The carnage in Afghanistan doesn’t seem to end. Tensions between the Afghan government and the insurgents are escalating. The presence of the terrorist Islamic State (ISIS) has made matters even worse and the death toll is continually rising. It appears as if the militants have decided to up the ante and achieve large-scale tactical gains.
The Taliban’s suicide bombing on Saturday might just be a start of another deadly wave of violence that may grip Afghanistan in the coming months. And, the ISIS-claimed terrorist attack at an army base in Kabul on Monday morning proved how easily the terrorists are currently able to launch strikes in Afghanistan.
Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night didn’t have much to offer in terms of America’s war on terror in Afghanistan. Although Trump had plenty to say about Iran and North Korea, his reference to Afghanistan was brief:
“Our warriors in Afghanistan also have new rules of engagement. Along with their heroic Afghan partners, our military is no longer undermined by artificial timelines, and we no longer tell our enemies our plans.”
With parliamentary elections in Afghanistan slated for July, the insurgent groups, along with ISIS, will be eyeing creating enough panic and consternation to put the entire electoral exercise in jeopardy. It’s now about calling the shots, and making oneself heard. After all, there’s a reason the Afghan Taliban have taken violence to the next level.
“We are seeing that we're closer to talks with the Taliban and the peace process than we've seen before.” The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyObama looks to give new momentum to McAuliffe US rejoins UN Human Rights Council, reversing Trump exit Smarkets betting site makes Trump favorite in 2024 MORE might have said this earlier this month in good faith, but what transpired less than a week later at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul was enough to gauge Taliban’s strategic calculus. The U.S. administration must understand that the Taliban are unlikely to come to the negotiating table unless their striking abilities are stifled to a large extent.
The militants aren’t going to talk peace when they’re able to launch terrorist strikes inside Afghanistan as and when they please. It’s important for the counter-insurgents to deny them the breathing space they’d dearly long for. Push them against the wall, and the peace talks will follow. Psychological operations, in addition to the deployment of the Pentagon-sponsored 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) in Afghanistan, are likely be helpful in dismembering the terrorists from within. Here’s how it might unfold in the months to come.
The Taliban are likely to continue to orchestrate militant strikes in and around strategically important cities like Kabul, Kandahar, and Jalalabad. The objective will be to put as much pressure as possible on the U.S. administration to succumb to one of the two choices.: Either call off the parliamentary elections, which will inevitably play into the hands of the Taliban, or the Taliban leaders will look for the U.S. administration and the government in Kabul to make ways for some of the militants to join the next cabinet. If such talks do occur, then Taliban are likely to demand a fair chunk of the government. The Taliban, either way, would be winning, as the insurgent often do, anyway.
Despite any rhetoric to the contrary, United States and Pakistan need to collaborate with each other to ensure peaceful democratic transition in Afghanistan. Just as China might not be able to fill the gap if Pakistan chooses to completely distance itself from the United States, the Trump administration should also understand the fact that alienating Pakistan doesn’t help its cause in Afghanistan. That might sound like a non-starter to some of the analysts in Washington, but that’s how things work in the obscure geostrategic and geopolitical arena of South Asia.
U.S. relationship with Pakistan isn’t the lowest it has ever been. Recall the developments from 2011 — including the Raymond Davis case, Operation Geronimo that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and the Salala NATO strike incident — that didn’t have the authorities from both the countries break off ties altogether. As enunciated, insurgents in Afghanistan are likely to try to secure as much tactical gains as they possibly could within the next two-three month period. Political squabbling and the debate on seat adjustments in the parliamentary elections would then follow.
If the United States is to deny the Afghan Taliban any comprehensive political space, then the time to act is now. Having the Taliban come under political foray in Afghanistan is always a viable option, but not when they’re in the ascendance. Peace talks and political settlements with the insurgents must always be initiated and agreed on when they’re on the run. That’s when the counter-insurgents are likely to strike a meaningful deal. Nonetheless, it all boils down to whether Trump’s listening. Let’s hope he is.
Shazar Shafqat is a counterterrorism and security analyst for the Middle East Eye, Middle East Monitor and others. His research focuses on South Asian security, Middle East politics and security issues, counterterrorism strategies, and military-related affairs. His commentary has been published by World Policy Journal, Asia Times and RealClearDefense, among others.