When the Trump administration announced in 2020 that it would begin a full withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, many were quick to conclude that after almost two decades the United States was, in effect, conceding defeat in its longest war, capitulating to an insurgent group. A number of indicators certainly pointed in that direction. Signing the agreement with the Taliban served not only as a sober admission that, despite years of fighting, the Taliban remained undefeated. More importantly, as the United States bound the Afghan government to negotiate with the group, Washington effectively acknowledged that, in one way or another, the insurgent group was non-excludable from shaping the country’s future. To realize that the path towards stability leads through sharing power with an enemy may be an enlightened thing to do, but the human and financial costs of the twenty-year campaign hardly make it a cause for celebration in either Washington or Kabul.
The same cannot be said of the Taliban, though. Henry Kissinger famously noted that an insurgent wins “if he does not lose.” This means that all an insurgency has to do is stay put, resist, and wait until its adversary loses the will to carry on. With the U.S. departure in the cards, it is, then, not misplaced to argue that the Taliban has emerged with the upper hand from the drawn-out civil war. In fact, some go as far as to argue that the group has gotten exactly what it wanted: the moment the last of the U.S. boots leaves the ground there will be little stopping the Taliban from eventually reclaiming the country—a goal it has fought for ever since it was deposed in 2001.
Such concerns are clearly not lost on the Biden administration: it is currently reviewing the deal, raising hopes in security circles that the withdrawal might be delayed if there is a real prospect that it could lead to a Taliban victory. On the face of it, this is good news, as it might put to rest fears that deal was rushed through for the Trump presidency to secure a foreign-policy victory in an election year. But placing too much hope on the idea that the U.S. presence alone would be enough to avert the dreaded Taliban takeover is both falsely reassuring and dangerously misleading. In fact, although leaving in haste is hardly advisable, it is now possible to imagine that the Taliban might achieve its victory even if the United States stays.
Understanding why this is requires going beyond Kissinger’s assertion about not losing. To be sure, the idea has its merits and its innumerable appearances in scholarly articles bear out its continuing relevance. Nevertheless, it offers only a very narrow understanding of how insurgencies actually achieve victory. Outlasting the adversary is, no doubt, a crucial precondition, but it is hardly enough.
It is helpful to remember that the ultimate goal of any insurgency is to replace an existing regime and become the governing force within a certain territory and over a certain people. To believe that it can be brought about simply by waiting around would be as detrimental to the insurgent’s cause as is believing that it can be averted by merely staying. Much more is needed: as James Kiras reminds us, to achieve its goal, an insurgency must not only outlast its adversary but also actively expand its territorial control, seek support to sustain it, and successfully present itself as a legitimate replacement of the existing order. Analogically, to defeat an insurgency, it must be combatted on the three additional frontlines as well. Yet it seems that it is exactly there that the Taliban has been making the greatest strides.
Take territorial expansion. It is well known that the Taliban has used Afghanistan’s mountainous topography to resist destruction while wearing down its adversaries. But the group has been equally adept at expanding the territory it actually controls. Although impossible to tell precisely, it is estimated that the group now holds more land than at any point since 2001. In 2018, a BBC analysis reported that the Taliban held a total of fourteen of the country’s 421 districts, no more than 4 percent of the country. However, a year later, a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan revealed that the group had expanded its control to fifty-nine districts, amounting to roughly 15 percent of Afghanistan. Most recently, the Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s Long War Journal estimated that as of 2020 the Taliban was in full control of seventy-five districts, effectively commanding one-fifth of the entire country.
This is a worrying development, especially when one realizes that most recently, the Afghan government fully controlled only some 30 percent of Afghanistan (a drop from 50 percent in 2018), with the rest of the country’s territory remaining contested and, potentially, up for grabs. Clearly, a current trend does not automatically determine what will come next. Nevertheless, it still indicates that as the Afghan government loses its grip over the country the Taliban has been increasingly successful at holding it.
In terms of support, the story is similar. It is logical that any territorial control by an insurgent group will be short-lived if it does not have the means and resources to prop up its presence in the areas it holds. Generally, there are two ways to obtain support. One is coercion—the ability to intimidate the target population into obedience. For the Taliban this has been a key instrument: the group frequently resorts to displays of violence, such as public beheadings, to consolidate its foothold. As a result, Afghans in the seized territories tend to throw their support behind the group simply to improve their chances of survival.
Yet coercion can only get an insurgency so far. Rather, what is needed—for both support and success in general—is a degree of legitimacy. That comes when the insurgency demonstrates that it can do the government’s job better. And to an astonishing degree, the Taliban has done exactly that: in the territories it holds, it now operates a shadow state structure that, although brutal, is increasingly effective. Much of this owes the group’s ability to install a functional system of justice and law enforcement. According to the latest polls, a consistently major grievance among most ordinary Afghans is corruption, which, despite efforts, remains pervasive. The Taliban has been able to capitalize on this: life under its rule may be harsh but, as Florian Weigand explains, at least it gives people a “degree of predictability” and “feeling that everybody is treated the same way”—something the national government has yet to supply.
This goes some way towards explaining why the Taliban’s presence has grown in recent years: with successful expansion and support extraction, add legitimacy to the mix and there will be few obstacles on the paths to victory. In fact, returning to Kiras’ distinction, there will be exactly one: the need to outlast the adversary. So, in light of the Taliban’s triumphs just described, what should one make of the eventuality of the US departure?
Certainly, one logical conclusion is that the US presence now forms the last bulwark against a possible Taliban takeover and should, therefore, stay as it is. But it can also be argued that the presence alone has little bearing on whether a takeover of sorts happens or not. After all, the developments discussed have all taken place on the United States’ watch, signaling that mere presence does little to dissuade the Taliban from advancing. Surely, a hasty withdrawal might accelerate this trend, but staying seems unlikely to arrest it. A new, reinvigorated U.S. approach could possibly roll back some of the developments, but it goes without saying that there is neither political will nor public approval for that.
That said, it is becoming increasingly apparent that it makes little difference if the United States leaves now or stays a bit longer—clearly, the Taliban is making strides and, all things remaining equal, looks poised to continue to do so, whether or not the United States withdraws. This makes debating the withdrawal seem increasingly irrelevant—especially considering that a Taliban takeover might be more subtle than usually envisioned. As mentioned, the U.S.-Taliban deal calls for power-sharing between the Afghan government and the group (and the idea of an interim government that would include the Taliban is being pondered as we speak). If this happens (in whatever form), the Taliban will find itself in a position of power even without an overt takeover of Kabul. And if it continues, as it has, to demonstrate its effectiveness while subverting the national government’s efforts, its hold over the country will only strengthen. How long will it then take before it drives its opponents out of power?
Surely, it is by no means certain that such a scenario is what the future holds for Afghanistan but it is a possibility, and as such, it should be discussed. Endlessly debating the withdrawal serves only to overshadow this and other issues that may have an actual bearing on how the situation develops. This is a bad practice and it needs to change. The United States may be as good as gone, but the struggle for Afghanistan goes on. It is time for the debate to recognize this and move on.