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.)