Sixteen years after Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the U.S-led international intervention has transformed Afghanistan.
Yet thousands of Afghans perish in terrorist violence each year. With large swathes of the countryside under Taliban control, NATO’s Resolute Support mission says nearly two dozen designated terrorist and extremist organizations still operate in the country.
Afghanistan’s failure to overcome the terrorism threats overshadows its achievements and even endangers the political system that has established a representative government and revived key state institutions such as the armed forces.
In Kabul, the Arg presidential palace is keen to point out the reason behind this key problem persisting.
“Terrorism is our No. 1 problem. Unless we have peace and security in the country, all our other achievements and progress will be undermined,” Afghan presidential spokesman Najibullah Azad told Radio Free Afghanistan. “The Afghan government and the international community have failed in putting an end to the scourge of terrorism because its real drivers are in [neighboring] Pakistan.”
From Kabul’s presidential palace to a man on the street, many Afghans blame Islamabad’s support for the Taliban and other insurgent groups as the single biggest obstacle to winning the fight against terrorism.
Afghanistan’s chief executive, Abudullah Abdullah, however, is now optimistic that U.S. President Donald Trump’s new strategy will address this critical shortcoming.
“I am personally optimistic that the most important points in this strategy -- pressuring those supporting the insurgent war effort -- will have positive results,” he told supporters in Kabul on September 9.
Last month, Trump singled out Islamabad for “housing the very terrorists that we are fighting” and warned that Washington “can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.”
Afghanistan currently has more than 350,000 security forces personnel, mainly consisting of army and police. They, however, have failed to prevent rapid Taliban advances in the countryside after most NATO troops withdrew and the alliance ended major combat operations in late 2014.
In addition, devastating terrorist attacks in major Afghan cities undermine any existing confidence in the ability of Kabul and its Western backers to win the complicated counterterrorism struggle in Afghanistan.
Afghan officials, however, are adamant they are not losing.
“Still the valiant Afghan forces have prevented these enemy forces from recreating major terrorist sanctuaries or overrunning important provinces and population centers,” said Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry.
In neighboring Pakistan, however, the country’s powerful military views the Afghan war in a different light.
“We cannot fight Afghanistan’s war inside Pakistan,” General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the chief of Pakistani army, said last week. “Our policy is that we will not let anyone use our soil against another country. But we also expect others to soon take steps against those who are sheltering beyond our western boarders [in Afghanistan].”
In an indication that Pakistan’s powerful generals are yet not ready to attempt a new beginning with Afghanistan, Bajwa had a clear message for Washington and its allies.
“We will support every step that the U.S. and NATO take to help restore peace to the region in general and Afghanistan in particular; our security concerns need to be resolved,” he said.
But Islamabad’s closest allies and near and far neighbors now seem poised for a push back.
Last week, the leaders of the BRICS grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa “expressed concern” over 10 Islamist organizations, most of whom are seen as operating out of Pakistan.
Crucially for Afghanistan’s counterterrorism struggle, Islamabad’s key ally Beijing joined its arch enemy India and near neighbor Russia to condemn the “terrorist attacks resulting in death to innocent Afghan nationals” and extended support to “the efforts of the Afghan national defense and security forces in fighting terrorist organizations.”
In Kabul, General John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, also has a consistent message for Islamabad.
“We have great respect for the sacrifices of the Pakistani people, we respect the professionalism of the Pakistani Army, and we and they have a tough fight against terrorism,” he recently told Afghanistan’s Tolo TV. “But there are sanctuaries in Pakistan, and these need to be addressed."
Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Rahmatullah Afghan, Norullah Shayan and Sahar Liwal contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.