Hakan Cem Cetin, PhD
Global Center for Security Studies
In January, an ambulance rigged with explosives was detonated by a suicide bomber near a large hospital in Kabul in the morning rush hour, leaving 95 dead and 158 others injured. In March, a suicide attack by the ISIS close to a Shia mosque as well as the Kabul University in the Afghan capital claimed 29 lives and injured 52 people. After two days of this incident, a suicide attacker exploded a vehicle with explosives near a stadium in the center of Laskhar Gah city in southern Afghanistan, killing 14 people while injuring 42 others.
Last week, in the different parts of Afghanistan, more than two dozen security officers as well as a district governor were killed, and two schools were burned by the Taliban militants. According to the Afghan officials, all the attacks seemed to be planned well advance and coordinated thoroughly even with using night vision cameras, besides long-range sniper rifles. What is bothering for the Afghan authorities is the fact that the city of Ghazni’s Khawaja Omari district, whose governor was also slain, was deemed as among the safest place in the province.
Last but not least, Afghanistan was shattered again with two blasts yesterday, claiming 57 lives and injuring more than one hundred people. While the first one occurred at the ID distribution center in an area that is heavily populated by the Shia Hazara minority in Kabul and claimed by the ISIS, the other one transpired in Baghlan’s Pul-e-Khumri city, most probably by the Taliban.
From a truck as well as an ambulance bombs in separate cases, to a hotel raid that claimed more than 200 hundred lives in total, Afghanistan appears to be spiraling down into a greater violence in the recent years. According to the United Nations, the number of civilian causalities from suicide bombings or sophisticated attacks has more than doubled so far, totaling 763 deaths and 1,495 injuries in the first quarter of this year. Because the militants of both the Taliban and the ISIS are using a range of means, attacks are becoming more effective and damaging for the government forces as well as for the civilian population.
There are also causalities caused by the government forces. On April 2 of this year, based on the intelligence that a number of Taliban militants would attend a religious ceremony, the air force of the Afghan government attacked at the Hashemia Madrassa, a religious school, in northern Kunduz province, where numerous civilians and several Taliban fighters were killed or injured. Afghans are concerned about the mounting civilian casualties in recent years. Besides the attacks of the Taliban and the ISIS having taken a heavy toll on civilian lives, hundreds have also become a collateral damage to the US drones/air raids.
Although fighting in Afghanistan traditionally intensifies in the spring after mountain passes are open, this year’s spring offensive, announced by the Taliban lately, seems to be more aggressive and bloodier for the government than the last year, which was also worse than the previous year’s offensive.
Due to this deteriorating situations in the country, in August 2017, the Trump administration announced a new Afghanistan strategy with a plan to surge the number of US soldiers from 8,400 to 11,000. According to this new plan, the US pledged to train and advise Afghan military in the fight against the powerful Taliban forces, with the aim of coercing the Taliban to the negotiating table. After the announcement of the new Afghan strategy, the Taliban responded bluntly that they would not be daunted as they had endured an offensive of even superior troop surge under the former US President Obama. On the other hand, because it has ignored the rampant problems of the country, like corruption and unemployment, or lack of education and health, many Afghans were not excited with this new strategy, focusing solely on gaining superiority militarily over the Taliban.
Whereas the U.S. and the Afghan forces have been pursuing to recapture the areas that were once under the US control, as last operations indicate, expectations are not so high in this 16 year-of war. After the withdrawal of the US troops from once a hundred thousand to less than ten thousand, the Afghan government has almost lost control in many areas outside Kabul. The new US strategy is very much related to these recent developments on the ground, where deteriorating security situation across the country needs to bolster the Afghan government in an urgent way. In this new strategy, with troop surges and military advising as well as relentless air campaign against the militants, the US is not only trying to prevent the central government from dissolving but also push the Taliban to the negotiating table for political settlement. Considering exhaustion of the American people with this unpopular war, it is very unlikely for the Afghan government to get any real support in the battlefield from the US military, whose goals merely contain reinforcing Afghan military and averting the fall of any major city to the Taliban. The main issue for the Trump administration and the Afghan government is to be able to hold parliamentary and district council elections scheduled on October 20 of this year. And these elections of this year will be followed by the presidential election in 2019. According to the international observers, election fraud allegations are widespread and yet to be addressed in the country. This leads to disenchantment and indifference on the part of the Afghan society, and therefore causes low turnout rates. Another major problem is the fact that central government does not have full control over the most of the country, which is a direct threat for the election process. The Taliban and, to lesser extent, the ISIS are much more active in the 70 percent of the country. As admitted by government officials, there is almost no way to have a proper election, and this situation poses a major obstacle to the political stability of the country.
In their relentless campaign against the Taliban, air strikes by the Afghan and American forces have also increased intensely since the beginning of 2017 against drug production facilities in the western part of Afghanistan, targeting to block a growing financial source for the Taliban, After the reduction of the American troops, the Taliban has racked up territorial acquisitions, and according to the US officials, opium production has boomed since in the area controlled by the militant group at record levels. The opium trade generates an annual $200 million revenue for the Taliban, by US estimates. On the other hand, highlighting that it outlawed cultivation of poppy at the time of its government, the Taliban refutes the claim that it is very much dependent on drug revenue. Some experts on narcotics also say that targeting drug production facilities does not have a serious effect on Taliban revenues, since opium trade is not quite as large, and the basic labs can be rapidly rebuilt. Besides, air attacks carry a significant risk of civilian harm and therefore, cause greater threat than potential benefits of cutting Taliban revenues.
In the country, after Hamid Karzai, election of Ashraf Ghani in 2014 as a new president ushered a new era in the Afghan politics. Nevertheless, confirmed by both local authorities and international observers, Ghani’s election victory was challenged by the supporters of his rival, Abdullah Abdullah. In order to ease the tension among the nation, by a US-brokered deal, a national unity government was created between run-off candidates, Ghani and Abdullah, where with the formation of a new chief executive office, Ghani agreed to share power with Abdullah Abdullah. After the presidential elections, Ghani and Abdullah decided to have negotiations with the Taliban in 2015. Even though supported by the US, Pakistan and China, the try for a direct negotiation between the Afghan government and the Taliban was collapsed, after the news of the death of Taliban Chief Mullah Omar was disclosed in the media. After a state visit to Afghanistan, Prime Minister of Pakistan and President of Afghanistan, concurring that the political solution was the best option for the war-torn country, called on the Taliban to respond positively to the Afghan government’s latest offer of direct talks and partake of a fresh peace process without further delay. Although Afghan President Ghani proposed to restart negotiations with the Taliban without any preconditions for recognizing the group as a political party, offered a ceasefire and swap of prisoners in order to initiate a process that could end almost two decades of war, the Taliban has not officially responded that offer until now.
Today, Afghanistan has a number of serious problems that have to face now as well as in the near future. The political elite of the country needs to be aware of the fact that the Afghan society with all its ethnic groups are experiencing disappointment in addition to disenchantment and disillusion. As the country is sliding towards more chaos and plunging into a potential turmoil, its current misery could be just the beginning of something far worse. That’s why it is time not only for the US, but also for the international community to pay more attention what is going on in this forgotten country.