By all accounts, the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated sharply since U.S. and NATO troops ended combat operations in December 2014. The Taliban control more territory now than at any time in the last 14 years, and the group was able to temporarily capture a key Afghan city in the north last October.
Yet some recent developments—including the fracturing of the Taliban, the U.S. decision to extend its troop presence in the country, and a Pakistani push to restart peace talks—could help arrest Afghanistan’s downward spiral.
Any assessment of Afghanistan’s future must also factor in the emergence of the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K). The Pentagon says between 1,000 and 3,000 ISIS-K militants have seized pockets of territory in the eastern province of Nangarhar from the Taliban. ISIS is broadcasting radio programs in local languages in the region to recruit young Afghans. The ISIS propaganda denigrates both the Afghan government, by portraying it as a puppet of the U.S., and the Taliban, by claiming it has been co-opted by Pakistan.
ISIS-K also is taking advantage of splits within the Taliban leadership that followed last summer’s news that Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar had died over two years ago. One breakaway faction accuses the newly appointed Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, of lying about the circumstances surrounding Omar’s death and of being too close to Pakistani intelligence.
The U.S. recently formally designated the South Asia branch of ISIS as a terrorist organization and gave greater leeway to U.S. forces to attack ISIS-K positions in Afghanistan.
Khorasan is an Islamic historical term used to describe the area encompassed by Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, and parts of other countries in the region. According to the Hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), South-Central Asia maintains a key role in establishing a global caliphate, since a major battle between Muslims and non-Muslims supposedly will take place in the region, heralding the apocalypse and return of the “Mahdi” (redeemer of Islam).
The U.S. decision to loosen rules of engagement with regard to ISIS, but not the Taliban, demonstrates that the U.S. views ISIS as the potentially more dangerous threat to regional stability. U.S. troops can now pursue ISIS targets as enemies of the United States, whereas they are forbidden from attacking the Taliban unless their fighters directly threaten American or Afghan forces.
Keeping military pressure on ISIS (and the Taliban) in Afghanistan requires a continued robust U.S. force presence and even a possible troop increase. General Campbell has made clear that he wants President Obama to maintain the current level of U.S troops (9,800) for as long as possible, rather than draw down to 5,500 by the end of 2016, as is currently planned.
In mid-October, shortly after the Taliban’s capture of Kunduz, President Barack Obama reversed his earlier pledge to withdraw nearly all troops by the end of his term and said the U.S. instead would keep a force level of 5,500 U.S. troops in the country when he departs office in January 2017. It was a step in the right direction, but he should have dropped all arbitrary deadlines for withdrawal.
Sisyphean Task of Pursuing Dialogue
There is speculation that competition from ISIS might incentivize the Taliban to get more serious about negotiations with the Afghan government. But even as the group fights pitched battles with ISIS-K, the Taliban leadership seems equally determined to keep pressure on Afghan security forces—an attempt to weaken their will before engaging in genuine reconciliation talks.
The Taliban are fighting hard to take Helmand province, a major producer of opium and one of its traditional strongholds. Last week, Kabul had to send reinforcements to prevent the Taliban from capturing three key districts in the province.
Despite the Taliban’s military advances, the “Quad” countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, the U.S., and China) are scheduled to meet February 6 to lay the groundwork for potential peace talks with the insurgents. Any talks would have to quickly generate reductions in violence, and this requires Pakistan to use its leverage with the Taliban. Simply getting the Taliban to the table—which Islamabad demonstrated it could do last summer—will not be enough to prove Islamabad’s commitment to a negotiated settlement.
Persevere against Obstacles
Mistrust between Afghanistan and Pakistan may still yet frustrate a negotiated settlement. Islamabad’s accusation that a base in Afghanistan directed the horrific, January 20 attack on university students in Charsadda, Pakistan is indicative of the deep-seated suspicion between the two countries.
The U.S. has invested far too much in this 14-year war to give up now on negotiations, no matter how difficult or long the road to a political settlement may be. If the other members of the Quad are willing to persevere, the U.S. should also maintain both diplomatic and military engagement in this critical part of the world.
- Lisa Curtis, Senior Research Fellow
Originally appeared in The Cipher Brief