Analysis: Afghanistan must recognize Taliban are winning

Story highlights

  • Latest Taliban bombing is part of their slow grind to power, says Nick Paton Walsh
  • U.S. said Afghan security forces could hold back the Taliban; Walsh says it is now woefully apparent that is tragically untrue

(CNN)It is a war of perception, you repeatedly hear: that the perception the Taliban are winning means the Taliban are winning.

There is some logic to this thesis, which is often heard from government and other Afghanistan officials in Kabul, in that those on the fence head to the winning side of the insurgency. Yet it begins to fall apart when the mantra overtakes the grasp on reality.
    The Taliban do look a lot like they are winning. It is a grotesque slow grind, their pursuit of victory. Tuesday it claimed dozens of women and children as casualties in Kabul when a suicide truck bomb, so eager to attack a government VIP bodyguard service, detonated in a parking lot just behind its target. The death toll was stated at around 30 that day, and now, on Wednesday, it has reached 64, likely the deadliest attack the capital has seen since the Taliban were dislodged in 2001.
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    Other somber figures explain how bad the problems are: 5,500 Afghan security forces dead in just 2015, say U.S. officials, far more than NATO lost in a decade of war; 3,500 Afghan civilians dead in the same period, mostly at the hands of the Taliban, says the United Nations. Two-thirds of the personnel absences in the security forces are not down to injury, but instead desertion, U.S. officials say. More of the country is in Taliban hands than at any time since 2001, U.S. officials say.
    The attributions to U.S. officials are important, because it was this same source of information that constantly assured reporters, the world and Afghans that once NATO drew down in 2014, Afghan security forces would be more than capable of holding back the Taliban. It is now woefully apparent that is tragically untrue.
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    There are no simple culprits here. The government -- in which President Ashraf Ghani shares power with the man he fought an election against, Abdullah Abdullah -- was hamstrung, many argue, by this communal rivalry from the start. The Afghan economy tanked as soon as NATO support ebbed. NATO's departure meant an unavoidable collapse in security.
    Little of this could have been avoided, but much of it was predictable. The West simply ran out of funds and appetite for the battle, and left Afghanistan to come to its own devices.
    So what is left? The key plank of the U.S. and Afghan strategy remains a simple and likely idea that could have worked well if the Taliban were evenly matched on the battlefield: a negotiated settlement. The United States has sought this, through proxies, for years. But the Taliban's current gains mean they are unlikely to imminently change their current disinterest in talks. Their ties to al Qaeda also make a long-term settlement that renounces "international terror," as the United States and Kabul say it must, less likely.
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    Tuesday's attack was met with U.S. and Afghan presidential assurances the Taliban were only picking a soft civilian target as they could not successfully face the Afghan army on the battlefield, and were thus "weak." It was designed to remind the world of the callous choice by the Taliban of its victims, yet still a curious message, given the gains the insurgency has made in just such open battle. It is also the same message we heard about four years ago, when it was true U.S. airpower had guaranteed Afghan forces a measure of superiority in open battle. Yet the war has changed, and perhaps the message has not.
    A perhaps apocryphal tale about Gen. David Petraeus speaks how on his arrival in Baghdad to take over the campaign, an embassy aide remarked the U.S. campaign had a "messaging problem." His retort was simple: It wasn't a messaging problem, but a results problem. Granted, Petraeus went on in his stint in Kabul as commander to be very keen on the message, but the truth still holds. There is a sense that the government in Kabul is losing, yet does not accept it is losing. It has little other choice.