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Deadly and chaotic scenes shook Afghanistan just recently, with several instances of politically-motivated violence resulting in the loss of more than 200 lives. On Tuesday, October 17, Taliban militants carried out multiple attacks on government forces across the country, with over 70 people killed and approximately 150 injured. The Taliban struck again, late the following day, killing at least 43 soldiers after vehicle-borne explosives initiated a gunfight at a Kandahar army base. The bloodshed continued on October 20 when two mosques were targeted by suicide bombers in Kabul and Ghor respectively, resulting in the deaths of over 60 worshippers. This attack differed from the week’s earlier incursions, as it specifically targeted civilians of the Shi’ite faith and the perpetrators, whilst unconfirmed, are thought to be local affiliates of Islamic State (known by the offshoot name ‘Khorasan Province’). The violent week concluded with a suicide bombing attack, believed to be Taliban-orchestrated, on a military training facility on Saturday, killing more than 15 cadets.
In a brief and unannounced visit to Bagram Air Base last Monday, US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, expressed a more diplomatic take on the current security situation in Afghanistan, stating that “there are … moderate voices among the Taliban, voices that do not want to continue to fight forever. They don’t want their children to fight forever. So we are looking to engage with those voices and have them engage in a reconciliation process leading to a peace process and their full involvement and participation in the government.” Speaking to a think-tank in New Delhi the following day, Afghani president, Ashraf Ghani, was less serene, taking the opportunity to remark on the external influences undermining his government’s ability to counter the insurgent threat, “sanctuaries are provided, logistics are provided, training is provided, ideological base is provided . . . Pakistan has come to a juncture and it needs to make a choice. Our reaction will be determined by its choices.”
As the Afghan government considers how best to respond to the series of deadly events, it is vital that Ghani and his advisors remember the roadmap to peace which envisaged the inclusion of ‘conciliatory’ elements of the Taliban in talks. This would perhaps best be pursued by reviving the Afghanistan-Pakistan-US-China Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG). Formed in late 2015 with the hope of advancing an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process and recognizing the need to create a dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the QCG met several times throughout the first-half of 2016 to discuss ways forward. Whilst the process was impeded by both the unwillingness of the Taliban to participate, and the tense relations between Kabul and Islamabad, it presents the best opportunity for a minimally invasive resolution to the violence committed by militant groups.
Despite international efforts to eradicate the Taliban since the beginning of the US-led ‘war on terror’, the group has seen a resurgence in recent years. With the scaling down of US and NATO forces present in Afghanistan, the Taliban and other militant groups have been quick in taking advantage to fill the vacuum, thus further weakening the central government’s control of outlying regions. The presence of Islamic State elements has also seen an increase in the targeting of Shiite communities. Whilst Afghanistan’s civil conflict has traditionally developed along ethnic lines, the past few years has seen an escalation of sectarian violence, reflecting regional trends.
The spate of attacks is an ominous sign of things to come long-term. With Ghani believing that Pakistan is a key enabler of militant activity in Afghanistan, an upsurge of violence will likely encourage the government in Kabul to strengthen ties with India – a move which will have significant implications for politics and security in the region. If prominent members of the Taliban cannot be convinced of the benefits of a peace process with the central government, the combination of a resurgent Taliban with an established affiliate of Islamic State – regardless of whether the two act in concert or in isolation – will continue to undermine what limited security the state provides, with no immediate prospect for stability.