Even as the Afghan government and Taliban factions, inclined to joining peace and reconciliation process, prepared for another round of negotiations on initiating the dialogue, there has been no let up in violence in Afghanistan, where militants have stepped up attacks on security forces and foreign troops.
A week after the attack on the parliament building, Taliban on Tuesday claimed an attack on a convoy of NATO vehicles in Kabul and a strike on the police headquarters in Lashkar Gah, the capital of volatile Helmand province. The attacks followed an ambush on security forces vehicles in Heart on Sunday evening in which 11 soldiers were killed. Clashes between Taliban and security forces have continued in Takhar, Kunduz, Badakhshan, Sar-e-Pul, Logar, Uruzgan, Paktika and Helmand provinces. Meanwhile, the dreaded terrorist group that calls itself Islamic State has established a foothold in Eastern Nangarhar province.
Fresh violence has taken place in the backdrop of claims by Pakistani officials that Islamabad was facilitating another round of talks between certain factions of Taliban and the Afghan government representatives. Though no dates were disclosed, Advisor on Foreign Affairs and National Security Sartaj Aziz told a Senate panel that next few weeks would be crucial.
Pakistan’s Foreign Office Spokesman Qazi Khalilullah while confirming Pakistan’s facilitation of the negotiations on peace and reconciliation had noted that the details of the second meeting were being discussed by the Afghans themselves. The first meeting was co-hosted by Pakistan and China in Urumqi last month.
It is, however, important to note that Pakistan bashing in Kabul led by Afghan intelligence agency the National Directorate of Security (NDS) after the parliament attack is gradually giving way to more realistic assessment of the situation that is increasingly becoming grave. President Ashraf Ghani, who is viewed as the lone proponent of better ties with Islamabad in Kabul, speaking at an event at the Afghan foreign ministry on Tuesday said that peace and stability in Afghanistan depended on regional cooperation.
Mr Ghani’s reading appears to be more in line with Islamabad’s position. Mr Sartaj Aziz too has been pushing this point that sustainable peace in Afghanistan required cooperation from all regional states and not just Pakistan.
According to Mr Ghani’s own reckoning thousands of fighters from 10 different nationalities, including Chechens, Pakistanis, Tajiks, and Uzbeks were fighting in Kunduz alone. Therefore, a much bigger effort than just Pakistan’s facilitation of the talks between Taliban and government is required.
Moreover, a statement by Taliban Spokesman Zabhiullah Mujahid disowning the process being facilitated by Pakistan in collaboration with China has reinforced the impression of the divisions within the Taliban ranks.
The increased violence, emergence of IS, growing number of foreign fighters, and cracks among the Taliban, analysts say, have together made the situation very complex.
Mr Ghani has, at the foreign ministry event, also reiterated the red-lines for his government while engaging with the Taliban – respect for the country’s Constitution, which he insists was Islamic in character; and women rights as he touted a “fundamental change in the role of Afghan women in society and the country at large”.
At the same time, the Afghan president has made it clear to the Taliban militants that his government “will not accept peace from a weak position.” He was unmistakably referring to the intensification of the violence by Taliban to pressurize the government ahead of the likely start of negotiations process and wanted to convey to the other side that these tactics would not work.
The strong words from the Afghan leader and the rampaging violence should not, however, be taken as an indication of stalemate in the move towards the reconciliation process. Contact in Urumqi and subsequent interactions in Norway, Qatar and UAE between Taliban and Afghan lawmakers, government representatives and notables has made both sides look more confident and acknowledge these meeting publicly.
Ambassador Zahir Tanin, Afghan permanent representative to the UN, had while taking part in a debate at the UN Security Council said: “Recent engagements between representatives of the High Peace Council, Afghan civil society including women, and the Taliban have promoted dialogue and mutual understanding and generated momentum towards an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-managed peace process.”
The complicated security scenario and the reconciliation process that is yet to take off are not the only problems afflicting Afghanistan. The political differences between President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah camps are delaying the electoral reforms and have already resulted in the extension of the tenure of the lower house – the Wolesi Jirga, whose term expired on June 22. Additionally there are serious economic problems.
The situation is already demoralizing the international community that is withdrawing from Afghanistan, alongside the drawdown of foreign troops.
“There has been a reduction in size of the international community’s presence. You see that in regard to the media, in regard to the size, the number of diplomatic missions and maybe in the engagement of economic entities as well,” UN envoy Nicholas Haysom said in an interview as he warned against forgetting Afghanistan.
The writer is a free-lance journalist based in Islamabad