America’s plan of attack in Afghanistan has evolved significantly, since President Donald Trump announced his new strategy for confronting the Taliban-led insurgency and the Islamic State’s inroads in Afghanistan – but the poor state of the Afghan troops, and the inability of the Afghan government to care for all its people are just two of the red flags warning of a long fight to come.
The U.S. defines victory in Afghanistan as a state in which the government in Kabul firmly controls most of the country, and is able to fend off challenges to its authority mostly on its own. Despite some progress, we are a long way from that day, and the U.S. will have to confront some hard truths in its latest iteration of America’s longest war.
Trump said his strategy would no longer be “a time-based approach,” but instead “one based on conditions,” in his Aug. 21 address at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia. This is a shift from President Barack Obama’s short-lived surge of American forces in 2009. Those same forces were withdrawn based on a predetermined timetable that wasn’t tied to real progress on the battlefield. The jihadists clearly waited out the Americans, and bounced back as soon as Afghan forces were left to shoulder most of the burden themselves. So Trump’s shift is a welcome one.
In our research for the Long War Journal, we estimate that the Taliban controls about 45 districts, while contesting another 115, for a total of 160 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts – that is, nearly 40 percent of the country. Our analysis is based on territory. The U.S. military, using a different, population-centric metric, assesses that the Taliban contests or controls about one-third of Afghanistan.
General John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of NATO’s Resolute Support mission and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, thinks it will take about two years to drive back the Taliban. During a recent press briefing, Nicholson said the goal is to achieve a “critical mass,” in which the Afghan government controls 80 percent of the population, with the Taliban “driven to less than 10 percent of the population” and “maybe the rest is contested.” At that point, the Taliban will have been beaten into “irrelevance, meaning they’re living in these remote, outlying areas, or they reconcile, or they die.”
That is a reasonable goal. But the obstacles en route are formidable.
First, Afghan forces are not close to being self-sufficient. The U.S. has increased its footprint by only several thousand troops, and they are principally tasked with training and advising Afghan security forces. This means the Afghan government will continue to carry most of the load, especially when it comes to providing security for the population.
But the U.S. effort to build this Afghan capacity has been fraught with problems. Afghanistan’s special forces do operate reasonably well, but the rest of the security establishment is riddled with problems. In September, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which reports to Congress, issued a scathing report on America’s effort to strengthen the Afghan National Defense and Security Force (ANDSF). Despite spending “more than $70 billion in security sector assistance” since 2002, the Afghans are still incapable of “securing their own nation.”
According to SIGAR, the ANDSF’s development has been plagued by a variety of issues, ranging from “corruption” and “illiteracy” to “high levels” of attrition. Rates of attrition within the Afghan National Army (ANA) are so high – “about one-third of the force was lost annually” between 2013 and 2016 – that the military has increasingly relied on soldiers “with little to no training.”
This dismal state of affairs has many authors, dating back to the Bush administration. It is doubtful that just several thousand more American troops will be the decisive factor. Yet the ANDSF will have to play a crucial role in the years to come if the Taliban is going to be consigned to irrelevance.
A second hard truth to be confronted is that the Taliban can’t be defeated without clearing the insurgents from their key rural strongholds. With his announcement in August, Trump said he would “expand authority for American armed forces to target the terrorist and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan.” Trump said he had “already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our warfighters that prevented” them “from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy.”
During the November briefing, Gen. Nicholson credited the “new U.S. South Asia policy with giving the military crucially important “authorities and additional capabilities,” including the permission to strike the Taliban’s revenue-producing facilities. On Nov. 19 and 20, the U.S. led bombing raids on drug labs in Helmand province – the first such bombings of their kind. This is indeed a positive development. According to NATO, the Taliban is “responsible for up to 85 percent of the world’s opium production” with $200 million from these illegal sales flowing into the group’s coffers. That goes a long way to funding the insurgency. And it says much about America’s inconsistent approach to the war that these facilities were previously untouched.
There is no question that the U.S. military, as well as its Afghan and Western allies, now have more tools at their disposal to fight the insurgents. But how those capabilities are deployed is just as important. The U.S. needs to develop a strategy for clearing and holding the Taliban’s most important rural safe havens. Gen. Nicholson is understandably focused on securing as much of the population as possible. This is a cornerstone of counterinsurgency doctrine. However, the Taliban is using its rural terrain to threaten urban areas. Due to high attrition and other factors, Afghan forces have rarely pursued the enemy into this remote terrain, preferring to stay in more heavily populated regions. As a result, the Taliban, ISIS-Khorasan, and other jihadists regularly attack Afghanistan’s cities, including Kabul. Indeed, the first six months of 2017 were among the bloodiest for Afghanistan’s capital since the war began in 2001.
Another major hurdle for the U.S. and its allies is that Pakistan harbors the Taliban’s senior leaders, including the Haqqanis. Trump’s speech was tougher on Pakistan than any presidential address since Sept. 11, 2001. But it is not clear how his rhetoric will translate into action. Trump lamented Pakistani duplicity, noting that while the country “has been a valued partner” in some respects and received billions of dollars in aid, it “has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people.” That is, while Pakistan has helped the U.S. hunt down some al-Qaida leaders (though not Osama bin Laden), other jihadists have been given free rein. In particular, the Taliban’s leaders, including members of the Haqqani network, have been able to operate with relative impunity.
In October, the Pakistani government trumpeted an operation that freed a Western couple, Caitlan Coleman Boyle and Joshua Boyle, as well as their children. The move was timed to coincide with an American delegation’s visit and demonstrate Pakistan’s willingness to provide more assistance. The couple had been held for five years, but Pakistani officials claimed their captors had only recently moved them across the border. Coleman subsequently disputed Pakistan’s version of events in an interview with the Toronto Star, saying she and her family had been held inside Pakistan for more than a year before being freed.
This raises uncomfortable questions. Why did it take so long for the Pakistanis to intercede on the family’s behalf? Did Pakistani officials know where they were all along? More importantly, will the Pakistanis provide meaningful assistance to thwart the couple’s captors – the Haqqanis? To date, there is little reason to think so.
The U.S. has long known that much of the Taliban’s leadership is safely ensconced inside Pakistan and is known as the Quetta Shura, after the city where they are based. Yet, that command-and-control structure is rarely targeted. The U.S. and its allies can turn back the Taliban’s forces in Afghanistan, but as long as their leadership remains intact, the Taliban can fight on indefinitely. As the U.S. has learned in several theaters since 9/11, high-value targeting is not sufficient to defeat jihadist insurgencies, but it is a necessary component of any successful strategy.
But if the Pakistani government will not disrupt the Afghan insurgency’s command structure, will the Trump administration? If so, how? Pakistan acquiesced to the American drone campaign in remote regions of northwest Pakistan, with hundreds of airstrikes targeting al-Qaida and associated groups. While the Taliban has commanders in those same areas, its most senior figures operate throughout the country, including in more urban settings. This makes a campaign against high-value targets more difficult, if not politically impossible.
The U.S. Congress is attempting to pressure Pakistan by making foreign aid, included in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, conditional on the willingness of officials in Islamabad – and the nearby military headquarters in Rawalpindi – to “significantly” disrupt “the safe havens, fundraising and recruiting efforts, and freedom of movement of the Haqqani Network in Pakistan.” That’s fine – as far it goes.
The problem is that the Haqqani network is not a separate entity; it is a wholly integrated subunit of the Taliban. Sirajuddin Haqqani, who leads the network named after his family, is also the Taliban’s second-in-command. Therefore, the aid package should be contingent on Pakistan’s willingness to disrupt the Taliban as a whole. By narrowly focusing on the Haqqanis, the U.S. is pretending that there is some firm dividing line between the two. In reality, no such hard distinction exists. Moreover, Pakistan has sheltered many Taliban leaders, whether their name has Haqqani in it or not.
In addition, Congress reportedly dropped language requiring Pakistan to take action against Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), another jihadist group that is allied with both al-Qaida and the Taliban and is believed to be responsible for the notorious November 2008 attack on India’s financial capital Mumbai. But the LeT, which is primarily focused on Kashmir, also operates in Afghanistan. By dropping this provision, Congress is essentially turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s decades-long support for an alphabet soup of jihadist groups.
Pakistani safe havens have been crucial for the Taliban. After being run out of Afghanistan in late 2001 and 2002, the Taliban regrouped in Pakistan, launching a new insurgency in 2004. The U.S. Defense and State Departments regularly note the importance of these Pakistani safe havens to this day. “Attacks in Afghanistan attributed to Pakistan-based militant networks continue to erode the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship,” the Pentagon noted in June. “Militant groups, including the Taliban and Haqqani Network, continued to utilize sanctuaries inside Pakistan.”
The Taliban won’t be put on its back foot until these Pakistani safe havens are eliminated.
Finally, there is no reason to believe a grand bargain with the Taliban is possible. The Taliban remains allied with al-Qaida. Trump is not sanguine about the prospects for a peace deal. “Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan,” he said in his August announcement. “But nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.” Nevertheless, Trump said a “political process to achieve a lasting peace” is necessary.
Others in Washington are committed to the idea that a grand bargain is possible. History does not justify their optimism. The Taliban has consistently said that all foreign forces must leave for peace to be achieved. But that would only clear the way for the insurgents to make even further gains.
The Obama administration spent many months attempting to engage in meaningful talks. At first, only impostors stepped forward. Eventually, the State Department established a channel with Tayyab Agha, a man thought to be a key emissary for Taliban Founder Mullah Omar. Agha didn’t deliver a peace deal. Instead, after the U.S. made various concessions, the talks merely paved the way for a prisoner swap. The Taliban agreed to exchange U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five senior jihadists held at Guantanamo. Two of the “Gitmo Five” are suspected of committing war crimes in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. All five, according to leaked intelligence files, had significant ties to al-Qaida.
One of the chief goals of the peace talks is to sever the Taliban from al-Qaida. Some assume that the two are already mutually exclusive. But that isn’t true. Al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is openly loyal to the Taliban’s emir, Hibatullah Akhundzada. It is worth noting that Akhundzada, a well-known ideologue, is no moderate. His son committed a suicide bombing this past summer. Zawahiri also swore allegiance to Akhundzada’s predecessor, Mullah Mansour, in 2015. Mansour publicly accepted Zawahiri’s fealty.
The Taliban has refused to break with al-Qaida in the years since. In December 2016, the Taliban celebrated its historical alliance with al-Qaida in a lengthy end-of-year video posted online. And while Akhundzada didn’t publicly recognize Zawahiri’s fealty, he privately told his commanders to continue working with al-Qaida and its newest branch, al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).
Sirajuddin Haqqani, the aforementioned Taliban #2, is a longtime al-Qaida ally. Al-Qaida also remains embedded within the Taliban insurgency. AQIS was built to help resurrect the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and export jihad elsewhere in the region. In Oct. 2015, U.S. and Afghan forces raided two large AQIS training camps in the southern Shorabak district of Kandahar province. That same district was overrun by the Taliban earlier this year. One of the camps, covering about 30 square miles, appears to have been the largest al-Qaida training facility discovered since the beginning of the war. Just this month, Afghan and U.S. forces announced raids on AQIS operatives in at least three provinces. Those same al-Qaida jihadists were supporting the Taliban’s insurgency.
So any assumption that the Taliban is truly willing to break from al-Qaida is doubtful. While some individual commanders likely are willing to reconcile, the Taliban’s senior leadership remains closely allied with al-Qaida.
Meanwhile, the U.S. also has had to contend with a resilient ISIS presence. Although it is much smaller than the Taliban’s network, the so-called caliphate’s arm still poses problems, carrying out attacks in Kabul and elsewhere.
In the near-term, the Trump administration has avoided the worst-case scenario for Afghanistan: a withdrawal of U.S. forces that would have risked a replay of a similar pullout from Iraq in 2011 that paved the way for the rise of ISIS. Al-Qaida’s global network would have celebrated a withdrawal as a victory.
When Trump announced his strategy for Afghanistan in August, he said his “original instinct was to pull out – and, historically, I like following my instincts.” Instead, he decided to pursue “a plan for victory.” Considering the obstacles that have bedeviled successive U.S. administrations trying to win that war, victory most likely will remain elusive.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies Senior Fellows Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio are editors of FDD’s Long War Journal. Follow them @LongWarJournal.