Afghanistan’s violence: Troubled road to peace

November 18, 2020 3:19 PM

Any deal between Taliban and Afghan government representatives will face major hurdles from within the Taliban once negotiations for power-sharing and accommodation of the Taliban within the Afghan government start emerging.

The Peace deal between US and Taliban continues to be in a precarious state. (File image: Reuters)

By Brig N K Bhatia

The hugely anticipated Peace Agreement between USA and Afghanistan signed in Doha on February 29, this year was supposedly a watershed moment. The Agreement brought two arch adversaries engaged in a bloody battle for control of Afghanistan for nearly two decades, to the negotiating table in the hope that peace would return to Afghanistan; where now almost two generations of its citizens have grown in the shadows of violence.

The Peace Agreement was built around two major pillars. Reduction in US forces in Afghanistan from 13,000 to 8,600 within 135 days to be followed by complete withdrawal of its forces within 14 months and a guarantee by Taliban to reduce violence by not allowing Afghan soil from being used against US interests by Al Qaeda and ISIS. Besides, the exchange of Taliban prisoners with Afghan security forces and the removal of sanctions on the Taliban was also agreed upon.

Intra Afghan talks were to commence once exchange of prisoners had been facilitated. However, this issue proved to be the first stumbling block with Afghan leadership refusing to release hardcore Taliban cadres who were responsible for major attacks on Afghan security forces. Eventually, US interference and assistance facilitated the release of Taliban prisoners by the Afghan government in early September 2020 leading to the first round of intra Afghan talks between Taliban and official Afghan government team in Doha on 12 September 2020.

Since the conclusion of US-Taliban Peace Agreement in February 2020 the level of violence unleashed by the Taliban has been worrisome.

The Agreement entailed that Taliban guaranteed to refrain from attacking the US and international forces, but a similar commitment to cease violence against Afghan security forces was not made in the agreement. Taliban fully exploited this glaring gap and lacuna in the US-Taliban Peace Agreement to perpetuate violence against the Afghan government forces and civilians.

What has been worrisome is the targeted killings of civilians and free-thinking Afghans including journalists, rights activists, cultural figures, moderate religious leaders, and women in public roles. Another section of the population that has been attacked have been minorities, predominantly Hazara’s belonging to Shia sect and others such as Sikhs.

In the latest attack on free-thinking young people an attack was launched on Afghanistan’s largest university in Kabul targeting students on 2 November 2020 killing at least 22 and injuring scores others. This attack had been preceded by another attack on an educational institution two weeks earlier when on October 24, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives at the entrance of a tutoring centre in Dasht-e Barchi, an area in Kabul mostly populated by the Shi’ite Hazara minority, killing 24 people — mostly students and injuring more than 50.

As has been the case after each targeted killing or attack on innocents, the Taliban denied its involvement, leaving the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISIS-KP) to claim responsibility for the killings and assassinations. This pattern of attacks and denials by Taliban and owning responsibility by ISIS-KP has become too routine a matter for the international community, not to be taken note of.

The deceit of Taliban to hide behind the charade of ISIS-KP is too simplistic an explanation for the violence being unleashed in Afghanistan. The Afghan forces assisted by US forces are known to have considerably eliminated Islamic State affiliate of Taliban in an offensive in 2019 after 2,000 to 4,000 fighters of ISIS-KP were eliminated.

From all accounts that have emerged post the repeated attacks in Afghanistan mostly cantered around Kabul, the attacks point to the handiwork of the Haqanni network that specialises in such suicide attacks and has been active in Central Afghanistan due to growing rivalry amongst Taliban hierarchy and the Haqqani network.

As per Antonio Giustozzi, a Taliban expert, the recent attacks in Kabul were carried out mostly, or at least in part, by the Haqqani network without the authorization of the Quetta Shura. As per him the relations between the two are strained.

The attacks in Afghanistan also point to the growing dissension and factional war within the Taliban, primarily between Haqqani network led by SirajuddinHaqqaniand Pakistan based Quetta Shura led by Mullah Yakub, under whose leadership Taliban is more inclined to stick to the Peace deal. Haqqani network, as is widely known has had a tacit understanding with ISIL and Al Qaeda. It is also believed to have embraced a substantial number of ISIL elements once its leadership and strongholds were demolished in 2019. This has provided Haqqani network the muscle to execute the attacks without the patronage of Taliban leadership and show its strength.

As per the US estimates the cadre strength of Taliban is estimated to be approximately 60,000. It does not pose “existential” threat to the Afghan government. However, the attacks by a faction that owes allegiance to Pakistan is enough to destabilise the Peace process and cast a shadow on the complete process and a fear of continued instability in Afghanistan.

The US so far appears determined to leave Afghanistan. It has reiterated its position by declaring again intention to further draw down its troop strength to 2500 by mid-January 2021. This will only create further voids which the Taliban will rush to occupy. With military muscle firmly in hands of Haqqani network any challenge to its authority within Taliban is likely to result in increased infighting in the outfit.

The Peace deal between US and Taliban continues to be in a precarious state with no clear roadmap for future convergence in ‘near term’. The Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process itself faces major hurdles due to lack of unity and a common roadmap to peace amongst the policymakers in the Afghan government.

Any deal between Taliban and Afghan government representatives will face major hurdles from within the Taliban once negotiations for power-sharing and accommodation of the Taliban within the Afghan government start emerging.

Until then it will only be violence that will remain constant for hapless and vulnerable in Afghanistan.

(The author is an Indian Army Veteran. Views are personal).

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