With President Donald Trump renewing the war effort by sending thousands more troops and expanding their combat mission, Afghanistan is experiencing another grim spike in insurgent violence with three major attacks in Kabul within a span of 10 days.
KABUL, Afghanistan — With U.S. troops surging into Afghanistan, Taliban militants challenged a new and inexperienced U.S. president with an escalating campaign of bombings that illustrated the difficulties of winning the war.
The year was 2009, the president was Barack Obama and the cheap and devastating Taliban tactic was the roadside bomb, which quickly became the No. 1 killer of both U.S.-led coalition forces and Afghan civilians.
Nearly a decade later, with President Donald Trump renewing the war effort by sending thousands more troops and expanding their combat mission, Afghanistan is experiencing another grim spike in insurgent violence with three major attacks in Kabul that killed at least 136 people within a span of 10 days.
The latest came Monday when five militants attacked an Afghan army unit guarding the country’s main military academy, killing at least 11 soldiers and wounding 16 others, officials said.
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The attack in Kabul, for which Islamic State claimed responsibility, began before dawn and sparked a gunbattle that continued for several hours. The capital’s weary residents awoke to more carnage on a day that had been declared a holiday to mourn victims of the last bombing — less than 48 hours earlier, when a Taliban assailant blew up a car bomb disguised as an ambulance outside a hospital, killing at least 103 people.
“It’s similar to what happened during the Obama surge, that instead of confronting NATO forces on the battlefield they opted for these low-cost terrorist attacks, and they have been very effective,” said Haroun Mir, a political analyst in Kabul.
“It is becoming obvious that the insurgents, with three or four attackers, are capable of paralyzing the capital,” Mir said.
Every attack now seems to come more quickly than Afghans can recover from the one before. A week before the hospital bombing, a handful of Taliban gunmen raided the Intercontinental hotel, a landmark in the capital, and killed 22 people, including four U.S. citizens.
The last time Afghanistan endured a week this deadly was barely three months ago, when more than 200 soldiers and civilians were killed, including at least 50 in an Islamic State-claimed attack on a Shiite mosque in Kabul.
Violence in Afghanistan used to take a breather in winter, when cold conditions made it more difficult for insurgents to move back and forth across the border from their havens in Pakistan. But 16 years after the U.S.-led military invasion toppled the Taliban, the increasingly unrelenting pace of bombings has damaged Afghans’ faith in their government and raised questions about Trump’s strategy to stifle the militants.
In boosting the U.S. troop presence from 11,000 to 15,000 and giving U.S. commanders greater authority to strike militants, Trump implicitly endorsed the idea that Taliban insurgents could be defeated on the battlefield — or at least weakened enough that they would be forced to negotiate a truce with the Kabul government.
But that strategy hinges on the performance of Afghan security forces — trained and equipped largely by the U.S. at a cost of some $70 billion since 2002 — who have proved woefully incapable of stopping devastating attacks against supposedly well-guarded targets. The ambulance attacker got past a security checkpoint by claiming he was ferrying a wounded patient; the Intercontinental siege went on for 15 hours and required U.S. troops to respond to assist the Afghans.
The Taliban have shown little regard for civilian lives; analysts say their goal is to weaken the resolve of Afghanistan’s foreign backers, mainly the United States, by showing they can strike anywhere and at any time.
“Time is with the Taliban,” Mir said. “They know that Trump is in office for four years, and two years from now there will be another election and another political debate about whether the U.S. should stay in Afghanistan or not. These kinds of attacks show their strength while avoiding confrontation — that’s their strategy to overcome the U.S. surge.”
Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command who was in Kabul at the time of the ambulance attack, told reporters that the increasing violence “does not impact our commitment to Afghanistan” and that victory was “absolutely” possible.
Since the end of 2014, when the U.S.-led coalition shifted to more of an advisory role and gave Afghan forces responsibility for security, the annual number of “security incidents” recorded by the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan has risen by more than 10 percent, according to an analysis published Monday by Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network.
“All parties to the conflict — the Taliban, the Afghan and the U.S. government — are almost entirely focused on the war … and achieving military advantage,” Ruttig wrote.
Under Obama’s surge, the number of U.S. troops rose from fewer than 40,000 to nearly 100,000, and the pace of fighting rose at the same time.
“What happened during Obama’s surge of 2010 to 2012 could be repeated, that we see a mutually reinforcing spiral of escalation of the conflict,” Ruttig wrote.
The recent attacks also point to a bloody tussle between the Taliban — Afghanistan’s largest insurgent group — and supporters of Islamic State, who U.S. officials say number less than 1,000 in pockets of eastern and northern Afghanistan. The tit-for-tat bombings by members of the rival militant groups, Ruttig said in an interview, reflects “something of a competition over who, on the insurgents’ side, dominates the war theater.”
In interviews, many Afghans blamed President Ashraf Ghani’s 3-year-old government, which they argued is preoccupied with political squabbles and too slow to stamp out corruption that has hollowed out the army and police.
In a news conference Sunday, top security officials did little to reassure Afghans about their response. Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak blamed intelligence lapses and insurgent spies inside the Afghan forces. Intelligence chief Mohammad Masoum Stanikzai said, “Some incidents really cannot be stopped.”
Abdullah Hasanzadah, a 24-year-old who said he lost a friend in the ambulance attack, said he didn’t blame individual soldiers or police for the security failures.
“It’s a major concern that the leadership is corrupt and it’s their weaknesses that jeopardize our lives,” Hasanzadah said.
Remote parts of Afghanistan have long been outside government control. The Taliban maintain “shadow governors” in many outlying areas where they collect taxes and settle disputes. As of October the government controlled or held sway over only 57 percent of the country’s 407 districts, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S. watchdog.
U.S. officials say the statistics are misleading because most insurgent-controlled districts are sparsely populated, and their strategy has been to provide security in cities and towns where most Afghans live.
But that isn’t working, not even to safeguard supposedly fortified military installations. In the past 12 months militants have infiltrated a major base outside the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif and killed more than 100 soldiers — a stunning breach that prompted the resignations of Afghanistan’s defense minister and army chief — and killed approximately 50 people at Kabul’s main military hospital.
During a White House visit with members of the U.N. Security Council on Monday Trump railed against a series of “atrocities” in Afghanistan and said as a result the U.S. would not engage in any future talks with the Taliban as the administration seeks to end a stalemate in America’s longest war.
Trump’s remarks at the diplomatic luncheon marked a shift in tone on Afghanistan. The U.S. has said previously that any peace talks with the Taliban need to be part of an Afghan-led process, but the U.S. has never precluded talking to the Taliban.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who sat next to the president at the luncheon, has said previously that after an effective military effort, a political settlement including some Taliban might be possible, echoing language from Obama’s administration. Tillerson had said the U.S. would support peace talks with the Taliban “without preconditions.”
Earlier in the month, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who helped organize Monday’s luncheon, said the U.S. policy on Afghanistan was working and the parties were “closer to talks with the Taliban and the peace process than we’ve seen before.”
Several attempts to hold peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have failed. In 2013, hopes were raised when the Taliban opened an office in Qatar aimed at facilitating those talks, but a controversy over the Taliban’s move to hoist the flag it used in Afghanistan during its five-year rule ultimately derailed the talks. Since then, efforts to lure the Taliban into talks have yielded little progress.
The White House lunch was attended by representatives from the 15-member U.N. Security Council, including ambassadors to the U.S. from China, France, Russia and Britain. The discussions were expected to also focus on international hotspots such as Iran, North Korea and terrorism.
Earlier, attendees viewed missile remnants the U.S. says are proof that Iran has been arming rebels in Yemen. The Trump administration has pushed to punish Iran for funneling weapons to Houthi Shiite rebels in Yemen, which Tehran has emphatically denied.