In Afghanistan, the USA is now committed to a holding operation with no easily imaginable end in sight, either through peace or victory. The promises of the Trump administration and the Pentagon that this year will mark a turning point due to a small reinforcement of 4,000 men to help the Afghan National Army can be dismissed without serious consideration. US presidents and generals have made the same promise every year for the past decade and more.
Thirteen thousand men (including NATO allies restricted to training missions) are not going to achieve what 135,000 US troops failed to do, and the Afghan National Army is assuredly in no shape to end this war. The only thing that can do so is a peace settlement – but terms acceptable to the Taliban are almost certainly far beyond anything that the government in Kabul will be able to offer. As to Western hopes of strengthening democracy, tackling corruption, and combating the heroin trade, US and NATO rhetoric on these subjects has achieved a level of repetitive, empty, meaningless, tedious exhaustion reminiscent of the last years of Brezhnev’s leadership in the USSR.
Present US strategy is possible because a combination of different factors has allowed the USA to reduce its troops in Afghanistan to a minimum and thereby to reduce US casualties to a level where they do not cause any serious complaints from the US public and politicians. At $5.7 billion in 2016-17 for US forces in Afghanistan, around $4 billion a year in support for the Afghan security forces, and a similar sum in aid for the Afghan state in general, the financial cost, though significant, is also a small proportion of America’s $691 billion military budget.
Militarily, the present US strategy is possible because – as in the period 1989-1992, after the withdrawal of Soviet forces – the armed opposition, while it can dominate much of the countryside (as of the spring of 2018, some 70 percent of Afghan districts are estimated to be wholly or partly controlled by the Taliban), does not possess the heavy weapons or the numbers necessary to storm defended towns and cities in the face of overwhelming US firepower. Just as the Afghan Mujahedin suffered a bloody reverse when they tried to take the city of Jalalabad in March 1989, so the Taliban have suffered heavy losses when they have attacked major towns.
The only thing that might change this pattern from a purely military point of view would be if one of Afghanistan’s neighbours (Pakistan being the most obvious candidate, but there are others) chose to supply the Taliban with greatly increased firepower and technical support. So far however no state has been willing to do this, both out of fear of the US reaction and because they do not sufficiently trust the Taliban as allies.
This does not mean that the US position in Afghanistan is secure. The weakness however is not in the Taliban military threat as such, but in the thoroughly rotten nature of the Afghan state created by the USA and its western allies after 2001. For if the military situation in Afghanistan today closely resembles that in 1989-1992 between the Soviet withdrawal and the collapse of the USSR (and therefore of Soviet aid), the USA and its allies have vastly complicated their position by the attempt to introduce “democracy” to Afghanistan. This means a guaranteed political crisis every five years, otherwise known as Afghan presidential elections.
The results of the last, almost certainly massively rigged elections of 2014 were rejected by the losing candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, leading to a stand-off which was only resolved by a fragile, paralysing and unconstitutional power-sharing arrangement between him and President Ashraf Ghani. At the heart of the problem is the fact that Afghanistan has had to adopt what is in effect an ethnic power-sharing arrangement, whereby the Pashtuns – the traditional people of state and also the backbone of the Taliban – are guaranteed the presidency (irrespective of the actual vote) and the other ethnicities receive various forms of compensation. But because this is an informal and indeed covert and unacknowledged arrangement, it is subject to endless disagreement and dispute – the more so as Dr Abdullah’s former supporters feel that they did not in fact receive the compensation they were promised for pretending to accept Dr Ghani’s election.
As to what will happen in the 2019 elections, God alone knows. In recent years, the politics of Kabul have become steadily more ethnicised. This is fed both by the ambitions of rival ethnic leaderships and by the fact that Western and Afghan development programmes since 2001 made the classic mistake of promoting education without creating an economy that could provide anything like the corresponding number of educated jobs. The result is that Kabul is full of unemployed youths carrying meaningless academic degrees, too proud to do manual labour and convinced that the state owes them a job – typical fodder for political unrest. The risk for the USA then is not Taliban military victory, but that US troops may find themselves in the middle of a meltdown of the Kabul state from within, and forced either to withdraw or to intervene on one side or the other, possibly initiating a new civil war within the civil war.
Why in the face of these risks and this seemingly insoluble political imbroglio does the US security establishment wish to hang on indefinitely in Afghanistan? After all, as Pakistan has long advocated, and as Russia and China are exploring, there would seem to be some very good reasons to seek a peace settlement with the Taliban, and the war weariness of much of the Taliban rank and file would suggest that a genuine offer of peace and power-sharing might have some chance at least of success.
The emergence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan as a force that is – remarkably enough – bitterly hostile to the Taliban, the USA, and all Afghanistan’s neighbours, creates a common rationale for a settlement. Even while Mullah Omar was still alive, the Taliban leadership eschewed international jihadism and declared itself a purely Afghan force – though given the links of the Haqqanis to Al Qaeda that is obviously a point on which further guarantees would have to be given.
On a point of vast importance to Russia, Iran, Britain and the European Union (though admittedly not so much the USA), the Taliban are the only force in Afghanistan over the past four decades that has ever succeeded in suppressing the production and traffic of heroin. Finally, there is the fact that there is no conceivable chance of achieving military victory over the Taliban in the sense either of restoring government control over the countryside in the east and or of putting so much pressure on them that they agree to terms that they would see as surrender. Vastly greater US and NATO forces could not achieve this, and it is immeasurably beyond the capacity of the Afghan state forces. Washington still hopes that Pakistan can be forced to attack the Taliban bases on the Pakistani side of the border, but Pakistan has no motive whatsoever to start another conflict on its soil and repeated US attempts to bring pressure to bear over the past seventeen years have all failed. It is true that there is considerable war-weariness in the ranks of the Taliban, and division among its leadership, but that is equally true of the government side.
The reasons for the USA to hold on appear threefold. The first is prestige, or what in Washington is called “credibility”. The fear is that to admit failure and allow the Taliban into Afghan government would send yet another signal of US decline and lack of will, and embolden America’s enemies and rivals elsewhere. Almost ten years ago, I asked a senior US general who had commanded in Afghanistan if he could explain to me victory for the USA in Afghanistan. He replied that he could not, and he did not think that anyone else in Washington could either. But, he continued, he and the US military in general could clearly define what defeat would look like. It would look like Saigon in 1975, with pictures splashed across the world’s media of panic stricken Afghan servants of the US storming the US embassy and scrambling to get onto the last US helicopters out of Kabul: “Do not underestimate the willingness of the US armed forces to fight on for a very long time to prevent images like that appearing again.”
Of course, any peace settlement with the Taliban would be intended to end the conflict and prevent a flight of the Taliban’s erstwhile enemies, but – just as in South Vietnam – once US troops are withdrawn Taliban guarantees of this may not be worth very much, and the Taliban have made a complete withdrawal of US forces an absolute condition of peace.
This fear also contributes greatly to the second obstacle to peace, which is that while the Taliban have repeatedly tried to insist that they will only negotiate peace with the Americans and not the Kabul government, America cannot simply override and abandon its Afghan allies. There are of course precedents for this – notably the deal with North Vietnam over the heads of the South Vietnamese government, leading to the abandonment of South Vietnam – but the USA is under nothing comparable to the military pressure and domestic political stress that it was suffering over Vietnam in the early 1970s.
The risk for the USA of trying to push the Kabul regime into a peace settlement is not that it will refuse, but that it will collapse; that the resulting tensions and protests will increase the internal divisions among the Kabul political elites that the entire state will break up, with different factions fighting among themselves and some of them defecting to the Taliban – which is just how the regime of President Najibullah broke up and collapsed in 1992 after Soviet aid came to an end.
Lastly, it has been alleged that the US security establishment is unwilling to contemplate a peace deal with the Taliban that would require the USA to close its bases in Afghanistan, because it sees these bases as playing a valuable role in rivalry and possible future conflict with China, China’s ally Pakistan, Russia and Iran. This has been alleged for example by Colonel (retd) Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell when he was Secretary of State. Wilkerson told Tolo News in 2017 that “The United States will probably be in Afghanistan, I have said repeatedly, for the next fifty plus years. Because it is the only place geographically speaking in that region from which the United State with high military power can affect China’s …One Belt One Road…,”
The impending US destruction of the nuclear deal with Iran obviously makes a US-Israeli-Saudi attack on Iran a real possibility once again, and a crude and short-sighted military strategist might well see US bases on Iran’s eastern borders as useful assets in any attack on that country.
I say a crude and short-sighted analyst because in fact exactly the opposite may be true. If the Trump administration in its madness does attack Iran, then helping the Taliban to attack the Kabul regime and US forces in Afghanistan will give Iran by far its best, its easiest, and its cheapest way of hitting back. At this point, Afghanistan would become for the USA what it was for the USSR, the British Empire and indeed the Iranian empire in past eras – not an asset, but a liability and source of vulnerability.
Given the apparent motive for the USA also to use Afghanistan as a base against Russia and China, these countries have an obvious motive to exploit US difficulties there. And indeed, US representatives have accused Russia of giving help to the Taliban, though without offering any actual evidence of this. All that seems to have happened so far is that Moscow and Beijing have – quite legitimately – conducted talks with Taliban representatives, to gauge both their intentions as regards the future of Afghanistan and any peace process, and the sincerity of Taliban promises not to support international terrorism and extremism. The US combination of bitter hostility to Russia with an ever-closer alliance with India is also naturally leading to an improvement of relations between Russia and Pakistan. China of course is a longstanding ally of Pakistan’s, as a counterweight to their mutual enemy India, and more recently as the route for “CPEC”, the China-Pakistan economic corridor carrying Chinese exports and energy supplies to and from the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea.
Beyond this however it would be unwise for Moscow to venture. The internal affairs of Afghanistan have led one outside power after another to disaster over the years. The deep internal rivalries between Afghans themselves, the chronic weakness of the Afghan state, and the intrigues of neighbouring powers create a truly horrendous tangle, for which no-one has any magic key. Moreover, anyone who aspires to find a stable solution for Afghanistan had better be prepared to take over from the USA the responsibility for financing the Afghan state, since it is completely incapable of financing itself. The heroin trade cannot be taxed, foreign investment is impossible in the middle of a civil war, and with the Indian-Pakistani border closed to trade Afghanistan does not lie on any significant trade route Hence the fact that China has both kept its (theoretically enormous) investments in Afghanistan strictly to paper promises, and has steadfastly refused to accept any responsibility for Afghanistan’s security.
If CPEC becomes a great success and leads to an economic boom in Pakistan (a country which has disappointed economic hopes for almost 50 years), then Afghanistan may perhaps be persuaded to join in, and this could for turn part of the economic basis for peace. That day however is a very long way off. Until then, outside powers tempted to seek advantages in Afghanistan should heed the advice given to me by a Chinese diplomat many years ago: “If you do not know what to do, do nothing.”
Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and author among other books of “Pakistan: A Hard Country”.