The security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated in recent weeks. On Monday, the Islamic State attacked an Afghan army outpost in Kabul, killing a number of soldiers. The attack comes just two days after the Afghan Taliban claimed the ambulance bomb explosion in Kabul that killed at least 100 people. Just over a week ago, an attack carried out by Afghan Taliban on a luxury hotel in Kabul also killed more than 20, including Americans.
While Washington has been quick to condemn the recent spate of attacks in Afghanistan, President Donald Trump’s tough rhetoric has not changed anything on the ground. The United States’ current policy doesn’t address domestic political and security complexities in Afghanistan. Moreover, the policy has more interest in counteracting rising regional economic and security competition from China, Russia, and Iran in South Asia than it does in sincerely addressing the pivotal question of the domestic political and security woes that are engendering violence in Afghanistan in the first place. Similarly, Pakistan and its allies in Afghanistan do not concur with the U.S. position and deadlock persists.
In recent months, the Afghan Taliban and the Islamic State have increased the intensity and ferociousness of their attacks. Despite all reported divisions, the Afghan Taliban has coalesced into a resilient insurgency with the Islamic State putting up stiff competition to surpass the former’s escalating and disastrous levels of violence. Apparently, both militant organizations’ capability to choose and execute attacks against their targets without any hindrance has increased to alarming levels.
On the other hand, Afghan state security forces are decreasing in relevancy and effectiveness in the area of counterterrorism and have been turned into nothing more than a side-show. Outside Kabul, the writ of the state remains challenged by all accounts. Currently, the Afghan Taliban and other militants control or contest 40 to 45 percent of Afghanistan’s nearly 400 districts. Security of the rest of the territory is loosely controlled by the government in Kabul through local warlords who operate their own militias and seldom agree to the government’s demands. Regional warlords may share the government’s interests of preventing another Taliban or Islamic State takeover, but they don’t fully recognize the state’s writ when the government’s actions do not reconcile with their own tribal, political, and ethnic interests.
Moreover, due to the intensifying economic and security competition among regional states, the Afghan Taliban’s strategic relevancy for international interests has grown significantly. Sensing growing competition from the Islamic State, Afghan Taliban has diversified its own regional support base. Over the last couple of years, the group has deepened its ties with a number of regional states such as Pakistan, China, Russia, and Iran. The group’s shared interests coincide with other regional states range from preventing the Islamic State’s growth in the country to countering Washington’s own presence in the region and policy preferences in Afghanistan.
Cleary, the Taliban is no longer dependent on Pakistan when it comes to attracting political, financial and military support. The support base of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan and other regional states solely operates under “give and take” rules. It’s important to note that the group has managed to retain its autonomy in terms of rejecting dictations or recommendations from so-called “friendly” regional states when it comes to putting a halt to its terror campaign in Afghanistan. Among other things, it shows that the Taliban recognize that regional states that support the group are aware of its strategic significance in Afghanistan’s security in particular in the region in general.
Trump’s rhetorical resolve to defeat Afghan Taliban with force is only allowing other militant groups to grow in the country. With Trump demanding action against the Taliban, the latter has only ramped up its militancy campaign. This situation is likely to direct the group’s focus on fighting local and international security forces rather than reversing the territorial presence of the Islamic State, whose terror agenda stretches beyond Afghanistan.
Rising levels of violence and the Islamic State’s rapid growth in Afghanistan should set off alarm bells in Pakistan. Last year, the Islamic State carried out one of the deadliest suicide bombings in Pakistan. Afghanistan’s own inability to reverse territorial gains being made by militant groups and its failure to establish clear writ in regions and provinces that are under militant’s control means that Islamabad’s security woes are also set to increase.
The challenge for the United Sates and other regional states is to balance competing interests in Afghanistan. A clash of interests among regional states has only allowed space for terror and violence. In the coming weeks and months, militant attacks in Afghanistan are only going to increase as there appears no indication of regional states coming together to look beyond their own interests in order to put an end to bloody cycles of violence in the country.