The Taliban Are Winning

The Taliban Are Winning

When the Taliban took Afghanistan’s key northern city of Kunduz on Sept. 28, the world could hardly believe it. Located near the country’s border with Tajikistan, Kunduz has long served as a strategic and economic trade hub connecting Kabul with Central Asia and was one of the last Taliban strongholds to fall following the 2001 U.S. invasion. On Oct. 1, President Ashraf Ghani announced that Afghan forces had retaken Kunduz, though there are still conflicting reports as to who actually controls the city center.

Then, early on Oct. 3, a U.S.-manned AC-130 gunship fired on a hospital in Kunduz run by Doctors Without Borders, killing some 22 people and incurring universal condemnation. Doctors Without Borders called the incident tantamount to war crimes and is demanding an independent investigation. Although the exact reason for the attack remains unknown, it appears that Taliban fighters in the hospital’s vicinity were attacking Afghan forces — a claim Doctors Without Borders has denied.

Speaking before Congress on Oct. 6, U.S. Gen. John Campbell testified that Afghan forces under attack by the Taliban had requested the errant airstrike. The next day, President Barack Obama called Doctors Without Borders chief Joanne Liu to apologize and express his condolences to those who were killed and injured. It remains unclear why the attack continued for a full hour despite calls from Doctors Without Borders to halt the bombing.

For the Taliban, the attack on Kunduz, Afghanistan’s fifth-largest city, presented them with an opportunity to test how easily some 500 fighters could overrun a major urban center defended by 7,000 Afghan National Security Forces troops, referred to commonly as ANSF. The answer: quite easily, which is surely a cause for concern for Kabul and the ANSF’s American trainers. To make matters worse, the ANSF reportedly knew for almost a year that the Taliban were planning an assault on Kunduz, yet still failed to check the onslaught.

The Kunduz attack, it seems, was merely a dry run for the Taliban, which now hope to sow panic in Kabul and test the commitment of a Washington that appears to lack the stomach, resources, and will for yet another surge in a conflict it thought it had left behind.

To be fair, the United States and its coalition partners in Afghanistan had good reason to believe this. For years, the international community has pinned its hopes for peace in Afghanistan on the ANSF, pouring some $65 billion into training and equipping it from 2002 to 2015. The Pentagon, for its part, proudly estimates that some 350,000 Afghans serve in the ANSF, but it’s unclear how many of them are actually present on the ground, armed and ready to fight. High desertion rates, an unusually high casualty count, and persistent drug abuse are some of the chief factors that limit their effectiveness. Just as there are Afghan ghost schools, there also seem to be Afghan “ghost soldiers.” The ANSF’s dysfunctional response to the Kunduz attack yet again calls into question the wisdom of all this.

The Taliban also seem eager to exploit the division in the nearly 1-year-old national “unity” government. Run jointly by Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah, it is still beset by a litany of problems, ranging from an economic shortfall to chronic employment to a lack of governance to massive corruption. Formed under intense pressure from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the Kabul government is marred by internal rifts, particularly over the use of militias to take on the Taliban. Ghani strongly favors strengthening the ANSF and using it as the sole force to fight the Taliban, while Abdullah and Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum favor enlisting local militias.

As fighting raged on Oct. 1, hundreds of people gathered in Kabul to demand Ghani’s resignation and hold him responsible for the fall of Kunduz. This is a moral victory for the Taliban, who want to see the democratically elected government in Kabul lose credibility. To make matters worse for Ghani, on Oct. 7, former Afghan Interior Minister Mohammad Omer Daudzai and others pointed to the mistakes made by the national unity government — and suggested early elections.

The Kunduz attack also offered the Taliban an opportunity to test the resolve of the international coalition that has supported the Afghan government for years. The Taliban wanted to see how NATO would respond, knowing full well that it plans to complete its phased withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. Indeed, the Taliban have been testing coalition forces since the majority of troops left in 2014: They attacked Kunduz earlier this year and have captured several districts in northern Helmand province.

It’s a risky calculation. On the one hand, the Taliban want foreign occupation forces gone. On the other hand, their attacks on major cities such as Kunduz, Herat, and Kabul have forced Washington to reassess its withdrawal plans. Obama is seriously considering keeping 5,000 of the remaining 9,800 troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016, a move that will only prolong the Afghan imbroglio: The Taliban have repeatedly shown their resolve to continue fighting until the last foreign troops are present on Afghan soil. Shortly after assuming the Taliban leadership, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who ran the movement effectively for two years while keeping the news of Mullah Mohammed Omar’s death a secret, rejected talks with Kabul and vowed to continue jihad until the “Islamic system rules.”

We now can also safely assume that the Taliban were never truly committed to peace negotiations. As the world’s attention shifted to the Islamic State, the Taliban bought time to regroup and wait until NATO’s withdrawal so that they could launch a full-frontal attack on Kabul. The Qatar-based negotiation process has not yielded tangible results, and the latest effort to hold peace talks near Islamabad abruptly ended with the Afghan government announcing the death of Mullah Omar. Now it’s clear the Taliban were simply leading on the international coalition with the presumption that they was serious about peace, while they rebuilt their fighting force and military prowess under Mullah Mansour. The Taliban now have a significant presence in provinces all around Kabul, including Kunduz, Baghlan, Badakhshan, Kunar, Nangarhar, Logar, Zabul, Helmand, and Herat provinces. In total, it controls around 70 of Afghanistan’s 398 districts.

On Oct. 1, Ghani constituted a commission to probe the causes of the fall of Kunduz and vowed to punish those who may have been responsible for negligence or treason, in an effort to prevent another such tactical failure. Regardless of the commission’s findings, many observers believe that the damage has already been done. As Gen. Campbell said in his testimony to Congress, it was a PR win for the Taliban.

Since the bombing of the hospital in Kunduz, attention has shifted to investigating why it happened. Regardless of who, ultimately, is to blame for the attack — the United States, the ANSF, or NATO — it cannot become a pretense to ignore the ever-growing urgency to deal with a resurgent Taliban.

The Afghan conflict can only come to an end through strong, unified leadership from Kabul, assisted by the Central Asian republics, China, Iran, and — most importantly — Pakistan, which holds significant sway over the Taliban. Indeed, until Pakistan fully cooperates with the international community to put an end to hostilities inside Afghanistan, the entire region will remain engulfed in a bloodbath.

All the nations working toward peace in Afghanistan, however, must be prepared to deal with an emboldened Taliban, inspired by their success in Kunduz, and the fallout of the hospital bombing. Both provide a stark reminder to Kabul, Washington, and NATO that military solutions to bring relative peace to Afghanistan are running out.

Photo credit: Wakil Kohsar/AFP