Developments in Afghanistan

Internal Security: Continued terrorist attacks and Taliban military activity meant that any initiatives spoken about for another Eid ceasefire in August would generate cynicism. Nevertheless, the upcoming elections scheduled for October and the US Taliban discussions underway are also factors to be kept in view in the context of President Ghani’s offer for a fresh ceasefire coinciding with Eid ul Azha. Major attacks with significant numbers of casualties were reported from Jalalabad, Khost, Kabul and elsewhere. 

Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum returned to Kabul from his voluntary exile in Turkey where he had lived since May 2017. Dostum left Afghanistan in May 2017 after being accused of the rape and torture of a political rival. He had denied the allegations and said his stay in Turkey was for medical and family reasons. The deteriorating security situation in Northern Afghanistan had led to increasing speculation that President Ghani would invite Dostum to return and help stabilize the north by firming up Uzbek support before next year’s presidential election. The difficulties in Afghanistan and how precarious the run up to the elections- for Parliament in October 2018 and the Presidential next year - as underscored by a suicide attack in Kabul airport that killed at least 11 persons as crowds gathered to welcome Dostum back.

While there have been numerous reports of Taliban activity and strikes it was the offensive in Ghazni in the first half of August that gave strongest indication of their increasing capabilities and confidence. Parts of the city came under direct attack and many of the surrounding districts suggest Taliban presence and control. Ghazni’s proximity to Kabul (100 Km or so) and its location on the route to Kandahar in the South underline its strategic importance. The Taliban offensive was finally stopped and beaten back by Afghan security forces backed by US air power but the process took almost a week and numerous civilian casualties have been reported. Notwithstanding a successful clearing operation, the Taliban possibly have gained a small military and psychological victory against Kabul, by showing the capacity to move against a strategically vital city near the capital and remain entrenched there for days. Amidst the Ghazni action there have also been reports of a Taliban offensive near Mazar i Sharif against a military base in Faryab province long known as a Taliban stronghold. The action may have been timed to exploit the Afghan Army’s preoccupation with Ghazni to maximum advantage. Many observers speculate that the actions of the Taliban reflect both strength and staying power but also have the obvious political intent to improve their negotiating positions amidst increasing reports of ongoing contacts with US officials. 

Ceasefire: President Ashraf Ghani announced a ceasefire with Taliban insurgents  to mark Eid al-Adha. The announcement was made during an address marking Afghanistan’s independence from Britain in 1919. Although the ceasefire offer is not unexpected, since it follows from a similar ceasefire in June, nevertheless it did cause some surprise given the heavy fighting in recent days  of Ghazni. Taliban sources initially said their leaders had provisionally agreed to a four-day truce but later there have been reports of the offer being turned down. President Ghani  is also reported as having said that the ceasefire  would go into effect on 20th August  and last until November upto the Prophet’s birthday (Milad ud Nabi) , “provided that the Taliban reciprocate.”

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo welcomed the Muslim Eid holiday ceasefire, and said the US was willing to support and facilitate direct peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

The government of Pakistan also issued a statement welcoming Ghani’s announcement and said it “fully supports all such efforts.” It called on all parties in the conflict to “make a commitment to a cease-fire” similar to the one in June and urged that this time it be extended.

Pakistan: The Afghan president telephoned PM designate Imran Khan on 29th July to felicitate him on the elections result. According to a PTI spokesman President Ghani invited Mr Khan to visit Kabul as a goodwill gesture and the invitation was accepted. Mr Ghani was quoted as saying: “You are one of the popular figures among the youth of Afghanistan and it is because of your inspiration, the game of cricket progressed rapidly in the country.”

The Taliban’s Ghazni offensive in the first half of August threw up evidence of the perennial and structural problems in Afghan Pakistan relations. During a visit to Ghazni soon after the Taliban were evicted from it President Ghani said that militants came from the Pakistani side of the border to participate in the fighting and that hospitals in neighboring areas of Pakistan were receiving and treating Taliban insurgents who had been injured in recent fighting with Afghan forces. News reports quoted the President as saying that the Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, had assured him cross-border insurgent activity would not be allowed: "General Bajwa, you signed a document with us and told me repeatedly in our conversations over the phone that when the elections [in Pakistan] are over you will pay attention to it. I need answers now. ... From where they came and why are they receiving treatment in your hospitals?" 

Denials to this charge were issued both by the Pakistan Army Chief and the Foreign Office. "The alleged return of injured/dead terrorists from Ghazni is incorrect," an official statement quoted the General Bajwa as saying. In the statement General Bajwa said that there are scores of Pakistanis, mostly laborers, working in the neighboring country “who periodically fall victim to terrorism acts alongside their Afghan brothers inside Afghanistan" and terming such victims as terrorists is unfortunate. The statement also said that different factions of the outlawed Pakistani Taliban are also hiding in sanctuaries inside Afghanistan and transported into Pakistan for medical help under Afghan identities after they are injured or killed in fighting with rival factions or Afghan forces. The Afghan leadership "needs to look inward as the problem resides inside Afghanistan." The Foreign Ministry spokesman also denied as baseless reports circulating in social media linking Pakistan to the Ghazni conflict, including allegations that insurgents were being brought to Pakistani hospitals for treatment. Well known public figures of credibility in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province had been describing on social media platforms Ghazni insurgents receiving treatment in Pakistani hospitals and also using the country as a sanctuary. 

United States: In end July a number of prominent US media outlets quoted Taliban officials to the effect that they have held face-to-face meetings with American diplomats in Doha. last week.The New York Times , The Wall Street Journal and Voice of America reported that Alice Wells, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State led the US team in these talks. The US State Department did not directly confirm these reports, but has been quoted as saying that Wells had been in Doha where she met with Qatari government officials “to discuss recent progress towards an Afghan-owned, and Afghan-led peace process” and that the US “is exploring all avenues to advance a peace process in close consultation with the Afghan government.”


August 24, 2018 

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About the Author

Ambassador Sharat Sabharwal

Former Indian Ambassador to Pakistan and Uzbekistan and Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Centre

Mr Sharat Sabharwal joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1975. After serving in various positions in the Permanent Mission of India to the UN in Geneva and the Indian Missions in Madagascar, France and Mauritius, he was Director/Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi from 1990 to 1995. The positions held by him subsequently have been Deputy High Commissioner of India in Pakistan (1995-99), Deputy Permanent Representative of India to the UN in Geneva (1999-2002), Ambassador of India to Uzbekistan (2002-2005) and Additional Secretary/Special Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs (September 2005-March 2009).

Mr. Sabharwal was High Commissioner of India to Pakistan from April 2009 to June 2013.

He was appointed Central Information Commissioner in November, 2013 and served in this position till September, 2017.
Mr. Sabharwal has been Deputy leader/member of the Indian delegations to the UN General Assembly, the erstwhile UN Commission on Human Rights, International Labour Conference and World Health Assembly. He was also the Deputy Leader of the Indian delegation to the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent held in Geneva in October 1999 and member of the Indian delegation to the World Conference against Racism, held in Durban in September 2001.

Mr. Sabharwal holds a post graduate degree in Political Science. He speaks English and French besides Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi.

Mr. Sabharwal has been an author at the Indian Express, The Hindu, India Today, The Tribune and The Wire.