As Washington attempts to negotiate peace with the Taliban to bring 17 years of war in Afghanistan to a close, the militant group has ramped up its military campaign by targeting powerful provincial opponents.
Last week, the Taliban claimed its fighters shot down an Afghan Army helicopter in the mountainous Anar Dara district of western Farah Province, which borders Iran, on October 31. At least 25 military and civilian officials were killed, including an influential anti-Taliban figure, Fareed Bakhtawar, the head of Farah’s provincial council.
Afghan officials, however, rejected the Taliban’s claim as “totally wrong,” maintaining that the helicopter crashed due to bad weather.
Bakhtawar had been a bulwark against a possible Taliban takeover of Farah.
In May, he personally engaged in a fierce gun-battle with heavily armed Taliban fighters when they stormed the provincial capital, also called Farah, from several directions and claimed to have overrun the large rural province.
Bakhtawar’s assassination is not an isolated incident. It appears to be part of a Taliban strategy to show their strength and extended their influence across the country as Washington pushes for talks with the insurgents.
Two days before the October 20 parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, the Taliban claimed that one of their infiltrators had killed General Abdul Raziq. The powerful anti-Taliban police chief of southern Kandahar Province was widely seen as a lynchpin of a network preventing the insurgents from reclaiming the birthplace of their hard-line Islamist movement in the 1990s.
A Taliban fighter got past the bodyguards of Zalmay Weesa, Kandahar’s provincial governor. He opened fire on Raziq following a key meeting attended by senior Afghan and U.S. officials. The U.S. commander of Afghanistan's NATO-led force, General Scott Miller, was at the scene.
The Taliban claimed responsibility in a statement. "The brutal police chief of Kandahar has been killed along with several other officials," the group said.
A day before Raziq’s assassination, the Taliban claimed responsibility for an explosion that killed Abdul Jabar Qahraman, a key parliamentary electoral candidate in southern Helmand Province. The militants called him a “renowned communist general.”
Qahraman was a staunch anti-Taliban figure who was once assigned by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to oversee military operations against the insurgents in Helmand. The region produces the bulk of the world’s opium and heroin. The Taliban siphon off a major share from the drug trade, and Helmand remains a major recruiting ground.
Atiqullah Amarkheil, a Kabul-based retired Afghan general, says the loss of the three influential figures, who enjoyed popular support, could quickly give the Taliban dominance over the southern and southwestern parts of Afghanistan.
“The elimination of Raziq, Qahraman and the head of Farah’s provincial council, who had resisted [the Taliban] and had, in fact, prevented Farah from falling to the Taliban, has a direct impact on the security situation,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “It makes it very difficult for the government to retain its control over these areas.”
Ali Amiri, a Kabul-based political analyst, agrees. He says the loss of such powerful local figures can create security hurdles for the Afghan government as it prepares for presidential elections in 2019.
“The loss of these figures makes it difficult for the government to maintain stability in Afghanistan overall," he said.
Jawid Kohistani, a Kabul-based security expert, says the assassinations indicate that the
Taliban are unwilling to join an inclusive negotiated peace process.
“The Taliban are not yet ready to engage in some sort of a reconciliation with the government and political parties, both former mujahedin parties and others,” he said. “They are not ready to create a joint political system [with the Afghans they are fighting against].”
The Taliban’s assassination campaign against their rivals dates back years. The insurgents have used the killing of influential figures to weaken the government in Kabul and extend control in specific regions. The assassinations of leading anti-Taliban figures invariably weaken the resolves of others to oppose them.
In 2015, the militant group claimed responsibility for the assassination of a powerful police chief in the southern province of Uruzgan, Matiullah Khan.
In July 2011, another arch-enemy of the Taliban, Jan Mohammad Khan, a former governor of Uruzgan and a close ally of former President Hamid Karzai, was assassinated at his home in Kabul. Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the militant group, said in a statement at the time that Khan was "a big stooge of the American invaders."
In September 2011, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing of Afghanistan’s head of the High Peace Council at the time and former President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Forces loyal to Rabbani fought the Taliban militants during their reign in Afghanistan from 1994 to early 2001.
The new wave of Taliban assassination comes at a time when Washington has stepped up efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Afghan government in a bid to end the United States’ longest war.
In October, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation, wrapped up an 11-day trip that took him to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
Media reports said Khalilzad met with the Taliban’s representatives in the Qatari capital, Doha, on October 12.
The Taliban confirmed the news, saying in a statement that both sides discussed the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan and "agreed to continue such meetings."
In the past, the group has expressed readiness to engage in direct talks with the United States. However, it has declined to negotiate with the U.S.-backed Afghan government.
Both Kabul and Washington have emphasized that any peace talks should be led and owned by Afghans.
The U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan also issued a statement on Khalilzad’s tour. However, it did not confirm the meeting in Doha.
"The United States shares the aspirations of all Afghans for a peaceful Afghanistan where all Afghans see themselves included. All citizens of Afghanistan must be a part of this reconciliation process," Khalilzad said at the end of his trip, based on the statement.
Despite Khalilzad’s peace-building efforts, the continuation of the Taliban’s targeted campaign in southern Afghanistan and their consequent attacks during the October 20 parliamentary elections have wilted any budding optimism for peace and stability.
Kohistani sees little Taliban interest in making a grand bargain or a political compromise by accepting the constitution and joining the political mainstream of Afghanistan.
“They fight for the re-establishment of their Islamic Emirate. They have reiterated this in their recent statements,” he noted.