Five years ago, Barack Obama announced that the US would pull out of Afghanistan in 2014 in order to put an end to the war that began shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Someone forgot to tell the Taliban that the war would come to a close. The New York Times published the conclusion of a United Nations review of the war, which states that the Taliban has grown to its strongest position yet since being deposed fourteen years ago by the US and NATO:
The Taliban insurgency has spread through more of Afghanistan than at any point since 2001, according to data compiled by the United Nations as well as interviews with numerous local officials in areas under threat.
In addition, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan over the past two weeks has evacuated four of its 13 provincial offices around the country — the most it has ever done for security reasons — according to local officials in the affected areas.
The data, compiled in early September — even before the latest surge in violence in northern Afghanistan — showed that United Nations security officials had already rated the threat level in about half of the country’s administrative districts as either “high” or “extreme,” more than at any time since the American invasion ousted the Taliban in 2001.
That assessment, which has not been publicly released but is routinely shared by the United Nations with countries in the international coalition, appears at odds with the assessment of its American commander, Gen. John F. Campbell, in his testimony to Congress last week.
“The Afghan security forces have displayed courage and resilience,” General Campbell testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. “They’re still holding. The Afghan government retains control of Kabul, of Highway One, its provincial capitals and nearly all of the district centers.”
As if to punctuate this, the Taliban attacked a coalition convoy in Kabul. The Taliban claimed multiple deaths of foreign fighters, but the coalition says only three were injured:
Meanwhile, not only does the Taliban remain in control of Kunduz, they are using it to branch outward in the north. Newsweek reports that this is a bad omen for NATO and the current Afghan government, especially as the Taliban acquire more allies:
The fall of Kunduz—home to 157,000 people—seemed to be a sign not only of the Taliban’s new intent but also their capabilities. On October 4, the group launched an attack on Maimana, the capital of nearby Faryab province and home to 84,000 people. Government forces repelled the Taliban fighters, but they remain in the province, prompting fears that another assault is coming. This focus on the north of the country also marks a geographical refocusing for the Taliban, whose strongholds traditionally lie in the south and the east. According to the Long War Journal, a website that reports on the wars following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, of the 11 far northern areas the Taliban are believed to hold, nine were taken or retaken by the militants recently. These gains pose two questions: Why the change in strategy, and how are the Taliban making progress in a traditional government stronghold?
In northeast Afghanistan is Badakshan province, which extends, fingerlike, along the border with Tajikistan until it touches western China. There the Taliban, according to the Long War Journal, currently holds three districts. To the west of Badakshan is Takhar, whose capital is Taloqan. And to the west of Takhar is Baghlan province, which sits directly south of Kunduz. The Afghanistan Analysts Network describes one district of Baghlan, home to an estimated 70,000 people, as “Taliban-infested.”
The Taliban’s presence in these four provinces makes economic sense. The roads here constitute one of three major smuggling routes in Afghanistan for the country’s vast illicit opium and heroin production business. The route leads through Central Asia to Russia and the rest of Europe. According to the U.N. Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, drug smuggling is a major source of revenue for the Taliban.
A presence in the north also grants the Taliban sway over an area of increasing geopolitical importance. “Northern Afghanistan is the gateway to Central Asiaan energy-rich region where a new ‘great game’ is being played out by China, Russia, the U.S. and other nations,” says Kugelman. “By building up a stronghold in northern Afghanistan, the Taliban can impact major geopolitical trends in an area of great international import.” A base in the north also keeps the Taliban close to allies in Central Asia. In August, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), a splinter group of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, announced that its fighters in Kunduz had sworn loyalty to the Taliban, according to the Long War Journal. And later the IJU said that they had fought in the assault on Kunduz.
The victory here is both strategic and political:
By showing that they can take districts in the north, as well as a major city, the Taliban seem to be demonstrating the full extent of its growing power. “The psychology of the Taliban taking Kunduz is huge,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, a public policy organization based in Washington, D.C. Speaking to Newsweek from Kabul, she adds: “[Kunduz’s] impact is far bigger than the Taliban’s push in Musa Qala [Helmand province] this year or last year.”
Obama can’t simply shrug this off as an unfortunate consequence of a bad policy decision by his predecessor, as he did with the rise of ISIS in Iraq. Not only did Obama support the war in Afghanistan, he campaigned in 2007-8 on the need to amplify resources for the fight there. The biggest problem with the Iraq war, Obama repeatedly argued, was that its destabilizing impact distracted from the fight for victory in Afghanistan. Obama promised to ramp up the effort in this theater, but became curiously reluctant when pressed for his war strategy, only grudgingly agreeing to provide a troop “surge” — and then only in tandem with a timetable for withdrawal.
That has turned out to be as big a “joke” as Obama’s Syria strategy, if not more so. The Taliban used their control of Afghanistan to give al-Qaeda a haven from which to plot attacks against the United States, and that was before they spent 14 years fighting our military. The need to marginalize the Taliban and ensure stability without them was even greater for our national security than in Iraq, and look how that turned out after Obama took control of our policy there. After almost seven years of Obama’s “leadership,” we are on the verge of losing control of both theaters of war while Obama pretends that war doesn’t even exist in either.
This is a foreign-policy disaster of nearly unprecedented proportions. Its ill effects will last long after Obama has left office, especially on those in Afghanistan who trusted us to stick to the mission and who will now be left at the meager mercy of Taliban extremists.