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#4489, 2 June 2014

Af-Pak Diary

Taliban after Afghan Elections: Spring Offensive or the Last Stand?
D Suba Chandran
Director, IPCS

A series of attacks by the Taliban in Afghanistan during May 2014 resulted in a few media-persons calling it a Spring Offensive. Is it really a calculated and well planned offensive by the Taliban? Or is it merely the Last Stand of a terrorist organisation arising out of desperation and conceived over a fear of losing relevance in any future Afghan political framework?

Neither Spring, Nor Offensive; Mere Desperation
After failing to disrupt the first round of the successful presidential elections in Afghanistan – that were held all over the country on 5 April – a section reported the Taliban’s plans to launch a massive surge. True, there were few attacks during the last month; for example, according to news reports, 18 people were killed in three attacks in Jalalabad, Ghazni and Helmand provinces. Later, on 23 May, there was a high profile attack on the Indian Consulate in Herat.

Except for those three coordinated assaults in the provinces and the attack on Indian Consulate in Herat, there have been no serious threats from the Taliban that challenge the Afghan security forces. A closer look into those three assaults would even reveal them as regular guerrilla attacks, using the classic sneaking in and opening fire strategy, than an open challenge or a military duel. Many in India suspect that the attack on its Consulate in Herat was in fact carried out by the proxies of Pakistan with an objective to scuttle Nawaz Sharif’s proposed visit to India to partake in the recently-elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony.

It is entirely possible that the two sets of attacks in May were carried out by two different factions of the Afghan Taliban for two different objectives – the first set of attacks on the three provinces by the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar to prove their relevance, and the attack on the Indian Consulate in Herat by the Haqqani Network, having been instigated by their masters from elsewhere in Pakistan.

Perhaps, what one sees in Afghanistan is not a surge by the Taliban but a desperate last attempt to make themselves relevant in Afghanistan’s post-election political framework, using violence as a strategy.

Post-election Political Setup: Predicting the Taliban’s Roadmap
Two significant developments might have rubbished the Taliban’s calculations for a role for themselves in the future government in Kabul following the withdrawal of Western troops: the successful elections of 5 April, and the widespread popular participation.

By any standard of evaluation, the election was a huge success and an ultimate insult to the Taliban. Barring few provinces in southern regions of the country, Afghans turned out in substantial numbers, waited patiently in long, serpentine queues and cast their votes despite bad weather and shortage of ballot papers. Never in the history of Afghanistan has there been a political change of regime, supported by its people such as this.

Though the Taliban issued threats against partaking in the elections, except in few provinces, the people disregarded them. More importantly, there was a substantial participation of the youth and women in the elections. This completely negated the views that Afghan women are afraid of the Taliban, and the youth is eager to join militant ranks.

Furthermore, the elections have also seriously questioned another myth that the people of Afghanistan think in terms of ethnic lines while making major decisions. Before the elections, a section believed, and even continues to do so, that the ethnic factor would keep the democratic process and the future of Afghanistan polarised. It appears that there is a slow, but steady construction of an ‘Afghan identity’ over the ethnic identity. This does not mean a national identity would override their ethnic and tribal ones, but simply underlines the phenomenon that on larger national interests of the country, there could be a pan-Afghan identity. One could sense this larger national identity taking roots especially amongst the youth in Afghanistan.

In this context, what do the aforementioned developments mean for the future of Taliban following elections? First and foremost, the majority in Afghanistan prefer democratic politics through an electoral process, than an insurgent-led regime based on fatwas and religious edicts. Second, the political structure to be built gradually in Kabul will be Afghan in nature and not based or opposed on narrow ethnic and tribal lines. If this process continues, why would any government in Kabul even consider the Taliban as a stakeholder and negotiate with them? Instead, won’t the future rulers, democratically elected directly by the Afghans, not consider the Taliban as an insurgent group and pursue strategies to combat it, than co-opting them?

Both the aforementioned developments, if allowed to evolve, would mean a death knell to the Taliban. The only way that the Taliban could remain relevant is what they are known for: using violence as a strategy to threaten the populace. As the Afghan National Security Forces prepares itself further, even this violent strategy of the Taliban would reap diminishing returns for the latter. The Taliban is running out of time to make any last stand; and perhaps, after 2014, it would be reduced to a force similar to the multiple other terrorist groups in South Asia –  that might not disappear altogether, but the people and State will be able to live with it. And that is the larger threat for the Taliban.

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