WASHINGTON - Taliban attacks on two consecutive weekends in Kabul, which have killed hundreds of people, including Americans, have occurred in the midst of stepped-up efforts by the Trump administration to find a way out of the 16-year-old Afghan imbroglio.
While the Trump administration has doubled its troop level in Afghanistan to 16,000, the U.S. Central Command led by Gen. Joseph Votel has dispatched military advisers that are guiding Afghan forces to stay on the offensive before the fighting season with the Taliban begins in spring.
That runs contrary to neighboring Pakistan’s position, which says it has in recent times intensified its push for talks with the Taliban leadership.
But disregarding Islamabad’s offer, the Trump administration has accused Pakistan of playing a “double game” that foremost includes giving refuge to the Haqqani network — the wealthy and well-connected Afghan Taliban who migrated to Pakistan 40 years ago.
A New Year tweet by Trump accused Pakistan of “lies and deceit” in taking U.S. money while harboring the Taliban, which makes ferocious attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan. Frustrated officials in Washington have stopped $255 million aid to Islamabad.
In mid-January, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, articulated Trump’s policy in Kabul when she told a U.N. Security Council meeting that Pakistan should stop giving refuge to the Afghan Taliban militants.
Exactly a week later, the Taliban laid a 13-hour siege on Kabul’s Hotel Intercontinental, where they killed and wounded dozens of guests and set the hotel on fire. The casual manner in which the militants ate food inside the hotel — targeting foreigners at will — showed their ability to strike the protected enclave at a time and place of their choosing.
Barely was Afghanistan out of its state of shock when the next weekend on Jan. 27, a suicide bomber used an ambulance to kill and wound hundreds of people in a crowded part of Kabul. While Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed that police had been killed, eyewitnesses said the victims were mainly civilians.
Following the hotel attack, a retired Pakistani brigadier, Ishaq Khattak, rejected Afghan and U.S. allegations that the Haqqani network waged the attacks from inside the sanctuaries provided by Pakistan.
Still, pressed on whether the attack may be part of Pakistan’s strategy to up the ante in the final settlement with the Taliban, Khattak said it was the U.S. that needed to “change its line of thinking” and consider why it was unable to bring peace in Afghanistan even after 16 years.
Marvin Weinbaum, a former official in the State Department, says that the U.S. does not buy this line. Instead, he says the Trump administration plans to enforce its hard-line strategy “to keep up the military pressure to create conditions where the Taliban are ready to talk on U.S. terms.”
In keeping with this policy, the U.S. on Jan. 24 unilaterally made a drone attack in Pakistan. The attack hit the Orakzai agency’s Dapa Mamozai village and killed Haqqani network commander Tariq Mahmood.
Mahmood was also known by his warrior name, Khowarai. According to NBC News, he had led fighters in multiple attacks on Afghan security forces and U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Another Haqqani commander injured in the drone attack was taken away for investigation into the Jan, 20 terrorist attack that killed dozens of people in Hotel Intercontinental in Kabul.
The Pakistan Foreign Office expressed displeasure at the “unilateral” drone strike by the Resolute Support Mission, claiming it had “targeted an Afghan camp.” Political agents in the FATA confirmed, however, that the drone attack was on a single housing unit and did not kill any civilians.
Author Shuja Nawaz, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, says that the U.S. was able to undertake the precise drone attack because Western countries such as Britain and France have increased their intelligence agents in the border areas since 2004.
Nawaz says the Haqqanis have their sanctuaries inside Afghanistan’s borders with Pakistan — Pakhtia, Pakhtika and Khost — enabling them to easily cross over to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that border Afghanistan. He says he regrets that Pakistan lost its opportunity last year to expel the Haqqani network to Afghanistan.
Pakistan says it has been trying to nudge the U.S. toward talks. On Jan. 15, Islamabad tried to use its "soft power" by hosting an Afghan Taliban delegation from Qatar to meet with the head of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan — Pir Syed Hamid Gilani.
Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, head of the Afghan Taliban and third in line from Mullah Omar, reportedly gave his blessings to the meeting.
Weinbaum says the Taliban’s demand that they want to "talk to the U.S." is an oft-used strategy that is not going to fly. He says that by so doing, the Taliban merely seeks to reiterate that they want to see the “Americans out of Afghanistan.”
“Once the U.S. is out, then the Taliban, without stating it, will go — whether it’s a matter of months or a year — to scoring a military victory,” he said.
According to Nawaz, Pakistan’s continuing failure to push the Afghan Taliban out of FATA could lead the U.S. to send in troops from across the border to take them out, which for Pakistan would be a “red line.”
Meanwhile, Nawaz predicts that before using a last resort such as “declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism,” the U.S. will use “pressure points” such as the IMF, World Bank and international bodies to get Pakistan to cooperate.
Experts believe that the real test will come during the Afghan spring offensive, for which the U.S. is recruiting younger commanders, while bringing in new equipment and advisers — setting the stage to fight the Taliban in order to speed up the endgame.