New Over­tures

Southasia - - FRONT PAGE - By Daud Khat­tak

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.

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