On the streets of the city of Ghazni this week, Afghan troops and Taliban fighters battled for the future of Afghanistan.
It was a savage fight. Several hundred Taliban insurgents attacked the town on Friday, and at the height of the battle they dominated the city, pushing back Afghan security forces to only a few key strongpoints while residents cowered in their homes. The Taliban said Wednesday it was pulling back its fighters from the city, but the government said an attack on an army base nearby killed at least 44 police and soldiers.
Should the Taliban have captured Ghazni, it would have been the first major urban victory since a short-lived 2015 takeover of Kunduz. Instead, they demonstrated once again their limitations. The insurgents remain adept at savage, one-off attacks, grabbing headlines and continuing to seize control of rural areas – this week they overrun several countryside districts in the broader Ghazni Province. But they have proved unable to grab control of Afghanistan’s key urban areas from a government with access to US and Western airpower as well as its own increasingly capable security forces.
Now more than ever, for the Taliban action on the battlefield is aimed at political effects as much as military. This week’s assault looks less like an attempt to capture ground and more a deliberate demonstration of the group’s reach and capability, essentially setting the groundwork for negotiations already quietly underway. On Tuesday, several Taliban sources said the group was considering a ceasefire for the Eid-al Adha holiday next week, building on a similar but previously unprecedented truce in June.
Seventeen years after the 9/11 attacks and invasion of Afghanistan that followed, this is how war in that country works now. Individual battles are important, but primarily for the way in which they shape the larger political fight. For both the Taliban and the government, both violence and negotiation are very much part of the same process.
The dynamics are very different from when the United States and its allies deployed tens of thousands of NATO troops in the hope of smashing the insurgency for good. It was a strategy always doomed to failure, not least because the Taliban always knew the foreign forces could not maintain that pressure forever. “You may all have the watches,” a Taliban sympathiser reportedly told a senior American official in Kabul, “but we have all the time.”
He was right – but only up to a point. Faced with mounting casualties and diminishing results – and having spent breathtaking amounts of money, an estimated $1 trillion to $6 trillion depending on what is measured – the West pulled back its large troop formations in 2014. But that’s when the real Afghan war began, between a rebooted Western-trained and supported Afghan National Army and a Taliban that knows they may now be the ones losing the long-term battle.
The United Nations estimates that by 2050 half of Afghanistan’s population will live in cities, up from 27 percent in 2016. The population of Kabul skyrocketed from 1.5 million in 2001 to almost 6 million now, making it the fifth fastest-growing city globally. The society an increasingly urbanised Afghanistan produces is inevitably more liberal and outward-looking, much less susceptible to the neo-medieval philosophies of the Taliban. The insurgents know this – and it clearly infuriates them.
Between April and June, suicide bombers killed dozens in a succession of attacks in and around Kabul. The Taliban took credit for most, although some were also claimed by the Afghan branch of Islamic State, which has increasingly attempted to pitch itself as a rival to the more established insurgents through its own series of brutally effective attacks.
Those assaults came amid a wider propaganda battle between the Afghan government and the Taliban, coupled with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s unconditional offer in February of peace talks.
Factionalism amongst the Taliban makes tracking that process particularly difficult, but it is clear the group is tentatively stepping towards negotiations. In June, it rejected the peace talks offer despite an unprecedented Eid holiday ceasefire, but informal outreach continues. In July, Taliban sources said they had held “indirect talks” with US officials, while last week a delegation from the group visited Uzbekistan to discuss issues including peace in Afghanistan, another apparent sign of renewed diplomatic enthusiasm.
As this weekend’s fighting makes clear, such activity does not preclude further bloodshed. The Afghan government, too, remains broadly on the offensive, its military shortly to be bolstered with new foreign trainers and equipment. Many of those who fight with its army now have little memory of the time before the US-led intervention, and no appetite to return to the days of outright Taliban control.
Ultimately, the future of Afghanistan will be won through diplomatic and political negotiation as well as on the battlefield. The situation remains extremely complex, with interventions of neighboring states, particularly Pakistan, rubbing up against ongoing Afghan issues like massive corruption. The war has now gone on so long that it has produced entire economies and career structures, and that itself make it harder to manage, let alone end. Put simply, from corrupt military contracts to protection rackets, some powerful people would simply now rather the current conflict and instability continues.
A number of wild cards remain in play, not least US President Donald Trump, whose comments before taking office suggested he might favor removing US troops entirely, but subsequently ordered an increase in US troops and air strikes in Afghanistan. International support to the Afghan military remains vital, but it is equally important that the country stands more on its own two feet.
Ultimately, the idea conflict in Afghanistan could somehow be America’s, Britain’s or anyone else’s war was always doomed to failure. It’s now turning back into what it should perhaps always have been, a confrontation between the country’s own power centers in which the outside world does what it can to push things in the right direction. If the Afghan government can win its current battle, that may finally be beginning to show tentative signs of success.