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Attack on Afghan Parliament puts Kabul-Islamabad relations and peace talks at risk

Farhad Peikar
The Afghan government accused the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Pakistani secret service, of orchestrating Monday's attack on the Afghan Parliament, while Pakistan blamed India, reigniting old wounds.
27.06.2015  |  New York
The Afghan parliament in 2014 (photo: Masood Momin)
The Afghan parliament in 2014 (photo: Masood Momin)

The June 22 attack on the Afghan parliament by a squad of Taliban suicide bombers has raised concerns among peace advocates that any further  high-profile assaults could damage the recently improved relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, while impeding peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

NDS: ISI behind attack on Parliament

Two days after the brazen attack, Afghan intelligence services claimed that the attack on Parliament - which left two people dead and more than two dozen injured - was carried out with the direct assistance of a Pakistani intelligence officer and Haqqani network operatives. Hassib Sediqqi, spokesman for the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence agency, identified the officer as Bilal and said that the explosive-laden vehicle used in the attack was manufactured in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Blaming Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) for attacks in Afghanistan has always been a common response in Afghanistan, but in recent months, such automatic judgment has disappeared from the Afghan government’s official rhetoric vis-à-vis its nuclear-armed eastern neighbour. Following years of tension, during which each side blamed the other for supporting militant attacks in their territories, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have improved remarkably under President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani.

The renewed accusations against Pakistan come just weeks after the NDS and the ISI signed the first ever Memorandum of Understanding to cooperate on intelligence sharing and fighting terrorism. The attack on Parliament has put President Ghani, already under fire at home for his rapprochement with Pakistan, in a precarious situation. The president had hoped that by making concessions to Pakistan, he could win Islamabad’s assistance in brokering peace talks with the Taliban.

Pakistan’s interest in peace talks

Both countries have a lot to lose if relations worsen again. Pakistan, which maintained a lukewarm yet often tempestuous relationship with former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s regime, has finally found a partner in Kabul that is not too close to its archrival India. Any setback in the revamped relations with Kabul would be detrimental to Pakistan, which is struggling to contain several insurgencies inside its own territory.

Just hours after the attack, in which six of the attackers were allegedly gunned down by a single Afghan army soldier (the seventh detonated himself), three separate statements by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the speaker of the National Assembly and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the attack.

Taliban and Afghan government met in China

In an apparent move to show Pakistan’s seriousness in helping Afghanistan in its peace efforts, Sharif’s national security and foreign policy advisor, Sartaj Aziz, also for the first time disclosed that his government recently facilitated secret talks between Afghan officials and Taliban representatives in the northwestern Chinese city of Urumqi.

Aziz, who was briefing the Foreign Affairs Committee in Pakistan’s National Assembly, said that the next round of talks could happen later this month and he expected the overall process would produce results in the next three months.

Aziz’s revelation of the talks between Afghan and Taliban envoys, which came just hours after the attack, is widely seen as an effort by the Pakistani government to pre-empt criticisms that traditionally emanate from Afghanistan following each high-profile attack.

The Taliban, which usually use such opportunities for their media propaganda campaigns, were less vocal after Monday's assault on Parliament. After initially taking responsibility for the attack via a Twitter message, Taliban spokesmen released no further press statements.

Pakistani media blame Indian intelligence wing

Pakistani newspaper The News reported that India’s spy agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), was responsible for the attack. Quoting an unnamed strategic expert, the newspaper said that by targeting Parliament, India tried on the one hand to subvert the reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Taliban and on the other hand to harm relations between Kabul and Islamabad.

Pakistani citizens were equally as vocal as their leaders in blaming India for the attack on social media channels. #RAWattacksAfghanParliament has been a top trending subject among Pakistani Twitter users since the attack on the Afghan Parliament on Monday.  

The assault on Afghanistan’s symbol of modern democracy has already dampened calls for peace talks in Kabul. During its session on Tuesday, the Afghan senate called on the Afghan government to end its reconciliation with militants and called the Taliban the “enemies of Afghanistan” that should be dealt with through military means.

The Taliban have held meetings with Afghan lawmakers and civil society groups, including women representatives, as well as UN officials in Qatar, Norway and Dubai in recent weeks.

No official face-to-face talks have yet been confirmed by either party and the fear is that brazen assaults such as Monday’s attack on parliament could delay any such meetings in the near future. With the ongoing trilateral whispering and infighting as to who did it, relations between Islamabad and Kabul, which are vital for any peace settlement with Taliban, could become strained once again.