Why Attack Afghan Civilians? Creating Chaos Rewards Taliban
Posted January 28, 2018 10:43 p.m. EST
Updated January 28, 2018 10:48 p.m. EST
They were hardly the first Taliban attacks in the capital. Still, there was something particularly alarming in their scale and implication about the pair of episodes, just a week apart, that rocked Afghanistan: a hotel siege that killed 22, then a car bomb, loaded into an ambulance, that killed 103.
But the question of why — why target bystanders, and in such numbers — is perhaps best answered not by peering into the minds of the attackers but by examining the structure of a war that increasingly pulls its participants toward the senseless.
Whether the week's events will translate into a long-term gain for the Taliban or serve only as a terrible but temporary show of force, the attacks embody the trends toward violence and disintegration that appear to be only worsening in Afghanistan.
A War Engineered for Chaos
The war’s participants embarked on what they thought was a traditional battle for control of Afghanistan’s territory and for the allegiance of its people. But over more than 16 years, without setting out to do so, they have remade it into a war over one issue: whether or not the country can have a central, functioning state.
For the U.S.-led coalition and its Afghan partners, the goal was simple: Set up a government, help it consolidate control, and wait for Afghans to reject the Taliban in favor of stability.
The Taliban, which deny the foreigner-backed government’s legitimacy, sought to topple it.
Because both sides treated Afghanistan’s governance as a matter of all-or-nothing survival, the Taliban had every incentive to create chaos.
“I see a lot of U.S. complicity in this,” said Frances Z. Brown, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former member of the National Security Council.
With the Taliban unable to win outright but the Americans unwilling to admit defeat, she said, each side has privileged short-term escalations. That has validated the Taliban’s view that the group must undermine the state, including through attacks in Kabul that expose the government’s weakness.
“Trump’s strategy is based on a fighting machine — to send more troops,” said Mullah Hamid, a Taliban commander in southern Afghanistan. “If they are giving priority to the military option, we are not weak. We can reach our target and hit the enemy.”
The tit-for-tat violence has taken on a logic of its own, overwhelming other options.
“There has not been any channel of talks ongoing between the High Peace Council and the Taliban,” said Maulavi Shafiullah Nuristani, a member of the government body tasked with exploring negotiations. “We never had any direct contacts with them, except for indirect and personal contacts.”
Nuristani said the peace council’s offices, located a little more than 200 yards from the site of Saturday’s car bombing, would close for two days — “until the rooms and our offices are cleaned of debris and broken glass.”
American Strength as a Weakness
As U.S.-led forces have escalated in response to Taliban gains, they have unintentionally pushed the Taliban toward grislier violence. Airstrikes have forced the Taliban to lie low in rural areas, where they prefer to operate, seizing territory and extorting from locals.
Instead, they have shifted toward terrifying if brief guerrilla-style attacks in Kabul and other urban districts, where U.S. air power is of little use. Though this gains them no territory, it allows them to humiliate the government where it is most visible. “The city is infiltrated, the city is contaminated,” said Amrullah Saleh, a former intelligence chief.
The government, Saleh said, often cannot even know whether a suicide bomber entered from outside the city “or whether he is brainwashed here; whether they build the vests here or whether they import.”
The group’s internal dynamics have aligned with its shifting incentives, elevating officers who favor large-scale attacks on civilians.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, who leads the once-semi-autonomous Haqqani network, a terrorist group closely associated with al-Qaida, now serves at the Taliban’s No. 2 leader and de facto military planner.
“The Taliban and the Haqqani are the same,” said Sayed Akbar Agha, a former Taliban commander. “Only the government is differentiating between them.”
Weakening the Taliban’s ability to act as a traditional insurgency that holds territory, though logical, also compels them to prioritize their role as terrorist group, as last week's attacks show.
A Destabilized Proxy War
For as long as Afghanistan’s war has raged, Pakistan, which plays a double-game with the Taliban, has been at the center of its seeming intractability.
President Donald Trump, following two presidents who tried and failed to rein in Pakistan’s meddling, publicly chastised Pakistani leaders this month, freezing security aid to Pakistan.
But Brown said the United States seemed unready for the all-but-inevitable response to its confrontation with Pakistan. “If you start on the path of escalating pressure, you have to be ready for the other side to escalate,” she said.
Officials in Kabul worry that Trump’s hard-line approach could, in at least the short term, worsen the situation. An isolated Pakistan could be dangerous, Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, warned aides. The country would most likely test the limits of both U.S. attention and Afghan resolve before giving in to outside pressures.
While last week's attacks may be unrelated to U.S. efforts to pressure Pakistan, the country has typically reacted to perceived threats by ramping up violence in Afghanistan.
A Drift Toward Endless Conflict
In theory, a peace deal could bring all sides together. But a half-generation of fighting has eroded trust and polarized the combatants. While wars have ground down to peace before, it required a broker. Here, none seems to exist.
“The international community is absolutely not equipped for that,” Brown said.
Diplomats are stretched thin trying to keep the government from collapsing amid political squabbles, another symptom of its weakness after years of war.
The Americans’ strength is also a hurdle in diplomacy. The United States is too influential to circumvent but, with the State Department gutted, it lacks the capacity or attention to seek a peace deal, which Trump seems to have little interest in anyway. “The United States isn’t going to take the lead on this,” Brown said. “So it’s unclear how this would even get started.”
So as it stands, neither side can advance its goals, but none of the major forces appear willing to try a different approach. Any change would risk defeat, which is less tolerable than perpetual stalemate, in which the only decisive loser is the Afghan population.
The growing toll for civilians is not changing the calculus for any of the forces conducting the war.
Gen. Joseph L. Votel, who as head of U.S. Central Command has authority for the war, was asked on a visit to Jordan about the latest attacks in Kabul. He said they only affirmed U.S. strategy.
“It does not impact our commitment to Afghanistan, our commitment to the mission, and seeing this through,” he said.
Asked whether victory was still possible, he gave the same answer U.S. generals have given for over 16 years: “Absolutely, absolutely.”