The years keep passing with the United States in Afghanistan—nearly 17 in all now—and the death toll keeps climbing. This week it was twin suicide bombings in Kabul that killed 25 people, including nine journalists, plus an attack on a military convoy in the country’s south that wounded several Romanian service members and killed an unknown number of children nearby. American soldiers, too, despite having drawn down their presence, continue to die there—two of them have been killed in the country this year, most recently a 22-year-old Army specialist who died east of Kabul this week. All of this comes as the government makes overtures to seek peace with the Taliban. The natural question after a week of violence like this is: Is the pursuit of peace growing hopeless?
The battle has been complicated by the fact that it’s not simply one between the government and the Taliban. A branch of the Islamic State claimed responsibility for Monday’s attack. Soon after the group had appeared in Afghanistan, U.S. defense officials had dismissed its numbers, repeatedly claiming that U.S. strikes had decimated the group. A year later, ISIS is not only alive in Afghanistan, it has repeatedly shown its ability to strike at the heart of the Afghan state.
The Taliban, meanwhile, hasn’t been idle. The group announced its annual spring offensive on April 25, two months after President Ashraf Ghani made an unconditional offer of talks with the militant group. The fact that the Taliban did not reject the offer outright was seen as a sign of promise, but in recent days and weeks, the militants have attacked several sites across Afghanistan, targeting civilians.
Speaking Monday at the U.S. Defense Department, James Mattis, the defense secretary, said both the Taliban and ISIS have a goal to “destabilize the elected government.” And he played down expectations, however modest, that Ghani’s offer of talks could help the country move toward peace.
“We said last August NATO is going to hold the line, we knew there would be tough fighting going forward,” he said, adding: “The murder of journalists and other innocent people is a great testimony to what it is we stand for and more importantly what we stand against. We anticipated and are doing our best and have been successful at blocking many of these attacks on innocent people, but unfortunately once in a while they get through.”
If that sounds too modest for the Afghans dying as a result, it’s also true that the increase in Taliban-related violence does not necessarily mean that any incipient peace process is dead. Laurel Miller, who until last year was the acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. State Department, told me that “it’s not unusual for there to be peaks of violence” even as a side considers entering negotiations. The violence, she said, is one way to try to gain more negotiating leverage.
“I wouldn’t draw a conclusion that a spike in violence means that prospects of peace have necessarily diminished,” Miller, who is now a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, said. But, she added, such violence does shrink the political space the parties have to reach out to the other side. “It is possible that the high-profile attacks could limit President Ghani’s space for being seen to be reaching out to the Taliban,” she said.
At the same time, the three main parties to the conflict—the Afghan government, the Taliban, and the U.S., whose 2001 invasion ousted the Taliban regime—are locked in a military stalemate. The Afghan government might not be strong enough to hold the country on its own, its defense force might be shrinking, and it may still be far short of its military recruitment goals, but the U.S. military presence—in the form of 15,000 personnel—helps. On the other hand, while the Taliban might be at the receiving end of U.S.-supported firepower, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the independent U.S. government watchdog, it controls 14.5 percent of Afghanistan’s districts. (SIGAR says the Afghan government controls about 56 percent; the rest are contested.) The number of districts controlled by the Taliban is the highest recorded by SIGAR since it began receiving such data. Conversely, however, the Afghan government was found to control or influence about 65 percent of the population between October and January. It was previously 64 percent. (The Afghan government controls all the large cities and towns.)
Writing in The National Interest last week, Miller and Stephen Watts pointed out that “military stalemate is an essential precondition for negotiated conflict resolution, and the war has been stalemated for nearly a decade already.” Miller acknowledged to me that that it is hard to start a “major diplomatic initiative and see it through to a successful conclusion.” But, she said, it is “necessary to go down that path.”
The Trump administration’s own view of what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan is hard to decipher. Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate, said repeatedly he believed the U.S. should withdraw from the country. But one of his first foreign-policy speeches was his unveiling of a new South Asia strategy that called for more troops, increased pressure on Pakistan to curb the Taliban, and helping the Afghan forces fight the Taliban “in order to drive them to the negotiating table.” And then The Washington Post reported this week that Trump told Senator Rand Paul, the Republican from Kentucky, that U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan soon. No specific date was discussed.
When asked about Trump’s reported remarks, Mattis said U.S. plans in Afghanistan had not changed. “We’re there to do a job. We’re not there to stay forever. But the job comes first,” he said. “Matter of fact, we have a number of nations looking to add forces as we speak.”
Additionally, the president has two new members of his national-security team: John Bolton, who took over from H.R. McMaster as national-security adviser, and Mike Pompeo, who replaced Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. Neither man has said anything publicly about his view on what U.S. policy in Afghanistan should be. “The team is newly in place so it’s logical that there will be fresh consideration about the administration’s policy approach to Afghanistan generally and toward mounting a peace process,” Miller told me.
Meanwhile, though, there are the frequent and violent reminders of “what we stand against,” in Mattis’s words. Americans continue to pay with their lives for that. But as ever, it’s Afghans who will keep bearing most of the costs, with or without the United States.