What Will it Take to Stabilize Afghanistan?

Security forces inspect the site of a deadly blast near in the center of Kabul on November 12. Afghan officials confirmed several people were killed in the explosion near a high school and about 500 meters from where people gathered to denounce Taliban attacks in Jaghuri and Malistan districts of eastern Ghazni province. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

The brutal onslaught carried out by the Taliban in mid-October ahead of Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections in which the powerful police chief of Kandahar, General Abdul Raziq Achakzai, was killed, is a stark example of the months-long rise in violence in the country. Just weeks afterward, Taliban representatives met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and envoys from China, Pakistan, India, and former Soviet nations at a peace conference in Moscow. All throughout, the sentiment among citizens of Afghanistan is growing weariness and frustration about the state of their country and of the possibilities for peace.

The Moscow conference—the first of its kind—was a bid on the part of Russia to push the Afghan peace process forward while exercising influence in the region. The Taliban had not attended such a high-level diplomatic summit before. The United States, meanwhile, had limited representation: an American diplomat in Moscow was there as an observer. While naysayers said that the conference was inconclusive and optimists hailed the Taliban’s attendance as a step in the right direction, the meeting itself should fall within the larger context of the trajectory of peace efforts up to this point. With the Taliban saying that the “conference is not about holding negotiations with any party whatsoever, rather it is about finding a peaceful solution to the issue of Afghanistan,” the impact of the summit will be primarily in giving Russia a greater voice in the peace process. Ultimately, the value of such summits is whether they produce or lead towards meaningful change for ordinary Afghans. Given the rise in violence, the hopes that such change is possible have rarely been less palpable.

While intensifying their attacks, the Taliban have refused to negotiate or speak with the Afghan government, claiming they are illegitimate foreign puppets. The Taliban launched another offensive in Ghazni province as their delegation was in Moscow—one of many in the past month that have targeted not only government officials, but also security forces and law enforcement who have suffered a record number of casualties. The Taliban were responsible for the deaths of at least 355 security officials in October, while 118 members of the security forces were killed during the first ten days of November. In the recent Ghazni attacks, the Taliban killed over 30 Special Forces Commandos, Afghanistan’s elite force trained by the US military, along with 50 police and militia men. On the civilian front, the United Nations reported 10,000 civilian casualties last year and predicted that the non-combatant death toll will be higher for 2018.

In the face of the Taliban’s persistence, Afghan forces have been unable to successfully retaliate or even intimidate. The sharp uptick in violence is indicative of the Afghan government’s waning control—that too, at a startling rate. The government has lost control of one-third of the territory in just under three years, from 72 percent in 2015 to now barely controlling just over 55 percent of the country. Its Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) has struggled to maintain the required number of troops due to increased desertions and deaths. Meanwhile, the Taliban control over 15 percent of the country’s territory, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), while 30 percent of Afghanistan’s districts are contested areas. And with the recent attacks in Ghazni, reports claim that the “safe district” of Jaghori, where the Hazara community have lived peacefully for years, will fall to Taliban rule very soon—taking away another bloc of territory from the government.

Furthermore, the Taliban attacked the peaceful Hazara stronghold by breaking a longstanding truce just days before attending the Moscow summit. The ability of the Taliban to disregard the truce and attack Afghan government forces and simultaneously avoid accountability from the international community are a significant impediment to implementing any outcomes from peace talks. The challenges to ensuring that the situation in Afghanistan does not further deteriorate revolve around raising the political, economic, or diplomatic costs for the Taliban if they continue along this path. Given the relationship between the Afghan government and Taliban, much of the pressure will need to come from outside Afghanistan.

There is also the practical need for police and security personnel to maintain stability, particularly outside of Kabul, and the spike in violence is making it difficult for the government to maintain a viable force. The number of fighters in the Afghan Army stands at 20,000, while the total number in the ANDSF is 312,000, approximately 40,000 personnel, or 11 percent short of its target strength. Reports of corruption and infighting within the government, and news reports that the United States is considering asking the government to suspend the presidential elections, further dim the hopes of Afghans.

Any attempts thus far to put an end to the spike in violence have had little effect. For example, a brief truce offer in the summer by the government was rejected by the Taliban after they seized hostages. The US government has launched direct talks with the Taliban with the aim of stemming attacks but they have not a meaningful impact thus far. Zalmay Khalilzad, the former ambassador who was appointed the US Special Envoy to Afghanistan, is a welcome addition to the negotiation process, however at this point the focus of the talks seem to be mainly aimed at inducing the Taliban to come to the negotiating table—only carrots, no sticks.

What has been clear over the years—and which the events of recent months demonstrate—is that providing concessions to the Taliban with no costs will not bring stability to Afghanistan. While alternatives are much less clear, ensuring that there are costs for the Taliban will allow the Afghan government to begin regaining territorial control and security. Without costs, those most deeply impacted will be the Afghan people, who will continue to be left vulnerable, with their hopes of a secure future very uncertain.

Neha Ansari is a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a doctoral fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at Tufts University. She tweets @NhaAnsari.