On 22 June 2015, the Afghan Taliban claimed a suicide bombing attack by seven militants on the Afghan parliament that killed two and injured several. The attack, dramatic even for Afghanistan standards, took place as the Wolesi Jirga was about to finalise Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s nominee Mohammed Stanekzai as the Afghan Defence Minister – an office that had remained vacant for nine months.
The Afghan Taliban have become stronger over the past year, and more so in 2015. Their 2015 spring offensive, Azm, is their deadliest operation since 2001. Over the past few weeks, the attacks have intensified, with offensives taking place all over the country, especially in the northern and southern provinces. In fact, despite stiff resistance from the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the Afghan Taliban managed to capture two districts – Dasht-e-Archi and Chardara – in Kunduz Province this week.
Furthermore, they are operating on all platforms to boost public support. This week, the Afghan Taliban announced the launch of a 24-hour hotline and e-mail addresses for Afghan government officials willing to defect to them. Their attacks between January-April 2015 have claimed over approximately 1000 civilian lives – a sharp rise as compared to the same period in 2014. The insurgents have also ignored the religious scholars’ council’s call for ceasefire during the ongoing holy month of Ramzan.
Reportedly, the Afghan Taliban held talks with the Iranian officials to seek support against the Islamic State (IS) in mid-June. Although the Iranian Ambassador to Afghanistan refuted these reports and stated that Tehran supports the government in Kabul, the incident indicates that the Afghan Taliban is worried about the IS’ impact on the splinter groups within the Taliban ranks. There currently exists a schism in the Taliban leadership ranks vis-à-vis loyalties and levels of hardline. Now the Afghan Taliban feels the pressure to remain relevant in Afghanistan in the face of the IS’s steady gains in terms of ‘achievements’ and support base. Therefore, they are trying to ‘prove their worth’ to gain supporters is by leveling-up to and/or outdoing their competitors. This explains their rush and unceasing effort to make territorial gains – especially in the north, given the IS's potential for entry via the northern borders.
What has the Afghan Taliban been Up To?
Since April, the Afghan Taliban has been simultaneously operating on two contradictory fronts: talking peace with various government officials in various parts of the world, and carrying out one of the most elaborate offensives in the country. It is possible that the Afghan Taliban want to ensure that they have Kabul’s attention when the government is weak in order to prevent any other group from capitalising on the weakness. They have already met officials in China, Qatar and Norway in the past two months.
There have been some positive developments such as the Taliban’s change of stance on women’s right to education and employment, and even hints at power-sharing. While this does sound exciting and if true, could be a huge shift, all this is just rhetoric at this point. Delivery on these statements is still pending.
In fact, despite several rounds of talks in 2015, the Taliban have not demonstrated any intent to end or reduce hostilities – even as the next date for their negotiations with the Afghan government, scheduled to take place post Ramzan in July, inches closer.
The 22 June attack on the Afghan parliament was them signaling that they are capable of striking anywhere at their any time of their choosing.
What are their Current Priorities?
There is a question of whether the Afghan Taliban is entirely on board the idea of Pakistan playing mediator, or them being viewed as Pakistani proxy fighters. The Afghan Taliban, unlike the IS or other groups, have characteristically been more nationalistic in nature. For the most part, their ambitions are limited to Afghan territories only.
The Afghan Taliban do not want to be negotiated with via Pakistan alone. They seek direct access to the Chinese leadership as well as to the US leadership. China is being cautious vis-à-vis directly engaging with the Taliban. If this continues, when the US leaves Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban would be left with nobody but Pakistan to be negotiated with via. This is the opposite of what the insurgents seek right now.
What do they Seek?
They cannot be seen negotiating with President Ghani because they have refused to recognise his presidency. But they have been passing messages via Afghan representatives they meet with for talks. The Afghan Taliban wants the US to be part of the negotiations and this is evident in their insistence that their Doha office be reopened. They likely also seek to negotiate with the Afghan government, albeit via interlocution by the US, China and Pakistan; but they also need to find a ‘legitimate’ authority to negotiate with.
The US must [emphasis added] talk to the Taliban now [emphasis added], especially when regional countries are aligning themselves. And the ANSF will need to make gains on the ground for Kabul to be in a position to make demands.
The current state of indecisiveness and running in circles will prove counter-productive for any positive movement towards end or reduction of hostilities. In the meanwhile, the political uncertainty vis-à-vis – and absence of clarity within – the Kabul government is being thoroughly exploited by the insurgents; and this only implies ominous times for the immediate future.