Since taking over charge in Kabul last year, Afghanistan President Muhammad Ashraf Ghani has made some really bold moves of improving the security situation in an effort to win confidence of his countrymen.
One was his visit to Pakistan at the head of a high level delegation in November last year. Apart from holding parleys with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Ghani also visited the General Headquarters (GHQ) to meet Army Chief General Raheel Sharif, thus becoming the first-ever Afghan president to visit the GHQ.
Ghani’s message was loud and clear: Afghanistan wants peace with its neighbor and needs its sincere cooperation and support to end the Taliban insurgency and thus put an end to the more than three decades of war in Afghanistan.
The visit not only renewed hopes, which had been fading during the last years of Hamid Karzai’s presidency, but also opened a regular channel of communications between the civilian and security officials of the two countries.
Since then the top security officials, including Pakistan army and ISI chiefs, have paid several visits to Kabul. The last came when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Kabul in May.
The bilateral visits and regular contacts have also put an end to the blame-game between the two neighbors who have remained at loggerheads over the issue of cross-border terrorism during Hamid Karzai’s second term as president.
The thaw in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations has improved their bilateral cooperation against terrorism and it is believed that the increased border control, particularly from the Pakistani side, and the destruction of Taliban sanctuaries in North Waziristan have considerably reduced violence in Afghanistan’s southeastern provinces, which is part of a long and porous border along Pakistan’s tribal belt.
However, since last year, trouble has been fomenting in Afghanistan’s comparatively peaceful northern zone and some fresh reports suggest regular clashes and attacks on Afghan security forces in the provinces of Kunduz, Jawzjan, Sar-e-Pul, Faryab, Badghis, Takhar and Badakhshan.
Local accounts suggest scores of people, including fighters, security officials and civilians have so far been killed, while UN agencies in Kabul say more than 100,000 civilians have been displaced in different parts of these provinces so far. So what is going on? The main front of the recent fighting is Aqcha district of Jawzjan and Aliabad district of Kunduz province where the Uzbekistan Islamic Front and the Taliban are building pressure on the government to retreat from certain areas.
Earlier, reports of clashes and attacks on police and army officials have also been reported from Baghlan, Badakhshan, Takhar, Faryab and Badghis provinces, which have borders with the Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Among the three Central Asian states, Uzbekistan has a 160 kilometers border with Afghanistan; the Tajik border is mountainous while Turkmenistan connectss with Afghanistan through river and desert.
According to the Kabul-based analyst Waheed Muzhda, this is the first time the Taliban have launched such a large scale operation in the northern zone in the past 13 years.
Afghan officials and locals believe that the majority of those involved in the ongoing fighting in Kunduz and Jawzjan provinces belong to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which was an ally of the al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban before 9/11.
The IMU led by Juma Namangani at the time of US invasion of Afghanistan was closely focused on Central Asia with its support bases in the Ferghana Valley. However, like the Afghan and al-Qaeda leaders, the IMU leadership also withdrew into the Pakistani tribal areas after the overthrow of Taliban regime in Kabul in late 2001.
The Uzbek and Chechen militants, led by their ruthless chief Tahir Yuldashev, forged an alliance with local elders and Taliban commanders in North Waziristan and continued strengthening its position by attracting militants from the Central Asians states and Uyghur Muslims from China’s Xingjian province.
While the IMU was pushed back from the main towns of Waziristan following bloody fighting with local tribes, Operation Zarb-e-Azb launched in North Waziristan on June 15, 2014, forced the remainder of them along with their families to cross the border into Afghanistan.
Waheed Muzhda says since then the IMU is gathering its forces in the north through propaganda among the local Tajiks and Uzbek communities as well as attracting fighters from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Chechnya.
According to local accounts from a few villages of Aqcha district and Afghan security officials in Kunduz, the number of IMU fighters in the north range from 5,000 to 7,000.
Despite the IMU’s claim to allegiance to the Iraq-based Islamic State and its self-proclaimed caliph, these Central Asian fighters are carrying out operations in close coordination with the Afghan Taliban.
Analyst Waheed Muzhda says the new IMU chief had declared allegiance to the IS caliph saying they had not seen and never heard Taliban reclusive chief Mullah Omar over the past several years. Still, they were operating in close cooperation with the Taliban and fighting now under the Taliban command.
The eruption of fighting and threat of the fall of several districts to the Taliban-IMU alliance has not only further complicated the Afghan problem but also posed a serious challenge to President Ghani’s efforts both on the local and international level to reach an agreement with the Taliban for a peaceful settlement. The future of Ghani’s peace efforts, in face of the fresh fighting, seems as gory as the coming days of the IMU-Taliban alliance.
As the IMU gains currency in northern Afghanistan and spreads in the region, more and more fighters from Central Asia are on their way to join. Though the organization has sought help from the Taliban for the moment, being in allegiance to the IS caliph, they may pose a challenge to Taliban superiority in the northern parts of Afghanistan.
For Ashraf Ghani, the southern provinces of Afghanistan were already a challenge, mainly because of the strong Taliban support base. The trouble in the comparatively peaceful north is likely to exacerbate his problems. On the political front, President Ghani’s National Unity government is not sailing as smoothly as may be perceived by distant onlookers. His Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Dr. Abdullah enjoys a strong backing in the now troubled north and the unfolding situation in that region may affect President Ghani’s decision making authority in that region.
Since Ghani is believed to have placed all eggs in one basket by launching peace talks with the Taliban through the Doha peace process and by extending an unconditional offer of friendship and cooperation to Pakistan, failure on any front is likely to have dire consequences for his presidency as well as for the future of peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Ghani’s message is loud and clear: Afghanistan wants peace with its neighbors.