The Afghan peace talks have started again but are badly marred by incessant violence in Afghanistan. The Taliban brushed aside not only the demand of the Kabul regime to hold peace talks in Kabul but also refused to end violence. They have consistently refused to affect a ceasefire despite tremendous pressure exerted by Americans and their allies. Actually Taliban have now started to emphasise their puritanical streak and have come up with videos condemning those who stray from religion and cling to worldly life. They vow to wage jihad even if they must face prison or death, to establish the “law of the Quran” on Earth. This propaganda drive represents the revival and reassertion of the creed that the western alliance and supporters of Kabul regime have long tried to come to grips with.
The reassertion of the Taliban creed came amidst a mayhem that witnessed a rash of targeted shootings and bombings in Kabul that have killed several dozen journalists, civic leaders, physicians, democracy advocates and government officials. The mayhem has brought a new kind of personal terror to a city long accustomed to insurgent attacks against official buildings and military targets. Even though US troops are leaving the country, the militant Taliban declare that it is permissible to kill the American puppet regime of Kabul and those who aid it. The Taliban publicly insist that they are carrying weapons to avenge their values and institutions and that they are wholeheartedly obeying the supreme command of Allah.
Afghan security officials have blamed the Taliban for most of the targeted killings saying the insurgents are using new scare tactics to leverage their position at the negotiating table and undermine public confidence in the government of President Ashraf Ghani. The killings have led prominent civilians to take extra security measures or avoid going outdoors. The Taliban appear to be keeping close tabs on a variety of activities; a recent fashion show at a local hotel was immediately denounced in a tweet from a Taliban leader, who charged that “Western intoxication and ideas” have entered Afghan culture and warned that “anything in conflict with Islam” will be destroyed. The common refrain in the Afghan social circles is that most people face real danger as they expect to be caught by chance in an attack on a government building or international institution. They worry whether they will be next on the list.
Though the violence clearly bears the mask of typical Taliban approach yet Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid has denied any involvement in the attacks, calling the charges propaganda and has pinned the responsibility of violence on Afghanistan’s intelligence agency. He said that the group’s primary goal is to settle the issues through talks and that a military solution would be used only as a last resort. Despite such denials, Afghan experts and officials said they have little doubt that the Taliban is behind the surge of attacks. Most victims have been killed in their vehicles, by gunmen who escaped on motorbikes or magnetic bombs placed underneath the carriages. They said the insurgents are sending a veiled message to several audiences, including Afghan officials trying to retain public confidence, delegates returning to the peace talks and American officials in the incoming administration.
The Afghan government has doubled the number of police and other security forces patrolling the capital and vehicles are being stopped and searched on many street corners. Officials said they have made a number of arrests and have claimed that the Taliban have set up a special new cell based in nearby Logar province that plans attacks on high-profile individuals. Kabul residents going about daily routines that expose them to danger, whether selling used winter clothing in outdoor markets or delivering supplies in handcarts are also scared. Most residents mention that they would not venture out if they have to earn a living for themselves and their families. Most people have moved away from profitable and busy business centres to the ones that were safer though their levels of income have considerably reduced.
It is in this backdrop that the parleys between the Afghan protagonists resumed in Qatar, after a two-week break. In this context many Afghans say US officials gave too much away to the insurgents in the deal they signed in February, failing to commit them to specific conditions regarding violence and ties to other extremist groups while agreeing to withdraw most US troops by spring. Since the pact was signed, the Taliban have waged a relentless campaign of attacks across the country, killing thousands of people. It appears that Taliban feel triumphant and they want to be seen as tough. They are not interested in winning hearts and minds and they are using force to delegitimise the Afghan state by showing it cannot protect the public and to remove a layer of resistance to their victory by getting rid of those who represent the values of the Afghan republic.
With a new government soon to take over in Washington the insurgents want to make sure President-elect Joe Biden does not change the terms of the February pact or set new conditions for pulling out the remaining 5,000 troops, slated to be halved next month. By sowing terror on city streets, the Taliban are telling the new administration not to reopen the deal. It is quite obvious therefore that among Afghan delegates returning to the Doha talks the intensifying targeted violence has created a sense of dispirited gloom. Some have lost friends to recent attacks or started wearing bulletproof vests. Others said the dismissive harshness of the Taliban’s attitude makes it hard to stay optimistic about prospects for peace or even to remain polite in meetings with adversaries bent on killing people and creating chaos in their capital.
The status of the US-Taliban pact, while seemingly unrelated to the domestic issues of religion, power-sharing and democratic freedoms that Afghan and Taliban leaders are slated to negotiate, is a critical but highly contested factor in the Afghan talks. Many Afghans are of the opinion that the Taliban have failed to fulfill those pledges and that the US concessions gave the religious militia too much leverage over a weak Afghan government at the current talks. While both Afghan and Taliban officials have issued recent statements saying they were committed to the talks and hoped to settle the country’s 19-year conflict through discussions, their messages were tinged with anger and blame that boded ill for the new round. Some observers in Kabul predicted the talks, which are resuming after a two-week holiday hiatus, would likely collapse.
There is a growing realisation that the Taliban have not changed and though they are eager for power but they have no plans or policies and no ability to run a country. They are a fighting army, not a governing group and that they know how to destroy but not to build. It is feared that continued violence and stalemated talks could eventually lead to a government collapse, something that has happened several times in recent Afghan history, including after the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989. Most Afghans believe that the real worry is not these individual assassinations but the prospect of larger wars that may erupt once the peace talks finally fail. TW