Trump wants a new Afghan surge. That’s a terrible idea

Douglas Wissing writes: Afghanistan today remains the largest U.S. military foreign engagement. From the peak of about 100,000 boots on the ground during the Obama-era surge, there are still almost 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, plus up to 26,000 highly paid contractors for the Department of Defense and other agencies. Each soldier costs about a million dollars a year. Economists estimate the Afghan war has already cost U.S. taxpayers around a trillion dollars. For the 2017 fiscal year, U.S. military and State Department operations in Afghanistan are costing about $50 billion—almost a billion dollars a week. (As a reference, the initial budget request for operations against ISIS in Syria was only $5 billion.)

Now the U.S. military is re-escalating in Afghanistan. The Marines are back in Helmand Province. In April, the Pentagon requested “a few thousand” more troops, since upped to 5,000. The booms are getting bigger, too. On April 15th, U.S. forces dropped the 22,000-pound MOAB, the largest non-nuclear bomb in the arsenal, on ISIS fighters in eastern Afghanistan. It is Surge 2.0.

As the Pentagon requests more troops and drops more and bigger bombs, it’s important to assess the dangers of another surge. And to consider whether another U.S. escalation can turn around an unwinnable war. Will Surge 2.0 be consequential, relevant, sustainable? Or will it be another futile chapter in an unwinnable war? [Continue reading…]

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Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar calls on Taliban to end ‘this pointless holy war’

The Washington Post reports: Fugitive warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar on Saturday made his first public appearance in Afghanistan after nearly two decades underground, calling on Taliban insurgents to “join the peace caravan and stop this pointless holy war.” He also urged all political parties to reconcile and seek change “without bloodshed.”

The return of Hekmatyar, 69, who spoke at an outdoor ceremony in a government compound in Laghman province, represented a sorely needed success for the beleaguered government of President Ashraf Ghani, who invited him to return home peacefully last fall in hopes it would encourage the Taliban to follow suit.

A brief statement from the presidential palace said Ghani “welcomes Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s return to Afghanistan as a result of the Afghan-led peace process. The deal shows that Afghans have the capacity to resolve the conflict through dialogue.”

But Hekmatyar’s homecoming was fraught with tension, and his ­expected arrival in Kabul was ­delayed by disputes over the ­release of prisoners from his former antigovernment militia. Also, his remarks had a strong anti-Western theme and were critical of the U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban, which he compared to the Vietnam War and the Soviet quagmire in Afghanistan. [Continue reading…]

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Russia is sending weapons to Taliban, top U.S. general confirms

The Washington Post reports: The general in charge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan appeared to confirm Monday that Russia is sending weapons to the Taliban, an intervention that will likely further complicate the 15-year-old war here and the Kremlin’s relations with the United States.

When asked by reporters, Gen. John Nicholson did not dispute claims that the Taliban is receiving weapons and other supplies from the Russians.

“We continue to get reports of this assistance,” Nicholson said, speaking to reporters alongside Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. “We support anyone who wants to help us advance the reconciliation process, but anyone who arms belligerents who perpetuate attacks like the one we saw two days ago in Mazar-e Sharif is not the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation.” [Continue reading…]

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On rampage inside military base, Taliban slaughter at least 140 Afghan army soldiers

The New York Times reports: They looked like Afghan Army soldiers returning from the front lines, carrying the bodies of wounded comrades as part of the ruse.

Dressed in military uniforms, a squad of 10 Taliban militants drove in two army Ford Ranger trucks past seven checkpoints. They arrived inside northern Afghanistan’s largest military installation just as hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed soldiers were emerging from Friday Prayers and preparing for lunch.

For the next five hours, the militants went on a rampage, killing at least 140 soldiers and officers in what is emerging as the single deadliest known attack on an Afghan military base in the country’s 16-year war. Some assailants blew themselves up among the soldiers fleeing for their lives, according to survivors, witnesses and officials.

“Today, there was even a shortage of coffins,” said Ibrahim Khairandish, a member of the provincial council in Balkh Province, where the attack took place. Other officials feared that the death toll could exceed 200.

The attack punctuated the dismal outlook for Afghanistan, where much of the population of 34 million has known only war.

Over the last two years, Taliban fighters have gained more territory in the countryside and now threaten several cities. Afghanistan’s forces, suffering enormous casualties and grappling with a leadership marred by indecision and corruption, have struggled to put up a defense.

More than 6,700 members of the Afghan security forces lost their lives in 2016, a record high that is nearly three times the total American casualties for the war. [Continue reading…]

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Russia backs Afghan Taliban demand to withdraw foreign troops

Bloomberg reports: Russia said it supports the Taliban’s demand for foreign troops to leave Afghanistan as it criticized agreements that allow U.S. and NATO forces to remain for the long term in the war-torn country.

“Of course it’s justified” for the Taliban to oppose the foreign military presence, President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said in an interview in Moscow. “Who’s in favor? Name me one neighboring state that supports it.”

Russia and the U.S. are increasingly at odds over Afghanistan. Officials in Moscow disclosed at the end of last year that they’ve been having contacts with the fundamentalist Islamic movement that ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, when it was overthrown in a U.S.-led invasion to destroy terrorist training camps run by Osama Bin Laden. U.S. generals say Russia may be supplying weapons to the Taliban, which is waging an expanding insurgency against the pro-Western Afghan government. Moscow denies the allegation. [Continue reading…]

The Hill reports: The relationship between the U.S. and Russia may be more antagonistic now than it was during the decades-long Cold War, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top spokesman said Friday.

Asked by ABC’s “Good Morning America” host George Stephanopoulos if the U.S. and Russia were in a “new Cold War,” Dmitry Peskov said the current situation may be worse, blaming the U.S. for disintegrating cooperation between the two countries.

“New Cold War? Well, maybe even worse. Maybe even worse, taking into account actions of the present presidential administration in Washington,” Peskov told Stephanopoulos. [Continue reading…]

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The art of a deal with the Taliban

Richard G. Olson writes: This year, America’s war in Afghanistan will pass a grim milestone as it surpasses the Civil War in duration, as measured against the final withdrawal of Union forces from the South. Only the conflict in Vietnam lasted longer. United States troops have been in Afghanistan since October 2001 as part of a force that peaked at nearly 140,000 troops (of which about 100,000 were American) and is estimated to have cost the taxpayers at least $783 billion.

Despite this heavy expenditure, the United States commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., recently called for a modest troop increase to prevent a deteriorating stalemate. The fall of Sangin in Helmand Province to the Taliban this month is a tactical loss that may be reversed, but it certainly suggests the situation is getting worse. With the Trump administration’s plan to increase the military budget while slashing the diplomatic one, there is a risk that American policy toward Afghanistan will be defined in purely military terms.

Absent from the current debate is a clear statement of our objectives — and a way to end the Afghan war while preserving the investment and the gains we have made, at the cost of some 2,350 American lives. It has always been clear to senior military officers like Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was the American commander in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011, as well as to diplomats like me, that the war could end only through a political settlement, a process through which the Afghan government and the Taliban would reconcile their differences in an agreement also acceptable to the international community.

The challenges of bringing about such a reconciliation are formidable, but the basic outline of a deal is tantalizingly obvious. Despite more than 15 years of warfare, the United States has never had a fundamental quarrel with the Taliban per se; it was the group’s hosting of Al Qaeda that drove our intervention after the Sept. 11 attacks. For its part, the Taliban has never expressed any desire to impose its medieval ideology outside of Afghanistan, and certainly not in the United States.

The core Afghan government requirements for a settlement are that the Taliban ceases violence, breaks with international terrorism and accepts the Afghan Constitution. The Taliban, for its part, insists that all foreign forces withdraw. No doubt, both sides have additional desiderata, but the basic positions do not seem unbridgeable. This is particularly the case now that the Islamic State has emerged in Afghanistan, in conflict with both the government and the Taliban. [Continue reading…]

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The blood-drenched return of Pakistan’s Taliban

The Daily Beast reports: Donald Trump’s new national security advisor, Gen. H. R. McMaster, will be seeing some familiar names and some familiar problems coming across his desk in the next few days, and months, and very likely years. And they’re not good news.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are coming back into view as centers of terror and unrest potentially every bit as dangerous to the United States as the so-called Islamic State that operates in Iraq and Syria. And Afghanistan’s a part of the world where McMaster discovered his hard charging left him with limp results.

In 2010 his mission was to curb corruption in the U.S.-backed Afghan government — graft, bribery, and theft that undermined everything Washington thought it was trying to do. But some of the people that the United States sent out to build the Afghan nation turned out to be just as corrupt as the locals. And McMaster, even though he worked to understand the Afghan culture, sometimes lost patience.

Asked at a teleconference what he thought Afghans saw as an acceptable level of corruption, McMaster shut down the questioner, acting as if the inquiry made no sense at all and was, indeed, completely unacceptable.

Of course, the problem continued. And what we see now confirms what Af/Pak hands have known all along: the corruption is not just about money, it’s about the whole record of the Afghanistan and Pakistan conflict. You can’t trust the governments you support, not when they are talking about money, and much less when they talk about peace or about “victory.” [Continue reading…]

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Time to leave Afghanistan, Taliban tell Trump

Al Jazeera reports: The Taliban has called on President Donald Trump to withdraw US forces from the “quagmire” of Afghanistan, saying nothing has been achieved in 15 years of war except bloodshed and destruction.

In an open letter to the new US president published on one of its official web pages, the Taliban said the US had lost credibility after spending a trillion dollars on a fruitless entanglement.

“So, the responsibility to bring to an end this war also rests on your [Trump’s] shoulders,” it said.

Afghanistan was invaded by the US in 2001 and has become Washington’s longest military intervention since Vietnam.

The Taliban justify their ongoing insurgency in the letter, claiming that the group’s “Jihad and struggle was legitimate religiously, intellectually, nationally and conforming to all other lawful standards”.

So far, Trump has had little to say publicly about Afghanistan, where around 8,400 US troops remain as part of the NATO-led coalition’s training mission to support local forces as well as a separate US counterterrorism mission. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: Over the past eight years, Afghans have become increasingly disillusioned with the American role in their country. Many blamed President Barack Obama’s policies for an increase in Afghan corruption, for air attacks that killed civilians, and for a foreign troop presence that failed to stop Taliban insurgents and was pulled out too quickly.

So it is not surprising that, like American voters who supported Donald Trump out of a longing for change, many Afghans are looking to his presidency as a chance for a fresh start. Most know little about Trump except that he may do something bold and unexpected. For now, that sounds appealing.

“Obama was too predictable. Sometimes a small dose of madness can be good,” said Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. He suggested that Trump’s bluntness and “masculine” approach may be useful for deterring the insurgencies that are thwarting Afghanistan’s path to stability and development. [Continue reading…]

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Russia’s new favorite jihadis: the Taliban

The Daily Beast reports: More than 15 years into America’s war in Afghanistan, the Russian government is openly advocating on behalf of the Taliban.

Last week, Moscow hosted Chinese and Pakistani emissaries to discuss the war. Tellingly, no Afghan officials were invited. However, the trio of nations urged the world to be “flexible” in dealing with the Taliban, which remains the Afghan government’s most dangerous foe. Russia even argued that the Taliban is a necessary bulwark in the war against the so-called Islamic State.

For its part, the American military sees Moscow’s embrace of the Taliban as yet another move intended to undermine NATO, which fights the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State every day.

After Moscow’s conference, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova spoke with reporters and noted that “the three countries expressed particular concern about the rising activity in the country of extremist groups, including the Afghan branch of IS [the Islamic State, or ISIS].”

According to Reuters, Zakharova added that China, Pakistan, and Russia agreed upon a “flexible approach to remove certain [Taliban] figures from [United Nations] sanctions lists as part of efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement.”

The Taliban, which refers to itself as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, quickly praised the “Moscow tripartite” in a statement posted online on Dec. 29. [Continue reading…]

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Russia, Iran ties with Taliban stoke Afghan anxiety

AFP reports: Allegations over Russia and Iran’s deepening ties with the Taliban have ignited concerns of a renewed “Great Game” of proxy warfare in Afghanistan that could undermine US-backed troops and push the country deeper into turmoil.

Moscow and Tehran insist their contact with insurgents is aimed at promoting regional security, but local and US officials who are already frustrated with Pakistan’s perceived double-dealing in Afghanistan have expressed bitter scepticism.

Washington’s long-time nemesis Iran is accused of covertly aiding the Taliban, and Russia is back to what observers call Cold War shenanigans to derail US gains at a time when uncertainty reigns over President-elect Donald Trump’s Afghanistan policy.

“(Russia’s) narrative goes something like this: that the Taliban are the ones fighting Islamic State,” top US commander in Afghanistan John Nicholson said recently, denouncing the “malign influence” of external powers.

“This public legitimacy that Russia lends to the Taliban is not based on fact, but it is used as a way to essentially undermine the Afghan government and the NATO effort and bolster the belligerents.

“Shifting to Iran, you have a similar situation. There have been linkages between the Iranians and the Taliban.” [Continue reading…]

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Taliban seeks recognition for Qatar office, direct talks with U.S.

VOA reports: Afghanistan’s Taliban has demanded official recognition for its political office in Qatar, direct talks with the United States and removal of senior members from a U.N. blacklist, describing these as preliminary steps to peacefully ending its insurgency.

A Qatar-based Taliban spokesman, Sohail Shaheen, has asserted the presence of U.S.-led foreign troops in Afghanistan is the “root cause” of war and its continuation.

The “foreign occupation forces” are undermining the country’s sovereignty and freedom of its politics as well as the government, he added.

“That is why there is need for America and its allies to come to the table for direct talks with the Islamic Emirate (the Taliban) for negotiating an end to the occupation,” Shaheen said.

If peace is the objective of the other side, he asserted, then the Taliban must be allowed to open its “Political Office” in Qatar and names of its senior members be removed from the U.N. black list. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS commander says Trump’s ‘utter hate towards Muslims will make our job much easier because we can recruit thousands’

Reuters reports: From Afghanistan to Algeria, jihadists plan to use Donald Trump’s shock U.S. presidential victory as a propaganda tool to bring new fighters to their battlefields.

Taliban commanders and Islamic State supporters say Trump’s campaign trail rhetoric against Muslims – at one point calling for a total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States – will play perfectly in their recruitment efforts, especially for disaffected youth in the West.

“This guy is a complete maniac. His utter hate towards Muslims will make our job much easier because we can recruit thousands,” Abu Omar Khorasani, a top IS commander in Afghanistan, told Reuters.

Trump has talked tough against militant groups on the campaign trail, promising to defeat “radical Islamic terrorism just as we won the Cold War.” [Continue reading…]

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Taliban envoy breaks silence to urge group to reshape itself and consider peace

The New York Times reports: The Taliban’s internal debate over whether and how to negotiate with the Afghan government is playing out in the open, even as there have been renewed attempts to restart talks.

Breaking with nearly 15 years of public silence, Sayed Muhammad Tayeb Agha, who until recently was the Taliban’s chief negotiator and head of their political commission, issued a letter about peace talks to the insurgency’s supreme leader over the summer and discussed reconciliation efforts in an interview with The New York Times in recent days, his first on the record with a Western publication in years.

In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Times and appeared in the Afghan news media, Mr. Agha supported the idea of talks, and said the insurgency should be urgently trying to position itself as an Afghan political movement independent from the influence of Pakistani intelligence officials who have sheltered, and at times manipulated, the Taliban since 2001.

Mr. Agha led efforts to open the Taliban’s political office in Qatar in 2011, and he was instrumental in negotiations that led to the release of the last known American prisoner of war held by the Taliban, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, in exchange for the release of five Taliban detainees from the American prison camp at Guantánamo Bay. But he became disgruntled over the internal power struggle that broke out in 2015 after the death of the movement’s founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, for whom he was a trusted aide. He remains in exile abroad. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s Afghanistan war strategy: Do ‘just enough to lose slowly’

The Washington Post reports from Camp Shorab: Earlier this month, a small district center just south of this desolate U.S. base came under attack from Taliban militants who threatened to overrun the local police. Frantic calls arrived from Afghan officials: They needed air support.

In a U.S. command center, a steel hut of plywood walls and a dozen video monitors piping in drone feeds and satellite imagery, soldiers began directing aircraft to the area. Redhanded 53, the call sign for a gun-metal-gray twin-engine propeller plane loaded with sensors, arrived overhead just in time to watch a truck loaded with explosives slam into the main police station.

Within an hour, the Americans had marshaled an armed Predator drone in the skies over the battle in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. But the commanding officer, Col. D.A. Sims, and his troops were unable to determine whether the men with guns on the ground were Taliban or Afghan soldiers. So Sims directed the Predator to fire one of its two hellfire missiles into an adjacent field — a $70,000 dollar warning shot just to let the militants know that the Americans had arrived.

The Oct. 3 battle is a microcosm of what is happening across Afghanistan: Taliban fighters that show enormous resilience despite being on the wrong side of a 15-year, $800 billion war; an Afghan army that still struggles with leadership, equipment, tactics and, in some units, an unwillingness to fight; and the world’s most sophisticated military reduced at times to pounding fields with its feared armaments.

The future of the U.S. role in Afghanistan after a decade and a half of war has received little attention in the presidential campaign and debates. But the next administration will be bequeathed a strategy that is doing “just enough to lose slowly,” said Douglas Ollivant, a senior national-security-studies fellow at the New America Foundation. [Continue reading…]

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15 years in the Afghan crucible

Carlotta Gall writes from Kabul: There is an end-of-an-era feel here these days. Military helicopters rattle overhead, ferrying American and Afghan officials by air rather than risk cars bombs in the streets. The concrete barriers, guarding against suicide attacks, have grown taller and stronger around every embassy and government building, and whole streets are blocked off from the public.

It has been 15 years since American forces began their bombing campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda on Oct. 7, 2001, and sometimes it feels as if we are back to square one, that there is nothing to show for it.

The recent American military drawdown has been drastic — from over 100,000 troops a few years ago to a force of 8,500 today. Thousands of Afghans have been made jobless as bases and assistance programs have closed. Meanwhile tens of thousands of Taliban are on the offensive in the countryside, threatening to overrun several provincial towns and staging huge bombings here in the capital.

Afghan forces have been bearing the brunt, suffering unsustainable casualties. Communities talk of hundreds of coffins returning from the front line. Civilians have suffered no less — thousands of families have been displaced anew by fighting, and aid workers warn that their access is deteriorating. Business executives have been leaving, selling off their property, and whole families have swelled the refugee columns heading to Europe.

The political mood is shifting, too, as Afghans sense the declining American influence and start casting around for new patrons or renewing old alliances. The politicking is intense: “Hot, very hot,” as a former minister described the political climate.

For Afghans, and for many of us who have followed Afghanistan for decades — I have been visiting the country since the early 1990s — the times are reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in 1989 after a 10-year occupation. The Communist government and army that the Soviets left behind survived only three years before they were overthrown by the mujahedeen in 1992. [Continue reading…]

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Is the killing of militant leaders counterproductive?

The Wall Street Journal reports: Killing leaders of Islamist militant groups, such as the Saturday strike on Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour, has long been a signature strategy of the Obama administration—an alternative to massive troop deployments overseas.

But how effective are those “decapitations” in the long run? The verdict is far from clear and, to an extent, depends on the size and cohesion of the targeted group.

Both the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and the targeting of Mullah Mansour on a Pakistani road were major successes for U.S. intelligence and the Pentagon.

Al Qaeda’s central command, a relatively tight international terror network now led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been in decline since bin Laden’s death. It has been unable to fully recover from the blow or to mount major attacks against the West.

But the experience is less encouraging for wide-scale insurgencies such as the Afghan Taliban. While such decapitations can provide a short-term gain, they rarely change the course of the conflict — and frequently backfire if not accompanied by a much broader, resource-intensive involvement of a kind the White House has been loath to pursue.

Unlike al Qaeda, the Taliban enjoy support from a significant swath of the Afghan population. The group’s military advances in 2013-15 weren’t impeded by the fact that its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was secretly dead at the time, or by the assassinations of scores of commanders.

In announcing Mullah Mansour’s death, President Barack Obama said his killing “gives the people of Afghanistan and the region a chance at a different, better future.”

That optimistic assessment isn’t shared by many, in the region or in the U.S., who closely follow the Taliban.

“I don’t think it will weaken the Taliban, and it may strengthen them,” said Barnett Rubin, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on peace negotiations with the Taliban and who is now associate director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University.

It is also far from certain that removing Mullah Mansour would make such peace talks — an avowed U.S. goal — any easier to resume.

The minister of aviation in the pre-2001 Taliban government, Mullah Mansour belonged to the original generation of Taliban leaders, was involved in the political outreach, and could influence field commanders. His successor named on Wednesday, Maulavi Haibatullah, is believed to represent a more uncompromising cast.

“After this killing, the Taliban will be more hard-line and the people who think that the war will solve all the problems will be more powerful. This is a blow to peace,” said Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul political analyst who served in the Taliban regime’s foreign ministry before 2001.

U.S. officials have argued that, with Mr. Mansour, there wasn’t any peace process to derail anyway.

“It’s not as if he was going to open negotiations and this is going to stop that effort. He was not,” said James Cunningham, a fellow at the Atlantic Council who served as U.S. ambassador in Kabul in 2012-14.

Social scientists who examined the effect of such decapitations on militant groups have found little empirical evidence that the killings advance U.S. goals. [Continue reading…]

Vanda Felbab-Brown writes: Commenting on the death of Mullah Mansour during his visit to Vietnam this week, President Obama said, “Mansour rejected efforts by the Afghan government to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that has taken the lives of countless innocent Afghan men, women and children.”

So runs the official line from the White House: Because Mullah Mansour became opposed to negotiations, removing him became necessary for new peace talks. Yet the notion that the United States can drone-strike its way through the leadership of the Afghan Taliban until it finds an acceptable interlocutor seems optimistic, at best.

The revelation, last July, of the 2013 death in Pakistan of the Afghan Taliban’s previous leader and founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, led to a competition for the succession that hurt the group’s willingness and capacity to negotiate. The Taliban’s subsequent military push has been its strongest in a decade, causing thousands of civilian casualties. In particular, suicide bombings by the Taliban’s most dangerous and violent faction, the Haqqani network, have struck at the heart of the nation’s capital.

Facing this onslaught, the whole country has been plunged into insecurity. The struggling Afghan National Security Forces have been hanging on, but the military momentum is on the Taliban’s side.

In quickly announcing on Wednesday that Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a deputy to Mullah Mansour, would be their new leader, the Taliban is trying to avoid the chaos that surrounded Mr. Omar’s succession and to keep their military momentum. It’s likely the violence will continue. [Continue reading…]

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