Recent Political Developments in Afghanistan – An Assessment

The Unending Saga of US-Taliban ‘Peace’ Deal

On May 23 2020, the Taliban announced a three-day ceasefire with effect from May 24, the day when Afghanistan celebrates Eid ul Fitr marking the end of Ramzan. President Ashraf Ghani responded positively by ordering his troops to respect the truce. He also indicated that the prisoner exchange would be expedited with the quick release of a further 2,000 Taliban prisoners.

These events follow a visit by US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, to Doha and to Kabul. In Doha, Khalilzad met Mullah Abdul Ghani Bradar, the deputy political chief of the Taliban and other members of the Taliban’s Political Commission. The shuttle diplomacy then took Khalilzad to Kabul where he met President Ghani and Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation. Khalilzad indicated that he hoped that the remaining prisoners would be released, that there would be no return to the high levels of violence and that this would lead to an agreement on a new date to start intra-Afghan negotiations.

The Shadows Of Violence

Earlier, the horrific attack on May 12, 2020 of the maternity ward of a hospital run by the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) appalled much of Afghanistan and the world. The intent behind the attack was clear with MSF Director Frederic Bonnot saying ”they came to kill the mothers”. Mothers or those pregnant were singled out leaving 24 dead. The hospital was in Dasht-e-Barchi, a Hazara locality and most of the dead were Shia women.

The Afghan government blamed the Taliban and President Ashraf Ghani ordered the ANDSF to move from ‘active defense’ to ‘offensive’. All of Afghanistan had been hopeful that the post US-Taliban Doha accord period would see either a cease-fire or a reduction of violence. However, contrary to expectations, Afghanistan has not seen the improvement that was expected. In some areas, local commanders have held their fire but, in many others, it has been a particularly difficult time with the Taliban ramping up its attacks, at a time when Afghanistan faces a pandemic and during Ramzan, while refraining from attacking foreign forces.

The Shifting Blame Game

Though the Taliban quickly denied involvement, Kabul held it complicit and the continuing violence only made it easier to go along with Kabul’s assessment. The government’s claim came quickly as if they had inside information.

The Taliban alleged that the attack was by the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) supported by Afghan intelligence. However, the attack does not appear to fit within the ISK’s operational profile, for one it was in Kabul, somewhat out of their area of operations and demonstrating a fair deal of sophistication in terms of terrain knowledge and access to logistics – something which the foreign-dominated ISK had not hitherto shown. The ISK also did not also claim responsibility. The allegation about the involvement of the Afghan intelligence is since the Taliban suspects that the Afghan intelligence has ‘turned’ the ISK.

The events forced Khalilzad to shift focus back to Afghanistan. In Doha, Mullah Bradar warned that further delay in implementing the US-Taliban deal could imperil the peace process. The reference was to the release of prisoners. However, the Taliban’s aims remain unchanged for on March 25 in Pishin, Mullah Fazel, from the Taliban military commission and a member of the Taliban’s negotiating team in Doha, made it clear that the Taliban’s end aims have not changed – it is seeking an emirate with an emir from the Taliban and a government based on Sharia.

Khalilzad, meanwhile, claimed that the US government had concluded that it was the ISK that had conducted the attack. He even praised the Taliban for playing ‘an important role in the war against ISIS’. The US is tired of this war and quixotic enough to walk away but for the looming US Presidential elections. The Taliban know this. The only other real possibility for the attack on the maternity home is the Haqqani Network (HN) but the US would be wont to admit that the HN, which they have explicitly categorised as an ‘arm of the ISI’, continues to operate independent of the Taliban. A HN hand in the attack would, by inference, implicate Pakistan which is integral to US plans to bring back its troops.  The US no longer refers to the HN as a separate entity, there is a conscious attempt to mainstream the Haqqani Network and any references to differences between the Taliban and the HN has been removed from the US lexicon. Khalilzad has even attempted to goad India into talking to Taliban.

Taliban’s Provocation in the North

The Taliban saw Kabul’s response as provocative and immediately renewed military operations over a large swath – in 30 provinces. Their principal focus was on Kunduz which is bereft of a governor and left to an acting governor who has been tested positive for COVID-19. The Taliban attacked at 17 places in the city and was repulsed in 16 of them. Some reports refer to it as more of a feint – to show what they are capable of – others say it was a riposte and not engineered to put an end to the Doha accord. The Afghans were hampered as they could not count on US air support since the US-Taliban agreement proscribed US air support, but they have been buoyed by the fact that they beat back the Taliban attacks.

A couple of months ago, March 2020, before the Doha accord, fighting had been reported over a wide arc in north and northeast Afghanistan in an area adjoining Tajikistan. The Taliban retook Yamgan district in Tajik dominated Badakhshan. Yamgan had been under Taliban control since 2015 but fell to the government in September of 2019. It is a small district of 20,000, mostly Ismaili Shia who have ties with the Ismailis in Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistan and the Ismailis of Kayhan, Afghanistan. Yamgan is also close to the Wakhan corridor which shares a 100 km long border with China. Afghan officials claim that there are hundreds of foreign combatants, mostly from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, fighting alongside the Taliban. The foreign militants have banded together as a splinter group of the ISK suggesting that they are largely mercenary since they actually broke away because of the growing links of the original group with the Lashkar e Toiba (LeT). The adjoining district, Warduj, has been mostly under Taliban control and here again there have been reports of the presence of militants belonging to the anti-China Turkistan Islamic party in the area.

The Pakistan Connection

Pakistan, too, has its own strategic interests in the area. It has long eyed the possibility of a 250 km road from the Wakhan corridor to Chitral via the Broghal pass. The pass crosses the Hindu Kush at about 12,500 feet, along the Durand line but within Pakistan. This would give them an easier route to Central Asia.

Fighting had also broken out in Takhar province, northeast Afghanistan, adjoining Tajikistan. Takhar has a population of about a million of which ethnic Tajiks are two-thirds and Uzbeks, a quarter. It shares borders with Badakhshan to the east, Panjshir in the south and Baghlan and Kunduz in the west. During the Taliban period, Badakhshan and Panjshir were the areas from where most of the resistance to Taliban was centred. Panjshir province was the stronghold of the legendary Commander Ahmed Shah Masood, the Defence Minister in President Burhanuddin Rabbani’s government. Rabbani was from Badakhshan and it was his government, and not the Taliban, which India formally recognised.

There has been sporadic fighting in Kunduz even before the recent round. Two months ago, clashes had been reported on the outskirts of Kunduz with the Taliban showing a greater degree of sophistication and guile. Ahead of this attack, a multi rotor drone was brought down in Kunduz. The Taliban have been using small drones to monitor foreign forces for some years now. This had been evident at both Kandahar and Bagram air bases.

The first use of drones was in October 2016 when they used one to film a suicide attack in Helmand. The drones were used both for military operations – to coordinate fire support and conduct surveillance, and for propaganda. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed, after the Helmand attack, that ‘it is very useful in discovering the enemy’s most important bases…..we have used it in other operations. We use this technology against the Americans and their servants in Afghanistan’. A photograph of the drone was then posted on Taliban’s media accounts.

Why the Control Over Kunduz is Important for Taliban

The Taliban has long been interested in taking Kunduz. In fact, it did so twice in the recent past but were beaten back after Afghan forces called in US air support. Kunduz has a population of close to a million with Pashtoons, at a third, being the largest. It is a Pashtoon enclave, in a largely non-Pashtoon area, and was created by deliberate demographic changes. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Mujahideen leader and former Prime Minister and a Ghilzai Pashtoon, is from Kunduz.

It is also where Pakistani irregulars and the Al Qaeda (AQ) fled to when the Americans entered Afghanistan. The US had then acquiesced in providing an air corridor in November 2001 to a then desperate Pakistan to take out an estimated 1,500 to 4,000 ISI personnel, Pak Army advisers, Pakistani ‘irregulars and Taliban cadres who were flown out to Chitral and Gilgit in PAF aircraft.

In the recent past, the Taliban has used support from other groups to try and take Kunduz. It has not shied away from even the ISK if it suited their purposes. In October 2015, when it mounted an offensive, its forces comprised not only Afghans but also included an ensemble of militants from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmen and Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Uighurs, Chechens, Dagestanis along with members of the al Qaeda and some Pakistanis. Initially, the outsiders fought under ISIS’s black flag but, following adverse reactions, the black flag gave way to the predominantly white Taliban flag. There was some speculation at that time that the Pakistani elements were from the LeT. There are reports, now, that the LeT as an entity is acting more aggressively inside Afghanistan in support of the Taliban and that several hundred LeT militants have been spotted in Kunduz and in Kunar.

There are also reports of the use of the Taliban’s Red Unit in the attacks in Kunduz. This unit which has various names is a Taliban Special Forces Unit of about 300, mostly recruited from Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and trained at camps along the Afghan-Pakistan border, one of which is in the mountains of Paktika province (an area where the HN operate). They are equipped with ‘advanced weaponry’ including night vision devices, heavy machine guns and M4 carbines and move on motorcycles. Obviously, there is speculation of a Pakistani involvement.

Kunduz has the potential to be a threat to Northern unity. It bisects the North, virtually dividing Afghan Tajiks into two. The Uzbek and the Hazaras strongholds are within reach. It has international ramifications – it borders Tajikistan and is a hop, step and jump away from the 300 km long Ferghana valley which is spread across eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan – an area all Central Asian Islamists look at for a sanctuary. It is where Moghul Emperor Babur, a descendant of both Timur and Chengiz Khan, was born. The river port of Sher Khan Bandar, on the Panj river, and the newer Tajikistan-Afghanistan bridge also lie in the province. These crossings are of vital importance to Afghanistan and whoever controls the area would have access to enormous customs revenues. Control over this area would also help open up a shorter route between Central Asia and Pakistan.

For the Taliban, retaking Kunduz is essential to exercising greater influence in the North. Apart from threatening Northern unity, the presence of the Taliban in Kunduz, given their links with Central Asian militants, would unnerve the Central Asian Republics. Russia, too, is concerned about the estimated 3,000 Russian speaking ISIS combatants who are in search of sanctuaries and that they may choose to make Afghanistan their home. Ergo, these states would make their peace with whoever is best placed to ensure stability along the Afghan border.