There has been a dramatic increase in violent attacks in Afghanistan by armed militant and terrorist groups as all major domestic, regional and international powers express their concern and urge all parties to respect the commitments they have made in recent peace agreements, confront the perpetrators of violent attacks and restore stability to the country. At the same time, Afghan forces have clashed with the Taliban on several occasions, demonstrating once again the fragility of the peace accord between the US and the Taliban (reached in February of this year) as well of the power sharing deal between presidential rivals Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah signed just days ago.
The power struggle between Ghani and Abdullah, both of whom claimed to have won the presidential election in September, had been one of the main impediments to the start of intra-Afghan negotiations to end more than 18 years of war. The power-sharing agreement stipulates that Ghani will be president while Abdullah will lead the High Peace Council.
In the latest diplomatic development, US special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad arrived today to hold talks with the Afghan leadership in Kabul, in the aftermath of the flurry of terrorist attacks against civilian targets as well as major clashes between forces of the internationally recognized Afghan government and the Taliban.
At least 14 people were killed in separate attacks late on the 19th of May on two mosques where worshippers were breaking their Ramadan fast. At least 11 people were killed and 16 were wounded in one of the mosque attacks in Charekar, the capital of the central province of Parwan, security officials told RFE/RL. The Interior Ministry blamed the attack on the Taliban. The militants denied responsibility and said Afghan security forces were to blame.
The Parwan Province police chief, Haroon Mubariz Parwan, told RFE/RL that Islamic State militants were suspected of having carried out the attack.
Three other people were killed in a similar attack late on the same day against a mosque in the southeastern Khost Province, Talib Mangal, a spokesman for the provincial governor, told RFE/RL. No one claimed responsibility for the Khost attack.
The mosque killings follow an attack on a maternity hospital in Kabul last week in which 24 people were shot dead. The Taliban also denied carrying out the maternity attack, which Washington said bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State (IS) militant group.
In the northern Takhar Province, suspected Taliban fighters attacked a checkpoint late on May 19, leaving nine dead and six others wounded, officials said. Elsewhere, Afghan security forces clashed with Taliban fighters around the city of Kunduz, a strategically important centre that the militants have briefly captured twice in recent years. Security forces claim to have largely repelled the Taliban offensive with the help of air support.
Assadullah Khalid, acting defence minister, claimed during a visit to the city that more than 50 militants and eight security-force members had been killed.
After holding talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar, Khalilzad flew to Afghanistan on May 20, as the leader of the Taliban said the militants were committed to the deal with Washington despite stepping up violence against government forces since it was signed.
In Kabul, Khalilzad met with President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, who is expected to lead the intra-Afghan peace talks with the Taliban. The respective sides discussed the importance of achieving ‘a cease-fire or reduction in violence before the start of direct talks,’ a statement said.
In a message that coincided with Khalilzad’s visit to Kabul, Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada urged Washington ‘not to waste’ the opportunity offered by the deal to end the United States’ longest war, and warned not to let anyone ‘obstruct, delay, and ultimately derail this internationally recognized bilateral agreement.’ The Taliban has so far rejected repeated calls for a cease-fire by the Afghan government.
The intra-Afghan talks were scheduled to begin on 10 March according to the agreement between the Taliban and the United States, which calls for U.S. and foreign troops to withdraw from Afghanistan following an intra-Afghan deal and in exchange for security guarantees. However, many obstacles conspired to prevent this from occurring, including disagreements over the implementation of a prisoner-swap agreement, the power struggle between the presidential rivals, and the persistence of widespread violence. The regular clashes between the Afghan government forces and the Taliban make clear that while they are prepared to talk about peace, both sides are determined to maximize their territorial control and are seeking to gain a military advantage, whether to improve their bargaining position or in case talks break down completely.
While the visit by the US envoy has received most media attention, another possible significant development passed largely unnoticed. China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan issued a joint statement last week on the importance of negotiations between all parties and social sectors in Afghanistan, demonstrating the deepening of cooperation and common ground between several of the country’s neighbours which also happen to be major regional and geopolitical powers.
The statement was published at the Russian Foreign Ministry website on Monday 18 May. Among other things, the joint statement by Russia, Pakistan, Iran and China urges all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan to prioritize negotiations to seek an immediate end to hostilities.
It consists of 13 points and followed a virtual meeting between the countries’ respective Special Representatives on Afghanistan Affairs during which they exchanged views on the current situation in Afghanistan and the difficulties that are plaguing the peace and reconciliation process. Matters addressed include the respective parties’:
“respect for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Afghanistan, and the decision of its people on their future and development path…,
Support (for) the “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace and reconciliation process, (and) believe that the inclusive Intra-Afghan negotiations is the only way to realize the Afghan national reconciliation, leading to prompt end of the prolonged conflict;
Call on all Afghan ethnic groups and parties, including Taliban to act upon the opportunities preparing the situation to launch the Intra-Afghan negotiations as soon as possible;
Support Afghanistan to achieve comprehensive and sustainable peace at an early date…
Pay close attention to the follow-up developments resulting in exit of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Call on foreign troops withdraw in an orderly and responsible way so that the situation in Afghanistan will experience a steady transition;
Support the initiative of the UN Secretary General António Guterres for universal ceasefire and call for a simultaneous declaration of a comprehensive ceasefire throughout Afghanistan as agreed among parties to the conflict;
Concerned with the serious terrorism threat existing in Afghanistan, urge all sides in Afghanistan to take decisive action against Al-Qaeda, ISIL, ETIM, TTP and other international terrorist organizations operating against regional countries, and to completely eradicate the production and trafficking of narcotics in the country;
Underscore that repatriation and reintegration of Afghan refugees should be part of any peace and reconciliation process…
Agree to maintain the contact on the Afghanistan issue, and work together to advance the Afghan peace reconciliation and reconstruction process.