FPI Bulletin: Taliban Builds on Last Year’s Gains

May 16, 2016

In February, 500 American troops from the 10th Mountain Division rushed back to Helmand province to prevent the collapse of Afghan units fighting the Taliban. Coalition forces had withdrawn from the province in late 2014, following a multi-year campaign that drove out the Taliban at the cost of several hundred American lives. Their return to Helmand illustrates how a precipitous withdrawal of American troops has enabled the Taliban to erase the gains made at great cost during the first years of President Obama’s tenure.

Battlefield Setbacks

The dangers of a premature American withdrawal had already become clear in 2015, the first year after the formal end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan. For Afghan forces, 2015 was the deadliest year on record. In September, the Taliban occupied Kunduz, the first time since 2001 they had gained control of a provincial capital, although they held it only briefly. In addition, al-Qaeda expanded its footprint while an Islamic State affiliate began to grow in eastern Afghanistan. In October, President Obama cancelled his plan to remove all 9,800 American troops by the end of his term, asserting that 5,500 would remain when he left office.

The situation continued to worsen in the first months of 2016.  U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper predicted in February that fighting would be even more intense than the previous, creating “serious risk of a political breakdown.” Meanwhile, the Taliban gained full control of five districts in Helmand and advanced to within three miles of its capital, Lashkar Gah. In Helmand, violence subsided in April while the Taliban concentrated on the poppy harvest, but they resumed offensive operations in early May. U.S. Army Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, a U.S. military spokesman, recently put the number of U.S. forces in Helmand at 700 to 800, up from 500 in February.

Although a small number of American forces have continued to carry out raids against Al Qaeda and ISIS, those extremist organizations are now much stronger than they were during the period of large-scale U.S. involvement. Last week, Brigadier General Cleveland stated that al-Qaeda had increased the magnitude of “capabilities and skills” it was providing to the Taliban, following al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s endorsement of the new head of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. Cleveland also stated that Al Qaeda had an estimated 300 personnel in Afghanistan and the Islamic State had 1,500. According to recent NATO analysis, al-Qaeda is active in twenty Afghan provinces.

Ineffective Politics and Diplomacy

Deteriorating security has sharpened accusations that President Ashraf Ghani and his government are woefully inadequate for the task of protecting and preserving the nation. Afghanistan’s present troubles are indeed not only military but also political. President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah are rivals who share power under a compromise agreement brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry following the disputed 2014 election. Gridlock has prevented Ghani from tackling many of the problems of dysfunctional governance that he had vowed to solve. According to the terms of the 2014 power-sharing agreement, the government is supposed to hold a grand assembly (loya jirga) of Afghan elders five months from now to consider changes to the constitution, but experts are highly skeptical that the assembly will take place.

Deteriorating security, political problems, and the economic decline stemming from foreign retrenchment are all causing hundreds of thousands of Afghans to flee the country. This tally includes some of Afghanistan’s most educated and talented youth—the people most needed to ensure the country’s survival. The instability, moreover, has ensured that the Afghan elites still in the country all have plans for one-way travel abroad, and thus sudden Taliban gains could spark a panicked exodus that might even cause the government to collapse overnight.

The Obama administration continues to cling to the hope that a diplomatic settlement will rescue Afghanistan from this unhappy state of affairs. During a visit to Afghanistan last month, Secretary of State John Kerry pronounced, “Today we call on the Taliban to enter into a peace process—a legitimate process, a real process—that provides equal rights protection for all Afghans and brings to an end the violence and suffering that the people of this country have endured for so many years.”

The Taliban responded to Kerry’s statement by firing rockets into Kabul’s diplomatic zone and claiming they sought to kill him. Two weeks later, insurgents carried out the deadliest attack in Kabul in five years, killing 64 people and wounding about 350. This defiance exemplified a disinterest in negotiations that stretches back to Obama’s first term. The Taliban have little reason to agree to peace at the moment; they are winning, and thus have no incentives to settle for something less than a complete military victory. Taliban leaders have said they would negotiate on the condition that foreign troops be withdrawn—but only because such a withdrawal would likely destroy Afghans’ remaining confidence in the United States and precipitate the collapse of the Kabul government.

Time for a New Strategy

The Taliban and the other insurgent groups will not sign a peace deal until they conclude that military victory is out of reach. Yet if the United States sticks with President Obama’s current plan to reduce the U.S. presence in Afghanistan from 9,800 troops to 5,500 by the end of this year, the military fortunes of the insurgents will only improve. Marine Corps General John Nicholson, the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is currently producing an assessment on the advisability of this downsizing. One finds it hard to imagine that such a distinguished military leader would favor continuing the withdrawal. But even if the number of troops remains at 9,800, the enemy is likely to enjoy more of the same success it has already.

Reversing the tide in Afghanistan will require major changes in American strategy. To enable American troops to assist Afghan forces more effectively, the United States should increase U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan and relax restrictions on American participation in combat operations, as called for by the outgoing U.S. and NATO commander, Marine Corps General John Campbell. To increase support for Afghan combat forces, the United States should deploy more aircraft to the country and authorize pilots to engage any hostile targets, not only individuals who are affiliated with Al Qaeda or ISIS or who attack Americans directly. The next President should make clear that the United States will never again allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists like those responsible the attacks of September 11th.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More