THREE murderous attacks in Kabul in little more than a week have thrust Afghanistan back into the headlines. They included the siege of a luxury hotel, a massive blast near a hospital caused by an explosive-laden vehicle painted to look like an ambulance and an assault on an army compound. More than 130 people have been killed and over 300 maimed. Equally horrifying was an attack in the city of Jalalabad on the offices of Save the Children, a British charity, in which six people died. The violence left Afghans wondering whether the Taliban and the local branch of Islamic State, which between them claimed responsibility for the attacks, are shifting their focus to urban terrorism—and why the security services seem so incapable of defending the country against it.
A comforting answer to the first question could be that the urban attacks reflect the increased pressure the Taliban have been under in rural areas since Donald Trump acquiesced to his generals’ call for more troops and a fiercer air campaign. By staging attacks in big cities, it is suggested, the militants hope to get more attention than in a losing battle in the countryside.
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In fact, there is little evidence that the insurgency is being pushed back. A report released by the Pentagon in October estimated that the government had control over 57% of the country’s 407 districts, while the Taliban controlled 13%, with the remainder contested. The Pentagon’s latest figures are 56% and 14%—in other words, not much has changed. The reality is that the insurgency remains resilient, but its advance following the departure of many American troops at the end of 2014 has slowed.
The answer to the second question—the government’s inability to counter the rash of urban attacks—lies in its own dysfunction, especially when it comes to gathering intelligence and screening security personnel. At a news conference after one of the attacks, Ashraf Ghani, the president, declared that “reforms” in the intelligence services and the Ministry of Interior were his “top priority”. But there is no one to do the reforming. He has churned through several ineffective and underqualified security officials in the past year.
Not all is doom and gloom, however. Several thousand additional American military trainers, many of whom will be embedded in front-line units of the Afghan army, are settling in. The Americans are also trying hard to beef up intelligence. And this time their stay is open-ended.
That still leaves the question of how the Taliban might be pushed to the negotiating table. American commanders reckon the militants will buckle when the government has some control over 80% of the country. That sounds like a very distant prospect. It would be better if both sides recognised that neither can break the current stalemate. Only that realisation will end the suffering of ordinary Afghans.