Last year was quietly disastrous for Afghanistan. You might have missed it amid the noise of the U.S. presidential elections, the wall-to-wall coverage of the Islamic State (ISIS), and the European refugee crisis. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Taliban attacks surged; thousands more civilians were wounded or killed, and Afghans steadily lost confidence in the National Unity Government. Al Qaeda is back. ISIS has now set up shop in several provinces. Afghanistan is not “lost,” if countries can ever be lost, but Americans should be alarmed.
Here are the five things you need to know about the 2015 fighting season.
1. The Taliban is stronger than ever.
The Taliban has grown stronger, and is now able to concentrate larger forces over a greater swath of Afghanistan than since its ouster in 2001. In 2014, Yale’s Political Violence FieldLab, drawing from such Afghan media sources as Pajhwok and Tolonews, recorded 41 districts where the Taliban could muster at least 100 soldiers to attack Afghan security forces. The largest band had nearly 1,000 soldiers, more than have been seen since the Taliban’s push to capture Kabul in 1992-96.
In 2015, using the same methodology, FieldLab recorded 65 districts where Taliban formations with 100-plus fighters launched offensives (see map, below). Even more worrisome, we tracked several instances of offensives involving 2,500-3,000 fighters, far surpassing 2014’s estimates. The Taliban’s new-found “muscle” was clearly on display in its seizure of Kunduz City for nearly two weeks in October and its grinding campaign in Faryab, almost totally ignored by Western news media. By now, Afghan security forces, beset by desertion, “ghost soldiers,” low morale and poor equipment, are seriously overstretched and only barely able to drive back coordinated Taliban advances, often at considerable cost.
Much of this apparent surge in Taliban capability can be attributed to the withdrawal of U.S. air power. Only 411 close-air support sorties were conducted in 2015 in Afghanistan. ISIS, by contrast, was hit more than 9,000 times that year. With the threat of air power largely gone, the Taliban is able to concentrate and coordinate its forces. Afghan security forces, however, have grown to depend on the cover of U.S. air power and are understandably reluctant to fight without it.
2. And they’re fighting a more conventional war this time.
Second, the character of the war itself is changing. Taliban violence, long characterized by hit-and-run attacks by small groups of fighters, is morphing into something much more conventional . In 2014, the Taliban was already attacking Afghan forces in cities, but it is doing so more and more often. The Taliban seems to be emphasizing holding terrain and scoring high-profile victories by directly assaulting cities (Kunduz City, Sangin) to rattle Afghan confidence in the already-shaky unity government.
It’s working. It is wounding and killing more Afghan security forces. Some 16,000 soldiers and police were killed or wounded in 2015, up from 12,500 in 2014.
Given these trends, in 2016, the Taliban may win ongoing control of a small urban center (perhaps Sangin in Helmand). That’s especially likely after the U.S. bombing of the Doctors Without Borders clinic in Kunduz City, in which a misguided airstrike killed more than 30 doctors and patients. By revealing the risks of airstrikes in cities, that bombing may have persuaded American forces not to use air power in precisely the locations where the Taliban is poised to advance.
3. A divided Taliban is still a dangerous Taliban, especially to Islamic State.
The Taliban may be more divided now than ever in its history. A power struggle opened in the wake of the shocking revelation that Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s figurehead leader, had died in 2013. Perhaps to stave off a perception that he’s weak, Omar’s nominal successor, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, is moving to show his determination by stepping up attacks.
Meanwhile, the Taliban has been actively fighting the Islamic State, successfully containing it to a few provinces. A special 1,000-fighter Taliban detachment battles Islamic State directly, and has driven Islamic State out of two districts in Nangarhar.
All this bears watching. Civilians caught between these groups will inevitably suffer. But for now, these internal struggles haven’t trimmed the Taliban’s combat strength.
4. The National Unity Government is neither national nor united.
Fourth, the Taliban is a far more cohesive entity than the National Unity Government, whose name is aspirational, not actual. The NUG comes from a power-sharing agreement between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, after 2014 presidential elections failed to render a decisive victor.
At present, the NUG is riven with pro-Ghani and pro-Abdullah factions. It is so paralyzed by indecision that it’s unable even to fill long-vacant Ministry of Defense and Interior positions. Bureaucracies don’t trust one another. The NUG has no long-term counterinsurgency strategy. Incredibly, one Helmand deputy governor was reduced to pleading for assistance on Facebook to prevent the Taliban from overrunning his government buildings.
And so the honeymoon with the NUG is definitely over. Afghans have grown tired of its apparent inability to provide basic services or tamp down violence. In November, the NUG was faced with its stiffest challenge to date: nearly 20,000 demonstrators, the largest protest in Kabul since 2001, marched to protest its fecklessness after ISIS beheaded seven Afghans in Zabul province. How many more times can the Afghan government call for patience before the public withdraws its goodwill?
5. Peace talks are likely to fail again.
Finally, against this backdrop, it is hard to see how peace talks, intermittent throughout 2015 and now clanking to a start again, will succeed. Why would the Taliban agree to peace now when it believes it is winning? The NUG is internally divided; the United States, permanently distracted and eyeing the exits; and Pakistan, committed more to Afghan instability and power plays than to any peace dividend that might arise.
Taken together, these trends will conspire to push Afghanistan back into U.S. policy discussions, if not presidential election debates, in 2016.
But what can be done? The United States and NATO could complete their phased withdrawal, washing their hands of Afghanistan at precisely the moment when the Taliban is surging. They could stay, locking themselves into a grinding war in which the United States has neither the will nor the ability to do more than slow the Taliban down. Or they could renew their commitment, stepping up airstrikes and intelligence gathering while sending in another surge of soldiers. But that last choice is politically unpalatable, to say the least.
All is not lost in Afghanistan, but the danger is real. It’s time to have that long-postponed conversation about what victory looks like in Afghanistan and how much we’re willing to pay to achieve it.