Afghanistan suffered two deadly suicide attacks on May 12. The first one hit the Dasht-e-Barchi maternity hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Kabul that killed at least 14, including 2 new born babies and the other was at a funeral of a local police commander in Khewa district of Nangarhar, killing 24. Both attacks were aimed at innocent civilians majority of who were women and children.
While no group has yet claimed responsibility, the Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib in a statement held the Taliban and its ‘sponsors’ responsible for the attacks. He was most likely referring to the Pakistan-backed terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), that is known to be operating with the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 2019, a report submitted by the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team to the 1988 Sanctions Committee, which oversees sanctions on the Taliban, said LeT “continues to act as a key facilitator in recruitment and financial support activities in Afghanistan”. The report quoted Afghan officials as saying that some 500 LeT fighters are active in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces alone.
These two incidents, coupled with the attack on Afghan soldiers in Helmand province on May 4, has laid bare the frivolity of the much publicized conditional peace agreement between the US and the Taliban in Doha on February 29 this year, that called for the withdrawal of foreign troops in 14 months if the Taliban upheld the terms of the agreement.
However, this should not have come as a surprise for those who have observed the Af-Pak region for the last few decades. In fact, the US, impatient to sign a peace deal with the Taliban and exit Afghanistan, made the same mistakes that it had repeatedly committed in the past 18 years, since overthrowing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001.
The first mistake was to publicise its desperation to depart from Afghanistan and then initiate negotiations with a section of the Taliban at a time when the group was in a position of strength, holding sway over more than 14 per cent of the districts of Afghanistan. Further, accepting the Taliban at the negotiating table and leaving the Afghan government out of the process, gave the Taliban a political legitimacy and confirmed them as a de facto power.
The other mistake was to repose faith on Pakistan as a mediator to facilitate the deal with the Taliban. It is no secret that Afghanistan has been important for Pakistan, as it provides the country strategic depth vis-a-vis its rival and neighbor, India. A friendly government in Afghanistan, as was the case before the Western forces arrived in the country in 2001, is something that Pakistan has been hoping to restore, at any cost. The Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, that has been the linchpin of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) since the 1970s, were provided a safe haven in Pakistan since 2001. In doing so, for nearly two decades, Pakistan repeatedly sabotaged the US and NATO’s war on terror. Around 1100 NATO and 2400 US soldiers died in Afghanistan over the last 18 years, many because Pakistan harbored Taliban forces.
However, instead of holding Pakistan accountable for its support to terror groups, the US paid that country US$ 33 billion between 2001-2018 as a part of the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) to support its war on terror. Steve Coll in his book ‘Directorate S’, quotes Col Barry Shapiro, who served at the US Office of the Defense Representative in Pakistan between 2002-2003, as saying that there was no checks imposed by the US on the disbursement of the CSF to Pakistan and more often than not the veracity of the bills raised by the Pakistanis was questionable. Therefore, he observed that the CSF provided ‘a kind of legal bribery to Pakistan’s generals. Musharraf (Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff) and his lieutenants could use the cash for legitimate military purposes or they could spend it around as they wished.’
So not only did Pakistan continue to protect the Taliban but was also paid for doing so. Not much changed, even after Al Qaeda supremo and America’s most wanted fugitive Osama bin-laden was discovered living with his family in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The US administration under Donald Trump, after initially being vocal about its frustrations regarding Pakistan’s duplicitous policy of sponsoring terror groups while claiming to be its partner in the war against terror and suspending the disbursement of the CSF to Pakistan from 2018 onward, did a complete volte-face in 2019. By bringing Pakistan to the high table to negotiate with the Taliban, the US not only assisted the country’s long-standing plan to legitimize the Taliban as a political entity, it also laid the first bricks to pave way for restoring its pre-2001 influence in Afghanistan.
Within Afghanistan, there is more clarity and understanding on Pakistan’s future plans. As a result, the Pashto media did not react positively on the February deal between the US and Pakistan, projecting it as an agreement between the Qatar-Taliban with the US. Mullah Abdulmanan Niazi, spokesperson of the breakaway faction of the Taliban led by Mullah Mohammad Rasoul, publicly stated that the deal did not favor the Afghans and was an ‘un-Islamic Pakistani agreement signed with an infidel coalition’. According to him, the Taliban led by Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada was a group that Pakistan hoped to hoist as the government in Kabul. He appealed to the international community, NATO and the US to consider the interests of Afghanistan and its citizens rather than that of Pakistan.
Afghanistan under Taliban rule from 1996-2001 is a hazy memory for many of us in Europe, remembered only through the trauma of imposition of sharia law and severe human rights violations against minority religious groups and women. However, one should not lose sight of the radical Islamic groups currently operating in Pakistan. If the Taliban succeeds in regaining power in Afghanistan, the probability that this country will once again become the main breeding ground for terrorist groups would be a real and imminent threat.
The May 12 attack that targeted babies and women at a maternity hospital in Kabul is a stark reminder of the barbarity of these groups and their Pakistani state sponsors. This proves, if need be, the futility of wanting to negotiate with them.
* Writer and consultant, Chairman of Roland Jacquard Global Security Consulting (RJGSC)