Conflict Alerts # 54, 25 March 2020
In the news
This week in Afghanistan, several worrying events took place, and the unrest continued in the region. On 25 March, an attack on the Sikh religious complex in Kabul led to the death of 25 people, which was later claimed by ISIS.
On 23 March, Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State met the Taliban leaders in Qatar, after his visit to Afghanistan. After a failed attempt to bring truce between the rival leaders, President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the US cut aid to Afghanistan by $1 billion.
On 22 March, the Taliban and Afghan government had a “virtual” meeting over the prisoner release. On 19 March, an insider attack by six policemen in Zabul province led to the death of 24 soldiers.
Issues at large
There is an urgency for the US to speed up the release of Taliban prisoners and bring back its troops from Afghanistan. The attacks, delay in intra-Afghan talks, and the internal political feud between leaders have put Trump’s foreign policy agenda at stake. The US Special Envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, advised both leaders to negotiate “as soon as possible”, as “no prisoners have been released to date despite the commitment to do so as expressed by both sides.”
Mike Pompeo visited Kabul on 23 March to mediate between President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah and to work upon the comprehensive peace deal signed between the US and Taliban. The differences between the two - Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah- have only increased after Ghani was declared a winner in the elections. Both have claimed victory in the Presidential elections.
Post Pompeo visit, the US announced a cut of $1 billion aid. Pompeo further said, the US will prepare for another cut by 2021 and will also review “all the programmes and projects to identify additional reduction and reconsider our pledge to future donor conference for Afghanistan”.
Outside Kabul, violence is continuing despite the deal between the US and the Taliban. Six policemen, suspected to have links with the Taliban, infiltrated into an army base in Zabul province and killed several soldiers on 19 March. Ata Jan Haq Bayan, Zabul provincial council chief, said that the “attackers had connections with the Taliban insurgents.” It was reported, that they fled in two military Humvee vehicles, along with weapons and ammunition. Earlier that day, Asadullah Khalid, Afghanistan’s defence minister, said the country force would switch to “active defence posture” as there has been no decrease in the Taliban attacks.
Between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the deadlock over the release of prisoners continues. The release of 5000 Taliban prisoners daunted the Afghan government considering the prospects of later instability in the country. As of now, President Ashraf Ghani only agreed to the release of 1500 prisoners, provided they sign an agreement to never return to the battlefield. The ‘prisoners swap’ is a significant issue that has been delaying the progress in the peace process.
Will the cut in aid affect the US and Afghanistan relations in the coming weeks? The US had a complicated relationship with the previous Afghan President during his second tenure as well. This had its dynamics in fighting the Taliban.
Second, the recent Taliban attacks indicate the determination of the Taliban in coercing the government to agree to its conditions, as of the US-Taliban deal.
Third, the US aid cut maybe a strategy to pressurize Afghanistan in bringing in an inclusive government. To work towards intra-afghan talks and also for long term stability. But Afghanistan still fails to come to the negotiating table with the Taliban due to internal political conflicts and disagreements over the terms of prisoner release.
Fourth, even if progress is made in intra-Afghan talks, there is a possibility of continuous attacks by ISIS, as the attack on the Sikh religious place on 25 March would highlight.