An Elusive Enemy

An Elusive Enemy

Betting against the Taliban is a bad idea. U.S. strategists need a dose of reality on Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has just announced plans to give the Afghan army primary responsibility for conducting combat operations against the Taliban insurgency. This will begin as early as mid-2013, at least a year earlier than originally envisioned, and suggests increasing U.S. confidence that the Afghan army will be up to the task. The announcement came less than a month after the U.S. intelligence community issued a classified report that seemed to imply exactly the opposite: while Taliban forces had been driven out of parts of southern Afghanistan as a result of the recent U.S. surge, the overall situation remained one of stalemate. The report apparently also expressed concerns about the chronic weakness and corruption of the Karzai government and questioned its ultimate survivability.

The Tablian’s Calling Card

While it is true that the Taliban’s presence has been significantly reduced in parts of southern Afghanistan, it is much less clear that the Taliban forces that were based there have been destroyed. Although there have been exceptions, the Taliban modus operandi when confronted by superior force is not to stand and fight but rather to slip away to fight again another day.

This slipping away has been a hallmark of the fighting across the border ever since the Pakistani army first came to blows with the Pakistani variety of Taliban in the spring of 2004. Army forces would move into an area dominated by the Taliban, which would simply melt away. When the army departed, as it invariably did during the early years of the fighting, the Taliban would move back in. It was only in 2009 that Pakistani Taliban stayed put after the army drove it out of South Waziristan and the Swat valley. The Taliban has yet to return to these areas in significant numbers. But it is nowhere near being a defeated force. Although the army has been chasing it from one tribal area to another ever since, government forces have been unable to deliver anything resembling a knockout blow. In fact, the Pakistanis now complain that the Pakistani Taliban is using Afghan territory as a safe haven, a mirror image of longstanding U.S. complaints that the Afghan Taliban uses Pakistani territory for the same purpose.

The United States launched a surge against Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan in 2010 and a similar pattern of the Taliban giving the slip appears to have emerged. When confronted by superior U.S. forces, the Afghan Taliban has adopted the same tactics used by its Pakistani counterpart: slipping away but preparing to fight later. One clear sign is Taliban forces turning up in places where they had not been seen before, particularly in northern Afghanistan. There have even been reports of Taliban forces in the Panjshir valley, the one area they never succeeded in penetrating during the long civil war that raged in Afghanistan prior to 9/11.

So long as U.S. and Afghan army forces effectively garrison the territory they have captured, the Taliban is unlikely to return, except to carry out periodic hit-and-run attacks. But will the Afghan army, in the face of steadily declining U.S. numbers, be able to maintain control over the region indefinitely?

Forget going on to secure the rest of the country. Serious questions remain both about the Afghan army’s motivation and fighting ability. It was formed from the largely Tajik and Uzbek core of the Northern Alliance, led by the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud until his assassination by the Taliban on the day before 9/11. His men were hardened fighters who were prepared to die for him. It is much less clear that the current Afghan army, although considerably larger and better trained and equipped, is prepared to die for Afghan president Hamid Karzai. The army is also operating in an inherently hostile environment. The Pashtuns who dominate the population of southern and eastern Afghanistan, and from whom the Taliban draw most of their membership and support, regard the Afghan army as an alien presence.

Like Herding Cats

Questions about the Afghan army’s staying power might be rendered moot if the Taliban could be persuaded to accept a power-sharing deal with the Karzai government. U.S. policy appears to be moving in this direction. There is also reason to believe that Pakistani decision makers—the Pakistani army—could also accept this outcome. They have been supporting the Afghan Taliban as a counterweight to growing Indian influence in Afghanistan but probably have little interest in seeing the Taliban once again dominate the entire country.

U.S. and Pakistani hopes are almost certain to be dashed. Since its founding in 1994, the Taliban has never shown the slightest interest in pursuing a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. Why should this change now, at a time when U.S. forces are beginning to leave the country in earnest?

The example of neighboring Pakistan is again instructive. The Pakistani Taliban has signed numerous agreements with the Pakistan army since its formation in 2004 and has broken every one of them. It views these deals simply as tactical moves or time wasters designed to gain temporary respite or advantage. There is no reason to believe that the Afghan Taliban is any different. Mullah Omar and the other core leaders of the Taliban movement are hard-bitten fanatics driven by religious zeal who chose war with the United States after 9/11 instead of turning over bin Laden. Any peace agreement they might sign in Afghanistan would not be worth the paper it was printed on.

The future of Afghanistan is likely to come down to a physical struggle between the Taliban and the Afghan army. Even with diminishing numbers, the United States will continue to bolster the Afghan army by providing equipment and training, retaining combat advisers in key positions, using special forces to carry out key missions and employing air power to prevent the reconstituting of an effective Taliban field army. Still, if the injection of more than one hundred thousand U.S. troops into Afghanistan was unable to fundamentally change the basic facts on the ground, it is hard to see how these further operations will.

Perhaps the best that can be hoped for in Afghanistan is perpetual stalemate, arguably not the worst of outcomes for the United States—or Pakistan, for that matter. Unfortunately, a deadlock is also likely to prove the best of possible outcomes. The decision to turn over primary responsibility to the Afghan army beginning in mid-2013 may provide an earlier test than most had anticipated. It is impossible to prove by any calculus which side, if any, will eventually prevail in Afghanistan. But my money is on the Taliban.

John R. Schmidt teaches at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. He served in senior positions in the State Department during a thirty-year foreign-service career, including as political counselor in the U.S. embassy in Islamabad in the three years leading up to 9/11. He is the author of The Unraveling: Pakistan in the Age of Jihad (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).