The U.S. dropped the ‘mother of all bombs’ on ISIS targets in Afghanistan last week, killing more than 90 militants.
But the strike means little for changing the reality on the ground in the country, where the Taliban continues to gain ground after nearly 16 years of war.
“The Taliban have good reason to believe they’re winning,” Marvin Weinbaum, former State Department analyst for Afghanistan and Pakistan and resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, told Newsweek
The Taliban, which practices an ultraconservative brand of Islam, controlled about 90 per cent of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. But the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, backed by Pakistan, was decimated in 2001 by local forces supported by the U.S.
Currently, ISIS has 700-1000 fighters in Afghanistan, but has not garnered the same support as the Taliban. Numbering around 25,000, the Taliban’s recent success has caused Russia and Iran to lend their support to the conservative Islamic group they once opposed.
“Russia has become more assertive over the past year, overtly lending legitimacy to the Taliban to undermine NATO efforts and bolster belligerents,” Army Gen. John Nicholson Jr., a top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told the Senate in February.
Moscow has tried to legitimise this course of action by arguing that the Taliban are helping in the fight against ISIS. This argument, however, does not quite add up, since the two groups forged a truce in August 2016.
Moscow also wants “to be seen as a global operator,” NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman said. “So they recently had a meeting in Russia with China and Pakistan to try to come up with some sort of accord in Afghanistan.”
It’s rather unclear exactly how the Kremlin is supporting the Taliban, but they could be providing them with weapons.
“Now of course the Taliban already have plenty of weapons — small arms, rocket-propelled grenades,” Bowman said, “but the Russians could potentially provide even more sophisticated arms and equipment, maybe missiles or night vision goggles, the types of things that could make the Taliban even more lethal.”
Iran is also supporting the Taliban because they are “worried that with American troops in Afghanistan, the two militaries will end up confronting each other,” Mohammad Akram Arefi, an Iran-educated politics professor at Kateb University in Kabul, told The Washington Post.
Despite these forging relations between Russia, Iran and the Taliban, the U.S. has largely neglected the war-torn country in recent years.
The U.S. appears to be pursuing a strategy of “buying time,” Weinbaum told Newsweek, hoping the Afghan government will establish a strong military and political and economic system that will negotiate and absorb the Taliban.
But the Taliban’s recent territorial gains, along with its new relationships with Russia and Iran, could lead to a spring offensive that could change the political situation in Afghanistan, Weinbaum said. If the Taliban is successful, it could draw in their ally, Pakistan, and its rival, India, which could have global consequences.
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