By D. Suba Chandran
January 28, 2019
On January 21, 2019, the Taliban attacked a National Directorate of Security (NDS) compound in Maidan Wardak province, Afghanistan. More than 100 were killed in the attack in which the Taliban used a captured Humvee truck filled with explosives to drive into the compound, followed by suicide bombers.
Geographically one of the central provinces, Wardak borders Kabul and is not far from the national capital. In terms of violence perpetrated by the Taliban, Wardak is one of the numerous attacks on security and police outposts since the beginning of 2019. So, Wardak is, nevertheless, significant, first, as an overview of the attacks, since January 1, 2019, reveals a pattern. Wardak is part of an escalating series of attacks led by the Taliban in the central, southern and eastern provinces, particularly in the Faryab, Balkh, Badghis, Kandahar, Jowzjan and Helmand provinces. Faryab and Kandahar have already witnessed more than ten attacks this year, followed by six attacks in Balkh, four in Badghis, three in Jowzjan and two in Helmand (data till January 27, 2019).
Second, the Wardak massacre is a part of targeted and coordinated attacks on security and police outposts and security compounds, by the Taliban. For the Taliban, Wardak was a specific target with well-specified objectives. The Taliban has been struggling to capture these outposts as well as to capture weapons and kidnap members of the security forces. The weapons used by the Taliban to strengthen its own armoury, and the explosive-laden Humvee is a case in point, having been captured in an earlier attack.
Third, and most importantly, the Wardak incident should be seen as part of the Taliban's military strategy in negotiating with the US. For the last few months, the US has sought to initiate a dialogue with the Taliban. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Envoy, has been entrusted with the task to politically engage with the Taliban. Trump's recent announcement on the reduction of troops in Afghanistan was likely a behind the scenes part of this engagement.
Ambassador Khalilzad has succeeded in kick-starting the negotiations. The Taliban has named Mullah Baradar to represent it in the process at Doha, and the Wardak massacre came the same day on which the Taliban announced their engagement in the process.
The Wardak massacre amidst the Doha Dialogue can be explained, first, as a Taliban military strategy for leverage in political negotiations. Both the US and the Taliban want to negotiate from a strong position in the field. While the Taliban has visibly been continuing with its terrorist strategy, the US has also been conducting intensive air strikes against insurgent targets. Two airstrikes by the US on January 25 in Kandahar killed more than 25 people, well after negotiations commenced in Doha.
The second rationale could be a possible divide within the Taliban. The section that wants to negotiate is not the same that is engaged in terrorist attacks. Besides numerous small factions, there have been two parallel groups - the Afghan Taliban, led by Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network supported by Pakistan. It is possible that, while the former wants to negotiate with the US, the latter is averse to such engagement.
A third explanation is an extension of the second. The leadership of a divided Taliban, while it wants to negotiate with the US, does not want its foot soldiers to feel that there has been a u-turn in their approach towards the US. In this scenario, attacks against Afghan security forces would not be a military strategy for political negotiations with the US; instead, they would realize an internal strategy by the Taliban leadership to keep the organisation cohesive.
If either of the two latter explanations are the reasons for Taliban's emphasis on militant attacks despite a dialogue process, this would raise a larger question: what section and percentage of the Taliban are willing to negotiate with the US for a final settlement? And how would the other section - which does not want to negotiate with the US - respond to a Doha outcome? These are larger questions that Kabul and other players in Afghanistan's conflict dynamic will have to look into.
The US may end up establishing an illusion of peace following an understanding with the Doha process, to secure a face-saving exit from Afghanistan. But the rest of the region will face the fallout.
It is, significantly, no coincidence that Ambassador Khalilzad visited Islamabad a few days before kick-starting the negotiations in Doha. What does Pakistan want out of the latest round of dialogue in Doha? This is a separate, and deeply problematic, question.
An Afghan solution lies in finding an answer to what happened in Wardak (and why), and certainly not what is likely to come out in Doha.
D. Suba Chandran is Professor & Dean School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS)
Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal