Bottom Line Up Front
- America’s longest war – soon approaching its 18th year in Afghanistan – is not over although it may be entering a new phase.
- The potential U.S.-Taliban deal comes at a time of maximum leverage for the Taliban, which controls more territory in 2019 than at any point since 2001.
- If the United States and the Taliban reach a deal, convening intra-Afghan talks between the militants and the government in Kabul will be a major challenge.
- Those who argue the United States must remain in Afghanistan insist that the U.S. military presence is on the verge of success, although what success looks like has never been properly defined.
America’s longest war, soon approaching its 18th year in Afghanistan, is not over although it seems to be entering a new phase. On September 1, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad discussed the broad contours of a tentative deal with the Taliban. The proposed deal calls for the withdrawal of 5,400 U.S. troops from five unspecified bases in Afghanistan over the course of the next several months. The withdrawal of nearly one-third of the total U.S. military presence is predicated upon the Taliban meeting specific conditions. Notably, the Taliban must cut its ties to al-Qaeda, a group which it has consistently maintained relations with since the late1990s.
The deal comes at a time of maximum leverage for the Taliban, which controls more territory in 2019 than at any point since 2001. As Khalilzad spoke about the proposed agreement, Taliban militants detonated a massive bomb near the Green Village, where many foreign workers and officials reside. According to reports, the blast killed at least 16 people and wounded over 100 others, although casualty counts continue to climb. The Taliban has relentlessly pursued a strategy of ‘fight and talk,’ launching large-scale attacks in several northern provinces while talks with the United States were ongoing in Doha, Qatar. The Taliban, referred to as the Islamic Emirate in the tentative agreement, will likely increase attacks in coming weeks to reinforce the perception that the U.S. military is leaving on unfavorable terms.
Even if the United States and the Taliban can reach an agreement, there is still the hurdle of convening intra-Afghan talks between the militants and the government in Kabul. Few expect these talks to be successful. Despite substantial international support, the Afghan government and security forces have never been able to acquire political legitimacy throughout the country or extend control beyond the capital, Kabul, which remains contested to this day. Several militant groups, including the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) have been consistently able to conduct spectacular attacks. The Afghan security forces have suffered horrific losses for years, struggling to address corruption, inadequate logistics and an unsustainably high attrition rate. Another major concern about the deal is the alleged rollback of Afghan women’s rights as critics say it lacks assurances that women will continue to have equal access to education, employment and political representation.
It is unclear how the withdrawal of U.S. forces from several bases will impact security on-the-ground in Afghanistan. Even at its peak deployment, combined troops from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan forces could only make temporary gains against the Taliban on the battlefield. The United States has a history of publicly waffling over whether to keep its troops in Afghanistan for years, stretching across successive administrations. The arguments for maintaining a sizable U.S. military presence in Afghanistan have fallen on deaf ears in the Trump administration despite concerns about long-term stability and a growing danger posed to Afghan civilians. The prospect of a U.S. withdrawal has been met with considerable opposition from some U.S. politicians, including Senator Lindsay Graham. Those who argue that the United States must remain in Afghanistan insist that its military presence is on the verge of success, although what success looks like has never been properly defined.