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Afghan war turns bloodier

January 31, 2018


THE latest wave of terror attacks in Kabul that has claimed dozens of civilian lives marks the bloodiest phase of the so far 16-year war with the insurgents getting more audacious. The escalation in fighting raises questions about the new US-Afghan strategy. Not that the Afghan capital has not witnessed such high-profile terrorist attacks before, but the ferocity and the frequency of assaults is alarming.

Three attacks in a week in high-security zones indicate the increasing capacity and the organisation of the insurgents despite massive escalation in the US air strikes. While the Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for two of the first two attacks, the militant Islamic State (IS) group reportedly carried out the third one. The insurgents have taken the war into the nation’s capital. The rising toll of civilian casualties is disturbing.

It signals a shift in insurgent strategy — from gaining territorial control to focusing more on the capital to test the mettle of the Afghan security forces. It seems that the Afghan Taliban and IS are competing when it comes to carnage in the besieged capital and other towns and cities in Afghanistan. The chaos resulting from the violence serves the objective of these militant groups — to undermine the confidence of the Kabul administration.

It seems that the Afghan Taliban and IS are in a race to massacre the most people.

Indeed, the Afghan National Army has improved its performance greatly over time, but it is still not capable of dealing with such organised terrorist attacks on its own. The frequent breach of security by the insurgents has further exposed the incapacity of the Afghan security agencies.

While the Taliban control vast swathes of territory, the increasing presence of IS in Afghanistan is extremely worrisome. The terrorist group that is fighting both Kabul and the Taliban has been responsible for several high-profile attacks in the capital over the last few months. The terrorist group has made some inroads in eastern and northern Afghanistan. The rise of IS has brought greater devastation and caused a spike in the number of civilian casualties.

The latest surge in militant attacks has come as the relentless US air strikes have forced the Taliban to retreat from some of their strongholds in western Afghanistan. But the US military offensive has failed to contain the insurgency that has now spread to vast areas. There has not been any cessation in the fighting, not even in the winter months. The situation is likely to get worse with the approach of the fighting season. The weakening writ of the Afghan government in the hinterland has given further impetus to the insurgents.

Predictably, the violence has evoked a strong reaction from Washington. There are clear indications that the Trump administration will intensify military action in Afghanistan. Addressing the UN Security Council members in the aftermath of the Kabul attacks, President Trump vowed to take the battle to the finish.

“What nobody else has been able to finish, we’re going to be able to do it,” the US president declared. Notwithstanding Trump’s tough tenor, such promises have also been made by previous US administrations in the past decade. It is hard to believe that the massive use of air strikes alone could bring this festering war to an end.

Trump has ruled out negotiations with the Taliban, at least for now. So the US administration is still pursuing an elusive military victory that it has failed to achieve in the past 16 years with more than 150,000 troops on the ground. Some reports suggest that more American troops could be deployed after the recent insurgent attacks. That may only get the US mired deeper in Afghanistan. Even the closest of America’s Western allies are sceptical of Trump’s militaristic approach.

Not surprisingly, the surge in militant violence inside Afghanistan has increased pressure on Islamabad. Both Kabul and Washington have once again accused Pakistan of providing safe havens to militants. They have also blamed Pakistani security agencies for facilitating those responsible for the carnage. More alarming is the growing Afghan-Indian nexus demanding tougher US action against Pakistan.

There are clear indications that the Trump administration is getting ready to tighten the screws on Pakistan further and intensify air strikes on alleged Taliban sanctuaries inside this country’s tribal region. The recent attack on reportedly an Afghan refugee camp in Kurram Agency that has allegedly been used as a sanctuary for the Haqqani network is ominous. There is also a strong possibility of the US slapping economic and military sanctions on Pakistan and using its influence to persuade multilateral financial institutions to squeeze assistance.

Washington has already suspended military assistance to Pakistan. There could also be a move to get the country declared as a terrorist haven. Surely such radical moves cannot succeed. Still, they would put greater diplomatic pressure on Islamabad to crack down on suspected militant sanctuaries and take action against the Taliban leadership allegedly operating from Pakistan.

It certainly presents a very serious challenge to the Pakistani leadership, almost comparable to what it had faced in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. That raises questions about Pakistan’s options and how our political and military leadership can deal with this serious situation. The prevailing political instability and absence of a chain of command has complicated our predicament.

It may be true that Pakistan is being used as a scapegoat for America’s failure to wind up the war, the longest it has ever fought. Yet the allegations of some Afghan insurgent groups taking sanctuary in our border areas cannot be refuted. The fact that so many proscribed militant groups are operating with such impunity has weakened our case and made us extremely vulnerable to growing international pressure. We cannot hide behind a sense of victimhood.

It is not just about US pressure. It is imperative for us to clean up our home in our own national security interest. The surge in militant violence and growing instability in Afghanistan threaten our security too. Indeed, America’s continuing reliance on the military solution and an ineffective, fragmented administration in Kabul has been the major cause of the deepening Afghan crisis. Yet it is in our own interest that we continue to cooperate with Afghanistan and the international community to contain violence in the strife-torn country.

The writer is an author and journalist.
Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, January 31st, 2018