KABUL — Just one month ago, Afghanistan’s moribund peace process seemed to be sputtering to life. Taliban leaders had welcomed delegations from Kabul to their office in Qatar. The governor and police chief of Kandahar province had told a large gathering that the 16-year conflict could only be resolved through talks and had even offered a haven for Taliban negotiators.
Now, that hopeful moment has been eclipsed by a blitz of terror attacks on Jan 10 that left 50 people dead in Kabul and two other cities. Two attacks were claimed by the Taliban. The third, an explosion at another gathering hosted by Kandahar officials, took the lives of five visiting Emirati diplomats. Amid outraged recriminations by the United Arab Emirates, Afghan security agencies launched an investigation aided by NATO, and dozens of people were arrested this week.
The circumstances of that bombing remain murky, and the Taliban have repeatedly denied responsibility for the blast, in which sophisticated explosives were detonated remotely after being concealed in a sofa inside a secure official compound. The mystery set off a flurry of conspiracy theories pointing to Iran, Pakistan and disputes among Kandahari leaders.
Analysts and government aides said Taliban militants almost certainly carried out the attack but denied it because they did not intend to kill the envoys, whose government is a longtime financial center for their movement. Several officials described the deaths as a monumental blunder that sent panicked Taliban leaders rushing to the UAE to reassure officials they were not behind the attack.
Whoever was responsible, the shocking act abruptly cut off the nascent peace feelers, reinforced predictions that Afghanistan faces another long season of combat and terror once winter ends, and deepening a sense of gloom among Afghan officials. Some analysts said they fear the insurgents will be able to wear down the Kabul government and outlast the foreign goodwill that provides 70 percent of its budget.
“This was not another message of war — it was a vicious and unforgivable crime,” said Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a member of the government’s High Peace Council. “There is still a tendency towards peace and reconciliation in the minds of the Taliban and the government, but there is a deep lack of trust, and how to build that is extremely difficult.”
Mujahid said the situation had become “ambiguous and complicated” due to meddling by foreign neighbors and regional powers. “New actors are emerging whose only purpose is to advance their own interests,” he said. “The way forward is very unclear.”
The spate of attacks came amid growing efforts by Russia and other governments to stake out new roles and relationships in the Afghan war, with some courting the Taliban. This trend, analysts said, has come largely in response to the interregnum vacuum of American leadership in Afghanistan, where Washington’s military and economic backing have been paramount for 15 years.
Russia, which had remained aloof from Afghan affairs since the disastrous Soviet military intervention that ended 28 years ago, has launched a high-profile initiative to reengage on its own terms. Last month, Moscow convened a meeting with Pakistan and China to discuss the Afghan situation, without inviting officials from Kabul.
Privately, the Kremlin has extended feelers to the Taliban, a former enemy that it sees as an antidote to the Islamic State and a future force in Afghan politics. That move angered Afghan officials, as did Russia’s opposition to a U.N. Security Council vote to drop anti-terrorism sanctions against Afghan former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The move would allow him to return home under a peace deal that Afghan and U.S. officials hope will spur the Taliban to follow suit.
Pakistan, which has long sought to dominate both the Taliban fight and the peace process, is scrambling to seek new foreign partners after finding itself isolated abroad and denounced by. U.S. officials for sponsoring aggressive Taliban factions, Some Afghan officials blamed Pakistan for orchestrating the Kandahar bombing, which was reportedly linked to Islamic seminaries across the border.
Iran, which seeks to establish a beachhead for Shiite Islam in next-door Afghanistan, has recently reached out with invitations to the extremist Sunni Taliban. In another role reversal, UAE officials, after years of providing a financial and diplomatic base for the Taliban, have made generous offers of humanitarian aid to the Afghan state. The slain diplomats were in Kandahar to promote that aid.
“What we are seeing is a political game of buzkashi,” the chaotic Afghan version of polo played with a goat carcass instead of a ball, said Timor Sharan, who represents the nonprofit International Crisis Group in Kabul. “Afghanistan is the goat, the American referee is missing, and the regional players are jockeying and maneuvering over where to put the goat to gain advantage for their interests.”
Sharan said he sees no hope for a revival of peace talks, in part because the insurgents are in a strong military position after months of attacks against key Afghan cities and in part because President Ashraf Ghani,who faces rivalries inside and outside his government, and whose ethnic Pashtun political base is in the same region as the Taliban’s, cannot afford to give up the fight.
“There is no incentive for peace now,” Sharan said. “Both sides are gearing up for serious offensives, and the situation is at a stalemate. Everyone agrees there is no military solution, but no one agrees on how to even structure a peaceful one. . . The Taliban can keep going for years.”
According to U.S. military estimates published in October, the government still controls or influences 258 of the country’s 407 districts, another 116 are contested, and 33 are controlled or influenced by the Taliban. Some analysts said that areas under Taliban sway continue to spread and that their attack range is virtually nationwide.
Some pro-Taliban analysts said the major stumbling block to peace is the presence of U.S. troops. The insurgents have demanded a timetable for their withdrawal and insist that it be negotiated with U.S. officials; the Obama administration refused, and it is unclear what position the Trump administration will take.
These figures allege that peace prospects are being sabotaged by some Afghan groups with economic or ethnic motives. But they said they were also encouraged by recent signs of support for talks by key domestic adversaries. At the December meeting in Kandahar, provincial police chief Abdul Razik, a legendary anti-Taliban fighter, called for dialogue and offered protection to potential insurgent negotiators.
But Razik, who has faced Taliban threats before, is believed to have been the intended target of the Jan. 10 bombing, along with other local security officials. He survived after suddenly leaving the room just before the explosion, spurring speculation that he might have been part of the plot, though people familiar with the investigation said he had stepped out to smoke a cigarette.
With the government guesthouse a charred ruin, and the deputy governor and five foreign diplomats among the dead, whatever positive momentum for peace had been generated in Kandahar last month suddenly seemed long gone.