KABUL, Afghanistan – Sixteen years into its longest war, the United States is sending another 4,000 troops to Afghanistan in an attempt to turn around a conflict characterized by some of the worst violence since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. The troops also face the emergence of an Islamic State group affiliate and an emboldened Taliban, who by Washington's own watchdog's assessment now control nearly half the country.
In February, Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction John Sopko, in his first report to the Trump administration, offered a bleak picture of a country struggling under the burden of a deeply corrupt government, a strengthening Taliban and a U.S. development budget rife with waste.
While the government of President Ashraf Ghani asked for a troop surge, at least one lawmaker, Nasrullah Sadeqizada, was skeptical of the plan and cautioned it should be coordinated with the Afghan government and not be done unilaterally by the United States.
"The security situation continues to deteriorate in Afghanistan and the foreign troops who are here are not making it better," the lawmaker said.
At its peak, the war involved 120,000 international troops from 42 countries. So many in Afghanistan question whether adding 4,000 troops to the 8,500 U.S. soldiers in the country will bring peace. But failure could leave the U.S. vulnerable to an increasingly hostile Afghanistan and its growing anti-Western sentiment.
Here's a look at the situation amid the pending U.S. troop surge:
WHAT CAUSED THE DETERIORATION ULTIMATELY LEADING TO THE TROOP SURGE?
When the Taliban were ousted in December 2001, the U.S. and its coalition partners declared victory. However, within months, the religious movement began to show signs of re-emergence, spurred on by a government that alienated ethnic Pashtuns who were the militant group's backbone.
As early as the fall of 2002, a deputy police commander in Afghanistan's southern Zabul province said he tried unsuccessfully to recruit thousands of young Pashtun men to the police. All but four returned from the Afghan capital, Kabul, claiming discrimination because of their ethnicity, and joined the Taliban, whose leadership had found a safe haven next door in Pakistan.
The first government after the Taliban's ouster was made up of commanders of various ethnic backgrounds, all with powerful militias, while ethnic Pashtuns were represented by then-President Hamid Karzai, who was without a militia and politically dependent on the U.S. and the powerful commanders of the so-called Northern Alliance, which had been allied with the U.S.-led coalition against the Taliban.
WHAT GROUPS DO THE U.S., NATO AND AFGHAN SOLDIERS FACE?
The most powerful and well outfitted group is the Taliban. Among them, the strongest outfit is the so-called Haqqani network with its deep ties to Pakistan and particularly Pakistan's intelligence agency. The relationship between the two dates back to the 1980s Afghan war against the former Soviet Union, which had sent in more than 100,000 soldiers to support the pro-communist Afghan government.
Three years after the Russians were defeated in 1989 by the U.S.-backed mujahedeen, or holy warriors, a collection of mujahedeen groups including the Haqqanis had taken power in Kabul. But they quickly turned their guns on each other, killing 50,000 people, mostly civilians, in their four-year rule that led to the Taliban's rise and eventual takeover of Kabul in 1996. The Taliban ruled until their ouster in 2001. During their five-year rein, the Taliban ended the fighting but imposed their interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia, which denied girls education, women work and meted out harsh punishment for offenses against Islam.
The other increasingly violent enemy facing off against the U.S. and Afghan troops is the Islamic State group affiliate known as IS in Khorasan Province, an ancient area that once encompassed parts of Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia.
The IS began as mostly a group of Pakistani tribesmen driven from their tribal areas by the Pakistani military after they declared war on the Pakistan state. Disgruntled Afghan Taliban commanders and fighters, mostly from Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province who favored a more aggressive war against the Kabul government, joined them.
A dangerous twist to the IS in Afghanistan is the injection of thousands of war-seasoned Uzbek and other Central Asian militants that had once been aligned with the Taliban but had a falling out after a Pakistan military operation drove them across the border into Afghanistan from the North Waziristan tribal region.
WHAT'S AT STAKE IF THE SURGE DOESN'T HELP?
Failure in Afghanistan would once again offer a safe haven for militant groups of all stripes.
While the majority of al-Qaida's Arab fighters are understood to have relocated to other Middle Eastern battlefields in Iraq, Syria and Libya, its leadership is still believed to be in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
After 16 years of war, ordinary Afghans are increasingly frustrated by the relentless violence and security failures that allowed, for instance, a truck packed with explosives into the center of Kabul to explode and kill more than 150 people in a recent attack. Many are also disappointed at a government so rife with corruption that even paying utility bills requires paying a bribe to a local official.
On the streets of the capital, the Afghans' frustration is turning into protests and a growing anti-Western sentiment is spreading throughout the country — with the ire directed at U.S. and NATO troops who have been in the country for years without being able to bring about peace.
Gannon reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.