Security police stay alert at a suicide bombing site in Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, on June 20 (XINHUA)
On July 23, suicide bombers struck the Afghan capital Kabul, killing over 80 and injuring more than 230 in the blast, the most deadly terrorist attack in the country for 15 years. The Islamic State Group (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The explosion comes hot on the heels of the demise of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in southwest Pakistan's Balochistan Province near the Afghan border on May 21. Mansour had only succeeded his predecessor, Mullah Mohammad Omar, last July.
Having confirmed their leader's death, the Afghan Taliban appointed Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada to the position a few days later. Akhundzada, a religious scholar and former head of the Taliban courts, is unlikely to change the group's hardline direction.
The U.S. Government has stepped up intervention in Afghanistan, having lost patience waiting for the Taliban to participate in peace talks with the local government.
The U.S. Government and the Taliban both have key roles to play in the Afghani peace process, which is now further complicated as both have rearranged their priorities in order to gain strategic advantages during the peace talks. This serves to add more uncertainty to Afghanistan's future.
New Taliban leader
Mansour's succession of Omar as Taliban leader catalyzed a power struggle. Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob and Mullah Manan, the first-born son and younger brother of Omar respectively, both questioned Mansour's authority, while many others believed his ascension to power was in effect a "coup".
Akhundzada was named as the new Taliban head by the shura (council), located near Quetta in Pakistan. Though there have been some disagreements over the appointment, they may not cause a leadership crisis like that his predecessor faced. The shura also made Yaqoob joint deputy head of the Taliban, alongside the current deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, in a bid to quell disunity in the group.
Akhundzada is a senior Taliban figure, but he acquired his reputation as a religious leader rather than as a military commander. However, he comes from the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar and proved his credentials in the 1980s after joining the Islamist resistance against the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan.
Despite Akhundzada being well placed to appease various factions inside the Taliban, a splinter group led by Muhammad Rasool has still publicly refused to pledge allegiance. Yet, Akhundzada's refusal to participate in peace talks and his demand that foreign forces retreat from the country are likely to gain more support and strengthen his leadership in the group.
People help clear the streets after a suicide bomb attack that targeted a mass demonstration by members of Afghanistan's Hazara minority in Kabul on July 23 (XINHUA)
U.S. shift of stance
For years, the U.S. Government and the Taliban failed to hold negotiations. In 2011, the Obama administration sought talks with the Taliban in a bid to achieve peace in Afghanistan, with both sides participating in secret talks in Qatar and Germany. In June 2013, U.S. President Barrack Obama told the press that the U.S. Government was ready to negotiate with the Taliban, citing this as a crucial step toward reconciliation.
Real progress looked like being made when the first round of peace talks was held between the Taliban and the Afghan Government in Pakistan from July 7-8, 2015, thanks to efforts from Pakistan, the United States and China. Representatives met for a second round in February of this year, but talks were cut short following Omar's death.
The Taliban withdrew from the conference table, leaving the peace process deadlocked. Obama lost patience with Mansour, and in response to the deepening crisis in Afghanistan, he adopted a number of new measures. First, he expanded the authority of U.S. troops in the nation, including loosening restrictions on the use of air strikes and providing Afghan security forces with more robust support.
Previously, U.S. combat troops were limited to supporting Afghan task forces, and airstrikes were only permitted on three conditions: if ground troops were under serious threat; to combat Al-Qaeda terrorists; and if Afghan forces were likely to suffer a military defeat by the Taliban.
Obama has now committed more troops to the war-torn state. In early July, he announced that 8,400 U.S. soldiers would remain in Afghanistan up to the end of his term in January 2017, compared to an earlier plan to reduce the figure to 5,500 in 2017.
The United States seeks to not only counter Al-Qaeda and ISIS but also the Taliban and the Haqqani network. Washington has attached importance to bolstering Afghan security forces, though they are still currently incapable of undertaking security missions independently. On June 19, The Washington Post reported the United States and its allies plan to raise $15 billion of financial aid for Afghan security forces over the next five years.
These policy adjustments underline the change in strategy undertaken by the U.S. Government toward the Taliban. The United States has also been in contact with the rebel group led by Rasool in an effort to divide the group. Yet it remains to be seen if the more hardline tactics pursued by the United States will have the desired effect.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry calls on the Taliban to re-enter peace talks with Kabul at a joint press conference on April 9 while on a visit to Afghanistan during which he met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (XINHUA)
The future of the country is far from clear. Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, President of Afghanistan since September 2014, sought to soothe his major rival, Abdullah Abduallah, by creating a new post—Chief Executive—for him.
However, the post has yet to be authorized by parliament. To compound matters, the parliamentary election has been delayed multiple times. The special appointment of Abduallah and the frequent postponement of parliamentary elections have resulted in dissatisfaction from members of the upper classes, including senior officials who have openly voiced their concerns about Ghani's ability to govern. Additionally, economic deterioration fuels public discontent while making it even tougher to withstand Taliban assaults.
In the short term, Afghanistan is likely to become even more unstable. The Taliban has gained more ground in northern and southern parts of the country since last year, and the recent blast in Kabul will only increase anxiety. In the meantime, Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban are ready to assist the Afghan Taliban in launching insurgencies and retaliatory actions. Last September, many foreign jihadists joined the Taliban's offensive in Kunduz and helped the group to temporarily occupy the city.
Furthermore, tension in U.S.-Pakistan relations will potentially upset the peace process in Afghanistan. Both nations play a leading role in the Afghan peace process. However, the drone strike that killed Mansour caused enormous protest in Pakistan, with the Pakistani Government claiming the drone strike was a violation of its sovereignty. On the other hand, Pakistan opposes the U.S. strategy to divide the Taliban, fearing it would weaken Pakistan's position in Afghan affairs. The dispute between Washington and Islamabad may lead to the collapse of the newly-established four-party meeting that was designed to advance the peace talks. Afghanistan is set to face a perilous period ahead if such talks cannot proceed.
The author is an assistant researcher with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations
Copyedited by Dominic James Madar
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