One step forward, one step back

While Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s decision to stop warring with the Afghan government–for now, at least–should be seen as a positive step toward ending the civil war there, when it comes to the war against the Taliban Kabul is stuck in place and going nowhere fast:

The Taliban overran central neighborhoods in the critical Afghan provincial capital of Kunduz on Monday, planting their flag in the city’s main roundabout and shaking the Afghan government in a repeat of the insurgents’ assault on the city a year ago.

Fighting in the city continued into the night, and American officials said that aircraft were there to help and that other “assets” were moving in.

On Monday, fighting also raged in Helmand, where insurgents overran the district of Nawa, just south of the provincial capital, and killed the district’s police chief in an overnight attack. The district’s fall on Sunday night added pressure from an additional direction on the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, which has long remained surrounded by the Taliban.

It would be bad enough that Kunduz is once again about to fall to the Taliban despite the fact that the Afghan government and its pals in Washington have had a full year to prepare for another Taliban attack on the city. But Helmand is effectively the Taliban’s back yard at this point, and if you see where these two provinces are on a map:


then you’ll note that they are almost literally at opposite ends of the country. So, after 15 years of sustained American, international, and Afghan military effort, the Taliban are still strong enough to sustain simultaneous large-scale offensives at opposite ends of Afghanistan. Maybe in another three decades they’ll only be able to overrun one province at a time. And yeah, OK, at least they’re not running the country anymore, right? Except that part was accomplished three months into the US invasion in 2001, and I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but nobody has really been running Afghanistan since then. Sure, the government in Kabul has controlled parts of the country, but it’s been 15 years and I think you’d be hard pressed to point to a single day in any of them when all of Afghanistan was, at the same time, under the control of one central government.

The attack on Kunduz appears to have been particularly well-planned and came from multiple directions simultaneously. Once the Taliban began overrunning the suburbs, their social media team (I can’t believe I just typed that) reportedly began taunting the government on Twitter, saying “what is point of backing a regime holed up in Kabul, riven with old rivalries & useless as a turd?” And while I’m certainly not here to say nice things about the Taliban, are they wrong? From day to day does the Afghan government reliably control any part of Afghanistan outside of Kabul? Is it not “riven with old rivalries“? Well, some of them aren’t that old, so maybe the Taliban were wrong on that.

But even acknowledging Kabul’s unending follies, and even acknowledging that a sizable portion of the public in both Helmand and Kunduz appears to be sympathetic to their cause, it still beggars belief that the Taliban, have been able to sustain themselves at all, let alone to rebuild their capabilities to nearly what they were when the US first invaded. Well, it would beggar belief, except that we’re pretty sure the Afghan Taliban have miraculously recovered mostly because they’re still getting a lot of support from Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI. It’s probably no longer the case that the ISI would like to see the Taliban running Afghanistan, but it clearly values the Taliban’s ability to keep Afghanistan in chaos.

The only path to peace in Afghanistan runs through Pakistan, because only by cutting off the ISI’s support can the Taliban either be defeated outright or at least forced to negotiate. I’m not exactly breaking new ground when I say that, but this has been the big problem in Afghanistan for 15 years now and still nobody has figured out how to crack this nut. Pakistan’s reasons for supporting the Afghan Taliban are numerous: its long-standing border issues with Afghanistan, Afghanistan’s friendly relations with India, fear of an Afghan Taliban-Pakistani Taliban alliance if the ISI stops buying the Afghan Taliban off. It may not be possible for Afghanistan to placate Pakistan, at least not in a way that doesn’t sacrifice Afghan sovereignty to Islamabad.

The United States, which has a number of levers it could use on the Pakistani government, nevertheless prefers to approach Pakistan, as it does with Saudi Arabia, with a heavy emphasis on carrots over sticks. It wants to cultivate Pakistani cooperation in dealing with extremist threats (and in containing China, too, but I digress) and worries that punishing Islamabad will only reduce its already seemingly minimal willingness to cooperate. Plus, and this isn’t the case with the Saudis thankfully, there’s a real concern that pressuring the Pakistani government too much could risk its collapse, and anything that creates chaos in a nuclear-armed country teeming with terrorist networks is understandably something everybody would prefer to avoid. But if your real concern is achieving peace in Afghanistan, then the all-carrot approach to Pakistan simply isn’t working.



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