Afghanistan’s shifting sands

May 27 2020


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

WAR-WEARY Afghans are getting some respite from an unending chain of violence with the ceasefire between the Afghan government forces and the Taliban insurgents thanks to Eid. Successive events have also raised hopes of the elusive intra-Afghan dialogue finally taking off.

President Ashraf Ghani’s announcement that another 2,000 Taliban prisoners would be freed has removed a major hurdle in the way of direct talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban on the future political set-up in the war-ravaged country following the withdrawal of American forces.

The row over the exchange of prisoners had been a major roadblock to furthering the peace process. In the peace deal signed with the US in February, the Taliban had set the release of prisoners as a precondition for the start of talks with the Kabul government. A spokesman for the Afghan president said the decision to release the prisoners was taken “to ensure success of the peace process”.

Meanwhile, a power-sharing agreement between President Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah earlier this month ended the festering political crisis that had also hindered the peace process. With the resolution of the dispute over the credibility of the presidential election that had led to the installation of two rival administrations, the Ghani government is on a firmer footing than before regarding talks with the Taliban.

A major US concern is the militant Islamic State group gaining ground in Afghanistan.

The fast-changing situation is yet another example of the shifting sands of Afghan politics. But there is still a long way to go before a political settlement of the Afghan crisis is possible. Much will depend on whether the Taliban agree to continue the ceasefire during the peace talks. Any escalation in violence could derail a nascent peace process.

It has only been the second ceasefire since the US invasion of Afghanistan. A similar three-day ceasefire was observed also during Eid festivities in 2018. The Taliban had refused President Ghani’s repeated appeal for a cessation of hostilities during Ramazan that could have allowed the administration to focus on fighting the coronavirus infection that has seen a steep rise in the capital Kabul and other parts of the country.

The ongoing fighting had made it all the more difficult for the administration to deal with the public health crisis. With 80 per cent of the population living just barely above the poverty line, there was fear that the war and the pandemic could push many towards starvation. The ceasefire appeared to hold, as there were no reports of clashes between the Taliban and the Afghan forces.

The truce had followed the escalation in violence that had exacted dozens of civilian lives and had thrown the prospect of intra-Afghan talks into serious doubt. It’s not that the war-torn country has not seen this scale of violence before, but the assault on a maternity clinic in Kabul earlier this month that killed mothers and their newborns was certainly the most heinous of its kind. The sheer brutality of the killing had shocked the nation.

The spike in violence in other parts of the country was a grim reminder that the country was falling deeper into chaos with the Trump administration in the US indicating that the planned drawdown of American forces from Afghanistan could be expedited.

Although the Taliban denied that they were involved in the maternity clinic attack, President Ghani ordered Afghan security forces to abandon the ‘active defence’ posture they had adopted since the signing of the US-Taliban agreement and return to offensive attacks against the insurgents. With the hospital raid coming in the wake of intensifying Taliban attacks, the Kabul government has blamed the group for the violence.

It is apparent that the pressure from the Trump administration on both the Kabul administration and the Taliban had led to a sudden de-escalation in hostilities. Zalmay Khalilzad, the special US envoy leading the peace process, has been shuttling between Kabul and Doha talking to both sides. His efforts have been aimed at resuscitating the US-Taliban peace deal.

The ceasefire came just days after Haibatullah Akhunzada, the Taliban supreme leader, urged Washington “not to waste” the opportunity offered by the Doha agreement that set the stage for the withdrawal of US troops from the country after almost two decades.

Khalilzad has also been instrumental in getting the squabbling Afghan political leadership together. The crisis over who would represent the Kabul government in the talks with the insurgents has also been resolved. The former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah will now be heading the government side in the negotiations, thus removing the ambiguity. It was extremely important as the Taliban leadership appears much more unified and clear about its strategy. President Ghani said a government delegation was “ready to immediately start the peace talks” with the Taliban.

A major US concern, however, is the militant Islamic State group gaining ground in Afghanistan with the Afghan security forces and the Taliban fighting each other. The attack on the Kabul hospital in a predominantly Shia neighbourhood bore all the hallmarks of an IS assault; the group has increasingly gone after soft civilian targets. The terrorist group that has its origins in the Middle East claimed responsibility for the funeral attack in Nangarhar province the same day. The attacks have demonstrated the group’s capacity to launch high-profile attacks despite its recent battlefield setbacks at the hands of American forces and the Taliban.

These bloody incidents mainly targeting the civilian population and minority religious sects have heightened fears that the militant group is trying to disrupt the nascent peace process. For that reason, the Trump administration has been exhorting the Kabul government and the Taliban to jointly combat the IS rather than fight each other.

Following the historic agreement signed with the Taliban, the US has already started withdrawing some of its troops, raising hopes that the long war is finally coming to an end. Notwithstanding these positive signals, there are still roadblocks to navigate before any substantive talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban can start.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2020