After being ousted from power 13 years ago, the Taliban is once again a regular feature of everyday life in Afghanistan, with attacks on government military forces and the civilian population now commonplace across the country -- so much so that the death toll in Afghanistan this year is the highest ever for Afghan forces. And, with the U.S.-led coalition weakened by the departure of most American troops by the end of this year, the radical Islamist movement may expand its reach, grabbing more land from the weak forces of the central government in Kabul.
The bombing of a school theater in Kabul that CNN reported Thursday is symbolic of a resurgent Taliban that is looking to capitalize on a diminished coalition force and the inexperience of the Afghan military. Despite that, experts say the group has struggled to consolidate many of its gains.
“They are conducting attacks, but when it comes to holding territory they have not been able to [do] that successfully,” said Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow for Asian studies at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation. “The Afghan forces have been hanging in and have remained in control of large swathes of territory, but the Taliban’s continual attacks are contributing to a sense of instability across many regions and resulting in a lot of deaths.”
That circumstance is evident in the casualty rates among Afghan security forces: They have suffered more than 4,600 deaths in 2014 alone, surpassing the number of deaths sustained by the coalition since the war began in 2001, according to the Economist. In context, it’s a huge increase in the overall death toll, accounting for about one-third of the 13,000 Afghan security personnel killed in 13 years of war, based on figures reported by the New York Times.
This high death toll helped convince U.S. President Barack Obama to commit 1,000 extra troops above the 9,800 due to remain in the country past the date that will signal the end of combat operations in Afghanistan: Dec. 31. That will leave about 13,000 NATO troops in the country overall.
The original role for many of those troops was supposed to be overseeing the 340,000-strong Afghan force in its transition as the primary combat force in the country, through a mixture of training and help from advisers. But U.S. troops will continue to seek out and combat al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, while the Western coalition will keep providing air support, the New York Times said.
While the Taliban has begun a campaign of bombings and suicide attacks inside larger cities, such as Kabul, its growing presence in other regions is also indicative of a resurgence. For example, the Times reported it resurfaced in Kunduz, a northern region where it was last active just before the U.S. deployed thousands of troops to push insurgents back in 2009. Kunduz is just one of four regions where the Taliban is making progress. This year, the southern province of Helmand, known for its poppy cultivation and the site of some of the fiercest fighting during the war, has become a testing ground where the Taliban has been more willing to attack Afghan forces en masse. Kapisa in the northeast and Nangarhar in the east have also seen large insurgencies.
“It is very difficult to define areas of control because the Taliban do not control in an overt sense,” said Afzal Ashraf, a consultant fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank. “It seems like they are saving themselves for when coalition forces leave and will attack in much more conventional military fashion. In the meantime, they want to remain relevant to international opinion and that may be why they are conducting the sort of bombings and suicide attacks that we have been seeing in the news recently.”
And, as coalition troop strength diminishes during the next two years, falling to about 5,500 at the end of 2015 before vacating the country entirely in 2016, the Taliban is bound to grow in strength and confidence, the Heritage Foundation’s Curtis said.
The long-term solution for Afghanistan may be leaving a large U.S.-led NATO force behind permanently, Curtis said, or at least rethinking the timeline for withdrawing until Afghan forces are completely prepared to take control, which she contended is not currently the case.
“It would behoove President Obama to reconsider the timetable for withdrawal,” she said. “We’re down to 13,000 total. Now would be the time to send signals that we’re prepared to leave those forces for as long as necessary.”
And if the president decides to do that, “I really think Obama will receive support from the Republican-led Congress,” she added.