This has been a particularly grisly week in Afghanistan. On Sunday night, Taliban insurgents in the conservative southern province of Helmand beheaded seventeen people—fifteen men and two women—who were attending a party that involved music and mixed-gender dancing. The killings were so gruesome that the central Taliban leadership is denying its involvement in the atrocity, claiming local leaders in the area knew nothing about the attack.
This official denial could be a sign that the group is trying to soften its image as the possibility of peace negotiations continues; or it could be simply another indication of lack of discipline on the part of Taliban foot soldiers. Just a few weeks ago, Mullah Omar, the reclusive one-eyed leader of the Taliban, issued a Ramadan missive telling his followers that it’s a religious obligation to “employ tactics that do not cause harm to life and property of the common countrymen.” Omar’s inspiration for this “kinder, gentler” approach to civilians was no doubt sparked by growing anger across the country against Taliban brutality. In one high profile incident in June, Taliban members in a town near Kabul publicly executed a woman accused of adultery, shooting her at close range in front of some 150 men and videotaping her death. The videotape went viral, fanning outrage across the country. By any measure, brutally killing and beheading 17 young people seems to be a violation of Omar’s order.
The fact is that the Taliban are a violent, radical group that will not refrain from heinous violence to impose their extremism on the country. With the ongoing drawdown of international forces from Afghanistan, they are stepping up attacks on Afghan troops and civilians alike in a show of force. Hours after the beheadings, Taliban fighters overran an Afghan army post, also in Helmand, killing 10 Afghan troops. Such attacks are likely to escalate in coming months as more American troops depart the country.
Sadly, after more than thirty years of war, it is unlikely that Afghanistan is going to get a negotiated peace. While some Taliban fighters are no doubt weary of fighting, for others it is all they know, and they think they will be able to capture the whole country once the foreign troops leave. Even if a peace can be negotiated, it is unlikely that the treacherous Taliban will adhere to it. Just about a year ago, a Taliban member visited the home of Burhanuddin Rabanni, a former Afghan president and the leader of the country’s High Peace Council, under the pretext of peace negotiations. He exploded a bomb hidden in his turban, assassinating Rabbani and yet again derailing peace talks. These are not people who can be trusted as good-faith negotiators.
Still, this is the Afghans’ war. America has lost 2,000 troops there over the past decade, and sunk hundreds of billions of dollars into the country, with too little to show for it. Our nation-building efforts have been nothing short of a fool’s errand. But walking away at this stage would also be a terrible mistake. The Afghan government will need continued U.S. military assistance to prevent the Taliban from once again overrunning the country. Leaving a small contingent there for training and intelligence will be imperative, as will continued economic assistance.