Why the Taliban Isn't Winning in Afghanistan

Too Weak for Victory, Too Strong for Defeat

A game of cricket on a field outside of Kabul, December 2017. Mohammed Ismail / Reuters

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

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