As the United States searches for a strategy in Afghanistan , a near consensus exists that military power alone cannot defeat the Taliban, making a political resolution of the conflict both necessary and inevitable. It is important to deploy more troops to the country, not because that action will force the Taliban to eventually reconcile in a power-sharing arrangement, but because it buys time for the reintegration process to yield threads of success. Theoretically, reintegration will allow for Afghanistan to gradually wean off the Taliban’s mid-level commanders in the leadership council from the Taliban’s hardcore ideologues, which would then make it possible for the country avoid negotiating a political settlement with the terror group.
The Taliban senior leadership remains dedicated to realizing an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan. Although that ideology has evolved over time, it would be unwise to expect the Taliban to compete in democratic elections, take cabinet positions, and respect the rights of minorities and free media. Therefore, a negotiated agreement that incorporates more Islamic values within the country’s constitutional democratic framework—which also somehow preserves most of Afghanistan’s social and economic gains since 2001—is unlikely. The Taliban don’t just seek to gain control over the political system, they want to change it. Had the group simply wanted a share of power, then its leaders would have come to the table long ago. The movement’s ascendant ideologues reject popular legitimacy and democratic accountability, viewing them as placing the will of the people above that of God. Even the Taliban’s so-called pragmatists—those possibly prepared to entertain a political outcome—seem unwilling to compromise on core principles.
Earlier this year, the Afghan government signed a peace deal with the notorious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, welcoming him to Kabul after more than twenty years. This accord was promoted as offering precedence for making peace with the Taliban, but it does not. Hekmatyar’s relations with the Taliban during his armed opposition to the Kabul government were mostly frayed. Though a hard-line Islamist, Hekmatyar has never sought to establish an Islamic emirate. Whether against his fellow mujahideen in the early 1990s, the Taliban in the mid-1990s, or the U.S.-supported Karzai administration after 2001, Hekmatyar has always fought for power for himself and his party rather than for institutional or ideological transformation. The deal he signed with the Ghani regime was far too generous for someone who could neither claim political legitimacy nor mount a serious threat to the Afghan state. It is the agreement that has elevated his significance and given him an opportunity to resume the role of a disruptive figure in Afghan politics. Indeed, Hekmatyar poses a far greater challenge to the stability of the Afghan government from the inside than he ever did from the outside.
Attempts to reconcile with the Taliban through a grand bargain are probably as unwise as they are unrealistic, and certainly more so as the movement’s control over—or contesting of—Afghanistan’s countryside continues to expand. While such expectations of the strategy to increase troops should be ruled out, it should be noted that Afghanistan could still use a nonmilitary route to achieve a peaceful, stable and united country. Reintegration is one option that could move the country toward those goals. It would require gradually weaning off Taliban field commanders and their foot soldiers from the Taliban movement. It would necessitate regional deals capable of leading those men toward laying down their arms and melding them back into the country’s political and social life. Seeing the prospect of being materially better off and able to satisfy local grievances would help to overcome Taliban loyalties. Senior Taliban leadership would then find themselves marginalized and unable to pose a serious military threat to the Kabul regime.
A successful reintegration strategy would be based on conditions that do not presently exist. To create those conditions, the government must win back the confidence of the Afghan people, and leaders must achieve reconciliation among themselves. Political and constitutional reforms are imperative to reinforce the legitimacy of the current government. Real progress can only occur by addressing the corruption that has torn apart the social, economic and political fabric of Afghanistan. Overdue legislative elections must take place in 2018 and presidential elections be conducted as planned in 2019. Election delays cause disunity in the executive branch and concerns over the concentration of power in Kabul. Additionally, the country needs a stable economy to sufficiently grow and attract investment, create jobs and stem the exodus of skilled Afghans.
All of these developments take time and are contingent on a qualitative improvement of performance by Afghan security forces and their ability to fend off attacks on the country’s population centers—something that can be achieved with the assistance of additional foreign troops. Inept command, poor training, corruption and insufficient air support have made it increasingly difficult for the Afghan forces to hold territory without the support of those foreign troops. Afghan forces casualty and attrition rates are at a record high, and the fighting morale is generally low. That is why increasing the number of American and allied troop levels in Afghanistan—and their terms of engagement—are essential elements of a minimalist maintenance strategy, one that could buy time for reintegration.