Terror attacks raise doubts over intra-Afghan talks
Afghanistan was rocked by two major terrorist attacks on Tuesday. In Nangarhar Province, along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, a bomb killed 32 people at a funeral service. On the same day, terrorists armed with assault rifles entered a maternity ward in a hospital located in a predominantly Shiite district in Kabul. This particularly vicious and barbaric attack left 24 people dead — including two newborn babies.
These attacks come at a difficult time for the intra-Afghan peace process. In response, President Ashraf Ghani declared that Afghan security forces would no longer remain on a defensive footing, but would instead carry out offensive military operations in order to protect civilians.
The international community was quick to condemn the attacks. Even the Taliban apparently issued a statement denying responsibility for the attacks and described them as “heinous.”
As expected, the so-called Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), the branch of Daesh operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the bombing at the funeral. It is very likely the group was also responsible for the savagery at the maternity ward, since it had all the hallmarks of a Daesh-inspired attack. The horrific nature of attacking women, some while they were in labor, and their newborn babies is barbarism straight out of the Daesh playbook. The fact that this attack occurred against Afghanistan’s Shiite community is another sign that IS-K likely carried it out.
Reports of an IS-K presence in Afghanistan first began to surface in 2014 and the group has slowly gained a small foothold in the country. Efforts by Daesh to make inroads into Pakistan and Afghanistan have met with mixed success, most likely because of other terrorist groups’ well-established roots. The Taliban views IS-K as a direct competitor for financial resources, recruits and ideological influence. There have even been cases of the Taliban launching large-scale military operations against IS-K.
Though its numbers remain modest, its high-profile, high-casualty terrorist attacks have helped it to attract followers. It is next to impossible to know the exact number of IS-K fighters in Afghanistan at any given time. This is mainly due to the lack of publicly available information and the willingness of local fighters in the region to change allegiances with little thought. However, estimates place the number in the low hundreds to as many as 2,500.
IS-K suffered a series of major defeats in 2019 and these recent attacks are probably an attempt by the terror group to demonstrate that it is still effective. They are also an attempt to woo disenchanted members of the Taliban into its ranks. The Taliban has been an effective source of new members for IS-K in recent years, especially the hardcore Taliban fighters who reject the notion of a political settlement with the Afghan government.
In a statement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the Afghan government and the Taliban to work together to “bring the perpetrators to justice.” Do not hold your breath.
Even though the Taliban deny any role, they carry some of the blame, and are indirectly responsible, for this week’s macabre attacks. The Taliban’s incessant desire to wreak havoc across much of Afghanistan for the past 25 years has created the conditions that have allowed transnational terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and IS-K to thrive.
So what does this latest attack mean for the peace process? After the US and representatives of the Taliban signed a peace agreement in February, opening the way to intra-Afghan talks, little progress has been made. There are several reasons for this. The chaotic Afghan presidential inauguration delayed the process. Ongoing Taliban attacks have also hampered peace efforts. And there is a general lack of trust between all sides. Before a major breakthrough is made in the talks, both sides should first pursue meaningful and incremental confidence-building measures.
High-profile attacks by IS-K — like those this week or the attack targeting a Sikh funeral in March that left 25 dead — raise uncomfortable questions for those wanting intra-Afghan talks. Can one be sure that the Taliban are not encouraging, if not supporting, IS-K with these attacks? Is there really much ideological difference between the rank and file of the Taliban and IS-K? The fear and doubt caused by these attacks in the minds of Afghans also stalls the peace process.
The Taliban carry some of the blame, and are indirectly responsible, for this week’s macabre attacks.
Another problem is the lack of focus by the international community. Lately it seems there has been absolute silence by the international community on the peace process in Afghanistan. Obviously, with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, it is only expected that most of the international attention should be on fighting the spread of the virus. But the international community must be able to take on different challenges simultaneously. And now, more than ever, is the time for the international community to weigh in on the peace process and encourage both sides to find an acceptable solution.
It is in the interest of all Afghans, whether they support the government, the Taliban or have some other allegiance, to come together to find a peaceful solution to this fighting.
The COVID-19 pandemic does not distinguish between good and bad, government and Taliban, or Afghans and foreigners. After almost 40 years of conflict, chronic underinvestment and a shattered economy, it is no secret that the Afghan health care system is not up to the challenge.
The best way to end the suffering is through genuine and meaningful intra-Afghan talks. But, as long as IS-K is able to carry out major attacks, and as long as the international community remains disengaged, the violence and suffering will continue.
- Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey