The war in Afghanistan is lumbering on with no end in sight despite decades of fighting. It is commonly treated as having begun in 2001 when Operation Enduring Freedom was begun in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The United States had demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, to the surprise of none, refused. It is doubtful that the US ever expected the Taliban to accede to their demand in the first place and the opening shots of the global war on terror quickly followed. It proved to be a disaster for the Taliban, who had occupied the majority of the country and had established a fundamentalist state, and a catastrophe for Afghans, who died in their thousands. If one looks back further, to 1979 and the Soviet invasion in support of its client state, there is an almost continuous period of violence interrupted only by a brief period of peace following Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the beginning of a civil war between warlords in 1992 that continued until 1996. The Taliban were formed in 1994 by Mohammed Omar, a religious student and mujahedeen, who had looked upon the practices of the warlords with the distain. The Taliban’s conquest of 90 percent of Afghanistan came at a high price and allegedly relied on support from Pakistan and Al-Qaeda. It was also brutal, civilians were regularly massacred, including the killing of over 4000 civilians after the battle for Mazar i Sharif, partly in revenge for the earlier execution of 3000 Taliban fighters in 1997.
The Taliban were fundamentalists of the highest order, practicing their own form of Sunni Islam and applying a strict interpretation of sharia law. Prior to the US-led invasion of 2001 they had put the ethnically diverse Northern Alliance on the back foot and controlled most of Afghanistan. This was quickly reversed and a new Afghan government formed, but the Taliban began an insurgency that has continued to today. In terms of their goals of dismantling Al-Qaeda and removing the Taliban from power, the US and NATO were successful, but the Taliban were not defeated.
In the present day, the Taliban have taken control of swathes of Afghanistan and have begun their spring offensive, and both Al-Qaeda and ISIS have a presence in Afghanistan. Despite the US hitting them with heavy airstrikes the Taliban and the terror groups have been able to continue their insurgency and hit Kabul with bombs multiple times. Without the US the Afghan military struggles to contain the insurgents, while the Taliban’s fundamentalism and disregard for civilians alienates them from Afghans. They are also primarily Pashtun, setting them apart from the other ethnicities in Afghanistan, the Hazara’s, Tajik’s, and Uzbek’s, who remember all too well their treatment at the hands of the Taliban during their period of rule. When the Taliban is successful in taking a city, such as Kunduz, the overwhelming firepower of the US comes into play: rural insurgency is one thing, presenting a fixed target in a city is another. The new Taliban has a problem that dates back to its 1990 emergence: it achieves control only by force, has no political legitimacy, and Afghan’s are terrified of them. The same could be said for Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The current Afghan government has offered to negotiate but the Taliban has not taken them up on this. Nor are they the only fundamentalist group, and while Al-Qaeda and ISIS continue with their bombings, including at a Mosque in Khost and the killing of nine journalists in Kabul, the Trump administration is unlikely to draw back on the use of airstrikes. For their part, the Afghan security forces are struggling and appear less capable of fighting the insurgents than ever, leaving the government heavily dependent on the US to survive. The current situation is a stalemate that will not be broken in the near future.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator