A new wave of terror attacks in Kabul have fuelled fears that reconciliation talks will collapseby Andrew Hammond / August 11, 2015 / Leave a comment
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has ramped up security in the country’s capital Kabul following the most deadly wave of attacks in years which took place last Friday and over the weekend, and was followed on Monday by a car bomb explosion at the airport. The Taliban offensive, which killed scores of people, including a US soldier, and injured hundreds more, has prompted Ghani to convene emergency meetings of the Afghan National Security Council.
The attacks, which came around a week after the apparent confirmation of the death of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, may well have been triggered by infighting within the terrorist group following disagreements over the anointment of their new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, and anger over the apparent cover-up of Omar’s death some two years ago. There have been disagreements within the Taliban in recent days between supporters and opponents of Mansoor, and the upsurge in violence in Kabul may well, at least partially, reflect this succession struggle.
Mansoor had, in effect, been Omar’s deputy for several years, which some presumed should have made his elevation widely accepted within the Taliban. However, disputes now fester over the cover-up of the death, the pace with which Mansoor was appointed, and the fact that the decision to declare him Omar’s successor was made by a tiny inner circle, rather than by a wider group.
Such infighting threatens not only further violence, but also the possibility that the fragile peace process, that was suspended last week by the Taliban after the announcement of Omar’s death, could derail completely. Ghani, who has shown a strong commitment to the peace process since his election last year, maintains that his government remains committed to peace but it “will respond to these sort of terrorist attacks with force and power”.
Right now, the initiative on the peace talks front primarily rests with Mansoor who (should he remain Taliban leader) faces a tough tight rope to walk by either steering the terrorist group through the controversial reconciliation talks, or returning to all-out warfare. He is seen in some circles as a relative moderate in that he is a proponent of peace talks with the Afghan government, but it remains unclear if this will be borne out in practice as Taliban leader. Not least because he is now under significant pressure to hold the terrorist group together and enhance its appeal at a time when so-called Islamic State, which revels in its ruthless reputation, is seeking to win away potential recruits. Islamic State has already attempted to capitalise on Omar death’s for propaganda purposes, with supporters taking to social media and condemning Mansoor.
In January, an Islamic State commander declared a new province in Afghanistan and Pakistan called Wilayat-Khorasan. Since then, a small number of Taliban fighters have pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
In this context of infighting, the next few weeks could represent the biggest test yet for the Afghan government of national unity which was formed last year when a landmark power-sharing agreement was reached between Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister. This followed a disputed presidential ballot between Ghani and Abdullah when up to a million votes were thrown out for fraud.
The creation of the national unity government, and the election of Ghani, represents the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history and also the end of the post-9/11 Hamid Karzai era. This has consolidated the power and legitimacy of the new government which could help preserve some of the fragile gains secured in Afghanistan since 2001.
However, as last weekend’s attacks underline, the country faces a daunting array of security risks on the horizon. To this end, a deal was agreed last year with NATO that has seen a remaining international force of about 13,000 US and NATO personnel forces stationed primarily for training purposes (almost 11,000 of them from the US).
This continuing international presence will also help ensure extensive funding and training for the approximately 350,000-strong Afghan police and military forces which may otherwise disintegrate. The latter now take day-to-day responsibility for security in the country.
Fears have already been raised, including by US Senator John McCain, that the reduced foreign force in Afghanistan (less than a twelfth of the 140,000-strong combat force it was in 2011), leaves the country vulnerable to an upsurge in Taliban violence. McCain, who is Chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, asserts that a significantly larger international force is needed to help repel the Taliban, and has warned that Afghanistan risks becoming destabilised in what he called the “same movie” we have seen in Iraq.
According to a report released on 5th August by the UN, there has been a major spike in civilian casualties which are now at their highest level since the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001. During the first six months of 2015, almost 5,000 civilians were killed or wounded. As the report highlights, this surge has been driven by an almost 80 per cent increase in Taliban suicide and complex attacks, akin to the ones that rocked Kabul at the weekend. In this context, it is also separately reported that more than 5,000 Afghan force members could be killed in action in 2015, a figure that would be the highest ever.
And the warfare is also widening geographically. Since the spring, for instance, the Taliban have maintained an offensive in north Afghanistan, targeting especially Kunduz province.
This is the reason why another key priority of Ghani’s government has been advancing reconciliation in the country with the Taliban. The president has recognised that Pakistan’s influence could be key in facilitating any eventual peace deal and is pushing for the country’s cooperation.
If the violence increases in the coming week and the peace talks derail, the Afghan government could face its toughest test yet. With the country at a potential crossroads, there is a prospect of greater instability if the reconciliation process cannot be advanced with the Taliban whose new leader—should he remain in power—must decide whether to continue down the path to peace, or break away and launch an intensified offensive.