Afghan Forces And The Taliban Continue Fighting: Where To Go Next?

Afghan military forces continue to battle the Taliban’s latest insurgency for control over several provincial capitals after the Taliban successfully seized control of Kunduz on 8 August. Local officials report to CNN that Kunduz is the first major city to be taken by the Taliban since the beginning of their offensive in May. With a population of over 375,000, and the third of four provincial capitals the group has seized in the past week, the military victory at Kunduz represents a major threat to the Afghan government. Clashes between the Taliban and Afghan forces have dramatically intensified following the recent withdrawal of United States and NATO troops from Afghanistan.

This latest string of Taliban offenses has caused fears among international actors that Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, could also fall. Despite near full withdrawal of troops from the country, the United States has, according to CNN, “ramped up airstrikes against Taliban positions over the past week in a bid to halt the insurgents’ advances as its drawdown of troops continues.” On 2 August, Taliban forces advanced deep into the southern Afghan provincial capital of Lashkar Gah and targeted government buildings. According to a senior Afghan official’s statement to Reuters, Taliban fighters continue to seize territory nationwide following Washington’s announcement of plans to complete a full withdrawal of troops by September. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani blamed the military conflict on the sudden decision by the United States to withdraw: “We have had an unexpected situation in the last three months,” Ghani told the Afghan parliament. Ghani has asserted in recent months that the Taliban maintains ties with terrorist organizations and has stepped up its attacks on women, claims which spokesmen from the Taliban have denied.

Diplomatic talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, known as the “intra-Afghan dialogue,” started last September as a compromise between the Trump Administration and the Taliban which allowed for the eventual removal of American forces from the country. The peace talks, which began in Qatar’s capital Doha, have continued since September – the most recent negotiations took place in mid-July; however, in these rounds of talks very little significant progress has been made between the two parties.

The stark political stalemate has left both sides with very different visions of reconciliation. The Taliban asserts that no peace will be reached unless a new government is formed. In an interview with the Associated Press, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said that “the Taliban will lay down their weapons when a negotiated government acceptable to all sides in the conflict is installed in Kabul and Ghani’s government is gone.” In his statement, Shaheen called President Ghani a “war monger” and invoked allegations that his victory in the 2019 elections was fraudulent. However, United States President Joe Biden has maintained his support for Ghani: “The President and the administration supports the leadership of the Afghan people, including Ashraf Ghani,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. President Biden has promised Ghani a $3.3 billion budget for Afghan security forces in the 2022 fiscal year.

Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban, felt the peace talks with the Afghan government were a good beginning, but criticized Ghani’s demands for a ceasefire: “They don’t want reconciliation, but they want surrendering […] there must be an agreement on a new government acceptable to us and to other Afghans, then there will be no war.”

Criticism of the U.S decision to abruptly pull troops from Afghanistan, in some instances overnight, appears apt when examined in the context of the Taliban and Afghan government’s deep ideological rifts. According to Reuters, the Afghan government possessed a U.S.-backed security plan to bring the situation with the Taliban under control within six months; however, following U.S withdrawal, this plan seems to hang with a new sense of uncertainty. The last time the Taliban was in power, 20 years ago, they implemented an extremely harsh form of Islam which denied young girls an education and prohibited women from working or occupying any public space without male accompaniment. Following the fall of Kunduz on 8 August, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul criticized the Taliban’s offensive, stating that its move to “forcibly impose its rules are unacceptable and contradict its claim to support a negotiated settlement in the Doha peace process. They demonstrate wanton disregard for the welfare and rights of civilians and will worsen this country’s humanitarian crisis.” While it is irrefutably the case that the Taliban’s military offensive severely threatens the safety and human rights of the civilians of Afghanistan, it is the same civilian population that has suffered the most from the abrupt U.S. withdrawal of troops and the same population which continues to suffer from the airstrikes the U.S. military has escalated in the past week.

Amidst this backdrop of Taliban military advancement, U.S. officials are increasingly conceding in public what has only previously been expressed privately: “prospects of a negotiated outcome, which could partially salvage the 20-year American project in Afghanistan, appear to be fading fast” (quoted in the New York Times). In the past, officials from the Biden Administration have optimistically asserted that the Doha peace talks could succeed; however, the new tone of pessimism appears to support accusations of a major step back by the Americans from the Afghan government’s fight against the Taliban insurgency. Taliban leaders insist they have genuine interest in a peace agreement: “the Taliban strenuously favors a political settlement in the country,” said leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada. According to the New York Times, Afghan President Ghani claims he has felt “forced to the negotiating table by the United States and complained about an imported and hasty peace process.”

While it is certain that the Taliban’s espoused willingness to commit to a peace agreement should be met with a degree of skepticism, the U.S. must not step away from its support for peace negotiations. It is imperative that the U.S. keeps the peace negotiation process afloat for the sake of those who continue to suffer the greatest cost from this conflict: the civilian population of Afghanistan.

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