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The huge death toll that once made headlines is becoming commonplace in Afghanistan, as the Taliban and other militant groups show their strength in the face of a US-backed army struggling to get by.
According to Dawood Azami of the BBC World Service, there is no clear end in sight for a war that has turned into a bloody dead end.
Is the level of violence getting worse?
Since the US invasion in 2001, Afghanistan has never been so insecure as it is now. The Taliban controls more territory than at any other time since the fall of their regime, 17 years ago.
The one in Afghanistan is already, in fact, the longest war in the history of the United States .
And with the passage of time, the conflict has not only intensified, but has also become more complicated.
The attacks are bigger, more frequent and much more deadly . Both sides – the Taliban and the Afghan government backed by the US and NATO- are trying to take advantage.
On August 10, the Taliban entered Ghazni, a strategic provincial capital on a key route south of Kabul, but Afghan security forces backed by US advisers and air strikes forced them to retreat.
On May 15, they entered the capital of Farah province, in western Afghanistan, near the border with Iran.
Many Taliban fighters are killed or injured when security forces repel their incursions into the provincial capitals, but those attacks have an enormous propaganda value for the group, increasing their morale and the number of recruits.
Insurgents also take weapons and vehicles with them when they leave.
Many other cities or districts are under constant threat from the Taliban.
Many provinces such as Helmand and Kandahar – where hundreds of US, British and other foreign soldiers were killed – are now under Taliban control.
Meanwhile, the death of civilians reaches unprecedented levels. According to the UN, more than 10,000 civilians were killed or injured in 2017 , and the number is expected to be even higher by 2018.
Is Trump’s strategy changing anything?
A year has passed since President Donald Trump unveiled his new strategy for Afghanistan, with which he promised the United States would “fight to win . “
The Trump government has tried to pressure the Taliban in four ways to break the deadlock, push the group back and finally force them to sit down and talk to the Afghan government.
- Maximum military pressure , especially through intense bombings and raids by special forces. Thousands more US soldiers were deployed, bringing the total on the ground to around 14,000. Last October, the then commander of US forces, John Nicholson, said that a “wave of air power” would also be unleashed and that this was “the beginning of the end for the Taliban.”
- Attacking the financial sources of the Taliban , which includes bombing opium production plants, which according to reports, are taxed by the Taliban, and restricting cash flows to the group from abroad.
- Questions r publicly the legitimacy of the war of the Taliban , even among religious groups.
- Press Pakistan to capture or expel Afghan Taliban leaders who are in its territory.
But, to a large extent, those efforts have failed.
The intense military pressure has slowed the territorial expansion of the Taliban and many of its combatants (including some important commanders) died last year. But the group has managed to maintain its territory and its operational capacity to carry out deadly attacks across the country .
In addition, the intense air attacks are criticized for causing civilian casualties.
At the same time, despite the bombing of drug labs, the Taliban does not seem to be facing a financial crisis. In fact, the evidence on the ground suggests that their wealth has increased .
Islamic scholars have held several meetings, including some in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, during which the violence in Afghanistan was condemned and the Taliban were asked to start peace talks with the Afghan government.
But the Taliban simply accused them of part of a “US process” to justify Washington’s war.
The Trump government also has a difficult relationship with Pakistan and suspended assistance for security in that country.
Islamabad, which denies having helped the Taliban, said it is ready to help start the Afghan peace process. But there are few signs of a paradigm shift in Pakistan’s strategy in Afghanistan.
What is driving the war?
There are five main factors responsible for the intensification of the conflict in Afghanistan.
- Both sides are trying to break the deadlock in their favor. Each party wants to increase its influence and gain more territory.
- There are questions about the effectiveness of the US strategy . And the lack of political clarity since 2001. Tens of thousands of Taliban fighters were killed, wounded or captured since 2001, but their insurgency shows no signs of weakness. A decade ago, the US and Afghan governments estimated that there were around 15,000 insurgents in Afghanistan. Today it is estimated that the number of militants exceeds 60,000.
- The appearance of the Khorasan branch of the Islamic State in Afghanistan and Pakistan has brought violence and brutality to new levels . The new group has claimed some of the most lethal attacks, mainly against civilian targets in urban centers.
- As the idea of peace talks gains momentum, the Taliban want to maximize their influence and speak from a position of strength at the negotiating table.
- The growing tension between the US and regional players , especially Pakistan, Russia and Iran, are also having a negative impact. US and Afghan officials have accused these three countries of supporting the Taliban, something they deny.
Can the Afghan forces confront them?
Given the frequency and magnitude of the Taliban’s violence, the Afghan security forces are under pressure and, in some cases, overcome.
Afghan forces have been fighting hard to stop the expansion of the Taliban. But the number of victims remains alarmingly high and seems to be increasing. Questions have been raised about the lack of strong and inspiring leadership and adequate logistics, as well as the presence of corruption.
The disputes among politicians and government leaders in Kabul are also having a negative impact on the proper functioning of government and the security situation.
The two factions that formed the Government of National Unity after the 2014 presidential election have not yet really joined.
Can elections really be held?
The parliamentary elections, which have already been postponed for more than three years, are scheduled for October 20, 2018. The increase in violence has fueled speculation as to whether they will take place on that date. And there are already concerns about possible fraud or manipulation before the elections.
There are also doubts about how representative the next parliament can be if elections can not be held in many parts of the country due to violence and intimidation .
The presidential elections, which should take place in April 2019, will be a huge challenge .
If not handled properly, both elections will test the strength of government institutions and represent a great challenge for political stability in Afghanistan.
What happens with the peace talks?
All parties now seem convinced that the conflict in Afghanistan can not be resolved by military means alone.
Slowly, a consensus is being built to start the talks , and all parties say they want a negotiated agreement.
After an unprecedented three-day ceasefire last June, a window of opportunity opened. It was followed by a meeting between US officials and representatives of the Taliban in Qatar in July. It was the first time in seven years that both parties met face to face.
They are scheduled to meet again soon. It is an acknowledgment that, despite the aggressive military campaign of the United States, neither side can win the war.
But there are still disagreements about the format, including the general framework for comprehensive peace negotiations. For significant progress and the necessary confidence to be achieved, commitment and flexibility on the part of all will be required.
The other great challenge is the cooperation of regional players. Peace in Afghanistan, and in the region as a whole, can only be achieved through a multilateral mechanism involving the United States and the main regional actors, including Pakistan, Russia, Iran, China, India and Saudi Arabia.
But, in the end, it will be the dialogue between the Afghans themselves that will determine the political future of their war-ravaged Afghanistan.