In the course of several months, President Trump’s previously strong strategy for Afghanistan has become a two-pronged conglomerate of weak Obama-era strategies that never bore fruit, with Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad attempting peace talks with an enemy in possession of tremendous momentum, and the Pentagon preparing what amounts to yet another Afghanistan withdrawal timeline of three to five years.
Trump and U.S. military, intelligence, and government leaders should reexamine the recent points of failure and weakness in America’s Afghanistan strategy so that, whether or not the Taliban prove earnest in their pursuit of a peaceful end to the conflict, the United States is prepared to make a renewed effort to defend its national security interests, and provide support to the Afghan government with which it has allied itself for nearly two decades.
During those negotiations, American decision makers should likewise reacquaint themselves with the Taliban, from the dissonance between the organization’s desire for legitimacy and cowardly civilian attacks, to its physical strength, which has previously been underestimated, to the detriment of many.
Thus armed, American leaders can embrace current realities in Afghanistan, unfettered by pessimism about, and emboldened by true understanding of the past which will aid in securing an enduring end to the previous seventeen years of war.
Revisiting Recent Afghanistan History, 2013–2016
In February 2013, former President Barack Obama announced at his State of the Union Address that he would continue his drawdown in Afghanistan, bringing another 34,000 troops home over the course of 2013. “By the end of next year,” he promised, “our war in Afghanistan will be over.”
Like nearly every public statement about our Afghanistan involvement, Obama’s was overly hopeful, and out of touch with reality on the ground. Far from being nearly won, the war would drag itself to the end of one timeline after another under Obama’s administration.
Much has been made of how timelines are encouraging to America’s enemies, but less has been said about how timelines are also deleterious to American goals. The drive to show progress and meet timelines creates an environment in which confirmation bias can drive analysis, with results ensuring the United States is prepared to fight the enemy leadership wish existed, rather than the enemy that does exist.
To meet his timeline, throughout 2013, Obama’s drawdown continued, unimpeded.
In June 2013, the same month in which Afghan National Security Forces received full control for security operations countrywide, U.S. officials sought peace talks with the Taliban and the Afghan government.
In return for their participation in peace talks, the U.S. supported the Taliban’s opening of an official headquarters in Doha, Qatar. Almost immediately, the Taliban used their Doha office to posture themselves as a government in exile, raising their white flag outside and posting a plaque on the building identifying themselves as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the name under which they ruled the country in the years prior to the U.S. invasion.
Offended by the Taliban’s overreach, Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, withdrew from negotiations, and simultaneously halted discussions regarding the size of the U.S. advisory force that would remain in Afghanistan to train ANSF after 2014.
The peace negotiations also came with violent demonstrations of the Taliban’s power. Not 12 hours after talks were announced, the Taliban initiated a mortar attack at Bagram Airfield, killing four Americans. Five days later, the Taliban launched a coordinated assault in the vicinity of the Afghan presidential palace in the capital city of Kabul.
With the impending U.S. withdrawal so close, the Taliban had little incentive to strike a deal. Before the negotiations fizzled out, however, the group did state they would “renounce international terrorism” if peace were reached.
Throughout 2013, as the fight for control of the country between Taliban and ANSF intensified, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan found that the Taliban caused 74 percent of the year’s 2,959 civilian deaths, “deliberately targeting civilians across the country and carrying out attacks without regard for civilian life.”
Due to continued power struggles between Karzai and the United States, it was not until September 2014 that a new Afghan president, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, signed a Bilateral Security Agreement, allowing 10,000 U.S. troops to remain in the country. Though able to “enhance the ability of Afghanistan to deter internal and external threats against its sovereignty,” U.S. troops could not engage in combat operations.
In the following years, the situation in Afghanistan further declined. Though, according to NBC News, the NATO command Resolute Support stopped releasing information on districts under Taliban territorial control after 2015, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Long War Journal editor Bill Roggio estimated that 70 of 398 Afghan districts were “controlled or contested” by the Taliban in 2015. In 2016, the number rose to 82.
Additionally, the terror group Islamic State Khorasan arrived in northern Afghanistan in 2014, and was sustained over the following years through its ability “to leverage ‘greed and grievance’ motives to win recruits.”
In July 2016, with all signs pointing towards trouble, Obama opted not to carry out a drawdown in Afghanistan as he had promised, announcing instead that he would maintain U.S. troop levels at 8,500 through the end of the year. In another plum example of unwarranted optimism, Obama stated that his decision “sends a message to the Taliban and all those who have opposed Afghanistan’s progress,” that, in spite of “many years” of war, they have “been unable to prevail” while ANSF “continue to grow stronger.” Additionally, he claimed that those 8,500 Americans stationed in Afghanistan would provide his successor “a solid foundation for continued progress.”
The reality? Coalition forces and ANSF had been just as incapable of producing a victory as the Taliban, who knew themselves to be steadily gaining ground.
Under President Trump’s Administration
In an October 2015 CNN interview, Donald Trump called America’s involvement in Afghanistan “a terrible mistake.”
“Decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office,” President Trump noted in August 2017, when he announced a new strategy for Afghanistan.
Trump’s strategy sought “an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made,” and recognized that “the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable…[and] would create a vacuum that terrorists…would instantly fill.”
Trump’s change of tack included relaxing restrictions on commanders, and sending 3,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, with any future withdrawal based not on a timeline, but rather on “conditions on the ground.”
In November 2017, Trump additionally authorized an air campaign targeting opium labs to cut off Taliban funding streams. Even after nine months, during which time 200 targets were hit, the campaign “failed to put a significant dent in the illegal drug trade,” as reported by the Wall Street Journal.
In spite of Trump’s efforts, by the end of September 2018, Roggio estimated that 162 of 398 Afghan districts were controlled or contested by the Taliban. An Al Jazeera report from the same month stated the Taliban “threaten” 70 percent of Afghanistan. The “scale and intensity” of their attacks throughout the country, the newspaper claimed, “have not been seen since 2001.”
During the violent year, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s found that 3,804 Afghan civilians had died, with 1,361 of those deaths attributed solely to improvised explosive devices. Since 2017, the group found the “number of civilian casualties from deliberate targeting of civilians by Taliban nearly doubled.”
A possible factor in this increase were the country’s 2018 parliamentary elections. In addition to an intimidation campaign carried out by Taliban and Islamic State Khorasan elements leading up to elections, the toll of civilian casualties on election day alone was “higher than that in four previous elections,” with 56 dead and 379 injured, as reported by Reuters.
Despite the overwhelming bad news, in December 2018, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace still called Trump’s conditions-based, flexible strategy “still developing” but “beginning to produce results.”
By the end of the month, however, it was clear that the president’s strong resolve had wilted.
In January, the president announced he was in the process of evaluating whether to bring home 7,000 troops, roughly half of the service members deployed to Afghanistan to train and advise the ANSF. At the end of February, the Pentagon released a plan for remaining U.S. troops to focus on counterterrorism operations for another three to five years, effectively creating yet another Afghanistan withdrawal timeline.
Rather than addressing the depressing realities at hand, Trump employed the same aggressive and false optimism his predecessor often displayed when, on February 1, he Tweeted that we “have hit [the Taliban] so hard that we are now talking peace.”
Contrary to Trump’s assertions, the 2019 peace talks underway between diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban are occurring as the emboldened Taliban is far from beaten down.
Again, as in 2013, early rounds of talks were punctuated with high profile attacks that boost the group’s negotiating power. These included a January 21 assault on an Afghan intelligence agency base in Maidan Wardak province, which led to between 30 and 126 deaths, and a January 15 truck bomb detonation in Kabul that resulted in the deaths of around 113 people, including women and children.
With talks set to commence again in less than a week, so, too, have attacks., On April 8, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the roadside bomb that killed three U.S. Marines, and wounded three U.S. service members, outside Bagram Airfield.
The Taliban have made plenty of assurances to U.S. negotiators, including reiterating the promise made in 2013 that, should the conflict end, they will not allow Afghanistan to “revert to a haven for terrorists.”
They also continue to be bold in their demands. In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that lead Taliban negotiator Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai demanded that when U.S. forces, contractors, trainers and guards exit Afghanistan, they must “leave all military hardware behind.” According to the Guardian, Stanikzai also stated in February that militarily conquering the country is not the Taliban’s goal, as it “will not bring peace to Afghanistan.” What then, does the Taliban intend to do with leftover American military equipment, if not decimate the puppet government’s military?
Some spectators express hope for a peace based on a conference that took place in Moscow in February between Taliban negotiators and a delegation of Afghan officials, led by Karzai. Those talks included neither the Afghan president nor other members of Afghanistan’s National Unity Government. Stanikzai called the talks “very successful,” though Ghani was quick to point out that “those who have gathered in Moscow have no executive authority.”
The Taliban, to date, has refused to meet with representatives of the Afghan “puppet” government. However, the unofficial talks, set to begin on April 19, will involve an Afghan delegation that includes envoys from the Afghan government. As reported by Radio Free Europe, the Taliban only recognize Afghan governments “as ‘ordinary’ Afghans.”
Included or not, Afghans who will live with the results of American peace talks continue to have reservations. Afghan women’s right activist Fawzia Koofi told the Guardian in February that Afghan women “wanted a mechanism to enforce [the Taliban’s] promises.” Though the Taliban claim to be in favor of women’s rights, Koofi cautioned, “We have to be very careful with these nice statements. If there’s no guarantor, how can we ensure that things won’t return to how they were under the Taliban?”
Many scholars are also wary. Among them is Baheer Wardak, whose doctoral study includes examining the Taliban’s public statements against their published stances on negotiations and Afghanistan’s future. As Wardak explains, negotiating an end to the war “would require accepting some mind-boggling demands from the Taliban, or substantial policy and ideological shifts on their part, which seem unlikely.”
Finally, there is bipartisan concern among American congressmen and diplomats about the consequences that may befall the Afghan government, and the effects for national security should the United States pull its troops from Afghanistan prematurely.
Ignoring the host of voices urging caution, the president is clinging to Obama-era policies while maintaining that he “will bring ‘our people back home’” if negotiations lead to a peace agreement.
The Future, and What Is At Stake
In November 2018, Brown University enumerated the lives lost to America’s post-9/11 conflicts. In Afghanistan, they identified 2,401 American military members, 6 Department of Defense civilians, 3,937 U.S. contractors, 1,141 coalition troops, 54 journalists or members of the media, and 409 members of humanitarian or non-governmental organizations as having been killed in the conflict. Most of the 147,124 lives lost in the war are Afghan, with 58,596 members of the Afghan military and police, 38,480 civilians, and 42,100 “opposition fighters” having perished in these past 17 years of war.
With the wave of deaths that has occurred during negotiations for peace, the numbers are higher still.
In 2017, the Heritage Foundation’s Executive Vice President Kim R. Holmes addressed refining America’s goals in Afghanistan. “If America walks away,” Holmes wrote, “the Taliban will likely return — if not completely to power, then surely over much of the country…Leaving Afghans high and dry would be a disastrous repeat of the 1990s and would mean all the U.S. sacrifice in blood and treasure would have been for nothing.” Our goal, however, Holmes wrote, “Is to get Afghanistan to the point where it can manage its own domestic security.”
American leaders should continue in pursuit of this goal.
Going forward, American officials must take particular care about making a deal with the Taliban. Though it thirsts for legitimacy, the group uses horrific, demoralizing methods of attacks, intimidates and predates upon the innocent civilian populace, and has only rarely proved a trustworthy negotiating partner. To allow such a group to dictate the terms of a peace process, while leaving our own allies on the sidelines, is unconscionable. Should they continue to pursue talks with the Taliban, American leaders must ensure they stand in firm support of the Afghan government.
Because a deal with the Taliban is not inevitable, those military, intelligence, and government officials responsible for our Afghanistan strategy should prepare for a re-commitment by ensuring future strategies do not replicate those which have previously failed to bring success.
As the president stated in August 2017, the U.S. should hold out for a withdrawal from Afghanistan based not on rash desires and a politically expedient timeline, but on the presence of conditions for success. These should include an effective counter-terrorism strategy that protects America’s national security interests, and ensuring either the readiness of ANSF, or the presence of a legitimate intra-Afghan dialogue that truly puts Afghanistan on the road towards a future of peace and reconciliation.