WORLD AFFAIRS

Shaky peace in Afghanistan

Print edition : November 19, 2021

Mourners gathered around graves of victims the day after the October 8 suicide attack on worshippers at a Shia mosque in Kunduz. Photo: HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP

Taliban members stand guard near a Shia mosque in Kandahar on October 15 after at least 16 worshippers were killed and 32 were wounded in a suicide attack. Photo: JAVED TANVEER/AFP

Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, at the Moscow Conference on Afghanistan on October 20. In his opening remarks Lavrov said that the “hard fact” was that there was a new government in Kabul and that it placed “great responsibility on the Taliban”. Photo: AFP

Afghanistan’s Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi (left), who headed the Taliban delegation at the Moscow Conference, with acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in Moscow on October 20. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AFP

Afghanistan struggles to regain a semblance of stability as the Taliban regime comes under terror attacks staged by the radical Islamist group Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-K).

After the Taliban takeover of the country in mid August, the least that the Afghan populace expected from the new government was a quick re-establishment of law and order and an end to bloodshed. Indeed, that had happened when the Taliban first took power in 1996, ending decades of the violence in the country. This time, however, for the average Afghan the situation on the ground has gone from bad to worse. Though a relative calm has descended on most parts of the country, the economy has nosedived. The government coffers are empty, with little signs yet of the international community being ready to engage with the Taliban openly.

The United States has frozen more than $10 billion of Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are refusing to grant emergency aid to bail out the government. The banking system is on the verge of a collapse. The government machinery is creaking at the seams as salaries have not been paid for months. The IMF has warned that Afghanistan’s economy will shrink by 30 per cent if foreign aid does not materialise soon.

Terror attacks

More worryingly for the Taliban, terror attacks continue to be staged by the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-K). Khorasan means “the land of the sun”. Two suicide attacks, a week apart from each other, on two Shia mosques in Kandahar (October 15) and Kunduz (October 8) claimed the lives of over a hundred worshippers. The Islamic State was quick to claim credit for both. In Kandahar, which is the bastion and spiritual base of the Taliban, the victims included worshippers from the Hazara and other ethnic groups. The majority Pashtuns, the ethnic group from which the Taliban had risen, belong to the Sunni denomination of Islam.

Also read: Explained: Who is Islamic State Khorasan?

The recent spate of attacks by the IS-K started with the suicide bomb blast at Kabul airport a few days before the final U.S. withdrawal on August 30. That attack claimed the lives of more than 160 Afghan civilians and 13 American soldiers. These attacks are being staged to send a message to the Afghan people that the new Taliban government is incapable of providing the much-desired stability that it has been promising.

Until recently the IS-K was believed to be active mainly in eastern Afghanistan. The fact that the group could strike at will in other parts of Afghanistan, including in cities like Mazhar-i-Sharif and Kandahar, may be an indicator of its growing network. The IS-K also staged an attack outside a Kabul mosque where mourners had gathered to pray for the recently deceased mother of the chief Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid.

Taliban on world stage

The Taliban leadership, however, continues to maintain that it will be able to meet the challenge from the IS-K on its own and will not allow any group to use Afghan soil to launch attacks on another country. The Taliban has spurned U.S. and other international offers of help in the fight against the IS-K. The latest U.S. offer was made during talks in Doha over the October 9-10 weekend, the first dialogue between the two sides after the Taliban takeover. Were the Taliban to accept U.S. help, that would give the IS-K further propaganda mileage to question its Islamic credentials.

A statement issued by the U.S. State Department after the Doha meetings said that “vanquishing the ISIS-K is in our shared interest and we will continue to seek ways to work with the Taliban in this effort”. The international community expects the Taliban to deal effectively with the threat posed by the IS-K and has made it a condition for the lifting of sanctions and early recognition for the government in Kabul. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in mid October that there were 2,000 IS-K fighters in northern Afghanistan alone. He said that the IS-K fighters planned to spread out in the Central Asian republics disguised as refugees in order to stir up “religious and ethnic discord”.

Also read: Afghanistan: An imperial disaster

The IS-K, an affiliate of the Daesh, was founded in 2015 by disaffected Taliban fighters, many of them originally hailing from the Pakistani tribal areas along the Afghan border. It comprises disaffected Taliban cadres and former Al Qaeda members. Many former Taliban leaders who are now with the IS were radicalised after they were incarcerated in U.S. prisons where they shared space with Daesh fighters involved in the fighting in West Asia and other parts of the world. Many Uighur fighters belonging to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) who were earlier with Al Qaeda are now with the IS-K in Afghanistan. The recent suicide attack in Kunduz was reportedly carried out by a Uighur fighter owing allegiance to the IS-K. The ETIM’s goal is to extend the Islamic Caliphate to the Chinese province of Xinjiang, which shares a short border with Afghanistan.

The United Nations, in a report released in the middle of the year, said that around 10,000 fighters from the Central Asian states, the Northern Caucasus region and Xinjiang have made their way to Afghanistan. Most of them had come to help the Taliban in its final offensive to oust the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. But, according to the report, a significant minority signed up with the IS-K.

The U.N. report said that the IS-K remained “active and dangerous” as it sought to strengthen its ranks with disaffected Taliban fighters. Unlike the Taliban, the IS-K does not recognise international borders and has said that the territory it aims to control encompasses present-day Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of northern India, including Kashmir. The Daesh affiliate in South Asia does not consider the rule of the Taliban as “Islamic” enough and wants a stricter interpretation of Islamic law.

The Taliban adheres to the Deobandi school of Islam having its roots in the South Asian subcontinent. The Daesh, on the other hand, subscribes to the more extremist “Wahhabi” ideology, which seeks a return to a pure form of Islam that existed during the times of the Prophet. The IS-K’s goal is to seek the establishment of a global caliphate, while the Taliban remains content with the establishment of the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan.

Global concerns

With the IS-K attacks increasing in size and sophistication, questions are being asked about the Taliban’s ability to bring peace to the war-torn country. In the last years of the U.S. occupation, there was a tacit understanding between the U.S.-led forces and the Taliban about jointly taking on the IS-K. In the months following the Doha agreement of 2020, and after the Americans announced a withdrawal schedule, the Taliban ensured that the IS-K’s attempts to target the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces (led by the U.S.) did not succeed. The U.S. Air Force helped the Taliban on a few occasions by targeting IS-K positions.

Also read: How the West bungled in Afghanistan

But after the Taliban took over the government, the group said that the U.S. would have to respect Afghanistan’s territorial sovereignty. The U.S. drone attack on an alleged IS-K target in the last week of August resulted in the deaths of innocent people, including children, and came in for widespread international condemnation. The Joe Biden administration initially claimed that those killed were the terrorists responsible for the attack on the Kabul airport.

The Taliban has given an assurance to China that the ETIM will not be allowed to operate inside Afghanistan. It has given a similar assurance to Islamabad that it will clamp down on the activities of the Pakistani Taliban—the TTP and the Balochi separatist groups. Since the withdrawal of the U.S. forces, there have been terror attacks inside Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan, and these are attributed to the TTP and Baloch separatists.

Russia’s lead in engaging with the Taliban

Meanwhile, the Taliban government seems to be inching towards gaining international acceptance. The Russian government hosted a meeting on Afghanistan in Moscow on October 20. It was attended by 10 regional states including India; the Taliban, too, was in attendance. The U.S. was invited but did not bother to show up. The State Department cited unspecified “technical reasons” to explain the absence but said that the U.S. would participate in future conferences on Afghanistan hosted by Moscow.

A joint statement issued after the conference said that the recognition of the Taliban government by countries of the region had become “a compelling reality” and that the regional states should try to influence the Taliban through the process of “constructive engagement”. The statement also said that there should be a collective initiative to convene an international donor conference under the auspices of the U.N.

Also read: Russia criticises West over Mali, Afghanistan pullout

Russia has now taken the lead in diplomatic efforts to end the isolation of the new government in Kabul. Before the Moscow meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had a meeting with the acting Taliban Foreign Minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi. The senior Taliban official told the media that his government had very good relations with Moscow and that the two sides discussed a wide range of issues, including the ways in which Afghanistan’s crucial location could be utilised to stimulate closer trade and economic ties between the countries in the region. Lavrov, in his opening remarks at the conference, said that the “hard fact” was that there was a new government in Kabul and that it placed “great responsibility on the Taliban”.

He took note of the Taliban government’s efforts to “stabilise the military-political situation and to ensure the smooth operation of the public governance system” in the country. Lavrov went on to emphasise that there “is no alternative in the foreseeable future” to the balance of power that had evolved in Afghanistan after August 15. Lavrov said that Russia, along with its regional partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), would engage with the Taliban government to “promote stabilisation” in Afghanistan.

According to Lavrov, the SCO and the CSTO had created a “special mechanism” some years ago to deal with Afghanistan and identify ways to “promote stabilisation” of the country. The SCO’s recent Dushanbe Declaration stated that Afghanistan should be an “independent, neutral, united, democratic and peaceful state, free of war, terrorism and drugs” and having an inclusive government consisting of representatives from all the ethnic, religious and political groups in the country.

Also read: Afghanistan: An imperial disaster

Interestingly, the Moscow Conference called on the U.S., which was the occupying power for the last 20 years, to “shoulder” the major costs for financing the dire humanitarian needs of the Afghan population. “The sides have proposed to launch a collective initiative to convene a broad-based international donor conference under the auspices of the United Nations as soon as possible, certainly with the understanding that the core burden of post-conflict economic and financial reconstruction and development of Afghanistan must be shouldered by troop-based actors which were in the country for the past twenty years,” the Moscow statement said.

President Putin, speaking at the annual Valdai Conference in Sochi, bluntly stated that “the primary responsibility for what is taking place in Afghanistan is borne by the countries that fought there for the last twenty years”. Putin said that the first thing these countries should do was “unfreeze” Afghanistan’s assets and give the country an opportunity to resolve some of the urgent problems it was facing.

E.U. aid package

In the second week of October, the European Union announced an aid package $1.15 billion for Afghanistan “to avert a major humanitarian and socio-economic collapse”. The decision was taken during a virtual G20 summit hosted by Italy to discuss the situation in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover. The E.U. however made it clear that the “direct support” for the Afghan people would not be channelled through the auspices of the Taliban government but through international aid agencies working on the ground in Afghanistan.

Also read: Blocking funds from Taliban could backfire in Afghanistan, warns U.N. special envoy

The Indian delegation which attended the Moscow talks met with the Taliban delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi.

According to reports, the Indian side expressed willingness to provide humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, though the government has still not officially acknowledged the first formal meeting between the two sides in Moscow after the Taliban takeover. According to Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, the Indian side has “taken into account” the realities of the new situation in Afghanistan.

India is proposing to host a meeting on Afghanistan in November. The Indian government has invited national security advisers from the region, including Pakistan, China and Iran. It is to be seen whether Islamabad will accept the invitation, given the fraught relations between the two countries. The Taliban has not been invited. The Modi government apparently is yet to reconcile itself with the reality on the ground.

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