Afghanistan’s Taliban militants steadily amassed power and territory throughout its high-stakes, yearlong peace talks with the Trump administration, and they are now stronger than at any other point in the post-9/11 era, say military observers, who note a systematic plan to gain legitimacy, foment fear through violence and undercut the elected government in Kabul.
The sudden end to negotiations with the U.S., which President Trump announced over the weekend after another American soldier’s death in Afghanistan late last week, likely won’t change the Taliban’s grand strategy, which centers on galvanizing its ethnic and popular base of support, capturing and holding territory, and making it impossible for the U.S.-backed government in Kabul to function.
Analyses by the U.S. government and private foreign policy think tanks show that Taliban control of the country has hit an 18-year high and that the group has steadily expanded its force with estimates ranging as high as 100,000 fighters in the field.
Mr. Trump painted a starkly different picture of the struggle on the ground. He told reporters on the White House lawn Monday that the Taliban are “dead, as far as I am concerned,” and he asserted that the U.S. military and its allies have “hit the Taliban harder in the last four days than they’ve been in over 10 years.”
It was not clear what military operations Mr. Trump was referring to, and some analysts said the year of closed-door diplomacy and the chaotic events of the past four days have done little to cut into the Taliban’s power.
Critics say the talks, which collapsed just as Mr. Trump said he was prepared to host leaders of the Taliban and the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani at Camp David, have left the U.S. and its allies in a weaker position and perhaps motivated the Taliban to renew and deepen its ties with al Qaeda.
“The Taliban are as strong as they have been at any time since October 2001, when the war began. Militarily, they have momentum. Every few weeks, it seems another district has fallen,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin. “Diplomatically, the decision to allow the Taliban to open an office in Qatar granted them unprecedented legitimacy. So too did the U.S. decision to press forward with negotiations without the Taliban recognizing the legitimacy of Afghanistan’s elected government.
“They won diplomatic legitimacy, demoralized Afghanistan’s elected government and convinced ordinary Afghans that momentum was on their side,” said Mr. Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “They are no worse off today than when they started talks. The United States cannot say the same thing.”
Mr. Trump tweeted over the weekend that he canceled the Camp David summit in the wake of a terrorist attack in Kabul last week that resulted in the fourth American death in past three weeks. Administration officials said they would recall the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, effectively ending the chance of a comprehensive peace deal in the foreseeable future.
“We’d like to get out, but we’ll get out at the right time,” Mr. Trump said Monday.
Mr. Ghani, whose government has complained repeatedly about being excluded from the direct U.S.-Taliban negotiations, expressed similar sentiments Monday but added that the talks were inherently flawed from the beginning because the Taliban had steadfastly rejected a binding cease-fire.
“Negotiation without a cease-fire is not possible,” he said.
More violence on horizon
Mr. Trump said Taliban officials realized they had made a major miscalculation in staging an attack at such a delicate diplomatic moment, but there was little direct evidence that the sudden breakdown in negotiations changed the radical Islamist movement’s approach. Taliban leaders on Monday promised a new wave of violence that would result in more American deaths in what has become the longest U.S. military campaign in history.
“This will lead to more losses to the U.S.,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said. “U.S. credibility will be affected, its anti-peace stance will be exposed to the world, losses to lives and assets will increase.”
The Taliban have the capacity to make good on their threat, military analysts said, but remain unable to capture and hold major urban centers because of the presence of 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. A U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban from Kabul in the wake of 9/11 over its ties to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist group.
Mr. Khalilzad’s deal “in principle” with the Taliban reportedly would have withdrawn roughly 5,400 troops immediately and phase out the rest. In exchange, the Taliban would have guaranteed that the country would not be used as a base of operations for terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State and would enter talks with the Kabul government on a power-sharing deal.
But analysts said there was virtually no sign that the Taliban were willing to sever their relationship with al Qaeda.
“The two are more intertwined now in ideology and personnel than they were a decade ago,” Mr. Rubin said.
The Pentagon made clear Monday that it would increase operations inside Afghanistan to counter any Taliban attacks, underscoring that U.S. military involvement is far from over despite a year of grueling diplomacy.
“We’re certainly not going to sit still and let them carry out some self-described race to victory. That’s not going to happen,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters Monday.
The most recent estimates show that at least 66 districts in Afghanistan are under Taliban control and 138 are under government control. Another 193 districts are contested and are the sites of bitter fighting between the two sides, according to The Long War Journal, a project of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
About 3.7 million Afghans are in districts under firm Taliban control, data show, and 13.6 million are living in contested areas.
The Taliban took credit Monday for two fresh attacks in the northeastern Takhar province and engaged in heavy gunbattles with government forces in the Khwaja Ghar district.
A roadside bomb exploded in Kabul, though no one immediately claimed responsibility, according to The Associated Press.
The Taliban boasted in recent weeks that they believe their attacks — particularly those that kill Americans — were bluntly intended to give the group a stronger hand at the negotiating table. Although Mr. Trump flatly rejected that argument when he canceled peace talks, analysts say, the Taliban likely will stick with the strategy.
“I’m not sure the Taliban goal has changed that much over the years,” said Seth Jones, director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think their broader objectives are, if they can do it, to govern as much of the country as they can, including Kabul.
“One way of governing is if they can find ways to get the U.S. out of the country and put it on a trajectory where the U.S. presence is ultimately going down to zero,” Mr. Jones said. “The Taliban has shown no interest in disarming or demobilizing, and they haven’t even shown an interest in really sitting down with the Afghan government. All of that to me suggests that their primary focus is to take the country, get U.S. forces out, and if they have to, to take it by military force.”
⦁ Tom Howell contributed to this report.
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