The Current

'Chaos benefits the Taliban': Why the war in Afghanistan is getting worse

A series of recent terror attacks in Kabul underline how precarious life remains for those in Afghanistan. But what has triggered this spike in violence?
Afghan men carry the coffin of one of the victims of a car bomb attack at in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 28, 2018. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters )

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Afghanistan has declared a national day of prayer after a string of attacks in Kabul left 130 people dead over the course of 10 days. 

It's an escalation of tensions in a country that has already seen 17 years of conflict.

"It's very tense," journalist Jennifer Glasse told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti from Kabul. "People are very nervous. People are very suspicious."

The attacks happened in areas of the city previously considered among the safest. The Taliban claimed an ambulance bomb attack in the city centre that killed 100 people, and a siege at the Hotel Intercontinental that killed 20.

A man tries to escape from a balcony at Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel during an attack by gunmen in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 21, 2018. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

But it was ISIS who claimed Monday's attack on a military academy where 11 soldiers died, showing the organization has a growing presence in Kabul. 

Investigators in the capital today uncovered a cache of ISIS weapons and explosives — the biggest store they've found in the city so far.

Both the ambulance bomb and the attack on the hotel were very highly planned, said Glasse. 

And these attacks are happening at a time when American forces have more than doubled the number of airstrikes against militant groups across the country.

The Taliban's long game

The U.S. strategy so far had been to force the Taliban into negotiating for peace through a show of military force, but President Donald Trump made a surprise statement Monday that there would be no talking with the Taliban.

"This chaos benefits the Taliban," said Glasse. 

"They don't have to win. They simply have to not lose. If they can decrease confidence in the Afghan government, then that gives them a better bargaining stance if and when they ever decide to negotiate."

Aisha Ahmad, a political science assistant professor at University of Toronto, draws a line between the U.S. strategy and the series of attacks.

"These attacks are actually a response to what has been an aggressive U.S. strategy," Ahmad, who is also the director of the Islam and Global Affairs Initiative at the Munk School of Global Affairs, told Tremonti.

Abandoned shoes belonging to victims after a bomb attack are pictured at a Shiite cultural centre in Kabul, Dec. 28, 2017. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

As a U.S. troop surge in insurgent-controlled areas has limited their power there, the Taliban's response has been to demonstrate their ability to attack behind the lines in secure areas, said Ahmad. She said this echoes a pattern around the world where jihadist groups stage large-scale attacks when they're losing territorial control. 

Ahmad sees President Trump's message about not negotiating with the Taliban as more of the "same old rhetoric" that has been heard over the 17 years of this conflict. She pointed out that insurgent groups have finessed their techniques for surviving military surges by playing the long game.

"The players in the region have a different calendar than the United States or other international actors that don't see Afghanistan on the same timeline," said Ahmad. 

"There will need to be a political resolution to this conflict," she said. "So saying that there is no space for peace talks essentially means that we're looking at a longer, continued stretch of war."

Pakistan's role in the conflict is complex and problematic, says Ahmad. But President Trump's threat via Twitter to cut aid to the country for offering "little help" in hunting "terrorists" in Afghanistan could send Pakistan looking for closer ties to China or Russia.

When all sides do finally sit down for negotiations, finding an honest broker for a peace negotiation who would be acceptable to all parties will be a challenge, said Ahmad.

"Certainly I don't think the United States or its allies are best positioned for such a thing," she said.

Afghan women mourn inside a hospital compound after a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Dec. 28, 2017. (Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

Canada's role

Canada officially ended its military mission in Afghanistan in March 2014. But Chris Kilford, a retired senior officer in the Canadian military who served in Afghanistan, would like to see Canada return to the country in a smaller capacity, for example, to train the military.

"I think we need to make a contribution because at this time we're really absent from the international scene," Kilford, a fellow at the Queen's University Centre for International and Defence Policy, told Tremonti.

"We have a moral responsibility to the Afghan people. And we have seen really positive changes [though] it may seem like a hopeless cause at times."

Kilford said he is puzzled by what he sees as the Trudeau government's unwillingness to be involved in international missions, even as it contributes aid to the military and police in Afghanistan.

"We seem reluctant to do the tough stuff that needs to be done," said Kilford. 

"I really don't understand why this current government is really afraid, if I can use that word, to put us in these tough situations, when we should be there."

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This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith, Pacinthe Mattar and Julie Crysler.