Afghanistan destabilized once more

Once again, the future of Afghanistan appears to be in question. In recent weeks, there has been a surge in violence in the capital city of Kabul and the Taliban is reclaiming large swaths of land throughout the country. The Afghan Army appears unable to counter either trend. The United States last year agreed to increase its troop presence, but that has not helped a besieged Afghan government. Plainly, strategy must change if Afghanistan is not to descend again into chaos.

In the last two weeks, a series of attacks have killed nearly 150 people and wounded hundreds of others. In the first, terrorists attacked an international hotel in Kabul, taking hostages for over 13 hours and killing at least 20 people. Days after the hotel siege, Islamic State militants attacked the office of Save the Children, a British nonprofit organization doing charity work in Jalalabad, killing at least four people and injuring dozens in a 10-hour battle. That was followed by another even more deadly suicide attack: A bomb-laden ambulance exploded in the Kabul city center, killing more than 100 people and wounding an estimated 235 more. Two days later, a team of suicide bombers attacked a military base in Kabul. When the fighting was over, 11 Afghan army personnel were dead and 16 wounded; four militants were killed and one captured.

The Taliban and remnants of the IS group have claimed credit for the assaults, but it is not clear which group is truly responsible. Most experts believe that the Taliban is the more likely culprit. Afghan authorities have blamed the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, which has links to the Taliban. There is speculation that the Haqqani group’s resurgence could be a consequence of the U.S. decision to suspend military aid to Pakistan: The violence is intended to show the damage that would result if Washington truly cuts ties to the Pakistan military.

Alarming as the attacks are — and the terrorists’ ability to strike at the heart of the Afghan capital and at military bases is disturbing — more worrisome is the Taliban’s control over a significant and growing amount of Afghan territory. U.S. Forces in Afghanistan estimate that 56 percent of the country’s districts were under the Kabul government’s control or influence in October; the Taliban or other insurgents control 14 percent, and the remaining 30 percent are contested. In November 2015, the government controlled 72 percent of the country, and the Taliban held just 7 percent.

The doubling of territory held by the militants has the U.S. so concerned that it tried to suppress that information. The most recent quarterly report by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction withheld details of territory held or contested by the government and the militants — even though the U.S. military acknowledged that the information was not classified. Data on the strength of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces was also held back, and the U.S. has also classified the number of Afghan soldiers or police killed (supposedly at the request of the Afghan government). The editing suggests that attrition among those forces is high and the effort to transfer authority and responsibility back to the Afghans is failing.

The BBC has conducted its own survey and its figures are even more alarming than the U.S. numbers. It estimates that Taliban are openly active in 70 percent of Afghanistan’s districts, fully control 4 percent of the country and have an open physical presence in another 66 percent. It concluded that the government only controlled 30 percent of the country. According to the U.S., the Taliban are physically present in just 44 percent of Afghanistan’s districts. In addition, the BBC said IS had a presence in 30 districts, but it did not fully control any.

Taliban gains follow the U.S. decision last year to increase the U.S. military presence and step up military actions and aid to Afghan forces. That surge, U.S. officials explained last August, sought to compel the Taliban to negotiate a political settlement. That strategy appears to be in tatters, not only because of the surge by the militant group, but because President Donald Trump now rejects peace talks, insisting that the Taliban has no interest in negotiating and that its violence obliges him to fight. Unfortunately, the U.S. does not seem able to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield.

Aid is not the answer, either. The international community has provided billions of dollars of assistance for reconstruction and stabilization. Japan has provided cumulative assistance of $6.4 billion since 2001. Those funds will have no effect without stability and peace. In fact, they can even make the situation worse if they contribute to corruption. Negotiations are the only answer to the Afghan problem, and those talks must include the Taliban. Failure to recognize that reality means that the situation in Afghanistan will only deteriorate.