By Ajit Kumar Singh*
Amidst reports emerging that the long-drawn talks between the United States (US) and the Afghan Taliban were at the ‘concluding stage’, a blast inside a mosque in the Kuchlak town area of Quetta (Quetta District), the provincial capital of the Balochistan Province of Pakistan, on August 16, 2019, killed four people, including the prayer leader Ahmadullah Akhundzada, the brother of Afghan Taliban ‘chief’ Hibatullah Akhundzada. Some 25 people were also injured in the blast. The Deputy Inspector General of Police, Quetta, Abdul Razzaq Cheema, stated, “An explosive time device was planted under the wooden chair of the prayer leader.”
Columnist Rahimullah Yusufzai disclosed that the mosque was attached to a madrassa (seminary) that had earlier been run by Hibatullah: “After he [Hibatullah] became the emir he left this place. His younger brother [Ahmadullah]… was running the madrassas…”
The targeted mosque has long controlled by and linked to the Quetta Shura the ‘executive council’ of the top leadership of the Afghan Taliban. An unidentified Taliban source corroborated, “This mosque was a place where most of the Taliban members used to meet and discuss issues. The duties of the mosque were handed over to Ahmadullah by Hibatullah after he was appointed as the emir of the Taliban group [in 2016].”
Significantly, Kuchlak, is a major transit point for Afghan Taliban members to move between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and has a large population of Afghan refugees. It is, moreover, well established that the Quetta Shura, started operating out of Quetta following the Taliban’s ouster from Afghanistan.
Incidentally, Hibatullah’s predecessor Mullah Akhtar Mansour was also killed in Balochistan, in a drone strike carried out by the US. On May 21, 2016, the US carried a drone attack in Kuchaki area of Nushki District in Balochistan, killing Mansour and his driver, identified as Muhammad Wali. Mansour had been made amir in July 2015, after Taliban’s founder Mullah Mohammed Omar’s death on April 23, 2013, was acknowledged by the Pakistani state and the Taliban.
It is pertinent to recall here, that after the eighth round of negotiations between the US and the Afghan Taliban ended on August 12, 2019, in Doha, a Taliban representative (name not disclosed) in the talks stated, “This round of talks has been very productive and we are near to an agreement that will be finalized and hopefully announced in the coming weeks.”
Earlier, on August 12, 2019, the day the round of talks concluded, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted, “We’ve concluded this round of talks that started Aug 3 between the US and the Taliban. Over the last few days, the two sides focused on technical details. They were productive. I am on my way back to DC to consult on next steps.”
However, soon after the blast in Quetta, speculation was rife that the talks between the US and the Taliban would be a casualty. However, on August 17, 2019, US President Donald Trump tweeted, “Just completed a very good meeting on Afghanistan. Many on the opposite side of this 19-year war, and us, are looking to make a deal – if possible!”
The Taliban was even more positive in its approach. An unnamed Taliban leader asserted, “If someone thinks martyring our leaders would stop us from our goal they’re living in a fool’s paradise. We are close to our goals.”
Developments after the blast indicate that, as of now, the killing of the Taliban chief’s brother will have no immediate impact on the talks and the Taliban, like the US , are also in hurry to achieve their goal of securing the withdrawal of the US and allied Forces in Afghanistan. Notably, according to the December 2015 US Department of Defense (DoD) report,
|…with control of – or a significant presence in – roughly 30 per cent of districts across the nation, the Taliban now holds more territory than in any year since 2001, when the puritanical Islamists were ousted from power after the 9/11 attacks.|
A resurgence of Taliban violence is ongoing and, according to a BBC study published on January 31, 2018, the Taliban was openly active in 70 per cent of Districts in Afghanistan: in full control of 14 Districts, i.e. four per cent of the country and have an active and open physical presence in a further 263, i.e. 66 per cent. According to the last District-stability data assessment reported by SIGAR in its January 2019 Quarterly Report, out of 407 Districts in Afghanistan, 59 Districts, approximately 14.5 percent of all, were under Taliban control.
The Taliban is, however, being challenged by the Islamic State (IS, also Daesh) across Afghanistan, but more specifically in Nangarhar and Kunar Provinces. “We continue to see heavy fighting between Taliban and the Islamic State of Khorasan Province [IS-KP] in Nangarhar and Kunar,” said Colone Knut Peters, a spokesperson for NATO. Antonio Giustozzi, in his book titled The Islamic State in Khorasan: Afghanistan, Pakistan and the New Central Asian Jihad observed, “IS-K also had a strategic aim of ultimately replacing the Taliban, TTP [Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan] and other insurgent groups in Khorasan…” Daesh has also been gaining ground. Most recently, in the night of August 18, 2019, Daesh carried out a suicide bombing at a crowded wedding party in Kabul killing at least 63 people.
Meanwhile, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), since 2007, at least 86,225 militants (mostly Taliban) have been killed in Afghanistan (data till August 18, 2019). The Taliban continues to engage in negotiations, even as it exploits the progressively weakening ground situation of state Forces. Academician Dawood Azami argues, “As the peace talks are entering an important phase, the Taliban want to maximize their leverage and speak from a position of strength at the negotiating table.”
The Taliban it seems believes that the successful peace talks with the US will help it take on IS more effectively and extend its unchallenged influence across the country. The leadership also believes that the deal will help expand its acceptance on the political front as well.
The way ahead is far from easy. Peter Galbraith, a former US diplomat and ex-United Nations deputy special representative for Afghanistan, thus noted
|The deal-breakers are the possibility of exceptionally violent and gruesome Taliban attacks; the refusal of Afghan government to go along; a refusal of the Tajiks and Hazaras to accept a deal [even if approved by President Ashraf Ghani]; and a Taliban belief that it can prevail militarily without a deal.|
Though the killing of Ahmadullah Akhundzada in Quetta has had no visible impact on the ongoing talks, it clearly establishes the continued presence and operation of the Afghan Taliban from Pakistani soil, and introduces potentially disruptive elements. While the Taliban has sought to dismiss the significance of the incident, as with the Mansour killing, this assassination will have inevitable impact on the troubled US-Pakistan-Taliban triangle.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management