America has lost the war in Afghanistan. Washington may not want to admit it, and the U.S. military insists the conflict is a “stalemate.” But make no mistake: The original 9/11 war has been lost.
On Thursday, the Taliban attacked a meeting between Afghan officials and the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Austin S. Miller. Americans in attendance were wounded, but Miller was unhurt. At least three Afghan officials, though, were killed, including Gen. Abdul Raziq, a key American ally and powerbroker in southern Afghanistan. The U.S. military’s initial statement on the attack was a good example of its cognitive dissonance. Instead of a full condemnation, Col. Dave Butler, the spokesman for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, claimed it was merely an “Afghan-on-Afghan incident.” This is an absurd characterization given that the Taliban quickly claimed responsibility, a crucial anti-Taliban commander was killed, and Americans were wounded, all in the presence of the U.S. general in charge of the war effort.
The U.S. reaction makes more sense when you realize that America isn’t trying to defeat the Taliban but desperately searching for a way out, whitewashing the Taliban to justify an exit.
It has been left to America’s diplomats to negotiate a face-saving deal—one in which the United States can leave without the appearance of losing. But there are many reasons to think this diplomatic gambit is misguided.
Earlier this month, an American delegation led by Zalmay Khalilzad, who was recently appointed U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, met with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar. This was not a sitdown between two sides equally committed to winning the war. The Taliban, which contests or controls more than half of Afghanistan, knows the United States is desperate to leave and not even trying to win.
When President Trump announced his strategy for the war in August 2017, he emphasized that the U.S. approach would be based on conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables. Trump argued correctly that President Obama had mistakenly declared from the outset that a short-lived surge in troops would end by a definitive date. The Taliban and its allies knew they had to wait just 18 months, after which the American reinforcements sent by Obama would be gone. Theoretically Trump’s strategy was going to be more realistic—driven by the progress of the fighting. But the situation on the ground has not improved.
And while Trump preached patience, it was always in short supply. The president has not yet announced a timetable for withdrawal, but that could soon change. Senior U.S. officials tell THE WEEKLY STANDARD that President Trump could announce a drawdown within months. The mercurial president could always change his mind, but administration officials are acting as if time has already run out.
Indeed, Trump says little to nothing about the war these days. There are no major speeches, press conferences, or op-eds explaining to the American people why the United States must prevail. In fact, America’s military leaders are arguing just the opposite.
During his farewell speech in early September, General John W. Nicholson Jr., who first oversaw the war effort for Trump, announced: “It is time for this war in Afghanistan to end.” But wars are not “ended”—they are won or lost. And the Taliban certainly hasn’t been defeated. In many ways, the organization is stronger than at any time since late 2001. Acting as if America can simply “end” the war is the same approach pursued by President Barack Obama, who claimed to have brought the Iraq war to a “responsible end” in 2011. Of course, that didn’t happen either. The vacuum left by America’s withdrawal, in combination with the war in Syria, created an opportunity for jihadists that mushroomed into a self-declared ISIS caliphate.
The Trump administration wants to believe that the story can have a happier ending in Afghanistan. The Defense and State departments say a “political settlement” with the Taliban is necessary. But that is not realistic. Consider three basic facts that will likely stymie Khalilzad’s efforts.
(1) The Taliban seeks to resurrect its Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. When the Taliban confirmed its participation in the Doha talks earlier this month, the group said representatives from the “political office” of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” had met with the Americans. This may not seem like a big deal, but it was a slap in the face.
The Obama administration, which was also desperate to negotiate, agreed to allow the Taliban to open the Doha office in 2013, under certain conditions. Among them: The Taliban’s Doha arm wasn’t supposed to call itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. That is the name of the Taliban’s totalitarian regime, which ruled over Afghanistan until late 2001. There is no room for an elected government allied with the West in the Taliban’s emirate. The Obama administration assured the Afghan government that the Taliban wouldn’t refer to itself as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. But that was the first thing they did. When the Taliban opened the Doha office in June 2013, its men unfurled a banner that read, “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” thereby embarrassing the United States and its Afghan allies.
More than five years later, the Taliban is still calling itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan—both in Doha and at home. This simple fact undermines the entire premise of the U.S.-led negotiations. Washington wants the Taliban’s leadership to reconcile with the Afghan government. But the Taliban has consistently argued that President Ashraf Ghani’s government is illegitimate. According to the Taliban, only an “Islamic” system—meaning its Islamic Emirate—is legitimate. The Taliban has been building up a parallel governance structure for years, with so-called “shadow governors” overseeing its efforts throughout the country. In August, the Taliban’s emir, Hibatullah Akhundzada, told his men they should prepare to rule more ground in the near future. The Taliban has also rejected Afghanistan’s upcoming parliamentary elections, saying it is a “religious duty” to disrupt them.
None of this is consistent with the idea that the Taliban will reconcile with the Afghan government and participate in a political process. Instead, the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is prepared once more to rule over much of the country, or all of it. It is possible that the Taliban will agree to some sort of temporary partition, but no one should trust that this arrangement would last long.
(2) Pakistan continues to harbor the Taliban’s senior leadership. The Trump administration has withheld military aid to Pakistan in an attempt to get tough on the putative ally’s duplicity. For years, Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment has harbored the Taliban’s senior leaders, including members of the so-called Haqqani Network. The Haqqanis remain closely allied with al Qaeda and have gained more power within the Taliban’s hierarchy over time. The Taliban’s No. 2 leader and warlord is Siraj Haqqani, who oversees the group’s military operations.
In September, the State Department confirmed that the Trump administration’s tough love hasn’t changed Pakistan’s behavior. As a result, many of the Taliban’s leaders are free to direct the Afghan insurgency from across the border. They are under no immediate threat and have no real incentive to order their men to lay down their arms. This makes it even more unlikely that the Taliban will agree to a game-changing deal. We mustn’t forget that Pakistan fueled the Taliban’s initial takeover of Afghanistan in the 1990s. More than two decades later, the Pakistanis could do so once again.
(3) The Taliban hasn’t renounced al Qaeda. The U.S. government originally demanded that the Taliban forswear al Qaeda before sitting down for talks. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton jettisoned that demand years ago, after it became clear that it was a non-starter. The Taliban has had more than 17 years to distance itself from al Qaeda and has refused to do so. Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, remains loyal to the Taliban’s emir, Hibatullah Akhundzada. Zawahiri’s men are fighting under the Taliban’s banner to resurrect its Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Al Qaeda loyalists around the world will be emboldened if they succeed. Even if the Taliban releases some statement addressing this issue, the devil will be in the details. The Taliban could employ vague language that sounds promising, but is ultimately meaningless. It is highly unlikely that the Taliban will unequivocally renounce al Qaeda now.
The United States is no longer trying to defeat the Taliban. Instead, the Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, wants out. The Taliban knows this and is more than happy to dictate the terms of America’s withdrawal. That’s what is now being negotiated. The jihadists also know that wars end in victory or defeat—and their victory is at hand.