Small Wars Journal

Afghanistan at an Impasse

Fri, 01/24/2020 - 8:51am

Afghanistan at an Impasse

Joseph J. Collins

The war in Afghanistan is at an impasse.  The current and next U.S. administrations will have to grapple with the aftereffects of an 18-year campaign in a country that has been at war for over 40 years. The war in the field is a stalemate.  Neither side seems able to win. At home and abroad, among friends and even some enemies, war weariness and a desire for peace is very much in evidence, even as the fighting continues. Neither side has been able to find a path to a negotiated settlement.

The Taliban refuses to even talk to the Afghan government, which they characterize as a puppet of the United States.  At the same time, it is doubtful that the Taliban ideology would tolerate participation in democratic power sharing or electoral politics. Human rights remains another sticking point. While the sharia-bound Taliban suggest that they are more enlightened than in the past, the ambiguity in their statements and distrust among the populace is at a high level. As one female judge hiding from Taliban noted, "A Talib is a Talib …. They have proven what type of people they are, what their ideology is. And if they return with the same ideology, everything will be the same again.”[1]

The roots of the conflict are deep and include ethnic strife and contending interests and policies from Pakistan, Iran, India, and others. After 20 years of aid, the Afghan government cannot stand on its own politically, economically, or militarily. To achieve its ends, the United States must avoid impatience, stay true to its goals, and develop a strategy to bring about a stable, enduring peace. Like most things in Afghanistan, it will be extremely difficult.

This paper aims to provide a short history of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, a summary of the current situation, an analysis of our interests and objectives in Afghanistan, and an outline of options for the next Administration to chart its Afghanistan policy.

Background to War

For most of the Cold War, the United States chose not to be a key player in Afghanistan.  It was far more interested in its then-allies in Pakistan and Iran.  Afghanistan had a low priority in U.S. foreign policy.  In 1971, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul wrote: 

For the United States, Afghanistan has at present limited direct interest: it is not an important trading partner … not an access route for U.S. trade with others … not a source of oil or scarce strategic metals … there are no treaty ties or defense commitments; and Afghanistan does not provide us with significant defense, intelligence, or scientific facilities. United States policy has long recognized these facts.[2]

Afghanistan was of greater interest to the Soviet Union.  It bordered the Central Asian Republics of the U.S.S.R., and it was an early supporter of the Soviet opening to the Third World. As Soviet tentacles pressed deeper, even Afghans friendly to the USSR became concerned. In April 1978, President Daoud --- who himself came to power in a coup against his cousin, Zahir Shah --- began a crackdown on leftists. With the help of the politicized Afghan Army, the leftists turned the tables on Daoud and, with modest Soviet assistance, took control of the country. The People’s Democratic Party, against Soviet advice, followed a radical path, alienated the people, and soon found themselves dealing with a countrywide revolt.[3]

The growing presence of Soviet advisers did not help, nor did political in-fighting in the Party. After the Moscow-blessed leader, Nur Mohammad Taraki, was killed in a coup by his deputy, Hafizullah Amin, the Politburo reluctantly decided to send in Soviet forces.[4] The invaders quickly gained control of the capital, replaced senior government officials, murdered Amin, and spread across the countryside.  This began a ten-year, frustrating war for the Soviet Union.

The war came during a period of leadership turmoil in the USSR. Leonid Brezhnev (died, November1982), Yuri Andropov (February 1984), and Konstantin Chernenko (March 1985) passed in quick order. It was not until Mikhail Gorbachev took over in the Kremlin that the U.S.S.R. began to work its way out of Afghanistan, first, by building and supporting a stronger Afghan Army, and then by adequately financing it before and after their physical withdrawal which took place from May 1988 to February 1989.[5]

During the near ten-year war, three U.S. presidents --- Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush --- supported the mujahideen (holy warriors) by grants of money and weapons, most often delivered through Pakistan. The growing strength of the seven major groups ultimately created relentless pressure on the Soviet forces and government to extricate themselves, which they did in a deliberate and systematic manner, finishing in February 1989.

Unfortunately, the United States stepped aside soon after the Soviet Army’s withdrawal.[6] The seven groups were not able to beat Najibullah’s army until the Soviet Union went out of business. After their “victory” in 1992, the seven groups, who made up a UN brokered provisional government, began to fight bitterly among themselves. This continued until 1994 when the Taliban under Mullah Omar began to conquer most of Afghanistan with great help from Pakistan.  While the original Taliban were local fighters and madrassa students, a British diplomat and historian observed:

The Taliban forces … in 1994-95 were equipped with tanks, APCs, artillery, and even aircraft, but however much equipment they may have acquired at Spin Boldak, Kandahar, or elsewhere, they could not despite energetic denials, have operated without training, ammunition, fuel, and maintenance facilities provided by Pakistan ….Within no more than six months, they had mobilized possibly as many as 20,000 fighting men … [many of whom] were Pakistanis.[7]

The Taliban entered Kabul with the help of defecting mujahidin groups led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, both of whom subsequently became staunch Taliban allies. By 1996, the Taliban had conquered nearly 90% of Afghanistan, with the exception of an enclave in the north occupied by the Northern Alliance.

The Taliban were good at combat but poor at government.  Indeed, it was clear early on that they had no earthly idea how to govern a modernizing state.  According to Olivier Roy, a French ethnographer, the Taliban “focused on returning Afghan society to an imagined pre-modern period in which a purer form of Islam was practiced by a more righteous Muslim society.”[8] They forbade all music, shaving, gambling, smoking, drinking, and the use of narcotics. They imposed strict limits on a woman’s ability to work outside the home or to move around, unless escorted by an adult male family member.  They destroyed pre-Islamic art and allowed the torture of animals in the Kabul zoo.

Complementing their dictatorial regime at home, the Taliban adopted Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorists.  Bin Laden, exiled from Saudi Arabia and the Sudan, saw the Taliban as a prototype for the caliphate.  For their part, the Taliban were happy to accept his friendship, funds, and most of all, al Qaeda’s training of many Taliban cadres.

In 1998, from his sanctuary in Afghanistan, Usama bin Laden declared war on the United States, and blew up two American embassies in East Africa.  Although the United States and Saudi Arabia asked the Taliban to give up bin Laden beginning in 1998, the Taliban refused and have never disavowed al Qaeda, even after the embassy bombing and attack on the USS Cole in 2000 were laid at his feet. In many other ways, Afghanistan was an ideal terrorist base.  The 9/11 Commission, citing a CIA briefing noted that:

Through his relationship with Mullah Omar --- and the monetary and other benefits that it brought the Taliban --- Bin Laden was able to circumvent restrictions; Mullah Omar would stand by him even when other Taliban leaders raised objections … Al Qaeda members could travel freely within the country, enter or exit it without visas, or any immigration procedures, purchase and import vehicles and weapons, and enjoy the use of Afghanistan Ministry of Defense license plates. Al Qaeda also used the Afghan state-owned Ariana Airlines to courier money into the country.[9]

In 1999, the 9/11 plotters were screened, funded, and initially trained in Afghanistan. On September 9, 2001 as a pre-payment to the Taliban for their upcoming trials, al Qaeda assassins killed Ahmed Shah Massoud, the revered Tajik military leader of the Northern Alliance and the de facto leader of the anti-Taliban resistance.[10] The table was set for the start of a war with the United States.

The U.S. War Against the Taliban

After the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 that was planned and supervised from Afghanistan, the United States responded first with diplomacy, but the Taliban refused to hand-over bin Laden.  On October 7, 2001, a relentless air war began, followed soon by the insertion of CIA paramilitary operatives and U.S. Special Operations Forces to help the Northern Alliance and the anti-Taliban Pashtun tribes in southern Afghanistan. Army Rangers and a Marine Expeditionary Brigade followed them into the fray. With precision air support, U.S. ground elements and their Afghan allies were successful beyond all hope.  By December the ground war in the main was over.

A UN-sponsored, international conference in Bonn, Germany created an interim government led by Hamid Karzai, a southern Pashtun, with a cabinet that broadly represented the country’s ethnic groups, especially the Tajiks, who had taken Kabul. Subsequent operations in December 2001 failed to capture bin Laden near Tora Bora but were successful in pushing as many as 1,000 al Qaeda cadres out of the country. With the Taliban and al Qaeda dispersed to Pakistan or Iran, the war to some appeared to be over, but it was not. The initial operations were successful but not decisive.  The Taliban would get another turn at bat.

The end of fighting exposed the devastation in Afghanistan from 23 years of war.  80 percent of the schools were destroyed, a devastating fact in a land where there was less than 30 percent literacy.  25 percent of Afghan children died before the age of five.  Less than 10 percent of the nation had access to healthcare. The World Bank estimated that $240 billion dollars of infrastructure had been destroyed between 1978 and 2001.  The nation had only a skeletal police force and no national army.[11]  The new government could not stand on its own.  President Bush --- a severe critic of using soldiers for peacekeeping and post-conflict operations--- said “after 9/11, I changed my mind. Afghanistan was the ultimate nation building mission. We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave something better behind.”[12] At the same time, however, with war in Iraq on the horizon, Afghanistan affairs would be a distant second priority to Iraq.  It would not becomeWashington’s highest priority until 2010.

Despite the devastation of more than two decades of war, the period from 2001 to 2005 was relatively peaceful.  In its first few years, Afghanistan was modestly successful in attracting donors, but received only half the level of funding that the Balkan nations did in the early 1990s.[13] The Taliban and al Qaeda were quietly recovering, but were initially overmatched by 10,000 U.S. troops and nearly 5,000 coalition troops in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which controlled the 250 square miles around Kabul. ISAF later expanded to take over more territory until, in 2006 under NATO auspices, it came to command most of the coalition forces across the nation. The senior U.S. commander became the NATO commander. U.S. commanders rotated frequently. Nato soldier tours of duty normally ranged from 6 to 12 months.

The Afghan government remained in its infancy throughout this period, often with little power outside of a few urban areas. International organizations, the coalition’s provincial reconstruction teams, and NGOs tried to help by acting in place of the government, but, over time, this excess of assistance may well have retarded governmental progress in managing the affairs of the nation as a whole. Sadly, corruption permeated official affairs and private life in Afghanistan, extending into President Karzai’s family.  The cultivation of narcotics and the billions of dollars it generated seemed to grow in proportion to the amount of money the coalition spent to wipe it out. In a celebrated six-part series based on thousands of government documents, the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock wrote that “of all the failures in Afghanistan, the war on drugs has been perhaps the most feckless….”[14]

Between 2005 and 2009, the security of Afghanistan declined for a number of important reasons.[15] Taliban forces recovered thanks to support from Pakistan, drug money, “charity” from Gulf supporters, and help from al Qaeda.  Drug money alone may have provided close to a half billion dollars per year to the Taliban.[16] “Charity” from Gulf patrons, according to Richard Holbrooke, the late presidential envoy, was even more lucrative than drugs for the Taliban.[17] The weakness and corruption of the central government were often an ally to Taliban progress.

The United States, for its part, was distracted by the war in Iraq.  The amount of aid, advisors, and combat troops sent to Afghanistan were insufficient for the task, especially with a growing Taliban threat.  Even with the slowly growing Afghan Army, there were not enough forces --- American, Afghan, and Coalition --- to perform the classic counterinsurgency tasks of clear, hold, and build. At the same time, coalition forces failed to understand both the enemy and the people that they were defending. This lack of understanding hampered operations in the field and decisions in Washington, DC.[18] Between 2004 and 2009, “there was a nine-fold increase in security incidents nationwide and a forty-fold increase in suicide bombing,” a technique that passed into Afghanistan by way of al Qaeda’s experience in Iraq.[19]

In 2008, having made great strides in Iraq, President George W. Bush became concerned with a deteriorating situation and considered reinforcement in Afghanistan in his last few months in office. He wisely left it to his successor, President Barack Obama. The new President conducted a quick study supervised by former CIA executive Bruce Reidel and added 21,000 U.S. troops to reinforce 38,000 U.S. and 30,000 coalition forces.[20] A new commander, Gen Stan McChrystal conducted an assessment and asked for even more troops. After an intense, contentious, four month review, President Obama decided to reinforce US troops to the 100,00-level (along with 40,000 coalition troops) but to begin to withdraw the forces within 18 to 24 months.[21]

The Surge in Afghanistan was only modestly successful. The simultaneous announcement of the surge and the date for the start of withdrawal encouraged the Taliban and its backers to increase their efforts on the battlefield. The surge’s biggest contribution was to accelerate the development of the Afghan armed forces and police, which, at their maximum strength reached over 350,000 members.  True to his promise, President Obama began to withdraw the surge force by the end of 2011 over the objections of his departing commander, General David Petraeus.[22] Five years later, as the security situation deteriorated, President Obama stopped the withdrawal with about 8,400 U.S. troops left in country.

The U.S. level of effort has been expensive. The U.S. has appropriated $737 billion dollars for DoD for the war in Afghanistan. Extrapolating from previous appropriations, the full appropriated costs of the war (2001-2018) would include an additional $45 billion for other cabinet departments, like State and Veterans Affairs. From 2016 to 2018, U.S. DoD war costs averaged $47 billion per year.[23]

By the fall of 2019, U.S. casualties included 2,298 service members killed and 20,561 wounded.[24] Afghan casualties, since September 2014, included the deaths of 45,000 Afghan soldiers or police officers.[25]  UNAMA has counted 16,500 dead Afghan civilians since 2009; the civilian total for the war probably exceeds 30,000.[26] Civilian casualties have increased in last few years due to the frequency of terrorist attacks, additional air support and the entry of the Afghan Air Force into the fighting.

War and Diplomacy, 2016-2020

In January 2019, the SIGAR quarterly report summarized the security situation in the last published U.S. forces estimate:

That data shows that as of October 22, 2018, control of Afghanistan’s districts, population, and territory became somewhat more contested, Afghan government control or influence continued to decline, and insurgent control or influence increased slightly since July 2018. The percentage of the population in districts under Afghan government control or influence—largely stagnant from May 2017 through July 2018 at around 65%—decreased in October to 63.5%. The Afghan government’s control or influence of its districts decreased by nearly two percentage points since July to 53.8%. This quarter, DOD and RS [Resolute Support] emphasized that RS’s district-stability data is “not indicative of effectiveness of the South Asia strategy,” and reiterated that there is some “uncertainty in models that produce [the data]” and subjectivity in the assessments that underlie it. [27] 

The government controls the cities and the major road networks. The Taliban and local terrorists are capable of terrorist attacks in any part of the country, as well as episodic, local attacks on major roads and the lesser cities. The enemy has never been able to hold any city. Sadly, although it fights ISIS-K forces in eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban are still close to and inter-operate with AQ and its affiliate AQIS.  A DoD report to Congress, dated June 2019, said: “Al-Qa’ida (AQ) and Al-Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) routinely support, train, work and operate with Taliban fighters and commanders.”[28]

The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) are authorized 352,000 personnel with 30,000 Afghan Local Police (ALP). They have done virtually all of the ground fighting since 2014, and it has taken its toll.  The actual strength of the force is about 272,000. The Taliban’s estimated 60,000 fighters ---up from an estimated 25- 30,000 in 2011---would be a challenge for a force much larger than the ANDSF.[29] Afghan police and Army attrition is a problem and so are casualties. As noted above, Afghan officials count 45,000 ANDSF members killed since September 2014.[30] Political support for the Ghani-Abdullah government is weak and domestic politics is fractious. Corruption is endemic and a political constant. (The  September 28, 2019 election results have not yet been announced, but President Ghani has declared victory without the need for a runoff election.)

President Donald J. Trump was initially a skeptic and favored withdrawal, but his staff convinced him to opt toward recommitment. A year into the new administration, its South Asia Strategy suggested a tougher, conditions-based approach to the war than the Obama administration’s scheduled drawdown approach.  The strategy featured a harder line toward Pakistan, the main supporter of the Taliban, and a troop increase from 8,800 to 14,000 servicemembers to bolster U.S. counterterrorism (CT) and train-advise-and assist (TAA) assets in-country.[31] The coalition --- 27 NATO nations and 14 non-NATO partners --- supported the American move and maintains 3,200 military personnel in Afghanistan.

In the speech announcing his new South Asia Strategy, President Trump said in August 2017 that the “nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives.” He added:

The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable.  9/11, the worst terrorist attack in our history, was planned and directed from Afghanistan because that country was ruled by a government that gave comfort, shelter, and support to terrorists.  A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11th.[32]

The President noted that “today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.”  Finally, the President took Pakistan to task for supporting the Taliban and other “agents of chaos, violence, and terror. [33]

President Trump declared that “in Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear: we must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America, and we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us, or anywhere in the world for that matter.”  The President also declared that our integrated strategy would be conditions-based, and not one guided by “arbitrary timelines.” He pledged to work with the government of Afghanistan “as long as we see determination and progress.”[34]

The first two years of the Administration offered little by way of progress in the war or in developing a stable polity in Afghanistan. In late July 2019, the Secretary of State, characterizing it as a “directive” from the President, said the new goal was to ensure that U.S. forces were drawn down or out of Afghanistan before the next presidential election. He later clarified his statement to indicate that his statement did not mean an end to a conditions-based approach.[35]

In August 2018, the Trump Administration’s special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad began direct negotiations with the Taliban in Doha and other venues. According to the press, there was a tentative agreement to withdraw U.S. forces in phases in return for a Taliban promise to end their relationships with terrorists and never to allow another attack on the U.S. homeland from Afghanistan.[36] It was also implied that the Taliban would subsequently begin to talk peace with the Afghan people with indirect participation by the Kabul government. Sadly, the Taliban refused to include a long-term ceasefire in the tentative pact. Both sides continued to talk and fight at the same time.

In September 2019, President Trump abruptly cancelled a visit to the United States by Taliban negotiators in apparent frustration over the death of a U.S. soldier in a Taliban attack. The President characterized talks with the Taliban as “dead.” [37] After a visit by President Trump in December 2019, the negotiations were revived with uncertain prospects.

Key Factors in Making Peace

Before the next Administration creates options, it has to consider the strategic context in which the war and any subsequent peace will exist. This war has many sources and in time each must be addressed.  It is at once a religious-ideological conflict, as well as a long-standing contest between and among the ethnic groups that live in Afghanistan. Often, during the last two centuries, the dominant Pashtuns (40 percent) fought with other groups --- notably, Tajiks (27-30 percent), Uzbeks (9-10) percent, Hazaras (5 percent), etc. --- who comprise the majority of the population.[38] Complicating matters, fighting between and among southern and eastern Pashtun tribes is also a factor, as is the fact that two-thirds of Pashtuns live across the border in Pakistan.

The war is also a contest among contending visions for the future of Afghanistan.  Will Afghanistan come into the 21st century as a struggling, poor state, eager to participate in the global economy, or will it revert to Islamic fundamentalism, and become the seed-state for a new caliphate and a haven for unsavory radical groups.  It is important to note here that 82 percent of Afghans have “no sympathy” for the Taliban.  In effect, the Afghan people have voted with their lives against the Taliban.[39]

The war is also an international struggle.  Pakistan sees a compliant Afghanistan as necessary to its security from Indian domination. It is fixated on the four Indian consulates or “nests of spies” in the country. Accordingly, it has bonded with the Taliban and various groups that are in support of it.  Lately, pushed by President Trump it has improved its support for reconciliation.[40] Ironically, some of Pakistan’s most radical groups were pushed out of the FATA into Afghanistan.  Some Pakistani radicals have even joined with Uzbek and Uighur radicals to form ISIS-K there.  Pakistan’s goal is to control Afghan foreign and national security policy to ensure that Kabul does not align with India. With great skill, Pakistan has played a double game with its ally, the United States. The United States has also been an inconstant ally for Pakistan. NDU South Asia specialist Thomas Lynch summarized the intractable problem:

… the United States finds itself facing a strategic conundrum that is little changed from the one it faced shortly after its 2001 Afghanistan incursion. To defend itself at home and its major interests abroad from the menace of catastrophic terrorism, America cannot abandon its military and intelligence footprint in Afghanistan. Although the Taliban is gone from power in Kabul, the Afghan government and its security forces remain too weak to halt the Taliban insurgency or prevent large tracts of Afghanistan from becoming unfettered safe havens for menacing terrorist and extremist groups. At the same time, Pakistan’s national security narrative remains so hostile to India and so wary of nefarious Indian influence in Afghanistan that it steadfastly refuses to divorce from its Islamist militant groups with influence there—the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network (HQN)…. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services view the Afghan Taliban and the HQN as the best—or perhaps the least worst—option to hedge against rise of threatening Indian influence in Kabul.[41]

India sees the independence of Afghanistan as important for its security. New Delhi has also become an important aid donor ($3.1 billion) and has developed deep business interests in Afghanistan. The U.S. embrace of India for the past two decades has heightened Pakistani concerns for the future, both in its relationship with its long-term ally, the United States, and for its influence in Kabul.  Wags have long joked that Pakistan is an ally but not a friend, while India is a friend, but not an ally.

Iran has many different types of interests in Afghanistan.  Tehran once nearly came to blows with the anti-shia Taliban, but it wants stability on its borders and to poke at the Great Satan wherever it can.  It currently supports both the Taliban and the Kabul government, while also playing a stabilizing role in the western part of the country where its interests are in ending smuggling and controlling narcotics that originate from Afghanistan. Iran has also profited from cheap refugee labor and has used Afghan militias abroad in Syria.[42]

Iran is also working with India to complete a new line of communication (LOC) from the Indian Ocean port of Chabahar, up through eastern Iran and onto the Afghan ring road.[43] The axis of the route in question is Chabahar on the Indian Ocean, north through Zahendan, to Zaranj on the Afghan border to Farah on the ring road from where goods could travel north to Herat or east to Kandahar and on to Kabul. This is a potentially profitable venture, and it will help to lessen Afghan dependence on Pakistani ports to get their products abroad. India has pledged $500 million to the project.[44] To date, to help India and Afghanistan, the Trump administration has exempted Chabahar port development from the sanctions against Iran, but Indian fund disbursement has been slow.

China and Russia both have interests in making peace, limiting terrorist access to their territory, controlling drugs, and, in the former’s case, developing its mines inside Afghanistan.  Russia has renewed alliances with non-Taliban groups and has provided a channel for peace talks that one day may be useful. The Russians are prone to using their Afghan policy to take a poke at America.

All of these nations are eager to posture themselves to profit from a new political regime in Afghanistan.  None of them seem to have faith in American staying power, and the United States --- despite 18 years on the ground ---has has failed to make the lasting commitment that would encourage the Taliban to cease and desist.  No other nation seems eager to be a guarantor for this or any other regime in Kabul. There is one bit of good news that applies to all concerned, even the Taliban: all see ISIS-K as an enemy.  ISIS-K has been attacked by the Taliban, the ANDSF, the coalition, and Pakistan.  A few thousand strong, they are hard pressed, but still have strong points in eastern Afghanistan and have a talent for terrorist attacks.

The United States also needs to examine its objectives. A number of analysts are putting withdrawal and negotiations in the driver’s seat for U.S. policy, but our current goal should not be a negotiated settlement. A negotiated settlement is a way to an end, not an end in itself.  To stop the re-creation of safe havens that would facilitate an attack against the U.S. homeland, the overall goal in Afghanistan, we must have a just and durable peace that accomplishes the subordinate objectives that guide both the continuing conduct of the war and our negotiating strategy. In previous administrations, those objectives have included adequate support for the recognized, legal government of Afghanistan, significant aid to its armed forces, and, in extremis, the prevention of the overthrow of the recognized, legally-constituted government of Afghanistan.

Our objectives should also include support for basic human rights, and in particular, the political, economic, and social rights of Afghan women.[45] The abysmal state of women within Afghanistan under Taliban rule prior to 9/11 has been well documented. In economic life, schooling, medical care, and in dress and travel, the Taliban made life hell for Afghan women.[46]

Following the fall of the Taliban, the Government of Afghanistan with the help of the coalition generated significant initiatives with respect to women’s rights and opportunities.  Extensive legal protections have been enshrined in law.  The 2004 Constitution extends equality to women. The Afghan Civil Code provides rights for women to inherit or own property, sets a minimum age for marriage, and codifies a woman’s right to choose her partner or to initiate marital separation.  Legislation protects a women’s right to vote.

While important in and of itself, why should defending human rights in Afghanistan play an important role in our negotiating position? First, it draws a stark contrast between the current administration in Kabul and the Taliban’s administration. Women’s rights offer significant leverage over the Taliban.  Human rights symbolize to the world the changes in Afghanistan over the last two decades. The more the Taliban tout a new, progressive views toward women, the more they appear reasonable and acceptable, but, at the same time, they indict their disastrous rule of the country (1996-2001) and sow discord among their more traditional rank-and-file.

Second, the impact of female empowerment on state stability and economic progress is well documented.  Improving female education status brings a wide range of benefits: increased standards of living and overall economic growth, improved maternal and child health, decreased population growth and early child bearing, as well as increased social capital.[47] Female empowerment, “contributes to reducing income inequality and boosting economic diversification and, in turn, supports economic resilience.”[48]

Third, U.S. objectives should include protecting the progress that is most evident in the areas of health and education. Again, women feature prominently here. “The key advances for women in the health sector since 2005 include: a lower maternal mortality ratio; a lower fertility rate; an increase in qualified female health professionals; and a far wider network of health facilities capable of providing reproductive healthcare.”[49] Female enrollment in public schools has gone from essentially zero in 2000 to three million, with a 15% increase in the literacy rate.  Afghan public opinion towards female education has also improved, with 84% of the population supporting the concept. Significant gains have also been made with respect to employment and participation in the political process.[50]

Not all is well on the women’s rights front in Afghanistan.  The gains have been uneven.  Significant regional variation in the treatment of women exists, and legal rights are not always granted in practice.  Overall, Afghanistan remains a challenging environment for women, certainly among the worst states globally.  This is tragic, not only for human rights but also for modernization and economic development.[51]

Overall, creating a positive environment for women launches a reinforcing cycle of increased health, greater economic growth, and decreased violence. Afghanistan is clearly in dire need of this virtuous cycle. Women’s rights are human rights, and these rights deserves a prominent place in U.S. negotiations strategy.

Even as the United States prepares for the next round of negotiations, it must begin with its partners and international organizations to envision what comes after the signing ceremony. The hardest part of making peace will come after peace agreements are signed.  There are few indications that such a governmental planning effort is underway.  There has been significant work done by the congressionally funded, private organization, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), which has worked hard on public education and peace building from their offices in Washington and in Kabul.[52]

First among the key, post-conflict tasks will be assisting the administration of the peace, a task which might be assigned to UNAMA or an ad hoc international consortium of interested regional powers. The United States, the government of Afghanistan, the coalition, and international organizations will likely have to plan for peacekeepers or armed monitoring elements to supervise the ceasefire, separate combatants, and enable the former combatants to have options short of renewing hostilities. They will play a key role in the administration of DDR, as noted below.

A second consideration might be fund raising to support the peace process and transition current international aid programs. Despite donor fatigue, this should be relatively easy because wartime donors will be able to find more productive uses for their funds and will be able to envision finally a reduction in funds as the civil economy begins to develop.

A third task will be the issue of counternarcotics.  This will be difficult because it may well hurt the economy in the short run, and it will penalize the many on both sides who, have benefitted from illicit gains. It must be done, however, because Afghanistan cannot exist as both a normal, stable country and a thriving narco-state.  While both Afghans and their allies have failed to date to dent the production and sale of drugs, failure to solve this problem will keep Afghanistan from taking its place in the family of nations.

Finally, the peacekeepers or armed monitors will be critical to DDR, the processes of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of combatants. Armed insurgents have little incentive to disarm and go back to farms that in many cases are no longer there. Job creation will be critically important.  Mobilizing private sector opportunities for Afghanistan is essential to prevent job creation from becoming make work projects that will fail on their own accord.   Years hence, if peace ensues, the mining of a trillion dollars’ worth of strategic materials may help to transform the Afghan economy.

Organizing Negotiations

If we assume that a military victory is unattainable, and that a unilateral withdrawal is highly dysfunctional, the next Administration will need to develop a negotiating strategy to help attain our goals.[53] The United States has tried (and to this point, failed) to help create peace in Afghanistan by bilaterally negotiating a U.S withdrawal with the Taliban in return for an unverifiable promise on combatting terrorism and another promise of potential future talks among Afghans (but not with the legal government of Afghanistan). It is quite possible that the United States will stick with this technique to try to recover the potential for an agreement, but it has significant downsides.

First, this technique ignores or puts off other concerned actors. It marginalizes our Afghan allies ---the legal, internationally recognized government of Afghanistan--- while raising the stature of insurgents, even using their bogus title, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. 

Second, it puts U.S troop withdrawal front and center, taking away incentive for the Taliban to consider or bargain on other issues. Again, this is a great concession to the Taliban, who have not earned it on the battlefield.

Third, to date, this technique has ignored the importance of a guaranteed ceasefire, the foundational element in solving all the problems of peacebuilding in the Hindu Kush. To begin U.S. withdrawal before a ceasefire is in place would put our allies in the Kabul government in a very disadvantageous position.

Finally, this technique has no inherent way of dealing with post-conflict issues, such as DDR, the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration of combatants. Even if the Taliban-only initiative were successful, it would solve only a few of the stickiest issues that require negotiation.  At best, this technique would be a preliminary step in making peace.[54] It would require at a minimum follow-up negotiations among Afghans. Since the Taliban refuse to talk to the legal government, Afghan negotiators would be at an organizational disadvantage while the Taliban could exploit its relative unity.  To have lasting effect, the current U.S.-Taliban bilateral approach would have to evolve into one of the techniques, listed below.

In the following examples, the United Nations should play an important role. The UN can spark negotiations that the U.S. cannot. The United Nations can also play an important post-conflict role, helping the United States to withdraw and to leave behind a secure foundation for postwar activity.

A second technique available to the combatants is grand international negotiations. For example, the United Nations could sponsor a multilevel, comprehensive peace process with an inner circle of combatants, a second circle of immediate neighbors, and a third advisory circle of great powers, benefactors, and international financial institutions. After achieving a ceasefire and basic agreement among combatants, the outer circles could endorse it and participate in discussions of larger issues, such as borders, DDR, financing reconstruction, peacekeeping forces, etc.

A third technique could be a single forum of combatants and key neighbors --- Pakistan, India, and Iran. The Afghan negotiators would lead and the United States and other nations would support and later focus on post-conflict issues. To facilitate discussion, the United Nations could appoint a special envoy to bring the parties together in a neutral location.

All of these techniques assume that the Taliban will ultimately accept participation in a democratic system and that they will be willing to compromise on key elements of the Afghan Constitution. Complicating matters, there may be some Taliban willing to compromise and make peace with the current (or a future) government of Afghanistan.  The irreconcilable remainder of the Taliban --- those who disavow the negotiations and cling to a strict and mindless application of sharia law for future Afghanistan --- could break off and join with ISIS-K, which could push the country toward a multi-factional civil war. It may also be the case, that the Kabul government realizes that it is not possible to negotiate with the fractious Taliban, and it will have to engage in peace building, one district, and one province at a time.

Another technique to make peace would be to create local peace on the ground and, over time, let local ceasefires and potentially, power sharing arrangements, spread to neighboring areas.  The Afghan government could pick provinces where it is strongest, or alternatively, use urban areas as the start of regional ink-blot approach.  Regardless of initiation strategy, two analysts noted the possibilities for “peace in pieces:”

If peace is to come to Afghanistan, it is most likely to come one village at a time, one district at a time, and one province at a time; like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, set in place one at a time. Reconciliation among Afghans is the ultimate goal but may be a bridge way too far to depend on. Reconciliation, when it succeeds at all, is a process that unfolds in phases over time; often over a very long time. A more realistic goal for the coalition and for Afghanistan is nonviolent coexistence. But with the recalcitrant Taliban and recent infiltration of the Islamic State, even that seems ambitious.[55]

One good feature of a peace in pieces approach is that it builds on the all-important local dynamics in Afghanistan.  Provinces under ceasefire could attract more local funds from World Bank programs, and support from Kabul. They would also need unobtrusive coalition protection. Less gunfire and more jobs would increase the attractiveness of areas that have local ceasefires. A peace in pieces approach can come before or after a peace agreement, or serve as an interim solution while an international process is being developed.  A few local successes could spur the Taliban to work harder on comprehensive, nationwide negotiations.

The peace in pieces approach would require strong local leadership, linked to a responsive center.  The potential for success is there, but the Afghan government would have to up its game to bring off this complex effort, which we would call “joint and intergovernmental.” As for the Taliban, they could be expected to strike back against local Taliban who were seen as working with the Kabul government.  In any case, peace in pieces can pay off for the people, even if it is not successful nationwide.

Regardless of negotiating strategy, the United States can reinforce its bargaining position by manipulating its superior military, economic, informational, and diplomatic instruments. This takes thought, coordination, and a much greater degree of transparency than the United States has used of late. Since the announcement of South Asia Strategy, the Trump Administration has said little about Afghanistan and has allowed the media to default toward negative stories.  While the strategy was greeted with some optimism, there has been little reinforcement in subsequent measures.


The United States is weary of the war in Afghanistan, but the people are not in a frenzy to withdraw. A recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs showed that 9 percent of Americans want to increase forces in Afghanistan, 41 percent want to maintain them at the same level, but 47 percent want to reduce forces (25 percent) or withdraw altogether (22 percent).[56]  The U.S. government will not have to act rashly to assuage an enraged public.  It will have a chance to rationally address all the issues and to come to a sane policy.

This article cannot end with a complete U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, but it can suggest a number of key principles that the new administration should follow. First, it will be important to conduct a detailed study to determine the best way forward, not just in negotiations, but also in planning for post-conflict Afghanistan. The study should deal with a gamut of issues, including residual counterterrorism forces.  If coalition forces fully withdraw, how would the United States deal with the spread of terrorist forces there? Could we entrust this matter to a new Afghan government?

Second, the way forward in Afghanistan must be based on a clear vision of the situation on the ground, and more importantly, U.S. goals and objectives. Any renewed negotiation should begin with a nationwide ceasefire. All promises by the Taliban or third parties must be verifiable and violations sanctioned. In particular, the United States will have to maintain pressure on Pakistan to help the peace process.

Third, as a great power, the United States cannot secure its objectives by disadvantaging its allies.  The government in Kabul deserves support, counsel, and constructive criticism. In particular, the ANDSF have suffered tremendously and need as much train-advise-assist help that the coalition can afford. The United States and its coalition partners also need to help the government in Kabul to support and defend its democracy and human rights programs. Health and education should be given first priority in economic support programs. 

Fourth, tough situations are best shared with allies and partners. The coalition in Afghanistan has showed tremendous endurance over two decades and today still includes under NATO lead, 39 nations and 8,600 soldiers, supporting a total of 14,000 U.S. troops. The United States needs to tend this garden, regardless of what paths it will follow in its next Afghanistan policy.

Finally, the United States needs a new strategic narrative, at home and abroad, to convince friends and foes alike that the United States is in Afghanistan for important strategic objectives and not simply to search for a “decent interval” to withdraw its troops. The “why” for what we are doing has become obscured by war weariness and setbacks in the war. Future policy success depends on convincing all that we are in Afghanistan for important goals that span war and peace.[57]

End Notes

[1] Cora Engelbrecht, “The Taliban Promise to Protect Women: Here’s Why Women Don’t Believe Them,” New York Times, July 13, 2019, at .  

[2] U.S. Embassy, Kabul, Policy Review: A U.S. Strategy for the ‘70s, p.1, Annex, June 1971. Emphasis in the original has been removed.

[3] Among the best early books on the run up to the war was Henry S. Bradsher, Afghanistan and the Soviet Union (Durham, NC: Duke Press Policy Studies, 1983), 53-125

[4] On Soviet decision-making, see Michael R. Fenzel (Major General, USA), No Miracles: the Failure of Soviet Decision-Making in the Afghan War (Stanford, CA: Stanford Security Studies, 2017), 11-86. On early fighting in the Soviet experience, see, Henry Bradsher, Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, 149-250; and Joseph J. Collins, The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan: A Study in the Use of Force in Soviet Foreign Policy (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1986), 77-164.

[5] On the withdrawal, see David Fivecoat, “Leaving the Graveyard: The Soviet Union’s Withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Parameters, Summer 2012, 42-55, at .

[6] On the transition from unconventional warfare to diplomacy and restraint, see Peter Tomsen, The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers (NY: Public Affairs, 2011), 451-516.

[7]Martin Ewans, Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics (NY: HarperCollins, 2002), 255. 

[8] As quoted in Joseph Collins, Understanding War in Afghanistan (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2011) 39.

[9] Thomas Keane and Lee Hamilton, Chairmen, The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (NY: Norton, 2004), 66.

[10]Lawrence Wright, Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (NY: Knopf, 2006), 354-55.

[11]Collins, Understanding War in Afghanistan, 63, and Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart, Fixing Failed States (NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 75

[12] George W. Bush, Decision Points (NY: Crown Publishers, 2010), 205.

[13] James Dobbins, John McGinn, Keith Crane, et al., America’s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2003), 156-60.

[14] Craig Whitlock, “Overwhelmed by Opium: the U.S. War on Afghanistan Has Imploded at Every Turn,” Washington Post, December 9, 2019, at .

[15] Richard Hooker and Joseph Collins, eds., Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2015), 33-40.  For an essential text on the resurgent Taliban, see Hassan Abbas, The Taliban Revival: Violence, Extremism, on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014).

[16]Dawood Azami, “Afghanistan: How Does the Taliban Make Money?,” BBC News Service, December 22, 2018  A standard book on this complex subject is Gretchen Peters, Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda (NY: St Martin’s Press, 2009).

[17] Holbrooke made this assertion at numerous presentations I attended in Washington DC, 2009-10.

[18] Hooker and Collins, eds., Lessons Encountered, 35-36, 72-73.

[19] Hooker and Collins, eds., Lessons Encountered, 33, based on ISAF statistics.

[20] For an analysis of the Obama surge, see Joseph Collins, Understanding War in Afghanistan (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2011), 75-88.

[21] The actual decision memorandum is included in Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars (NY: Simon & Schuster,2010) 385-90.

[22] The dispute with Petraeus was first covered in Paula Broadwell with Vernon Loeb, All In: the Education of David Petraeus (NY: Penguin Press, 2012), 291-303.

[23] Congressional Research Service, U.S. War Costs, Casualties, and Personnel Levels since 9/11, April 18, 2019, at .

[24] DoD, Casualty Status, September 17, 2019 at 

[25] SIGAR, Quarterly Report, January 30, 2019, at .

[26] “UN Urges Parties to Heed Call from Afghans: Zero Civilian Casualties,” UNAMA Report, 30 July 2019,

[27] SIGAR Quarterly report Jan 2019, p. 65 at David Zucchino, “U.S. Military Stops Counting How Much of Afghanistan is Controlled by Taliban,” May 1, 2019, at, and Team 6031, “Thoughts on Making Peace in Afghanistan,” Small Wars Journal, May 2, 2019, at

[28] DoD, Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan, June 2019, p. 2, at . For a civilian source based in Pakistan that confirms the DoD report, see Kathy Gannon, “Jihad, History Link Taliban to al-Qaida in Afghanistan,” AP News, September 17, 2019, at .

[29] Craig Whitlock, “Stranded without a Strategy,” Washington Post, December 9, 2019. This was the second installment of the Washington Post series.

[30] DoD, Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan, June 2019, 33.

[31] Remarks by President Trump on the Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia, August 21, 2017, at 

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.                                                                                                          

[34] Ibid.

[35] Leo Shane III, “Pompeo backtracks on Afghanistan withdrawal by fall 2020,” Military Times, at .

[36] Mujib Mashal, “The U.S. and the Taliban Are Near a Deal. Here’s What It Could Look Like,” New York Times, August 13, 2019, at

[37] Lara Jakes, “Trump Declares Afghan Peace Talks With Taliban ‘Dead’,” New York Times, September 9, 2019, at

[38] CIA, World Factbook, “Afghanistan,” at; and Collins, Understanding War in Afghanistan, 7-8.  Population break-down is from the latter text. The USG no longer lists an ethnic break-down due to its political sensitivity and the fact that Afghanistan has never had an actual census.

[39] Asia Foundation, Afghanistan in 2018: A Survey of the Afghan People, 61, at                  

[40] DoD, Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan, 17.

[41] Thomas Lynch, “The Decades-Long “Double-Double Game:” Pakistan, the United States, and the Taliban,” Military Review , July-August 2018 at,

[42] Pamela Constable, “Recruited by Iran to Fight for Syrian Regime, Young Afghans Bring Home Cash and Scars,” Washington Post, July 29, 21018, at .

[43] For an analysis and an eyewitness account on the Afghan side of the border, see C. Christine Fair, “A New Strategy for Afghanistan Begins In Iran,” Khaama News Agency (India), November 22, 2018

[44]“Iran, India, Afghanistan Sign Transit Accord on Chabahar Port,” Dawn (India), May 23, 2016, at ; and Alyssa Ayres, “Five Questions with C. Christine Fair on India, Afghanistan, and Iran,” CFR Blog, June 28, 2018, at

[45] The author wishes to thank Captain Frank Mullens, USN MC for his advice on the Afghan women’s issues and the role of women in economic development.  His work was reflected in Team 6031’s paper, “Thoughts on Making Peace in Afghanistan,” Small Wars Journal, May 2, 2018, at . Frank’s work forms the basis for the treatment of women’s rights in this chapter. Other issues in that paper are discussed in the second half of this paper. The members of Team 6031 were Dr. Joseph Collins of the National War College faculty, the coordinating author of the article; the co-authors of the article were Army COLs Charles Hornick, Justin Reese, Matthew Sheiffer; Army LTCs Chad Froehlich and Karen Radka; Marine LtCol Erick Clark; Navy Commander Lloyd Edwards; and Navy Medical Corps Captain Frank Mullens.

[46] Department of State, Report on the Taliban’s War Against Women, November 2001, at

[47] Quentin Wodon, Claudio Montenegro, Hoa Nguyen, Adenike Onagoruwa, Missed Opportunities: The High Cost of Not Educating Girls (Washington DC: World Bank, 2018) 4-6,

[48] International Monetary Fund, Pursuing Women's Economic Empowerment, (Washington DC: International Monetary Fund, 2018) 1, at; and McKinsey Global Institute, The Power of Parity (New York: McKinsey Global Institute), 1. 

[49] World Bank, Women's Role in Afghanistan's Future – Taking Stock of Achievements and Continued Challenges. (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2013), 15

[50] Katherine Powell, Women and Girls in the Afghanistan Transition, (New York: Council of Foreign Relations, 2014) 1, at; and Asia Foundation, Afghanistan in 2018: A Survey of the Afghan People (San Francisco: Asia Foundation, 2018), 12-13, at .

[51] Lauren Bohn, “We're All Handcuffed in This Country.' Why Afghanistan Is Still the Worst Place in the World to Be a Woman,” TIME, December 28, 2018, at .  See also, SIGAR, 2019 High Risk List, 41, at .

[52] The programs and publications of USIP can be found at .  The author acknowledges conversations with his co-author, Marine LtCol Erick Clark, a member of Team 6031, on the importance and complexity of DDR.

[53] There are few “how to” books on negotiating with the Taliban.  One exception, written by two senior practitioners who had access to Afghan and Taliban experts, is James Shinn and James Dobbins, Afghan Peace Talks: A Primer (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2011).

[54] For a more favorable view of the U.S.-Taliban bilateral talks, see the op-ed by Stephen Hadley and Michele Flournoy, “Don’t Leave the Afghan Peace Talks for Dead,” Washington Post, September 26, 2019, A25. The two former senior officials --- one Democrat, one Republican --- do agree that the bilateral talks must expand to include all Afghans and that a ceasefire must become the “top demand.”

[55] The quote is from Joseph Collins and Michael Miklaucic, “Peace in Pieces: Will Afghanistan’s Long War Ever End,?” The Hill, May 10, 2018 at   A longer description of this initiative can be found in Joseph Collins, “ ‘Peace in Pieces’ in Afghanistan,” Small Wars Journal, May 4, 2018 at

[56] Dina Smeltz, Ivo Daalder, Karl Friedhoff, Rejecting Retreat: Americans Support U.S. Engagement in Global Affairs (Chicago, IL: Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2019), 35, at

[57] The author acknowledges conversations with his co-author, COL Matt Sheifer of Team 6031 on the importance of a new information approach to what we are doing in Afghanistan.

About the Author(s)

Joseph J. Collins, a retired Army Colonel, served DoD in and out of uniform for four decades.  His decade plus in the Pentagon was capped off by service as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations, 2001-04. He taught for 25 years at West Point and the National War College, and for more than two decades in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. He is an author in and co-editor (with Richard Hooker) of Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War, NDU Press, 2015. Collins is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and holds a doctorate in Political Science from Columbia University.



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