If one was to believe the US UN ambassador Nikki Haley’s latest statement on the war in Afghanistan, it is going well for the US-backed government and the Taliban is moving towards peace. The reality is somewhat different.
The weekend’s bomb blast in Kabul which killed more than 100 people and injured well over 200 came after an attack against the Save the Children’s office in Kabul, and last week’s suicide attack against the city’s main five-star hotel. These are not the signs of a war going well or of an enemy ready to concede.
These attacks represent the first wave of the Taliban’s coming Spring offensive. They may also include elements of attacks by Islamic State in Afghanistan but, while the two organisations are not linked, they are both fighting to end the reign of the “democratically elected” Afghan Prime Minister Ashraf Ghani (Afghanistan’s electoral system is notoriously corrupt so notions of “democracy” there are generally seen as moot).
The end game of the opposition Taliban strategy is to install a leadership reflecting an austere and singular Islamist vision for the deeply fragmented state. The wider opposition is not tightly united.
Afghanistan has long been known for its tribal warlords and, while many of them are not enthusiastic about the Kabul government, they are similarly ambiguous about the Taliban as the alternative. Most tribal leaders just want to be able to continue with their age-old despotic traditions without external interference.
As a result, tribal leaders switch back and forth between aligning with the Taliban and with the Kabul government. This is largely dependent on whether the Kabul government includes them in the division of spoils from the elite’s corruption.
At one level, corruption is all but completely out of control in Kabul; at another it is just a variation on traditional methods of retaining loyalties and doing business. In the Taliban’s favor is that, as a religious organisation, it has a strict policy against corruption and does provide a harsh consistency of its own judicial outcomes. Indeed, predatory crime and corruption by the government continue to drive many into the Taliban’s arms, ensuring it has a steady flow of recruits.
This has meant that while in 2015 the Afghanistan government controlled 72% of the country, a year later that had fallen to a little under 60%. By the end of 2017, 54% of Afghanistan had a permanent Taliban presence, with another 38% having a substantial Taliban presence. In short, the Kabul government is now losing the war.
2018 is expected to mark whether the Kabul government can succeed or not. Even with 4,000 extra US troops and 3,000 NATO troops with extended rules of engagement, the outcome is looking uncertain.
The Taliban is now engaged with the government in internationally brokered “peace talks”. However, the outcome to those talks will likely mean, either through a negotiated outcome or outright victory, there will be regime change in Kabul. The main question now seems to be how long the Kabul government can hold on and how much the US is prepared to continue to tip in, 16 years after it first began, to what now looks like a lost cause.
Damien Kingsbury is Deakin University’s Professor of International Politics.