Wednesday was a particularly bloody day in Afghanistan.
Officials said at least 30 civilians were killed when U.S. airstrikes were called in to repel a Taliban attack on Afghan government forces and their U.S. advisers in Helmand Wednesday. A spokeswoman for the NATO-led Resolute Support said their forces were unaware of any civilians in the vicinity of the compound that was targeted.
Hours later in the capital, at least 10 people were killed in an assault on the compound of British security firm G4S, including five of the company’s employees, according to officials. Five attackers were involved in the Kabul assault, with one detonating a car bomb outside, before four gunmen attempted to storm the building, said Najib Danish, a spokesman for the Afghan interior ministry.
Wednesday’s violence follows a string of deadly incidents in recent days, underlining the deteriorating nature of the conflict, even as a U.S. peace envoy pushes for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.
On Tuesday, three U.S. troops were killed by a roadside bomb in the embattled province of Ghazni. On Sunday, 22 police officers were killed in a Taliban assault on a police convoy in Farah province. On Friday, 27 Afghan soldiers were killed in an ISIS suicide attack in a mosque on an army base in Khost. Three days before that, a suicide bomber killed at least 50 at a gathering of religious scholars in Kabul.
The string of setbacks come just a month after the Taliban came close to taking out the top U.S. general in the conflict, in an unprecedented security scare underscoring the perilous state of U.S.-led efforts to stabilize the country. While Gen. Austin S. Miller escaped unhurt, the Oct. 18 attack in Kandahar killed the region’s powerful police chief and head of intelligence, in a major blow to security in the southern province.
“While the areas contested and controlled by the Taliban haven't changed all that much in the past year, the intensity and effectiveness of Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces certainly has.”
Seventeen years after U.S.-led forces entered the country, and four years since NATO formally declared combat operations over, Afghanistan has rarely been so deadly. Nor has the Taliban been so powerful.
Despite the presence of more than 12,000 troops involved in the NATO-led Resolute Support to provide support for Afghan forces, the security situation continues to deteriorate. A U.S. government report this month showed that the Afghan government held just 56 percent of the country’s territory, down from 72 percent in 2015. The rest is controlled or contested by the Taliban.
“Security in Afghanistan has definitely deteriorated over the past several years,” Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the conservative think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told VICE News.
Civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict. In October, the United Nations said that the number of civilian casualties from airstrikes this year was already higher than any year since 2009. The leap has come as the U.S. has ramped up air strikes in a bid to force the Taliban into a negotiated end to the war.
Earlier this month U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford described the situation as a stalemate, conceding that the Taliban were “not losing.” Yet experts say the country’s security situation has rarely seen worse days, and many are skeptical about the prospects for any negotiated settlement.
“While the areas contested and controlled by the Taliban haven't changed all that much in the past year, the intensity and effectiveness of Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces certainly has," said Roggio. “This is forcing the Afghan security forces to draw back from rural areas, which ultimately mean more ground will be ceded to the Taliban.”
Roggio said that the Afghan government’s roadmap for peace, as outlined Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani at the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan Wednesday, is fundamentally at odds with the Taliban’s position. The Afghan government demands that the Taliban negotiate directly with it, accepts democracy and the Afghan constitution, and participates in the government. The Taliban, on the other hand, views the Afghan government as illegitimate and says it will only negotiate directly with the U.S., which it views as the real power broker.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born diplomat appointed as the U.S.’s special envoy to head talks with the Taliban, has met twice with the Islamist group in their Qatar headquarters in recent weeks, and even set a proposed deadline of April 20 to cut a peace deal, reinforcing a growing perception that Washington just wants out of a conflict that has cost 2,300 American lives.
“The U.S. and allies are desperate for a deal, and nothing good happens when you are desperate.”
According to NBC News, citing foreign diplomats, Khalilzad has taken a hasty approach to the talks because he is anxious to reach a deal before President Donald Trump, reportedly impatient with the deployment, simply pulls the plug on the mission.
But the latest bout of three-day talks yielded no agreement. In the wake of the talks, one senior Taliban leader told Reuters that his group was angered by Khalilzad’s public statement that the Taliban acknowledged they could not win militarily; another said that his desire to set a deadline underlined the growing American desperation to get out of the conflict.
Khalilzad’s approach has also reportedly frustrated the Afghan government. "Peace talks also must not be driven by superficial deadlines urged by a U.S. administration anxious to be done with the conflict," Nader Nadery, a former top adviser to Ghani, wrote in Washington Post op-ed Monday.
The American envoy’s desperation to secure a deal, signaled to the Taliban in his public comments that the U.S. was in a “hurry to end the Afghan tragedy,” did nothing to strengthen his hand in negotiations, Roggio said
“The U.S. and allies are desperate for a deal, and nothing good happens when you are desperate,” he told VICE News. “Peace talks will not end the conflict. Any agreement reached, if that is even possible, will result in the peace of the Taliban. Without U.S. troops in the country, the Taliban will certainly rampage against its enemies.”
Cover image: Journalists film the site of a car bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, November 29, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail