A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.
Since toppling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan 14 years ago, the United States has been waging a non-stop battle against its foot soldiers. Locked in a war that has already cost nearly $1 trillion, the US has now shifted its focus to making peace with the enemy. It will not work.
Months after President Barack Obama declared that America’s “combat role” in Afghanistan was over, the US and its allies continue to carry out airstrikes on Taliban positions regularly, while American special operations forces continue to raid suspected insurgent hideouts. In fact, beyond an increased role for Afghan forces in the fighting, the situation in the country has changed little since “Operation Enduring Freedom” was renamed “Operation Resolute Support.”
Obama’s premature declaration will be remembered much like his predecessor George W. Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech, which proclaimed the end of major combat operations in Iraq long before they actually ended. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of casualties in Iraq were yet to occur.
Nor is this the first time that Obama has jumped the gun. In October 2011, he announced that he was bringing “the long war in Iraq” to an end by withdrawing all US troops. Yet, last year, the US was back at war in Iraq, this time in an effort to rein in the Islamic State, with Obama relying on the same congressional authorization that Bush secured for military action there a decade before.
In Afghanistan, the Obama administration has already missed the 2014 deadline, set in 2011, for withdrawing US forces. And it has rescinded another self-imposed deadline, having scrapped its plan to halve the number of US troops still deployed in Afghanistan – currently around 10,000 – by the end of this year.
So America’s military intervention in Afghanistan is now open-ended – and the fighting is not subsiding. On the contrary, the recent escalation of Taliban attacks indicates that the approaching summer fighting season will be among the most intense since the war began.
The Taliban has already inflicted far more casualties among US and allied forces than Al Qaeda and the Islamic State combined. A total of 2,215 American troops have been killed in Afghanistan, and another 20,000 wounded, since 2001. The United Nations documented a record-breaking 10,548 conflict-related civilian casualties just last year.
Yet Obama has refused to designate the Taliban as a terrorist organization, leaving it off the list of terrorist networks mentioned, for example, in his recent joint statement with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Instead, his administration has sought to portray the Taliban as a moderate force that can be accommodated within Afghanistan’s political system.
Moreover, in 2013, Obama allowed the Taliban to establish what was essentially an embassy in exile in Doha, Qatar, complete with a flag and other diplomatic trappings. And, last year, the US released five top Taliban leaders – including Mohammad Fazl and Mullah Nori, who are suspected of carrying out massacres of Sunni Tajiks and Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan – from the Guantánamo Bay detention center.
In releasing the five, the Obama administration claimed that it was simply doing what was necessary to secure the return by the Taliban of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl (who has now been charged with desertion). But the real objective was clear: to lay the groundwork for direct talks with the Taliban. The move not only belied US claims that it does not negotiate with terrorists; it also failed to bring the Taliban militia to the negotiating table.
With these concessions, the US has revealed to the Taliban – and the world – its desperation to achieve a face-saving settlement that would enable it, at long last, to escape the Afghan quagmire. It is no wonder that the Taliban chief, Mullah Muhammad Omar, hailed the release of his five comrades as evidence that his militia is “closer to the harbor of victory.”
The Obama administration’s desperation is similarly apparent in the generous aid that it has provided to Pakistan, including an imminent arms deal worth almost $1 billion, in an effort to secure the country’s cooperation on counter-terrorism. Yet the Pakistani military continues to shelter the top leadership of the Taliban, which it regards as an invaluable asset for gaining “strategic depth” in Afghanistan against India.
America’s success or failure in Afghanistan now hinges on a single limited issue: whether it can prevent the Taliban from marching into Kabul. By highlighting its desperate search for an exit, the US has given the Taliban the upper hand, letting the militia’s leaders know that they can simply wait it out.
Delaying a further drawdown of US forces will be inadequate to convince the Taliban otherwise. With its top leadership ensconced in Pakistan and its field commanders in Afghanistan becoming increasingly autonomous, the Taliban no longer has a centralized command. And, fearing desertions to the Islamic State, it knows that giving Obama what he wants – a peace deal that enables him to declare victory before his term ends in January 2017 – would be its death knell.
America’s faltering Afghan strategy should serve as a cautionary tale of how not to make peace with an enemy. It is time for Obama to recognize that a political settlement with the Taliban is simply wishful thinking. Instead, he should focus on bolstering Afghanistan’s security forces and identifying ways to eliminate the Taliban militia’s sanctuaries in Pakistan. After all, terrorists are not in the business of making peace; America should not think otherwise.