Nearly 10,000 U.S. Marines poured into Helmand Province eight years ago as part of the largest surge in the Afghanistan war. Announcing the troop deployment, then-President Obama said the massive campaign was “necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation” and was critical in preventing “a cancer from once again spreading through that country.”
Today, those same districts, having enjoyed only fleeting moments of peace, have fallen under control of a new, more lethal Taliban that’s gaining and holding more territory than ever before, consistently executing more high-profile attacks in the heart of the capital and capitalizing on a newfound media strategy that has magnified its reach beyond Afghanistan’s borders.
The Taliban’s attacks have never been more sophisticated nor more deadly. The group has killed record numbers of Afghan civilians in a series of cruel and complex attacks that has repeatedly brought President Ashraf Ghani’s government to its knees and left the U.S. military scrambling for an adequate response.
For Zhargul, a farmer and 48-year-old father of five living in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, the news of another U.S. troop deployment to his country and a return to Helmand, specifically, brings on a bitter déjà vu.
“I don’t think more U.S. troops will help bring security,” Zhargul says. “We don’t know how and when things will change again, but one thing I can tell you is that we are fed up with fighting and bloodshed.”
He’s right to be skeptical. U.S. strategy has hardly deviated since troops first put boots on the ground 16 years ago. But as Secretary of Defense James Mattis deploys an additional 3,000 troops with few details beyond destroying “the terrorist hub,” one thing has changed: the Taliban.
Dominance on the ground
The Taliban now controls more territory than it ever has. In fact, after 16 years of constant combat and roughly $714 billion spent by Americans to purge the terror group, the Taliban looks its strongest, establishing footholds in nearly every single province.
The group has made major gains by swooping into areas left stranded by U.S. and coalition forces, and providing shadow governance to local populations burned by the endemic corruption in Kabul.
Capitalizing on a muddled U.S strategy that has overwhelmingly focused on population centers and ignored “less vital” areas,” the group has expanded its control of rural areas, turning them into hubs they can use to recharge, recruit, and train fighters, according to Bill Roggio, the editor of Long War Journal.
A constant wave of crippling attacks
In April, the Taliban unleashed its deadliest attack in the history of the war, killing at least 250 Afghan soldiers in one six-hour shooting spree at northern Afghanistan’s largest military base. The group followed April’s attack with dozens more throughout the country, before launching its next high-profile strike in July, when the group claimed a car-bomb attack in Kabul that killed more than 70 people, according to United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA.)
The most recent quarterly Special Investigator for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report found that Afghanistan was suffering an average of 70 reported attacks a day across the country, including suicide bombings, armed clashes, IEDs, abductions, and other criminal attacks. That number increased by more than 20 percent between February and July this year.
The Taliban was responsible for 64 percent of those attacks.
“They’ve mushroomed with foreign fighters.”
The civilian cost has been devastating: Casualties reached “record high” levels in the first six months of 2017, claiming 5,234 civilian lives, according to the most recent quarterly SIGAR report.
“Taliban-sponsored terrorism is creating a platform that is bringing terrorists from all over the region to Afghanistan,” Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani told diplomats in June. “We cannot solve one bit of the terrorism problem without having a comprehensive framework that allows us to address its complexity,” he added.
That “platform” can be attributed to the Taliban’s new social media strategy, which Thomas Joscelyn, senior editor of the Long War Journal, says has transformed once “crude and rudimentary” propaganda into “very slick productions in multiple languages.”
Taking a page out of ISIS’ playbook
Once a group that shunned photography, videos, and music, the Taliban has learned from its younger regional competitor ISIS, and embraced modern media as a propaganda tool to attract new recruits.
“In general, we’ve seen a huge media upgrade from the Taliban,” said Joscelyn.
Over the last year the Taliban has paired the new production capabilities with an aggressive social media presence, flooding the internet and social media, publishing blogs, and dominating anonymous encrypted platforms like Telegram. The goal is to grow their recruiting efforts, not only in Afghanistan but also in surrounding countries such as Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Bangladesh, said Joscelyn.
Its efforts are paying off.
“They’ve mushroomed with foreign fighters,” said Joscelyn, adding that the new recruits bring them one step closer to their endgame.
“The goal all along is to resurrect the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” he said.
The U.S.’ goals are less clear, however. Though senior officials in the Trump administration have described the American effort in Afghanistan in terms of “winning” and “victory,” experts have long contended that the Taliban cannot be defeated militarily, and that the only way to end the war and prevent a Taliban Islamic emirate is through a political settlement.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Mattis have publicly acknowledged the need for a political settlement with the Taliban, urging the group to lay down arms and come to the negotiating table. But adding 3,000 troops to Afghanistan is unlikely to swing the dynamic and convince the terror group to negotiate on U.S. terms, says Colin Clarke, an expert on terrorism and insurgency at RAND, just as it wasn’t enough when the U.S. had 10 times more men on the ground six years ago. Instead, analysts fear, the current deployment will deliver a similar outcome to previous ones.
“We’re not going to kill our way out of this problem,” said Clarke.
Abdul Aleem contributed reporting from Kabul.