As part of the US-Taliban agreement of February 29, the Afghan Government has released 4917 Taliban prisoners while the Taliban has released about 700 prisoners of Afghan security forces. Under the US-Taliban deal 5000 Taliban prisoners were to be released in exchange for 1000 Afghan government security personnel.
Initially Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was amenable to a 1500 swap from both sides, which was not acceptable to Taliban. Following US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Kabul in March when he threatened that US would stop the US$1 billion aid to Afghanistan, both sides agreed to commence the prisoner swap from March 31.
The Afghan Government is naturally apprehensive of releasing the top Taliban leaders who have been involved in major terrorist attacks but the Taliban is not likely to agree to commence the intra-Afghan dialogue till all 5000 prisoners are set free.
On July 28, Taliban accused the Afghan government of recapturing previously released prisoners. Media reports quoted Suhail Shaheen, Taliban spokesman at their Doha office stating that Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Intelligence had conducted surprise operations against released Taliban fighters. He said the administration in Kabul would have to “bear responsibility for the consequences” if the alleged detentions did not stop, adding that the released prisoners had adhered to instructions from the Afghan government to stay at home and not return to the battlefield. This was refuted by the Afghan Government.
Javed Faisal, spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Security Council Advisor stated that a number of released prisoners had returned to the battlefield. Faisal also rejected Taliban claims that there had been operations to re-arrest released Taliban prisoners.
The Afghan government is under pressure with the US in exit mode having already withdrawn troops from five of its military bases. Zalmay Khalizad, US Special Envoy for Afghan Reconciliation visited Doha to press both parties for completing the prisoner exchange, reduce violence and get going with the intra-Afghan dialogue. Afghanistan has been wracked with increased violence since the US-Taliban deal. President Ghani said on July 28 that more than 3,500 Afghan troops had been killed in attacks by insurgents since the deal was signed on February 29.
On July 29 a terrorist attack on a prison on Nangarhar Province killed some 30 police and civilians while 100 Taliban prisoners escaped in the operation that lasted 18 hours. The attack was on the last day of the three-day ceasefire for Eid agreed between the Taliban and the Afghan government. So naturally the Taliban denied involvement.
The Islamic State of Khorasan (ISKP) claimed responsibility which was possibly due to underhand links between ISKP and Taliban – same as Taliban-Al Qaeda-Haqqani Network-Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) links and other Pakistani proxies. There was no reason for ISKP to exclusively launch an attack on the prison to release Taliban prisoners. KP Ijaz, a doctor from Kerala who had joined ISKP too was part of the prison attack. Taliban and ISKP are both linked to Pakistan’s ISI.
Of late there is a noticeable trend of ISKP or ISKP affiliates owning up terrorist attacks launched by the Taliban especially given the spike in violence. This possibly is on advice of Pakistan or China or both with Pakistan sitting in the lap of China. Three days after the prison attack on August 1, Afghan forces killed Zia-ur-Rehman known alias Asadullah Orakzai of Pakistan-origin who was intelligence head of ISKP near Jalalabad which is capital of Nangarhar province, close to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Orakazai was suspected to be involved in several deadly attacks against both military and civilian targets in Afghanistan.
On July 30, cross-border artillery fire by Pakistan killed at least 15 civilians in Afghanistan prompting Kabul to put its ground and air forces on alert. The artillery fire came after clashes between Pakistani and Afghan security forces at the closed Chaman-Spin Boldak border crossing where crowds on both sides were waiting to cross for the festival of Eid al-Adha.
Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense issued a statement saying, “If the Pakistani military continues its rocket attacks on Afghan territory, they will face retaliation by the Afghan army.” It is not known how many of its top leaders in prison that Taliban wanted released were part of those who escaped during the terror attack on the Nangarhar prison on July 29. But Taliban is making all out effort to expand its existing considerable influence.
In a recent move Taliban issued orders to all private companies and aid agencies to register with them. Zabihullah Mujahid, Taliban spokesman stated, “We will not allow any agency to work against the interest of our beloved Afghanistan, Islam…. So we want to register all of them to have information about their activities”. Over 2,200 NGOs operate in Afghanistan providing education, health and financial support. During 2019, Taliban had briefly banned the International Committee of Red Cross and the WHO in Afghanistan accusing them of “suspicious activities” during vaccination campaigns.
Afghan government officials say Taliban is making desperate efforts to assert control over government functions. Dawa Khan Minapal, deputy spokesperson for Ashraf Ghani said, “Taliban is a terrorist group. They have no right to force companies, NGOs to register themselves with them”. But Taliban rule by the gun and those not registering may fear possible terrorist attacks.
Abdullah Abdullah, head of High Council for National Reconciliation has a difficult task considering the double game that Pakistan has been playing ever since. Diplomatic pretenses, however, have to be kept up. Afghanistan’s newly appointed special envoy for Pakistan, Mohammad Umer Daudzai recently said, “Pakistan has a positive role in the US-Taliban peace talks, and now Islamabad could play a highly significant role in the imminent intra-Afghan talks.”
Significantly, the trilateral dialogue between foreign ministries of China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan has been revised. The last meeting in 2019 was held in September and the latest one was a virtual meet in July 2020. Both China and Pakistan could have considerable influence over how Taliban responds during the Intra-Afghan Dialogue.
Prime Minster Narendra Modi had a telephone conversation with President Ashraf Ghani on August 1 after which the Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement saying, “Prime Minister reiterated India’s commitment to the people of Afghanistan in their quest for a peaceful, prosperous and inclusive Afghanistan. The two leaders also exchanged views on the evolving security situation in the region and other areas of mutual interest”. Ironically, both Pakistan and China present substantial challenges to India in Afghanistan as also in Central Asia. Both would want a government in Kabul that is anti-India.
To this end they would like to see a Taliban predominant government in Afghanistan if not a wholly Taliban government as was before the US invasion. Pakistan is not too happy with Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah being friendly towards India, especially latter who is half Pashtun half Tajik and was part of erstwhile Northern Alliance. But once US-NATO exit, Pakistan in concert China would hope the Afghan government to submit to their will by force. After US withdrawal there would no pressure to even clamp down on Haqqanis not that it mattered much till now.
The Taliban continue to enjoy safe havens in Pakistan and Pakistan would undoubtedly benefit immensely from the US military pullout from Afghanistan. Significantly, a 28-page UNSC report released on June 2 had highlighted fragility of the US-Taliban deal. Amongst various findings it also read, “Relations between the Taliban, especially the Haqqani Network…… and al-Qaeda remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage. The Taliban regularly consulted with al-Qaeda during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honour their historical ties”.
How the Taliban and subsequent Afghan governments will behave towards India remains to be seen though China-Pakistan will want Indian presence in Afghanistan liquidated to maximum extent. Recently, Pakistan opened the key trade routes of Angor Adda point in South Waziristan and the Kharlachi crossing in Kurram districts to promote trade and business. In June 2020, Torkham crossing in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), Chaman point in Balochistan, and Ghulam Khan in North Waziristan tribal district were also opened. Afghan traders have been permitted to use Gwadar Port for trade. In contrast, Pakistan still does not permit Indian goods to be loaded onto trucks for transit back to Afghanistan through Wagah border.
Whatever the controversy over Iran going ahead with the Chabahar-Zahedan rail link on the Afghan border and India joining at a later stage, it is a setback of sorts since it provides the alternative to India for Pakistan denying trade via the Wagah border to Afghanistan. But even with India joining the project, there could be associated problems. Beyond Zahedan the rail link is to be extended to Zaranj in Nimruz Province in Afghanistan adjoining Helmand Province which is a Taliban stronghold. Pakistan could use its proxies to disrupt movement of Indian goods between Zahedan and Zaranj.
So perverted is Pakistan’s thinking that Shireen Mazari, Minister of Human Rights in Imran Khan’s government who had once headed the Institute of Strategic Studies suggested few years back that Taliban should develop capabilities to operate beyond the borders of Afghanistan including interdicting the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) when required.
US withdrawal from Afghanistan presents multiple challenges for India, as does China’s growing influence in Iran. But Afghanistan must remain one of the top priorities in India’s foreign policy calculus. Post the China Virus, world at large has recognized China as the greatest threat to humanity. Post US withdrawal from Afghanistan, America will not need to go soft on Pakistan which has too many fault lines even as it is mortgaging its land and sovereignty to China.
Pakistan is presently facing backlash from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and there are indications chickens of ISKP also coming home to roost. To add to this is the backlash from the Balochis and the issue of Pashtunistan, Sindh and Gilgit-Baltistan. Multilateral forums need to discuss and act to deal with Pakistan – the epicenter of terrorism. Historic India-Afghanistan bonds and the strategic partnership between both nations must forge ahead for mutual benefit and for good of the region.