Helmand, Afghanistan, 25 July 2015. Sharon Mulholland/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan has come as a surprise only in those countries, such as Britain, where the country as a whole is rarely covered in detail in the media. This routine paucity of information also helps explain the publicity surrounding the news that a small group of UK advisers is joining 300 Nato personnel in Helmand province. This is part of an emergency response to a sudden threat of Taliban takeovers of the district centre of Sangin, and possibly even the provincial capital of Laskhar Gar.
Sangin has already largely fallen to Taliban militias but Nato has reportedly despatched special-forces units, including some British, to try and hold on to at least part of the town. For the British army the Sangin district is especially symbolic because of the loss of 106 lives there from 2006-10. This is nearly a quarter of the entire UK losses in the thirteen-year deployment that ended in 2014, when David Cameron made his extraordinary “mission accomplished” claim.
A much more immediate signal, and one that has had an electric effect in the United States, was the killing on 21 December of six United States military personnel by a motorcycle suicide-bomber. This happened not in Helmand, but instead close to Bagram airbase near Kabul where the Americans were attending a meeting with local officials. As such, it is an indication of the range of activities of the Taliban and its capacity to regroup and take territory in many different parts of Afghanistan. The incident has come as a shock to the Barack Obama administration, forcing it to abandon any hope of withdrawing US combat-forces before the president leaves office in January 2017.
Yet another indication of the decline in security in Afghanistan came in a report published earlier on 21 December, before news emerged of the six US deaths. The report, covered in depth in the Pentagon’s house journal Stars & Stripes, confirms that the Taliban has taken over much of rural Helmand and that the Afghan security forces have been unable to cope.
The Helmand pivot
Some had viewed as alarmist recent news that the Taliban and other armed opposition groups (AOGs) were controlling 80 percent of the rural areas of Helmand. This now seems eminently plausible. Moreover, the phenomenon gains added significance by the importance of the area as a source of revenue based on opium-poppy cultivation.
In late September 2014, the Taliban briefly took control of the northern city of Kunduz. This was a huge shock to Ashraf Ghani's government in Kabul, but at least the city was quickly recaptured. Helmand is quite different from Kunduz; indeed, there have been suspicions that the Taliban seized Kunduz as a demonstration of capability, without any intention to keep it. These were reinforced by the way the Taliban fighters melted away so readily when faced with reinforced government units.
In Helmand, the Taliban control most of the countryside, with the few larger towns isolated. Roads are dangerous so resupply of garrisons is tricky. But more important is the manner in which Taliban elements actually administer the rural areas, on occasions bringing such an element of stability that – despite the brutality of their rule – they are preferred to corrupt government functionaries.
Since spring 2014, the Kabul government has sought to start peace talks with the Taliban, amidst indications that some within the movement are amenable. The reality in Afghanistan though, after fourteen years of war, is that the Taliban and other AOGs can neither win nor be defeated. There is, in other words, a stalemate.
Ghani is enough of a realist to know that there has eventually to be a peace deal, and this is privately acknowledged in Washington whatever is said in public. The trouble is that two factors currently stand in the way of an agreement.
The first is that there are different factions within the Taliban to an extent that it is very difficult to know who to negotiate with. The second is that in many respects the recent successes of Taliban militias, especially in Helmand, mean that there is a mood in the movement that this is not the right time to seek a deal.
This is why what is happening in Helmand is so significant and why Nato has essentially re-engaged. If the Taliban and other AOGs take full control of the province and perhaps even go on to threaten the neighbouring province of Kandahar, they will not be in any mood to compromise. Hence the war is escalating, against most earlier western expectations.
The ISIS banner
This is bad enough, but there is worse: mounting evidence that ISIS is now establishing more than a foothold in Afghanistan. A report to the UN Security Council on 21 December from the UN envoy to Afghanistan, Nicholas Haysom, says that ISIS has only a limited presence at the moment, mostly in the east of the country. But it would be wrong to underestimate its potential. Haysom concedes: “They certainly constitute a worrying factor, when they represent an alternative flagpole around which a large variety of disaffected groups can rally”.
For these different reasons, western capitals are becoming more concerned about Kabul. More widely, there is reluctant acknowledgment that, even after fourteen years of war in Afghanistan, there is no sign of the changed and peaceful country which seemed assured at the end of 2001.
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