On January 20, six gunmen stormed the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul and killed twenty-two civilians over the course of a twelve-hour standoff with the police. Just a few days later, violence struck the city again when an ambulance loaded with explosives killed 103 civilians on a busy street in the center of the city. The Taliban claimed responsibility for both attacks.
The Taliban is not the only group responsible for the escalating violence in Afghanistan that is encroaching on the capital. The Islamic State of Khurasan (ISK), the Afghan militant group affiliated with ISIS, released statements claiming responsibility for two deadly attacks near Kabul within just a few weeks of the recent Taliban attacks. On January 24, ISK shooters killed four staffers at an office of Save the Children. Just a few weeks earlier, ISK suicide bombers killed over forty people at a Shi’a cultural center.
These recent attacks have pierced the so-called “ring of steel” of security checkpoints that is supposed to keep the center of Kabul, the stronghold of the American-backed regime, safe. While Afghan cities were a refuge for those fleeing violence in the countryside during the early 2000s, urban centers are now too vulnerable to attack to be considered a haven. This shift shows that after sixteen years of US engagement in Afghanistan the country is sinking into further into instability and violence.
Not long ago, the Taliban tended to claim that it only targeted military personnel and police. In April 2016, when Taliban fighters detonated suicide vests in downtown Kabul near a building of the National Security Directorate, it included an assurance in its statement claiming the attack that no civilians were killed. While the statement disregarded the reality that several civilians were killed, it showed that the Taliban wanted the public to believe that it did not target the Afghan people. In contrast, civilians were clearly the target of the most recent attacks, and the Taliban made no attempt to mitigate this.
There is a possibility that competition with the ISK for young recruits is pushing the Taliban to adopt more violent strategies and to target civilians. The ISK’s presence in Afghanistan has substantially grown in the last several years, and unlike other insurgent groups in the country, its relations with the Taliban are hostile. The Taliban has been losing fighters to the ISK presumably because they are disillusioned due to its inability to regain power. A similar dynamic played out when Al-Qaeda adopted more violent strategies when ISIS’s more brutish image began pulling away potential recruits.
The recent increased presence of the US military and the intensified US-led offensive in Afghanistan has also pushed the Taliban to change its tactics. In 2016, there were 1,075 US airstrikes in Afghanistan; in 2017, there were over 4,300. This has kept the Taliban from using its preferred tactics: occupying the countryside and extorting the people there for the resources they need. To adapt, the Taliban has begun to focus on high-impact stealth attacks on urban areas like the recent ones on Kabul.
Strategically, by targeting civilians, the Taliban is trying to show that the government cannot protect its citizens even if they are in the center of its capital. By pointing to the inefficacy of the foreign-baked, central government the Taliban is keeping the government from building the trust it needs to unite the country. This tactic is chipping away at the already dwindling trust Afghans have in their government. Further, a destabilized government in Kabul has less leverage than a strong one would in any future negotiations for a peace deal with the Taliban.
The Unlikeliness of a Solution
Sixteen years ago the United States invaded Afghanistan with the intent of keeping Al Qaeda from gaining a foothold in the region and forcing out the Taliban, which it had effectively accomplished by the summer of 2002. Over the years American goals have shifted towards a less straightforward mission involving nation-building and democratization. The ever-escalating violence shows that despite the years, the over $1.07 trillion, and the thousands of lives poured into the effort, there is no resolution on the horizon. American airstrikes have tripled since 2017, yet the Taliban has been steadily gaining territory over the last several years. Today, it is openly operating in 70 percent of the country. Meanwhile, as is shown by the recent ISK attacks, the years of chaos in Afghanistan have made the country susceptible to attacks from even more extremist groups. Further, the ISK, unlike the Taliban, has anti-American goals that extend beyond Afghanistan’s internal affairs.
If the United States were to decide to cut its losses and withdraw without a peace deal in place, Afghanistan would likely splinter and sink into civil war with various extremist groups and warlords vying for power and territory. Crucially, Afghanistan’s increased chaos would make it even more of a haven for terrorist groups like ISK and could further undermine the stability of the neighboring nuclear power Pakistan. Therefore, if there were a withdrawal without a peace deal, the ensuing turmoil would probably pull the United States back into the conflict.
There must be some source of long-term stability before the United States can withdraw, but there is no foreseeable diplomatic road to resolving the conflict. The Taliban is unlikely to sign a peace deal unless it has the assurance that international troops would leave and that it would control the country. Without severe political backlash, it would be difficult for a US president to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban that included these provisions.
The recent attacks mark a further move away from a potential peace deal with the Taliban. The President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, issued a statement saying that the Taliban “crossed a red line and lost the opportunity for peace.” After the attacks President Trump rejected the prospect of peace talks, saying that the United States would “finish what we have to finish.”
The Trump Administration’s Response
Like President Obama before him, Trump promised on the campaign trail that he would pull the United States out of Afghanistan but backtracked once he came into office. Now, his policy decisions regarding Afghanistan are addressing Pakistan’s role in perpetuating the war—as seen in his recent suspension of $900 million in security aid to Pakistan for its harboring of Taliban fighters—and are largely in line with the wishes of the current leader of the US forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson.
While attempting to coerce Pakistan into cooperating with America’s aims in Afghanistan, Trump is adopting General Nicholson’s strategy. Nicholson traces the inefficacy of the US forces to a lack of military commitment to the war and believes that, with more troops, resources, and airstrikes, US forces could help the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) bring 80 percent of the population into their control within two years. With this leverage, the US-backed Afghan government could then negotiate a favorable peace deal with the Taliban. At last, the United States would be able to withdraw without leaving behind chaos. To bring this strategy into reality, Trump announced last year that he would deploy an additional four thousand troops to join the approximately 8,400 currently stationed in Afghanistan. In tandem with the troop surge, there has been a nearly fourfold increase in airstrikes over the last year.
Skeptics of this strategy point out that the United States had over one hundred thousand troops on the ground in Afghanistan during Obama’s first term and was still unable to root out the Taliban or stabilize the country. Despite sixteen years of continued US effort and multiple troop surges, the Taliban has influence over more territory now than it has had at any point since the war began in 2001. The recent military surge Trump has initiated will not bring the current forces to even close to their previous numbers, which means the ANSF would need to lead the fight against the Taliban. Although the United States has spent over $70 billion developing the ANSF, the ANSF’s chronic corruption, disorganization, lack of recruits, and low transparency has kept it from becoming a well-functioning force. As it is, it would be unable to lead a successful military campaign against the Taliban. Further, the US-backed government in Kabul is so riddled with corruption and in-fighting despite the reform efforts of the current president, Ashraf Ghani, that it would struggle to lead a united Afghanistan even if this strategy was effective.
The Possibility of Future De-escalation
More US troops and bombs will not lead to a lasting resolution unless there is structural reform in the Afghan military and government. Even with the recent surge in the United States’ military presence, the United States cannot generate enough pressure on the Taliban to force it into a favorable peace deal without the ANSF taking charge. The ANSF must become strong and organized enough to push back against the Taliban.
In Kabul, the government must rid itself of its chronic in-fighting and corruption so that it can assert its legitimacy. President Ghani has been fighting against corruption since he came into office in 2014, and this effort has resulted in hundreds of arrests of government officials and some structural reform. Given time, this campaign may uproot the culture of corruption that keeps the Afghan people from trusting their government and that fuels Taliban sympathy.
The presidential and parliamentary elections over the course of the next two years could be an opportunity for further reform. Afghanistan’s electoral institutions are not well-developed. In 2014, this resulted in a contested election that undermined the people’s trust in their elected officials. The agreement that resolved the conflict following the 2014 election required that the government cooperate with the opposition to create a nonpartisan board to oversee the election and ensure that future elections run smoothly. This reform has yet to be implemented, but if it were put in place before the upcoming elections, it could build the Afghan people’s trust in their government. If Afghans gained faith in the state through effective reform and credible elections, the government would gain the clout and popularity it needs to give Afghanistan long-term stability.
A stable, functional government in Kabul would be able to establish control over more of the country. This would put it at an advantage over the Taliban in any potential peace talks, and would enable it to push the Taliban back by force if the Taliban refused to negotiate.
Claire Potter is a Staff Writer for the Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons and can be found here.
Claire Potter is a first-year potential political science major at the University of Chicago interested in journalism and international relations. On campus, she is a member of the Women in Public Service Project and is a Fellows Ambassador at the Institute of Politics. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, reading, and exploring the city.