As Afghanistan approached the hundredth anniversary of its triumph against the British Raj, a series of attacks confirmed the country’s challenges even as peace talks proceed. Afghanistan’s Daesh network gave notice of its menace by bombarding a Shia wedding in Kabul; a series of explosions rocked Jalalabad; while the main Afghan protagonists in the war, the American-installed Kabul government and the Taliban insurgency, both suffered attacks on their leaders.
The regional tension between the two sides’ backers, India and Pakistan, over the former’s annexation of Kashmir continues to militate against a peaceful settlement, as do divisions in both pro-government and anti-government camps.
Although – or because – the Daesh “Khurasan” network in Afghanistan is fairly small, its main contribution in the Afghanistan war has been a series of terrorist attacks with no particular military point beyond reaffirming their survival and exacerbating communal tension. Their attacks were a grim reminder that even marginal groups can cause significant mayhem.
In previous weeks, the main Afghan contenders in the war had seen their nerve centres hit in attacks on their leaders. A mysterious attack hit the Taliban insurgency’s practical capital in the Pakistani city Quetta; it appears to have targeted the Taliban emir Hibatullah Akhundzada, but instead killed his brother Ahmadullah. Less noticed, but perhaps as significant, was the airstrike that meanwhile killed Taliban military commander Sadar Ibrahim in Kandahar. This was a serious blow; while he had maintained a low profile, this veteran Taliban officer had directed the insurgency’s accelerating offensives since 2014.
While some government leaders, notably the pugnacious security heavyweight Amrullah Saleh, attributed the Quetta attack to disputes within the insurgency, the timing perhaps indicates that the government had targeted both the insurgency’s political and military leaders simultaneously.
Saleh, who has dominated Afghanistan’s security establishment in several roles since 2001 and is now the running mate for Ashraf Ghani’s reelection campaign, had himself survived a major attack just a few weeks earlier.
Strangely – given the propaganda value of breaching such an intransigent enemy’s sizeable defences – the Taliban did not claim responsibility. Speculation that this could be attributed to the insurgency’s need to present a more diplomatic front in the peace negotiations is unlikely given that the insurgents continue to accept responsibility for other attacks. Afghan politicians in the past have targeted their rivals and blamed the Taliban in the past; at this stage, any of Saleh’s enemies, Taliban or otherwise, could be considered a suspect.
For his part, Saleh claimed that the Quetta attack on Hibatullah was a case of duplicity by his favourite bugbears, Pakistani military intelligence. He took to social media to claim that the attack proved that, while the Taliban were unanimously puppets of Pakistani intelligence, those who were even bigger puppets had coerced less convinced puppets. Leaving aside the remarkable bombast of such talk by a politician whose career has been built on liaisoning with foreign intelligence agencies, it is important to view the Afghan war in a broader context that includes not only Pakistan but its archrival India.
The rivalry between Pakistan and India, which has often spilt over into Afghan affairs, rekindled in recent weeks. When Donald Trump issued a typically vacuous offer to mediate the Kashmir conflict, Pakistan expected their assistance in bringing the Taliban insurgents to the negotiating table would be rewarded with help against India, towards whom Washington has generally leant. Days later, this illusion was shattered when India stormed Kashmir in a massive, brutal lockdown; it is hard to believe that Trump, who has longstanding links to Narendra Modi, was not informed beforehand. This escalation could spill into Afghanistan again; though Pakistan and India have not controlled the Afghan conflict as effectively as they may like, they have generally assisted in escalating the conflict.
The Subcontinental Role in Afghanistan
The Indian role in Afghanistan has generally been a subtle one, but nonetheless influential. India was among the few states who did not oppose the 1980s Soviet invasion, and among the main states who supported the 2000s American invasion. In between, the links that New Delhi had built with the communist Parchami party, heavily represented in Afghanistan’s secret service since the 1980s, proved durable. The Parchami regime massively outsourced its operations to frequently brutal and unaccountable militias, a process that contributed to the fragmentation of the Afghan state: most infamous is Abdul-Rashid Dostum, a longtime kingmaker in Afghan politics.
When the regime was officially overthrown in 1992, most high-ranking Parchamis defected to the leading opposition commander Ahmadshah Masoud in an attempt to salvage the party. Because Masoud was meanwhile attacked by his competitor, Gulbadin Hikmatyar, he was forced to rely heavily on the Parchamis, who would retain their positions, networks, and forces right through the 1990s. Hikmatyar had been a longtime protege of Pakistan, which prompted Masoud to increasingly depend on the Parchamis’ links with India. Since the 1990s, the Parchamis served as a link between Masoud and India; after 2001, they dominated the Afghan security apparatus.
While Saleh and his longtime collaborator, Asadullah Khalid, were not themselves communists, the secret service they presided over heavily comprised veteran communists. Many Parchamis, including sometimes interior ministers Haneef Atmar and Nurul-Haq Uloumi as well as Dostum, assumed leading roles in the post-2001 government.
Many of them reactivated the same militias that had been active in the 1980s, now against the Taliban: a particularly obvious example are the militias of Abdul-Raziq Khan and Abdul-Jabbar Qahraman, which dominated the vital southern provinces until both were murdered by the Taliban in 2018. Because Indian patronage was a binding link between these blocs, Indian interests – especially with regards to Pakistan, for whose own armed opposition Afghan intelligence provided considerable assistance in the same way as Pakistan did for the Taliban – were and remain intertwined into the Afghan government’s security sector. Given India’s opposition to talking with a Taliban it sees as joined at the hip with Pakistan, it is not surprising that Saleh holds the same opinion. An escalation in Kashmir could translate into an escalation in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s own role in Afghanistan is widely documented, especially its tacit assistance to the Taliban. There is considerable continuity in Pakistan’s patronage of the 1980s’ anti-communist insurgents, including both the nucleus of the current Taliban and some of their opponents and their patronage of the Taliban insurgency. A major difference is that the former insurgency was internationally celebrated and the latter internationally isolated. This has meant that Pakistan’s patronage of the Taliban has necessarily been more secretive and hesitant than the open support it gave the anti-communist insurgency, and at times Pakistan has mounted limited crackdowns against the Taliban in order to dispel international suspicions.
Most Taliban leaders have at some stage or other served stints in Pakistani prisons: they include Sadar, the recently slain military commander, and Abdul-Ghani Baradar, the Taliban second-in-command who nowadays leads the negotiations team. Such episodes indicate that Pakistan has at times been quite happy to overrule the Taliban if its interests are at stake.
A scattered field
Saleh’s charge that Pakistan commissioned the hit on an insufficiently hardline Hibatullah seems unfounded; Islamabad has invested considerably in the Taliban’s legitimisation during the talks. The idea of internal disputes is more intriguing but requires a broader context. To split Taliban divisions among moderates and hardliners, commensurate with their purported loyalty to Pakistan, is a longstanding and usually wasted exercise: what divisions do occur in Taliban ranks rarely occur over policy. For example, in 2010 Western observers shoehorned Hibatullah’s predecessor as emir, Akhtar Mansoor, and Sadar’s military predecessor Abdul-Qayum Zakir, into a “moderate-hardliner” dichotomy based on the pair’s disputes. On policy, however, they barely differed, and the United States was obliged to eventually kill Akhtar. Baradar, currently leading the negotiations team, was formerly classed as a hardliner on account of his long record in the Taliban and his role as its practical leader in the late 2000s.
Kabul itself has often tried to split the Taliban, and came close when Akhtar seized power in 2015. While most Taliban dissenters sullenly accepted Akhtar’s fait accompli, certain peripheral fronts in western and southern Afghanistan revolted under the leadership of Rasoul Mujahid. These fronts, some of whom were effectively mercenaries between the insurgency and government, were partly reconciled when Hibatullah replaced Akhtar, but others remain active. At least one major front founded by Abdul-Mannan Niazi, a notorious commander responsible for a major anti-Shia massacre in the 1990s, has been coopted by Afghan intelligence. This network continues to attack the Taliban today and may be a suspect in the Quetta attack.
But as the rise of Daesh shows, Kabul’s counterinsurgency efforts carry considerable risk. The Daesh front in eastern Afghanistan was founded by long-freebooting commanders in the region, some of whom had formerly been tolerated or coopted by Afghan intelligence in its attempt to disrupt the Taliban. Another self-styled Daesh front in northern Afghanistan was founded by Niamatullah Qawim, who defected from the Taliban and joined Dostum in 2014 before announcing loyalty to Daesh. This front was eventually routed by the Taliban in 2018, whereupon its survivors escaped into Dostum’s fiefdom.
Such episodes show that the government’s efforts to fight the Taliban can come at a considerable cost. In particular, a growing rivalry between such pro-government strongmen as Dostum, Saleh, and others can lead to a mushrooming of the various anti-Taliban militias they directly support or indirectly enable. Splits in the Taliban, independently of government manipulation, are no less risky: Daesh’s founder in Afghanistan, Abdul-Rauf Khadim, was an embittered senior commander with a grudge against his former Taliban colleagues.
Peace deals are always tricky, but the Afghan deal is particularly so. Not only are two of the major regional powers, directly helping the Afghan protagonists, at loggerheads, but the multiplicity of Afghan factions – within the government, to a lesser extent in the Taliban, and the presence of smaller militia spoilers – makes a settlement much trickier. The cautious optimism at the peace talks seems increasingly misplaced.
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