Afghanistan faces a new war
WITHIN a matter of a week starting Friday 08 October, the already uneasy regional calm had stood almost destroyed as two terrible blasts struck one after the other on consecutive Fridays in the Imambargahs, Shiite prayer places, one in Kunduz in the North and the other in Khandar in the South killing an estimated over 100 worshipers, all believed to be Hazaras.
Earlier, there was one in Jalalabad as well and a couple of more but smaller ones in other parts of the country. The Islamic State in Khorasan Province took credit for the attack in Kuduz. The second one has been claimed by D’aesh.
Both said to be suicide attacks, justifiably raised alarms not just among the Taliban, but in Iran, China, Russia and Pakistan as well.
The most rudely shocked was Teheran because relations between the predominantly Sunni Afghan Taliban and Iran, a predominantly Shiite country which had remained confrontational during the first stint of the former in Kabul had, however, turned largely friendly over the last couple of years.
An Iran suffering under decades’ long US sanctions and Afghan Taliban fighting a war of freedom against occupying US troops over the last 20 years or so had been drawn into a trusting relationship driven perhaps by the adage, ‘enemy’s enemy is my friend’.
Red flags were also raised in China as investigations in the first blast had revealed the hands of Uighur community. That Chinese extremists had attacked a Shiite Imambargah has raised extreme concerns in Beijing.
The attacks, at least half a dozen in number by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) inside Pakistan since August 15 occurring mostly inside the Afghan-Pakistan border areas in the North and in Balochistan are causing a lot of foreboding among Pakistan’s security institutions.
In June, the United Nations reported on the presence of between 8,000 and 10,000 “foreign terrorist fighters” in Afghanistan.
The report further stated that these fighters were mainly “from Central Asia, the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation, Pakistan, and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China.”
Although most of the fighters had reported an affiliation with the Taliban, “many also support al-Qaeda” and others “are allied with ISIL or have ISIL sympathies,” said the report.
ISIL refers to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, whose Afghan franchise is ISIS-Khorasan. The East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which is now called the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) include hardened fighters, whose main goal was to fight “infidels”.
The United Nations placed ETIM on its terrorist list in 2002. When it became clear that the Taliban were going to take power in Afghanistan, many jihadis from Central Asia, including from western China and Tajikistan, left Idlib for Afghanistan.
On October 4, four days before the attack on the Imambargah in Kunduz, an Iranian delegation arrived in Afghanistan to hold talks about cross-border trade and to seek assurances that the Taliban will not permit attacks on either Afghan Shiites or on Iran.
Meanwhile, in Kabul, the governors of two border provinces, Iran’s Khorasan Razavi (Mohammad Sadegh Motamedian) and Afghanistan’s Herat (Maulvi Abdul Qayum Rohani), agreed on facilitating more cross-border trade and ensuring that there is no cross-border violence.
In another meeting that took place on October 4 with Motamedian in the Iranian border town of Taybad, Rohani’s deputy Maulvi Sher Ahmad Ammar Mohajer said the Afghan government would “never allow individuals or foreign groups such as ISIS to use Afghan territory against the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
“We [Iran and Afghanistan] have defeated the common enemy,” Maulvi Rohani said, in reference to the United States. All signs indicate some sincerity on the part of the Taliban government.
On October 7, the day before the ISIS-K attack in Kunduz, Maulvi Abdul Salam Hanafi, the deputy prime minister of Afghanistan, met with a group of Shia elders to assure them that the Taliban would not allow anti-Shiite activity.
Earlier this year, ETIM fighters relocated from Syria to Badakhshan province in Afghanistan; reports suggested that the fighters had gathered in the sparsely populated Wakhan Corridor in the province, which leads to China.
But in recent weeks, Taliban security has moved them from the towns surrounding the “Afghan-Chinese border” to other parts of Afghanistan (rumours have been flying about the Taliban’s intention to extradite ETIM members, if not all of the 2,000 Uighurs currently in Afghanistan, to China, but these rumours are unconfirmed).
China is already assisting Afghanistan with short-term funds (including US$31 million in emergency funds) and that the Taliban see the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as their “passport to markets around the world.”
China’s long-term concession of the Mes Aynak copper mine, south of Kabul, will allow it to come back to life and be modernized. The Taliban are keen on the BRI, which will lead to reviving the ancient Silk Road.
Meanwhile, Officials in Dushanbe say they’ve received reports that Tajik militants who fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan are now making plans to cross the border into Tajikistan.
Taliban spokesman in Kabul Zabihullah Mujahid has, however, denied that militants are plotting ways to infiltrate Tajikistan. Mujahid said “no one will be allowed to use Afghanistan’s territory to harm its neighbors.”
Islamic militant groups, particularly Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) in Afghanistan, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in China, and TTP as well as other religious extremists in Pakistan are said to have been significantly encouraged by the re-emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The latest monitoring report of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies revealed that the Pakistani Taliban had conducted 55 deadly attacks (including suicides) and target killings across Pakistan.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said that the Islamic Emirate condemned the Imambargah incidents and considered it a “great crime”.
He said that the perpetrators would be arrested and brought to justice. UK-based conflict analysis firm ExTrac’s researcher Abdul Sayed told AFP the attackson Shiite Imambargahs challenged the Taliban claims of having complete control on the country.
“If the Taliban can’t protect Kandahar from an IS-K attack, how could it protect the rest of the country?” He questioned Shias are estimated to make up roughly 10 per cent of the Afghan population.
Many of them are Hazara, an ethnic group that has been persecuted in Afghanistan for decades. Meanwhile, a worried Moscow announced on Friday a meeting next week hosting the United States, China and Pakistan for talks on Afghanistan.
The meeting would take place on Tuesday and that the countries “will try to work out a common position on the changing situation in Afghanistan”.
Taliban’s foreign ministry spokesperson Abdul Qahar Balkhi confirmed this in a tweet, saying that Maulvi Abdul Salam Hanafi, deputy of the council of ministers in the Taliban government, will lead the delegation in the meeting.
According to Reuters, the Moscow talks also involve India and Iran alongside China and Pakistan.
Officials in Islamabad confirmed that Pakistan’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Mohammad Sadiq will represent the country in the meetings in Moscow next week.
Russia is now worried about the potential for fallout in the wider region and the possibility of Islamist militants infiltrating the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, which Moscow views as its southern defensive buffer.
— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.