On 31 May 2017, over 100 people were killed and many others injured, including some foreign nationals, in a massive bomb blast near Zambaq Square in Kabul, Afghanistan. The explosion took place outside the Green Zone, which houses diplomatic and government buildings. The incident is a grim reminder of the ongoing conflict between Afghan government forces and a motley set of insurgent groups, including the Taliban.
Afghanistan has been on the hotpot for quite some time now, despite the West’s textbook promises of greater stability and resilience. This is not the first time that insurgents have managed to target a high security area in the country. Most of the earlier attacks were claimed by either the Taliban or the Islamic State’s (IS) Afghan offshoot (part of IS-Khorasan, the group’s South Asian chapter). Although, the Taliban immediately denied carrying out the latest attack, perhaps due to high civilian casualties, their involvement can’t be ruled out completely. In fact, National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence agency, has directly accused the Haqqani Network – whom the Taliban defended in a statement issued after the incident – for the blast.
Although, the Taliban immediately denied carrying out the latest attack, perhaps due to high civilian casualties, their involvement can’t be ruled out completely.
The timing of the attack is significant for three reasons: first, the US and NATO forces are at a critical juncture wherein they are mulling over their future in Afghanistan; second, the Russia-led 11-nation regional talks are gaining some legitimacy; and third, the Taliban continues to gain ground despite domestic and international pressure.
In recent years, various insurgent and terror outfits have regained foothold across the country, with the government’s control extending to around 60% of the total districts nationwide. The current administration appears visibly jittery and incapacitated to restore state control over the entirety of the country. This is especially since the withdrawal of the NATO troops in 2014 when it became clear that the Afghan government would require foreign military assistance to fight the insurgency in the country. Around 13000 foreign troops under NATO’s Resolute Support Mission (RSM) are currently assisting the Afghan forces in mostly non-combative roles. Additionally, small groups of Special Operations troops are still fighting alongside the local forces against the Taliban and IS-Khorasan.
Since the coming of the Trump administration, Washington’s military strategy in Afghanistan has witnessed several force multiplying components added. In April, the US military dropped the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb to destroy the IS’ underground tunnel system in eastern Nangarhar province. The US-Afghan forces are also conducting a joint counterterrorism operation against the group in the province. 300 US Marines will soon assist the local forces in its fight against the Taliban in Helmand province. What more, the Trump Administration is considering sending around 3,000 to 5,000 troops to bolster counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan. The American President has also been urging NATO allies to share the burden in Afghanistan, quite raucously so.
Therefore, the Kabul attack could be a warning to the Western countries to retrench their presence in the country and avoid any further military involvement. Although the expected increase in the troop sizes may hardly make a difference to the current security situation, the recent incident may force the US and NATO allies to take tough decisions on troop reinforcements in Afghanistan. Resolute Support Commander (RSG) General John Nicholson said in his testimony that a part of the reason for the current impasse are the “safe havens and external support” the Taliban receives from Pakistan and the Haqqani Network, which operates in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. He also stated the Taliban have morphed into a “narco-insurgency” group, raking in millions of dollars harvesting and selling heroin, smuggling goods, kidnapping, and extortion.
[…] the Kabul attack could be a warning to the Western countries to retrench their presence in [Afghanistan] and avoid any further military involvement.
What Lies Ahead?
Renewed violence, especially after the announcement of the Taliban’s yearly ‘Spring offensive’ – Operation Mansouri – at the end of April, may cast a long shadow over Russia-led Afghan national and security reconciliation process. Regardless of the US boycott, the last three meetings of the multi-nation group have shown some signs of progress to amicably resolve outstanding issues related to the Afghan problem in consultations with various regional stakeholders, including India. But the continuous violence and possible Pakistani involvement, as suggested by the Ghani government, may jeopardise Russia-led efforts on Afghanistan. Therefore, Ghani may opt to not attend the next meeting in Moscow, which is expected to take place in June. That may affect Russia’s strategic objectives to expand its clout in the region and keep a watch on the IS’ activities in Afghanistan. Yet, Moscow may continue to engage with the Taliban to fulfil its latter objective.
The Taliban is likely to gain more territory under the ongoing yearly Spring offensive. Political corruption, undertrained security forces, and regular desertions within the government ranks have helped the insurgent group to pursue its agenda of disruption. Kunduz, Baghlan, and Badakhshan in the north, and Helmand, Uruzgan, and Kandahar in the south, along with Kabul in the centre, remain the main targets of the group. Recent attacks on security bases, government buildings, foreign missions, among others are reflective of the dire situation in the country. Already marred by serious graft charges and political infighting, the National Unity Government (NUG) faces a difficult task to regain confidence of local Afghans who held violent protests a day after the attack in Kabul. The growing anger among the locals could further weaken the state machinery, which in turn, may bolster the confidence of the insurgent groups.
Kunduz, Baghlan, and Badakhshan in the north, and Helmand, Uruzgan, and Kandahar in the south, along with Kabul in the centre, remain the main targets of [the Taliban].
On this date (of publication), the Ghani government initiates the much-touted “Kabul Process“: a multilateral peace-making initiative of 20 nations, including India and China. The core idea is to find “sustainable means of ending the conflict […] through a negotiated political settlement.” It is quite possible that the insurgent groups use violence to disrupt the high-profile event. Truth remains that the Taliban will continue to stay put at the helm of Afghanistan’s war rig as long as it enjoys strong indigenous support and the covert backing of Pakistan (and other countries). Despite being fully aware of this, the US may once again fall into the trap of seeking Pakistan’s assistance to normalise the situation in Afghanistan, something that is unlikely to happen in the near future. Additionally, China and Russia would continue their engagement with different stakeholders to pursue their respective agendas. Kabul and other strategic parts of the country may witness an uptick in violence until the summer season ends in Afghanistan. Ghani and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Abdullah face a difficult task to keep the NUG intact amid growing anger and frustration over recent developments. Finally, the expected increase in NATO troop size may have a limited impact on the overall security situation in the country.
For now, the present foretells a bleak future for war-torn Afghanistan.
Sarral Sharma is a Researcher at the Internal and Regional Security Programme of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, a New Delhi-based think tank. He currently focuses on security and political issues in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir.