UPDATE August 14, 3:00 a.m. EDT: A major battle has raged for more than four days in the Afghan provincial capital of Ghazni, a strategic crossroads about 75 miles southwest of Kabul. A multi-pronged Taliban offensive overwhelmed U.S.-backed government forces on Friday. The Americans have responded with bombing. Hundreds have been killed. Residents who fled Ghazni told Reuters it is a ghost town.
On Monday, Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell, the spokesman for U.S Forces-Afghanistan told reporters, “U.S. advisers are assisting the Afghan forces and U.S. airpower has delivered decisive blows to the Taliban, killing more than 140 since August 10.” He said the Afghan government controlled Ghazni, Taliban forces were “isolated and disparate” and Highway 1, the main route from Kabul, was open. “That said, clearing operations are ongoing and sporadic clashes with the Taliban, particularly outside the city, continue,” he said.
We have heard this story before.
— The Editors
In recent weeks, reports have surfaced in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere that a senior State Department official, Deputy Assistant Secretary Alice Wells, has engaged in direct talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar. The State Department has confirmed only that she met in Doha with officials of the Qatar government. The Daily Beast also has reported on the months-long unofficial initiatives of retired U.S. Army Col. Chris Kolenda and Robin Raphel, a former U.S. ambassador, that helped open the way for these conversations.
But talks need to be based on a plan and lead to a conclusion, and it is far from clear that any firm decision has been made by the United States government about what that should be, and how it might be reached. The missteps in Afghanistan have been significant and while we tread water trying to figure out what happened, or where to go, we are wasting precious resources: 2018 must be the year of change in our policy, strategy, leadership, and approach or we will never get off this road we have been on for the past 17-plus years.
What’s required is a new group of thinkers to determine whether a complete military withdrawal or a return to the comprehensive strategy approach is viable or, alternatively, to depart from Afghanistan, or enter a truce with the Taliban.
We have three basic choices and we need to make them quickly:
1) Maintain the current approach or return to a comprehensive strategy approach. Neither is recommended; 2) Depart Afghanistan, but not abandon Afghanistan; 3) Work on a truce with the Taliban.
Maintain Current Approach or Return to a Comprehensive Strategy Approach
The current approach in my opinion is not worth another body bag or hospital bed. This so called “strategy” in Afghanistan will not result in success. The current senior leaders are looking for a way out that allows them to declare victory and success.
How do we expect the same leaders with the same failed ideas, leadership approaches, and group-think to change how we do business? As noted in a previous essay, we wasted opportunities, continued to operate conventionally in an unconventional environment, we failed diplomatically, we leaned on counter-terrorism at the expense of other more effective approaches by Special Operation Forces, we endorsed some failed operational constructs and abandoned others that worked.
We thickened the bureaucracy and created unnecessary tactical units. We returned to the the commanders’ comfort zone of kinetic strikes—that is, bombing and strafing—as we continued to engage in high-value-target hunting (elimination of Taliban leaders) and body counts. Such top-down tactics had failed before, and failed again.
More disturbing, as the New York Times reported last month, the newest U.S. strategy in Afghanistan “mirrors past plans for retreat.” It calls for American-backed Afghan troops to pull back from partially populated areas of the country. The Times notes that variations on this theme were played by both the Bush and Obama administrations. But in fact the precedents are worse than that.
The strategy resembles approaches used by the Soviets during their decade-long war, in which rural areas were abandoned, allowing opposition fighters to control most of the country and wait for the opportunity to take over key cities such a Kabul, Kandahar, Lashkar Gah, Mazar e Sharif, Kunduz, and Herat. The opportunity for the Taliban to take over the cities came soon after the Soviet withdrawal and the subsequent decision to remove funding that the Afghan government depended on to remain in power. The current U.S. strategy is opening the door for a repeat of that history. It is imperative that we do not make this same mistake.
Depart Afghanistan Without Abandoning Afghanistan
The top-down approach will not work in a country like Afghanistan, no matter how many bombs we drop, high value targets we kill, or Marines, Army Special Force Assistance Brigades, Special Operations Forces advisors and trainers we throw at the problem. The current notion that the Taliban and other violent extremist organizations have no place to hide simply has no merit.
We have worn out our Afghan partners and everyone is tired of the war. We have overstayed our welcome with the populace and drawn more violent extremist organizations to Afghanistan. We have not achieved regional security and hold zero leverage over the Taliban to force them to the negotiating table or to implement a viable reintegration program.
At this time, given the resources spent in blood and treasure, it does not sit well to depart, but it deserves serious consideration. Departing does not mean we abandoned Afghanistan or our interests in the region. There is a great danger that after a long and unpopular war, the U.S. will simply pull the plug altogether. That must not happen. We will need to continue to support an international effort to continue to financially support the Afghan government. We will need to continue our diplomatic presence and determine a way to support the Afghan government in developing businesses to increase and eventually become economically stable. We will need to remain an active member of regional security to safeguard our national interests with China, Russia, and Iran.
Working Toward a Truce With the Taliban
U.S.-Taliban negotiations are not likely to yield a satisfactory result due irreconcilable far-reaching issues with the Taliban, a lack of policy to drive it, and the fact that this is the Afghan government’s truce to work out, not ours.
As far as I know, despite the direct talks that have been reported, U.S. policy is to support an Afghan-led peace process and any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and Afghan government. Based on what we have done over the past 17 years it would be wise for us to stand clear and let the Taliban and Afghan government work out the conditions of any truce. We will get in the way and our support and participation would be counter-productive. The path forward and integration must be by the Afghans not the Pentagon or State Department. This is a diplomatic process and must be advised by those that understand the realpolitik, and not a group of idealists.
The other aspect of this is time. Realistically, this will take a long time and in the interim it will be business as usual. Every scar of the last 17 years and the previous decades will be up for examination as we continue fighting and creating more wounds and scars.
"It's our responsibility and our duty to pursue a diplomatic solution to this conflict and the way things have evolved in the last year or so, it's clear there is an opportunity. It's our responsibility to seize it," said Ambassador Raphel. "We can't stand by and let it pass, considering the number of Afghans, Americans and others who have died in this war."
But, that said, we cannot factor out the wider region, and that includes Pakistan, Iran, India, China, and Russia. While we have been fighting, these other countries have been working the long-term issues of resources, transportation connectivity, and infrastructure while staying away from the fight. It seems the U.S. does not care much about the region, but such issues will become priorities in any truce.
Outside intervention has not worked in Afghanistan. We must remember that the destruction of the Soviet Union was precipitated in large part by Moscow’s failed war, and failed peace, in Afghanistan. The Taliban government destroyed Afghanistan and the western approach has not fared much better.
What we need to do is let the indigenous Afghan model emerge and support this model to salvage U.S. interests in the greater region. We must remember, that due to an inconsistent policy, weak diplomacy, failed strategy, and a personality-driven operational approach we continually contradicted previous efforts. And we must also remember that the Taliban’s desire for direct talks with the U.S. is not new. They have wanted those for a long time because they see the government in Kabul as a U.S. puppet.
It is important to understand that the Taliban are not a single cohesive organization. This will present considerable challenges and must be left to Afghans to work out. There are many fissures in the Taliban and this complicates enforcing top-down compliance at the lowest echelons. The very issue of a truce, reintegration, or reconciliation could create huge problems within the Taliban.
We must also be prepared for the reality of continued violence in Afghanistan by numerous extremist organizations, including the so-called Islamic State, but also by the forces we’re talking to. In most conflicts, combat does not end with the beginning of peace talks, and often it increases as each party maneuvers for advantage.
The current Afghan government is a coalition government and its performance maintaining security, good governance, and delivering goods and services is poor. We must ask the question what the driving reason for the Taliban is to join the Afghan government?
I question the stalemate analysis. We are not going to win in Afghanistan and we need to move forward with this reality. The Taliban has not broken its ties with Al Qaeda or other extremist groups, and now we have ISIS complicating the mix, sometimes distinct from the Taliban, sometimes not.
The Taliban know that the main driver behind the United States wanting to reach a peaceful settlement is that securing that settlement is the key to our “face saving” departure from Afghanistan. We must recognize that once we have left the Taliban, will undertake their own agenda to secure a hold on power and govern.
The bottom line is that despite the dedication and sacrifice of our service members, America’s long war in Afghanistan will not end well. Despite our senior leaders’ efforts to portray the war as an American victory, the United States is not going to defeat the Taliban, other groups, and ISIS there anytime soon.
To be successful the U.S. must put together a small team empowered to make binding decisions. There are areas (mentioned earlier) that have a relatively wide range of applicability among countries. Economic policy is the most important regional concern. To gain stabilization the team would have to develop options to use and the conditions in which they could be best applied as part of a larger confederation working to stabilize Afghanistan.