Imposition of peace talks on the Afghan government without concomitant reduction in violence is likely to weaken the position of not just the Ashraf Ghani government but also of China, which is seen as Pakistan’s sheet anchor
The spate of suicide attacks in the Afghan city of Jalalabad, three within a fortnight, while unprecedented is reflective both of the emerging situation in Afghanistan and the unique geo-political importance of Nangarhar, the province in which it is located. The inability of the Government of National Unity to establish itself and deliver, the uncertain political future, the withdrawal of foreign troops, cutback in aid, the roller coaster peace talks which were seriously compromised when news of the death of Mullah Omar came out and the resultant growing factionalism within the Taliban has complicated the already volatile situation in the country. Important local actors and communities are re-negotiating their positions and alliances, seeking to hedge against losses; old loyalties cannot be taken for granted and inability to predict future power arrangements encourages mavericks and lone-wolfs to strike out on their own, a point which will be clear in the course of this narrative.
Nangarhar is one of Afghanistan’s largest provinces and absolutely dominates the eastern part of the country, geographically, politically and economically. Historically, it lies in the centre of ancient Gandhara, not to be confused to modern Kandahar, which ran along the Kabul-Peshawar axis. Till Ranjit Singh seized Peshawar, it was the winter capital of the Afghan Kings. People of Nangarhar have much higher education levels than elsewhere in the country, and being more exposed to the world, see themselves as
cultured and sophisticated natural leaders who must be accommodated in any governance arrangement of the country.
Two recent historical events would show how important Nangarhar is for Afghanistan. Successful rebellion against the reformist ruler, King Amanullah, was launched by the Shinwari tribals in November 1928, angered by his decisions to outlaw purdah, allow women’s education, make his wife Soraya Tarzi appear unveiled in public etc. Though later under Daoud, some progress in gender matters was achieved, the effects of this rebellion is still felt today. Later, after the Soviet withdrawal, the Mujahideen groups launched a massive attack on Jalalabad in March 1989. This operation was planned by the Pakistani Army to capture Jalalabad and then march on to Kabul. The failure of the battle of Jalalabad (March-June 1989) led the seven Mujahideen groups to realise that militarily they would not be able to defeat the Najibullah regime. It also led to serious differences between the Mujahideen parties over allowing Pakistani control over them, differences that led to civil war (1992-96) and the rise of the Taliban.
Afghanistan’s Torkham border crossing with Pakistan on the Khyber Pass links the two countries economically and socially so much so that the Pakistani rupee is used interchangeably in Jalalabad. Control and regulation of trade has been an important driver of who controls local levers of power since it represents an important source of revenue. Due to prolonged three decades plus conflict, the centralised Afghan State is not able to impose its authority uniformly across the country. This does not mean that there is
disorder at local levels, where
informal networks (quams) dominate. Consequently, the central government, lacking resources, has to compete with important regional and provincial centres of power.
While Karzai, quite contrary to western analysts who are often unable to understand this peculiar
formal-informal dynamics, was quite successful in consolidating his position, the process of state-formation was undermined by three exogenous developments. One, Nangarhar is home to Tora Bora and is within easy reach of both the Haqqani network that operates from across the Durand Line, and Hekmatyar’s strongholds in Nuristan and Kunar are not far away. The Taliban itself has not been a dominant force in Nangarhar. Two, till recently Nangarhar was the centre of poppy cultivation that was a legacy of broken-down economy and lack of State control. Three, because of all these reasons plus its geo-strategic location, Nangrahar saw substantial deployment of the US military, which in turn led to a massive flow of aid.
Karzai was able to move his rival Gul Agha Sherzai out of Kandahar and made him Governor of Nangarhar. This allowed Karzai to directly control his home turf, and to establish himself the master of his new domain through smart coalition-building. This he did through manipulation of massive ‘rents’ he was able to capture by levying the so-called ‘Sherzai tax’ on trade, and resources made available by the US military. However, as the delivery of public services was not driven by public interest, but by self-interest, it created local rivalries and undercut social cohesion. This massive inflow of money led to a construction boom and large contracts for security companies owned by local ‘commanders’ who were being rewarded for their loyalties.
The US military ‘largess’ was even more debilitating since it was used to buy local loyalties and reward their favoured ‘commanders’ undermining the Afghan government’s credibility. Another negative fall-out of this idiosyncratic decision making was that though poppy cultivation was effectively suppressed, alternate growth opportunities did not fructify, causing farmer distress and creating more opportunities for destabilisation.
Afghanistan saw a surge of violence in 2014 as the deadline for US armed disengagement loomed. Cracks in the Taliban started emerging though Mullah Omar’s death was still a guarded secret. The Pakistan’s Army selective targeting of the Tehrik-i-Taliban while letting Pakistani Taliban continue to operate in Afghanistan. Into this volatile mix, the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) as a phenomenon provided an alternative formation for disgruntled Taliban and anti-government Afghan rebels.
The April 18, 2015 suicide bomb attack on the New Kabul Bank branch in Jalalabad that killed 33 persons is often seen as the first major public operation of the Wilayat Khurasan, the IS affiliate in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Local security officials often exaggerate W’s presence in order to garner more resources from the government, similarly, disgruntled Taliban and anti-Afghan government rebels use the IS flag to be seen as legitimate and credible.
Of the recent Jalalabad attacks, IS has claimed responsibility for the attack on the Pakistani consulate on 13th January. Pakistan’s public standing in Afghanistan is particularly low at this moment. The 17th January attack on Obaidullah Shinwari, a member of the provincial council and an important leader of the Shinwaris has not been claimed by any side. There is no evidence that the ISIS headquarters at Raqqa is lending any assistance to the Wilayat Khurasan, but that may change. Taliban’s relatively weak position in Nangrahar may allow it to become an important factor in the province.
Going forward, as Pakistan’s perfidy in manipulating Afghan affairs using their control over the Mullah Mansour faction of the Taliban may lead to the emergence of more groups opposed to such manipulation, imposition of peace talks on the Afghan government without concomitant reduction in violence is likely to weaken the position of not just the Ashraf Ghani government but also of China, which is seen as Pakistan’s sheet anchor. If the China Pakistan Economic Corridor is to succeed, it would need not only a stable Afghanistan but also a Pakistani Army that has given up the use of Islamic jihadi terrorists as strategic instrument of State policy.
Shakti Sinha (The writer is chairman of South Asian Institute for Strategic Affairs)