This week began on a positive note for Afghanistan as the country’s diplomats joined their Pakistani, U.S., and Chinese colleagues to restart peace talks with the Taliban and cultivate a cooperative relationship between Kabul and Islamabad.
But days later, the relentless attacks in Afghanistan have changed the conversation. By using explosive-laden, captured government vehicles -- mostly U.S.-made Humvees -- the Taliban have killed more than 120 security forces and destroyed three small Afghan security bases in three southern and southeastern provinces.
A range of factor appears to be driving the attacks. The most important seems to be the Taliban’s zeal to be seen as central to any effort to end the nearly four-decade-long war in Afghanistan after U.S. President Donald Trump committed Washington to help Kabul in defeating the Taliban insurgency.
“People who oppose peace are keen to emphasize that there can be no peace talks without them,” Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told Radio Free Afghanistan.
He said that given the recent thaw in relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, it’s possible that dissidents within the insurgent ranks are launching attacks to torpedo new efforts to reset fraught relations between the two neighbors.
“It is possible there are rivalries within the [Taliban] organization,” he said. “So if there is an agreement on ceasing attacks between some elements of the Taliban and their foreign backers, such as Pakistan, other factions unhappy with this arrangement might now be launching these attacks to underscore their importance.”
The Taliban, however, are clearly gloating over their ability to foment so much violence. A laudatory article on the Taliban’s Voice Of Jihad website noted that killing and injuring hundreds of Afghan security forces in two separate attacks in the southeastern provinces of Paktia and Ghazni on October 17 sent a clear message to Kabul and Washington.
“These attacks show that the Taliban are managed well, their manpower is disciplined, and they are using their own resources for achieving their aims,” the article said.
Without naming Pakistan, it pushed back against a central pillar of Trump’s approach that warned Islamabad to stop supporting the Taliban.
“[These attacks] have refuted claims that the Taliban are fighting a proxy war,” the article said. “If we were fighting for the interests of other countries -- countries that are supposed to unable to withstand [international] pressure, then how could they allow such attacks while the quadrilateral meeting in Oman was going on?”
But the insurgents seem to be feeling the brunt of new U.S. rules of engagement in Afghanistan. Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told Congress his country’s troops would be freer to hit insurgents. Requirements such as that stating U.S. troops could only respond to enemy fire or need to be close to the enemy before engaging are now gone.
In his August 21 strategy speech, Trump pledged to hit terrorists hard in Afghanistan. “We will also expand authorities for American armed forces to target terrorist and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan,” he said.
On October 18, an article in the pro-Taliban website Nun Asia -- Pashto for Asia Today -- cited Afghan Defense Ministry figures saying government forces killed at least 629 “terrorists” during the past 10 days as a claim that Taliban violence was revenge for the persecution of its members.
“Recent years have shown that people [Afghans] see the Taliban killing as a natural thing in the ongoing situation,” the article said. “But when the Taliban pick up guns in revenge or to protect themselves then they are urged to join peace and abandon their ‘foreign’ weapons.”
While the Taliban aren’t hesitant to comment on the Afghan battlefield, they largely keep mum on the rapidly changing situation in Pakistan, where their leaders and foot soldiers have sheltered since the demise of their hard-line regime in late 2001.
A wave of suspected U.S. drone strikes this week has killed scores of Taliban fighters in the northwestern Pakistan’s Kurram tribal district along Afghanistan’s border. The region is seen as a main hideout for the Taliban’s deadly military wing, the Haqqani network.
Islamabad seems complacent with the attacks. In a statement on October 18, the Pakistani military supported the attacks, which it claimed were being conducted inside Afghanistan.
“There has been no air violation along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in that area nor any drone strike in Kurram Agency as being misreported by a few,” the statement said. “Based on timely sharing, the Pakistani Army is vigilant on its side of the border. Better security coordination will take both countries toward enduring peace and stability, defeating the common enemy.”
In a major boost to Pakistan counterterrorism efforts this week, two important Pakistani Taliban leaders were confirmed killed by U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan.
The Tehreek-e Taliban (TTP) Pakistan confirmed on October 18 that one of its key commanders, Umar Mansour, was killed in a U.S. drone strike last year. Islamabad accused him of having masterminded the massacre of 150 students and teachers at an army-run school in December 2014.
On October 19 a splinter group of Jamaat-ul Ahrar confirmed to Reuters that its leader, Omar Khalid Khorasani, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in southeastern Afghanistan this week. He was blamed for some of the deadliest attacks across Pakistan this year.
Speaking to a think tank audience in Washington on October 18, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated his administration’s resolve to defeat militant groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"We will deny terrorists the opportunity, the means, the location, the wherewithal, the financing, the ability to organize and carry out attacks,” he said.
Radio Free Afghanistan senior correspondent Zarif Nazar contributed reporting from Prague.