Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Flawed U.S. Approach to Afghanistan

By Scott DesMarais

Key Takeaway: The U.S. will likely fail to secure its national security interests with its current strategy in Afghanistan. The U.S. since 9/11 has sought to deny Afghanistan as a safe haven for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and that goal remains paramount even today. The U.S. incorrectly believes it can facilitate a legitimate dialogue that leads to a stable political settlement, reconciles the Taliban, and empowers the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) to defeat terrorist groups in Afghanistan. The U.S will struggle to facilitate this dialogue because the reconciliation of former militants is likely to accelerate political competition between multiple factions. Increased political competition between the Taliban and established Afghan powerbrokers could cause negotiations to collapse and risk an ethnically charged civil war. Further, the Afghan Government and the Taliban even if reconciled may prove unwilling and unable to fight together to prevent the growth of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and affiliated terrorist groups in Afghanistan. The U.S. must change its policy to account for the complexity of the reconciliation process and to prepare for these predictable future security and political challenges.


The U.S. has a vital national security interest in preventing Al Qaeda, ISIS, and affiliated terrorist groups from exploiting safe havens in Afghanistan to conduct international terror attacks against the West. This goal is real and indispensable. Al Qaeda, ISIS, Lashkar-e Taiba, the Taliban, and the Haqqani Network – among other designated foreign terrorist organizations – have support and attack zones in Afghanistan. Many of these groups have grown in capacity during the drawdown by the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan that began in 2011 under U.S. President Barack Obama.

The Trump Administration intends to secure this critical objective while simultaneously setting conditions for a further military withdrawal from Afghanistan. U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has engaged in direct negotiations with the Taliban both to reach an agreement that satisfies U.S. counterterrorism concerns and to facilitate negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. The U.S. ultimately desires a political settlement that establishes a stable and effective Government of Afghanistan and empowers the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) to independently contain if not defeat the terrorist groups active in Afghanistan.

The Trump Administration believes that its efforts to facilitate a dialogue between the Taliban and the Government of Afghanistan will lead to a timely and effective political settlement that sets conditions for its withdrawal from Afghanistan. It also believes that the Taliban will keep Al Qaeda and ISIS out of Afghanistan despite the Taliban’s past broken promises in this regard. However, any dialogue in reality will be a complicated, protracted, and contentious process involving the Taliban, the Afghan Government, and a multitude of other powerbrokers. It is more likely to undermine the Afghan Government than to resolve the War in Afghanistan. There is no guarantee of a stable outcome and the talks (even if successful) will represent only the first milestone in a long list of conditions required to secure the security interests of the U.S. in Afghanistan. The U.S. will ultimately fail in this regard unless it changes its policy to account for the complexity of the reconciliation process and to prepare for these predictable future security and political challenges.


A complete and verifiable agreement to break the Taliban’s historical relationship with Al Qaeda is unlikely given Al Qaeda’s continued presence in Afghanistan.

The historical relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda likely cannot be broken easily despite the Taliban’s attempts to distance itself publicly from Al Qaeda. Former Al Qaeda Emir Osama Bin Laden pledged bay’at (allegiance) to former Taliban Emir Mullah Mohammad Omar. Mullah Omar’s successor Mullah Akhtar Mansour publicly accepted bay’at from current Al Qaeda Emir Ayman Zawahiri but later removed the pledge from the official website of the Taliban. Zawahiri pledged bay’at to current Taliban Emir Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada in June 2016 although Akhundzada has never publicly accepted it.

Al Qaeda remains active in Afghanistan and likely within the command structure of the Taliban. The U.S. continues to conduct regular operations targeting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The UN Security Council assessed that Al Qaeda remains active in areas of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban as of January 2019. One Taliban commander estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 foreign fighters from Central Asia, the Arab Gulf, and Africa operate alongside the Taliban as of November 2018.[1] Many of them are likely affiliated with Al Qaeda. The Taliban would need to take concrete and public measures to denounce Al Qaeda and expel its operatives from Afghanistan to credibly demonstrate its intent and capability to constrain Al Qaeda in a post-U.S. Afghanistan.

The Taliban is not unitary and cannot enforce peace agreements among its followers. The Haqqani Network and other radical factions of the Taliban are unlikely to reconcile with the Afghan Government and could form new organizations or defect to ISIS or Al Qaeda.

The Taliban claims that it is a cohesive organization but it remains likely that some radical elements of the group will reject reconciliation with the Afghan Government. These elements could create a new militant organization or defect to ISIS Wilayat Khorasan or Al Qaeda, further empowering terrorist groups in Afghanistan. The Afghan Government is also unlikely to be able to financially support the reintegration of the Taliban into the weak economy of Afghanistan without substantial aid from the West. This strain could lead many reconciled but disaffected fighters from the Taliban to turn ultimately towards ISIS or Al Qaeda.


The Afghan Government will remain dependent on military aid from the U.S. and NATO to secure the country and target remaining terrorist groups even if the Taliban reconcile.

The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) remains reliant on funding and aid from the U.S. and NATO. The ANDSF will not be able to secure Afghanistan after a withdrawal of foreign forces even in the event of a successful reconciliation with the Taliban. The ANDSF lacks high-end capabilities (such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets) and remains dependent on foreign combat enablers to conduct operations despite some recent improvements in its organic capabilities.[2] Former U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander Gen. Joseph Votel testified that the ANDSF remains “dependent on…coalition support” in March 2019. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani also confirmed that the Afghan Government would “not be able to support [its] army for six months without U.S. support and capabilities” due to a lack of funding in July 2018. The ANDSF is unlikely to be able to successfully secure ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan against ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups without this sustained help from the U.S. and NATO.

The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and a reconciled Taliban are not capable of defeating ISIS Wilayat Khorasan.

The U.S. and the ANDSF have repeatedly targeted positions held by ISIS Wilayat Khorasan in Eastern Afghanistan as well as the group’s attack networks leading to Jalalabad and Kabul. The Taliban also regularly attack ISIS in Eastern Afghanistan. However, ISIS still retains the ability to conduct spectacular attacks in both Kabul and Jalalabad, and seize terrain from the Taliban. ISIS may be expanding even further in Southern Afghanistan. The Taliban may be willing to fight ISIS in Afghanistan, but ISIS will likely prove resilient to both the Taliban and the ANDSF.

The U.S. would need to devote significant resources to sustain any counter-terrorism force left to safeguard its vital national security interests after its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Any small counterterrorism force would require a much larger force of enablers to support the soldiers conducting targeted operations against terrorist groups. Afghanistan in particular covers a large geographic area with substantial rugged and mountainous terrain, making it highly unlikely that a small force could adequately secure the safe havens held by terrorist groups. The idea of a light military footprint may appear attractive and effective, but it will not work in reality. Even the assets currently operating in Afghanistan lack the same breadth, tempo, and reach as their counterparts during the height of Operation Enduring Freedom.


Bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban undermine the Afghan Government’s ability to negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban.

The overall trajectory of the ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban remains unclear. Khalilzad has stressed that “nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to” in order to assuage concerns that the U.S. will negotiate its withdrawal from Afghanistan before facilitating negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. Khalilzad has repeatedly called for a permanent ceasefire but has not offered a specific timeline for how his plan will phase the withdrawal vis-a-vis a ceasefire agreement, domestic negotiations, and the implementation of a political settlement. The Taliban will likely hold little incentive to negotiate a genuine political settlement after it reaches a deal with the U.S. on the terms of withdrawal from Afghanistan, even if the agreement is conditioned upon progress in talks with the Afghan Government.

The Afghan Government is also losing political leverage because of its exclusion from the bilateral talks between the U.S. and the Taliban. The negotiations thus far have isolated and marginalized the Afghan Government, leading to increased tensions between the U.S and Afghanistan. This tension in turn creates a perception of declining support for Afghanistan from the West, further undermining the credibility of the Afghan Government. The Afghan Government may ultimately be forced to agree to a less-than-ideal settlement with the Taliban - especially given the Trump Administration’s urgency to withdraw from Afghanistan.

The Afghan Government cannot form a unified entity to negotiate with the Taliban. Multiple powerbrokers  each with competing interests  will need to participate in any successful negotiations over the future of Afghanistan.

The Afghan Government is not a truly cohesive entity. Khalilzad has stressed the need for a cohesive and inclusive negotiating team to represent the Afghan Government. Ghani has attempted to develop a single Leadership Council for Reconciliation but any government representatives at the negotiating table will in reality represent a complicated web of different ethnic groups, political organizations, and social backgrounds. Each of these groups hold interconnected but competing interests that will lead to a long, complex, and fragile negotiation with a high risk of failure. The U.S. has tried and failed to remedy the disruptive political competition within the Afghan Government. The Taliban’s political reintegration, if achieved, will likely further exacerbate rather than mitigate these contests and increase tribal and ethnic tensions across Afghanistan.

The looming 2019 Afghan Presidential Election – scheduled for September 28 – has politicized and complicated the reconciliation process.

Khalilzad has stated that he hopes to facilitate an agreement that allows the Taliban to participate as a political entity in the 2019 Afghan Presidential Elections set for September 28. This desire has accelerated the required timeline for meaningful progress in talks between the U.S. and the Taliban. It has also politicized the reconciliation process as a whole. Fourteen of the eighteen candidates in the election – including former Afghan National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar and current Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah – are boycotting Ghani’s Consultative Loya Jirga on reconciliation with the Taliban, accusing him of using it to further his own reelection. The intense political competition that accompanies Afghan Presidential Elections will make it increasingly more difficult to unite different factions and negotiate with the Taliban.

The Taliban are not willing to reintegrate into the current Afghan Government. Many Afghans are similarly unwilling to accept a political role for the Taliban.

The Taliban has remained evasive regarding its ultimate political objectives although it has indicated that it will not accept the current Afghan Constitution. The Afghan Government, wider Afghan urban society and the international community are all unlikely to accept major constitutional revisions - especially changes that undermine or reverse the dramatic social progress achieved in Afghanistan since 2001. It also remains unclear whether the Taliban are genuinely willing to reintegrate as a political party into even a modified system or will instead attempt to reestablish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban has claimed that it does not seek to control Afghanistan and its political representatives have indicated that it is open to transforming into a political party. The Taliban also met with multiple powerbrokers including many leaders of the Northern Alliance in February 2019, suggesting that it could coexist peacefully with its historic rivals. The Taliban nonetheless continues to view itself as the legitimate “government in waiting” and it may seek to leverage its robust shadow government structures to reassert its total control over the country once the U.S withdraws from Afghanistan. The Taliban’s reconciliation will ultimately accelerate competition – either political or military – between established powerbrokers and the reintegrated Taliban for control over power and resources in Afghanistan.

[1] The Taliban commander – who is also a member of the Taliban’s leadership council – specifically stated that the foreign fighters hail from China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, Tunisia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.
[2] U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) designated Afghanistan as its main effort in February 2018 in order to shift key combat enablers to support operations by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). The reallocation of resources slowed the Taliban’s momentum but also demonstrated the continued reliance of the ANDSF on the U.S. and NATO to secure Afghanistan.