Why you should care
Because the U.S. has fought its longest multitrillion-dollar war there, and it wants to send more troops.
As the United States debates deploying 4,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan to stem the advances of the Taliban, which has overrun much of the country, Western diplomats keep repeating the same old line: that only a political settlement can end the war there. By now, even the Pentagon accepts that negotiation, not triumph, is the ultimate goal. But a political settlement may be as elusive as a military victory, and the Western coalition supporting the Afghan government may have less time to resolve the conflict than it thinks.
In the 1990s, U.S. officials said the Taliban would never be capable of capturing the entire country. And yet by 2001, says Marvin G. Weinbaum, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, “the insurgents had conquered all the country except for a small part of the northeast.”
According to the U.S., the Taliban realized that it could never take urban areas. If the insurgents had in fact come to this conclusion, they would have stopped trying.
Marvin G. Weinbaum, resident scholar at the Middle East Institute
And they’re at it again. The Taliban reportedly controls more territory in Afghanistan now than at any point since 2001, when an American-led invasion expelled the Sunni fundamentalists from Kabul. The insurgents have stormed Kunduz, one of Afghanistan’s largest cities, several times and surrounded other provincial capitals, from Lashkar Gah to Tirin Kot. Desperate to conclude America’s longest war, U.S. officials have tried forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table, both with military pressure and through back channels. These efforts have included attempts at a peace process arranged by the insurgents’ Pakistani patrons.
Weinbaum, who worked as a State Department intelligence officer analyzing Afghanistan and Pakistan between 1999 and 2003, warns against underestimating the Taliban. “According to the U.S., the Taliban realized that it could never take urban areas. If the insurgents had in fact come to this conclusion, they would have stopped trying.” So while American leaders may assume there’s no military solution, that doesn’t mean the extremists are on the same page. “[The Taliban] has demonstrated extraordinary patience.”
The insurgents’ offensives against and suicide attacks on cities from Kabul to Kunduz show that, contrary to American assumptions, they have the firepower, manpower and willpower to capture urban areas and outlast Afghan and Western opposition. Weinbaum argues that the Pakistani intelligence officers known to support the insurgency have less leverage than the United States hopes. “Pakistan and the Taliban coordinate well when they have the same goals, but Pakistan can’t control the Taliban,” he warns. In fact, he says, “the insurgents have often embarrassed Pakistan — as when, in 2001, they destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Pakistan can prevent or upset negotiations, but it can’t dictate to the Taliban, he explains. “The Pakistanis oppose talks that they can’t control.”
Ascending, and backed by regional and world powers as disparate as Iran, Pakistan and Russia, the Taliban has little reason to negotiate. Sayed Madadi, an Afghan analyst who has cowritten an article with Weinbaum and interviewed former Taliban leaders, says that the U.S. needs to clarify its objectives for Afghanistan. “The U.S. is confused about what to do [there],” says Madadi, noting how even when the focus turned to nation-building, security-centric policies remained. Instead, he says, “the U.S. has to reevaluate what it wants Afghanistan to be and what its benchmark for security is.” Case in point? The 2014 drawdown, when U.S. troops pulled out without a coherent plan in place.
Hoping to get America out of Afghanistan for good, President Barack Obama withdrew most of the 100,000 American soldiers from the country in 2014, leaving 9,800 behind to secure it. Weinbaum considers the continued presence of American soldiers critical to the survival of the Afghan government and essential for offering a potential path to a political settlement. “The U.S. can buy time to allow the Afghan government — through its policies — to create the conditions that can regain it the confidence of the people,” he says. Later, once more resilient, Afghan leaders can then challenge Taliban commanders through locally arranged peace deals.
Madadi agrees, pointing to the continued need for American support and training. “Political reforms in Kabul are as necessary as any changes on the battlefield. The legitimacy of the Afghan government is dwindling every day,” he says.
While the Afghan government and the U.S. have sent mixed signals, killing some moderate insurgent commanders but rewarding others while promoting diplomacy and negotiations despite floating proposals for more airstrikes and soldiers, the Taliban has remained steadfast in its policy: It will only negotiate after all foreign soldiers leave Afghanistan. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declined to comment, citing the need to consult “political leaders.”
“The U.S. must reinforce the Afghan government’s ability to hold territory by sending more American soldiers to train and by helping the Afghans develop their own airpower,” Madadi advises. To reach the desired political settlement, the U.S. will have to show through resilience that time is on the side of the Afghan nation state, not the insurgents who seek to decapitate it.