Afghanistan’s Taliban Is in It to Win It
The United States should remember Islamist militants are playing the long game.
Like three of his predecessors, U.S. President Donald Trump is now reportedly seeking Pakistan’s assistance in bringing Afghanistan’s Taliban to the negotiating table. But the history of American negotiations with the Taliban, going back to the mid-1990s, shows how large the perceptual gap between the two sides is. Even when Pakistan has facilitated dialogue, those efforts have been frustrated by the chasm between America’s and the Taliban’s worldviews.
Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s negotiator in the new talks, is an able and experienced diplomat, uniquely qualified to navigate the treacherous politics of Afghanistan. Trump has tapped the right person for a tough job, but even Khalilzad may not be able to overcome the difference in outlook—and commitment—between the United States and the Taliban.
The United States does not lose wars; it only loses interest. From America’s point of view, Afghanistan is a poor backwater that becomes strategically significant only when a hostile power controls it. The United States supported Afghans waging a holy war against the Soviets during the 1980s, only to walk away after the Soviet withdrawal and return after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Although the United States has never deployed the full possible force needed to eliminate the Taliban operating from safe havens across the border in Pakistan, most Americans feel they are embroiled in an endless war far from home. Reports about corruption and Afghanistan’s venal politics add to the view that the Afghans contribute less to the war effort than they should and that, after the killing of Osama bin Laden and degrading of al Qaeda, the United States has little reason to continue expending blood and treasure there.
But contrary to the perception in the United States, America’s Afghan allies have borne the vast bulk of the human cost of fighting in their country, especially in recent years. At least 28,529 Afghan security personnel have been killed in the fighting since 2015 alone. American fatalities are low in contrast. In 2015, 10 American troops lost their lives; nine were killed in 2016, and 11 were killed in 2017. In 2018 so far, 12 U.S. soldiers died in combat in Afghanistan.
The U.S. view of Afghanistan as less important in itself is visible in its past interactions with the Taliban. The former President Bill Clinton’s administration engaged with the Taliban in 1996, seeking information about Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda leaders, only to be told falsely that they were not in Taliban-controlled territory. Two years later, Pakistani officials told U.S. diplomats that the Taliban wanted to get rid of bin Laden and even suggested that the U.S. pay off the Taliban to expel the al Qaeda leader. Both ideas turned out to be red herrings.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, George W. Bush’s administration assumed that Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s military regime in Pakistan would help it take care of the Taliban threat just as it was helping to arrest some al Qaeda terrorists inside its own country. Once American officials realized that the Taliban’s safe haven in Pakistan was a major impediment to military success in Afghanistan, U.S. policy focused on incentivizing or pressuring Pakistan into helping American withdrawal.
Beginning with then-President Barack Obama’s appointment in 2009 of veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, several attempts have been made to reach out to the Taliban and the Pakistani authorities for formal negotiations for a comprehensive settlement. The Trump administration has revitalized exploratory meetings with Taliban representatives with the appointment of Khalilzad as special representative for Afghan reconciliation.
Much of the discussion about Afghanistan in Washington since 2009 has focused on how America’s longest war can be brought to an early end. In addition to initiating the peace process, Obama even set a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops—something Trump has thankfully avoided.
But lost in the perennial discussion of the 17-year war is the point that military missions must be tied to the attainment of objectives, not to their length of time. If defeating the Taliban militarily has proved difficult, negotiating with them has not been particularly easy either. The Taliban’s view of the conflict is fundamentally different—and far more long-term—than Washington’s. In their worldview, shaped by their ideology, Americans are unbelievers occupying an Islamic country, and their Afghan allies are also legitimate targets of jihad. The Taliban have been playing the long game, hoping to wait the Americans out before defeating the inadequately trained Afghan forces.
The Taliban have a long pattern of following up peace overtures with highly visible attacks, such as the assassination in October of Kandahar’s police chief, Gen. Abdul Raziq, in an attack that narrowly missed the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
The purpose of such attacks, soon after secret talks with U.S. interlocutors, is to demonstrate to true believers that the American eagerness to negotiate is the result of weakness, whereas the jihadis are willing to talk only to ease the withdrawal of infidels without giving up on their ideology.
While negotiating with the Taliban, Americans must remember that international terrorism is not over and that precipitate U.S. withdrawal from terrorist-infested regions such as Afghanistan would only recreate ungoverned spaces that could again serve as operational bases for global terrorists.
The Taliban and Pakistan have given assurances about clearing out international terrorists several times since 1996, and their promises have often turned out to be inadequate or outright false. If there is to be a settlement this time, it would have to involve verifiable guarantees that Afghan and Pakistani soil will not be used to harbor or train terrorists responsible for attacks around the world.
Al Qaeda was born out of the belief that jihadism had not only forced the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan but also led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many hold to a similar belief about the United States. The Islamic State took advantage of Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq without much forethought.
If the Americans are seen abandoning Afghanistan in a hurry, jihadists worldwide will tell future recruits how the combination of their religious zeal with terrorism overcame the military prowess of two superpowers. The “triumph of jihad” narrative would increase the flow of recruits and with it terrorist attacks. Better intelligence and homeland security have prevented large-scale attacks over the years, but an expansion in recruitment could strain those efforts.
And while talking to the Taliban is important, so are the concerns of ordinary Afghans. Since 2001, Americans have helped Afghanistan implement a democratic constitution, provide access to education for women, and encourage the desire among Afghans to engage with the rest of the world—developments that are anathema to the Taliban. Even while pretending to talk, they seldom express willingness to allow Afghanistan’s progress to continue.
A negotiated settlement in Afghanistan is a noble objective, but it should not be based on either a mistaken analysis of who is paying the costs or false hopes about an eventual settlement. While pursuing peace, Americans should not lose sight of the difficulties in securing a deal with the Taliban, a less easily reconcilable enemy, as well as Pakistan, a country with regional ambitions that are not always compatible with American objectives. The United States would do well to align its negotiating position with that of the Afghan government.