Taliban in Afghanistan

Taliban in Afghanistan

Increased violence and instability in Afghanistan resulting from the withdrawal of coalition combat forces and strengthening of the Taliban insurgency

Recent Developments

In May 2016, Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who had assumed leadership of the insurgency less than year ago, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a religious leader within the group and a former top judge during the Taliban rule of Afghanistan, has been selected to succeed him. The Taliban announced their spring offensive, named “Operation Omari,” in April 2016, hitting Kabul days later with an attack that killed dozens and wounded more than three hundred people.

In February 2016, hundreds of U.S. troops were deployed to Helmand to bolster Special Operations Forces operating in the province and augment the train, advise, and assist mission. While not in active combat roles, this was the first time troops had been deployed outside major bases since the coalition ended combat operations in 2014. It came after months of high Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) casualties, increased difficulty maintaining security and protecting territory, and reports of a growing self-proclaimed Islamic State and a resurgent al-Qaeda presence. 

In September 2015, after months of stalemate with Afghan government forces, the Taliban captured the northern provincial capital of Kunduz. This was the first time since 2001 that the Taliban held a major Afghan city. The battle to take back the city, launched by ANSF and backed by U.S. special forces and air power, lasted for two weeks and highlighted fears that the ANSF may not be capable of defending major population centers. During the fight, U.S. forces mistakenly targeted a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital, killing twenty-two people. 

Background

In the wake of al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attacks, the United States invaded Afghanistan after the Taliban government refused to hand over Osama bin Laden. The Taliban leadership quickly lost control of the country and relocated to southern Afghanistan and across the border to Pakistan. From there, they have waged an insurgency against the Western-backed government in Kabul, international coalition troops, and Afghan national security forces.

The Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since the U.S. invasion in 2001 and continues to carry out suicide bombings in major cities. 2015 is the first year the ANSF have been responsible for securing the country, with only about 12,000 NATO troops remaining in the country following the U.S. drawdown at the end of 2014. The first half of 2015 saw a 40 percent jump in ANSF casualties, with more than 4,300 security forces personnel killed and another 8,000 wounded. Over that same period, there were 1,592 civilian deaths and 3,329 injuries. 

Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election resulted in political deadlock, requiring two rounds of voting and an international audit to address allegations of voter fraud. In early September 2014, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered an agreement to form a national unity government led by Ashraf Ghani as president and Abdullah Abdullah as chief executive. Ghani and Abdullah face challenges jointly governing a country increasingly plagued by Taliban-led violence. 

Uncertainty surrounding the future of international donor assistance has strained the Afghan economy. While the United States and its allies have pledged to provide support to Kabul, the transition to a peacetime economy risks further destabilizing Afghan society by inflating the budget deficit and increasing unemployment rates.

Concerns

The United States has a vital interest in preserving the many political, economic, and security gains that have been achieved in Afghanistan since 2001. A resurgence of the Taliban insurgency could once again turn Afghanistan into a terrorist safe haven. Moreover, internal instability in Afghanistan could have larger regional ramifications as Pakistan, India, Iran, and Russia compete for influence in Kabul and among influential subnational actors.

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