The Afghan Taliban’s deadliest attack on a major army base in northern Mazar-e-Sharif, which reportedly killed 140 security personnel on Friday, has raised serious concerns at the possible intensification of fighting in Afghanistan as weather warms up. The attack also indicates Taliban war tactics and a shift in focus to the relatively peaceful northern parts of the country like Mazar-e-Sharif.
The Pashtoon-majority eastern and southern parts are considered Taliban strongholds but war from these areas has been expanded to the north at a time when the insurgents are set to launch their so-called “Spring Offensive.”
The Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid says the Mazar-e-Sharif attack, carried by a group of 10 suicide bombers, was a “teaser” for the upcoming spring operations. These operationswhich might start in late April or early May. Taliban’s former minister Agha Jan Mutasim told me, in an interview, that the coming fighting season could be more intense as the Taliban were able to keep areas under their control in winter.
It means that the Taliban had areas to give space to their fighters and also to new recruits. Afghan officials would earlier allege that the Taliban fighters move to their “hideouts in Pakistan.” The Taliban group attack points to their mood that they are not interested in peace negotiations at least for now. With such a destructive attack, the Taliban would also want to mount more pressure on the two-headed government and join the negotiations in a much stronger position in case they decide to start or join the political process.
The Taliban attack could also be seen a serious blow to the on-going diplomatic efforts in the region. Russia-led regional peace initiative has raised some hopes and senior diplomats from 11 countries backed a Russian offer to “provide platform” for peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The Taliban carried out the attack after the April 14 meeting in Moscow, which sent a message to Taliban that the “way forward for Afghanistan was dialogue and not violence.”
The latest attacks would also lead to deterioration in relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan as some elements in Afghanistan turn their guns at Islamabad after such attacks. Pakistan and Afghanistan are set to revive high level contacts with visit of a parliamentary delegation to Kabul this month raising hopes to restore the lost trust between both the neighbours.
The killing of 140 security personnel in a single attack and inside a highly-secured military base could shake the morale of the Afghan security forces as they brace for the traditional fighting season.
Also, the attack also hints towards the Taliban strategy of penetrating the Afghan security and defence forces. Taliban spokesman claimed that the they had “deployed” four militants in the Mazar-e-Sharif base long ago, who helped the suicide squad in their hours of operations. The green-on-blue-attacks are common in Afghanistan which will remain a risk for the security forces, whose casualties have already increased.
In its recent quarterly report, the U.S government’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has said that 6,785 Afghan security force members were killed between January 1 and November 12, 2016, while 11,777 more were wounded. This was an increase of around 35 percent against the same period in 2015, when around 5,000 security forces were killed.
The SIGAR report stated that the “majority of Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) casualties continue to be the result of direct-fire attacks, with IED explosions and mine strikes accounting for much lower levels of casualties.”
Taliban must know that they do not have any sympathy among the war-weary Afghans, who are fed up of this senseless war. In spite of having political office in Qatar, the Taliban leaders have not yet showed any serious approach towards political dialogue. Mere rhetoric will not work and the insurgents will have to send a clear message to the Afghan government and the international community that they would join the reconciliation, just like the Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Taliban should understand that only intra-Afghan dialogue is the viable solution to the problem.
The author is editor NNI news agency, and also a member of CRSS’s Track II Diplomacy initiative, Beyond Boundaries, with Afghanistan.