After four deadly attacks, the only certainty in Afghanistan is more of the same

Terrorists are actively exploiting the political space created by the duplicitous relationships between state actors, writes Tom Hussain

An Afghan security force member stands guard near the site of an attack at the Marshal Fahim military academy in Kabul, Afghanistan January 29, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
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The four bloody terrorist attacks carried out on Kabul over the short span of eight days are a gruesome reminder that Afghanistan cannot be managed, whether by its domestic political protagonists or their foreign sponsors.

Nor can any amount of fist-shaking or finger-pointing in one direction or the other conceal their shared culpability in Afghanistan’s steady descent back into the chaos, which followed the exit of Soviet occupation forces in 1989.

We need look no further than the fleeting peace process of July 2015 to understand why.

Amid great hype, negotiators had gathered in Islamabad for what would have been the first meaningful engagement between the Kabul administration and the Taliban, in the presence of American and Pakistani observers.

Mere hours before the talks were to have begun, however, the Afghan government announced that Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar had died of natural causes two years earlier.

The disclosure of his demise exposed an ill-conceived conspiracy. The four parties involved in the talks were well aware of Omar’s prior demise, yet apparently thought the foundations for peace could be built on fraudulent foundations.

Were they really so naive as to believe the news would not leak? Surely not. The US military and intelligence services were as vehemently opposed to the prospect of a humiliating climbdown as their friends in Kabul were. They were never going to accept a settlement which gave the Taliban the upper hand or allowed Pakistan such huge leverage.

Did Pakistan really think it could engineer an outcome to the war that suited its geopolitical purposes? I doubt it. To believe so would be tantamount to ignoring the inherent character of Afghan politics wherein, for centuries, there has been no such thing as loyalty or lasting peace.

It would be far more logical to conclude that none of the four parties involved were truly invested in the stillborn July 2015 talks and that their participation, at best, was an exercise in political expediency.

That, too, assumes the existence of some goodwill, whereas there was none. Any smiles exchanged by the Afghan participants during the preparatory phase of dialogue were made through the gritted teeth of a multi-generational blood feud which, as history shows, has a virus-like propensity to infect non-natives who come into close proximity.

Since the farcical events of July 2015, the domestic and foreign protagonists have dedicated themselves to exposing each other as the proverbial bad guy.

So, Afghan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah was a saboteur for betraying the conspiracy of silence over Omar’s death and Pakistan’s powerful military was a terrorist sponsor for keeping it, while America's role defied plausible explanation.


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Likewise, Pakistan is deeply in the wrong for stubbornly refusing to extending its fight against terrorism to the Afghan militants present on its territory, but so are the US and Afghanistan for treating Pakistani insurgents on their side of the Durand Line as a sideshow.

With none of the sides interested in occupying the moral high ground, all are equally responsible for fuelling the intensified conflict that has since spread across the length and breadth of Afghanistan, creating consecutive new records for the number of people killed and maimed by it.

Rather than being targeted by an immensely powerful international coalition, as they were after the September 11, 2001 attacks, terrorists are actively exploiting the political space created by the duplicitous relationships between state actors.

Thus it has become commonplace to see a campaign of bombings in Afghanistan followed by another in Pakistan, and vice versa, each conducted from so-called ungoverned spaces by terrorists claiming allegiance to different factions.

Like the ill-fated attempt to conceal Mullah Omar’s death, that is a complete falsehood. Individual terrorist leaders may claim to pursue different political objectives, but their ideology is common and they frequently share physical space, manpower and other resources with each other.

They are equally happy to do business with the covert operatives of states because by involving themselves on both sides of an asymmetric war under different brand names, the terrorists increase the likelihood of a cold war turning into a hot one.

The attacks claimed by the Taliban are a tit-for-tat response for US drone strikes against their havens in Pakistan's northwest tribal areas. Rather than a meaningful effort to curb terrorism, the drone operations are designed to pressurise Pakistan's powerful military into turning against the Afghan Taliban, which it has consistently refused to do. Were its obstinacy to cause the US to lose its proverbial temper and launch a unilateral campaign against targets on Pakistani soil, the blowback would be immense for the region as a whole.

The ongoing spate of bombings in Kabul threatens to create such a scenario.

Whatever transpires after the Kabul bombings, there is only one plausible outcome for Afghanistan and the countries involved there: more of the same, or worse.

Tom Hussain is a journalist and political analyst in Islamabad