- The Washington Times - Monday, August 13, 2018

The Taliban are on the verge of dramatically expanding their control over southern and eastern Afghanistan in a surprise offensive that has caught Afghan and U.S. forces off guard and thrown a vexing new wrench into the Trump administration’s strategy for ending the nearly 17-year-old war there.

The Afghan Defense Ministry said Monday a Taliban assault on the city of Ghanzi — a key provincial capital linking other areas under the Islamic militant group’s control just 75 miles southeast of Kabul — has killed roughly 100 Afghan security forces and some 20 civilians over the past three days.

While the Afghan forces, backed by U.S. and NATO advisers, claimed Monday night to have retained control of central Ghanzi, local reports indicated Taliban fighters still held pockets of the city and had simultaneously swept in and taken over most of the surrounding province’s rural areas.

Analysts said the development has underscored the Taliban’s capability for a resurgence in Afghanistan and will likely increase the group’s political leverage over peace talks with U.S. officials that the Trump administration has quietly been trying to get off the ground.

Should the Taliban ultimately wrestle Ghazni away from Afghan security forces, it would mark the first major district center to fall to the group since it captured the northern Afghan city of Kunduz in 2015.

When President Trump introduced his administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan on Aug. 21, 2017 — a plan based on increasing military pressure to push the Taliban into a peace negotiation — he said his instinct was actually to withdraw American forces from the war zone entirely.

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With the current developments as a backdrop, some wonder whether the president will be able to resist pulling the plug on a war in which, according to The Associated Press, the U.S. is spending $4 billion-plus a year just to keep the Afghan security forces afloat.

The Taliban and the Afghan government called separate, briefly overlapping, national cease fires in June, and the Trump administration has made its own contact with the Taliban in hopes of nudging them into talks with Kabul. But fighting across the country has intensified more recently.

The surge in violence in Ghanzi over the past several days has also sparked fresh and heated debates over how much territory the Afghan government actually controls.

“The government is in complete control of Ghazni,” Afghan Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak told the BBC on Monday.

Other officials said a smattering of Americans, as well as forces tied to the Afghan government’s intelligence directorate, were on the ground in Ghanzi to assist local security forces against the Taliban. “U.S. advisers [are] assisting Afghan forces and [American] airpower has delivered decisive blows to the Taliban, killing over 140” over the last three days of fighting, officials from Operation Resolute Support, the U.S. and NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, said in a social media post on Twitter.

Who controls what?

Territorial control over Afghanistan remains divided between the central government in Kabul, the Taliban and other militant factions. Figures published in May by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) claimed Afghan security forces held roughly 56 percent of the country’s 407 districts.

U.S. commanders have said their aim over the past year was to bring 80 percent of the country’s provinces under the central government’s control. “This, we believe, is the critical mass necessary to drive the enemy to irrelevance,” Gen. John Nicholson, head of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon last November.

But with Lt. Gen Austin “Scott” Miller, the Trump administration’s pick to succeed Gen. Nicholson, set to soon take over command in Kabul, the coalition remains no closer to achieving the goal.

There is also disagreement among analysts over the metrics used to determine whether a particular area is actually under government or Taliban control. In some areas determined to be within the grasp of Kabul, government forces only hold a small portion of a district or provincial center. Analysts and local reports show outer-lying areas surrounding the government-held centers — particularly in the southern and eastern countrysides — remain Taliban hotbeds.

Even before the assault on Ghanzi, the provincial governor could only travel from one government building to another in an armored convoy amid fears the militant group might attack, says Bill Roggio, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an editor with the think tank’s Long War Journal.

“Without U.S. forces there, the Afghan forces would not be able to stave this attack off,” Mr. Roggio told The Washington Times. “That is not success. That is not progress.”

He added that “it’s difficult to know who controls what” in the wider province around Ghanzi, where local reports Monday indicated Taliban fighters had overtaken two major districts, Khwaja Umari and Ajristan. While Mr. Roggio said U.S.-backed Afghan forces will likely be able to reassert control over Ghazni, the price will be high and ultimately untenable.

In Ajristan alone, between 40 to 100 elite Afghan commandos, as well as some 200 Afghan regular and special forces have already been killed.

Kabul blindsided

The surprise Ghazni offensive has exposed the Pentagon’s misperception of the the wider challenges still at play in Afghanistan, according to Mr. Roggio.

“Afghan intelligence and the U.S. as well…have very limited visibility on this enemy,” he said, adding that a continued lack of understanding of the Taliban and its capabilities is clouding Washington’s effort to establish peace talks the group.

A delegation of American officials met with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, in June for the first known bilateral talks with the terror group. The move fell in line with the Trump administration’s strategy of beating the Taliban on the battlefield and force them into talks that administration officials say will ultimately be led by the government in Kabul.

Mr. Roggio criticized the development Monday, saying Washington’s decision to hold direct talks with the Taliban — a longtime demand of the group’s leadership — has undermined the legitimacy of the Afghan central government.

But others has cast a more optimistic view of the situation.

David Sedney, who has worked on Afghan issues as a civilian, including multiple years in Kabul and at the Pentagon, since the war began in October 2001, said he believes the chances for peace are the best they’ve been.

“That doesn’t mean they’re great,” Mr. Sedney told The Associated Press. “It just means they’re better.”

Among the meaningful factors at play, he said, is Mr. Trump’s announcement a year ago that the U.S. would no longer set time limits on its military support for Afghanistan.

This introduced an element of uncertainty for the Taliban, Mr. Sedney said. On the other hand, the current U.S. push to draw Taliban leaders into peace negotiations with Kabul must succeed soon, he added, or risk following the failed path of previous efforts.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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