As political leaders from multiple capitals work through the challenges facing Afghanistan, the country’s people continue to suffer devastating violence. Recently, twin blasts in Kabul killed 80 people and wounded over 200, with ISIS claiming credit for the violence targeting Hazara Shiites, gathered to protest a government power project. Key intersections that were meant to block the Hazara protestors from marching instead stymied ambulance efforts to quickly get to the dead and injured. Following one of the worst attacks to hit Kabul in years, there is increasing criticism of the Ghani-Abdullah government for failing to keep the capital city safe—not only from the Taliban, who today attacked a foreign hotel on the outskirts of Kabul with a truck carrying explosives, but also from emerging threats of ISIS and other groups. Civilian casualties have hit a record high in the first half of 2016; so far there have been 5,166 documented civilian casualties. One-third of that number is children.
The word “reconciliation” provokes miserable shrugs and deep sighs from American policymakers, who are not alone in their anxiety over how to resolve the enduring Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan. The Quadrilateral Coordination Group, which comprises Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the United States, met this past January to restart the dialogue process that had seemed hopeful in the summer of 2015—especially with the Afghan Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Omar ostensibly supporting peace talks. Talks abruptly collapsed when it became known Omar had actually died years ago, in 2013, in a Pakistani hospital.
Perhaps not as extreme, but there does exist a history of unsuccessful attempts at reconciling with the Taliban, dating back to its initial stages. Real credit must be given to the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke for effectively socializing the term “reconciliation” to a resistant political leadership. Yet Holbrooke lacked the access and ability to make executive decisions, keeping the lid on his vision for a political settlement. Today, the United States along with other QCG members offer strong support for reconciliation. Pakistan, widely regarded as the actor closest to the Taliban, understands that failure of Taliban participation sparks heightened tensions, and Islamabad is often told to “do more” and be tougher on the recalcitrant insurgent. To that end, the country’s top soldier, General Raheel Sharif, visited Doha to personally make the case for Taliban participation in the peace talks. Getting all external actors on board was no easy feat and it’s taken over a decade for a QCG to come into existence. Yet there is little chance of the Afghan Taliban, who cite the removal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan as a prerequisite to talks, joining the conversation in the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, increased military action is on the horizon. In the latest realization by a war weary commander-in-chief, President Barack Obama declared he will keep 8,400 troops in Afghanistan indefinitely. The Afghan war is back in an offensive phase and the United States has modified the plan to reduce American involvement. Previously, military planners coordinated strikes in instances of a direct threat to coalition or Afghan forces, but now that has broadened to assistance where Afghan forces can achieve a “strategic effect.” This sends a strong signal the United States will not drawdown as in the case of Iraq, and especially not with increased ISIS activity.
“The security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious. Even as they improve, Afghan security forces are still not as strong as they need to be,” said the President. American troops have a sizable task ahead: the Afghan security forces are not capable of thwarting Taliban attacks on the battlefield— soldiers have abandoned bases—and furthermore, rely on a government that itself stands on international funding. The Taliban, on the other hand, have various streams of revenue, and with recent victories like Kunduz, have momentum on their side. For many policymakers, there is fear that disengagement with Afghanistan would lead to its collapse at the hands of a brutal regime, undoing American progress and harming global interests—like ISIS in post-engagement Iraq.
Although Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has welcomed the announcement of more American troops beyond 2016, Kabul is sorely lacking a political strategy. For one, there seems to be little idea on what exactly the Ghani-Abdullah administration would be willing to negotiate with the Taliban to jumpstart negotiations. What role might the Taliban play in future government? Secondly, how would jurisdiction work in the parts of Afghanistan under de facto Taliban control? Counterinsurgency campaigns cannot be won without a strong and stable government, and Afghanistan’s unity government is fragile at best, especially leading up to the end of its power-sharing agreement.
Unfortunately, the anxiety and anger surrounding the efforts to stabilize Afghanistan seem nowhere near ending. The prospects for the QCG-backed talks look grim at this time, and the Afghan Taliban have shown no desire to engage. Amidst this dismal setting, groups such as ISIS and its affiliates have found an easy entrance to unleash more carnage. While the political negotiations and military strikes continue in tandem, the protection of civilians must remain the first priority.
Image 1: Wakil Kohsar-AFP, Getty
Image 2: Anadolu Agenty, Getty