How did we get here, and what comes next?
The United States and the Taliban may be nearing an agreement to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan after more than 17 years of conflict.
In return, the Taliban would commit to refusing access to anti-American organizations such as al-Qaida on its territory.
How did we get to this point – and what will be the consequences of such an agreement?
As a longtime scholar of Afghanistan’s wars and conflict dynamics, I suggest beginning with a bit of history.
The current conflict began when the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan a few weeks after 9/11.
It was on Afghan soil that Osama bin Laden hatched the plot to attack the U.S. The Taliban, the de facto rulers of much of Afghanistan in the wake of a bloody civil war, had given bin Laden and his supporters shelter.
Two months into the U.S. invasion, Taliban state institutions and defensive positions crumbled and the United States formed new state institutions led by Afghans who had fought the Taliban. The U.S. maintained a limited force to fight and capture al-Qaida and Taliban leaders but otherwise invested little in the Afghan economy or society.
It took the Taliban four years to reconstitute itself as an effective force of insurgents to fight the U.S. and the Afghan government, and they became stronger every year after 2004. As I explain in my research, the United States and the coalition of 42 countries it formed to defeat the resurgent Taliban was poorly organized, abusive and mismanaged.
Since 2001, the U.S.-led coalition has spent US$1 trillion dollars and committed a peak of 140,000 troops and 100,000 contractors to an unsuccessful attempt to defeat the Taliban. More than 5,000 American soldiers and contractors were killed.
Today, a U.S. force of 14,000 troops and massive U.S. Airforce assets are helping maintain the defensive positions of an Afghan government that is widely considered as one of the most corrupt in the world.
Militias that recruit from the Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek minorities have rearmed in anticipation of the collapse of the regime in Kabul and fear of a coming civil war with the mostly Pushtun Taliban. Afghanistan is nearing an endgame.
What it means for the Taliban
An agreement between the Taliban and the U.S. would be an impressive accomplishment for the Taliban. From their perspective, it would be their reward for fighting the world’s strongest military power to a stalemate.
They already were rewarded by getting to negotiate directly with the United States, as they have always requested, instead of the Afghan regime which they despise. If the negotiations are successful, they would also be getting precisely what they asked for: an American withdrawal.
In return, they are making a commitment to do something they would likely have done anyway. Al-Qaida’s attack on the U.S. caused the Taliban to lose control of Afghanistan for years. They are not likely to risk having to pay that cost again once they regain control of Kabul, even if they don’t sign an agreement.
What it means for the United States
There is little hope for an outright U.S. victory over the Taliban at this point.
The remaining force of 14,000 U.S. troops is mostly meant to shore up Afghan state defenses. It is too small to reverse momentum on the battlefield. An agreement and withdrawal would therefore be attractive for those who value less military spending and stress on the military, including General John Nicholson, the previous commander of the American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The agreement, however, could undermine U.S. reputation in ways big and small. The Obama and Trump administrations never reversed a 2002 Bush executive order that added the Taliban to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists, but they have simultaneously pleaded with them to negotiate in spite of claims that Washington does not negotiate with terrorists.
It also signals U.S. weakness and inability to fight a dedicated force of insurgents. Militants elsewhere, including Islamic State leaders, could find this lesson instructive. I believe such an agreement may well be remembered as a turning point in America’s ability to successfully project its military power around the Muslim world.
An agreement could also signal that the U.S. is an unreliable ally that abandons those who side with it. The United States is involved in numerous conflicts worldwide in places as diverse as Syria and Somalia, and many of its local allies would logically recalculate their own commitments after witnessing a U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan.
What happens to the Afghan state
As I describe in my book “Organizations at War in Afghanistan,” governments tend to unravel quickly in Afghanistan when foreign support, both military and financial, ceases.
This is precisely what happened after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan and stopped their support to the Najib regime in the early 1990s. As I report in greater detail in my book, different regime militias and military units either disintegrated, joined their erstwhile Mujahideen opponents or became independent militias.
Similarly, today’s Afghan state officials at all levels have long hedged their bets by maintaining ties with the Taliban, their nominal opponents and minority militias. If history is any indication, we can expect that entire agencies and units will either fragment or collectively join any of several strongman-led ethnic militias when the rewards of working for the regime stop outweighing the risks of facing the Taliban. Some may even defect to the Taliban. This is expected behavior in dangerous environments such as Afghanistan, where everyone is expected to have a hedging strategy for survival.
Once the state gets pulled in all directions, Afghanistan will likely degenerate into a civil war very similar to the one that the United States interrupted when it invaded in late 2001. Other countries, including Russia, Iran and India will choose sides to back. I estimate that the Taliban, with their dedicated Pakistani and Arab Gulf backers will win that conflict, just like they almost did in 2001. We may very well reach a point where we see the 17-year American occupation as merely a futile, bloody and costly interruption of the Afghan civil war.
I consider a U.S.-Taliban agreement to be no more than a face-saving measure to conclude a failed and costly American military intervention. If there is a useful lesson to be learned from this misadventure, it is that leaders of even the world’s mightiest military power need to reconsider the merits of a militarized foreign policy in the Muslim world. U.S. military interventions are stoking resentment and inflaming a perpetual transnational insurgency across Muslim countries. If it doesn’t change its course, the U.S. may very well suffer more defeats such as the one in Afghanistan and will cause even more hurt and damage in other countries along the way.
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