Despite assurances from Riyadh over the years, individual donors from the Kingdom continue to fund the Taliban. The Taliban’s finance minister admitted that members of the Taliban would visit Saudi Arabia under the guise of going on pilgrimage in Mecca only to acquire funds. Financial support is obtained not only from wealthy Saudi donors, but also from Pashtun guest workers in the Kingdom whose families the Taliban would threaten back home, as noted by eminent foreign policy scholar Vali Nasr. Recently, there have been encouraging signs that the Saudi government has adopted a tougher line on the Taliban and attempted to rein in its international sources of support, given Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s more secular (albeit nationalist) approach to foreign policy. The Saudi government has publicly called for and even facilitated talks between the Taliban and Washington. The Trump administration should verify that its key ally’s claims of a shift in strategy are indeed genuine and press Riyadh to do more to undercut the Taliban’s access to funds and arms.
The other critical source of support for the Taliban emanates from Islamabad, specifically the Pakistani ISI. The United States has long accused Pakistan of sponsoring the Taliban, but despite years of security cooperation and billions of dollars of aid, the Pakistani ISI continues to covertly work with the Taliban—among other Islamist militant organizations like the Haqqani Network. This has laid the foundation for U.S.-Pakistani distrust, which led to high tensions in the relationship on several occasions, namely when President Barack Obama went after Osama Bin Laden inside Pakistani territory without alerting Islamabad, and more recently when President Trump tweeted that the United States has “foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years” and accused Pakistan of “lies and deceit.” Despite this problematic history and the fact that the Trump administration has taken the bold step of suspending U.S. military aid to Islamabad, Washington has been unable to encourage meaningful change in Pakistan’s disruptive actions in the region.
The reason for Pakistan’s continued support for the Taliban, according to Cato Institute scholar Sahar Khan, is that “militant sponsorship has become a kind of whole-of-government principle of Pakistan’s security policy and national identity.” Pakistan also fears a stable Kabul becoming an ally of India and encircling it, and so, Islamabad continues to use the Taliban and related groups as a proxy. With Pakistan’s support for Afghanistan-oriented militant groups being this fundamental to Islamabad’s national security strategy, this complicates Washington’s efforts to apply real pressure. However, considering the divisions between the civilian and military leadership in Pakistan, Washington could seek to induce change by strengthening ties with the civilian government while applying pressure on the ISI and Pakistani military. Plus, the United States does not have to be the only one using its leverage. Pakistan’s neighbors, including China—through its investments in Pakistan’s Gwadar Port—have considerable sway over Islamabad they can use as they pursue a more stable and durable Afghanistan.
Regardless, as the United States explores ways to compel Islamabad to change course, Khan argues that Washington should “look for alternative solutions to securing a durable peace in Afghanistan.” One such alternative solution remains encouraging the formation of a new strategic environment—as part of ACSA as we called for earlier. Pakistan has long wagered on a destabilized, misgoverned Afghanistan dominated by its only ally there, the Taliban. The emergence of ACSA would help Kabul secure long-term stability with the added benefit of incentivizing Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban and alienating Kabul out of fear of losing its stakes and influence in Afghanistan, especially as its direct rival India establishes a more enduring relationship with the Afghan government.
In order to reassure the fragile Afghan state and allow Kabul to function independently, the United States should be prepared to use its regional military presence to strike the Taliban or ISKP targets as a part of its global counter-terrorism strategy—albeit with caution and only in the most vital of circumstances. This will not prevent a complete withdrawal, but would give Kabul breathing room and reassurance that an ISKP foothold would not be established or civil war would not break out as the United States pursues creative diplomacy with regional stakeholders. These regional power brokers would eventually assume a greater role in assisting Afghanistan with its security needs.
For the sake of transparency, the special forces operations should return to the Pentagon’s umbrella as was done under the Obama administration. The Trump administration returning special forces operations in Afghanistan to a C.I.A. mandate with limited oversight undermines our defense strategy and our cooperation with Kabul. At the same time, it remains critical that Afghanistan’s forces will continue to receive training. Since 2014, the Afghan security forces have lost a staggering 45,000 troops. This is where allies can assist in a non-combat capacity. According to former NATO commander James Stavridis, “it is a smart division of labor to have the United States shift the bulk of its effort toward the special forces mission and having the Europeans do the training mission.”
It is a fact that the prospect of a U.S. pullout has left the Afghan leadership worried and dismayed. The Afghan central government remains weak with an unproven military and justly fears being overrun by the battle-hardened Taliban forces already occupying a large segment of Afghanistan.
After an eighteen-year quagmire with little to show, it is critical for the United States to withdraw and discontinue one of its many “forever wars.” At the same time, it is possible to withdraw without allowing Afghanistan to become overrun by the Taliban, leave a void for ISKP, or to fall into a full-fledged civil war. The United States must conceive of a diplomatic arrangement which would bolster the central government in Kabul, support the Afghan army, and guarantee the people of Afghanistan do not lose the hard-won cultural, civil, and constitutional rights they have gained.
Realists contend that the United States should have been focused on al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden after the tragic events of 9/11, and not nation-building. Not only is the continued presence of U.S. troops in the country not in our interest, the permanent presence of U.S. military forces on the ground has produced a moral hazard problem (as rightly predicted by former Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry) with the Afghan leadership relying on the U.S. military to neutralize internal security threats. Instead, Afghanistan should work to strengthen its own security forces and create lasting partnerships with actual stakeholders in the neighborhood such as China, Iran, India, and Russia—who arguably have an even more immediate interest in combating Salafist terrorism on their respective borders.
Close to two decades of U.S. presence has arguably radicalized a new generation of Afghans making them susceptible to Taliban’s anti-American rhetoric and turning them into easy recruits. The cycle of violence, animosity, and extremism has therefore perpetuated despite the heavy toll of thousands of U.S. casualties and close to a trillion dollars spent—with tens of thousands of Afghans killed and millions displaced in the process.
Virtually everyone agrees that nation-building and democracy promotion in Afghanistan has failed—and disastrously so. As we bring our troops home, the prudent trifecta of regional diplomacy, confronting allies, and a more restrained exercise of our counter-terrorism capability offers the responsible path forward.
Arta Moeini is a political scientist and a Middle East analyst. Dr. Moeini holds a Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University and a Masters in International Relations from Johns Hopkins SAIS. His latest project explores the philosophical sources of realist foreign policy thinking.
Shahed Ghoreishi is a U.S. foreign policy analyst and a graduate of the Johns Hopkins SAIS. His publications can be found in The Atlantic, The National Interest, and the Huffington Post, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @shahedghoreishi.