OPINION

Siege of Ghazni

The Taliban assault on the city could alterthe balance in Afghanistan’s civil war

The massive Taliban assault on the strategically important Ghazni city in southeastern Afghanistan has exposed the vulnerabilities of Afghan troops once again. If the city falls, it could alter the balance in the stalemated war, rendering the government in Kabul more vulnerable. Ghazni is about 150 km from Kabul, and is close to a major highway connecting the capital to the south, the Taliban’s stronghold. Some neighbouring provinces border the tribal areas of Pakistan, from where militants travel freely to and from Afghanistan. The assault was not unexpected. For months, Taliban fighters have been surrounding the city, and had even started collecting taxes on its outskirts. Yet, the government failed to make the first move, boost the city’s defences or prepare it for the eventual assault. On August 10, when about 1,000 Taliban fighters advanced into Ghazni, the security forces did not put up a strong enough fight. They retreated to defend the main government buildings, allowing the militants to take positions elsewhere. They are now fighting back, with help from the U.S. Air Force. But since the assault began, and with at least 100 security personnel and over 20 civilians dead, government troops are yet to make any major progress in beating back the Taliban.

Curiously, the attack has happened at a time when the Afghan and U.S. governments have been pushing for talks with the Taliban. Recently, American diplomats met Taliban representatives in Doha, and Kabul was preparing for a second ceasefire after a brief truce by both sides for Id. The Taliban’s strategy, as it is emerging, is to make maximum military gains before entering into talks. On the other side, the challenge before the Afghan government and the U.S. is to reverse the Taliban’s momentum. If they want to extract compromises from the Taliban, they need to first increase military pressure on the group. The Trump administration has boosted American troop presence in the country, which now stands at 14,000. It has also stepped up its air campaign against the militants. But despite these measures, government troops have failed to make any breakthrough. In recent months the Taliban has captured several districts and carried out attacks almost on a daily basis across the country — almost 44% of Afghanistan’s 398 districts are controlled or contested by the insurgents. They may have failed to capture any major urban centre, but that hasn’t deterred them from trying. Over the past two years, the Taliban carried out suicide attacks on Kunduz and Farah. And now, Ghazni is under attack. President Ashraf Ghani’s government, grappling with infighting and corruption among other problems, appears clueless about how to prevent a Taliban advance. Kabul might take Ghazni back with U.S. assistance, but the question is whether the government can change the status quo . If it cannot, more urban centres could come under attack.

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