In the lead up to the presidential elections in Afghanistan, which get underway today, the Taliban has upped the ante in the region, especially in Afghanistan, with a spate of high-impact attacks in March. An attack on March 29 hit the heart of the election process when the Taliban stormed a building next to the Independent Election Commission headquarters in Kabul, making very clear the threat it posed to the elections. Beginning with an attack on a famous Lebanese restaurant in Kabul on January 18, which killed 13 foreign nationals, the Taliban has been cleverly choosing targets and patterns this year that leave the international forces and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) struggling to react.
Across the Durand Line, in Pakistan, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) seems to be toying with the Pakistani establishment, oscillating between attacks on the Pakistani army to accepting cease fire and peace talks proposals. A broad overview of the situation does indicate towards one clear pattern: the Taliban are on the offensive and are setting the agenda, forcing both, Afghanistan and Pakistan to react and follow.
Afghanistan’s transition in 2014 is built on three important pillars: elections, the handover of security responsibilities to the ANSF, and reining in the Taliban. While the latter two are ongoing efforts, the presidential elections are a clear landmark. Successful elections would benefit the Afghanistan peace process and undermine Taliban influence. It could also lead to the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States, which despite having been successfully negotiated and even passed by the Loya Jirga in November last year, awaits signing by President Hamid Karzai, who so far has refused. While the Afghanistan government, the U.S. and the Taliban all understand the significance of the elections, the difference lies in its execution. The U.S. simply wants this process to be done, and is more focused on the withdrawal timetable and the various scenarios for leaving troops behind, which stretch from a “zero option” to a figure of 10-15,000 troops. The ANSF and the Afghan government are more focused on the process of the elections and the safety of the candidates, while keeping the transition process in motion.
Where does that leave the Taliban? While everything that the U.S. and the Afghanistan do has a direct bearing on the Taliban, unlike the past three years, at present there is no clearcut campaign strategy against the Taliban nor are there any ongoing military operations to clear Taliban strongholds or target its leaders. In past few months, the process of “reintegration and reconciliation” also seems to have been lost in the din of transition and elections.
Adding to this dismal situation is the ongoing standoff between Karzai and Washington. Commencing from the BSA, the two sides have been at loggerheads over their respective stands on the transition. In addition to the BSA, Karzai has demanded that direct peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban start as a precondition for signing the BSA. Reports of Karzai himself being in secret talks with the Taliban and his insistence on releasing more than 65 Taliban prisoners from Afghan prisons has not gone down well in Washington.
The Taliban, meanwhile has been clear in its strategy, in which the presidential elections are its first objective. In an official statement on March 10, it stated “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan encourages all its countrymen to avoid becoming victims of the enemy conspiracies in the upcoming elections process; reject it wholly and do not put yourselves in danger. If anyone still persists on participating then they are solely responsible of any loss in the future.” It has backed up that warning with its series of well-orchestrated, high-profile attacks. While its February 23 attack on an ANSF post in Kunar, on the border with Pakistan, which killed 21 Afghan soldiers, exposed the limitations of ANSF, its strikes in Faryab province on March 18, suicide bomb attack in Jalalabad and the attack on Serena hotel in Kabul on March 20 clearly underlined the threat the Taliban has posed to the elections. Gen. Joseph Dunford, the NATO Commander in Afghanistan, recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 12 that the Taliban no longer presents an “existential threat” to the Afghan government. Yet the Taliban has remained resilient, belligerent and aggressive, and there are no signs of its momentum being reversed.
Across the Durand Line, the situation in Pakistan is similar. Commencing with a deadly attack on a military convoy in Bannu, near North Waziristan, that killed 20 paramilitary soldiers on January 19, the TTP has been aggressive and skillful in setting the tone. Under the pressure of impending military operations, it readily accepted the offer of peace talks by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on January 29. However, as the talks were about to begin, the TTP announced on February 17 the killing of 23 paramilitary soldiers it had held in custody since 2010 and claimed responsibility for a February 12 blast in Karachi that killed more than 12 police officers. The peace talks were promptly suspended and military operations were back on the table. Feeling the pressure of military strikes, once again the TTP called for a cease fire on March 1. After much delay, the first direct talks did take place on March 26, but a near-term breakthrough is unlikely.
What all this makes clear is that the Taliban in Afghanistan and the TTP in Pakistan have seized the initiative. Although structurally different, both the Afghan Taliban and the TTP share views on issues such as the presence of foreign troops or the imposition of Sharia law. While the Taliban in Afghanistan has been concentrating on disrupting the elections, the TTP in Pakistan is claiming victory. Commenting on the peace talks, TTP spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid said, “The government has now accepted our reality; this is our victory.” While presidential elections in Afghanistan and peace with TTP with Pakistan are important, the fact that both groups have been able to set the agenda, especially in 2014, represents a dangerous trend that needs to be arrested urgently. Any lack of effort or focus on the Taliban could create a precarious security situation in the region following the 2014 withdrawal of international troops, ultimately undermining a decade of commitment, investment and sacrifice.
Rajeev Agrawal is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.