Taliban attack on Zabul army outpost complicates Afghan peace process

The ambush comes amid mounting militant violence as the peace process stalls over prisoner releases

An Afghan security personnel stand guard after an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, March 6, 2020. Gunmen in Kabul attacked a remembrance ceremony for a minority Shiite leader on Friday, wounding several people, officials said. (AP Photo/Tamana Sarwary)

Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defence has promised retaliation after at least 24 soldiers and police officers were killed in a Taliban ‘insider’ attack on an army outpost in the country’s Zabul province on Friday, further complicating a fledgling peace process.

In the early hours of Friday morning, six pro-Taliban policemen shot sleeping troops and set fire to the post, located about 15 kilometres north of Zabul’s provincial capital, Qalat. They filmed the attack before fleeing.

The country’s Ministry of Defence said on Saturday it would “take the revenge of the blood of the martyrs,” and said it had “ordered the Afghan National Security Forces to be in an active defensive position against the Taliban,” the ministry’s spokesperson Fawad Aman said.

He added the defensive position would not restrict the army’s ability to fight Taliban fighters and their strongholds.

Friday’s attack – which coincided with Nowruz, the Afghan new year – came as levels of violence are creeping up after the US and the Taliban signed a peace deal on February 29.

While the Taliban said they wouldn’t be attacking US and coalition forces, attacks against Afghan forces have once again increased throughout the country.

Nato’s senior civilian representative, Nicholas Kay, condemned the attack, asking “What kind of people can order and do this to fellow Afghans on the day of Nowruz, in the midst of a global pandemic and after professing commitment to peace?”

Mr Ghani’s spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, said the attack showed the Taliban’s “commitment for continued violence and against the Afghan peace process.”

But Friday’s assault was no surprise, Andrew Watkins of the International Crisis Group said.

"The Taliban remains dependent on violence as its primary form of leverage and political power, as it always has," he told The National.

“Attacks like this were precisely why the US has attempted to fast-track intra-Afghan talks: the faster both sides reach the table, the faster conditions can be laid for lasting reductions in violence.”

Mr Watkins said brutal attacks on Afghan security forces make it even more difficult, politically, for President Ghani to move forward on the peace process’s initial hurdle – a large-scale prisoner exchange – and the broad peace approach.

In the aftermath of the attack, many Afghans wrote on social media calling for President Ashraf Ghani to renege on his commitment to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners as part of the peace agreement.

Direct talks between the Taliban and the government were supposed to commence on March 10, but have been held up by arguments over the release of jailed Taliban fighters, as well as divisions in the Afghan government that currently has two claims to the presidency.

A new date for the negotiations has not been confirmed.