by Tony Wyman
A United States airstrike killed a major Taliban military figure on Saturday, dealing the insurgency that has been fighting a war against the Afghan government and its American backers for 17 years, 1 month, 3 weeks and 4 days as of this writing a “big loss,” in their words.
But that loss doesn’t change the fact that the war in Afghanistan, a war that has so far cost the United States more than $1 trillion, 2412 killed and 19,950 wounded, is, effectively over.
“It is time for this war in Afghanistan to end,” said President Trump‘s first commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., during his farewell speech after 31 months leading American and NATO forces in the theater. Now a four-star general, Nicholson was a Lt. Colonel in the Pentagon on 9/11 when American Airlines flight 77 plowed into the building just 100 yards from his desk. Unlike his colleagues in the office, then Lt. Col. Nicholson survived the attack because he was moving to a new home that day.
Beseeching those still fighting in the mountains and the ghettos of Kabul and other cities in the country to “…stop killing your fellow Afghans,” Gen. Nicholson asked the question, “Whose voices are important? The outsiders who are encouraging you to fight, or the voices of your own people who are encouraging you to peace?”
But those voices encouraging young Taliban soldiers to keep fighting having been making that call for so long that few of the young men fighting the war remember a time when they weren’t in conflict with the Americans or the Russians that were there before them.
The same can be said for the American and coalition troops joining in the fight. Few are even old enough to remember what happened on 11 September 2001 that triggered America’s entrance into a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan. Most were still in diapers when Al Qaeda, under the protection of the Taliban in Afghanistan, launched attacks against the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in the capitol, and an airliner that crashed in a farm field in Pennsylvania.
The war has gone on for so long that many of the original soldiers fighting it have retired. It has gone on longer, more than 6000 days, than World War I, World War II and the Korean War. Combined.
During that time period, more than 123,000 combatants and 31,000 civilians have died. And even though coalition bombing, drone strikes and other clandestine operations are at a five-year high, the Taliban effectively controls nearly than half the Afghan nation. According to the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the government in Kabul control or “influences” only 55.5% of the country, the least territory the Afghan state has controlled in five years. That number is down significantly from November 2015 when the government controlled or influenced 72% of Afghan territory.
As the situation on the ground continues to worsen, the coalition response is to increase air strikes to a four-year high. According to the unclassified airpower statistics report, coalition aircraft have flown 5819 sorties and employed 5213 weapons through September, up from the 2017 year end totals of 4603 sorties and 4361 weapon launches.
The purpose of the airstrikes, of course, is to do what ground troops can’t do: drive the Taliban to the negotiating table. Negotiating a solution to the war appears to be the only conclusion short of a humiliating withdrawal of American and coalition troops that would likely lead to a complete collapse of the Afghan regime and a Taliban takeover of the country.
“This is not going to be won militarily,” said Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the new US commander in Afghanistan. “This is going to a political solution.” Gen. Miller believes the mission of American and coalition forces should be keeping Afghanistan from again being a place where terrorists can live, train and prepare attacks on their targets without fear of being interdicted by opposition forces.
“This is about protecting U.S. citizens, when you go right to the heart of the issue,” he said to the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to become the 9th U.S. commander in Afghanistan since the war began. In other words, the mission is no longer about defeating the Taliban on the battlefield, it is about neutralizing them as a base for international terrorism.
If the solution to the “Endless War,” as the conflict in Afghanistan is known, doesn’t include a conclusion through the use of military force to defeat the Taliban, what is the Trump Administration’s plan to bring the war to an end?
In August 2017, President Trump announced a new strategy designed to bring “the integration of all instruments of American power-diplomatic, economic, and military- toward a successful outcome.” This strategy basically required significant military progress on the ground to force the Taliban to the negotiating table in a position of weakness, agreeing to meet to forestall continued combat defeats on the battlefield.
In a speech announcing the new initiative, President Trump said:
“Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.”
But that success on the ground hasn’t occurred and the parameters established by the president required to drive the Taliban to negotiations have yet to materialize. In fact, the opposite has happened in important areas of the country.
According to The Long War Journal, 41 districts in Afghanistan remain in Taliban hands, while another 201 of the 398 total districts are contested. Just in June, right after the announcement of a ceasefire, the Taliban overran the Kohistan District in Faryab Province, an area government forces and Taliban insurgents contested for more than a year. Even terrorist attacks by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), a terrorist group made up largely of remnants of ISIS and Al Qaeda, have increased during the first year of Mr. Trump’s new strategy.
An October 2017 Shia mosque assault by ISKP killed 56; a December attack on a Shia cultural center that year killed 41; twin suicide bombings in April 2018 murdered 10 journalists; bombings at election centers in major Afghan cities killed more than 50; and a May 2018 attack on the Ministry of the Interior killed a police officer and wounded 10 others.
These attacks demonstrate the ISKP is far from suppressed by the Trump initiative and, in fact, have developed the ability to launch more sophisticated, higher-profile attacks than in the past. In response, the US and coalition forces have focused more airstrikes against ISKP targets, as well as ISIS elements operating in the country. It is too early to tell if these attacks will reduce the effectiveness of terrorist operations.
Prospects for a peaceful conclusion to the war that allows the United States and coalition forces to withdraw will depend largely on how successful negotiators are with their Taliban counterparts. According to many who have followed the war from the beginning, those prospects are bleak.
“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,” wrote Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
In an article for the Weekly Standard, Mr. Joscelyn argued the Taliban will not accept the Kabul government as the legitimate representative of the Afghan people and will hold out until negotiators recognize their position.
“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,” he writes.
For years, the Taliban has been developing a shadow government, paralleling the existing one throughout provinces all over the country. They’ve appointed “shadow governors” and have prepared them and their men to take over governmental responsibilities as the Taliban takes control of new provinces.
In addition, despite sanction imposed upon them by the Trump Administration, Pakistan continues to provide safe haven for many Taliban leaders, a charge Islamabad vehemently denies. A month after the imposition of sanctions, Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi traveled to Washington to explain the Afghan policy of his country’s new prime minister, Imran Khan, an advocate of negotiations over military action with the Taliban.
In a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Mr. Qureshi said his country is willing to help jump start meaningful negotiations with the Taliban, claiming the insurgent group recognizes “that things have changed in Afghanistan. They can at best maintain a stalemate but those days are gone when they will just go in and take over Kabul.”
Minister Qureshi said during a speech at the Institute of Peace, “Pakistan is willing and Pakistan will use all its influence to do that. We feel that Afghanistan’s stability and peace are linked to ours.”
Whether Pakistan will follow up their words with action is anyone’s guess. When Mr. Khan was elected prime minister of Pakistan, Secretary Pompeo called him to congratulate him on his victory and to encourage the new leader to work actively to put an end to sheltering terrorists in his country and to use his influence to force the Taliban to the negotiating table.
After the call, in an interview with journalists, the prime minister insisted that subject never came up.