That the situation in Afghanistan is grim is not exactly news. It has always been dire and remains so. But 2015 has been a very bad year indeed. The Taliban now control more of the country, about 30%, than at any time since 2001 when they were pushed from power by western and Afghan forces after the Twin Towers attacks. Government forces have lost 19,000 dead and injured in the past 12 months. In October, President Barack Obama , clearly with a heavy heart, that American soldiers will stay until 2017.
And not only stay but, it has become increasingly obvious, , not just to train and monitor. The man whose promise had been that he would see all American troops out of both Afghanistan and Iraq by the end of his time in office has been forced to break that promise.
The news that some have been established in several parts of the country, as well as the emergence of Islamic State offshoots, underlines the irony. American and other western armies were sent to Afghanistan to make sure it could never again be a haven for those plotting terrorist attacks against the United States and Europe. But now they are back.
Yet to simply conclude that it is all just a dismal full circle is probably wrong. Afghanistan is an obstinately fragmented country, divided by ethnicity and religion, and one that has always displayed a pronounced split between its more modern, urbanised side and its rural provinces. Monarchs, Marxists, Islamists and western-style democrats and technocrats have all failed to weld it into anything like a single coherent state. President Ashraf Ghani, its latest leader, has so far achieved few of the things that his impressive qualifications and ideas for development seemed to promise. His “side” is riven by rivalries, quarrels and competitive corruption. His relationship with his partner in power, Abdullah Abdullah, is uneasy, he has still to appoint a full-time minister of defence, and he has recently come under attack from a new opposition council which seems to be mainly a front for the ex-ministers, warlords and businessmen associated with his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. This week he acceded to their demands to hold parliamentary and district elections, which he had earlier postponed, next year. The power struggles on the government side have undermined all its policies, including defence, according to .
The other side, however, also has its troubles and disputes. The new Taliban commander, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, was associated with the movement in Pakistan for his aggressive pursuit of rivals within the movement. The Taliban’s internal splits have given an opening to both Isis and al-Qaida. They may well also be driving the Taliban effort in Helmand, since control of the opium-rich province would hand a major political advantage to whichever leader achieved it.
There is perhaps some reason to think that weakness on both sides could be a positive factor. At some point in these chaotic developments peace may look like a real option to elements on the Taliban side, which is why the efforts now under way, involving Pakistan, China, and the US, as well as Afghanistan itself, must be welcomed. It has to be said that the prospects are not hopeful, but nor are they entirely hopeless.