Deadly insurgent attacks dim hopes for talks, spur regional worries

Afghan soldiers fire mortar rounds on Dec. 27, 2016 to mark a mock enemy position during a live-fire exercise for Afghan Air Tactical Coordinators. The students then calculate the coordinates of the target and direct airstrikes by helicopter gunships.


By PAMELA CONSTABLE | The Washington Post | Published: January 19, 2017

KABUL — Just one month ago, Afghanistan's moribund peace process seemed to be sputtering to life. Taliban leaders had welcomed delegations from Kabul to their offices in Qatar, and the governor and police chief of Kandahar province had hosted a large regional gathering, declaring that the 16-year conflict had to be resolved through talks and offering a haven for Taliban negotiators and family members.

Today, that hopeful moment has been eclipsed by a one-day blitz of terrorist attacks in Kabul and two other cities on Jan. 10 that left 50 people dead. Two attacks were claimed by the Taliban. The third, an explosion at another gathering hosted by top officials in Kandahar, took the lives of five visiting Emirati diplomats. Amid outraged recriminations from United Arab Emirates officials, Afghan security agencies launched an investigation aided by NATO, and dozens of people were arrested this week.

The circumstances of that bombing remain murky, and the Taliban have repeatedly denied responsibility for the blast, in which sophisticated explosives were detonated remotely after being hidden in a sofa inside a highly secured official compound. The mystery set off a flurry of conspiracy theories pointing to Iran, Pakistan and factional disputes among Kandahari leaders.

Analysts and people in the government said Taliban militants were almost certainly behind the attack but had denied it because they did not intend to kill the visiting envoys, whose government has been a longtime mainstay of their financial and diplomatic support. Several officials described Taliban leaders as "panicked" after learning of a monumental blunder. The insurgents sent a delegation to the UAE this week to reassure officials they were not behind the attack.

Whoever was responsible, the shocking act abruptly cut off the nascent peace feelers, reinforced predictions that Afghanistan faces another long, punishing season of combat and terrorism once winter ends, and created a growing sense of gloom among officials and political leaders. Some said they fear the insurgents will be able to wear down the divided Kabul government and outlast the foreign goodwill that provides 70 percent of its budget.

"This was not a message of war - it was a vicious and unforgivable crime," said Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former Taliban diplomat and member of the government's High Peace Council. "There is still a tendency towards peace and reconciliation in the minds of the Taliban and the government, but there is a deep lack of trust, and how to build that is extremely difficult."

Mujahid said the situation had become more "ambiguous and complicated" because of increased meddling in the Afghan conflict by foreign neighbors and regional powers. "New actors are emerging whose only purpose is to advance their own interests," he said. "The way forward is very unclear."

The spate of attacks came amid growing efforts by Russia and other governments to stake out new roles and relationships in the protracted Afghan war, with some even courting the Taliban. This trend, analysts said, has come largely in response to the interregnum vacuum in American leadership and policy toward Afghanistan, where Washington's military and economic backing have been paramount for the past 15 years.

Russia, which had remained largely aloof from Afghan affairs since the disastrous Soviet military and political intervention that ended 28 years ago, has launched a high-profile initiative to reengage on its own terms, in part to counter Islamic State predations in Central Asia. Last month, Moscow convened a meeting with Pakistan and China to discuss the Afghan situation, without inviting any officials from Kabul.

Privately, the Kremlin has extended feelers to the Taliban, a former enemy that it sees as an antidote to the Islamic State and a potential future force in Afghan power; the Russian ambassador to Kabul was summoned by parliament last month to explain this outreach.

Afghan officials were also angered when Russia opposed a recent U.N. Security Council vote to drop anti-terrorism sanctions against Afghan former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The sanctions lift would allow him to return home under a peace deal that Afghan and U.S. officials hope will spur the Taliban to follow suit.

Pakistan, which has long sheltered Taliban leaders and sought to dominate the peace process, is scrambling to reassert that control and seek new foreign partners after finding itself increasingly isolated abroad. American officials blame Pakistan for sponsoring aggressive Taliban factions, and some Afghan officials publicly blamed Pakistan for orchestrating the Kandahar bombing. Officials said it was linked to several Islamic seminaries across the Pakistan border.

Iran, which has long sought to establish a foothold for Shiite Islam in next-door Afghanistan, has also reached out to the extremist Sunni Taliban, inviting its representatives to a recent conference. In another role reversal, UAE officials, after years of providing a financial operating base and diplomatic outpost for the Taliban, have recently made high-profile offers of humanitarian aid to the Afghan state. The slain diplomats were in Kandahar on a mission to promote that aid.

"What we are seeing is like a political game of buzkashi," the chaotic Afghan version of polo played with a goat carcass instead of a ball, said Timor Sharan, who represents the nonprofit International Crisis Group in Kabul. "Afghanistan is the goat, the American referee is missing, and the regional players are jockeying and maneuvering over where to put the goat to gain advantage for their interests."

Sharan said he sees no hope for a revival of peace talks with the Taliban in the near future, in part because the insurgents are in a strong military position after months of aggressive attacks against key Afghan cities and in part because the government of President Ashraf Ghani, who faces ethnic rivalries inside and outside the government, and whose ethnic Pashtun base is in the same southern region as the Taliban's, cannot afford to give up the fight.

"There is no incentive for peace now, and any talk of it is meaningless," Sharan said. "Both sides are gearing up for serious offensives, and the situation is at a stalemate. Everyone agrees there is no military solution, but no one agrees on how to even structure a peaceful one, and Pakistan continues to benefit from the war. The Taliban can keep going for years."

According to U.S. military estimates published in October, the government still controls 61 percent of Afghan territory, while 28 percent is contested and 10 percent is controlled by the Taliban. Some analysts say the amount of Taliban-dominated territory is larger, while the insurgents' range and capacity for attack is virtually nationwide. Between October and December, the Long War Journal reported, the number of Taliban-dominated or contested districts increased from 70 to 97 of the 240 total.

Some former Taliban leaders and pro-Taliban analysts said the only major stumbling block to peace talks is the issue of American troops remaining in the country. The insurgents have demanded a firm timetable for their withdrawal and have insisted that this be negotiated with U.S. officials; the Obama administration rejected that idea, and it is unclear what position the Trump administration would take.

These figures allege that peace prospects are being sabotaged by some groups within Afghanistan that have economic or ethnic motives for keeping the conflict alive. But they also said they had been encouraged by recent statements of support for peace talks by numerous onetime domestic adversaries, including senior militia leaders.

Several people who attended the December outreach meeting in Kandahar said they felt especially optimistic afterward. They noted that provincial police chief Abdul Razik, a tough, legendary anti-Taliban fighter, had personally called for dialogue and offered protection to potential insurgent negotiators.

But Razik, who has faced numerous Taliban threats and attacks in the past, is believed to have been the intended target for the Jan. 10 bombing, along with other local security officials. He survived after suddenly leaving the room just before the explosion, spurring speculation that he might have been alerted or part of the plot, though people familiar with the investigation said he had stepped out to smoke a cigarette.

With the government guesthouse a charred ruin, and the deputy governor and five foreign diplomats among the dead, whatever positive momentum for peace had been generated in Kandahar last month suddenly seemed long gone.

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