April 21, 2016
A deadly suicide bombing in Kabul shows that the Taliban are determined to drag out the conflict, but it also adds a sense of urgency for Pakistan to end its support for the militants, said the Atlantic Council’s James B. Cunningham.

“While it is good to see that there has been a broad range of international condemnation of the attack, including by the UN Security Council, it also shows the urgency for Afghanistan’s neighbors, particularly Pakistan, to take concrete steps to bring this conflict to an end,” said Cunningham, a former US Ambassador to Afghanistan and current Khalilzad Chair on Afghanistan and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“At some point we will have to collectively act on the reality that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to bring the conflict to a political solution as long as the Taliban continue to be able to operate, plan, and move on Pakistani territory,” he added.

In an attack that left no doubt about its capabilities or reach, the Taliban on April 19 struck a facility in Kabul that is used by an elite Afghan intelligence unit tasked with protecting senior officials. Sixty-four people were killed and more than 320 others wounded in the attack that involved a suicide bomber and at least one armed militant. The gunman was killed by security forces. The attack occurred barely a week after the Taliban announced the start of its spring offensive in Afghanistan.

Pakistan—specifically elements of its military and intelligence service—provides safe havens and material support for groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, according to Western officials. The US State Department has designated the Haqqani Network a foreign terrorist organization.

In February, the United Nations reported that a record number of civilians—more than 3,500, including an unprecedented number of children—had been killed and nearly 7,500 others wounded in the conflict in Afghanistan in 2015. An alarming rate of desertions from the Afghan army has added to this challenge.

Given these grim statistics, is the Taliban winning?

“The Taliban are not winning, but they are killing more people, including civilians,” said Cunningham. “The expectation is that this effort will continue through this year and the bombing in Kabul is symptomatic of that.”

Mindful of this challenge, US President Barack Obama in October of 2015 reversed his decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. He decided instead to keep 9,800 troops in the country through most of 2016 and then drop that number to 5,500 by the end of this year or early 2017.  “Further reduction of the US force to 5,500 would be ill advised and risky given the stress Afghanistan is under, and current levels should be maintained,” Cunningham argued. 

Splits in the Taliban

The Taliban has been riven by infighting since the confirmation last summer that Mullah Omar, its one-eyed leader, had been dead for two years.

At least three factions have emerged in the Taliban: a main group headed by Mullah Akhtar Mansour, Omar’s longtime right-hand man; a second headed by Mullah Muhammad Rasool; and a third led by Abdul Jalil, a former Deputy Foreign Minister in the Taliban’s government. [The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, when it was ousted in a US-led invasion following the September 11 attacks on the United States.]

Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, said in an interview with the New Atlanticist that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government must now “take advantage of, and shape internal developments in the Taliban.”

Noting the potential for further fragmentation within the Taliban’s ranks, Khalilzad, a member of the Atlantic Council’s Board of Directors, added: “While the emphasis on reconciliation and the pressure on Pakistan to facilitate reconciliation should remain, a lot more attention and resources need to be devoted to this other development, which I think is of potentially strategic importance.”

Reconciling with the Taliban

Early in his presidency, Ghani reached out to Pakistan in an effort to start a peace process with the Taliban. That effort, which also includes China and the United States, faltered last summer on the news of Omar’s death.

“The facts on the ground are key in terms of propensity or prospects for reconciliation,” said Khalilzad. “The more uncertainty there is about the government, the less likely the prospects are for reconciliation.”

In their statement claiming responsibility for the attack in Kabul, the Taliban hinted that it might be open to reconciliation. However, Cunningham said: “There isn’t any reason to think that there is some kind of pro-peace or reconciliation faction within the Taliban core leadership at this point.”

James B. Cunningham spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: Does the attack in Kabul put pressure on President Ghani to abandon his effort to make peace with the Taliban or does it actually underscore the need for reconciliation?

Cunningham: It is an effort by the Taliban to make the point in a dramatic way that their campaign of violence and terror is going to continue. That does undercut hopes for a peace process, which will be necessary to end the conflict.  What the attack does underscore is the callous disregard by the Taliban for the Afghan population. They set off this truck bomb in the center of a crowded part of the city and it could be perfectly understood that there would be a large number of civilian casualties.  While it is good to see that there has been a broad range of international condemnation of the attack, including by the UN Security Council, it also shows the urgency for Afghanistan’s neighbors, particularly Pakistan, to take concrete steps to bring this conflict to an end.

Q: In 2015, 5,500 Afghan security forces and 3,500 Afghan civilians were killed; the Afghan army had to replace a third of its soldiers because of desertions; and today, the Taliban controls more of the country than at any time since 2001. Is the Taliban winning?

Cunningham: I don’t think they are winning. It shows that the pace of the violence has accelerated. Many of the casualties in the conflict over the past year have been civilians as well as security forces. Many, many Taliban fighters and commanders have been killed as well, but we don’t have good figures.

What is also happening now is that the Afghan security forces have held [territory], they are fighting, they are recovering. The Taliban have made an effort to crack the government and the security forces; that hasn’t happened. And for the first time in years, the fighting has essentially continued through the winter. There hasn’t really been an end to the fighting season. The Taliban are not winning, but they are killing more people, including civilians. The expectation is that this effort will continue through this year and the bombing in Kabul is symptomatic of that. The bombing does show that the Afghan security forces need to do, and can do, a better job of ensuring that large explosives like that don’t get into the city.

Q: Given the security challenges Afghanistan faces today, do you agree with President Obama’s decision to reduce to 5,500 the number of US troops in the country by early next year?

Cunningham: Further reduction of the US force to 5,500 would be ill advised and risky given the stress Afghanistan is under, and current levels should be maintained. 

Q: Is there a divergence on the issue of war versus reconciliation among the various factions that have emerged in the Taliban?

Cunningham: It is generally assumed that the main Taliban faction under Mullah Mansour is open to discussions. I am not so sure that is true. Mansour’s representatives did take part in the one round of discussions where the representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government actually met last summer. But I think it is a big leap to extrapolate from that that he is the one interested in talking; he is also the one sending the bombers into Kabul and other places and continuing to kill Afghan women and children, as are leaders of the other Taliban factions.

That said, there are, and there have been for some time, Taliban members who we know have concluded that the conflict is not going to produce the outcome that they desire. They are willing to enter into the discussions, but that has not yet taken hold as far as I can tell among what we can see as the Taliban leadership of the various factions. There isn’t any reason to think that there is some kind of pro-peace or reconciliation faction within the Taliban core leadership at this point.

Q: As a result of disagreements between President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah’s camps, Afghanistan has a number of acting officials, including an acting Defense Minister, Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai. Should the Taliban’s announcement of a spring offensive—and the attack in Kabul—serve as a wakeup call for the administration?

Cunningham: The short answer is: I hope it will.  Much has been made of the fact that they have an acting Defense Minister. He is a figure who was nominated before the parliament. He didn’t succeed for whatever reason, but it is not as if he is simply a placeholder.  He is a real Afghan patriot who is working incredibly hard and doing a good job. That said, it would be good symbolically and in terms of politics to have permanent people in those key positions. Most of them have been filled, and an effort is underway now to try to finish the task of formally filling out the government. It is taking more time than anybody would like, but they are making progress.

Q: As participants in a four-nation effort to make peace with the Taliban, what should the United States and China be doing to get Pakistan to end its support—both in terms of safe havens as well as material—for the Taliban and the Haqqani Network?

Cunningham: That is a difficult question to answer at this juncture. Hopefully the US government and the Chinese have a closer view now on the importance of shifting the dynamic in the region. Some way needs to be found to change the calculation in Pakistan, particularly among the Pakistani military, about what’s really in Pakistan’s best interests. We have been trying to do that now for some time. The fact that the Chinese seem to be willing to join in that effort is a good sign, but so far it hasn’t produced the desired result. I think all of us in the international community, who have an interest in the future and stability of Afghanistan, need to join in this effort to get Pakistan to act in a way that I believe is actually in Pakistan’s own interests. The Pakistanis have made a tremendous effort to deal with their internal problem with terrorism; the Pakistanis have suffered as much or more than anybody in the region from terror. I am very mindful of that. But at some point we will have to collectively act on the reality that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to bring the conflict to a political solution as long as the Taliban continue to be able to operate, plan, and move on Pakistani territory.

Q: A loya jirga on the government’s future was expected to be held in Afghanistan this fall. Would the Afghan government undermine itself by not following through on this step?

Cunningham: What the agreement [to form a national unity government] called for was holding a constitutional loya jirga to look at whether the position of a Prime Minister should be established. The Chief Executive position is a precursor to a possible change in the constitution that would establish a Prime Minister. That is an open question.

Certain things need to happen before a constitutional loya jirga can be held. It seems unlikely that could be done in the foreseen timeframe. It is really up to the Afghans themselves. This is an Afghan process, and it is Afghan politics.

The security, economic, and political situation have all proven to be difficult, as we expected. The two-year period [to hold a loya jirga] was a goal and it is up to the Afghans to decide whether they can meet that goal. From the point of view of most observers, the government should continue to work hard to make its operations more effective. There are two important processes here that need to move ahead in parallel. One of them is the functioning of the government itself. It is clear in the national unity agreement that that question is separate from the issue of whether there will or will not be a Prime Minister. We need to be mindful of that. The functioning of the government is essential for the future of the country.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

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