KABUL, Afghanistan — When I was a child, the girls in this city’s upscale Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood would trek nearly two hours to school.
But after 17 years of war and two years of the Taliban, that walk no longer is required, and I am witness to the progress. In recent weeks, Kabul’s most prestigious girls’ schools reopened their doors — unbeknownst to any foreign reporters.
Since the attack against the Army Public School in Peshawar last December, world attention has focused on the worst of the Islamic State’s activities in Afghanistan. And while the insurgent group remains a serious threat to the nation’s stability, fighting the militants who seek to promote extremism and fear has become easier.
As the Taliban have retreated from a critical swath of southern Afghanistan, U.S. and Afghan forces have focused on minimizing the threat of the terrorist group from up north, where it remains active and overstretched. The fighting has forced IS to focus on Afghanistan’s northern mountains and highlands, away from more heavily populated and more guarded areas.
The limited progress against IS by the United States and Afghanistan has led some to view the lack of attention to the group as a sign that the war is too focused on the insurgency in the south. This, however, is not accurate. IS is still present, and it can still carry out attacks with deadly impact in Kabul and other cities.
In recent years, the group has grown more sophisticated, and coordinated its assaults — including suicide bombings and assaults on its Iraqi counterpart — using social media to attract new recruits. And the organization keeps in close contact with other militant factions on the battlefield.
This is especially true in southern Afghanistan and northern Afghanistan, where the group now finds safe haven after its military efforts in other regions of the country have come to an end.
For this reason, IS continues to attract a number of new recruits. With a decision by Afghan forces to use an attack helicopter rather than a heavy assault on an IS camp in Kunduz that killed dozens of militants last month, evidence suggests the Afghan security forces, too, are working with the militants on the battlefield.
The Afghan Taliban, meanwhile, appears to be spreading its influence across the nation and is increasingly maneuvering to become the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Some analysts argue that this could lead to a civil war that could bring in IS and other militant groups if the Taliban does not gain any ground.
Unsurprisingly, the Afghan government is responding to any advances by the Taliban by expanding its counterterrorism and border control efforts and lashing out at international aid groups and their international staffs. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the history of discord between the government and international aid workers and their Afghan employees in the past, and the tense and hostile environment that the country’s security forces face.
The Afghan government’s attacks on these international organizations are one way in which it tries to suppress the group’s support and stifle the voices of those who would have a difficult time criticizing the militant group. And this is also another way in which the government seeks to terrorize an already skeptical and demoralized population in a way that satisfies Taliban demands for sympathy and a sense of support.
The Afghan government must accept that its campaign against the Taliban and IS is not focused on either the Taliban or the groups that it might consider enemies. As long as it is, it will continue to fail in Afghanistan.