Order Before Peace
Kissinger’s Middle East Diplomacy and Its Lessons for Today
For one and a half decades, the United States and its partners in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have waged a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. And, year after year, the Taliban has staved off defeat. One assumption in U.S. policy has been an unwavering faith that the United States can ultimately force an acceptable outcome in Afghanistan. Early in the conflict, the country sought outright defeat of the Taliban. Later, as the feasibility of that objective was called into question, it embraced a more modest goal of leaving Afghanistan with a security force of its own, capable of defending the country against the Taliban. The objectives may have changed, but accompanying troop extensions have anchored the United States’ commitment to its ambitions. Following that pattern, in July of this year, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the latest troop extension, guaranteeing that the next U.S. president will inherit approximately 10,000 troops in Afghanistan.
By a variety of indicators, ISAF and the Afghan government it supports are losing the war. According to data recently released by the Pentagon to one of the authors, violence in Afghanistan following Obama’s 2009 troop surge has remained at levels vastly exceeding those observed during the initial years of the war. Meanwhile, measures of insurgent activity, from kidnappings to weapons sales, have remained at levels at or above those observed when the United States “surged” troops into the country. Perhaps most alarmingly, since 2010, when ISAF began tracking combat outcomes on a consistent basis, the number of insurgent attacks resulting in the deaths of Afghan police officers and soldiers have continued to steadily climb.
These trends call into question the logic of further extending the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. For years, available evidence has suggested that decisive victory over the Taliban is not possible. Outside of permanently stationing forces in Afghanistan, it is unclear that the United States can prevent the Taliban’s eventual forceful reclamation of large swathes of Afghan territory. Although the costs associated with a complete U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan are potentially quite high, they may be unavoidable. Furthermore, there are additional costs associated with remaining engaged. Even as the prospects of a victory in Afghanistan have waned, the United States and its partners have continued to fight, and it appears that ISAF is now fighting to avoid ultimate failure. Yet this too is surely a losing proposition. It is time to engage seriously with the question of whether the benefits of delaying a withdrawal outweigh the costs of doing so.
The logic of further troop extensions is intuitive. The ghosts of Iraq, and the rise of an extremist quasi-state in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from that country, are haunting. Were the United States to fully withdraw from Afghanistan, Afghan forces would be left to fend off the Taliban’s efforts to seize territory from the government. The Taliban has already shown both the desire and capability to pull off such a feat; with each yearly fighting season, the group wrests control of various areas from ISAF and Afghan government forces. The sobering reality is that, without continued U.S. backing, significant Afghan losses are all but certain.
Others, including former ISAF Commander and CIA Director David Petraeus have advocated for continued troop presence on the basis that Afghanistan “is a place where Al Qaeda and ISIS still have modest footprints that could be expanded if a security vacuum developed.”
Upon closer inspection, however, the logic of troop extensions appears somewhat tenuous.
Afghanistan is ripe for successful insurgency.There is very little possibility that, at current troop levels, any additional time spent by U.S. forces in Afghanistan will result in significant successes against the Taliban. Over the past 15 years of war in the country, many of which included international troop numbers far in excess of the current figure, the United States and its international partners were unable to defeat the organization. A sustained insurgency is all but certain against Afghanistan’s national forces bolstered by the United States and its allies.
Academic research finds that conflicts in which foreign assistance is available to insurgents tend to be more severe and last longer than other types of civil conflict. Moreover, mountainous terrain and contraband financing can contribute significantly to the persistence of civil conflict. In Afghanistan, the continued support provided by Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, the sanctuary provided by the Hindu Kush mountains, and financing from private donations from “citizens from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, and some Persian Gulf nations” as well as income from the trade in opium suggest that the Taliban insurgents have many more years of fight left in them.
Department of Defense data from the Afghanistan conflict support this position. Despite the United States’ best efforts to pacify the country, levels of violent instability there today vastly exceed those observed over the first seven years of conflict. (The data are obscured somewhat by the seasonality in fighting in Afghanistan, which accounts for a significant amount of variation in conflict intensity. The data are, therefore, presented both in the form of the raw time series and a decomposed trend.)
In addition to the Taliban’s expected longevity, its continued spread throughout Afghanistan likely cannot be thwarted. In late 2013, much of the world watched in disbelief as ISIS (also known as Islamic State) fighters overran Iraqi military units that had received tens of billions of dollars in training and advanced weaponry from the United States. Today, ISIS claims broad swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria (although it has recently lost control of some of its territory).
Following these events in Iraq, the specter of Taliban forces similarly displacing Afghan soldiers looms larger now than at any other time during the conflict. The United States’ continued military engagement in Afghanistan thus provides hope that Afghan forces can maintain control of their country. And if the Taliban can be contained, as Petraeus and his colleagues argue, then ungoverned territory—the type that radical extremist organizations might attempt to exploit to their advantage—will be kept at a minimum, reducing the terrorist threat facing the United States.
There is some logic to this latter argument. Violent political organizations do indeed appear to pose a greater threat when they have access to territory. As Princeton Professor Jacob Shapiro explains in The Terrorist’s Dilemma, organizations without territory face considerable principal-agent problems, particularly in the form of communication constraints, which hinder their efficacy.
Yet there are two problems with this general line of argument. First, it is unlikely that the Taliban’s spread in Afghanistan can be thwarted. Despite the United States’ current and continued presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban is challenging the Afghan government’s control of entire provinces, including Kandahar and Uruzgan. Meanwhile, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan’s Reconstruction recently reported that, since January of this year, the Afghan government has lost control of an additional five percent of its districts. It now controls only 65.6 percent of them. Another source estimates that a full one-fifth of Afghan territory is “controlled or contested” by the Taliban.
Other indicators of insurgent activity captured in the Pentagon data similarly reveal significant, ongoing Taliban activity. For instance, the number of cases of detected terrorist activity has risen since the war began, as have instances of other activities related to Taliban operations—from the running of illegal checkpoints and smuggling efforts to weapon sales.
Perhaps the most compelling trends in the data, however, relate to the incidence of casualties during violent engagements between the two sides. This particular data was not systematically tracked by ISAF forces until 2010. However, for the four-year period for which data are available, the trends are stark. Afghan military and police forces have seen a sharp increase in the number of deadly engagements since reporting began. Skirmishes involving insurgent fatalities have also increased. Finally, the incidence of ISAF casualties has decreased consistently as the United States and its multi-national partners have withdrawn their forces from the battlefield and into bases or removed them from the country altogether.
The data on insurgent attacks may represent only a fraction of the Taliban’s military capability. For years, the group’s leadership has pursued a strategy of simply outlasting the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. The approach, then, raises an important question: Is the Taliban currently operating at or near full capacity?
Because the Taliban enjoys access to a relatively safe haven behind Pakistani borders and can take refuge within the rugged terrain between Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is possible that the group does not require its full military capacity to outlast the ISAF. The organization might instead strategically moderate its use of violence in an effort to balance the costs and benefits of carrying out attacks.
After all, attacks on ISAF forces—although they potentially hasten U.S. withdrawal—are highly costly. Given the disparity in military capabilities between the two sides, skirmishes between ISAF and Taliban forces are much more likely to result in Taliban casualties. For instance, from the Pentagon’s data, we calculate that, across the many thousands of fatal engagements between ISAF and insurgent forces throughout the war, in only roughly six percent of cases did ISAF suffered one or more fatalities. In some 95 percent of cases, the insurgents suffered casualties. (These numbers do not add up to 100 percent because in a small number of engagements, fatalities were suffered on both sides.)
To determine whether the Taliban is, in fact, moderating its use of violence, we can look to Afghanistan’s election periods for evidence. Although the organization may be biding its time, it nevertheless aggressively seeks to minimize voter turnout. On election days, the data reveal, the Taliban increased indirect fire and other attacks by very substantial margins relative to non-election days. Of particular note, the Taliban was not only capable of effecting substantial increases in violence on those days, but in the days and weeks following elections, there is no obvious drop in indirect fire attacks relative to normal combat days. This apparent return to routine combat activity indicates that the organization’s resources were not depleted through its intense election-day efforts, as might have otherwise been suspected.
SOLUTIONS IN AFGHANISTAN
If ungoverned spaces are the focus of U.S. counterterrorism strategy, troop extensions in Afghanistan are not the solution. Many ungoverned spaces have developed since the United States first invaded Afghanistan. Chunks of Iraq have been lost to ISIS. In Syria, the beleaguered government is estimated to have no control over some 83 percent of the country’s territory. Similar spaces have developed in Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and parts of Mali. In other words, a real strategy for ungoverned spaces would require much more than troops in Afghanistan.
Further, there are others costs associated with continued engagement in Afghanistan. One and a half decades of military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan have put a significant burden on U.S. troops. Sustained war has imposed considerable strain on the military’s operation and maintenance budgets. And from both legal and ethical perspectives, the U.S. global counterterrorism campaign continues to pose difficult questions, particularly those related to civilian casualties.
Whether the United States and its partners hasten their withdrawal from Afghanistan, there are nonetheless steps they might take to prevent the unnecessary loss of life as the Taliban continues to wage its campaign.
Tens of thousands of Afghan citizens have risked their lives and, in many cases, those of their family members to support U.S. efforts in their country. Many of these individuals now face the prospect of deadly retaliation as the Taliban continues to expand its influence across the country. One such group includes Afghan interpreters, who, as the New York Times’ editorial board wrote in August, “remain in mortal danger” even though, “as things stand, there are roughly 12,600 [visa] applicants with pending petitions and only about 2,500 visas the State Department is authorized to issue… 10,100 Afghans, who had every reason to believe that their service to the United States would be rewarded with a safe haven, may be left behind.” Affording these and other individuals at the highest risk levels the opportunity to escape probable persecution offers the United States an opportunity to exit Afghanistan with grace.
Abandoning a project in which the United States and is partners have invested 15 years, billions upon billions of dollars, and thousands of lives with no acceptable outcome in sight is harrowing. Although the United States’ engagement in Afghanistan has not resulted in many of the outcomes it might have preferred, the real failure would be maintaining the current course knowing that doing so is likely to only prolong ultimate defeat.
Astro Teller, CEO of Google’s X, puts it well. Failure is “the point at which you know what you are working on is the wrong thing to be working on or that you are working on it in the wrong way. You can’t call the work up to [that] moment… ‘failing’—that’s called ‘learning.’ And once you frame it that way there’s this moment where if you stop now, if you course correct now, you can be shame-free. But if you keep going forward, the shame starts to build.”