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Afghanistan under attack: Why Ashraf Ghani needs to consolidate his politics & the NUG right now

Vivek Katju | Updated on: 6 June 2017, 15:34 IST
Afghan police clash with protesters during a protest against a suicide bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 2, 2017. At least six protesters were killed and 10 other injured after clash with police. (Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Last week’s Kabul terrorist attacks and demonstrations have shaken President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah’s National Unity Government (NUG). They have exposed NUG's failure to provide security, but, more significantly, it has impacted its underlying and dangerous cleavages.

Socially they have brought to the surface, even if temporarily, the country’s ever-present ethnic undercurrents at a time when political and social unity is needed to meet the Taliban and the growing ISIS challenges.

There have been other devastating attacks by the Taliban and its affiliates and the ISIS in recent months which have demonstrated the NUG’s and the NATO forces' great weaknesses on the security front all over Afghanistan.

Rap sheet:

– Around 140 were killed in April in a Taliban attack on a military base in Balkh

– In March the ISIS carried out an attack on a military hospital not far from the scene of last week’s attack; 30 persons died

However, the 31 May detonation of the explosive-laden sewerage truck that led to the death of 90 persons more sharply profiled how much the Taliban have penetrated the security net in the Afghan capital.

It also highlighted the inability of the Afghan and NATO contingent to prevent their attacks. It occurred on a busy road on which, or in close proximity to which, a number of embassies, including the Indian Embassy, are located.

It was not unnatural for a section of the Kabul public to demonstrate against the NUG’s failure to provide security.

The demonstrators got restive and moved towards the Arg complex which houses the president’s office and residence. Security forces mishandled the situation and fired at the demonstrators killing five persons including the son of a Tajik Panjsheri leader.

The ethnicity question

This in itself would have immediately given an ethnic dimension to the demonstration for reports suggest that the majority of the demonstrators were Tajik and Hazara while the Afghan security forces are basically under the control of Pashtoon leaders. The President, the influential NSA, Hanif Atmar and the head of Afghanistan’s powerful intelligence department, Masoom Stanakzai are all Pashtoons.

On Saturday the Panjsheri leaders were present at a cemetery along with a large group of people for the burial of those killed by the security forces during the demonstrations.

The Taliban struck again killing 20 of those who had gathered for the funeral.

Fortunately, the leaders, which included Abdullah, escaped unhurt.

Popular anger against the NUG, especially of the Tajiks against Ghani only increased. However, much of it is also directed against Abdullah for he is being perceived as being someone who is unable to safeguard Tajik interests.

The politics of it all

The NUG was designed to be an almost equal Ghani and Abdullah partnership. The former though has cornered governmental power marginalising Abdullah. He has been patient, but in the process has ceded ground.

This has distanced him from his core Tajik support so much so, that his one-time prime supporter Mohammad Nur Ata, the governor of the north-western province of Balkh has now become a hostile rival.

Ghani seized the opportunity to drive a wedge holding carrots, often illusory, to Ata.

Abdullah, who is aware of the need for the NUG’s continuance for the welfare of the country, would like to be patient but he may, despite American persuasion, find his position untenable and leave the government.

This would throw the country into a political crisis precisely at a time when it can least afford one.

There is little doubt that Pakistan continues to play a dubious game in Afghanistan fanning the flames of terrorism through their Afghan Taliban proxy. Ghani is well aware of this and, in unrestrained language, blamed Pakistan.

After the 31 May, the NUG blamed the Haqqani network, which is part of the Taliban, and the ISI for the attacks. In turn, the Pakistanis have cautioned Ghani and asked him to exercise restraint.

While all Afghans would agree with Ghani in his holding Pakistan responsible for the terror attacks, the non-Pashtoons do not find it possible to overlook his moving away from the basic tenets of the agreement that brought the NUG into existence.

Ghani must show sagacity in taking their concerns on board instead of seeking to divide them. Former President Hamid Karzai had played this game and had prevented the consolidation of the political process when that was what Afghanistan needed above all.

The Trump angle

These developments also underline the need for a clear enunciation of President Trump’s Afghan policy. The top US commander in Afghanistan, General Nicholson told a Congressional committee earlier this year that the situation between the Afghan Security forces and the terrorists is a stalemate.

The pendulum is swinging away from the government forces for spectacular attacks as the ones in Kabul – they create the perception that the Taliban on the move.

That, in turn, saps popular confidence which impacts on all aspects of public life. The US is the only power that can, by sending a clear signal of resolve, continue to take on the Taliban and by increasing troop levels, as Nicholson wants, begin to undo the erosion of public morale.

The truth is that Trump, like his two predecessors, faces the same dilemma – how to get Pakistan to back off from its policy to foment instability in Afghanistan and specifically to abandon its support and sanctuaries to the Taliban.

With China-Pakistan ties now getting more firmly cemented through the CPEC, the Pakistani generals have even less incentive to change their Afghan policy.

Unless the US is able to rein in Pakistan, its quest to get out of its longest war will continue unless it decides to meekly surrender and walk away.

All in all, Afghanistan faces a very tough summer in security terms. To manage it, Ghani will have to take the political class with him and keep the NUG going. The onus is on him.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 6 June 2017, 13:05 IST