By Kriti M. Shah
Seventeen years after the United States first entered Afghanistan, the Americans may finally be coming home. President Trump has ordered for the beginning of a reduction in troop numbers in the country, following his decision to pull military forces from Syria as well. US assistance has been crucial in building Afghanistan a military, democratic institutions, civilian organisations as well as an independent media. While there is no doubt that Afghanistan today, is a much stronger, hopeful nation than it was before 2001; if the US objective when they entered the country, was to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda and ensure that Afghanistan is never used as a launch pad for terrorist attacks, they have failed in their mission.
The war Afghanistan has been the US’s longest war yet, costing the US over a $1 trillion. Their role in the country is two-fold, a bilateral counter terrorism mission along with the Afghan forces and participation in Operation Resolute Support, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation or NATO’s mission in the country to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces. According to reports, over 7,000 American soldiers could return home in the coming weeks.
Today the Afghan government controls only half or 56.3% of the total districts in the country. Since 2001, over 2,400 American soldiers have been killed in the country and since 2015, more than a staggering 28,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers. Failure to defeat the Taliban militarily has led previous US administrations to explore the idea of political reconciliation with the Taliban. Over the years, this idea has evolved and expanded. The Taliban has moved from being seen as a terrorist group, to an insurgency movement to an armed political movement with strong, conservative political aspirations. In September 2018, Washington appointed a special representative to Afghanistan with the objective of getting the Taliban and the government to the negotiating table. The prolonged nature of the conflict in the country has created a large number of international stakeholders. A number of nations, along with the United States, such as Norway, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and China, have at some stage and diplomatic level had dialogues with the Taliban, complicating the process as well as reducing prospects for regional consensus on ending the war. All of this has made peace, an elusive dream for Afghans and Americans alike.
Given the situation on the ground and the inability of the international and Afghan forces to collectively defeat the Taliban, the consequences of a drawdown in forces will significantly impact and alter the political climate and security situation in the country.
Trump cannot be faulted for wanting to end the war and score a domestic political victory by bringing the troops home, but the tactical implications of a withdrawal matter and affect American national security interests.
First and foremost, a US drawdown at a time when the Taliban control and contest a large amount of territory, shows the group that they have been successful in resisting United States forces. The Taliban does not have to seize control over the entire country in order to win, they just have to hold on until the US gives up. After a 17 year-long involvement in the country, war-weary Washington is showing signs of doing just that. A reduction in forces allows the Taliban to bolster their efforts to gain more territory, thereby putting the Kabul government who are seeking peace, in a weaker bargaining position with the group.
This in turn, will mean that by its own standards, Pakistan has been successful in using jihad as a tool to meet its foreign policy objectives. Islamabad’s sponsorship and assistance of terrorist groups to fight US forces in Afghanistan remains a part of the nation’s national security strategy. Should the US leave Afghanistan, or the Taliban make military or political gains vis-à-vis the government, Pakistan’s tactic of militant sponsorship will be vindicated.
Not only will this further weaken the Kabul government, that already suffers from political infighting and heavy corruption, it will enhance the Pakistani state’s control beyond its own territorial borders.
When a terrorist group is backed by a state, it serves little purpose to negotiate with the terrorist group and not the state that sponsors them. An end to the Afghan war, will need to coincide with a harsh, long-term change in strategy towards Pakistan. Unless terrorist and radical militant infrastructure is systematically dismantled from Pakistan’s core, the problem of South Asian jihad will continue to plague the region for generations. The rise and resilience of the Islamic State Khorasan (ISKP), in eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border demonstrates that terror activity along the Durand Line is active, just as it was in the before, the hotbed that caused the September 2001 attacks in the first place.
Whether the United States follows through on its plan to withdraw forces, now or later is irrelevant. The question is, what sort of peace can Afghans afford to make now? Will political reconciliation mean a power sharing agreement with the Taliban? Will Afghan forces who have suffered immeasurably at the hand of Taliban fighters, be asked to fight alongside them? What will the government have to concede in order for there to be peace in the country? The answers are unclear and nobody seems to be asking the questions.
The Taliban today is different from the one led by Mullah Omar before. The organisation is no longer a monolith, divided into smaller factions with a number of deserters moving to fight under the ISKP flag. Despite the loss of two of its leaders, the group has managed to retain certain organizational cohesion, further strengthened by commanders who are more tech-savvy and social-media friendly.
Taliban’s ability to remain standing despite the might of US forces, has been a popular recruitment tactic and morale booster for the fighters to continue. They are now more assertive than ever, attacking US and Afghan forces with impunity.
The United States must therefore, not underestimate or downplay the Taliban’s ideological commitment to what they want from the future in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s conditions are for there to be a complete withdrawal of international forces, a removal of Taliban leaders names from international blacklists and a larger role for Islamic law in Afghan institutions. They refuse to negotiate with Kabul, because they believe they have no political authority to negotiate. The Taliban government was overthrown by the US and it is from them that they need assurances they will never return. The US must however strongly state their intention, that the international community will continue to make long term commitments to further develop and strengthen the country. The justification given to the perceived morality in negotiating with terrorists to achieve peace, comes from a place of desperation. It is tempting to leave the country and return home after 17 years, and let Afghans deal with the Taliban as they see fit. However, the Afghan quagmire of insecurity means that the US exit will make the country more prone to external manipulation and increase the odds of Afghanistan falling back down the slippery slope of radical militant Islam.