The last two months have witnessed reports of serious terrorist activity in Afghanistan. Explosions at the governor’s guesthouse in Kandahar on January 9 killed at least 11 and injured 14 including the UAE ambassador.
The Taliban said they were responsible for the bomb attack.
The first week of February witnessed a suicide bomber ripping through a crowd of Afghan Supreme Court employees killing at least 20 people and wounding 41 others. No group claimed responsibility for the blast in the snow-laden Afghan capital. Six Afghans working for the Red Cross have also been killed by suspected IS gunmen in the province of Jowzjan in the second week of February.
Dawood Azami has highlighted some interesting facts about the growing complexity in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood, as regional powers attempt to forge links with the Taliban. This is leading to the emergence of a “precarious security situation.” Suspicion and mistrust are also surfacing as serious obstacles in this strategically-located region and leading to destabilisation.
Afghanistan’s intricate political chessboard, in addition to Pakistan, generally blamed for playing a double game now has other players like Russia and Iran. This is in addition to the US, which has been there for more than 15 years. According to analysts, the US has been pursuing its own contacts with the Taliban outside Afghanistan, but their efforts towards achieving peace have not succeeded. Russia and Iran have also been critical and blamed the US and its allies for “failing” to achieve its original objectives of eliminating violent extremism and drugs from Afghanistan.
It is understood that the emergence of the IS in the Khorasan Province in Afghanistan in January 2015 persuaded Russia and Iran to establish contacts with the Taliban. They are beginning to believe that there is a serious prospect of militancy creeping in from the northern Afghan provinces, close to their borders, as well as into the Chinese Xinjiang region. Consequently, the emergence of IS has not only posed a serious challenge to the supremacy of the Taliban but has also encouraged Iran, China, and Russia, who were fearful of IS expansion, to review their policies and open dialogue with the Taliban.
Dawood Azami has also observed that “the US’s decreasing military role in Afghanistan and a resurgent Taliban has contributed to creating a sense in regional capitals that Afghanistan’s fate was up for grabs. The political infighting in the central government in Kabul has also raised concerns about political stability both inside and outside the country.”
Shia Iran’s animosity towards the IS has grown not only because of IS’s activities in Syria but also because the IS consider Shias as infidels. This has brought the Sunni Taliban closer to their historic nemesis, Iran, a Shia powerhouse, whose clerical regime had previously viewed the Afghan Taliban as a major threat.
Since its departure from Afghanistan, Moscow has always opposed the Taliban. They have been referred to as terrorists. Russia also openly supported the anti-Taliban “Northern Alliance” in the Afghan civil war of the 1990s. There has, however, been a slight shift in the last two years. The proximity of IS appears to have led to a softening of approach towards the Taliban.
The Trump administration has inherited a 16-year old conflict with direct US military involvement, and also a political quagmire because of the regime that it helped to install. Unlike Syria where they have few alternatives, the US has a slightly better option in Afghanistan
This change within the matrix is casting a long shadow on the militant activity being carried out by different terrorist groups operating currently in Afghanistan and the neighbouring region. The situation is further compounded by the fact that, although the Afghan security forces have fought well against the insurgents over the past year, they clearly lack certain capabilities and equipment -- especially air power and reconnaissance. The political infighting in the central government in Kabul and the apparent weakness in governance, particularly corruption, is also being exploited by the Taliban.
Similarly, the presence of several thousand foreign fighters has further complicated the situation. About a dozen militant groups, having different goals and agendas, are now fighting in Afghanistan.
The foreign policy of the Afghan government, in place since September 2014, appears to have been influenced a great deal by the above circumstances. Many in Russia, Iran, and China now view President Ashraf Ghani’s government with suspicion, and see it as too weak to deal with the multiple security challenges it faces. They also view Mr Ghani as being too close to the US compared with his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.
It may be recalled that soon after taking office, Ashraf Ghani said that improving relations with Pakistan was a top priority, but that rapprochement ended within a year and Kabul and Islamabad have reverted to hurling accusations at each other. Since then, Mr Ghani has revived Afghanistan’s close relationship with India. His government pledging support for the Saudi-led military coalition against Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen has also not been received well in Tehran.
This dynamics is now persuading regional players that they cannot rely on the US alone to sort out Afghanistan and stabilise the wider region. Consequentially, they are now trying to make themselves more relevant and are looking forward to playing a more assertive role in promoting regional security.
However, at the same time, many Afghans are also expressing hope that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump will improve bilateral relations, and that this will have a positive impact on the situation within Afghanistan.
The Trump administration has inherited a 16-year old conflict with direct US military involvement, and also a political quagmire because of the regime that it helped to install. Nevertheless, unlike Syria where they have few alternatives, the US has a slightly better option in Afghanistan. In this case, the post-Taliban political structure in Afghanistan still enjoys broad domestic, regional, and international support, including bipartisan backing in the US.
The new US administration has to strengthen this foundation and this architecture by insisting on more democratic and inclusive politics, regional consensus, and long-term international support, including their commitment to the Afghanistan-US Bilateral Security Agreement. Such an approach, many believe, may facilitate the reaching of a political settlement, internal consensus, and achieving meaningful progress in that troubled country.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at [email protected]