The bombing of a wedding party in Kabul that killed 63 people and wounded nearly 200 last week, and the August 19 string of bombings in Jalalabad that left many people injured on the day Afghanistan marked its 100th independence day from British rule, are ominous signs: Despite an imminent “peace agreement” between the US and Taliban, there may be no light at the end of the long Afghan tunnel. The suicide attack on the wedding was claimed by ISIS. The Taliban condemned the attack, but there is little to differentiate between the two, not even the fact that the Taliban are negotiating a comeback deal with the the US. In the last seven months of talks, the Taliban have turned up the violence so much that there are only two explanations: They are maximising their hold in Afghanistan before a deal, leveraging their ability to commit violence in order to position themselves better for the negotiations; or, there is a rift between the leadership in talks with the US and Taliban fighters on the ground. President Ashraf Ghani was not wrong in saying in his independence day speech that it was the Taliban that had provided the platform for such violence.
The bombings come at a time when US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad appears to have almost closed a deal for the withdrawal of American troops, which President Donald Trump wants completed before his re-election bid in 2020. In return, the minimum assurance the US has sought from the Taliban is that Afghan soil will not become a safe haven for terrorists, even though how and if the Taliban will or can keep that promise is not clear. A ceasefire and power-sharing talks with the Afghan government may or may not take place after US withdrawal.
Only one thing is certain: There is more uncertainty in Afghanistan today than there was even a year ago. The identification by ISIS of the suicide bomber as one of their Pakistani fighters underlines the dangers that confront Afghanistan. ISIS in the AfPak region is said to comprise breakaway groups from the Pakistani Taliban and disgruntled Afghan Taliban. Indian security agencies believe that Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed fighters are also present in Afghanistan. With fungible groups and cross-border havens, much of what unfolds in Afghanistan over the next two years and thereafter will depend on decisions made in Pakistan, the facilitator of the US-Taliban talks.