President Ashraf Ghani is acting tough with Taliban almost a month after the militant group killed 64 people in one of the deadliest attacks since its ouster from power in 2001. He has also hardened his stance on Pakistan for waging an ‘undeclared war’ against his country
If the recent hanging of six Taliban death row convicts in Afghanistan is any indication of how President Ashraf Ghani proposes to deal with the insurgent group in the coming months, then it does seem that his recent statements favouring a new, tough approach toward the Taliban are not empty rhetoric.
Among those hanged were two Taliban militants involved in the assassination of the deputy chief of the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) Abdullah Laghmani and former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani in 2009 and 2011, respectively.
The “six terrorists” had “perpetrated grave crimes against civilians and public security,” a statement issued by the presidential palace said, adding that the President signed the order of execution in response to “repeated demands of the families of victims of terrorist attacks.”
The executions mark a significant hardening in the approach of the Ghani government toward the Taliban.
On becoming president in September 2014, Ghani adopted a conciliatory approach toward the Taliban. He sought a negotiated settlement with the insurgent group and to this end roped in Pakistan and China; Pakistan to deliver the Taliban at the talks table and China, which was to broker the peace process, to nudge Islamabad to co-operate with the Afghan reconciliation process.
However, his outreach yielded no positive results. Rather, it appears to have provided space for the Taliban’s resurgence, allege his critics. Over the past 18 months, civilian and military fatalities in Taliban attacks have touched record numbers. With his hold over power increasingly fragile, Ghani was reportedly contemplating a shift in approach.
It was the Taliban attack in Kabul on the morning of April 19 that finally forced Ghani’s hand. The attack, which is among the deadliest by the Taliban in an urban area since its ouster from power in 2001, left 64 people dead and over 350 others injured.
The Afghan government issued a statement soon after that striving for peace through negotiations with the Taliban is no longer a priority. Ghani ordered NDS officials to use all force against the “terrorists,” including “destroying them through air and ground operations.”
In a joint session of parliament on April 25, Ghani pledged to “deal severely” with those who commit “terrorist acts against the people of Afghanistan.” The “time of unjustified amnesty” is over, he said. His government would implement court decisions, including death penalty rulings.
While his statements and order permitting execution of the six Taliban convicts indicate a new toughness in his handling the Taliban, Ghani described only “some Taliban” as Afghanistan’s enemies. He ruled out talks with “foreign hirelings” but said the “door of dialogue for reconciliation” was open to those sections of the Taliban that are ready to work with Afghanistan for peace and stability.
More than the Taliban, it is vis-a-vis Pakistan that Ghani’s position seems to have hardened the most. Pointing out that his government no longer expected Pakistan to deliver the Taliban at the negotiating table, he called on it “to take military action” against Taliban fighters based on Pakistani soil or to “surrender them” to Afghanistan. Failure to do so, he warned, would force his government to complain to the UN Security Council and other international bodies.
Last week, in a lecture at the Royal United Services Institute in London, the Afghan president pointed out that his country is facing an “undeclared war” from Pakistan. He lashed out at the Pakistani government’s refusal to carry out a “single operation against the Haqqanis or the Taliban leadership.”
“Are their addresses not known? Where do they congregate, where do they meet, do they not meet openly, do they not recruit openly, do they not receive arms openly,” he asked.
It was Pakistan that was the destination of Ghani’s second state visit abroad, signalling the central role he accorded to that country in his efforts to end the Afghan conflict. During that visit, he even met with Pakistan’s Army Chief Raheel Sharif indicating the important role the military plays in bringing the Taliban to the talks table.
Military co-operation, including training and joint monitoring of their borders, intensified. Afghanistan allowed Pakistan to interrogate Pakistan Taliban suspects in its jails and the two sides even signed a memorandum of understanding for cooperation between their intelligence agencies.
Ghani’s gamble in reaching out to Pakistan for support was a hugely unpopular move with the Afghan political and military establishment as well as the public. Their skepticism over his outreach to Pakistan was proved right with that outreach yielding nothing.
Will Ghani’s slamming the door on Pakistan even as he holds it ajar for the Taliban yield better results? It seems unlikely.
He is yet to clarify his government’s next steps to end the armed conflict.
Meanwhile, AP has reported that the government has clinched a deal with the Hezb-i-Islami, which is led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The militia has agreed to end its war against the Afghan government and to respect the constitution.
The deal is being described as having little value on the ground as the Hezb-i-Islami has been largely inactive over the last couple of years.
Still, it would provide the Afghan government’s sagging morale with a boost.
Dr Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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