Afghan security forces may have repulsed a Taliban attack on the Parliament this Monday, but the terrorist strike has not only exposed the weaknesses in Afghanistan’s ability to maintain security, but also posed the most serious challenge to the reset in its ties with Pakistan.
The critical timing of attack, which was one of the most high profile raid by Taliban since the start of their latest offensive a couple of months ago, had lot of symbolism attached to it even though it was repelled after minimum damage – two passersby killed and many injured.
It happened in the backdrop of the militant group’s successes on the ground in the northern and southern parts of Afghanistan that reflected a new momentum in their fighting and preceded a fresh round of talks with the government on the peace and reconciliation process. Moreover, the militants chose to target the Parliament, one of the most revered institutions of the country and symbol of democracy in the country, on a day that it planned to confirm the new defense minister Masoom Stanekzai, who by the virtue of his office would be in charge of the fight against Taliban and other violent groups.
“How can they target lawmakers when they are talking about peace?”
The attack was a setback for the reconciliation process as well.
“It is a setback for the peace and reconciliation process. I hope it is a transient setback,” says Amb Masood Khan, the director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. “The attack flies in the face of the growing perception about Taliban’s inclination, albeit a bit tentative, to engage with the government of President Ashraf Ghani. How can they target lawmakers when they are talking about peace? This is counterintuitive. Who benefits from this kind of mayhem? Neither Afghanistan, nor Pakistan.”
The Afghan lawmakers, however, instead of looking at the domestic context immediately chose to blame Pakistan for what they believe is Islamabad’s failure to reign in the Taliban militants, who long enjoyed its hospitality.
Soon after the attack, both Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Foreign Office condemned it in the most categorical terms and vowed to fight terrorism in coordination with Afghans.
But, seemingly the Pakistani words were unconvincing for the incensed Afghan legislators. The debate in the lower house – Wolesi Jirga – a day after the incident showed the intensity of anger against Pakistan. The lawmakers called for uncovering the hidden hands behind the strike and blamed Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI for it.
The outburst was not spontaneous. It was rather a continuation of the vile attacks against the intelligence sharing agreement between ISI and its Afghan counterpart NDS signed in May. The accord was inked after Prime Minister Sharif during his visit to Kabul stated in the most categorical terms that Afghanistan’s enemy cannot be Pakistan’s friend and that the government would treat future Taliban violence as terrorism. And, according to Advisor on Foreign Affairs and National Security Sartaj Aziz, the MoU was signed on Afghan government’s initiative.
The agreement was one of the many unprecedented steps President Ashraf Ghani had taken to improve ties with Islamabad that had for the past decade and half remained marred by distrust and acrimony. Mr Ghani’s moves were not received well domestically and he appeared increasingly politically isolated with regards to his Pakistan policy.
Attacks like the one on Parliament are likely to further diminish the political support in Afghanistan for ties with Pakistan. It is because Afghans believe that Pakistan, in return for improved relations, was not doing enough to pressure Taliban to end violence and join the peace dialogue.
That’s not just a problem with the public perception in Afghanistan, but reports like the latest one from US State Department reinforces such impressions. “Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network leadership continued to find safe haven in Pakistan, and although Pakistan military operations disrupted the actions of these groups (during Operation Zarb-e-Azb), it did not directly target them,” notes the latest report titled: Country Reports on Terrorism 2014. And Pakistani parliamentarians too have started publicly speaking about Afghan Taliban continuing their activities in Pakistan unchecked. Mehmood Khan Achakzai, speaking at the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee this week, said large numbers of armed fighters were still going from Pakistan to Afghanistan to support the Taliban.
The expectation in Afghanistan, though based on an oversimplified reading of the situation, was that Taliban would immediately fall in line once Islamabad is placated. But that wasn’t the case.
Pakistan’s words were unconvincing for the angry Afghan legislators
Amb Masood Khan’s piece of advice for the Afghans is not to jump to conclusions to blame Pakistan.
“Naturally, the public sentiment in Afghanistan is incensed and rightly so. But the people should not by their a priori assumptions as to who is behind that attack. They should try to understand the big picture dynamics,” he says. “Pakistan is a friend of Afghanistan and is ready to work hand in hand with Kabul for peace, stability and reconciliation, because Pakistan’s own stability and prosperity is linked to it. There are forces that want to drive a wedge between Pakistan and Afghanistan and they would exploit this attack also for that purpose. But our efforts must continue to sustain the goodwill that Kabul and Islamabad reached so painstakingly. It should not to be allowed to unravel. High statesmanship is required in both countries to stay to course of diplomacy.”
The Pakistani government has time and again spoken about the limitations of its influence on Taliban. But, more importantly, as Mr Sartaj Aziz says, the situation in Afghanistan has become much more complex than before after the entry of groups like the Islamic State. To add to this, Taliban are increasingly divided with the senior leadership having lesser control over the field commanders.
As Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies Director Mr Davood Mordian put it while in Islamabad for a Track-II meeting, “The backlash in Afghanistan was because Pakistan was not reciprocating to the bold steps taken by President Ghani.” The Taliban leadership, he said, was now based in Pakistani cities and they were not even being pressured to shun violence and join talks.
The window of opportunity is fast closing for Pakistan and sounds can be heard in Kabul of returning to Karzai’s days of animosity. Authorities here too have begun to show signs of pressure. The Foreign Office in Kabul has for the first time started defending the ISI-NDS agreement in public after quietly witnessing the criticism in Kabul, and Mr Sartaj Aziz accepted in a rare disclosure that Pakistan facilitated a meeting of Taliban and Afghan defense minister designate Mr Masoon Stanekzai in Urumqi (China) and another one was planned for this month. Mr Aziz has also promised a major breakthrough within three months.
The writer is a free-lance journalist based in Islamabad