This month officially marks the 18th anniversary of the events which precipitated the entry of the United States military into the central Asian nation of Afghanistan. What ostensibly began as a quick campaign to remove the militant Taliban from power and destroy the al-Qaeda terrorist faction there has now stretched into a seemingly endless and intractable conflict. Only a few weeks ago, the United States had actually been negotiating with leaders of the Taliban to determine an exit strategy for the United States. But all of this broke down suddenly when President Trump suspended talks in retaliation for a recent attack that killed over a dozen Afghani civilians and one American soldier. So what does this all mean for the future of Afghanistan and America’s military presence? This week, we’ll discuss what comes next for America’s longest war.
Historically, Afghanistan has always been difficult for outside forces to rule. The area has a long list of would-be conquerors that have failed to subjugate the various tribes and ethnicities that call this region home. More recently, after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the last weeks of 1979, the United States embarked on a massive campaign to support the religious fighters, known as the mujaheddin, who opposed Soviet rule. When the Soviets finally retreated in 1989, these well-armed and victorious fighters immediately began vying for complete control of the country. By 1996, with support from both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, these fighters (now known as the Taliban) took control of the capital Kabul and declared themselves the rulers of the nation. During these years, the Taliban also harbored other like-minded organizations like al-Qaeda, which was founded by former mujaheddin fighter Osama bin Ladan. Whereas the Taliban’s focus was mostly on domestic Afghani affairs, al-Qaeda looked to influence international and American policy. The result of this was the September 11th attacks.
Within weeks of the attacks, the United States military invaded Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power and destroy the base of operations for al-Qaeda. The initial military victory was swift and decisive, but holding the territory and transforming the country into a robust American-style democracy would prove to be far more difficult. After a long series of troop surges and troop withdrawals, the United States has essentially admitted that it cannot completely destroy the Taliban. So for the past several years, the United States has been attempting to negotiate directly with the Taliban in order to execute a final troop withdrawal. But these negotiations have been somewhat problematic from the very beginning.
First of all, the structure of the talks was that the United States and the Taliban would work out a deal. Then, the Taliban and the current government of Afghanistan under Ashraf Ghani would negotiate a separate deal with the Taliban. This puts the Afghanistan government in a tough position, since they would have to negotiate while their main security backer (the United States) is in the process of trying to leave. In addition, few people can trust that the Taliban won’t try to seize control of the government again once the United States leaves. Despite having a powerful military, the United States actually holds far less leverage in these discussions since everyone knows it is looking for the cleanest exit strategy it can find.
But now, just as a final deal between the Taliban and the United States seemed almost complete, the president has dissolved the entire process. The cancellation even occurred just hours before a secret meeting to finalize the agreement was set to begin at Camp David. This occurred just days after the Taliban claimed responsibility for another bombing in Afghanistan. So why would the Taliban jeopardize everything by launching an attack on the heels of a major peace agreement? Many experts have speculated that this was likely done as a show of strength to the Afghani military and to other Taliban fighters. The Taliban might have also believed that the United States would ignore these attacks as it has done on the several other occasions of Taliban violence throughout the negotiations.
So with the negotiations potentially cancelled, where does this leave us now? Well, the situation on the ground hasn’t changed much. The Taliban still control some sections of the country, the Afghani government still holds the capital and several strategic areas, and the United States still wants to leave as quickly and cleanly as possible. The president continues to reiterate his support for withdrawal from Afghanistan, and nearly every Democratic presidential nominee also supports withdrawal of military forces from the country within a few years. Few Americans want the Taliban to retake the country, but even fewer want to see the United States continue the war. Whether or not peace talks resume, there is little chance of this stalemate changing any time soon. Unfortunately for those among the Afghani population who do not support the Taliban, it is looking increasingly likely that the United States will settle for a deal that places more emphasis on the Taliban renouncing international terrorism, rather than a deal which seeks to ensure the continuation of the current Afghani government.
After all, the primary motivator for the American invasion in the first place was to rid the country of safe havens for international terrorist organizations. By this measure, the war has been somewhat of a success (though at a dramatic cost). The United States also succeeded in establishing a functioning (albeit very shaky) democracy that has curbed some of the most radical religious restrictions of the Taliban. But as far as removing the Taliban completely, everyone knows that the United States has essentially lost this battle. Few are willing to take the last dramatic steps needed in ending it. Unless we as a nation are willing to fully commit the resources and lives necessary to ensure the compete defeat of the Taliban, then the United States will almost certainly end the war with little to show other than a weakly supportive government. If that happens, we shouldn’t be too surprised to see Afghanistan descend into another bloody civil war once American forces have left completely.