The leader of the Islamic State Khorasan in Afghanistan, Abu Saad Erhabi, along with 10 of his fighters, was killed in an air strike a few days back in a joint air and ground operation conducted by Afghan forces and US-led coalition forces. His predecessor, Abu Sayed, too was killed in a US strike on the group’s headquarters in Kunar province in July last year. A growing number of attacks in recent years in Afghanistan—including a suicide bombing at a Kabul education centre that killed dozens of people—could be traced to this violent group.
Notwithstanding this seeming success, the security situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating rapidly, a fact underlined by a spate of recent deadly attacks—including a rocket attack on the presidential palace in Kabul—by the Taliban and Islamic State militants. This growing violence happens to come at a time when the war-ravaged nation is getting ready to hold parliamentary elections on 20 October and the Afghan government is struggling to govern effectively.
The government of President Ashraf Ghani is riven with internal rivalries. Following the resignation of Ghani’s national security adviser and close ally, Hanif Atmar, last week, interior minister Wais Ahmad Barmak, defence minister Tariq Shah Bahrami, and intelligence chief Masoom Stanekzai too put in their papers. Ghani has refused to accept their resignations, asking them to continue to stay in their posts, even as Atmar, one of the country’s most powerful politicians, has been replaced by former ambassador to the US Hamdullah Mohib. These resignations came about as the differences within the Ghani government on major national issues were out in the open. Factional and ethnic rivalries have taken a toll on Afghanistan’s security and governance.
The inability of the US to push the situation in Afghanistan on a positive trajectory has allowed other powers to enter the fray. Russia is now actively seeking to shape the strategic environment in Afghanistan. After being in touch with the Taliban for years now, primarily to get a handle on the Islamic State’s terror activities emanating from Afghanistan, Moscow is now interested in getting deeper into shaping the ground realities in the war-weary nation. Though earlier iterations of such talks did not yield anything substantive, Russia once again invited 12 countries for the Afghan peace conference, on 4 September, in which the Taliban was also expected to participate.
What is of equal, if not greater, significance is that two key states decided not be part of these talks: Afghanistan itself whose future will be talked about and the US. The Afghan government made it clear that “a peace process can only be initiated and brought forward by the Afghan government" and that it “will not participate in any further meetings that are not led by the Afghan government".
It was because of this opposition from Kabul that Russia decided to postpone the peace conference to ensure the participation of the Afghan government. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that Russia wants “Afghan-owned peace talks and is ready for any effective cooperation in that regard with the government of Afghanistan".
Washington and Kabul have been accusing Moscow of providing support to the Taliban as a counterweight to the Islamic State, and they view Russia’s peace talks initiatives as being aimed at further enhancing ties with the Taliban, as opposed to a means of convincing the insurgents to settle the conflict. Afghanistan’s ambassador to Russia, Abdul Qayyum Kochai, underlined that “Russia wants to use the Taliban against (Islamic State)."
Afraid of losing the initiative, a senior US State Department official for the Afghan region, Alice Wells, reportedly met Taliban representatives in Doha in July end. It was a signal that perhaps the Donald Trump administration was rethinking its Afghanistan strategy. It was viewed as a major victory for the Taliban which had long insisted that it would only talk to the US directly and not to the Afghan government which it viewed as illegitimate.
The Taliban, meanwhile, is busy marking its diplomatic presence globally and has travelled to Uzbekistan and Indonesia to meet their foreign ministers with plans to travel to China and Pakistan as well. The idea is to gain global legitimacy gradually and further delegitimize the Afghan government.
On the battlefield, the Taliban continues to mark its presence, as was underscored by the siege of Ghazni earlier this month which left the city in ruins and more than 320 dead. The Taliban is hoping that battlefield momentum will allow it to gain leverage at the negotiating table.
The reality of Afghanistan today is that while the Taliban is winning the perception battle, Afghanistan’s domestic polity is in disarray. The Trump administration is losing faith in its own Afghanistan strategy articulated with much fanfare last year, and, in any case, is too preoccupied with internal matters to think coherently about the war-ravaged nation. As a result, regional power conflicts will shape the future of Afghanistan.
After initially ignoring India from its peace conference, Russia had invited India to participate in the recently cancelled Afghanistan conference. New Delhi remains cognizant of the changing ground realities and is hoping its own interests do not get sidelined in a nation in which it has made significant diplomatic and economic investments. But hope is not a policy and India needs more active engagement with all stakeholders in Afghanistan.
Harsh V. Pant is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and professor of international relations at King’s College London.
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