WINTER is usually a quiet time in terms of fighting in Afghanistan. Not this year. On Saturday, the Afghan Taliban hit a bank in the eastern province of Jalalabad, the suicide bombers killing 38. On Monday, an attack in the northern province of Kunduz, again by a suicide bomber, has killed at least 36 so far. The attacks are the deadliest since last June and come at a time that talk of a move towards an eventual negotiated settlement in Afghanistan has been picking up again. The attacks, therefore, raise the question whether they are part of an effort by the Taliban to raise the pressure on the Afghan government/American forces and so force them to the negotiation table quicker and on terms more advantageous to the Taliban. Or do the attacks indicate divisions within the ranks of the Taliban, with some factions opposed to talks and negotiations trying to scuttle them before they even begin?

At the moment there is little that can be said with certainty in Afghanistan. With relentless American military pressure in the south and east of Afghanistan, it could be that the militants have been scattered and are resorting to unusual winter attacks to prove their capacity to strike remains substantial. But American military pressure has not translated into clear gains at the ‘clear’ and ‘hold’ stages of the counter-insurgency strategy, which means that whatever the gains they are tenuous and likely to be unravelled sooner rather than later. Information — coherent and reliable information — remains the commodity in shortest supply in Afghanistan. Has the US warmed to the negotiations’ idea in recent days, something it has blown hot and cold over for a long time? Are the Taliban completely in sync with the desires of Mullah Omar? What does Mullah Omar want? Has a new generation of Taliban commanders, young and having come of age in a decade of war, become tired of fighting or has the conflict over the last decade only whetted its appetite for more?

Neither is the view inside Pakistan any clearer. Attacks in provinces near the Pak-Afghan border automatically raise suspicions in the Afghan government of a ‘foreign hand’. The security establishment here claims it wants a ‘peaceful and stable’ Afghanistan, but other than wanting the Afghan Pakhtuns to have a dominant voice in the future of that country little is known about Pakistan’s vision for its neighbour and how it intends to go about achieving it. Do talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government and the Americans suit Pakistan or not? Are we playing the role of spoiler or facilitator at the moment? Questions abound.

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