A series of deadly and apparently coordinated attacks in Kabul suggests Afghanistan’s situation after the less than a year ago is no better, or simpler, than it was during the decade-long large-scale western military deployment in the country. More than 60 people were killed in less than 24 hours, the worst day for Afghans in 2015.
Such casualties underline the continuing threat that the constitutes for the government of President Ashraf Ghani, who has made peace talks with the insurgent group a priority since he was elected in September last year. Whether the effort to find a negotiated settlement is now entirely doomed or only temporarily impeded remains to be seen.
The Taliban seem to be in the midst of a succession struggle, after that their founder, Mullah Omar, died two years ago. had masked serious differences within the movement, and , Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, has not gone unchallenged. The violence in Kabul could be a consequence of different factions vying for influence, some bent on intensifying the fighting, others possibly more open to a settlement. But it underlines that Afghanistan remains the scene of a power struggle where the level of terror one group is able to instil remains the ultimate criterion, not a recipe for any sort of political stability or safety for the population.
The weakness of the Afghan state is nothing new. But this latest assault certainly tests the proposition that a consolidated array of Afghan security forces, police and army would be able to keep the Taliban in check after the withdrawal of western troops. There are echoes of the US retreat from Iraq in today’s . In the same way as in Iraq, a complex conflict that America, in its hurry to leave, was too ready to announce had been essentially resolved, may come back to haunt Washington and its allies in new ways.
It would perhaps be unfair to say that the Afghan national forces have dismally failed in their task. But all three pillars of national security were spectacularly targeted in a short span of time: the Afghan police, the Afghan army and a Nato-run base used by American special forces. Suicide tactics were used, and the fighting in some instances raged on for hours before government forces were able to retake control. One American soldier was killed, the first since the US cut down its presence in Afghanistan.
The number of casualties among civilians reached a peak when a truck bomb exploded on Friday in a Kabul residential area. The Taliban did not claim responsibility for that attack. But Taliban attacks are nevertheless the cause of most civilian casualties, far outweighing those resulting from operations carried out by Afghan or western troops. This was confirmed last week by in Kabul giving statistics for 2015 so far. A worrying feature is that a growing proportion of women and children bear the brunt of the violence.
This latest onslaught in Kabul will be condemned abroad. But that will not alter the fact that Afghanistan has fallen far down the international agenda. That is a risky thing to happen for all, not just for the Afghans. The country has known almost nothing but war since it was invaded in 1979 by the Soviet Union. After Moscow’s troops were defeated, western interest faded, civil war followed, and eventually the Taliban took over, soon allying itself with al-Qaida. Now there are signs that Islamic State is taking interest in Afghanistan, possibly gaining a foothold in a country that could regress into the kind of civil war that racked it in the early 1990s.
Yet it would be an exaggeration to say that Afghanistan is close to reaching that point. The negotiating path is one that should be trodden with caution, but it continues to be worth exploring. The armed opposition in Afghanistan is not monolithic, and there may be substantial elements within it that might come to see they have some common interests with the government; that they have more in common with it, for instance, than they may have with Isis.
Meanwhile the Afghan government needs more support and financial assistance, not less. The price of failure in Afghanistan, and the cost of the western indifference, will otherwise bring even more suffering for Afghan civilians. Civilians in Europe and America could be at risk as well, for if Isis is allowed to grow unchecked in the Hindu Kush, the world might again find itself facing an Afghan-based global terrorist threat.