By Dr. Simbal Khan
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made his latest peace offer to the Taliban in Kabul on Feb. 28, but away from the cameras and international attention, another war continues. News reports emerged in early 2018 that the Taliban failed in its second attempt to dislodge Daesh fighters from its stronghold in the northern Afghan province of Jowzjan.
Qari Hekmat, a former Taliban commander and now local leader of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), also known as Daesh in Afghanistan, survived another Taliban attempt to oust him from his area.
As fighting between northern warlords such as Mohammed Atta Nur and the national unity government continues, the security situation in the northern provinces, which border Central Asia, is slipping out of control.
According to reports in January, the Taliban had gathered hundreds of fighters in an attempt to retake Jowzjan’s districts of Darzab and QushTepa from the ISKP. The Taliban offensive, launched in the middle of severe winter months, failed to dislodge Hekmat.
Since 2015, when Daesh made its first appearance in Afghanistan, the Taliban has responded tactically in order to adjust to the new entrants in the militant space. It has in places made tactical adjustments with them, and there are areas where the Taliban and Daesh have coexisted and even cooperated against Afghan security forces. But in several areas around eastern Afghanistan, they have been battling each other. The Taliban assault in Zabul against the Daesh stronghold in Nov. 2015 was decisive in stopping the latter’s expansion in Afghanistan. Since then, they have had a mixed relationship.
Since late 2017, news reports have focused on Daesh’s growing presence in northern Afghanistan, especially Jowzjan, which borders Turkmenistan in Central Asia. These reports were amplified by Russia and other Central Asian neighbors of Afghanistan, which have voiced their concerns regarding the reported presence of foreign fighters, including Chechens, Uzbeks, Chinese Uighurs and some Arabs.
China has long refrained from engaging militarily beyond its borders, but recent reports suggest this may change. In December 2017, news reports emerged that Beijing was discussing with the Afghan Defense Ministry plans to build a fully funded military base in Badakhshan province to prevent incursions of Uighur militants into Tajikistan and China.
The US military, responding to Beijing’s concern, recently expanded its air war, striking targets in northeast Afghanistan affiliated with the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and other Uighur militants.
The bombing was carried out over four days in Badakhshan’s Wurduj district. According to US military sources, “the strikes targeted training camps of militants, preventing the planning and rehearsal of terrorist acts near the Afghan border with China and Tajikistan.”
The US military strategy in Afghanistan is still focused on weakening the Taliban. Given the current situation – where the Taliban no longer has a monopoly on militant violence, and other groups have emerged that also control large swathes of territory – there is a need to reassess whether weakening the Taliban is still desirable for peace-building. According to Ghani, there are around 40 militant groups fighting in Afghanistan. Weakening the Taliban any further would just add to the strength of groups such as the ISKP, and would make the prospects of a negotiated peace even bleaker.
Afghanistan’s northern neighbors – Russia, China and the Central Asian states – are increasingly worried about the growing presence of Daesh and other Central Asian militants on their borders. They have responded by increasing contacts, and according to unconfirmed reports, materially supporting the Taliban.
In light of the above, we need a cohesive enough Taliban to engage in peace talks. Negotiated settlements usually require clearly defined interlocutors who can provide security guarantees in clearly defined areas. This no longer seems to be the case in vast regions of Afghanistan. Despite the positive optics of Ghani’s recent peace offer, the window of opportunity for a negotiated settlement is closing fast.
(Dr. Simbal Khan is a political and security analyst and a South-Central Asia specialist, with experience in regional security and development spanning 20 years. Her work has focused on issues related to trans-border militant movements in South-Central Asia and the geopolitics of border spaces. She is a non-resident fellow at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) in Islamabad. Twitter: @simbalkh)