The Islamic State of Afghanistan

The Islamic State of Afghanistan

As of Tuesday night, Taliban fighters had reportedly surrounded Afghan troops in Sangin, a key town in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. At the end of a dysfunctional supply chain, the Afghan forces are low on ammunition, unable to evacuate their wounded, and fighting with their backs to the wall. A small number of U.S. and British troops have been rushed into the province to coordinate the defense effort.

Alarmism has no place in strategy, but from a calm, objective standpoint, it is nonetheless clear that the military situation in Helmand — as in much of Afghanistan — is getting close to critical, if it’s not there already. Now the Afghan government’s Western supporters and NATO need to show resolve and firmly back up the beleaguered Afghan security forces and do so with a view to a negotiated peace, not an open-ended war.

Stories like Sangin have become familiar across much of the country over the last few months, as the Taliban have ratcheted up pressure against Afghan forces. This realization has already prompted a sensible shift in strategy by U.S. President Barack Obama: Following the brief Taliban takeover of the northern city of Kunduz in October, he decided that a U.S. force would stay in Afghanistan beyond the previous December 2016 deadline. Now, however, the question for Kabul’s Western supporters is: Where does this end?

It does not end when the Afghans develop the “will to fight” — they already are fighting hard, which is a key difference compared to Iraq. The Afghan security forces suffered more than 5,000 dead in 2014 and another 5,000 in the first half of 2015. (Bear in mind that the total number of international coalition forces killed from 2001 to today is around 3,500.) There are serious problems with corruption and logistics, but the Afghan soldiers in the remote outposts are fighting bravely with much less medical support than Western forces would expect. We shouldn’t forget that.

The central problem, rather, is how the conflict ends in the rural areas of south and east Afghanistan where the Taliban, as a predominantly conservative Pashtun movement, have wide support.

The West could see an endpoint in accepting a Taliban takeover of those areas, while helping to consolidate Kabul’s position in the predominantly Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara areas in the center, north, and west of the country where Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government has more support (and would have a lot more if corruption were not so rampant). The downside of this option is that it risks the relinquished areas being taken over by more extreme groups like the Islamic State, which could come to control major cities like Kandahar. Such a move might not actually provide an endpoint and could ultimately necessitate a Western anti-Islamic State intervention.

Kabul’s Western backers have two basic alternatives to stop the Afghan military from losing more ground to the Taliban. First, they can back up the Afghan security forces indefinitely, which is not an attractive option. Second, they can encourage a negotiated settlement between Kabul and the Taliban in which the south and east of Afghanistan get much more autonomy, in exchange for guarantees about not providing a base for terrorists.

A negotiated solution would require a military stalemate on the ground, and this depends on NATO forces guaranteeing that Afghan forces in key positions will not be overrun. This is the political objective that should inform Western military support in Afghanistan from here on out: to make clear to the Taliban that they can achieve more through a peace deal than through fighting and to make clear to Western electorates that this isn’t a forever war.

To bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, their leadership must come to realize that they can not evolve from a guerrilla force to a conventional one and so cannot take and hold the main urban areas or successfully defend the rural areas they have taken. While negotiations have basically failed to date, the West should not overlook the key new factor — the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan — which is competing, not cooperating, with the traditional Taliban leadership based in Pakistan. Indeed, we are already seeing infighting among the Taliban leadership, portions of which may well be feeling vulnerable and may come to see the advantage of talks.

What would this approach look like on the ground? This scenario doesn’t demand heavy counterinsurgency footprint — there is no political appetite for that — but it does mean that Western forces must be allowed to engage in ground combat. Special operations forces and drones are effective as a defensive backup, but they will not wrest back the initiative without being allowed to actually fight, which ultimately requires offensive action. Moreover, special operations forces should be understood broadly here to include high-end infantry units that can fight alongside Afghan forces in a fairly conventional mode if necessary.

If NATO can bring to bear its air power against the Taliban more effectively than it has done to date, Kabul’s government might not win, but neither will it lose. In this respect, it’s crucial to correct the failures that allowed the tragic bombing of the MSF hospital in Kunduz, which quite justifiably has eroded public support for the use of air power.

There are two important caveats here.

The first is that against a networked enemy, military action is rarely decisive. Unlike against a traditional state, or state-like hierarchal enemy, you are not going to defeat the networked enemy as one: You can hit individual nodes of a network, but that does not necessarily translate into victory against the whole network.

Military effect against networked insurgencies is rarely clear-cut — and almost never fits binary ideas of victory and defeat — and the unsatisfying result in Afghanistan is no exception. In a traditional binary war paradigm, you are trapped into the view that because there is no decisive military option available in Afghanistan, there is no good option. But while firmly fending off the Taliban to get to a negotiated settlement is not glamorous, it’s a whole lot better than experiencing state collapse and potentially the Islamic State, further down the line. France’s 2013 intervention in Mali is a good example of the use of force to achieve a local objective without trying to solve the whole problem: It defeated one node of a networked enemy to bring about temporary stability and was successful in its own terms.

The second caveat is that Kabul’s Western backers should not see the Afghan campaign as a project that can be neatly managed but should rather recognize that the enemy always has a vote. In my view, military strategy since Robert McNamara’s time at the Pentagon during the Vietnam War has become infected with the idea that it is comparable to business strategy. This is so much nonsense. A campaign plan is not like, say, a construction project, where if you work out the laborers, resources, and finances you need you can set up a timeline and then just manage it, allocating resources to a neat schedule.

In the military context, there is an enemy actively and violently working against you who will smash up your construction project if you don’t react when things change, which they always do. Armed conflict is reciprocal, and the acme of military strategy is to gain and hold the initiative, which ultimately requires an element of surprise and aggression; this is difficult when you advertise your campaign as a form of scheduled project.

Without succumbing to alarmism, let’s be clear: The situation in Afghanistan is getting very serious. The temptation is to say that the project has not gone to plan and to accept defeat. But it’s not a project, as plans must change in war, sometimes drastically. Defeat is not inevitable. It’s time to adapt to reality in Afghanistan, get coalition air power working more effectively to back up Afghan forces on the ground, and selectively use offensive action, including limited ground combat alongside Afghan forces, to communicate to the Taliban that it’s time to talk. The Islamic State is now a threat to the traditional Taliban leadership. This is a good time to reach out to them while making it clear that we’re not going to give up.

Photo credit: JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images