Why Afghanistan is a war with no end in sight

With attacks in Kabul on the rise and ISIL increasingly present there is no prospect of security, let alone peace

U.S. forces' vehicle arrives s smoke rises from the Intercontinental Hotel after an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018. Gunmen stormed the hotel and sett off a 12-hour gun battle with security forces that continued into Sunday morning, as frantic guests tried to escape from fourth and fifth-floor windows. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
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Wars used to end. Afghanistan, where the American military is now in its 17th year of operations, is defying any such notion. A second attack by the Taliban within a week in Kabul shows that the capital, once seen as the city safest from assault, is now at the forefront of the carnage.

With ISIL also regularly claiming attacks in Afghanistan, we should be gravely worried. The group's ability to target civilians makes a mockery of the political narrative, chiefly in Iraq and Syria, that the insurgents have been defeated. In truth, with ISIL last week bombing Save the Children's headquarters in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, it seems the world's most prolific terror group simply moved. Combined with the Taliban, which an American-led invasion originally sought to dislodge following the September 11 attacks in 2001, Afghanistan's problems are multiplying. America's longest war will not go away.

Donald Trump’s response to Saturday’s deaths was to urge the Afghan government to do more on security. There is no evidence that local forces are capable of changing gear. Many soldiers openly use heroin, Afghanistan’s biggest, albeit illegal, export. There is indiscipline on and off the battlefield. Insurgents have also infiltrated the army.

Matters are so bad that the American military has increased its sphere of operations in the past 12 months. But the present difficulties suggest there is no realistic prospect of ending the war. The Pentagon in December said there would be a new effort to disrupt the Taliban’s drugs financing, an idea that evokes memories of the narcotics wars marshalled by US president Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Such recycling in Washington suggests only containment. As for ISIL, there seems no end to the number of recruits who want to die for their cause, regardless of the venue.

This morass is made worse by recent history. In the 1980s, the US partnered with militants in Afghanistan in a collaboration aimed at repelling the Soviet Union. The Russians left and Reagan declared the end of the Cold War. But America’s partner, Jalaluddin Haqqani, a mujahideen commander funded by the CIA, stayed. His group, now known as the Haqqani Network, is the Taliban-aligned faction that the Afghan government blames for recent violence, including the more than 100 killed on Saturday. Now designated a terrorist group by the United States, the Haqqani role in Afghanistan highlights the biggest problem that America faces — it has no effective collaborators on the ground, nor is one available. Last August president Trump, unveiling his strategy for Afghanistan, said Pakistan “could be a valued partner in the fight”. This month, the US president changed his mind and froze aid to Pakistan, saying it was still providing safe havens for the terrorists. No new strategy has been forthcoming.

The regrettable conclusion is that the mayhem will continue, with Afghanistan's politicians seemingly toothless to stop it. This year marks a century since the end of the First World War. While the death toll may pale in comparison, the last seven days suggest the Afghan quagmire is every bit as deep as the Somme.

Read more:
Today we mourn those lost in Kabul in barbaric Taliban attack
Kabul attack: the complex calculations at work in Afghanistan's new theatre of conflict