favor of young, educated and dynamic leaders. An unprecedented number of registered voters turned out to cast their ballots in defiance of the security threats in the hope of peace and progress for the nation.
In view of 4 million of the total of 8.8 million registered voters turning out to cast ballots, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah remarked that the “Taliban’s thoughts and ideas were rejected” by the people. However, around 170 people were reported to have been killed or injured in poll-related violence and around 10 candidates contesting the elections were killed.
The elections not only laid bare the precarious security conditions prevailing in the country, underlining the need for enhanced preparedness of the Afghan security forces, more important, they have raised questions related to the feasibility of and the Taliban’s willingness for the peace talks.
The Taliban claimed to have carried out more than 300 attacks to sabotage “fake election” processes across the country. While indicating an inclination to hold direct talks with the US, resorting to increasing violence during the election process can be construed as the Taliban’s efforts to enter negotiations from a position of strength.
Elections in the southern province of Kandahar were postponed for a week after the killing of the provincial police chief, General Abdul Raziq. That terror attack was launched after Raziq concluded a meeting reportedly on designing plans to strengthen security apparatus to conduct free and fair elections with General Scott Miller, the commander of US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in Afghanistan.
The attack, apart from being an indicator of the Taliban’s outright rejection of the elections, is more significant from the Taliban’s perspective. Raziq’s death would further embolden the rising Taliban as the level of horror he could generate among the insurgents due to his brutal methods of torture is now removed regardless of US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ remark that his absence would not fundamentally weaken the security situation in Afghanistan.
Rising turbulence in various pockets of Afghanistan led to cancellation of elections in 11 districts, including postponements in Kandahar and Ghazni province. According to the observations of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, Raziq’s death might damage the morale of the Afghan security forces to a significant extent, as “the Taliban now initiate roughly 90% of battles in the war, meaning that security personnel find themselves routinely on the defensive.”
Military analyst Atiqullah Amarkhail argues: “It will be hard for the government to find someone who could replace him as a powerful force against the Taliban.”
Further, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who contributed to the Taliban insurgency as one of the senior leaders and was detained a decade ago, has been released by Pakistan to facilitate peace talks between the Taliban and American diplomats. However, this move not only implies the upper hand enjoyed by the Taliban, it may backfire as Baradar’s release might strengthen the insurgency further.
Such efforts may lead to acceptance of radical demands of the Taliban, which might ultimately lead to formation of a radical Islamist regime by the group, pushing the moderate political voices into a corner
Pursuing talks under such conditions may not be in the long-term interest of Afghan peace and stability when the Taliban’s territorial expansion has turned most of the regions into “no-go areas” and the group’s confidence has assumed unreachable proportions with battlefield successes. Such efforts may lead to acceptance of radical demands of the Taliban, which might ultimately lead to formation of a radical Islamist regime by the group, pushing the moderate political voices into a corner.
While switching over to peace talks from a coercive strategy indicated the Trump administration’s failure to rein in the growing influence of the Taliban, agreement on a stable and inclusive Afghan polity is only possible if the US is able to pursue talks and negotiations from a position of strength. Approaching peace talks from a position of strength could temper the radical ambitions of the Taliban and force them to bring to table only pursuable objectives.
As the internal political dynamics run in favor of the Taliban, the US can only acquire a predominant position in the Afghan scenario by turning the tide of external dynamics by bringing in the influence of Russia, Iran and Pakistan to the Afghan peace efforts.
The US continues to depend on Pakistan’s ground and air routes to supply goods to international forces in Afghanistan despite its apparent offensive gestures toward Pakistan. Souring of relations between the US and Russia on the one hand and the US and Iran on the other has not only prevented the US from promoting the Northern Distribution Network as a feasible alternative to Pakistani routes, sanctions on Iran has pushed the development of Chabahar as an alternative route to Afghanistan to uncertainty.
It is noteworthy that the Trump administration suspended most security aid to Islamabad after an initial freeze of $255 million in view of Pakistan’s lack of commitment to fight terrorism. However, the administration’s coercive Afghan strategy did not prove successful as there was a surge in the incidents of terrorist attacks allegedly propped up by Pakistan as a retaliatory response to US action.
For example, after the death toll from the Kabul ambulance bombing in January passed 100, the head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s intelligence service, Masoom Stanekzai, stated that these actions were deadly attempts by the Pakistani backers of the insurgency to show they cannot be sidelined.
Similarly, with the presence of US troops near the Iranian border, mounting economic pressure under American sanctions cutting down Iran’s oil supplies, and a looming long-term geopolitical threat in the form alternative pipeline routes, Iran perhaps believed contributing to instability in Afghanistan by training and arming the Taliban would build pressure on the US to co-opt Iranian interests in the region. A surge in terrorist attacks in the western Afghanistan region this year was alleged to have been propped up by Iran.
On the other hand, Russia was alleged by the US and the Afghan government to have developed contacts with the Taliban, which included allegations ranging from arms provision to sharing of sensitive intelligence with the group. With Russia and the US jostling for influence in Ukraine, Syria and Central Asia, it is not far-fetched to believe that Russia would also be interested in seeing diminution of US influence in Afghanistan.
Apart from this, regional powers including Iran, Russia, China and Pakistan perceive in ISIS a greater transnational threat that the US continues to ignore. This may lead to enhanced support for the Taliban from the regional powers undermining the Afghan peace efforts.
Washington must recognize that these regional powers have significant security stakes in Afghanistan and they have the capacity to destabilize Afghanistan as well. However, viewed from another perspective, these states could bring in their contacts with and influence over the Taliban to the negotiation process and enable the US to approach peace talks from a position of strength.