A series of devastating terror attacks orchestrated by the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network in the past two weeks have unnerved both the United States and Afghanistan. Visibly upset over the lack of success of his recently announced strategy on Afghanistan, President Donald Trump has declared that “We don’t want to talk to the Taliban. We’re going to finish what we have to finish, what nobody else has been able to finish.” However, finishing America’s longest war is easier said than done.
The terror attacks make it sufficiently clear that Taliban-fueled violent insurgency is dominating Afghanistan’s security landscape. With the Afghan government’s failure to handle the security situation even in its capital, there is growing concern about the Taliban’s so-called spring offensive, which typically commences in March. The precarious situation has been further complicated by intense competition between Taliban and ISIS, which has spread terror in Afghanistan. Beyond discrediting and toppling the Afghan government, however, there is no collaboration between the two groups since their aims are entirely different. While ISIS is fighting to establish a global caliphate encompassing the entire Muslim community, the Taliban’s territorial objectives are confined to Afghanistan, which they want to govern according to sharia-based Islamic law.
The attacks by the Taliban seem to be a response to months of American strikes against the group. The Taliban wants to prove that its ability to strike anywhere in Afghanistan remains as intact as ever. The Taliban leadership has also become adept at reading between the lines. Following U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Jan. 27 appeal that “All countries who support peace in Afghanistan have an obligation to take decisive action to stop the Taliban’s campaign of violence,” it could well be argued that the Taliban may have sensed American desperation.
But Trump is not entirely wrong when he says that the U.S. seeks to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield. The Taliban’s total military rout following the 9/11 attacks is not yet a forgotten chapter in Afghanistan’s long history. However, that defeat was made possible by a determined and coordinated effort with the willing cooperation or acquiescence of all regional stakeholders, including Russia, China and Iran. Recently identified as key strategic threats by the Trump administration, Beijing and Moscow are being encouraged to partner with the wrong side in the Afghan end-game as hectic efforts are underway by Pakistan to convince Russia and China to accommodate the Taliban.
It is no secret that the U.S. is keen to exit Afghanistan while also making sure that all jihadist networks are rendered incapable of attacking the American homeland. In order to fulfill Trump’s policy of preventing Taliban military victory and forcing it to accept peace offers, the U.S. military is reported to have dropped more than 4,000 bombs across Afghanistan last year. A few thousand American troops are soon expected to arrive in Afghanistan, adding to the approximately 14,000 troops already there. But what can these troops achieve when a military force approximately 10 times as large was not able to achieve the same objective? The Taliban would certainly like to consolidate their gains against Afghan security forces before the new U.S. troops arrive.
Presently, the Taliban is either controlling or contesting almost half of Afghanistan’s districts. For the first time ever, even the Pentagon has asked the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) not to release the information about Taliban advances in public. The bottom line is that there is no evidence that the beleaguered Afghan troops, whose dependence on the U.S. for training and resources remain absolute, have improved their capabilities enough to be able to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield. Under such circumstances, why would the Taliban agree to unconditional talks when they have the capacity to seize territory and launch devastating attacks? Amid mounting violence and sustained instability, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley’s recent assertion that the U.S. is moving in the right direction on Afghanistan is aimed more at reassuring American allies to remain fully invested in the Trump strategy than at indicating the realities on the ground.
The need to find a political solution to the Afghan conflict is still recognized by the U.S. On Jan. 20, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council that “victory cannot be won on the battlefield—a solution is and must be political.” Immediately after Trump’s rejection of talks, Sullivan clarified that there is no change in the American policy of forcing the Taliban into peace negotiations through military pressure, while also emphasising “that ultimately peace and security of Afghanistan will be determined by peace talks.” Therefore, Trump’s rejection of talks with the Taliban cannot be taken at its face value. Washington does not seem to have any choice but to promote peace talks.
When Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman noted after the attacks that “The Taliban has practically crossed the red line” and that the Afghan government would “use all available resources and means against the terrorist groups,” the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) remarked that “Peace cannot be achieved by escalating the war.” The HPC deputy head Nadir Naeem said that a “window for peace” must be kept open. Before the recent attacks, Nikki Haley had aroused optimism by saying that the U.S. was “closer to talks with the Taliban and the peace process than we’ve seen before.”
Trump has now asserted that “I don’t see any talking taking place... There may be a time, but it’s going to be a long time.” For this to occur, however, Washington will need to be prepared for a long and deep involvement in Afghanistan. Until the Trump administration demonstrates such a willingness, it would be well advised not to thoroughly discredit the search for a broadly acceptable political solution. At a time when both the U.S. and the Taliban are bent on improving their positions through conflict escalation, relying on military rather than political means to end the Afghan conflict, it remains to be seen what specific steps can be taken by the U.S. to eliminate the terrorist sanctuaries across the Durand Line, where Pakistan stands accused of providing active support to Afghan insurgents to prevent U.S. gains and keep the Taliban strong. However, hope must be kept alive that the people of Afghanistan will not have to wait too long for peace to prevail.
Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images