Blood-letting in Balkh


Akbar Jan Marwat

THE visit of a high level Pakistani defense delegation to Afghanistan, led by Chief of the General Staff Lt Gen Bilal Akbar, came at an opportune moment – that is right after the massacre of Afghan recruits by Afghan Talibans at a Balkh Army base. More about this visit latter. Let us first analyse the Balkh Army base attack by the Afghan Taliban. Last Friday’s massacre of over 160 under training soldiers at a Balkh military base has given rise to a slew of disconcerting questions. The Taliban attack clearly exposed the inadequacy of the Western trained Afghan forces.
The Taliban has once again, beyond an iota of doubt, demonstrated their ability to successfully carry out complex operations, in most protected environs in the country. In such attacks, it is not uncommon, for assailants to have already infiltrated the ranks of their target. In this particular attack, the Taliban fighters seemed well aware of the layout of the military compound that they attacked. This deadly attack was certainly a major blow to the confidence of the security forces, and their international backers. These coalition partners have been struggling not only with the increasingly assertive Afghan Taliban, but also with other deadly militant outfits like the Islamic State.
During the said attack, a group of only a dozen or so Taliban fighters dressed in Afghan National Army (ANA) uniforms entered the Balkh Army base after passing through a number of Check posts. As soon as the ANA recruits came out of the mosque after Friday prayers, they were attacked. These dozen or so assailants, kept thousands of troops engaged in a gun battles for over five hours, killing more than 160 of them. The incident highlighted the dismally low level of preparedness of the ANA. This particular attack was perhaps, the most deadly in the— 16 year-old conflict. The raid underlined the bleak outlook for security in the north. The raid will certainly have a demoralizing effect on the young Afghan Army soldiers, many of them still under training. The defense minister and the Chief of Army Staff, has since resigned, accepting responsibility for the bloody attack.
Rampant with corruption, leadership crises and desertions, the security forces have suffered unsustainable causalities. About 7000 security personal lost their lives while about 12,000 got injured, in 2016. The attack seems to have had devastating psychological effects on the young trainees and their families. Such fears and concern will restrict recruitment in the forces, besides creating serious issues of morale. Meanwhile, efforts at negotiating a lasting settlement, between Ghani Government and the Taliban – perhaps the only realistic option – seem to be falling apart. After the failure of the quadrilateral peace talks in Pakistan, the peace talks held in Russia along with other regional powers, seems to be in doldrums after the boycott of USA of the latest round of these peace talks about Afghanistan.
Amid reports of intelligence failures, and security lapses by ANA, the Taliban have ramped up their attacks. They seem to be now eying, the till now stable, north of Afghanistan. Kundoz a major city in the north fell to the Taliban in 2015, like a house of cards. The city has recently been retaken by Afghan forces, but more than forty percent of the city is still under control of the Taliban. The Taliban now have their sight on northern cities and territories of Balkh, Faryab, and the Baghlan Provinces. Trumps policy about Afghanistan is still shrouded in mystery, but he seems to be following the old American mantra of “do more” with Pakistan. In the background of Trump’s recent distrust over Russia’s efforts of trying to increase its leverage in Afghanistan, he seems to be looking for new allies. Narendra Modi is offering to combat cross – border terrorism jointly with Afghanistan. Pakistan’s reaction to this offer has yet to be seen.
So it was in this backdrop, that the visit of the Army delegation to Afghanistan took place. The leader of the delegation conveyed a categorical message to acting Defense Minister and Afghan Chief of Army staff that: “Terrorists are common threat and shall be defeated”. To Kabul’s long standing complaint of Pakistani soil being used by terrorists to launch attacks on Afghanistan: the Pakistani delegation asserted, that Pakistan controlled every inch of its soil, and nobody would be allowed to use its soil against Afghanistan. According to ISPR, the delegation held talks on “bilateral border coordination measures also”. These talks seemed to be the continuation of the contacts agreed during adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz’s talks with Afghan National Security advisor Hanif Atmar in London, which had been arranged by Britain. These talks were apparently arranged, to help the two countries overcome the impasse in their ties over terrorist sanctuaries that had led to weeks long closure of border crossing.
This understanding reached in London, paved the way for the opening of the border crossing. During the talks, the Pakistani delegation also condoled with the Afghan government over the death of the ANA’s recruits in Balkh, and offered medical treatment in Pakistan, to the injured of the attack. Quick on the heels of the visit of the Defense delegation, a parliamentary delegation, having a cross party representation, led by the speaker of national assembly, Sardar Ayaz Sadiq also visited Kabul. The delegation met with both President Ashraf Ghani and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah. The delegation also met with members of the Parliament. Candid exchange of views and of complaints between the two delegations took place. The two sides eventually agreed to share intelligence and ensure that their soil is not used to destabilize the neighboring country. It is said that the ISI chief of Pakistan is soon to visit Kabul also.
The bottom line is that no matter how bitter and intransigent the two neighbors became towards each other, in the end to succeed against terrorism and religious extremism the two neighbors have to join forces. Both nations have to forget past grievances and join hands, if they are to defeat the existential crises threatening to annihilate both of them. The sooner the two countries understand this the better. Just as I was about to send this article to the press, the unfortunate news of Afghan forces bombing two Pakistani villages in Chaman, Balochistan, where census was taking place, came in. A number of civilians died in this attack. In retaliation Pakistani forces shelled a few Afghan boarder posts killing some soldiers. This skirmish apparently took place over erroneous Afghan claim, over the concerned villages as being part of Afghanistan. The Afghan authorities should have discussed situation with their Pakistani counter parts, instead of resorting to firing. This is exactly kind of situation from which both Afghanistan and Pakistan must desist, if they are to jointly and successfully combats extremism and terrorism.
—The writer is author, citizen journalist and entrepreneur based in Islamabad.

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