AThe post-peace optimism halts before a politically nebulous terrains in the landlocked Afghanistan is multi-horned. And the manifestation is symbolic as well as sanguinary. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria)-inspired terrorist strike at a Sikh gurdwara killing at least 25 people in presence of security forces, symbiotically with the US announcement of slashing $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan, is a symptomatic manifestation. Worrisomely, the attack was mostly carried out by a single gunman with multiple attackers involved in the assault that lasted hours befooling the Afghan security forces, who had to struggle hard to track down and neutralize the assailants in the complex and its adjacent residential area.

But it’s not the first time that the Islamist militant group attacked the Sikh community in Afghanistan, a small religious minority, numbering fewer than 300 families across the country. In 2018, at least 19 people, mostly Sikhs, were killed by a suicide bombing in the eastern city of Jalalabad.

Not surprisingly, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s expectation that the Afghan government would release all the 5,000 Taliban prisoners even in phases remains belied, the Taliban having vehemently opposed the delayed, in phases, release of their armed compatriots. Nor did the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani patched up matters up with Abdullah Abdullah, a rival of Dr Ghani, whom the USA successfully persuaded to accept the position of Chief Executive, and to let Ghani assume the Presidency after a disputed election. This time too the way the national elections had taken place turned controversial as Abdullah refused to accept Dr Ghani as the elected President. The opposition politicians allied with Abdullah suggested a reconciliation council to negotiate with the Taliban.

“This council will be inclusive and will include representatives of the Arg (presidential palace) and politicians,” told Mohammad Mohaqiq, the leader of the Hazara Hizbi Wahdat-e Islami party in an interview to Radio Free Afghanistan in mid-March. Reaction came from the presidential adviser Waheed Omar: “Everyone believes the government represents the people of Afghanistan. It should represent politicians and all levels of Afghans.” Pakistan, keeping up the traditional bad blood with Afghanistan, sides with the Taliban.

As per the deal aiming at termination of two-decade war, the USA is committed to withdraw all of its military forces and support civilian personnel, as well as those of its allies, within 14 months. The first step of the drawdown process is reduction of American to 8,600 in the first 135 days and pulling its forces from five bases. The remaining forces are to leave Afghanistan are to leave the Afghan soil “within the remaining nine and a half months.” The Afghan government is committed to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners as a gesture of goodwill, in exchange for 1,000 Afghan security forces held by the Taliban. But it remains largely on paper and in reality a stalemate looms large, showing signs of getting unstuck that are unmistakably manifest.

In fact, Kabul’s tactic of apathy towards point-by-point implementation of the treaty or go-slow about it seems meant for forcing the U.S. Peace Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to diplomatically put pressure on the Taliban to play their due role in creating an ambience for translating the treaty into action. Right now after the massacre at gurdwara all the stake-holders are to condemn the ISIL. But the Taliban are deceptively silent, although the strengthening of ISIL unnerves the Taliban brass. Furthermore, sporadic and scattered violence from the Taliban is an unrestrainable irritant. Political infighting hobbles the peace process, raking up the risk that U.S. efforts to extricate itself from the 18-year war will again go up in smoke.

The uncertainty over the beginning of intra-Afghan peace talks faces an unforeseen hindrance with the spread of the coronavirus pandemic into the troubled country, specifically in western Afghanistan. The COVID-19 scare pushed the Afghan minister of Refugees and Repatriation Sayed Husain Alemi Balkhi into war-mode to combat the threat. About a fortnight back at least 10 Afghan refugees from neighbouring Iran succumbed to the COVID-19 contagion. Over the past weeks, numerous Afghans crossed back into their home country from Iran, one of the worst-afflicted countries with COVID 19, with tens of thousands of cases documented so far.

So far at least 50 people have tested positive for the coronavirus in the province of Herat, where there were more than half of the country’s 74 confirmed cases. The real number may even be more, as few have been tested and laboratory facilities have so far only been available in the capital Kabul. The situation turns hostile due to porous borders of Afghanistan, its creaking hospitals and the tradition of hand-shaking and hugging as also large illiterate populations in crowded urban centres. Pitiably enough, the Taliban tends to thrive on the apparent helplessness of Ghani administration to confront the pandemic. “God forbid if the coronavirus epidemic hits the prisons, it will prompt a major catastrophe,” they stated.

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