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April 20, 2016

The fighting season


April 20, 2016

On April 12, the Afghan Taliban announced the launch of their annual spring offensive in Afghanistan: Operation Omari. The spring offensive has been named after the movement’s late founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar.

Prior to the spring offensive, a statement on the Taliban’s website mentioned the use of large-scale attacks against government positions, along with a combination of hit-and-run assaults and suicide attacks in urban areas. This year’s fighting season will determine the future trajectory of the Afghan conflict as civil war looks imminent.

While there was no lull in fighting in Afghanistan throughout 2015, the announcement of the spring offensive can result in the further escalation of violence, accelerating the destabilisation of Afghanistan. Since the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan in 2014, the Taliban have grown stronger and stronger, despite the initial setbacks from the disclosure of their leader Mullah Omar’s death in July of last year. Last year’s violence left 11,000 civilians dead across Afghanistan.

The launch of the spring offensive by the Taliban is a major setback for the fledgling peace process in Afghanistan. A Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), comprising China, the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan, was created in December last year in Islamabad to revive the stalled peace talks between Afghan government and the Taliban. The QCG held four meetings – two in Islamabad and two in Kabul – but failed to iron out differences on the operational details of negotiations. These operational differences notwithstanding, the QCG was hoping to hold the first direct meeting between Kabul and the Taliban in April. However, the spring offensive has dashed the hopes of finding a political solution to the Afghan conflict.

Right from the outset, irreconcilable differences existed between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban, which made the peace process a non-starter. For instance, the Taliban unequivocally demanded the release of arrested members of their group, the removal of their name from the UN’s sanctions list, the easing of travel bans and the recognition of the Qatar office as the Taliban’s official political office for peace talks. However, the Afghan government advocated for condition-free peace talks, as the aforementioned issues could be discussed during the talks. Moreover, the Taliban wanted the Afghan government to provide a timeframe for the complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which Kabul was not ready to grant (under the Bilateral Security Agreement, the US troops can stay in Afghanistan till the end of 2024).

Finally, Kabul aimed at reaching a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban, in exchange for the cessation of violence and the Taliban’s recognition of the Afghan government and the constitution. On the other hand, the Taliban considered peace talks as another means to return to power.

The Taliban feel buoyed by last year’s military victories in Afghanistan, and their top leadership has defied the pressure of Pakistan’s powerful military establishment by plainly refusing to talk to Kabul. By doing so, they have emerged out of the shadow of the Pakistani military’s dictates and have shunned the image of being its proxy.

Prior to the spring offensive, the new Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor has emerged as the legitimate and undisputed leader of the militant movement. Mansoor has not only succeeded in stitching up the cracks that emerged in the group after the disclosure of Mullah Omar’s death, but has also succeeded in turning the momentum of battlefield victories into a nuanced political narrative for the Afghan populace. The recent inclusion of Mullah Qayum Zakir, an influential military commander, and Mullah Mannan and Mullah Yaqoob, the brother and elder son of Mullah Omar respectively, will further strengthen the military position of the Taliban and dispel the impression of internal disputes and weaknesses.

The leader of the Haqqani Network, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has played an important role in bridging these differences. More importantly, several influential commanders and fighters of IS-Khurasan, the local affiliate of Isil in Afghanistan, have rejoined the Taliban. The Mehsud faction of the Pakistani Taliban has also merged with the Afghan Taliban.

Continuing with their last year’s military strategy, the Afghan Taliban will launch their operations both in the south and north of Afghanistan, to stretch out the Afghan security forces. The focus of this spring offensive will be on capturing more territory to strengthen their position and expose the weaknesses of the Afghan government.

The spring offensive will have a direct impact on Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. As the fighting escalates, the blame game between Kabul and Islamabad will grow. The Afghan government will try to exert pressure on Pakistan through the international community and the US to take action against Taliban sanctuaries on its soil. The specific demands could be to arrest the top Taliban leaders or to evict them from Pakistani soil.

The escalation of conflict in Afghanistan will also have a negative fallout at the global level. It will result in the flow of Afghan migrants to European countries, which are already grappling with the influx of migrants from Syria. Given the uncertainty surrounding the future of Afghanistan and growing unemployment in the country, brain drain from the country has increased rapidly. The deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan will also put pressure on the international community to increase their financial contribution to keep the US-backed Afghan government afloat in the country.

The diminishing hope of a political settlement of the Afghan conflict, with defiant Taliban posturing, has increased the prospect of Afghanistan sliding into chaos. A lingering conflict in Afghanistan will become a festering wound for the region.

The writer is an associate research fellow at the International Centre for Political
Violence and Terrorism Research of theS Rajaratnam School of International
Studies, Singapore.

Email: [email protected]


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