Early Wednesday morning, a convoy escorting Afghan First Vice President Amrullah Saleh was the apparent target of a bombing. Coming amid the elongated approach to intra-Afghan talks, the blast — which killed 10 and wounded at least 31 — serves as yet another reminder that the road to a peaceful Afghanistan will be long and talks with the Taliban are but a mere step on that journey.
According to the Associated Press a bomb hidden in a car on the roadside detonated as Saleh’s convey traveled past. Saleh sustained only minor injuries, telling the media in a TV interview shortly after the attack that he and one of his sons, who was traveling with him, were fine. He apologized to those affected by the blast, which occurred in a section of Kabul with shops that sell gas cylinders for use in heating homes and cooking. The blast ignited a fire that set ablaze a number of the shops.
“I have slight burns on my face and hand from the wave of the blast. I don’t have exact details right now, but I apologize to those who suffered casualties and those who lost their property in the attack,’ Saleh said.
Denials and condemnations rolled in swiftly.
The Taliban immediately denied responsibility for the attack. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said, “today’s explosion in Kabul has nothing to do with the Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate,” as the Taliban call themselves.
Abdullah Abdullah, formerly Afghan chief executive officer in the previous National Unity Government and after settling his election dispute with Ashraf Ghani now chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, issued a statement condemning the attack. “The attack on the first VP took place on the eve of peace talks when our message — and the people’s message — is peace. The hidden enemies do not want peace and stability for Afghanistan.”
Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, who leads Afghanistan’s negotiating team, tweeted his condemnation. “While strongly condemning this attack, it is crucial to put an urgent end to violence. The time for excuses is over. The killings must end.”
Acting Foreign Minister Haneef Atmar tweeted, “I condemn in the strongest terms the cowardly terrorist attack on Saleh, the first vice president. The enemies cannot hinder the peace process with such attacks. Our determination to achieve peace is unbreakable.”
Across the board, Afghan officials framed the attack as an effort to derail the intra-Afghan talks and a further illustration of why the country needs peace.
In the late February U.S.-Taliban deal, the intra-Afghan talks were envisioned, laughably so, to begin on March 10. They have been discussed using terms like “approaching,” “nearing,” “looming,” and “imminent” for the several months since. Is there a word for an event set for the near future that invariably continues to float backward in time?
In any case, the talks are yet again being discussed as imminent despite numerous obstacles. One such obstacle, much discussed, has been the matter of prisoner releases — a promised item in the U.S.-Taliban deal which the Kabul government has struggled with. After first scoffing at the concept, the Afghan government relented and began releasing Taliban prisoners.
Each side blames the other for the delays.
On Sunday, Faraidoon Khwazoon, the spokesman for the High Council for National Reconciliation, said the Afghan government was ready to start direct negotiations. “The process of releasing the prisoners is over and there is no excuse for delaying the talks, but the Taliban are still not ready to take part in the talks,” he said ,according to the Associated Press.
But, as Al Jazeera reported today, the prisoner release issue is not settled to the Taliban’s satisfaction. Taliban officials told Al Jazeera that 100 Taliban inmates remain in jail. The phrasing used by the Taliban spokesman in Qatar is telling: “Our agreement is with the Americans and we have asked them to ensure that their side of the agreement is implemented. They keep giving us various reasons for the delay. We are ready to talk as soon as the prisoner release is complete.”
Unmentioned are the terms of the agreement the Taliban have failed to fulfill, such as the provision that they cut ties to al-Qaida.
The Afghan government’s negotiating team is reportedly waiting to head to Qatar for talks and the Taliban’s team just returned to Doha following a trip to Pakistan. U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad is reportedly in Qatar, too, trying to jumpstart the talks once more.
Whether the imminent talks actually begin imminently masks a larger issue: Even if the government in Kabul and the Taliban can chart a path to peace between them — and that’s a big “if” — Afghanistan will likely still face innumerable security challenges posed by those not at the negotiating table.
The recent bombing is an illustration of that reality. While the Taliban are the largest non-government force in Afghanistan, there are other insurgent and terrorist groups such as the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) and al-Qaida at large. ISKP, in particular, has actively carried out attacks despite pressure from both the United States and the Taliban. An organization does not have to be massive to pose a threat. As the Taliban move closer to “normalization” and possible entry into the above-board political arena in Afghanistan they will come to discover that it it far more difficult to secure a state than blow one up.
With reporting by Rahim Faiez for the Associated Press.