Deepening morass

Print edition : July 24, 2015

A scene near the Afghan parliament in Kabul after the blast on June 22. Photo: Mohammad Ismail/REUTERS

Afghan lawmakers leave the main hall after a suicide attack in front of the main gate of the parliament. Photo: Dr. Naqibullah Faiq/AP

An Afghan refugee girl with her goat at a camp on the outskirts of Kunduz province, north of Kabul. Photo: Rahmat Gul/AP

The Taliban’s attack on the Afghan parliament, the latest in a spate of offensives, and a steady rise in its territorial gains are ominous signs that Afghanistan may be close to losing its fragile democracy.

THE TALIBAN seems to be getting bolder by the day as it ups the military, political and diplomatic ante in Afghanistan. In the last couple of months, it has been steadily gaining territory in the southern and western parts of the country. The number of suicide terror attacks on high-profile targets has also increased substantially. Hotels and guest houses hosting foreign diplomats and international aid workers have been among the favoured targets. Afghan government officials and security personnel have been bearing the brunt of escalating Taliban attacks in the provinces.

With the new-found bonhomie between Kabul and Islamabad and closer cooperation between the security agencies of the two countries after Ashraf Ghani took over as President of Afghanistan last year, the number of Taliban-orchestrated attacks was expected to decline. (The previous government of Hamid Karzai used to blame Islamabad for providing covert support to the Taliban, given the fact that many of the top Taliban leaders were holed up in Pakistan. The birth of the Taliban was midwifed by Pakistani intelligence agencies with the blessings of countries such as Saudi Arabia.)

The recent rise in Taliban attacks may be ascribed either to the waning influence of the Pakistan government on the movement or to the political calculations the group’s leadership has made in the wake of the withdrawal of Western troops from the country. There are reports that some younger Taliban leaders have defected to the Islamic State (I.S.), which is keen on spreading its tentacles to Afghanistan and the wider South Asian region. According to some analysts, it is also a part of the Taliban’s attempt to show the Afghan people its fighting prowess and not allow groups like the I.S. to step into the security vacuum left by the departure of United States/North Atlantic Treaty Organisation occupation forces.

On June 22, Taliban suicide bombers targeted the country’s parliament when it was in session. Though there were a few civilian casualties, none of the parliament members suffered serious injuries. The legislators had come to attend a special session to confirm the President’s choice of a Defence Minister. The suicide attack involving seven Taliban fighters was timed to coincide with the confirmation of acting Defence Minister Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai.

Television footage showed a huge bomb explosion just as the Speaker, Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi, was about to deliver his welcome address. Had the Taliban fighters been able to break through the security cordon, they would have inflicted heavy damage and further dented the political and military credibility of the Kabul government. The attack has an eerie resemblance to the attack on India’s Parliament House in 2002. Then, too, highly motivated terrorists led the attack.

The Taliban spokesman, speaking immediately after the attack, confirmed that the suicide attack was aimed at specifically eliminating the Defence Minister and targeting the legislators inside. He said the attack showed “the capability of the Taliban, who can even attack the parliament in the capital”. The Afghan parliament is among the best protected institutions in the country.

The country has been without a full-fledged Defence Minister since Ghani took over. The Afghan parliament rejected his two previous choices for the key post. Other important posts have also not been filled as political differences between the President and his CEO, Abdullah Abdullah, continue to persist. The term of the parliament itself expired on June 21, and the government has so far not announced any new dates for parliamentary elections. The elections for a new parliament were originally scheduled to be held in April.

The Afghan Constitution gives the President the authority to extend the parliament’s term by four months. Afghan officials, however, admitted that it would take another year or so to prepare for another round of general elections. Even otherwise, given the prevailing security environment in the country, it will be difficult to hold elections. Besides, even when the security situation was better, ballot stuffing and widespread rigging marked elections in Afghanistan. The last presidential election, pitting Ghani against Abdullah, was an example, with supporters of both the candidates resorting to blatant rigging.

There are also signs that Afghan politics could be heading towards uncharted territory as foreign powers try to broker peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. There are reports that a Taliban delegation was in the Chinese city of Urumqi to start a preliminary “talk about talks” with representatives of the Afghan government in the last week of May, with the Chinese government playing the role of facilitator. American media reports say Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) played a role in convincing the Taliban delegation to go to China to discuss ways of kick-starting peace talks.

Coincidentally, the leader of the Afghan delegation to the talks was reportedly none other than Masoom Stanekzai.

It is probable that the senior Taliban members present in Urumqi were handpicked by the ISI. Both the Americans and the Pakistanis have been differentiating between so-called “good Taliban” and “bad Taliban” in their efforts to get negotiations between the warring sides in Afghanistan on track.

So far, the Taliban has only talked unofficially to Afghan technocrats and former warlords who have sided with the government. Meetings at this level were held in recent months in Qatar, Dubai and Norway. The Taliban, according to reports, has modified many of its hard-line political positions. The group, according to many observers of the Afghan political scene, is following a two-pronged strategy of holding talks and escalating the fighting.

Grabbing more territory will give the Taliban greater leverage over the embattled and politically divided government in Kabul. The Taliban has now advanced in Badakhshan, a province situated along the Pakistan border. Afghan officials and security experts claim that the Taliban fighters are being led by Central Asians who are keen to expand the Islamic insurgency into the broader region. If the Taliban is able to maintain its military momentum it may end up controlling half of Afghanistan by the end of the year, which will provide the group with a stronger bargaining position.

Afghan military experts predict that it will be difficult for the government to reverse the gains made by the Taliban since late last year, especially in the northern parts. According to reports, the province of Kunduz is on the verge of falling into Taliban hands. If that happens, the Taliban’s control will extend up to the southern province of Helmand. Kunduz city, the capital of Kunduz province, was the last city to fall to the American-led forces in 2001. It will be a huge political and military setback to the Ghani government and a significant morale booster for the Taliban if Kunduz city falls. The city is situated 200 kilometres from Badakhshan province. The capital, a city with more than 200,000 inhabitants, has been under sustained Taliban attack for more than a month. Thousands have already fled from it and surrounding areas.

Wahid Taqat, a retired general and Afghan military analyst, stated recently that the Kabul government simply did not have the military capabilities to stem the escalating violence in the north. Another Afghan security expert, Jawed Kohistani, cites Kabul’s recent efforts at military and security cohabitation with Pakistani security agencies like the ISI as one of the important reasons for the setbacks. “As long as Afghan forces work hand in hand with the enemy, security cannot be guaranteed,” he has said. A few days after the attack on the Afghan parliament, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s intelligence agency accused an officer of the ISI of helping the Haqqani faction of the Taliban in planning the attack.

Critical of Ghani

The Taliban leadership has been openly critical of Ghani’s style of functioning. The Taliban, which had indirectly helped him in securing the presidency by allowing voting to take place in areas under its influence during the second and last round of elections, is reportedly miffed with his assumption that Pakistan’s government or security agencies could influence the Taliban’s political and military stance within Afghanistan.

Graeme Smith, an expert on Afghanistan working for the International Crisis Group, said the nature of Taliban attacks was becoming more serious. He noted that in the past the Taliban would mainly launch hit-and-run attacks, but now it was more focussed on taking territory and holding on to it.

The Taliban has always been insisting that it would engage in meaningful talks with the government only after the withdrawal of all foreign forces from the country. It also wants changes in the Afghan Constitution so that power can be shared meaningfully at the centre. The Taliban leadership has been signalling for sometime that it no longer wants to monopolise power.

The Ghani government has agreed to the continuing presence of American troops in the country, though their numbers will be reduced greatly. As of now their numbers are capped at 10,000, but with the fighting spreading and the Afghan security forces on the defensive, there have been indications that the government may ask for more American military help.