China Is Not Ten Feet Tall
How Alarmism Undermines American Strategy
We must face facts,” remarked Senator John McCain in August 2017, “we are losing in Afghanistan and time is of the essence if we intend to turn the tide.” He is not the only one who has argued that the Taliban are on the march. “The Taliban are getting stronger, the government is on the retreat, they are losing ground to the Taliban day by day,” Abdul Jabbar Qahraman, a retired Afghan general who was the Afghan government’s military envoy to Helmand Province until 2016, told the New York Times over the summer. Media outlets have likewise proclaimed that “The Taliban do look a lot like they are winning” and that this is “The war America can’t win.”
Although the Taliban has demonstrated a surprising ability to survive and conduct high-profile attacks in cities like Kabul, it is weaker today than most recognize. It is hamstrung by an ideology that is too extreme for most Afghans, a leadership structure that is too closely linked to the Pashtun ethnic group, an over-reliance on brutal tactics that have killed tens of thousands of innocent Afghan civilians and alienated many more, a widespread involvement in corruption, and a dependence on unpopular foreign allies such as Pakistan. Most senior Taliban leaders still hope that they will one day be able to re-take Kabul, overthrow the Afghan government, and establish an extreme Islamic emirate in the country. But given the group’s weaknesses and the United States’ decision to keep troops in Afghanistan, that is unlikely.
In fact, the weaknesses of both the Taliban and the current Afghan government suggest that a stalemate is the most likely outcome for the foreseeable future. Territory may change hands, although probably not enough to tip the balance in favor of either side. As such, the Taliban’s best option now is to pursue a negotiated settlement, since it is unlikely to defeat the Afghan government and its international backers on the battlefield. For their parts, Kabul and Washington should likewise support a settlement because they will not likely be able to secure an outright military victory, either.
THE “NEW” TALIBAN
The Taliban is a different organization today than it was in the 1990s, when it ruled Afghanistan. It is run by Haibatullah Akhunzada, a former chief justice and head of the Taliban Ulema Council, the group’s highest religious authority. Akhunzada and other Taliban leaders have attempted to win Afghan hearts and minds by funding some development projects and promising to reform the education system. Today’s Taliban leaders are also more technically savvy than those of the 1990s; they proudly advertise their websites, Twitter feeds, and glossy magazines—although they often crack down on civilians using some of the same technology.
The Taliban has resiliently held on to rural terrain and has managed to conduct repeated high-profile attacks in Kabul and other cities. Its leaders have created an organizational structure in which the top echelons provide strategic guidance and oversight while military and political officials in the field make operational and tactical decisions. The Taliban has also managed to retain some organizational cohesion, despite the loss of two leaders in the past few years—a significant blow for any organization.
Yet the Taliban has faced serious setbacks. After temporarily seizing the northern city of Kunduz in September 2015, the group lost control of it within days as U.S. and Afghan forces rallied to take it back. In 2016 the Taliban put pressure on several provincial capitals, at times simultaneously, but could not overrun any of them. In 2017 it failed to mount a sustained threat against any provincial capital.
WHY THE TALIBAN FAILS
The Taliban’s failures point to several deficiencies.
First, its ideology is still too extreme for many Afghans—including urban Afghans—who adhere to a much less conservative form of Islam that permits most modern technology, music, political participation, and some rights for women. For example, nearly all Afghans say they approve of women voting, while girls, barred from education under the Taliban, now account for 39 percent of public school students in Afghanistan. The Afghan Parliament has set aside 69 of the 249 seats in its lower house for women, while the upper house includes 27 female members of parliament out of its 102 members.
It is not entirely surprising, then, that a nationwide poll in 2015 found that 92 percent of Afghans supported the Kabul government and only four percent favored the Taliban, a conclusion that has been consistent over roughly a decade of polling. In the same poll, most Afghans also rejected the notion that the Taliban had become more moderate.
The second deficiency is that the Taliban is largely a Pashtun movement, which limits its support in Hazara, Tajik, and Uzbek areas. The Taliban’s top layers are dominated by Pashtuns, although there is a bit more ethnic diversity at its lower levels. Haibatullah Akhunzada is a Pashtun from the Noorzai tribe in southern Afghanistan. His deputies, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mohammad Yaqub, are both Pashtuns. Other senior leaders—such as Abdul Qayyum Zakir, Ahmadullah Nanai, Abdul Latif Mansur, and Noor Mohammad Saqib—are Pashtuns. Overall, approximately 80 percent of the Taliban’s top 50 leaders are Pashtuns from Kandahar Province. Based on Afghanistan’s recent history of grievances between the Pashtun Taliban and the Hazara, Tajik, and Uzbek communities, the Taliban’s over-reliance on Pashtun leaders is a serious weakness.
Roughly 93 percent of Afghans say they are fearful of encountering the Taliban because of its extremist views and brutality.
Third, the Taliban has favored brutal tactics to exert control, which has undermined its support in Afghanistan. Like many insurgent groups, Taliban fighters have aggressively targeted civilians and government personnel with everything from assassinations and roadside bombs to ambushes and raids. Taliban strikes in the first half of 2017 killed more civilians than in any other six-month period since the United Nations began documenting civilian casualties. Suicide attacks have been especially devastating, killing thousands of Afghan civilians over the past decade and maiming tens of thousands of others.
According to an Asia Foundation poll, roughly 93 percent of Afghans say they are fearful of encountering the Taliban because of its extremist views and brutality. But in addition to public distaste, brutality has also led to the displacement of families, civilian property damage, limited freedom of movement, and has reduced access to humanitarian aid, education, and healthcare—all of which have likely lessened the group’s appeal.
Fourth, although many observers point to corruption in the Afghan government, fewer understand that the Taliban is implicated too, especially in the drug trade. Drug revenue accounts for over half of the Taliban’s total financing and is the single most important source of revenue for local commanders. Local Taliban commanders fund their networks by taxing the trade, including farmers. The Taliban once exported drugs from Afghanistan in the form of opium syrup, but the group is increasingly building labs in the country that process opium into morphine or heroin. These actions have helped ensure that Afghanistan remains the world’s largest opium producer and exporter, producing an estimated 80 percent of the world’s opium. Taliban drug money is used to pay everyone from foot soldiers to Afghan government officials, and the Taliban’s involvement in virtually all aspects of the opium trade suggests that it is akin to a drug cartel.
The fifth deficiency is that the Taliban relies heavily on support from neighboring countries—particularly Pakistan—that are unpopular among many Afghans. Pakistan and its Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country’s premier spy agency, provide several types of assistance to the Taliban and allied groups such as the Haqqani Network. One is sanctuary for leaders and their families. Pakistani officials have also provided the Taliban with money, training, intelligence, lethal material, and non-lethal material such as communications equipment. Yet only 3.7 percent of Afghans gave a favorable rating to Pakistan, according to a 2016 opinion poll conducted by Gallup and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. At 5.8 percent, more Afghans gave a favorable rating to the Islamic State (ISIS), and many more had a positive view of India, at nearly 62 percent.
Although Western policymakers and academics have harped on the Afghan government’s weaknesses and warned of imminent Taliban victory, the Taliban’s future does not look promising. The group has the ability to continue waging an insurgency for the foreseeable future. But its odds of overthrowing the Afghan government—or even holding urban terrain—are long.
Faced with such limited prospects, Taliban leaders should begin serious peace negotiations with the Afghan government, something they have been reluctant to do, perhaps because they believed they had the upper hand on the battlefield. Pushing the Taliban to begin serious settlement talks—in particular, sitting down with Afghan government representatives—will likely require sustained efforts by the United States and regional partners, especially Pakistan.
Since the Taliban controls some rural terrain, its leaders could likely negotiate a number of concessions from the Afghan government and its allies. Examples include a bigger role for Islam—and Islamic law—in Afghan institutions, the integration of some Taliban officials in government posts, a crackdown on government corruption, and even the eventual withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign combat forces. It is also worth pointing out to the group’s leaders that postponing negotiations is unlikely to improve their negotiating position. The Trump administration’s announcement that it would jettison the Obama administration’s deadlines for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan leaves the Taliban facing a reinvigorated foe.
In Colombia, the FARC finally agreed to serious peace negotiations after over 200,000 people had died, millions had been displaced, and thousands of civilians had been maimed by land mines. As FARC leader Timoleon Jimenez, known as “Timochenko,” acknowledged in 2012: “The continuation of the conflict will involve more death and destruction, more grief and tears, more poverty and misery for some and greater wealth for others. Imagine the lives that could have been saved these last ten years. So we seek dialogue, a solution without shedding blood, through political understanding.”
Timochenko had also realized that the FARC couldn’t win. It is high time for Taliban leaders to arrive at a similar conclusion. The Afghan population, which has suffered from nearly 40 years of conflict, deserves an end to the war.