How will Afghan, US leaders respond to deadly Taliban attack?
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The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on the 209th Afghan Army Corps base near the historic city of Mazar-i-Sharif that has killed at least 140 Afghan soldiers and wounded scores of others.

The attack is significant for reasons beyond the saddening and unprecedented death toll. First, the attack occurred in the northern stronghold of Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor and warlord of Balkh province. Mazar-i-Sharif had been among the most secure cities of the country. The base, which I have visited several times, is on the city’s outskirts. Noor has many political opponents, raising questions about possible collusion with the Taliban attack.

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Second, the attack, which was carried out by gunmen in stolen Afghan Army uniforms and kit, reportedly had insider assistance. General John “Mick” Nicholson has long complained about the corruption and poor leadership within the Afghan military and police. This event is a shocking consequence of these problems – problems that are sapping the readiness and combat performance of the Afghan security forces much faster than the U.S. military can build them.

 

Third, it will test leadership. Will Afghan leaders finally set aside internal bickering and unite with common purpose to take the steps necessary to succeed or spiral further into recriminations? Will U.S. leaders finally get serious about bringing the war to a successful conclusion or remain asleep at the switch as Afghanistan deteriorates?

The Afghan government has long operated as a predatory kleptocracy under significant influenceof warlords and super-empowered elites. The National Unity Government that emerged after the problematic 2014 election has institutionalized gridlock between warring factions. President Ashraf Ghani, the irascible author of Fixing Failed States, desperately tries to enact reforms but is blocked by powerful forces within his own government.

Many of these elites artfully distract American and other officials from these central problems by pointing – with plenty of justification – toward Pakistan as the source of all evils. The Afghan Taliban enjoys sanctuary in Pakistan, where their senior leaders can plan, coordinate, and resource insurgent operations. Afghan elites demand that the United States begin bombing Pakistan to force the latter into turning against the Afghan Taliban. If Pakistan turned against the Taliban, they suggest, the war would end. Afghan elites could continue business as usual … at least until the next insurgency began. Some reportedly imply that America’s failure to take on Pakistan is to blame for Friday’s deadly attack.

Pakistan, however, will not turn against the Afghan Taliban. They believe that India and Afghanistan are in cahoots to dismantle Pakistan as a state, beliefs that are egged on by voices in both countries. The insurgency, they judge, prevents India from using Afghanistan as a launch-pad for aggression. Leaving aside the merits of this argument, it is the (self-justifying) viewpoint of the Pakistani national security establishment.

As for the efficacy of coercing Pakistan, even when the United States had imposed widespread sanctions on Pakistan in the 1990s because of Pakistan’s nuclear test, the latter was still supporting insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Kashmir … and advancing their nuclear program.

Understanding such realities is critical. As I noted before in these pages, the United States needs to stop subsidizing and being manipulated by Pakistan. U.S. officials also must communicate clearly with Afghan elites about America’s readiness to undertake acts of war against Pakistan. Only then can a serious discussion about strategy be possible.

The crisis brought on by the attack is an opportunity for the Afghan government’s warring factions to come together and take actions that will enable the government to win the battle of legitimacy in contested and Taliban controlled areas. These include political and security sector reforms that place good governance and competent performance as higher priorities than predatory corruption. The United States can help with measured actions against spoilers and blockers.

The United States and Afghan governments need a realistic strategy that brings the war to a successful conclusion – a conclusion that honors the service and sacrifices of Afghans and Americans, and one that respects the lives and treasure of both countries. As I argue in Focused Engagement, the most realistic successful outcome is a negotiated peace that comes after a lengthy process of building trust, ending hostilities, and developing a workable political solution.

Far better if the Afghan government enters that process in control of more territory than the Taliban. Sadly, territory under government control has receded from roughly 80 percent in 2015 to only 52 percent today. Without the reforms and a credible strategy, the Afghan government is at risk of losing further ground and leverage – while remaining vulnerable to attacks like the one on Friday.

Christopher D. Kolenda (@Chris_Kolenda) is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy and author of a recent report on Afghanistan with the Center for A New American Security.


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