A question mark hangs over Afghanistan’s parliamentary and local council elections scheduled for July this year.

Wasima Badghisi, Deputy Head Of Operations at the Independent Election Commission has said that the elections could be delayed for three months but may have to be pushed back for another three months. District council elections have never been held, despite being mandated in the 2004 constitution.

Afghanistan’s international partners including the United Nations are of the view that even under the most favourable conditions, the earliest date on which an election could feasibly be held is October 2018. But Western diplomats believe even that date is impossible given the relentless onslaught by the Taliban; the direct challenges to President Ashraf Ghani’s authority; the heightened ethnic tensions and suspicions.

If the elections are not held by October climatic factors could delay the elections to 2019 the year when Presidential elections are also due to be held. American intelligence agencies had said that the National Unity government in Kabul "probably will struggle" to hold long-delayed parliamentary elections and to prepare for a presidential election in 2019.

Afghanistan has held two parliamentary elections since the end of Taliban rule, the first in 2005 and the second in 2010. The five-year term of the parliament elected in 2010 was meant to expire in June 2015, but elections were postponed because of security fears and disagreements on how to ensure a fair vote after the bitterly disputed presidential election in 2014 which resulted in a deal brokered by the USA making Ashraf Ghani the President and his rival Abdullah Abdullah the Chief Executive Officer. In 2015 President Ashraf Ghani had issued a decree extending parliament’s mandate until a vote could be held, a decision whose legality had been questioned.

An ambitious and expensive plan to issue new electronic identity cards ahead of elections has stirred heated debate and ethnic animosity, raising political tensions. The dispute is whether a citizen’s nationality should be designated as Afghan with leading figures from some ethnic groups rejecting this since the term Afghan has been considered synonymous with the term Pushtun. The main opposition has come from the Tadjiks and Uzbeks with a preference to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan being preferred by some as the cover -all nomenclature.

President Ashraf Ghani’s authority is being thwarted by powerful warlords serving as Provincial Governors openly defying his orders. Mohammed Ata Noor remains ensconced in Balk Province while the Governor of Samangan Abdulkarim Khaddam first refused to step down but then agreed under a deal between the Jamiat-i Islami party and the President’s office under which Khaddam will take a position on the High Peace Council, a body set up to handle reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.

Interestingly both the Governors belong to the Jamiat e Islami which while nominally Ghani’s partner in the National Unity Government created after the disputed 2014 presidential election, has turned increasingly hostile to the President. Many in the Jamiat - mainly supported by Persian-speaking ethnic Tajiks from the north - accuse Ghani of monopolizing power in defiance of the 2014 government pact and favouring his own Pashtun supporters from eastern Afghanistan.

Pashtuns accuse the Jamiat of undermining national unity and encouraging local strongmen to defy the central government. Meanwhile the leader of the Uzbeks Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum remains in exile in Turkey to dodge the charges of human rights violations levelled against him.

Afghanistan’s problems have been exacerbated by the complete failure of the Afghan Army and the US led coalition to stem the Taliban onslaught despite President Trump increasing the number of American troops 14000..Washington's own Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, has said that more than half of Afghanistan is either under direct Taliban control or under their influence. Other estimates put the figure as high as 70 percent.

In a bid to make the Afghan army more effective President Ghani is said to be planning to retire more than 2,000 army generals and other senior officers, in order to bring new blood into the military's top ranks. Afghan officials have said that the move was absolutely necessary because the allies, particularly the Americans, had clearly said they would not be able to win with the current army set up as many of the existing commanders were too old to keep up with modern warfare.

Not surprisingly the President’s plan has not gone down well with the veteran officers, many of whom fought with U.S.-backed mujahideen against Soviet occupation in the 1980s, the civil war in the 1990s, or were part of the 1990s Northern Alliance opposition to Taliban rule.

As the US keeps coming with new plans it is the ordinary Afghans who are suffering. The latest UN report on the situation in Afghanistan has said that there were 10000 Afghan civilian casualties in 2017 with the Taliban responsible for 42 per cent. Militants have stepped up their attacks on Afghan troops and police in recent months, sapping morale already hit by desertions and corruption.

Kabul, has become one of the deadliest places in Afghanistan for civilians in recent months and since mid-January, militants have stormed a luxury hotel, bombed a crowded street and raided a military compound in the capital, killing more than 130 people as the city. It is not just the Taliban creating mayhem. Islamic State has strengthened its presence in the country and the discovery of an Islamic State hideout filled with explosives and suicide vests in a poor Kabul neighborhood gives an indication of their penetration.

Islamic State is said to have gained in strength in northern Afghanistan, where ethnic Uzbeks have been recruited into its ranks. Afghan security forces, aided by the U.S.-led coalition, have been targeting suspected IS hideouts in Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province, where the group is believed to have established its most extensive bases.

Despite the emergence of Islamic State in Afghanistan it is the Taliban who remain the most resilient adversary for the Afghan army and Nato’s US led coalition. President Ashraf Ghani and the Americans have repeatedly accused Pakistan of doing little and continuing to provide safe havens to the Haqqani network blamed for the most vicious attacks in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s response has been that it has done a lot in the fight against terrorism and continues to accuse Afghanistan of harbouring terrorists conducting attacks inside Pakistan. A recent second round of Pakistan-Afghanistan talks on an engagement plan on peace and security issues ended without making any headway on its key elements. Largely because the Afghan delegation felt that their priorities were not being addressed.

Pakistan said more needed to be done to bridge the difference of opinion with regards to the proposed Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS). However, the Afghans said no progress was achieved on specific, result-oriented, time-bound measures in the APAPPS, particularly in the areas of counterterrorism, reduction of violence, peace and reconciliation to meet the priorities of Afghanistan and that their side had handed over a list of individuals and madressahs suspected of involvement in terrorist attacks in Afghanistan.

The Americans appear to be at a loss about what to do to end the war—increasing troops has not helped and bashing Pakistan is unlikely to. The Department of Defense Inspector General had said that "no significant progress" had been made in 2017 toward the stated goal of bringing 80 percent of the country's population under government control.

The report said that there was little evidence to support comments that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., and other top U.S. officials made late last year, arguing that U.S.-backed troops had "turned the corner" and gained momentum in their fight against the Taliban. The Trump administration's response has been to prevent SIGAR from releasing estimates of territory gained or lost by the government. Washington has also classified information regarding the strength and performance of Afghanistan's security forces.

President Trump’s South Asia strategy gives US commanders in the region the authority and resources they need to deal with "terrorist safe havens in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. But American Lt. General Kenneth McKenzie was quick to point out that that the US did not actually contemplate operations inside Pakistan. On January 1, 2018 President Trump had said that the US had foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and gotten only lies and deceit in return. He had accused Pakistan of giving safe haven to terrorists.

Recently National Intelligence Director Dan Coats had told the Senate Intelligence Committee that despite Washington's requests to do more, the Pakistan Army was only trying to appear tougher against the Taliban and Haqqani militants. The latest weapon to be unleashed against Pakistan in the pursuit of American interests in Afghanistan is nudging countries to include Pakistan in the terrorist watchlist maintained by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).

In the US, seventeen US intelligence agencies warned Congress that Islamabad-backed militant groups will continue to take advantage of their safe havens in Pakistan to plan and conduct attacks in Afghanistan, including against US interests.

But the US approach has not been all threats. While Trump has been most outspoken in condemning Pakistan for its support to terrorism American Generals and officials have been visiting Pakistan to try and assuage Pakistan, citing Pakistan’s criticality to American interests in Afghanistan and to prevent a complete breakdown of the increasingly dysfunctional relationship.

Lisa Curtis, the Senior Director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council has been the latest visitor and she said that the US wanted a new relationship with Pakistan but only after Pakistan neutralised the Haqqanis and other terrorist groups . A secret dialogue between the two countries commenced soon after the US suspended military assistance.

The dialogue that began between the Pentagon and Pakistan’s Army is believed to be continuing at the same level and between the same principals — Centcom Commander Gen Joseph Votel and Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa. US officials are said to be concerned that excessive Pakistan bashing may persuade it to assist China and Russia to strengthen their influence in Afghanistan. Already reports have appeared that China is seeking a military base in Afghanistan's remote and mountainous Wakhan Corridor to prevent the infiltration of militants into Xinjiang.

General Votel told Congress that Gen Joseph Votel achieving long-term stability in Afghanistan and defeating the insurgency will be difficult without Pakistan's support and assistance. He said the US military had recently seen some positive indicators from Pakistan, which led it to believe that Islamabad was becoming more responsive to US concerns.

Even on the question of suspension of nearly 1 billion dollars in security assistance Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States could consider ending the suspension if Islamabad takes "decisive and sustained" actions against militant groups in the country including targeting all terrorist groups operating within its territory, without distinction.

The Taliban are behaving like victors with no sign of any easing of their relentless offensive involving attacks on Nato and Afghan army bases, the Afghan police; government establishments in the capital Kabul and widespread bomb blasts. Interestingly the Taliban issued two statements recently suggestive of a willingness to talk but with their ultimate objective of all foreigners leaving spelt out. The first statement addressed to the American people said their offer should not be taken as a sign of weakness and that the United States of America must end its “occupation” and accept the Taliban right to form a government consistent with the beliefs of the Afghan people.

The statement said that the Taliban preferred to solve the Afghan issue through peaceful dialogue and called on the USA to begin talks to end the war. Nato and US President Trump ruled out talks while the Taliban were engaged in violence. Donald Trump said there could be no quick talks with the Taliban.

A second statement from the Taliban came recently two days before the start of the Kabul Process meeting of regional countries in Kabul. This statement reiterated that the Taliban wanted a peaceful resolution and called on American officials to talk directly to the Political Office of the Islamic Emirate regarding a peaceful solution. It called on America to accept the legitimate demands of the Afghan people and to put forward its own concerns and requests for discussion to the Islamic Emirate through a peaceful channel.

The statement referred to reported comments by Alice Wells, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. State Department's Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, that the "door is open" for talks with the Taliban.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani who had so far refused talks with the Taliban calling them terrorists appeared to have shifted his stance. Speaking at the meeting of the Kabul Process this week in Kabul, Ghani recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political group saying that there should be a ceasefire and a release of prisoners as part of a range of options including new elections, involving the Taliban, and a constitutional review as part of any agreement with the Taliban. He said a framework for peace negotiations should be created with the Taliban recognised as a legitimate group, with their own political office to handle negotiations in Kabul or another agreed location. The Taliban merely said they were studying the offer.

While reports had continued to come in of Afghan officials holding talks with some Taliban leaders there appears to have been no coordinated effort. Afghanistan’s intelligence chief Masoom Stanikzai and National Security Chief Mohammed Hanif Atmar were said to be talking to the Taliban but neither was talking to the other or to the High Peace Council, which was created by the government to talk peace with the Taliban. A report in the second week of January 2018 spoke of a meeting in Istanbul of Afghan officials with Taliban leaders from the Qatar office where Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s representatives were also present. The report was dismissed by Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid who said no one from the group participated in the meeting.

A delegation of Taliban officials had also visited Pakistan, apparently with the blessing of their leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, in the third week of January for exploratory talks on restarting peace negotiations. But there was little in the public domain about what was discussed.

Given their timing and the fact that not much headway has been made against the Taliban in the field, there is every likelihood that Pakistan, under increasing Trump pressure, might have engineered the issuance of the two statements to take some of the pressure off itself. But the likelihood that the Taliban would budge from their fixed demand that the Americans and other foreign troops leave Afghanistan is remote. It is equally unlikely that Pakistan would wholeheartedly work to get the Taliban to the table and engineer what the Americans might call a victory—unless there was some way to ensure that Pakistan’s favourites were ensconced in power.

The mayhem and associated human rights violations of ordinary Afghans have begun to echo in the International Criminal Court at the Hague. ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has said that the court has been looking into possible war crimes in Afghanistan since 2006 and that there was a reasonable basis to believe that crimes against humanity and war crimes were committed by the Taliban as well as the Haqqani network. She also said there was evidence that the Afghan National Security Forces, Afghan National Police and its spy agency, known as the NDS, committed war crimes.

Bensouda has also said evidence existed of war crimes committed by members of the United States armed forces on the territory of Afghanistan, and by members of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in secret detention facilities in Afghanistan, as well as in countries that had signed on to the Rome Statute. The International Criminal Court has already received 1.17 million statements from Afghans who say they were victims.

The statements include accounts of alleged atrocities not only by groups like the Taliban and the Islamic State, but also involving Afghan Security Forces and government-affiliated warlords, the U.S.-led coalition, and foreign and domestic spy agencies. It is likely that the actual number of complainants is much more as one complaint could be filed for a number of individuals.

Meanwhile Afghanistan has witnessed a new phenomenon of youth activists calling themselves the ArtLords speaking out against corruption and spreading messages of peace and social justice with murals, many painted on concrete blast walls designed to ward off militant bombs. They say their effort is to bring about social change.

On the economic front Afghanistan shows little sign of being able to stop relying on donors. American intelligence agencies have told the US Congress that Afghanistan’s economic growth will stagnate at around 2.5 per cent per year, and Kabul will remain reliant on international donors for the great majority of its funding well beyond 2018. The recent inauguration of the mega gas pipeline project of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (TAPI) could provide revenue to Afghanistan.

The objective is to complete the 1,840-kilometre pipeline at a cost of $8 billion within two years to begin pumping 33 billion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas annually from Turkmenis­tan's giant Galkynysh gas field. The Taliban have vowed to guarantee the pipeline’s security with Zabihullah Mujahid saying that the project was important and vital for the economy of Afghanistan.

There is little to show that the 17 years of war in Afghanistan will end soon. The American policy shows no sign of success; Pakistan continues with its games unwilling to give up its quest to treat Afghanistan as a satellite much to the chagrin of the Afghans; the Islamic radicals and extremists and their armed cohorts remain fully active despite sanctions by the UN and America and the madrassas which gave birth to the Taliban continue to flourish.

It seems that the coming years could be even bloodier given Trump’s proclamations; Pakistan’s sense of its own interests; the internal ethnic tensions in Afghanistan; and a change of guard at the Presidential palace due next year.