Attacks in Kabul Test Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations

5 MINS READAug 12, 2015 | 09:00 GMT
(SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan security forces keep watch at the site of a huge blast near the entrance of Kabul's international airport on Aug. 10.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's recent criticism of Pakistan for providing a haven for Taliban militants highlights the longstanding tension between the countries. Nevertheless, risking a weakness at the negotiating table with the group, Kabul has no practical alternatives than to continue looking to Islamabad for support to resolve its insurgency.

On Aug. 10, a suicide car bomb detonated at a busy traffic circle along a road in Kabul leading to the airport, killing at least five people and wounding 16 more. The bombing followed several attacks in the city Aug. 7. The Taliban claimed all but the first of those attacks — the incident that resulted in the highest number of civilian casualties.

Later that day, Ghani denounced the violence during a press briefing, sharply criticizing Pakistan for consistently providing refuge to the militants responsible for the attack. The Afghan president's criticism is a sudden change. He has acted carefully to improve ties with Islamabad since he took office in September 2014.

While violence has continued, the political environment in the broader region has become more conducive to peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban. Countries such as India, Pakistan and China want stability in the region and have sought talks. More important, Kabul and Islamabad — both battling intertwined insurgencies — have tried to improve relations, bringing about a Pakistani-hosted meeting between representatives from Kabul and the Taliban on July 7. However, the fledgling talks halted with the revelation of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar's 2013 death.

Taliban Disunity

The cancellation of the talks after Mullah Omar's death accentuated the longstanding schism in the Taliban on the subject of peace talks — a divisiveness that has thus far prevented any meaningful talks from beginning. It also suggested a leadership struggle within the movement; the new purported leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, does not have the movement's full support. Likely at Pakistan's behest, Mullah Mansoor appears eager to begin long and complex negotiations with Kabul, issuing statements on behalf of the deceased Mullah Omar endorsing talks. However, Mullah Mansoor must first receive backing from other Taliban leaders and create a concerted agenda for the talks while addressing credibility issues, since he is thought to have covered up Mullah Omar's death.

Reports claiming that the leader of the Haqqani network, Jalaluddin Haqqani, supports Mullah Mansoor's ascension and that the new Taliban leader appointed Haqqani's son Sirajuddin as a deputy show some progress in Mullah Mansoor's endeavors. Rumors have emerged, however, that Jalaluddin Haqqani died at least a year ago. Separate unconfirmed reports state that Taliban rivals and the Pakistani government killed Mullah Omar's son Mullah Yaqub, who opposes Mullah Mansoor's leadership, at a meeting in Quetta around July 30. If true, the rumor would highlight both Mullah Mansoor's additional efforts to consolidate power and the continued risk of widening dissent within the Taliban.

Difficulties for Kabul

Although the Taliban could be divided, Kabul's position at the negotiating table is likely to weaken as U.S. forces draw down in 2016 and Kabul's security forces take on more of the burden of managing a complicated conflict. The recent spate of attacks and casualties in Afghanistan this year has proved that the Taliban's disunity has not made the group any less lethal. According to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the three attacks in Kabul on Aug. 7 killed at least 42 civilians and wounded another 313 — the greatest number of civilian casualties in an attack since the organization began keeping records in 2009. Thus far in 2015, civilian casualties from conflicts have nearly doubled since the same period in 2014.

Meanwhile, Ghani must maintain a unified political front in Kabul, both to fight the Taliban and to navigate the inevitably contentious demands of negotiations. The particularly bloody attacks in Kabul, the likes of which had become more rare until NATO's mission ended at the close of 2014, certainly undermine the government's credibility as a defender of Afghan territory. Ghani was compelled to strongly condemn the violence and address the fact that Pakistan harbors those threatening Kabul. In his Aug. 10 speech, the Afghan president emphasized the continued existence of Afghan Taliban training camps and operations across the Durand Line. Though he criticized the Pakistani government, Ghani's remarks also showed Kabul's need for cooperation with Islamabad to address a conflict Kabul is unable to contain militarily, particularly with the anticipated drawdown of U.S. forces.

Kabul will find it exceedingly difficult to contain the Taliban, despite the movement's potential divisions. Without Islamabad's support, there is little hope for the start of serious talks, while the Taliban continue to train, plan and coordinate outside the reach of Afghan security forces. Pakistan will likely help Mullah Mansoor bolster his authority in the Taliban as well, helping prevent a substantial leadership breakdown. Such a breakdown would hurt the Taliban, but it would also complicate the battlefield for the Afghan military and increase the number of parties necessary to negotiate the conflict's end. Islamabad's efforts also ensure some measure of control by attempting to unify the Taliban under Mullah Mansoor, though all the rifts that have occurred over the years likely will not be repaired.

The attacks in Kabul force Ghani to accommodate both domestic politics and his attempts to engage Islamabad as an important partner in fighting the Taliban insurgency. Consequently, Ghani's Aug. 10 statements were intended for domestic consumption and simply acknowledged the Taliban's operations in Pakistan. Should violence continue to increase, however, Ghani could lose political support for talks with the Taliban or ties with Islamabad. Until then, Kabul's need for Islamabad will likely keep the government's condemnations of Taliban attacks to Afghan public consumption. The greatest challenge to beginning talks is the Taliban's lingering disunity.  

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