Aapproximately seventeen years ago, the United States overthrew the Taliban government in Afghanistan and helped establish an interim administration. Despite enormous investments in troops and resources thereafter by multiple administrations in Washington, including the current one under President Donald Trump, there has been little change in the situation on the ground.
A recent report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) highlights the dismal situation: out of a total of 407 districts, 229 (56.3%) were “under Afghan government control (74) or influence (155)”. Further, 122 districts (30%) are classified as “contested”, meaning neither under government nor under insurgent control, and around 14% as under direct insurgent control (1 percentage point increase from 2017).
The recent attack by the Taliban on the provincial capital city of Ghazni shows how much the international community continues to underestimate the power of the militant group. With this, the Taliban virtually close almost all the doors for negotiation between them and the administration. Around 20 civilians and 100 police officers and army officers were killed at last count.
— OCHA Afghanistan (@OCHAAfg) August 26, 2018
The attack does raise some critical questions:
What if the Afghan troops are unable to recapture the city of Ghazni from Taliban? Will this be considered as another city which fell to them? What are the possible terms on the lines which the administration could have come for a peace talk with the Taliban? What if they demand for something in return which can’t be fulfilled? Is this the dead end? What is the possible strategy of the troops to fight with the Taliban as the battle has already entered a week?
The Ghazni attack was an all-out assault on major infrastructure, security installations, public facilities, and various stakeholder units. This certainly gave the Taliban access to key information about various security-related parameters such as the vulnerability of the facilities and movement patterns of personnel. This critical information is bound to further help them plan attacks in other places.
Importance of Ghazni
Ghazni is a small place with a mere population of about 280,000. It is barely 150km away from the capital and 350km from Kandahar. Hence it holds a strategic position on the Kandahar-Kabul highway.
Moreover, the nearby provinces, such as Paktika, Khost and Jalalabad, are tribal-dominated areas close to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This allows militants an easy exit route in case things go wrong. But, it also allows greater access to foreign fighters. According to reports, Taliban received support from Al-Qaeda affiliates and fighters belonging to Pakistan and Chechnya in carrying out the assault.
Prior to the attack, locals and security officials had warned the government that the Taliban was attempting to make in-roads into Ghazni. They were even collecting taxes in some areas. These were vital pieces of information, which were clearly overlooked by the forces. Lately, Kunduz and Farah have been attacked by the Taliban too. These should have been solid warnings to another impending urban assault.
Further, it is obvious that if the Taliban were plotting to target such a huge city, then they would have been preparing for for a while. The fact the government forces were caught unaware, one of the factors behind the high body count, yet again highlights serious lapses in the country’s intelligence and security apparatus. Surely, the commanders have learnt little from their previous experience in the battle of Kunduz.
What does the attack mean?
Through the daring attack, the Taliban aims to demonstrate the weakness of the Afghan government, which is currently at the verge of the peace talks. The core motivation seems to be to create a sense of fear through extreme violence and greater territorial control, thus deterring the government’s agenda for peace and building leverage in any upcoming dialogues.
— Live 2 Afghanistan (@live2_afgha) August 27, 2018
By choosing to attack populated urban centres, the Taliban evidently aims to inflict maximum casualty on its targets. Further, the timing of the attack – close to Eid-ul-Adha – is classic civil terror tactic that allows the group to demonstrate the state’s inefficiency as a security guarantor, and also provoke the public enough for them to in turn push the government to undertake reckless action.
Not surprisingly, since Washington began reducing its military presence in the country, there has been a sharp rise in the assaults by the Taliban in major cities. The major deterrent to the advancement of the Taliban were the continuous airstrikes by US-led forces. Yet, relying on only airstrikes are problematic. When Taliban overran the city of Kunduz in October 2015, one of them hit a hospital, killing 42 civilians. A similar incident took place back in 2013 in Kunar Province’s Shigal.
— Newsweek (@Newsweek) April 29, 2016
Till the time the government is not able to solve important inland issues such as corruption, more such attacks can be expected. Meanwhile, re-boosting American military presence in the country could be an effective way to check the violence and lawlessness.
The main motive of such an attack is something to be looked upon. According to Military experts hold that terrorist operations generally are categorized in terms of their associated goals. These goals traditionally are divided into five categories: recognition, coercion, intimidation, provocation, and insurgency support.
Upcoming National Elections
Afghanistan is expected to go to national polls this October. They were earlier scheduled to take place on 15 October 2016 to elect members of the house of people. However, it was first postponed to 7 July 2018 and now to 20 October.
For long, Afghanistan has been trying to have a completely free and a fair democratic election, the responsibility of which is mostly shouldered by the independent election commission. However, around 40% of the city still remains volatile and under insurgent control.
In such a situation, one wonder how could polls be conducted here. High possibilities of ballot meddling could hinder the election process and reduce its transparency, thus once again exposing the state’s weakness.
Is there any possibility of peace talks now?
Both the US and the Afghan administrations have for long been trying to talk to the Taliban and negotiate with them. In fact, one State Department official even held a secret meeting with the Taliban in Doha in July.
— Hashim Wahdatyar🇦🇫 (@hashimwahdat) August 27, 2018
Further, if the Ashraf Ghani government decides to recognise the Taliban as a legitimate political group, as it had announced in February, it must prepare for the specter of countrywide Sharia law to return, alongside a sense of loss after sixteen long years of trying to reclaim the country from the insurgent group.
It remains to be seen how the Ghani administration pursues the Taliban now. For now, the violence and territorial disruption certainly disturbs the possibility of any peace talks in the coming months.
Apoorva Iyer is a student of Political Science at the University of Delhi.
Featured image: An American soldier looks over the city of Ghazni from atop the Bala Hissar Citadel during a security operation in March 2011; photo by Senior Airman Courtney Witt, flickr.