The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
In September of last year, peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government finally opened in Doha, only to immediately stall. Negotiators have been unable to address even the most basic issues, such as an agenda for a political process, let alone the tougher ones, such as what type of government the country should have. But as representatives of both parties have talked in circles in the Qatari capital, events in Afghanistan have taken a dramatic turn.
The United States has withdrawn thousands of troops from the country in accordance with a deal it struck with the Taliban in February 2020, leaving a security vacuum that the militants have readily exploited. Over the last six months, the Taliban have won major battles and recaptured large swaths of territory, likely incentivizing them to fight on and to shun compromise at the negotiating table. Why agree to share power when you can take it by force?
On Wednesday, April 14, U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to announce that all remaining U.S. troops will depart Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. His administration faced a difficult choice between completing the U.S. withdrawal as agreed with the Taliban and digging in for the long haul with the minimum number of troops needed to suppress the terrorist threat. Both would have been viable strategies. But the worsening situation on the ground, coupled with the poor outlook for the peace process, makes an American withdrawal more compelling. Regardless of what the Biden administration does, it can expect that the Taliban will resist compromise and that the war will continue to rage.
It wasn’t long ago that the Taliban were on the back foot. After winning sweeping victories in 2015 and 2016 in Kunduz, Helmand, and elsewhere, they faced three years of heavy casualties and military setbacks from U.S. special operations forces, drones, and airstrikes. The years 2017 through 2019 were bad ones for the Taliban. In a candid moment in 2019, one of the group’s negotiators in Doha admitted to me that U.S. airstrikes had killed many Taliban and impeded their ability to capture territory. The 14,000 American boots then on the ground had created a costly stalemate, and the Taliban in Doha readily acknowledged that as long as the United States remained in Afghanistan, they would be unable to achieve a military victory. This environment offered at least some hope that peace talks could lead to compromise.
But the situation changed markedly in 2020. In February of that year, U.S. President Donald Trump struck a deal with the Taliban to withdraw all U.S. and NATO troops by May 1, 2021, in exchange for certain counterterrorism guarantees, a reduction in violence, and a promise to begin intra-Afghan peace talks. The U.S.-Taliban agreement required the United States to draw down to 8,600 troops within 135 days. But the Trump administration withdrew even more troops than it had promised, making it impossible for the United States to effectively advise Afghan forces and support continued heavy airstrikes. Less than a month after intra-Afghan talks began in September, the United States had drawn down to between 4,000 and 4,500 troops, opening the door to Taliban advances.
The Taliban are now on the march.
Almost immediately, in early October 2020, the Taliban assaulted Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand Province, reversing the tentative gains U.S. Marine–advised Afghan forces had made over the last three years. What happened next was worse. On October 27, at the beginning of the pomegranate harvest, 1,000 or more Taliban—Afghan estimates were as high as 3,500—attacked the farms and countryside surrounding Kandahar City, taking control of regions such as Arghandab, Panjwai, and Zharey that had been firmly in government hands since the U.S. surge of 2009 to 2011. Afghan soldiers and police officers abandoned scores of security outposts, allowing the Taliban to seize in two days what U.S. soldiers had spent years fighting to protect. One Afghan from the province told me there were just “too many [Taliban] for the police to handle.” Others said the police weren’t manning their posts to begin with; in one district, only 150 out of 700 police officers were allegedly present.
The U.S. and Afghan forces responded to the Taliban offensive with airstrikes and counteroffensives by special operations forces. “If it weren’t for the airstrikes,” the Arghandab police chief Niaz Mohammed told The Washington Post, “the Taliban would not have fallen.” Even so, they advanced to the edges of Kandahar City, which is second in strategic importance only to Kabul.
The Taliban are now on the march. The group may be larger today than it was in 2018, when it numbered between 60,000 and 80,000, and its senior leaders are rumored to have returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan. The group’s fighters are also well armed and supplied, having captured large stocks of Afghan army equipment. In addition to local cadres, the Taliban field special “red units,” or quick reaction forces, that are trained, often have night vision or optics for their rifles, and are deployed to spearhead major offensives.
On the other side of the conflict, Afghan government forces are in disarray. The Afghan National Army, which is meant to be the country’s backbone of defense, and the blue-uniformed police, which tend to bear the brunt of Taliban attacks, are operating at roughly 50 to 70 percent of their official maximum strength of 352,000, due to a combination of corruption, attrition, and difficulty finding replacements. The most effective Afghan units are the special operations forces, which together with the remaining Americans, hold things together. Yet even the Afghan special operations forces struggle to hold back the Taliban without the help of U.S. advisers and airstrikes. After all, they are up against an enemy that uses suicide car bombs and improvised explosive devices, devastating tools that the Afghan government thankfully does not employ.
The Taliban’s recent success on the battlefield will almost certainly motivate the group to fight on.
The government retains control of the country’s cities, but these are hardly bastions. Taliban and Islamic State (or ISIS) cells have infiltrated Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Kabul—the latter of which has become increasingly fortified. And the inhabitants of these cities are tired. Some minority of urbanites are now willing to tolerate Taliban rule if it means finally achieving peace. As one highly educated peace activist recently told me: “War keeps killing people. Whatever comes with the Taliban won’t be so bad. . . . Why do hundreds of Afghans have to die every week because 2,000 Americans died on 9/11?”
The Taliban’s recent success on the battlefield will almost certainly motivate the group to fight on—regardless of when the United States departs. Taliban commanders now see that battlefield gains are possible, and they will be compelled to continue achieving them. Some openly claim that their objective is total victory. As one senior Taliban commander told The Washington Post last month, “This fight is not to share power. This war is for religious purposes in order to bring an Islamic government and implement Islamic law.”
Members of the Taliban political commission involved in the Doha peace talks have been more circumspect, but even their statements have ranged from obstinate to unconstructively ambiguous. Tayeb Agha, who led the Taliban’s political commission from 2009 to 2015, claimed to have advised the late Taliban leader Mullah Omar that any attempt to reinstitute the Islamic emirate would prolong the war but that the Taliban “would be greatly disgraced” by accepting Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution and sharing power with any elected government. The same sentiment may drive even so-called moderate Taliban today.
Should the Biden administration follow through on its reported plan to withdraw all U.S. troops by September, the Taliban will probably capture most of the south and east of the country in a matter of months. After that, the government could collapse. It is also possible that the government, its special operations forces, and the old Northern Alliance—Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek leaders—could muster enough unity and grit to stave off the fall of Kabul. Indeed, the Northern Alliance is already rumored to be mobilizing forces to fight.
The problem then would become time. Without U.S. advisers, Afghan equipment would degrade and the country’s special operations forces would be worn down. Politically, the current government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, who belongs to the Pashtun ethnic group, would struggle to justify its rule with the northerners providing most of the fighters. And the northerners themselves may not be what they used to be. Over the past four years, the Taliban have scored victories in the north, raising questions about the old northern allies’ will to fight.
Ultimately, not only Afghans and Americans will determine the course of the war. China, India, Iran, and Russia all have interests in Afghanistan and do not wish to see a Taliban emirate. Iran and Russia have long-standing relations with Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks who oppose the Taliban. The two countries have been playing both sides for years, arming or at least funding the Taliban as a way to press the United States out of their backyard while publicly rejecting the idea of a Taliban emirate. Interests will shift as the United States departs. The conflict could come to resemble the Libyan and Syrian civil wars, as different regional powers back different sides. Even if such regional intervention is enough to prevent the Taliban from regaining power, the outlook for Ghani’s democratic government will not be good; of all the regional players, only India favors democracy.
Could the forecast be different if the Biden administration were to decide to stay? Yes, but prolonging the American mission in Afghanistan is unlikely to bring peace. The United States could probably prevent the fall of Kabul and secure U.S. counterterrorism interests with between 2,500 and 3,500 troops. Given that the Taliban gained ground in the autumn, when many more American forces were in the country, the group is likely to advance farther this year regardless of whether a small American counterterrorism contingent remains. With gains in the offing, the Taliban will have little reason to compromise in peace negotiations.
The painful truth is that the United States is leaving behind a war that is now much further from a negotiated settlement than it was even one year ago. That changed reality—along with heightened competition with China, climate change, a pandemic, and other pressing matters at home—makes Biden’s decision to withdraw all American troops all the more compelling.
And It Requires Cooperating With Regional Powers