In the last month, the Taliban has killed dozens of people in a string of attacks timed to destabilize Afghanistan ahead of the presidential elections on Saturday.
Most recently, a suicide bomber breached the heavy security at the Interior Ministry building and blew himself up, killing six police officers. And that may be just a preview, if local Taliban commanders are to be believed.
“We told Afghans not to vote,” said Haji Shakor, a Taliban commander in central Afghanistan. “If we found out you voted, you won’t take your five fingers home.”
But the real accelerators of this violence aren’t Shakor and his fellow Afghanistan-based militants, local intelligence and security officials tell The Daily Beast. Instead, it’s Taliban insurgents streaming over the border from Pakistan that have enabled the group’s recent killing spree in Kabul. And they say the Pakistani government is to blame for the incursion.
On March 1, the government in Islamabad agreed to a month-long ceasefire with Pakistan’s Taliban, known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The truce was supposed to be a chance to revive stalled peace talks but its timing, just ahead of Afghanistan’s elections, suggests that it may also have been a way to reposition forces before the vote.
By increasing violence ahead of the election, the Taliban is trying to discourage voting and convince Afghans that the government is incapable of providing security. It’s a tactic the Taliban has used in the past before big political events, but this time to pull off its plan the group used some shrewd foreign diplomacy.
There are, broadly speaking, two Talibans, one in Afghanistan and one in Pakistan. The two groups operate semi-autonomously but both fall under the leadership of the Quetta Shura leadership council. And major moves, like this ceasefire, would undoubtedly be blessed by the Quetta Shura.
In a recent interview Srtaj Aziz, Pakistan’s advisor on foreign policy and national security, responded to allegations that Pakistan was responsible for Taliban attacks in Afghanistan.
“We told Afghans not to vote. If we found out you voted, you won’t take your five fingers home.”
“It is rather unfortunate because there is no justification for it. What do we get out of disrupting the elections?” Aziz asked. “For us, a smooth transition in Afghanistan is absolutely critical because without peace and stability in Afghanistan Pakistan cannot be stable,” Aziz said.
But when The Daily Beast asked him about it last week, Aziz did not deny that Pakistan’s truce with the TTP would lead the group’s fighters into Afghanistan. “It is our Pakistan internal issues,” he said.
The recent attacks in Kabul have been devastating but they came as no surprise to Afghan security officials, who have blamed Pakistan for years for the violence in their country. Lutfullah Mahsal, a senior intelligence officer at Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, had been predicting the consequences of a Taliban truce with Pakistan since before the deal was reached.
“If the ongoing negotiations succeed and the TTP announces a truce with Pakistan’s government it will definitely increase and accelerate Taliban related terrorist activities in Afghanistan,” Mashal said last month, before the deal was signed.
Last week, Afghanistan’s intelligence chief, Rahmatullah Nable, told parliament that he had confirmed reports that the Taliban arranged for madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan to close down months earlier than the usual summer holiday so students could go fight in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s interior minister Umar Daudzai echoed this in a media conference, saying, “some of the Madrasas in Pakistan have been shut down so students can go and fight in Afghanistan.”
An Afghan intelligence officer assigned to follow the Taliban in Pakistan said that “there is no doubt if the TTP and Pakistan government truce continues, lots of Pakistan militants will be going to Afghanistan for the fighting season.” The fighting season comes in the summer months after the election.
In other words, the TTP’s surge into Afghanistan could do more than just spoil Saturday’s vote. It could cause pain for months to come—and right when U.S. and NATO forces are preparing their withdrawal from the country.
This is a critical moment for Afghanistan. The country will elect a new leader for the first time since Hamid Karzai became president in 2001. The vast majority, if not all, American and NATO forces, will leave the country by years end. The Taliban are mustering everything they can to prove that after 13 years of war they’re still a powerful force in Afghanistan, and that the elected government is incapable of securing the country.
For years, Western militaries have tried to train and equip a series of local paramilitary forces to keep Afghanistan from cracking once NATO leaves. Shakor, the Taliban commander, admitted those paramilitaries would be tough to dislodge. But he insisted that they are next on the militants’ target list, nevertheless.
“U.S. and NATO might be leaving Afghanistan but they gave birth to local infidels and it is difficult to handle them because they are local and knew everything about the Taliban,” he told The Daily Beast.
“The reality is the Taliban have new local enemies and challengers. The tribal militias generate a lot of trouble for Taliban in the country side,” he added.
And now, in his fight against the paramilitaries Shakor has new help coming from across the border.