December 15, 2020 | Defending Forward Monograph

America Does Not Have to Choose Defeat in Afghanistan

December 15, 2020 | Defending Forward Monograph

America Does Not Have to Choose Defeat in Afghanistan

On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda launched its now-infamous attacks on the United States, hijacking airplanes and slamming them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Al-Qaeda’s leadership planned and launched those attacks from Afghanistan,1 prompting President George W. Bush to demand that the Taliban turn over al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to face justice.

The Taliban, which had provided al-Qaeda safe haven, refused. Its leader, Mullah Omar, instead made a bold prediction: The Taliban would prevail in a war with America. “God is with us,” Omar said.2

Nearly two decades on, the United States is on the precipice of proving Omar right. The Trump administration has negotiated a withdrawal deal with the Taliban that legitimizes the group’s role in the international community. The deal undercut the Afghan government – Washington’s only hope for a sustainable withdrawal. The deal also absolves the Taliban of its role in sheltering and supporting al-Qaeda both before and since 9/11.3

At first glance, Afghanistan – underdeveloped, land-locked, and war-torn – would appear to possess little strategic importance for the United States. The 9/11 terrorist attacks, however, proved otherwise. A premature, politically motivated U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan could permit the country to once again become a launchpad for terrorist attacks on the United States.

The United States still has clear strategic interests in Afghanistan because much of the global terror threat still emanates from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban controls or contests nearly 60 percent of the country.4 Terror groups – including some directly supported by Pakistan5 – operate training camps across the region.6 The Islamic State, no friend of the Taliban or its allies, also has a presence there. Both camps seek to use Afghanistan to advance their regional and international goals of establishing a global caliphate.

A military presence in Afghanistan enables the United States to more effectively monitor and strike at senior terrorist leaders in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan remains a safe haven for the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and many other terrorist groups.7 The 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, 8 was launched from bases in eastern Afghanistan.9

But America’s greatest disadvantage in this conflict ultimately boils down to its poor political understanding of this troubled region and its lack of will to engage in long fights. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are inexorably linked.10 The United States cannot defeat al-Qaeda without defeating the Taliban. And yet, for the past decade, Washington has treated the Taliban and al-Qaeda as distinct entities, the former described in Washington as one with which Americans can somehow negotiate. Military leaders and policymakers across three administrations have failed to properly define the threat and implement a coherent strategy to address it.

In a short-sighted and politically motivated desire to withdraw from Afghanistan, the Trump administration has invoked the narrative of “ending the endless wars.” To hasten its exit, the United States has conceded to virtually every major Taliban negotiation objective – while receiving no tangible commitments in return. If the United States proceeds along this diplomatic path, divorced from battlefield realities, it can expect a meteoric rise in the Taliban’s power. This will directly translate to increased power for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. This could then necessitate a future U.S. return to Afghanistan.

The American public does not understand this dynamic. They have soured on the war, in large part because leaders in Washington have failed to explain America’s continued interests in Afghanistan.11 Withdrawal is one of the rare policy positions embraced by factions within both parties in a divided America. The Trump administration is committed to its path forward in Afghanistan, and President-elect Biden previously said he would withdraw most American troops but keep a small counterterrorism presence.12 A drawdown is well underway, but there appears to be growing bipartisan concern in Congress regarding the expedited Trump withdrawal plan, which ignores conditions on the ground.13 The Department of Defense has withdrawn thousands of service members and closed five bases in the provinces of Laghman, Paktika, Helmand, and Uruzgan – and the United States appears determined to withdraw all or most U.S. troops next year14

The troops who remain in Afghanistan are split between the train, advise, and assist mission (NATO) and the counterterrorism mission (U.S. Forces Afghanistan). It is unclear how many bases remain open. At minimum, the U.S. military maintains bases at Bagram, Kandahar, Kabul, and likely Herat.

If U.S. policymakers choose to ignore the risks associated with a withdrawal, they must understand that a Taliban victory is synonymous with an al-Qaeda victory. American policymakers should not fool themselves into believing the Taliban will restrain al-Qaeda, let alone “destroy” the group, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proclaimed just one day after signing the deal with the Taliban.15 If the Taliban did not do so when there were approximately 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, why would they do so once the United States leaves or has only a token force there?16

American policymakers should also be forewarned that a Taliban victory and American defeat in Afghanistan will inspire America’s other enemies and adversaries. China and Russia have relished America’s challenges in Afghanistan, seeing them as a sign of general weakness. Pakistan eagerly sees America’s exit as a green light to continue supporting terrorists and using similar groups to challenge India. Terrorists, of course, will also seek to exploit and export their victory in Afghanistan. After all, the 1989 defeat of Soviet troops in Afghanistan by Islamist fighters was what fueled recruitment by the nascent al-Qaeda movement.

If the United States is truly serious about supporting the Afghan government and preventing al-Qaeda from solidifying power, Washington must fundamentally change its approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States must properly define the nature of the enemy and maintain a military presence in Afghanistan that is geared to countering that enemy. This need not be a massive presence. But a counterterrorism mission alone in Afghanistan will not solve the problem. Such a presence would, in fact, prolong the war and ensure that support for the war effort would dwindle further.

The United States must end its coddling of Pakistan and finally designate it as a state sponsor of terrorism. Washington should leverage this designation, along with other tools in the U.S. diplomatic and economic arsenal, to compel Pakistan to end its support for the Taliban. This would include sanctions on individuals and entities that aid the Taliban; trade embargos; economic sanctions; and more.

In this effort to address terrorism emanating from Pakistan, Washington has no better partner than India. Washington and New Delhi increasingly view the China challenge similarly. That growing alignment has facilitated dramatic improvements in U.S.-India defense cooperation.17 The two countries should build on that progress to more effectively counter terrorism emanating from Pakistan.

As the United States applies meaningful pressure on Pakistan, Washington must also put to rest the idea that it can negotiate with the Taliban without first achieving success on the battlefield. That will require robust and consistent support for the internationally recognized Afghan government. While Afghans can and should conduct most of the ground combat, the United States must end its obsession with reducing the number of troops in country and instead focus on having the correct composition of forces in key locations in Afghanistan to protect U.S. interests. This would include special operations forces; quick-reaction forces to back troops in the field; close air support; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets; and combat support. This kind of support would prevent a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and can be accomplished with a relatively modest U.S. military presence.

It may be too late, however. If Americans conduct a calendar-based withdrawal in Afghanistan, the Taliban will have won, potentially overthrowing the internationally recognized government of Afghanistan. That would mean al-Qaeda will have won, too, energizing a threat that may ultimately force the United States to reluctantly deploy again.


  1. The 9/11 Commission report discusses al-Qaeda’s plot to attack the United States from Afghanistan. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, “The 9/11 Commission Report,” July 22, 2004. (
  2. “Mullah Omar after 9/11 – in his own words,” The Guardian (UK), Sept. 26, 2001. (
  3. Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, “Trump’s Bad Deal with the Taliban,” Politico, March 18, 2019. (
  4. Bill Roggio and Alexandra Gutowski, “Mapping Taliban Control in Afghanistan,” FDD’s Long War Journal, accessed December 2, 2020. (
  5. Bill Roggio, “Baluchistan province is a primary hub for Afghan Taliban,” FDD’s Long War Journal, May 25, 2016. (
  6. Bill Roggio and Caleb Weiss, “Taliban promotes 4 previously unidentified training camps in Afghanistan,” FDD’s Long War Journal, June 26, 2017. (
  7. Bill Roggio, “Pakistan a ‘safe haven’ for ‘terror groups’: U.S. State Department,” FDD’s Long War Journal, June 25, 2020. ( That is one reason why the United States has a vital interest in remaining in Afghanistan: to keep an eye on the country that continues to provide cover, support, weapons, and other essential aid to the Taliban.
  8. Bill Ardolino and Bill Roggio, “Al Qaeda emir Osama bin Laden confirmed killed by US forces in Pakistan,” FDD’s Long War Journal, May 1, 2011. (
  9. Brian Ross, Matthew Cole, and Avni Patel, “Osama Bin Laden: Navy SEALS Operation Details of Raid That Killed 9/11 Al Qaeda Leader,” ABC News, May 2, 2011. (
  10. Thomas Joscelyn, “Taliban ‘reluctant to publicly break with al Qaeda,’ Inspector General reports,” FDD’s Long War Journal, May 21, 2020. (
  11. Rebecca Kheel, “Poll: About three quarters support bringing troops home from Iraq, Afghanistan,” The Hill, August 6, 2020. (
  12. Simon Lewis and Michael Martina, “The foreign policy issues that divide Trump and Biden,” Reuters, September 18, 2020. (
  13. William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, Conference Report to Accompany H.R.6395, 116th Congress (2020), Section 1215. (
  14. Vandana Rambaran and Lucas Tomlinson, “US closes 5 military bases in Afghanistan as part of Taliban peace deal,” Fox News, July 14, 2020. (
  15. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, “Transcript: Mike Pompeo on ‘Face the Nation,’ March 1, 2020,” CBS News, March 1, 2020. (
  16. “Department of Defense Contractor and Troop Levels in Afghanistan and Iraq: 2007-2018,” Congressional Research Service, May 10, 2019, page 7. (
  17. Bradley Bowman and Cleo Paskal, “US-India declaration has a Sino subtext,” The Sunday Guardian (India), December 21, 2019. (


Afghanistan Jihadism Military and Political Power The Long War U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy