Pompeo’s plan to make peace with the resurgent Taliban is a sad reminder of all that went wrong in Afghanistan—and how it could have been otherwise.
Way back in January 2002, a few weeks after the Taliban fled terrified from Kabul, Kandahar, and other major cities, I went to Afghanistan to report on the aftermath. In just seven weeks, the world’s lone superpower had pounded Afghanistan’s Islamist occupiers into the ground, literally, with B-52s dropping massive laser-targeted bombs that seemed, to the hapless Taliban, to come from nowhere. It was the moment that “the nineteenth century met the twenty-first century,” an ebullient Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld later wrote. As I drove around, there wasn’t a Taliban fighter in sight, and the country seemed to lay wide open, practically begging the Americans to occupy it.
What’s keeping the peace? I asked the warlords I met. Pretty much the same answer came back over and over, often preceded by a gap-toothed grin: “B-52 justice,” said one man, pointing upward.
Eighteen bloody years later, the conventional wisdom in Washington is that Afghanistan was always destined to be a failure. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted Friday that the United States had reached “an understanding with the Taliban on a significant reduction in violence across #Afghanistan” and announced that peace talks would soon begin in earnest, almost no one complained about the relegitimization of the Taliban, who will now have a powerful voice in ruling the country and may even take it over again.
After all, it was inevitable, wasn’t it? No, in fact, it wasn’t, and some very smart strategists will tell you so. But you certainly won’t hear that from the many columnists, pundits, and scholars who blindly supported the diversion into Iraq—the main reason for the disaster of Afghanistan— and to this day can’t admit that they became what President George W. Bush’s former spokesman Scott McClellan called “complicit enablers” in possibly the worst strategic misdirection in American history.
Yet some military historians and thinkers, including David Kilcullen, the author of a new book called The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West, argue persuasively that Afghanistan—while it never was going to be easy—was a winnable conflict. At the very least, Washington could have stabilized the country with far less investment of time, money, and blood, had it simply paid attention.
“People say we took our eye off the ball. But we didn’t even realize there was a ball,” Kilcullen, a career soldier who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and was chief strategist for counterterrorism coordination at the State Department, said in an interview. Around the time the Taliban were beginning to creep back down from their mountainous hiding places in the fall of 2003 to consolidate the Quetta Shura, the Taliban leaders’ council across the border in Pakistan, the Bush administration was in panic mode some 1,400 miles away in Iraq. U.S. troops there were fighting an insurgency the Bush administration failed to anticipate, after no weapons of mass destruction or links to Osama bin Laden—that is, to 9/11—ever materialized. Rumsfeld, who had blithely decided to keep what he called a “small footprint” in Afghanistan because he didn’t like the idea of nation-building (his boss, Bush, had campaigned against it in 2000) was by then paying Afghanistan no mind at all.
The Afghans I met, meanwhile, were desperate for foreign intervention, knowing the consequences of U.S. withdrawal in the previous era, when Washington funded the mujahideen against the Soviets and then simply left (and the Taliban moved in). As Ismail Qasimyar, the head of the Loya Jirga commission, told me when I was there, Afghans saw that “a window of opportunity had been opened for them” and that Afghanistan was now “a baby of the international community.”
“Everybody knows who the real muscle is,” Sayed Hamed Gailani, the son and spokesman for a powerful warlord in the south, Pir Gailani, said at the time. “I want the Americans here as much as possible to give me back my country.”
The moment was ripe, because just about every non-Taliban warlord was open for business to the CIA—happy to work with the Americans in exchange for payoffs. “The Taliban were scattered. Many of them went home,” Kilcullen said. “Gradually they went to Pakistan and formed the Quetta Shura. By 2004 the insurgency begins, and it starts to get really bad by 2005. If we hadn’t invaded Iraq when things started to go bad, and in the early phase had a much more engaged political stance in Afghanistan … but it was basically ignored until [Barack] Obama got elected.”
And by the time President Obama and his team debated what to do in the early 2010s, matters may have gone too far, especially after the Taliban took the city of Kunduz in 2015, surging back to threaten the urban areas and the Kabul government itself.
Indeed, what gets lost in discussions of the now-infamous “Afghanistan Papers”—the not-so-secret Pentagon history of the 18-year Afghan war revealed by the Washington Post late last year—is that Afghanistan was never just one long continuous history. Instead the conflict had at least two distinct phases: one in which the United States under Bush diverted most of its resources and energy elsewhere, sending even critical stabilizing U.S. forces like Pashto- and Dari-speaking special ops units to Iraq, and a second phase in which Washington abruptly awakened to the Taliban’s return and recklessly threw money and troops at a problem that had already metastasized out of control.
“The Bush administration made three fundamental early errors in Afghanistan,” said James Dobbins, who served as Bush’s first envoy to post-Taliban Afghanistan and later lamented to me that Washington had turned Afghanistan into “the most under-resourced nation-building effort in history.”
“First was believing that a devastated country with no national army or police could secure its territory and population unaided,” Dobbins said in an email Friday. “Second was the failure to engage those elements of the Taliban, including its top leadership, that were prepared to lay down their arms.
“Third was not understanding that while Pakistan had ceased supporting the Taliban government after 9/11, it had not ceased to support the Taliban movement. By the time these failings were rectified the Taliban had regrouped, rearmed and, operating from its Pakistan safe haven, projected a large scale insurgency back into Afghanistan.”
Recalcitrance from neighboring Pakistan was critical to the Taliban’s return. But much evidence suggests that the abrupt shift into Iraq also disillusioned the Pakistanis, who until then had been successfully strong-armed by Washington into containing the Taliban somewhat, as well as hunting al-Qaeda terrorists. Pakistan helped, for instance, in the capture of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in Rawalpindi in March 2003.
But sensing that Washington was going to leave the region to its own devices, Islamabad reverted to past practices, setting up the Taliban once again as an Islamist ally. In an interview with me in the mid 2000s, Mahmud Ali Durrani, then Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, said that just as Bush was about to invade Iraq, “al-Qaeda was almost destroyed in an operational sense. But then al-Qaeda got a vacuum in Afghanistan [as U.S. focus wandered]. And they got a motivational area in Iraq. Al-Qaeda rejuvenated.”
All of which suggests, Kilcullen said, that the so-called war on terror that began with 9/11 may well have resulted in the worst strategic mistake made by any major world leader since Adolf Hitler decided, on the cusp of total victory over Europe and Great Britain, to turn and invade the Soviet Union—a decision that most historians agree cost the Nazi dictator World War II.
“Hitler thinks England was just going to fall on its own, and then he launches into what he thinks is going to be a cakewalk” against the Soviet Union, Kilcullen said. “That is literally what happened to us with Afghanistan and Iraq. While the battle of Tora Bora [the mountain redoubt where a fleeing bin Laden was said to be holed up] was still going on, the Bush administration was already starting the planning process for Iraq.”
Worse, America’s worst enemies have used the nearly two decades since 9/11 and America’s initial invasion of Afghanistan—a moment when U.S. power, manifested as “B-52 justice,” still inspired awe—to learn innumerable asymmetric techniques, including IEDs and the use of small, spread-out cells that began in Iraq, Kilcullen said.
“In 1991 the Gulf War showed everyone how not to fight us, but the 2003 invasion of Iraq showed everybody how to fight us.”
Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Why Afghanistan Is America’s Greatest Strategic Disaster
The Afghan government has continued to lose district centres to the Taleban. By our reckoning, the insurgents have gained control of almost 200 district centres since 1 May, most of them since mid-June. Added to the ones they already controlled, that puts the insurgents in charge of just over half of all Afghanistan’s district centres. In a detailed new map published today, the Taleban’s apparent strategy becomes clearer: an initial push in the north, where resistance to their rule in the late 1990s/early 2000s was strongest, a focus on border crossings and other lucrative locations, and an avoidance so far of provincial capitals and of eastern areas which border Pakistan. In this report, Kate Clark and the AAN team try to make sense of the patterns of districts falling or standing, with contributions from Ali Yawar Adili, Ali Mohammad Sabawoon, Fazal Muzhary, Roger Helms, Khadija Hussaini, Obaid Ali, Rohullah Sorush, Roxanna Shapour, Sayed Asadullah Sadat and Thomas Ruttig. All maps and charts in this report are by Roger Helms.
Hundreds of people were stranded near the Chaman border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan. A day after the Taleban seized control of the crossing, Pakistan border guards used tear gas to disperse crowds trying to storm the border. Photo: Asghar Achakzai/AFP 15 July 2021.
Afghanistan’s district centres have continued to fall to the Taleban, as can be seen by comparing Map 1, above, showing the situation on 14 July (detailed PDF version also available here) and Map 2, below, showing the situation on 29 June (below). Only four provinces have district centres still entirely in government hands: Kabul, Panjshir, Kunar and Daikundi. Regions still largely under government control are much fewer than they were: the east, almost all of the Hazarajat and much of the area around Kabul, including much of Logar, eastwards to Nangrahar, and north through most of Kapisa, Panjshir and into central Baghlan. Khost and most of Paktika look more robust on the map than they are: the appearance of government-held districts masks what is actually more an archipelago of control as in many districts, only the district centres are still with the government. By our reckoning, the Taleban have captured and held 197 district centres since 1 May, which when added to those they already held, means they hold 229 district centres a little over half of all the country’s district centres. The government lost, but have then recaptured 10 districts. Some districts are still volatile, but we have tried to be as accurate and up-to-date as possible.
As always, there is debate about what ‘control’ means: governing, the ability to travel safely, or deny the other side movement? This report measures only who controls the district centre, a metric chosen for its simplicity and relative ease of determination. This means that a district may be classed as having fallen to the Taleban even if there are still Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) present outside the district centre. In other districts, the ANSF and government officials have withdrawn from the district centre and the Taleban have not yet established defensive positions, nor are they governing. Nevertheless, we have also classed those as under Taleban control.
It is also true that many of the districts whose centres have fallen were already under de facto Taleban control, with ANSF and officials isolated in the district centre. The decision to capture these district centres is what has marked this phase of the war so vividly, and therefore, our metric is relevant, as well as simple. The Taleban could have tried to capture them en masse before, but, it seems, chose not to. Their apparent change of strategy coincided with 1 May, the date stipulated in the United States-Taleban agreement signed in Doha on 29 February 2020 when all international forces should have withdrawn. 1 May is the date, therefore, when we began logging changes in district control. The Taleban surge also followed US President Joe Biden’s decision, announced on 14 April 2021, to pull American forces out completely, rapidly and unconditionally. The effects of this decision, following the US’s attempts at a peace process, which had bolstered Taleban morale and fighting ability and demoralised the ANSF, were discussed in our 2 July report.
Any suggestion that the Taleban’s capture of districts might have peaked, that the mass fall of centres to the group was the result of it targeting ‘low-hanging fruit’ – district centres where ANSF and officials were already surrounded by Taleban forces – proved to be a mistake. District centres have continued to fall, as the chart below shows.
In this report, we take a country-wide look at the conflict. We hope to follow this up with in-depth reports of particular regions, provinces and districts in the coming weeks.
What has changed in the last two weeks
Our earlier report, published on 2 July, focused on the Taleban’s onslaught on northern Afghanistan, which appeared to be a pre-emptive strike aimed at forestalling any resurrection of a Northern Alliance that could mobilise defences against the Taleban. Since then, one of the two northern provinces, then still relatively untouched, Badakhshan, has largely fallen to the Taleban. Only the provincial capital, Faizabad, and its district and the neighbouring Yaftal-e Sufla are in government hands; the latter was lost and recaptured. The Taleban now also control the border crossing into Tajikistan in Eshkashem district.
Badakhshan was the one province that the Taleban never gained any part of during their rule in the late 1990s/early 2000s, protected as it was from advancing Taleban forces by Panjshir to the south and Northern Alliance frontlines to the west. While the Taleban did move closer in the years after they captured Kunduz in 1997, they were never able to move beyond part-way through neighbouring Takhar. The Taleban have now captured even those districts where there had been little or no recent Taleban presence, such as Shughnan and Wakhan. Many soldiers in Badakhshan were reported to have surrendered and 2,400 to have fled north across the border into Tajikistan. The takeover by the Taleban of provinces bordering Tajikistan prompted Tajik president Emomali Rakhmon to order 20,000 troops to the country’s border with Afghanistan.
The Taleban had already captured most district centres in Kunduz and Takhar at the time of our last report. Now the provincial capitals, Kunduz and Taloqan, are under threat. Local journalists speaking to AAN on 15 July, said that in both cities, people were trying to cope with rising food prices. The prices of electronic goods, clothes, carpets, furniture and property prices had all plummeted, journalists said, while food prices had risen: the price of five kilos of cooking oil, for example, which had been selling for eight dollars (600 afs) was now 11 dollars.
Abdul Basir, a shopkeeper from Taloqan, also speaking on 15 July, said the nearest Taleban checkpoint was now located only a few kilometres from the provincial governor’s office. He said that many people had fled due to fighting around the city. People were only buying food. No one was coming to his shop to buy Eid clothes. Indeed, he said, there was no sign of Eid shopping or other preparations in Taloqan at all. He had just been to the funeral of a close friend, one of 12 members of a Popular Uprising Force who had been shot dead at a security checkpoint the previous night.
Much of Herat province is also now in Taleban hands, including Afghanistan’s main border crossing into Iran, Islam Qala, captured on 8 July after soldiers fled across the border. Overnight, on 13/14 July, the Taleban also moved into the district centre of Spin Boldak in Kandahar province on the border with Pakistan after heavy fighting. It appears that the ANSF withdrew to a base inside the Wesh bazaar, while the Taleban took control of the district centre. With the capture of Islam Qala and Spin Boldak, the Taleban now hold two of Afghanistan’s three most important border crossings. Map 3 below shows Afghanistan’s border crossings and main roads against the backdrop of district centre control.
Such crossings appear to have been one focus of the Taleban offensive: the Sheikh Abu Nasr Farahi dry port in Shibkoh district of Farah province on the border with Iran was reported to have fallen on 8 July, Torghundi in Herat on the Turkmen border on 9 July and earlier, in the fourth week of June, Sher Khan Bandar in Kunduz, Hairatan in Balkh and Aqina in Faryab – these border Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan respectively. Hairatan was recaptured by the ANSF in a counteroffensive on 29 June.
In Paktia, Jaji Aryub’s district centre on the border with the Kurram Agency, one of Pakistan’s Federally-Administered Tribal Area, was ceded to the Taleban. In a report published in April on the disbanding of the ALP, AAN interviews with ANSF and other locals in Jaji Aryub had suggested the government’s hold there was strong it reportedly fell after the government failed to get reinforcements through. Jaji Aryub is also the site of the Paiwar Pass, location of a major battle in the second Anglo-Afghan war when the defeat of the British changed the balance of power in Kabul.
Controlling such border crossings allows the Taleban to tax traders and, in turn, weakens the government, given how much it relies on customs duties. The scale of the revenue loss is vast. In the first five months of 2021, according to acting Minister of Finance Khaled Payenda, the government collected 35 billion afghanis – more than 438 million USD in customs; the equivalent of 330 million afghanis, or about four million dollars a day.  Customs are of fundamental importance to the government, a revenue stream that keeps state and services running. It has now lost much of that revenue.
The Taleban have also gained control of new sections of the ring road that circles Afghanistan from Mazar-e Sharif in the north to Herat in the west, Kandahar in the south and Kabul in the centre. Again, the gains are two-fold: roads are places to tax/extort money from travellers and to look for off-duty soldiers, government officials and the like, while controlling a road also denies or at least weakens government officials and ANSF freedom of movement. Kabul is still linked to the border to the east, via Nangrahar and the Torkham border crossing into Pakistan, but the road is not without problems, especially at choke points like Sarobi. The government also holds the district centres through which the ring road north of Salang to Mazar-e Sharif passes; although Khenjan and Doshi districts of Baghlan and Hazrat Sultan of Samangan were lost, they were recaptured by the ANSF. However, the Taleban have checkposts on the highway on stretches of the road beween Doshi and Pul-e Khumri, Pul-e Khomri to Samangan and Samangan to Mazar.
In the southern reaches of the ring road, the Taleban now control all the district centres along the road from Qalat in Zabul province to Herat, except Tarnak wa Jaldak in Zabul, and Daman, Kandahar city and its district, and Zheray in Kandahar province.
What does the government still hold?
What remains in government hands is as important as what has fallen. Noticeable is that not one of the provincial capitals has fallen, although many look vulnerable: Qalat in Zabul, Sar-e Pul city, Maimana in Faryab, Lashkargah in Helmand, Taloqan in Takhar and even Pul-e Khumri, Faizabad and Kunduz city. There has been speculation that the Taleban are waiting for the final departure of the last international troops to try to take the cities; sparing them may have been specified in a supposed secret annex to the US-Taleban February 2020 agreement. However, there have been attacks on some suburbs, for example, Kandahar and Kunduz. Local journalists speaking to AAN on 15 July said areas of Kunduz city had already been handed over to the Taleban, who, unlike the ANSF in the province, are well-supplied; one journalist said their fighters could fight for two more months without running out of supplies and food.
Hazarajat is still an island of government control, but one attacked by Taleban from all sides on what amounts to the long ‘ethno-border’ between mainly Hazara and mainly Pashtun (or Tajik in the north) districts, and with roads to the outside increasingly controlled by Taleban.
Discussing ethnic and sectarian issues is always sensitive in Afghanistan, but in this instance, it has to be raised. The Taleban argue that they are an all-Afghan group, most recently in a statement on 23 June. It is a movement “formed,” the statement said “from the diverse ethnic groups, tribes and regions of the country and is a representative force of all people, ethnicities and strata” and “therefore reassures all citizens that none will be treated in a discriminatory, vindictive, condescending or hostile manner” and again, later in the same statement that it wants to “reassure women, men, minorities, media and all strata that the Islamic Emirate shall hold them in high esteem.” Yet the Taleban are a faction of Sunni Muslims, mainly mullahs and madrassa students. Also, athough there are more Tajik, Uzbek, Aimaq and Sunni Hazara fighters, commanders and officials in Taleban ranks than there were in the 1990s/early 2000s – a reflection of their long-term strategy to co-opt at least the clerics of non-Pashtun populations (see our 2011 paper here) – it is still a movement dominated by Pashtuns, especially southern Pashtuns, and especially at the national leadership level.
When the Taleban governed most of Afghanistan in the late 1990s/early 2000s, there was a tiny sprinkling of Shia officials (for example Sufi Gardezi, district governor of Yakawlang). The movement also co-opted some Hazara leaders, notably Ustad Akbari in Shahrestan district (now in Daikundi), who told this author in 1999 that he had taken this course of action because he did not want the war fought over Hazara lands. However, both pre-2001 and during the insurgency, Afghanistan’s Shia Muslims are de facto excluded from its ranks, because it is a Sunni Muslim clerical faction. 
Added to this political exclusion, there is also a history of violence. During their rule, the Taleban carried out reprisal massacres of civilians and burnt earth operations against various non-Pashtun communities (see our 2 July report for details), but Shia Hazaras and Sayeds living among them were most often targeted.
Some members of other ethnic groups have argued against what they see as ‘Hazara exceptionalism’, saying that the prospects for any Afghan living under Taleban rule are not good. Some pro-government Pashtuns, for example, have expressed a fear that because they are also Hanafi Sunnis, the Taleban would view them even more badly than the Shia Hazaras – as traitors. Nevertheless, the historical precedent indicates that prospects would be particularly bad for Hazaras. The other group who can only expect political exclusion in any area of ruled by the Taleban are, of course, Afghanistan’s women.
An ‘island’ cut off
All of the three major roads connecting Bamyan city and the Hazarajat with the north or with Kabul now pass through Taleban-controlled areas, as the Taleban have captured districts on the borders of or just outside Hazarajat. The mixed district of Jalrez  in Maidan Wardak province was captured by the Taleban in June; with that the movement came to control the shortest and most direct of Bamyan’s routes to the capital via Maidan Wardak.
In the last week, the Taleban have also captured the centres of various districts with majority Tajik or Sunni Hazara populations on the north-eastern edge of the Hazarajat; these had been securely held by the group in the late 1990s/early 2000s. They include those through which the second main road out of Bamyan city, which goes to the east, passes. It intersects with the ring road going north/south – to the Salang Tunnel and northern Afghanistan or to the Shomali Plains and Kabul. The government still holds the first district east of Bamyan, Shibar, but the Taleban have positions on the Shibar Pass which the road goes through. Beyond that, the Taleban captured the next district along, Sheikh Ali in Parwan province on 12 July and beyond it, Ghorband, also in Parwan province, on 25 June.
The third road from Bamyangoes north and is also now problematic for the government. It passes through Shibar and then skirts two districts whose centres have fallen to the Taleban, Kahmard on 12 July and Saighan on 13 July, both in Bamyan province. Beyond them, the road passes through Tala wa Barfak in Baghlan province; its district centre fell to the Taleban in June.
Bamyan had also already lost its alternative partly paved route north, from Yakowlang district to Mazar via the two Dara-ye Suf districts, which were captured in June. This was an important route for refugees fleeing Taleban attacks and reprisals against civilians when the movement finally captured Bamyan in 1998, and also for the Northern Alliance in those years as it linked to strongholds further north. 
On the western edge of Hazarajat, much of the road west to Herat from Ghor’s Lal wa Sar Jangal, a district the author once described as the “sane heartland of Afghanistan,” is now Taleban-controlled. In southern Hazarajat, the Taleban have been attacking the Hazara-majority district of Pato in Daikundi province since 10 June. Etilaat-e Roz newspaper reported on 18 June, for example, that hundreds of families had fled heavy fighting in the Sartagab area, “leaving only the elderly and disabled” behind. It reported that “several heavy Taliban attacks were repulsed by popular mobilization forces,” but that the area had at last fallen and that after that, the Taleban had “set fire to residential houses and crops, including wheat fields.” By 7 July, with the fighting continuing, the numbers of displaced families had risen to the thousands (see this media report). Pato district centre remains in government hands.
The three Hazara-majority districts of Ghazni province have also come under attack. Nawur came under an onslaught from Taleban fighters from neighbouring Ajristan district – they captured a security post in the Qoshonk area on 4 July – and also from the Shaghna Pass, which borders both Jaghato districts of Maidan Wardak and Ghazni, and up to the Hesarak area, close to the district centre, on 6 July. They were pushed back after reinforcements arrived from Malestan and Jaghori districts on 7 July. However, the situation is still volatile. The Taleban attacked the district centre again overnight on 14/15 July. The district governor told AAN that the Taleban fighters “reached to a distance of 200 metres from the district police compound. The Taleban fighters were telling the security forces to surrender and the security forces were telling them to come closer.” The fighting, he said, “lasted from 11 pm to 4 am, when the Taleban retreated.”
Malestan has also been under attack, again by fighters from Ajristan and also Khas Uruzgan district. Malestan district centre fell in the afternoon of 12 July, hours after government forces and district governor had withdrawn to neighbouring Jaghori and after government forces – the Afghan National Army (ANA) Territorial Force, which is a locally-drawn force, police and Uprisers – who were defending the district centre had warned it would fall unless they received supplies. Jaghori district, meanwhile, has also been under Taleban attacks since 4 July, with fighters trying to advance several times from neighbouring Qarabagh, Muqur and Gilan districts. Now that Malestan has fallen, Jaghori is also very much under pressure. 
It is noticeable that most of the east and Loya Paktia (Khost, Paktia and Paktika) is still in government hands: possibly, the Taleban’s sponsors, the Pakistani ISI, do not want fighting on this stretch of Pakistan’s borders just yet. At the same time, there is also government strength, although more so in the east than the southeast. In Nangrahar and Kunar where the Taleban have attacked government positions, they have achieved little. So far, the ANSF, along with Uprising Forces, have defended their positions successfully.
Nangrahar’s fight against the Islamic State in Khorasan Province left it with a proficient ANA and a network of strong, pro-government militias, and a relatively weak Taleban – all of which may make it difficult for the Taleban to expand there. Khalid Gharanai, who co-authored a recent report for AAN on the ISKP in Kunar, reported that in May the Taleban did launch attacks on two of Nangrahar’s southern districts which border Pakistan, Deh Bala and Pachir wa Agam districts. Although they were able to run over some security bases and outposts, he said they were stopped by Uprising Forces supported by the ANSF. More recently, he said, the Taleban have been focusing operations on other southern districts: Khugyani, Sherzad, Nazian and the one district in the province whose centre has been captured by the Taleban, Hesarak (on 5 July); it borders Taleban-held Azra in Logar provinces.
Kunar is in a similar position to Nangrahar in terms of relative Taleban weakness and the relative strength of the ANSF and Uprising Forces. Less than two weeks ago, the Taleban launched attacks on Ghaziabad, Bar Kunar and Marawara districts, all in the province’s northeast, but the ANSF were able to defend them. The Taleban only made slight progress, capturing Marawara district’s Ghakhi Pass, an unofficial border crossing point to Pakistan, which has been closed to traffic for almost two decades, and some villages in Ghaziabad. Since then, reports Gharanai, the Taleban have massed up to a thousand fighters in Kunar ready to launch an offensive, but have yet to receive a final order from their leadership. The perception locally, he said, is that for the time being, they may leave Kunar the way it is, because they want to move some of their leaders to mountainous areas in the province without attracting ANSF attention, or provoking counter attacks by the Afghan airforce or other forces.
In the south-east, Khost’s district centres are all in government hands except Qalandar, which was held by the Taleban before 1 May, and Musakhel, which fell on 13 July. Government strength in Khost is largely down to the Khost Protection Force (KPF), a militia that was controlled by the CIA, but which has reportedly been handed over to the NDS; it has a record of committing serious abuses, including summary executions and torture (see AAN reports here, here and here), but also of staunchly fighting the Taleban. The KPF grew out of the 25th army division, reconstituted after 2001 with former PDPA, especially Khalqi military men. It was saved from being disarmed and demobilised in the early years of the Karzai administration by its close links to the CIA. One former mujahed commander recalls that they had problems in the same locations with the parents of some of today’s KPF commanders (unusually, the mother of one KPF commander held a post with her husband in the 1980s). The KPF has developed since its early years, recruiting from local tribes, including Dzadrans who are anti-the Haqqani network.
The situation in Paktia is less positive for the government. In the last two weeks of June, it lost a swathe of its northeastern districts, including the two bordering Pakistan, and Zurmat and Rohani Baba in the southwest bordering Logar and Paktika. In Paktia as well, it is the KPF which holds the three Dzadran districts still with the government, Shwak, Zadran and Gerda Tserai. The government also still holds Gardez city and district. The KPF was also involved in the government’s recapture of Ahmadabad (with Ghani’s own Ahmadzais) and Sayed Karam districts.
The loss of Zurmat district, which lies just to the southwest of Paktia’s provincial capital, Gardez, on 2 July, may prove critical as it lies on the supply route to Paktika and the region’s most important ANA garrison. Paktia is critical to the government holding both Khost and Paktika because of supply lines. In a forthcoming piece focussing on Zurmat, we will argue that the Taleban strategy appears to be just this: attack Paktia first to cut off and weaken Paktika and Khost.
If it can be said that the Taleban have tested the ANSF in Nangrahar and Kunar and not defeated them, in Loya Paktia, there has only been sporadic resistance from the ANSF, and from Uprisers mainly only in Zurmat, as well as some limited counteroffensives by the KPF. Elsewhere, the Taleban have had almost no need to test the ANSF. Where district centres have fallen, it was typically after a quick ANSF withdrawal, often after an agreement mediated by tribal elders. Taleban pressure applied through elders, mosques and even mothers (more on this in the forthcoming report) succeeded in many places, without there having to be much fighting at all.
The government’s decisions on where to focus its efforts on recapturing districts is also telling: a focus on protecting the road from Kabul to Mazar north of the Salang Tunnel, three districts in Paktia which help protect Khost and Logar, and Yaftal-e Sufla in Badakhshan, which neighbours provincial capital Faizabad.
The advance of the Taleban in recent weeks is undeniable and significant. Only two months ago, on 1 May, this author conjectured that if the Taleban did try for military victory, there was “every prospect that any Taleban drive to intensify the violence will be resisted, with immense suffering to countless Afghans.” I overestimated the ANSF’s capacity or desire to defend positions and territory – even though the evidence of the weakness of the ANSF and of the government was all there and I had written about aspects of it at length. Too many of those at the top have viewed the ANSF – and state positions in general – as opportunities to make money. Such corruption, which causes systemic weakness in military forces, is entrenched in the post-2001 political economy where the state was reliant on unearned foreign income – aid or military spending – known as ‘rent’ in academic circles, because it accrues without work or effort. In that same 1 May report, I wrote:
Scholars have described how breaking the relationship between work and reward encourages a ‘rentier mentality’ when those in power feel entitled to rewards without effort. In Afghanistan, one can trace how rent has helped shape a political class unused to making hard decisions (because the income always flows anyway), financially insulated from the population and organised to jockey for power and gain access to rent, rather than to do anything…. The question now is whether the Republic’s political class is capable of the change needed, as international troops withdraw and international support diminishes.
It turned out that the ill-prepared Republic was to encounter a very well-prepared Taleban very soon after that report was published: the time to make those changes had disappeared.
Another clear indication of the relative strength and weakness of the Republic and the Taleban on the ground, in retrospect, was the 2019 presidential election. The map below of the polling stations which opened on election day that used data collated by USIP’s Colin Cookman (first published here) shows vividly where the government was strong enough to organise an election in the face of Taleban opposition. There were huge swathes of the country where sites that were open in previous elections were closed, illustrating the Taleban’s growing strength on the ground. Except across the north, it maps out surprisingly well onto who controls district centres today.
The 2019 election was telling in other respects. Turnout was the lowest since 2001; fewer than one in five registered voters cast their ballots and turnout was low even where voters could safely get to the polls. There following an opaque complaints process and a disputed result. Both Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah claimed victory and each held rival presidential inaugurations. Only US and international support enabled Ghani to conclusively take the laurel. At the time, we called the elections a “bad omen” for the then prospective peace talks between the Republic and Taleban: “If Ghani, Abdullah and others cannot agree on a united team, and a common negotiating position, they will only play further into the hands of the Taleban.” It has turned out that the elections were also a bad omen of how the Republic would fare in the war once its international military allies left.
The importance of morale
Across the country were many districts that could be characterised as ‘low-hanging fruit’, places where the government and ANSF controlled the district centre, often precariously so, and little else. Yet Taleban gains since 1 May have gone well beyond the capture of those centres. Even if the government had intended to let some districts fall to the Taleban to protect supply lines and concentrate resources on what it could defend, the damage to morale of the security forces and of the nation of seeing districts toppling like dominoes cannot be underestimated. 
In some places the Taleban have fought, but often a mix of menace and negotiation have been enough to get the ANSF and local officials to cede district centres. The Taleban’s narrative that it is heading to victory, in many cases seems to have proved more powerful than the government’s insistence that it is in control, represents national unity and can protect the people. Those in charge of district centres, especially if government forces were short of supplies – food or ammunition – were often left to decide whether they wanted to be the last standing district in a province or whether it was better to concede rather than fight on. There are also districts, of course, where the ANSF has fought on and been overrun, or has successfully defended positions. And there are districts that have been ‘flipped back’.
In Afghanistan’s four decades of war, morale has often proved more powerful than apparent military might, with the country ‘flipping’ when forces feared ending up on the losing side. Afghanistan is not at that point yet. So far, the tide has been with the Taleban, but they may also reach the stage where it is their forces that are overstretched. The ‘wild card’ of popular mobilisation, whether militias are organised by the state or not, may yet come into play, whether in defending towns and cities alongside the ANSF or in counteroffensives. It seems for now, however, that President Ashraf Ghani has backed away from government support to new militias, to the upset of some regional leaders and local communities keen to be given the resources to defend their areas (see reporting on 12 July by Tolonews). Where there is strong popular resistance, it has been less easy for the Taleban to win territory. In other places, the local population or local elders have often preferred a handover to the Taleban and an end to the fighting, over the presence of government forces which would remain a target, causing more fighting and destruction; this at least appears to have been the case in some of the districts falling in the south-east.
The Taleban have been fulsome in relaying how organised, fair and careful they are behaving in the districts which have fallen under their control. Snippets of accounts of life in newly-captured districts have, however, been mixed – government officials called into work, fearing to go, or continuing to work, women banned from working and allowed to only leave the house with a mahram (close male relative), government bureaucracy co-opted, and surrendered soldiers being sent home after giving guarantees or even money – or shot or taken prisoner. In some cases, Taleban district governors have moved into the offices of government’s governors. In some places, government documents were burnt. In places like Pato in Daikundi, there have been accounts of crops and houses burned in areas where there had been resistance.
While these accounts are difficult to verify, any reports of atrocities committed by the Taleban against the civilian population or captured members of the ANSF – whether authentic or not – could help shift the tide of the war, although whether they would provoke resistance or compliance is difficult to predict. At the same time, there have also been accounts of government forces abusing captured Taleban or those they suspect of sympathising with the movement. The impression already is of a war that has become far uglier in a matter of weeks.
The Taleban’s claim on 23 June to have restored “peace and security in many districts” is belied by one clear metric that is available – the number of new internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Afghanistan. On 13 July, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, warned of a looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan after “an estimated 270,000 Afghans have been newly displaced inside the country since January 2021 – primarily due to insecurity and violence.” The numbers of those killed, injured or left permanently disabled – ANSF, Taleban and civilians – or of the newly widowed or orphaned are yet to be counted, if, indeed, they ever are. The losses to families because of crops untended and harvests ruined may also never be known. All that is clear is that the violence shows no sign of abating.
Edited by Martine van Bijlert and Roxanna Shapour
Payenda was speaking on 10 June about revenue collected since the start of the financial year, 21 December 2020 (see report on Tolonews.
The exceptions to this exclusion are so rare that AAN wrote up this 2020 case study of a Shia Hazara Taleban shadow district governor in Sar-e Pul province). Typically, there are very local political reasons behind such unusual moves.
There are no official sources on the district population’s ethnic composition. According to locals interviewed for this 2019 AAN report, it is a mixture of Shia and Sunni Hazaras, Sunni Pashtuns, Sunni Tajiks, as well as a small Shia Uzbek community. Pashtuns live mainly in Zaiwalat, Hazaras and Sayeds in Sarchashma and Sanglakh, and Tajiks mostly live in Takana and the district centre. The Shia Uzbek community in Sarchashma has been integrated into the local Shia Hazara community. Because of the way the mujahedin originally mobilised, factions and frontlines in Jalrez as in the rest of Afghanistan have typically followed ethnic cleavages
For a description of part of the southern part of this road in happier times, see our travelogue from 2013.
In late 2018, the Taleban made incursions into both Malestan and Jaghori districts, but were pushed back (see AAN reporting here and here.
There has also been reporting of the government’s failure to concede areas it could not hold earlier, when there was still time to regroup, a move which could have left the ANSF in more defendable positions, with better protected troops and supply lines. See this article by The Guardian’s Emma Graham-Harrison.
Menace, Negotiation, Attack: The Taleban take more District Centres across Afghanistan
Islamabad Will Come to Regret Aiding the Taliban’s Resurgence
Pakistan’s security establishment is cheering the Taliban’s recent military gains in Afghanistan. The country’s hard-liners have funneled support to the Taliban for decades, and they can now envision their allies firmly ensconced in Kabul. Pakistan got what it wished for—but will come to regret it. A Taliban takeover will leave Pakistan more vulnerable to extremism at home and potentially more isolated on the world stage.
The end of the United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan also promises to mark a turning point in its relationship with Islamabad. Pakistan has long veiled its ambitions in Afghanistan to maintain relations with Washington, but that balancing act—seen in Washington as a double game—will prove impossible in the event that a reconstituted Islamic emirate is established in Kabul. This would not be the vindication that Pakistan’s military is expecting: the Taliban are less likely to defer to Pakistan in their moment of triumph, and the Americans are not likely to reconcile with the group over the long term. Pakistan’s nightmare scenario would be to find itself caught between an uncontrollable Taliban and international demands to rein them in.
The Taliban’s victory will have an equally disastrous effect on Pakistan’s domestic peace and security. Islamist extremism has already divided Pakistani society along sectarian lines, and the ascendance of Afghan Islamists next door will only embolden radicals at home. Efforts to force the Taliban’s hand might result in violent blowback, with Pakistani Taliban attacking targets inside Pakistan. And if fighting between the Taliban and their opponents worsens, Pakistan will have to deal with a new flow of refugees. A civil war next door would further damage the country’s struggling economy. Pakistani critics of their country’s involvement with the Taliban have long feared and predicted this scenario. But Pakistan’s generals see the Taliban as an important partner in their competition with India. Weak civilian leaders in Islamabad, meanwhile, have acquiesced to a policy that prioritizes the elimination of real or perceived Indian influence in Afghanistan.
For decades, Pakistan has played a risky game by supporting or tolerating the Taliban and also trying to stay in Washington’s good graces. It worked for longer than many might have expected, but it was never going to prove sustainable in the long term. Pakistan has managed to kick the can down the road for a long time. Soon, however, it will reach the end of the road.
THE INDIAN OBSESSION
Pakistan’s security establishment has long obsessed about imposing a friendly government in Kabul. That fixation is rooted in the belief that India is plotting to break up Pakistan along ethnic lines and that Afghanistan will be the launching pad for antigovernment insurgencies in Pakistan’s Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa regions. These fears have their roots in the fact that Afghanistan claimed parts of Balochistan and Pakistan’s Pashtun regions at the time of Pakistan’s creation in August 1947. Afghanistan recognized Pakistan and established diplomatic relations a few days later but did not acknowledge the British-drawn Durand Line as an international border until 1976. Afghanistan also remained friendly with India, leading Pakistan to allow Afghan Islamists to organize on its territory even before the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.
Despite extensive U.S.-Pakistani cooperation in Afghanistan during the Cold War, the two countries never truly reconciled their divergent interests in the country. The United States sent arms and money for the mujahideen through Pakistan as part of a global strategy to bleed the Soviet Union but showed little interest in Afghanistan’s future once the Soviets left. Pakistani officials, on the other hand, saw the anti-Soviet jihad as an opportunity to turn Afghanistan into a satellite state. They favored the most fundamentalist mujahideen in the hope that a future government under their control would reject Indian influence and help suppress Baloch and Pashtun ethnic nationalism along their shared border.
These unresolved differences have festered in the intervening decades. Even after Pakistan became the logistical hub for U.S. forces in Afghanistan following 9/11, officials in Islamabad worried about India’s influence in Kabul. Pakistan’s military supported the Taliban, arguing that the group represented a reality on the ground that their country, as Afghanistan’s neighbor with an ethnically overlapping population, could not ignore. For Islamist sympathizers, including those within the establishment, there was also perverse pleasure in causing pain to the United States.
The Taliban’s victory will have a disastrous effect on Pakistan’s domestic peace and security.
General Hamid Gul, a former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, spelled out publicly in 2014 how the ISI used aid provided by the United States after 9/11 to continue funding the Taliban and how it benefited from the U.S. decision to initially ignore the Afghan Islamist group in favor of its pursuit of al Qaeda. He told a television audience in 2014: “When history is written, it will be stated that the ISI defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America. Then there will be another sentence. The ISI, with the help of America, defeated America.”
More recently, senior Pakistani officials have also crowed about the U.S. failure to eliminate the Taliban. Washington’s diplomatic engagement with the Islamist group, they believe, amounts to a tacit acceptance of its influence in Afghanistan. After the February 2020 signing in Doha of the U.S.-Taliban agreement at Doha in February 2020, which paved the way for the U.S. troop withdrawal, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, a former Pakistani minister for defense and minister for foreign affairs, tweeted a photograph of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. He added a comment: “You might have might on your side, but God is with us. Allah u Akbar!”
As foreign minister, Asif insisted that Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban only reflected acknowledgment of their political force in Afghanistan. He also criticized the United States for turning Pakistan into a “whipping boy” for its own failure to destroy the group. But he felt no need for diplomatic doublespeak in this moment of triumph. To Pakistanis such as Gul and Asif, the Taliban’s impending victory is also a victory for Pakistan’s covert operations.
This triumphalism is likely to backfire. Americans have never recognized Pakistan’s perception of an existential threat from India as serious, which is why they never understood Pakistan’s preference for Pashtun Islamists over Afghan nationalists. Pakistani officials have, over the years, chosen to flatly deny Pakistani actions in Afghanistan or to explain them away. This has led to charges of double-dealing from the Americans, spurring further mistrust in the bilateral relationship. Relations with India and the rest of the world have also suffered, and Pakistan has come to depend excessively on China.
Of its $90 billion in external debt, Pakistan owes 27 percent—or more than $24 billion—to Beijing. It has also been forced to rely on lower-quality Chinese military technology after losing U.S. military assistance.
FAR FROM “NORMAL”
Thirty years of support for jihad has also stoked the country’s internal dysfunction. Its economy has struggled, except in years of generous American aid. Homegrown Islamist radicals have incited sporadic violence, such as terrorist attacks on religious minorities and riots demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador over alleged blasphemy in France against the Prophet Muhammad. Women’s rights have been publicly questioned and threatened, and mainstream and social media are regularly censored to accommodate radical Islamist sensibilities. The government was forced to “Islamize” the curriculum at the expense of courses in science and critical thinking.
Ironically, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan comes amid promises to reverse these trends. Four years ago, Pakistan’s current army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, declared that he wanted to transform Pakistan into “a normal country.” He has since also spoken of the need to improve relations with India and reduce Pakistan’s dependence on China.
That vision of transformation included an effort to enable a settlement in Afghanistan. Pakistan started fencing the long and porous border with its neighbor, made overtures to the Kabul government, and promised to help the United States in achieving a peace agreement. Bajwa indicated Pakistan’s willingness to expand its partners in Afghanistan to include non-Taliban factions. The ISI arranged meetings between U.S. negotiators and some Taliban leaders, leading to the Doha Agreement, which set a timetable for U.S. military withdrawal in return for vague Taliban promises to start peace talks with other Afghans and prevent territory they controlled from being used to launch terrorist attacks against the United States.
The United States is unlikely to soon forgive Pakistan for its decades-long enabling of the Taliban.
Instead of spurring a return to normalcy in Pakistan, this agreement will only exacerbate the country’s challenges. Given the Taliban’s hard-line ideology, it was unrealistic for American negotiators to expect that the group would compromise with other Afghans, especially the Kabul government. And although Pakistan facilitated this deal in the hope that it would improve its standing with the United States, it is now likely to get blamed for the Taliban’s refusal to stop fighting and agree to power sharing. Bajwa’s proclaimed desire to change course has been impeded by Pakistan’s earlier policies. Given Pakistan’s poor relationship with almost all other groups in Afghanistan, it may have little choice but to stick with the Taliban in the event of renewed civil war across its northwestern border.
The agreement will also not achieve Washington’s counterterrorism aims. A UN Security Council report published in June found that the Taliban have not broken off ties with al Qaeda and that senior al Qaeda officials have recently been killed “alongside Taliban associates while co-located with them.” The report also identified the Haqqani network, a group the U.S. military once described as a “veritable arm of Pakistan’s ISI,” as the primary Taliban linkage with al Qaeda. “Ties between the two groups remain close, based on ideological alignment, relationships forged through common struggle and intermarriage,” the report reads.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, meanwhile, has said that al Qaeda could reconstitute itself in Afghanistan within two years of an American withdrawal. None of these facts have changed President Joe Biden’s commitment to pulling out U.S. forces.
Pakistan is anticipating a Taliban victory, even as its leaders continue to speak of the need for reconciliation among Afghans. Although public statements from Islamabad will continue to describe Pakistan’s desire for peace, U.S. officials are unlikely to believe Pakistan’s protestations that it does not want a Taliban military takeover. The two countries’ relationship seems poised to become even more unreliable in the years ahead.
CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
For those Pakistanis who see the world through the prism of competition with India, a Taliban victory offers some consolation. Pakistan has not been doing well in competition with India on most fronts, but its proxies in Afghanistan appear to be succeeding—even if Pakistan cannot fully control them.
But it is a pyrrhic victory. These developments will take Pakistan further away from becoming “a normal country,” perpetuating dysfunction at home and locking it into a foreign policy defined by hostility toward India and dependence on China. Washington and Islamabad’s long, mutual entanglement in Afghanistan threatens to further weaken the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. The United States is unlikely to soon forgive Pakistan for its decades-long enabling of the Taliban. For years to come, Pakistanis will argue whether it was worth the effort to influence Afghanistan through Taliban proxies when, after 9/11, Pakistan could have secured its interests by fully siding with the Americans.
HUSAIN HAQQANI is Director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute and served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2011.
How to Prevent Catastrophe in a Post-American Afghanistan
The withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan has unleashed a fresh wave of violence. Taliban forces have stepped up attacks across the country and overrun a growing number of districts. They have positioned soldiers and materiel around major cities for eventual sieges. Iran and Russia have ramped up their covert support to the Taliban and other antigovernment groups. In June, General Scott Miller, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, admitted that the security situation was dire, saying, “Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if this continues on the trajectory it’s on right now.”
U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces was a mistake. A far better choice would have been to keep roughly 2,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan—as well as a small number of aircraft and helicopters at major bases—to provide training and other aid to Afghan forces. But that ship has sailed, and now an increasingly violent civil war in Afghanistan presents U.S. policymakers with a difficult choice: Should the United States remain engaged and, if so, how?
Preventing catastrophe—a complete Taliban military victory and the reestablishment of terrorist safe havens—depends on what the United States does now. Without overt U.S. military forces on the ground, the next best way to avoid the worst outcomes in Afghanistan and minimize the downsides of a withdrawal is through a strategy focused on supporting Afghan security forces and striking terrorists. This approach would entail funding and arming the Afghan government and other anti-Taliban forces, deploying small numbers of CIA paramilitary units and U.S. special operations forces, and striking targets from the air.
Such a strategy will not prevent the Taliban from overrunning Afghan cities. But it may be enough to minimize the likelihood of a terrorist sanctuary, prevent the Taliban from controlling all of Afghanistan, limit a humanitarian crisis, and stop other powers from filling the vacuum. After 20 years of direct U.S. involvement in a war that many Americans have grown tired of fighting, this is the most practical way forward.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
U.S. interests in Afghanistan are not what they were right after 9/11. The United States has rightly shifted its focus to competition with China and Russia. Still, Washington has at least three national security interests in Afghanistan and the broader region.
The first is preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a sanctuary for terrorists who threaten the United States and its partners. Taliban leaders continue to enjoy close relations with al Qaeda. As the Taliban make additional gains on the battlefield, al Qaeda will likely attempt to rebuild its ranks. The local affiliate of the Islamic State (or ISIS) boasts between 1,000 and 2,000 fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its leaders have already vowed to use the escalating war as an opportunity to resurge.
Another U.S. interest is to limit Russian, Chinese, and Iranian meddling in Afghanistan. Iran’s Quds Force—the irregular warfare branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—is already expanding its clandestine presence in the country. If that growth continues, Tehran will eventually have a 2,000-mile land bridge extending from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Afghanistan, where it would support a range of militias and government officials to further its political, security, and economic interests. Russia has also aided the Taliban, offering them small arms and money to protect their southern flank. China, too, is likely to get more involved to safeguard its economic interests in Afghanistan—including Chinese-owned copper mines—and increase arms sales.
A final U.S. interest is minimizing the possibility of a humanitarian crisis. The Taliban have a well-documented record of repression, intolerance, and human rights abuses against women, foreigners, ethnic minorities, and journalists. Afghanistan could become a humanitarian nightmare if civil war were to engulf the entire country, swelling the ranks of refugees. At 2.7 million, the number of people who have been displaced from the country is surpassed only by the number who have left Syria and Venezuela, and Afghanistan’s refugee numbers will likely balloon as violence escalates.
THE SPEED OF COLLAPSE
With U.S. and NATO military forces leaving and peace talks in disarray, the military balance of power has shifted dramatically in favor of the Taliban and their backers—Pakistan, Iran, and Russia. Now, the Taliban are free to pursue their longtime goal of reestablishing an Islamic emirate through military force. As they battle the Afghan army and police, the Taliban will likely draw on a mix of conventional operations and guerrilla tactics such as ambushes, raids, and suicide bombings. Taliban leaders may increasingly focus their operations on urban centers in such strategically important provinces as Helmand, Kandahar, Kunduz, and Kabul—and then attempt to create a domino effect in cities around the country.
Yet it is not a given that the Taliban’s advances will move quickly; their speed depends on several factors. One is whether the United States and other countries continue to provide military, financial, and other aid to the Afghan government and anti-Taliban groups. In the six months following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, for example, Moscow flew nearly 4,000 planeloads of weapons and supplies into Afghanistan to help the government fight the mujahideen. This assistance prevented an immediate collapse of the government of Mohammad Najibullah, the country’s pro-Soviet president.
Another factor is the degree of fragmentation of the Afghan security forces. Afghan army, police, and intelligence units could fracture along ethnic and patronage lines, defecting to the Taliban or splintering into local militias. The faster Afghan government units disintegrate, the faster the Taliban can seize and hold territory. Some high-end government units, such as the Afghan National Army Commando Corps, are well trained and highly capable and may be able to motivate some Afghan forces to keep fighting. But they need outside support to sustain their operations.
President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces was a mistake.
Yet another factor is whether the Taliban face a serious challenge from other groups, such as the Islamic State Khorasan, which would force them to divert resources away from fighting Afghan army, police, and intelligence units. A final factor that could affect the speed of a Taliban takeover is the ability of the Afghan government to remain legitimate in the eyes of its population. The more Afghans view the current government as weak, ineffective, corrupt, and illegitimate, the more its days are numbered.
Even if all these factors tilt in the Taliban’s favor, the group will have a hard time controlling all of Afghanistan. The Taliban’s ideology is too extreme for many Afghans—particularly those in urban areas—who adhere to a much less conservative form of Islam that permits modern technology, television, music, participation in democratic politics, and some women’s rights. The Taliban’s brutal tactics, including suicide attacks, have alienated much of the population. All these deficiencies give Washington an opening to prevent the group from achieving a complete takeover of Afghanistan.
THE LEAST BAD OPTION
Washington has several options to deal with the complex and rapidly evolving war, although none of them are particularly good. After withdrawing its forces from the country, Moscow phased out its aid to the Afghan government and, in 1991, terminated all of it. That is one path the United States could choose. But doing so would virtually guarantee the collapse of the Afghan government, a Taliban battlefield victory, the reconstitution of Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorist groups, and a major humanitarian catastrophe.
A second option would be to continue providing money and equipment to Afghan security forces but to stop all training and operations—both from the air and from CIA and special operations forces on the ground. Yet this decision would hamstring the United States if terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS regained strength. The United States would have to outsource military operations to other countries in the region—say, India or Pakistan——but that would be a big political gamble if there ended up being a terrorist attack against Americans.
The best alternative is to continue providing military assistance from the air and covert forces on the ground through a strategy of what is known in military circles as “armed overwatch.” Since 2001, the United States has used various combinations of CIA and special operations forces, airpower, and aid to security forces to weaken terrorist groups linked to al Qaeda and ISIS. This approach has been used in Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Libya, and it should be adopted in Afghanistan. The goals would be modest: prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a terrorist safe haven, thwart the Taliban from controlling the entire country, reduce the possibility of a humanitarian crisis, and blunt the expansion of Iran, Russia, and China.
What would armed overwatch look like in practice? First, the United States and its international partners would continue to provide funding to the Afghan government and its panoply of military, police, and intelligence units. No Afghan government in over a century has operated without significant outside support. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the British and Russians bankrolled successive Afghan governments. The United States and the Soviet Union propped up successive Afghan governments during the Cold War. After 9/11, the United States provided support to the governments of Hamid Karzai and then Ashraf Ghani. That imperative will remain.
The United States should provide at least $3 billion per year in aid to Afghan security agencies to fight the Taliban—the rough amount it is paying today and what will be needed in the future to sustain the Afghan forces’ infrastructure, equipment, transportation, training, and operations. Among the most important security forces to assist are the Afghan government’s high-end army, air force, and police units, which have fought effectively against the Taliban, al Qaeda, and ISIS. Keeping them up and running is essential to preventing the Taliban from controlling the entire country.
Preventing catastrophe depends on what the United States does now.
Second, the United States should fly regular missions for the purpose of striking targets and gathering intelligence. Finding a nearby staging area will not be easy. Although it would be helpful to station U.S. aircraft in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, or Kyrgyzstan, Russian leaders have already stated that they will forbid these countries from hosting U.S. military bases in their Central Asian sphere of influence. The United States could fly some missions from aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean, but the U.S. Navy would likely prefer to use those ships for missions aimed at countering China in East Asia. This leaves countries in the Persian Gulf such as Qatar, which is over 1,000 nautical miles from Afghanistan.
Given the mission requirements for Afghanistan, the best aircraft for the job is the unmanned MQ-9 Reaper. One of the newest versions of the drone could, after subtracting the 12-hour round trip from Qatar, spend roughly 26 hours flying over Afghanistan, conducting surveillance and striking targets. The United States could complement its drones with manned aircraft, including F-15E strike fighters, F-16 fighter bombers, A-10 ground attack jets, and B-52 strategic bombers. These aircraft could assist Afghan forces by offering close air support—missions that would prove particularly useful when the Taliban start to mass their forces and conduct large conventional operations. Since the Taliban do not yet possess significant surface-to-air missile capabilities or an air force, the United States would continue to enjoy air superiority.
Third, special operations forces from the CIA and the U.S. military should train and equip Afghan forces, as well as allied militias in Afghanistan. The Biden administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. military forces does not preclude the United States from using CIA paramilitary units from the Special Activities Center or U.S. special operations forces operating under Title 50 of the United States Code, a federal law that allows U.S. military forces to conduct covert actions in support of the CIA. CIA and U.S. military forces could also train Afghan army, police, intelligence, and air force units outside Afghanistan, in Uzbekistan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or the United Arab Emirates.
There is a great deal of value in letting the CIA and U.S. special operations forces maintain their relationships with Afghan forces, ties that go back decades. During the 1990s, the CIA provided money and equipment to anti-Taliban groups such as the Northern Alliance. After 9/11, these relationships proved critical when the United States invaded Afghanistan. If a future U.S. administration decided to deploy U.S. military forces to the country once again—as the Obama administration did in Iraq in 2014 after withdrawing them in 2011—a continued intelligence and special operations relationship would be helpful.
Armed overwatch in Afghanistan will not be a panacea. In all likelihood, it will not be sufficient to prevent the Taliban from seizing and holding some cities. But it may be able to minimize the likelihood that Afghanistan will again become a terrorist sanctuary, prevent the Taliban from controlling the entire country, and counter Russian, Iranian, and Chinese influence. It may be, in other words, good enough.
SETH G. JONES is Senior Vice President and Director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Senior Adviser to U.S. Special Operations Command in Afghanistan. He is the author of Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran, and the Rise of Irregular Warfare.
As American forces leave Afghanistan after 20 years, there is no point in lamenting, whining, blamestorming or proposing alternative endings. Every American president since George W. Bush has wanted to leave Afghanistan and the American people want the troops to come home. Critics lament that the United States lost its war in Afghanistan and that its defeat is a geopolitical calamity, but victory and defeat in such a war are in the eye of the beholder.
First of all, narratives matter: They are the first shot at setting the historical record. The dominant narrative determines how events are perceived, such as who won and who lost. The Chinese Communist Party, Russian intelligence services, and Madison Avenue understand this. Hopefully the Biden administration will understand how important the narrative is and articulate a persuasive narrative of victory. The narrative should be that America won this war. America lost? Lost how? By failing to convert Afghanistan into a well-governed, pro-Western state through elections and investment? That was a Bush administration fantasy borne of arrogance and ignorance, not America’s purpose. Not only did America win its war in Afghanistan, there are potential collateral benefits to withdrawing.
The war was punitive, retribution and retaliation against al Qaeda for its attack on our homeland 20 years ago, and against the Taliban for permitting its territory to be used as a staging ground to plan that attack. And indeed, both al Qaeda and its Taliban landlords have been punished severely, pummeled relentlessly for two decades. The Taliban became fugitives banished from the government, while the masterminds and soldiers of the plot against America are dead. The numbers of Taliban and al Qaeda leaders killed will never be known. Their families and villages have suffered. America should firmly remind the future rulers of Afghanistan that if Afghanistan were ever again used as a staging area for plots against America, it took only two months to send them into hiding as fugitives for 20 years.
Second, the departure from Afghanistan should be considered in a broader context. How will it impact America’s competition with peer or near-peer adversaries? Some claim that China is champing at the bit to incorporate Afghanistan in its Belt and Road Initiative and its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, creating a land route from China through Eurasia. The recent deaths of nine Chinese engineers in a bus explosion in Pakistan’s Kohistan region is an indicator of how that might go. China’s regard for Islam is well demonstrated in the treatment of its own Muslim population, the Uyghurs. A future Taliban regime in Afghanistan will struggle to reconcile its Islamic credentials with an exploitative and ultimately humiliating relationship with a communist China committing genocide and imposing conversion therapy on its Muslim population.
It might even be to America’s strategic benefit to entice China to extend the Belt and Road Initiative to Afghanistan. Bogging China down in Central Asia may divert its attention and resources from its eastern seas. Moreover, China’s growing involvement in Central Asia is an issue of concern for Russia. If the U.S. departure from Afghanistan creates contention between America’s two main adversaries, that is a good thing.
Will Russia find a way to capitalize on America’s departure from Afghanistan? Russia certainly is concerned about the instability that’s likely to metastasize in the region upon America’s departure. Instability in the region was one reason the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan in 1979. Russian concern over instability in Central Asia might well divert its attention from the Caucasus and Ukraine.
For the United States there are better strategic opportunities in Central Asia. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan offer possibilities. Both are concerned about Islamic extremism and likely will be interested in expanding the modest security cooperation programs the United States conducts there. Both are functional countries, and improvement in U.S.-Uzbek and U.S.-Kazakh relations with a growing American presence will be unsettling to Russia. Russia will be nervous about “near abroad” countries consorting with the American military, yet thankful if the inevitable instability of Afghanistan is contained. This could possibly even be grounds for future U.S.–Russia collaboration.
The great loser in this war is the people of Afghanistan. For Afghans, America’s departure does not signify the end of the war. Observers are divided between those who believe the Western-supported regime will fall within six months, and those who believe it will fall within two years. Virtually no one believes the Taliban will settle for power-sharing, and their advance as American troops withdraw is under way. It is foreseeable that Afghanistan will descend into a feudal anarchy of warring Islamic tribes. Women will be back in burkas and girls excluded from school. Public executions might well resume, inevitably including some accused of cooperating with the Americans. Religious freedom — indeed, any of the freedoms embraced in the West — will be banished. There will be suffering.
Geostrategically, what is the impact of America’s departure? Virtually nil. Provided that the Biden administration successfully articulates a narrative of victory and departure, neither China nor Russia will find any benefit in this. Afghanistan’s likely descent into chaos will be a burden for both of them. America’s allies and partners understand that the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan was nothing like its relationship with, say, Taiwan, or Israel, or even Georgia or Ukraine. Unlike those, prior to the attacks of 9/11, the United States did not have and did not seek an alliance or partnership with Afghanistan.
Letting go is hard. Careers have been built upon America’s Afghanistan war. But America has accomplished what it set out to do there. As President Bidenhas said, the future of Afghanistan is up to Afghans. America must be ever vigilant, but much has been done over the past 20 years to deter would-be terrorist attackers; that threat is much diminished. Despite the substantial blood and treasure America has invested in Afghanistan, its government has not succeeded in governing the country. Further supporting its military — including its Air Force and Special Forces, through direct or contract life support — will merely postpone the inevitable.
Making a functional, Western-looking state out of Afghanistan was always a bridge too far. Turning Afghanistan into a liability for China and Russia, on the other hand, should be far more easily accomplished. This may seem cruel, but the world is a hard and heartless place, and those who would uphold or create world orders must be hard enough to make difficult decisions.
Michael Miklaucic is a senior fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University. He also is the editor of PRISM. The views expressed here are his alone.
Letting go with a win and moving on from Afghanistan
The Taliban killings have ramped up again in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, refugees wait in limbo in Australia and other western countries
‘The danger to Hazara lives is not distant. It is now’: Afghan Hazaras attend the funeral of a bombing victim in Kabul last month. Photograph: Rahmat Gul/AP
The allied forces are leaving Afghanistan – and already the Taliban are killing individuals. Specifically targeted is Afghanistan’s Hazara community. Hazaras are predominantly Shia Muslims, hold liberal values and promote education.Their educational and cultural success since 2001 pose a living contradiction to Taliban dogma.
In the months to come, persecution by the Taliban will drive large communities of all their targets to seek refuge across the region and international borders. Every one of them will be fleeing for their lives. Australia, the European Union, the United States and Afghanistan’s friends in the global community have a moral obligation towards them.
Hazaras make up 19-25% of Afghanistan’s 38 million population, according to Niamatullah Ibrahimi in his book The Hazaras and the Afghan State: Rebellion, Exclusion and the Struggle for Recognition. International forces are leaving Afghanistan and aworsening security situation behind. The Taliban are targeting the Hazara region of Afghanistan. The danger to Hazara lives is not distant. It is now.
The Australian government has closed its embassy in Kabul. Australia has also withdrawn its remaining80 defence personnel from Afghanistan, ending its 20-year mission there. In the wake of western occupation, the Australian government must act on its moral and political obligation to provide protection to high-risk groups, who are in danger of mass atrocities at the hands of the Taliban.
But Australia does not need to maintain a military presence to aid the terrorised people of Afghanistan at this critical time. It can extend meaningful support to the thousands of Hazara refugees already living in our communities here in Australia. Right now, it can relieve the anxiety and suffering of Hazaras who have existed in the limbo of temporary visas for more than eight years.
Many of the Afghan refugees are ethnic Hazaras, who have been foundto be refugees but remain stuck on temporary visas. An error on a form can see a permanent protection visa rescinded and refugees returned to temporary protection only. While their homeland continues to disintegrate, Hazara people are punished by visa restrictions, family separation, travel restrictions and no government support.Pathways to citizenship are denied to them. Current policy means that an entire community of Hazaras are living in destitution and in terror of being sent back to Afghanistan.
If these people are sent back to Afghanistan, they will most likely die. As security in Afghanistan rapidly deteriorates, the case for increased resettlement of Hazara refugees becomes even more compelling.
The Australian government can help these Hazaras now. Australia created an additional 12,000 humanitarian visas for Syrians fleeing the violence there in 2015.A similar scheme can be established for the most persecuted and high risk groups, such as the Hazaras, who are already at risk of mass atrocities.
The Australian government could also extend practical support to the thousands of Hazara refugees stranded for years in Indonesia and Malaysia. These refugees cannot settle down in Indonesia and Malaysia, as they are not a signatory to the refugee convention – however, they also cannot return to Afghanistan as it remains precarious and unsafe.
As two of the wealthiest nations in the Asia-Pacific region, which regard themselves as promoters of freedom, democracy, and human rights, Australia and New Zealand have a meaningful capacity to intervene and provide resettlement options. Many of the stranded have close family members in Australia, and communities ready to support them.
As a western country, Australia is also in a position to leverage influence over its allies in the EU, to assist an integrated and sustainable resettlement of refugees. Fleeing Hazaras are also stranded in Greece and continental Europe. In recent years, the EU has increasingly been deporting Afghan nationals, despite a worsening security situation.
The Australian government can also use trade and aid relationships to incentivise the Kabul government to pay greater attention and protection to the most vulnerable groups, such as the Hazaras. Until Afghanistan can provide safe and dignified living conditions for all of its citizens, mass atrocities will continue and refugees will flee to escape them.
If Australia abandons these high-risk groups in need of our help, the Taliban will kill them. No one wants to leave their homelands. Ever. But with the Taliban preparing to reclaim power the choice for Hazaras is to leave – or to die.
Sajjad Askary is the deputy chair of Asia, New Zealand and the Pacific working group at APRRN. He is a BA graduate in international relations, and is a student of juris doctor (law) at Monash Law School
Life or death for Hazaras: Australia has a moral obligation to act, now
It makes it hard to see a Taliban takeover as anything other than extremely likely, if not truly inevitable. For that reason, it’s worth thinking about what it would actually mean if that were to happen. What does that look like? And how should the Biden administration respond?
I spoke with Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank and an expert on the region, to talk through some of these questions.
Afzal’s not necessarily convinced that a full Taliban takeover is imminent. “It could happen down the road, but not without some significant fighting,” she told me. But, she said, “The fundamental question facing the Biden administration is, whatever government setup emerges in Afghanistan, will it pose a threat to the US?”
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
I know it’s a very complicated situation on the ground in Afghanistan, but can you give a basic overview of the landscape right now as the US withdraws?
I think many of us feared that with withdrawal, without a peace deal between the Taliban and Kabul, the most likely outcome would be some kind of a civil war. Not necessarily an imminent Taliban takeover, but a civil war that could be a protracted one.
Now, given the losses that Afghan security forces have suffered in the last few days after US forces departed the Bagram Air Base, those rapid losses have led some to believe it’s only a matter of time before the Taliban takes over — and, in fact, that military takeover might be more likely, that the fight will soon move to provincial capitals and cities and the Afghan security forces will have the same kind of losses they’ve faced over the last few days.
But that may not necessarily be the case. It could be that the fight is stronger in Afghan cities, provincial capitals, certainly in Kabul. There’s also the question of what happens if the Taliban gets to Kabul and tries to take over Kabul. Does the US step in in some way? Do NATO forces step in in some way? That’s a question that was raised, at least in some recent reporting.
So I think the most likely outcome is fighting that will soon move to Afghanistan’s provincial capitals. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that a full Taliban takeover is imminent. It could happen down the road, but not without some significant fighting.
As you said, it’s hard to know what will happen. But, from the US perspective, is that the key goal? To keep the central government and Afghan security forces intact? Or do you think the US government is thinking about the strategy differently as it leaves?
That thinking is probably still evolving as the US views what is happening. I think an eventual outcome, if one thinks about it — and this could be down the road — could be a part of Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban, and one part of it, perhaps, ruled by a government that is friendlier to the United States.
Would the US step in in some way to avoid Kabul being taken over by the Taliban? I think that’s a question. In all the discussions that the US has been having with Pakistan and other countries trying to establish over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities, we don’t really have a satisfactory answer there, I think because nothing has really been decided.
With all those discussions, to me, the fundamental question facing the Biden administration is, whatever government setup emerges in Afghanistan, will it pose a threat to the US?
Even if it’s complete — let’s go to the extreme — even if it’s a complete Taliban takeover, does it pose a threat to the United States or not? The US doesn’t have to give it aid. The US doesn’t have to give it legitimacy. The US may even sanction it. It has certain tools. But if it exists, like it did in the 1990s, does it give haven to al-Qaeda? Does it allow its soil to be used to attack the United States?
That’s when this government becomes a problem for the United States. So if it’s a small part of Afghanistan, or a significant part of Afghanistan, that is being ruled by a Taliban government, again, the same question arises.
So the question is not so much whether or not the Taliban will take over, but rather in what form, and if it acts like a rogue actor. But if the Taliban doesn’t, say, give safe harbor to terrorists, then the US may not be as concerned, even if that’s an uncomfortable position after 20 years of nation-building.
Exactly. President Biden has been talking about the terrorist threat from Afghanistan being a key concern. He alludes to that repeatedly, saying, basically, “Look, the terrorist threat has morphed, it has gone elsewhere.” So, at least for his administration, the central question around the Taliban’s ascendance would be: What kind of threat does it pose to the US?
This may be an impossible question to answer, but do we have a sense of what the Taliban might do, learning the lessons of 20 years? Perhaps they’re less eager to host terrorists? Or maybe not?
The answer to that is probably a little bit mixed, and maybe not satisfactory because there is a lot we don’t know. The Taliban is good at rhetoric. It’s good at propaganda. What it says is not what actually happens.
We should be very wary when it comes to the Taliban. There’s also a divide between the Taliban political leadership — which seems to know how to use rhetoric and propaganda — versus rural Taliban or foot soldiers who a) believe in the same draconian, regressive forms of governance they did in the 1990s, and b) believe that they’ve won a jihadist victory. And this means you don’t compromise, going back to the way things were in the 1990s.
The Taliban political leadership isn’t fully clear on what it wants in terms of girls’ education, women going to work, and so on. It has just said it’s going to be in line with Islam.
I think we ought to be wary of how much the Taliban has changed. That being said, they seem to enjoy international legitimacy. Now, whether that’s just because they want to use that to make the US get out of Afghanistan and then essentially go back to the ways of the 1990s, that could be.
They’re on a diplomatic tour of sorts, having just gone to Iran. They sometimes visit Pakistan. They’re making relationships with other countries, it seems, and countries beyond those they were in touch with in the 1990s.
So will they want to be a pariah state, isolated as they were in the ’90s? I’m not quite sure about that. They certainly want to fully take over Afghanistan at whatever cost. What they want after that, in terms of their relationship with other countries and their international status, that’s something where people think, “Maybe we can get them to moderate based on their desire for international legitimacy.”
That’s the open question. I am severely skeptical of that.
That makes me think of the US peace deal with the Taliban, brokered under the Trump administration,which seemed to give the Taliban the type of legitimacy it craved. Was that, in retrospect, a turning point for the Taliban? Did that have any influence?
Absolutely. I think the US-Taliban deal signed in Doha gave the Taliban more legitimacy than anything until then. The Taliban has been building on that legitimacy since then. The fact that the Afghan government in Kabul wasn’t even party to that deal, that the US agreed with the Taliban on things that it then got the Afghan government to do, such as the release of prisoners. These are all things that really bolstered the Taliban, whether we like it or not.
And, in some sense, it’s become an actor that is much more confident in itself after that. People talk about Pakistan using its leverage over the Taliban. Well, a lot of other actors now have less leverage over the Taliban to get them to do what they want because the Taliban has been granted this international legitimacy, by the US more than anyone else.
So from a US standpoint, do you try to leverage that? Now that you’ve had these negotiations with the Taliban, do you try to work the gears diplomatically and try to engage?
Sadly, I think an unconditional withdrawal basically makes the peace process redundant. The Taliban has shown that by its military strategy since.
Where our leverage existed was in this little time period that we had between the Doha deal being signed and our final withdrawal. So, to me, our troops — as cynical as that sounds — are where the leverage lay because that’s what the Taliban wanted. It wanted US troops to leave. But it didn’t have to grant the US anything. It didn’t have to do anything to get the troops to leave, so we lost that leverage by the unconditional withdrawal that the president announced in April.
So essentially the US said, “Do those things and we’ll leave.” And then they didn’t and we left anyway, but we still want them to do those things.
Exactly. So you can see how the incentives fall away for the Taliban.
Does the US, do you think, still have to take the lead when it comes to the future of Afghanistan? Or do you think it will shift elsewhere, maybe to NATO or the United Nations?
I think the Biden administration has been trying to say, “Look, regional countries have a responsibility here, and they really need to step up.” Pakistan, Russia, China — obviously Turkey’s important, India. That’s where the Biden administration is pointing the finger. It depends on the outcomes. But I think there’s a serious credibility problem for the US if it just looks away.
President Biden has, in terms of promising assistance, basically said, “This is a new chapter where the partnership is not a military one, but we will be there for you in other ways.” I think the US feels some burden of responsibility and, I think, will not look away entirely — though the Biden administration would probably like to focus on other things.
I think this is an administration that does care about its perception in the world, and does not want to be thought of as abandoning Afghanistan. But whether that in practice has any major effect beyond — not necessarily lip service, but rhetorical support, we’ll have to see.
I’m wondering if there is another way to protect some of the gains in Afghanistan, especially around human rights, but maybe not around the paradigm of a centrally functioning Afghan government. Is there such an approach for the US to take?
The US cannot be the one to sustain a centrally functioning government in Afghanistan. Again, Biden talked about that quite candidly, saying it’s very difficult. So how can those gains be protected? I think the US is banking on — kind of pun intended — assistance: security, financial, economic, humanitarian, all sorts of assistance. And that the Taliban will, militarily, face pushback.
So perhaps it is looking at some outcome where there could be a decentralized framework, where the cities have a different set-up versus the rural areas, and large swaths of the country are ruled by the Taliban.
All of this will really depend on how things go militarily — whether the Afghan security forces are really able to put up a fight in those areas. Because remember that many of the gains we talk about — schools, employment — these were felt and seen in the urban areas and not in the rural areas. So in some sense, the rural areas being taken over by the Taliban may get some measure of stability in whatever form because the fighting stops.
And so what happens to the urban areas? Is there a way for the US to help the Afghans hold onto those gains a little bit longer? There’s a segment of Afghan society that doesn’t want to let those gains go. I also know that many of them are leaving. It’s a very dynamic situation.
So that one is hard to talk about without knowing how things are going to go militarily. There is a bit of a wait-and-see approach because the assistance announced is what it is. Given that and given the fighting power of the Afghan security forces, can they put up a fight?
Do you think there is any scenario where the US would recommit or intervene militarily in Afghanistan to do that?
That’s a big question — the million-dollar question. People have talked about, well, if an ISIS-like situation emerges, as with post-Iraq withdrawal and the rise of ISIS. That’s not what we are necessarily worried about in Afghanistan. I think the terrorism threat that emerges from Afghanistan will not be something we see in the short term. It’s not going to be quick.
The worry is that once the Taliban has taken over some parts of Afghanistan [and US troops have left], they start to let al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups do what they want, and then al-Qaeda regroups or other terrorist groups [get stronger], and then perhaps begin posing a threat to the United States. That’s the worry.
In that case, though, the US assumes counterterrorism capabilities are going to be enough. So, honestly, in this administration, I don’t really see that happening. I don’t see the US military becoming involved again in Afghanistan.
It does seem very bleak, if I’m being honest. If there is a best-case scenario for Afghanistan right now, even against long odds?
Up to the US-Taliban deal signed in Doha, I thought maybe we could actually get a decent deal signed. That was a pretty bad deal to begin with. Once it was signed, things have just been downhill from there. So I thought things looked bleak in February 2020.
They look far worse now. I am wary enough of the Taliban that I don’t see any evidence that they will either go for a peace deal or change their ways, not want a military takeover. I think perhaps the hope — and hope is not a strategy — the hope lies in perhaps the Afghan government and security forces being able to muster something up to hold them back. And I’m very sadly watching with worry.
Even in that scenario, it seems as if it will just generate more fighting, more violence, which will be felt by the people of Afghanistan.
That’s absolutely right. In the medium term, that just means bloodshed.
I can’t imagine what those in Afghanistan are thinking about the future. It requires a lot of bravery just to be there, just to continue to go on doing the jobs they’re doing. Women journalists in particular — so many attacked in the last few months. Going to school may mean you don’t go home. It’s just horrible.
The US and British withdrawal has set off panic, but the truth is they were exacerbating the problem they were trying to solve
Friends keep asking me to sign petitions urging President Biden to change his mind about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. They all agree that the US can’t stay in the country for ever but this, they say, is not the time to leave: the Taliban are surging, and the social gains of the past 20 years are in jeopardy.
I’ve not signed any of those petitions. Yes, the Taliban have committed horrific offences, and they won’t stop. And they must be stopped. Just the other day I saw a video of villagers in northern Afghanistan burying a dozen civilians killed by a bomb: an old woman wept because her whole family had been wiped out. Oh, but wait – that bomb was dropped by the government, delivered by drone.
Both sides in this war kill civilians. I’d sign any petition that would stop the fighting and bring peace. What’s more, when this war ends, I hope the government now in Kabul emerges victorious. I hope Afghans resume their social and material progress on every front. But I can’t forget a pattern of Afghan history so blatant that I’m amazed it’s not central to this conversation.
The government in Kabul has never been able to secure authority in Afghanistan as a whole when it is held in place by an outside power’s military.
In 1839, the British replaced the Afghan monarch Dost Mohammed with his rival Shah Shuja, who had just as legitimate a claim to the throne as he. But the British had put him in power, so the country went up in flames and two years later the whole British community in Kabul had to flee on foot, most of them dying on the way out.
In 1878 the British tried again: this time, they ousted Afghan ruler Sher Ali and tried to rule the country through his son, Yaqub. Sure enough, the British cantonment was sacked, their representative was killed, the country went up in flames. The British had to give up and leave the country to a strongman, Abdul Rahman, who knew what he needed to do to secure his position with Afghans: he made a deal with the British and Russia to keep them both out of Afghanistan.
Jump ahead to 1978: the Soviets helped Afghan communists topple the last of the Afghan ruling family and elevated their own man, Nur Muhammad Taraki, to power. What happened? The country went up in flames. The Soviets sent in 100,000 troops to keep the communists in power, but that only turned the fire into a bonfire. The war raged for 10 years until at last the Soviets simply left – with the country eviscerated.
Then came the Americans. They dropped a fully formed government on to Kabul, picked Hamid Karzai to run the country, and clothed him in all the markers of legitimacy recognised in western democracies: constitution, parliament, elections. Under Karzai, girls went back to school, women’s rights improved, infrastructure was restored, progress was made.
Sure enough, however, as with all the previous great power attempts to manage Afghans through Afghan proxies, Kabul proved unable to secure countrywide legitimacy. Resistance brewed in the villages and spread to the cities.
In its war with forces based in the countryside, the Kabul government was hobbled by one huge disadvantage – the outside military forces that were helping it hold power. Because of that, it had no narrative to counter the one the Taliban wielded, which said: the government in Kabul isn’t Afghan, it’s a bunch of puppets and proxies for Americans and Europeans whose main agenda is to undermine Islam. Drones and bombs could not defeat that narrative but only feed it.
The US and Nato can’t stay in Afghanistan for ever, but is this the time to leave? The answer has to be yes if, as I am arguing, the US and Nato military presence in Afghanistan is causing the very problem it is supposed to be solving.
Many people assume the Taliban are the face of what Afghanistan would be without US help. But the American military presence might be obscuring the single most crucial fact: the Taliban don’t represent Afghan culture. They too are, in a sense, an alien force.
Before the Soviet invasion 40 years ago, it’s fair to say most Afghans were deeply devoted Muslims. The underlying issue among Afghans was not Islam or not-Islam but which version of Islam: Kabul’s urban, progressive version or the conservative version of the villages. Afghans involved in that debate were the ones who rose up against the Soviet invaders.
But the Taliban are not those Afghans. The Taliban originated in the refugee camps of Pakistan. Their worldview was moulded in religious schools funded by elements of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency. They were armed by Islamists from the Arab world, some of whom are in the country now, calling themselves Taliban. If the western military presence were removed, the Afghan energy that refuses to accept outsiders telling them who to be might recognise the Taliban as the alien force.
The great irony of the western project to bring democracy and social progress to Afghanistan is this: Afghans have a powerful progressive current of their own. It’s Islamic, not secular, but it is progressive. In the six decades after the country gained independence from the British and before it was invaded by the Soviets, Afghanistan was governed by Afghans. During that time, what did that Afghan government achieve? It liberated Afghan women from the previously obligatory burqa. It promulgated a constitution. It created a parliament with real legislative power. It set up elections. It built schools for girls nationwide. It pushed for coeducation. It opened women’s access to a college education at Kabul University and it opened public employment opportunities for them in professions such as medicine and law. It is staggering to look back at that era.
As the US and British withdrawal proceeds, the country is surrounded by outside forces hungering to get in: Pakistan, Iran, Russia, India, China. Before any of them succeed, there ought to be a global conference at which international actors can work out a way to keep one another out of Afghanistan. For what Afghans really need help with is getting everyone else to leave them alone.
Tamim Ansary is the author of Games Without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan
History shows us that outsiders can never bring peace to Afghanistan
The message popped up on my cellphone last week, just as I was about to drive my daughter to a play date: “The situation here in Afghanistan is getting worse day by day,” it read. “The Taliban know that i was cooperating with you people, so if its possible to talk with your respected organization to take me to USA.”
I hadn’t heard from Fareed in years. I’d hired him in 2007 to take me to the Afghan city of Gardez for a story about a warlord there. He loved hip-hop — “Do you know 50 Cents?” he’d asked me. We’d gotten caught in a hailstorm. He’d stayed calm as his car fishtailed on a mountain pass. Outside the car window, nomads in colorful clothing huddled with their camels in the storm. His message brought back other memories: The old farmhouse we visited with salty meat hanging from the rafters. Little boys in vests hawking bicycle tires. I’d worn a burqa to the market but a crowd had formed around me anyway. Fareed had covered his face with a T-shirt so that nobody would recognize him as the one who’d brought the American. He must have known, even then, that the Taliban could come back.
As U.S. troops pull out of Afghanistan after nearly 20 years, and the Taliban surges in their wake, I’m worried about Fareed and everyone else who risked their lives to show outsiders around that beautiful, traumatized country.
Hundreds of interpreters have been killed over the years in Afghanistan and Iraq, including those who were waiting in agonizingly long visa-processing backlogs. The stories of loyal allies left in danger has rightly stoked public empathy. Countless articles, books and organizations have rallied support for their safe passage to the United States. The special place interpreters have in the American psyche after two decades of war has even surfaced in popular culture, with a sitcom about a relocated Afghan interpreter on CBS, “United States of Al.”
On Thursday, President Biden promised to evacuate as many as 16,000 Afghans who assisted the American effort to third countries, where they will await special visas to relocate to the United States. Last week the House passed a bill, one of several written over the years, to speed relocation of interpreters who worked with the military. But it’s unclear whether interpreters like Fareed, who worked for foreign media companies or nonprofit groups, will qualify for a special visa. It’s also unclear what will happen to Afghanistan if its most educated and Western-leaning citizens flee.
Interpreters were among the most influential people in the country. Nearly everything foreign journalists knew about Afghanistan was filtered through guys like Fareed who ferried us around and explained, between drags on their cigarettes, what was really going on. Without them, we were helpless — blind and deaf. By definition, they were educated, pro-American, hungry for modernity. Their aspirations and can-do personalities filled us with the hope that this war would end differently than Vietnam. In turn, our presence filled them with hope that, after decades of civil war, Afghanistan could chart a different path. It was an echo chamber of optimism. It’s only now that I look back and wonder how representative they were of the country as a whole.
But even back then, I noticed something unusual about my interpreters: Nearly every single one of them had a story about choosing his own wife in a country where arranged marriages were the norm. Their love stories were tales of intimate rebellion against tradition. The first interpreter I hired fell in love with the girl next door — the only girl he knew. His parents refused, out of principle. What kind of family lets their son choose his own wife? Only after he staged a hunger strike for two weeks did his parents relent. Another interpreter fell in love with a girl in a college class. He summoned her and abruptly asked her to marry him — a crime for which he could have been killed. She agreed immediately — a crime just as potentially deadly. They spent the next three years pretending not to know one another and concocting an elaborate plan to get their families to set up the match. They were still pretending to be strangers when the would-be bride showed up at my hotel in Kabul the night before I was to fly with my interpreter to a faraway city. She wanted me to know that he was spoken for.
As the war dragged on, the love stories seemed to grow more audacious. During Taliban times, my interpreters had all been students with shaky job prospects, living with their parents. But after the U.S.-led invasion, anyone with a halting command of English had an opportunity to make an awful lot of money. That meant they had the means to build a house of their own and to dream of love, upending the social order. One interpreter told me that the day he received his first paycheck, he dashed through the streets, determined to pick his own wife. He didn’t know any women, so he just stood in the street, trying to catch a glimpse of the eyes of passing women in hijab.
In Afghanistan, a young man must marry to get any amount of female affection. And to marry, his family must pay a bride price, often an impossibly large sum. In the countryside, this predicament drove penniless young men into the arms of the Taliban, which was said to pay twice the salary of the Afghan security forces. But in Kabul, a young man had other ways of making money — selling concrete blocks to foreign military bases, working private security, toiling as cooks or waiters at the Gandamack Lodge, a charming fortress filled with diplomats and journalists who dined next to rows of old muskets and caged parrots.
Everything seemed to be for sale. Need a private security detail? No problem. A bulletproof stretch Hummer? That could be arranged. Want to become a judge? That could cost you maybe $10,000. But that borrowed sum could be repaid by taking bribes from defendants in court. Mansions, malls and an expensive French restaurant popped up in Kabul. The city ached with the unbearable knowledge that somebody somewhere was making far more money.
Each time I returned to Afghanistan, I had to find a new interpreter because the old one had gotten a better job. Afghan civil servants who once earned $80 a month flocked to work with foreign N.G.O.s that paid $1,000 a month. Meanwhile, employees of foreign N.G.O.s jockeyed for positions at the United Nations or U.S.A.I.D., which paid thousands of dollars a month. The scheme came full circle when an American company called Bearing Point reaped millions staffing the hollowed-out Afghan ministries with American advisers.
Ashraf Ghani, the unfortunate soul who happens to be the current president of Afghanistan, complained that it was no way to run a country. A policy wonk who’d worked for the World Bank and written a book called “Fixing Failed States,” he seemed out of place in a country of warlords. But he rails about the hubris of Americans more eloquently than the Taliban. Before he became president, I had lunch in his wood-paneled home in Kabul, which was filled with books and Persian rugs. He complained that foreigners were stealing Afghanistan’s best civil servants, cannibalizing the government they claimed to support. Why couldn’t Americans buy wheat locally, instead of dumping cheap American wheat and putting Afghan farmers out of business? Why did they pay expensive American “advisers” who reported back to Washington like spies, instead of helping the Afghan government hire Afghans directly? Afghans knew better what their country needed, he said.
But even under President Ghani, the man who seemed to have the answers, the situation in the country kept getting worse. The last time I was there, in 2011, I had a hard time finding an interpreter who was willing to take me outside Kabul. A few turned me down flat. They didn’t want to get beheaded. I was warned that the ones who agreed might be in cahoots with kidnappers.
Still, I managed to hire a trusted fellow to help me report inside Kabul. We spent hours in the garden at the Gandamack, reporting stories over the phone. One night, his wife kept calling his cellphone, but he refused to answer. He’d been in love once, he told me gloomily, with a glamorous and worldly distant cousin who lived in Pakistan. But his parents deemed her family too rich to approach. They arranged for him to marry a simple girl instead. Now they all lived together, under one miserable roof. But after years of working for Americans, he’d grown rich himself. He was finally building his own house, and he’d recently heard that the love of his life was still single. Was it too late for him to find happiness? Could he take a second wife? Or would his first wife really set herself on fire, as she’d threatened? He agonized over what to do, late into the night.
Fareed’s panicked message made me wonder what had become of that unhappy, lovesick man? What would become of them all, seduced by the wild promises of love, of money and the chance to become a “modern” country?
By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Foreign Policy Magazine
8 July 2021
The United States vowed to destroy the Taliban. Today, they are stronger than ever. But will that last?
In early October 2001, then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell sent a cable to his envoy in Pakistan, ordering her to get a message to the head of the Taliban through Pakistani middlemen: Stop harboring al Qaeda or else. The message, channeled through U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlin to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, came days before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, amid fears al Qaeda was planning more terrorist attacks on U.S. soil following Sept. 11.
“We will hold leaders of the Taliban personally responsible for any such actions. Every pillar of the Taliban regime will be destroyed,” the cable read.
Now, two decades later, the U.S. war in Afghanistan is coming to a close. And the Taliban, once threatened so bluntly by Washington with total annihilation, have never been stronger.
Taliban forces have taken control of an estimated 188 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts. They are close to seizing dozens of others. Some Afghan government forces have fled the country to escape Taliban advances, seeking refuge in neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. And amid the retreat, the militant group is seizing containers full of weapons and military hardware left behind by Afghan forces, in scenes some experts compare to Iraqi forces’ retreat from the Islamic State in 2014 that precipitated the rise of the Islamic State caliphate.
The specter of civil war—if not an outright Taliban takeover of the country and toppling of Kabul’s government—could be on the horizon, according to U.S. military commanders and reports on U.S. intelligence assessments.
Interviews with more than a dozen U.S. and Afghan officials as well as other regional experts show the policymaking community is still torn on whether the Taliban can take control of the entire country, including the heavily fortified capital of Kabul, or hold the provinces it has already captured. All agree that despite notes of optimism from U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration on Afghan peace talks, momentum is on the Taliban’s side.
But the Taliban faces their own challenges: how much blood to expend for the final push after two decades of unbroken combat, how to balance between moderates and hard-liners, and, most importantly, the future they envision for the country when the fighting stops.
As the battlefield shifts toward conventional fighting, the militant group could face fierce resistance in launching frontal assaults on major cities that it would need to fully retake the country, and some experts wonder how much the Afghan people—and possible Taliban recruits—will be willing to take.
“Fighting for the Taliban has been a family affair,” said Haroun Rahimi, a professor at the American University of Afghanistan. “One of the biggest questions they will have to deal with is what was all that death and killing for.”
But even without a political North Star beyond forcing the exit of U.S. troops, the group has shown remarkable resiliency, after two decades of costly counterinsurgency operations and nation-building projects by the United States and its NATO allies. It has bulked up its fighting force—which now stands at between 55,000 and 85,000 full-time fighters, according to estimates from experts—and worked to burnish its international credentials abroad as it attempts to portray itself as a serious diplomatic powerhouse in Afghanistan, all while preserving unity.
“The leadership seems pretty tight. They seem to have control over the commanders on the ground,” said Lisa Curtis, a former senior National Security Council official overseeing South Asia under the Trump administration. She pointed to the fact that when Taliban negotiators agreed to past cease-fires with the Afghan government, their commanders on the ground listened to them and halted fighting. “The Taliban are more unified. They have better command and control than we often give them credit for.”
“They’re an organization made up of human beings, so they’re not monolithic, and [they] never have been,” said Laurel Miller, the director of International Crisis Group’s Asia program and the former deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “That said, they have recognized that cohesion is a comparative advantage for them, and they have worked assiduously to maintain [it],” she said. “This is a moment where they have incentive to remain as cohesive as possible because they’re on a roll.”
But the fissures are visible already—and are only going to widen once the primary foe is out of the country.
“The critical thing about the Taliban is that they’ve not given much thought as to what system they actually want after a settlement or after what appears to be their strategy of military takeover,” said Ahmad Shuja Jamal, head of international affairs and regional cooperation on Afghanistan’s National Security Council. “And that is a problem because it can actually bring to the fore the cleavages that are in the Taliban [that] are very easy to see.”
The fractures break along regional and political lines. The group’s leadership is still defined by its roots in southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar province after the exit of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Leaders close to the Taliban’s late founder—including his son, Mullah Mohammed Yaqoob, and chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar—still take precedence over factions like the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, which joined the movement later and has remained operationally distinctive.
One major bellwether of whether the group will stay united or fracture will be on the diplomatic front. Negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban in Doha, Qatar, have effectively ground to a halt as the Taliban’s military arm makes sweeping gains in its military offensives, particularly across northern Afghanistan.
Most experts see this as part of a coherent strategy on the Taliban’s part: Drag their heels on peace talks while consolidating their territorial gains. “Even though you still have Taliban negotiators in Doha, they’re probably just seeking to bide time while the military makes its gains on the ground,” Curtis said, now at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank. “I think it’s probably a very well-coordinated strategy for the Taliban—talk, pretend like you’re interested in peace, but then keep fighting on the ground.”
In a press briefing on Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price did not directly address the rapid gains the Taliban made in recent weeks but doubled down on U.S. calls for peace talks. “We continue to urge all sides to engage in serious negotiations to determine a political road map that leads to … a just and durable political settlement,” he said. “The world will not accept an imposition by force of a government in Afghanistan.”
If their offensive slows or they are unable to topple the Afghan government, some experts believe more moderate factions of the Taliban will push for a peace deal while hard-line elements will advocate for continuing to fight.
“What is very striking is that the public messaging from the top [Taliban] leadership, and especially the political office in Doha, contrasts sharply with the messaging coming from the battlefield commanders,” said Michael Kugelman, an expert on South Asia at the Wilson Center, a think tank, and author of Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief. Taliban military commanders have given interviews saying they are effectively ready to cast aside peace talks and conquer Afghanistan while negotiators tell foreign press outlets these offensives will strengthen their hand for future rounds of peace talks.
“The question is who’s going to win that argument? It’s hard to say at this point,” Kugelman said.
As the Taliban make gains on the ground in Afghanistan, they are also working to polish their international image and diplomatic hand as regional powers vie for influence in the country after the U.S. and NATO withdrawal. Their political branch has even put out statements on respecting human rights, although Western officials and other experts are skeptical.
“They put out nice English statements about respecting human rights and women’s rights, but we have yet to see it in action,” said Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
“In addition to people getting harmed, killed, and injured in the conflict, the Taliban are cutting supply routes, cutting communication lines, and in some districts, they’re forcibly displacing populations,” Akbar said, who previously served as an advisor on Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s National Security Council and helped broker Afghan-Taliban peace talks.
“The way the security situation is unfolding, unfortunately a human rights crisis is very likely unless there is attention and intervention,” she added.
Still, the Taliban are continuing their attempted version of a diplomatic charm offensive on the international stage. “My sense is that the Taliban see the international community as the biggest barrier. They don’t see other Afghans or Afghan factions, the Afghan Security Forces, as a barrier to their political ascendance,” said Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia security analyst at Stanford University.
But that charm offensive is undermined by the military one. “I think by forcing their hand on a strategy of violence and terrorism, they are now beginning to lose favor with the international community and also encountering organized resistance from all across the country against them by communities that have been pushed to the brink,” Jamal said.
Even so, neighboring countries and other regional powers like India are now talking to the Taliban—for a reason.
“The Chinese, the Russians, the Iranians, the central Asian states have all had formal talks with the Taliban in recent years,” Kugelman said. “India was really the last one. It is significant. India has read the writing on the wall as other countries in the region did, and India recognizes that no matter what happens post withdrawal, the Taliban will become even stronger than it already is.”
U.S. officials are working to counter the Taliban’s diplomatic offensive despite low internal confidence in the Ghani government in some corners of Washington. The Biden administration has also reached out to Russia, China, India, Turkey, Pakistan, and others about the Afghan peace settlement and has been setting up trilateral meetings between Kabul and its neighbors in Central Asia, the U.S. State Department told Congress in April. And Ghani’s top aides are trying to expand the government’s own diplomatic clout as a counterweight to the Taliban, with national security advisor Hamdullah Mohib traveling to Moscow for high-level meetings this week.
But some experts think the Taliban’s reception in foreign capitals is a sign that Afghanistan’s allies see them at the core of the country’s future, despite Ghani’s best efforts.
“The fact that you now have basically the entire region trying to engage with the Taliban suggests that everyone is aware of where the real power is going to lie in the months, years ahead,” Kugelman added. “It’s a sobering thought, the fact that everyone’s coming around feeling the need to engage with this murderous militant organization. It’s a sign of the times, unfortunately.”
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch
If the Taliban Wins the War, Can They Still Lose the Peace?