The situation in Afghanistan - four times the size of Bangladesh with one-fourth of our population - continues to remain unstable. Attempts to establish democratic governance have also floundered in the vortex of violence and terrorism. The only factor that has been constant in this equation has been uncertainty.
The presence of United States troops and that of other countries in Afghanistan has gradually been scaled down. This course of action has been undertaken to boost the confidence of the civil, military and political leaderships in that country. It has also been done to reduce tension with the Taliban and also to facilitate their possible talks with the Afghan political leadership to achieve a structured agreement.
A national election was held in Afghanistan in 2014 and power was transferred from president Hamid Karzai to president Ashraf Ghani with Abdullah Abdullah as Chief Executive. This government was formed with the mediation and assistance of a worried United States. This was done with the hope that the new paradigm would be more acceptable to all the stakeholders. Unfortunately, other developments appear to be thwarting any pro-active movement forward.
QUADRILATERAL COORDINATION GROUP: The world watched with interest as the fifth round of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group talks (consisting of officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, United States and China) convened in Pakistan on May 18, aimed at laying the ground for a negotiated settlement of the Afghan war. This initiative had started as hopes were fading about bringing the Taliban insurgents to the negotiating table. The Afghan government also declined to send a delegation from Kabul and decided to participate through their Ambassador in Islamabad. This down-grading was done to show their disappointment with Pakistan for not cracking down sufficiently on the Taliban militants. It may be recalled that direct peace talks between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban began in Pakistan in July 2015 but were scrapped soon afterwards with the belated revelation that Mollah Omar, the group's founder, had died two years earlier.
Some analysts had expressed hope that there might be some movement forward this time round. They based this assumption on the fact that media reports from Islamabad on April 26 had indicated that a delegation from the Afghan Taliban's political Office in Doha, Qatar had arrived in Pakistan to discuss the restarting of peace talks with Kabul. This three-member team held preliminary discussion with both Pakistani and Afghan authorities. They also got in touch with Chinese representatives.
Unfortunately, this constructive dynamics was thrown to the wind with the report on May 22 that the new Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour had been killed in a drone strike that targeted his car in the remote area of Dahl Bandin, southwest of the town of Ahmad Wal, near Quetta, Pakistan, close to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Apparently, President Barack Obama authorised the strike.
Commenting on the incident, General Joseph Votel of U.S. Central Command pointed out from Amman, Jordan that "Mansour played a key leadership role in not only orchestrating the Taliban but also orchestrating a variety of other organisations including the Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda to perpetrate operations against not only U.S. forces but also coalition and Afghan forces." U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry indicated that Mansour "was directly opposed to peace negotiations" and had been actively involved in planning attacks in Kabul. It was also indicated by Kerry that the United States had notified the Pakistan government of the strike. The Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has, however, disputed Kerry's observation and claimed that the drone strike that they learned of the strike after it was carried out and that this would not help the reconciliation process towards a political settlement.
It may be recalled that Mansour assumed command of the Taliban following the death of longtime leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in Pakistan in 2013. Mansour formerly headed the leadership Council of the Taliban and Islamic scholars, also known as the Quetta Shura, which includes longtime leaders who direct the Taliban's operations from Pakistan's Balochistan Province.
PROSPECT OF A POSITIVE ENGAGEMENT AFFECTED: Since this disclosure, the prospect of a positive engagement has been affected because of several reasons.
On May 22, the Afghan Taliban announced that they had unanimously selected Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada from Kandahar as their new leader to replace Mullah Akhtar Mansour. He was a former head of the Taliban courts, and a deputy leader to Mansour. He also held senior positions under the movement's founder Mullah Omar. Contrary to the announcement, this selection does not appear to have been accepted by all factions. A breakaway section, led by Mullah Mohammad Rasool, has rejected the move, saying Akhundzada does not represent the entire group.
Nevertheless, analysts believe that despite this disagreement, it is unlikely that the Taliban will change direction under this hardline religious scholar in a hurry. In the meantime, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Chief Executive, Abdullah, has urged the new Taliban leader to join talks for a constructive engagement.
On the other side, there has been another evolving development - that of the growing of ISIL/ISIS influence in this region. This has led to the emergence of a covert military struggle between the Taliban and the ISIL Khorasan forces. This has gained particular attention because some members of the Taliban, being dissatisfied with the assumption of Taliban leadership by Mansour, had joined ISIL-Khorasan forces. Some Taliban leaders and religious scholars are now allegedly trying to bring these former Taliban members back to their former organisation. These efforts are being monitored very carefully by the US as well as Pakistan and Afghan intelligence authorities. It would be interesting to note here that in eastern Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan the US and Afghan ground forces are fighting ISIL contingents on one front, while the Taliban are doing the same in another front.
At the same time the Taliban presence appears to be gaining ground in the 34 Provinces of Afghanistan. Some analysts are also claiming that the menace posed by the Taliban at this point of time is greater, more proximate and vicious than at any time since 2001. Acts of terrorism and armed insurgency are now endangering the civilian population throughout Afghanistan including urban centres and the capital Kabul. At risk are headquarters of Constitutional authorities, government agencies, security installations, roadway networks and key public services. Tom Hussain of Al Jazeera has remarked in this regard that "despite the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Afghan military, it has proved incapable of stopping the light infantry of the Taliban from taking territory when it wants to.
REASONS FOR TALIBAN RESURGENCE: There are some reasons for this resurgence. First, from the end of 2014, and the withdrawal of most foreign forces from Afghanistan the risk of the Taliban facing bombardment was reduced. The group was further emboldened by the comparative lack of interest from the international community and the diversion of its attention to crisis in other parts of the world, such as Syria, Iraq and Ukraine. This evolving dynamics also saw the Taliban overrunning military bases, district centres and security check-points in different parts of Afghanistan, seizing more weapons and using them in their fight against Afghan government forces. They have also captured dozens of Humvees and police vehicles, which they now drive in areas under their control. Secondly, Dawood Azami has pointed out that the Pakistani military's Operation Zarb-e-Azb launched in the North Waziristan tribal area in June 2014, dislodged thousands of mainly Uzbek, Arab and Pakistani militants, who flooded into Afghanistan and swelled the Taliban's ranks. The Taliban also reportedly moved a big number of their fighters from Pakistan. Finally, although the Afghan security forces have fought well against the insurgents over the past year, they lacked certain capabilities and equipment related to air power and reconnaissance. This element continues to affect Afghan government's effectiveness even today.
About a dozen militant groups, having different goals and agendas, are fighting in Afghanistan. A few of them have challenged the Taliban's supremacy, but most of them are directly or indirectly supporting the Afghan Taliban with money and/or manpower. Militant groups currently active in Afghanistan include the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan: Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, High Council of Afghanistan Islamic Emirate: Taliban splinter group led Mullah Muhammad Rasool and the Hizb-e Islami (HIG) or Islamic Party. Other fundamentalist groups playing a role in Afghanistan or within the territory of its neighborhood include the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU): linked to IS since August 2015, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU): a splinter faction of IMU now loyal to Afghan Taliban and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a China-focused Uighur separatist group.
Nevertheless, it is generally felt that there are four ways in which peace with the Taliban might be realised: 1) through the creation of a "national unity" government; 2) the holding of direct national elections in which the Taliban would participate as an independent political party; 3) efforts need to be made for the creation of a "Southeast Frontier" administered by the Taliban, similar to Pakistan's "Northwest Frontier" where ethnic Pashtuns enjoy a degree of autonomy; 4) a phased peace process entailing the devolving of power to Afghanistan's Provinces, with each electing its own Governor and forming its own police force. Holding provincial elections for the governors, and relinquishing provincial security to local police forces, could also serve as a phased peace process. This would facilitate the central government to rid itself of provincial disputes. Devolving power to the provinces could also "organically" enable each ethnic and tribal group to take responsibility of provinces where they are in the majority. The other important point is the concept of 'power-sharing'. If a peace deal is eventually reached, Taliban fighters would have to be integrated into the Afghan military and security forces, and some positions in government would also have to be allocated to Taliban officials.
These are factors that need discussion, an open mind and also belief that the Afghan people can come to an agreement.
The writer, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.