Fifteen years ago, the United States went to war on Afghanistan. It was the opening salvo in the Global War on Terror. Massive US bombardment chased the Taliban and al-Qaeda into the mountains as well as into neighboring states – such as Pakistan. Amongst those who fled the scene was Osama Bin Laden, who was not killed until 2011 – ten years later. The US war aims were simple: prevent Afghanistan from being a haven for al-Qaeda and bring democracy to Afghanistan by ejecting the Taliban. There were also noises made about liberating women and educating the Afghan citizenry.
A decade and a half later, the Taliban is back in force. It commands large parts of the countryside, and threatens major urban areas. Kunduz, in the north, has been going back and forth between the Taliban and the Afghan National Army. Just this week, the Taliban forces took the center of the city, only to be ejected a day later. In Helmand Province in the south, home of the US Surge, the Taliban threatens the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. It already holds six of the fourteen districts of Helmand – Baghran, Dishu, Musa Qala, Nawa, Now Zad and Khanashin). The rest of the district is almost entirely dominated by the Taliban. Just north of Helmand, the Taliban threaten the provincial capital of Uruzgan – Tarin Kot. Much of southern Afghanistan, in other words, is in the craw of the Taliban.
Not only is the Taliban back in large parts of Afghanistan, but also elements far more radical than the Taliban formed the Islamic State’s Khorasan brigade. Near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border – in Nangarhar – the Islamic State operates with virtual impunity. On October 4, 2016, a US soldier on foot patrol died when an Islamic State bomb exploded in his path. He was the third US soldier killed in 2016. The Islamic State initially collaborated with sections of the Taliban, but then broke with it. It is just one more of the little outfits in the borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan that fly the black flag. My friend and colleague the late Saleem Shahzad wrote that by 2008 ‘al-Qaeda’s ideology was too deeply entrenched in the minds of the mountain men, their strategy so clearly marked on every mountain, rock, and stone in the tribal areas, that the militant leaders felt little worry facing the world’s best armies’. It does not matter if the local outfit is linked to al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network or the Islamic State – all of them serve their purpose.
Neither of the main war aims of the US has been met: Afghanistan remains a haven for militancy and democracy seems impossible to foster in these conditions. Surely there have been gains around Kabul, where the city has grown and various services are available to its population. It is here that the former World Bank executive Ashraf Ghani rules – reading data books to create policies that do not run further than the outer reaches of the capital city. Ghani knows that security is the first priority. Shortly after he came to power in 2014, Ghani reached out to Pakistan – whose intelligence services and military continue to provide support to the Taliban. He wanted Pakistan to deliver a peace deal with the Taliban and other militants. The creation this year of the Afghan Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCQ) – which comprises Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States – was to help pressure the militants to come to the table. Nothing has come of it as yet. Ghani no longer seems to have good relations with Pakistan. His forces fight as fiercely as they can but they are mainly holding territory, or winning it back after gains made by the Taliban. There is no sign of momentum on their behalf.
The United States has certainly withdrawn its land forces, but it continues to hit the Taliban and other militants from the skies. These – mainly drone – attacks kill leaders but do not dent the Taliban. When the Taliban confirmed in 2015 that their leader – Mullah Omar – had died two years previously, they hastily announced that their new leader was Mullah Akhtar Mansour. On 21 May 2016, a US drone strike in the Pakistani province of Balochistan executed Mullah Mansour. The killing made no impact on the Taliban. He was quickly replaced by the cleric Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. His deputies are the son of Mullah Omar – Mullah Yaqoob – and Siraj-ud-din Haqqani, who leads the Haqqani network. This is a Taliban that is not going to be defeated by the execution of its leaders. That means that the only weapon in the US arsenal – execution by drone strike – is not going to dissolve the Taliban.