Taliban call the shots in Afghanistan

Iqbal Khan

DISTRICT Kanashin in Helmand province fell to Taliban control on July30.Now Taliban are in control of 60 percent of Helmand. The district police chief and deputy head of the local branch of the national intelligence agency were critically wounded in clashes. Precise casualty figures can’t be confirmed as bodies litter the ground and fighting was still underway. Kanashin lodges a major drug smuggling route, which helps fund the Taliban’s insurgency.
The Afghan government lost control or influence over nearly 5 percent of its territory between January and May 2016, the US government’s top monitoring authority (SIGAR) said in a report released on July 29. Fifteen years earlier, the United States had invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban rulers, however the latter now control more territory than at any time since 2001.About 65.6 percent of districts across Afghanistan are under government “control or influence” at the end of May, “a decrease from the 70.5 percent” at the end of January.
Of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, 268 were under government control of influence, 36 or 8.8 percent were under insurgent control or influence, and 104 or 25.6 percent were considered “at risk.” This means a loss of 19 of the country’s governing districts. Taliban have acquired 10 additional districts under their control or influence in the same timeframe. A report by the Centre on International Cooperation commissioned by United Nations and published earlier this year found that the government had access to 61pc of districts in 2015, down from 67pc in 2010.
When Pakistan launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb, Afghan government was formally requested to take care of the border so that TTP operatives and their leadership could not escape to Afghanistan. Expected level of cooperation never materialized, with the result that many TTP leaders crossed over to Afghanistan and have been executing terrorist acts within Pakistan. Also, there have been substantiated reports that the Afghan intelligence DNS and Indian RAW have been supporting the TTP in carrying out terrorist violence in Pakistan. The TTP deputy leader, Latifullah Mehsud, who was caught by the NATO forces in Afghanistan in October 2013 while he was returning after a meeting with high-level Afghan functionaries confessed the nexus between the two intelligence agencies and their support to the TTP.
The Afghan government has not responded positively to the border management proposition despite several interactions between the two countries at the highest level; and between their intelligence outfits on intelligence sharing and commitment not to allow their respective territories to be used for attacks across the border. Nevertheless, border management talks in Kabul were the first serious interaction between Kabul, Islamabad and NATO since the breakdown of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) and exchange of fire at Torkham. Haroon Chakhansuri, President Ghani’s spokesman, said, on July 21, that the QCG has no plans to meet again anytime soon. A senior Pakistani security official also said, “The peace talks between the Taliban and Kabul are not likely to be resumed soon; neither Taliban nor Afghan government are interested in reviving” the talks.
In this backdrop, Senator John McCain’s article carried by “Financial Times” on July 26, makes an interesting read. It amplifies the dynamics of third party’s interest in keeping Pakistan-Afghanistan relations on a perpetual status of “low intensity conflict”. “For too long, the US has viewed the bilateral relationship only through the prism of Afghanistan. To achieve real progress, the US must make clear its enduring commitment to Pakistan’s stability and economic growth”. And “For its part, Pakistan must take on and eliminate havens for terrorist groups…The sooner the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan get down to the business of fighting their common terrorist enemies together, no matter where they hide, the better off the nations, the region and the world will be.”
On the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum Ministerial Meeting, US Secretary of State John Kerry assured Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz that United States is ready to improve and expand its multidimensional partnership with Pakistan. Both exchanged views on the regional situation with special reference to Afghanistan and agreed on the importance of promoting the Afghan-led reconciliation process. Kerry appreciated Pakistan’s determined efforts to eliminate terrorist groups in Pakistan’s tribal belt with considerable success. “I would like to visit Pakistan in the near future to review bilateral cooperation and discuss regional issues,” he said. These initiatives are coming when Kabul is under renewed attacks; not just from the Taliban, but now also from Daesh.
However, the lo-point at which these triangular relations have dipped coupled with uncertainty over the outcome of the US presidential election, Kerry has limited levers at his disposal. Afghanistan, which was once portrayed as President Obama’s good war, is now his forgotten war; and hence the tripartite relationship is in disarray. On July 23, a suicide attack killed more than 85 people and wounded more than 200 during a peaceful protest march by Shia Hazaras in Kabul; Daesh promptly claimed the responsibility. Pakistan, too, stands to lose a lot if Daesh strengthens its hold in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif telephoned Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and assured him of Pakistan’s continued cooperation in fighting common enemy of terrorism.
In a recent TV interview, President Ghani emphasized the historic bonds between Pakistan and Afghanistan and the need for both countries to work together to fight terrorism. But, in the same breath, he asserted that state-to-state relations with Pakistan were a bigger challenge for Afghanistan than the existence of terror groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. President Ghani said that he could provide the addresses of the Taliban leaders in Quetta. He asserted that Pakistan provides sanctuaries to terrorists and trains them. “We cannot understand when Pakistan says it will not allow a group of terrorists to amend its constitution, army act and prepares a National Action Plan against them… [and] Simultaneously, Pakistan tolerates another group which attempts to undermine the government and bring horror, death and destruction to Afghanistan,” Ghani said.
In response to a question that TTP leader Mullah Fazlullah has sanctuaries in Afghanistan, President Ghani said Afghan forces have bombed Mullah Fazlullah, eleven times along with attacks on his close aides. “Can you show me a single operation against the Haqqani network…Mansoor travelled on a Pakistani passport out of Karachi, does Fazlullah travel on an Afghan passport out of Kabul,” asked Ghani. Ghani also presented a three-point formula, which according to his estimation could help improve relations between the two countries and fight terrorism. He suggested that Pakistan must go after declared terrorist groups to win Afghanistan’s trust; we should act on the quadrilateral process regarding reconcilable; and irreconcilable groups and those who reject peace talks should be evacuated from Pakistani soil.
Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US have often declared that they are trying to create conditions for durable and sustainable peace in Afghanistan. However, ground realities indicate that key to peace is with Afghan Taliban. Earlier this point is home to these countries and the larger international community, better it would be for movement in the right direction.
— The writer is consultant to IPRI on policy and strategic response.

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