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Why the Taliban Cannot Win the Afghan War

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The Pulse

Why the Taliban Cannot Win the Afghan War

The group lacks one key asset: popular support from the Afghan people.

Why the Taliban Cannot Win the Afghan War
Credit: Department of Defense photograph by Lt. j. g. Joe Painter

The Taliban insurgency has entered its 16th year in Afghanistan, but their prospects for control of the country are as gloomy as they were when the group was toppled in 2001 by a U.S.-led international coalition for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

Despite considerable Pakistani support, a massive drawdown of foreign troops from Afghanistan, and crippling corruption in Afghan governmental organizations, the Taliban are not in a position to overthrow the democratic regime in Kabul. Part of the explanation is the international support for the Afghan government, but the most important and yet mostly overlooked reason for the Taliban’s quandary is the lack of broad national support for their cause.

The history of Afghan resistance movements clearly indicates that their successes against former empires and conquerors were indebted to the popularity of and broad national support for uprisings against the invaders. Although at times international support and recognition – such as during the Soviet invasion – played an important role, it was still secondary to the nationwide Afghan resistance that sustained and protracted the bloody campaigns, making it impossible for the invaders to win.

In a vivid contrast to their predecessors, who made history and earned Afghanistan its reputation as the “graveyard of empires,” the Taliban are destined to lose their campaign due to their unpopularity among Afghans and a lack of national solidarity and support for their cause.

series of surveys conducted over the years to capture Afghans’ perception of the ongoing developments in the country indicate very low public support for the Taliban. Their staunch sympathizers comprise less than 10 percent of the Afghan population, whereas encountering the Taliban is the worst nightmare for 93 percent of Afghans, who see the insurgents as the biggest threat to their safety and lives. Furthermore, in recent years, ordinary Afghans tired of the Taliban’s tyranny picked up arms and drove them out of their localities in different parts of the country.

Meanwhile, other assertions, mainly by the Pakistani establishment, that Taliban are a “legitimate voice” representing Pashtun – the largest Afghan ethnic group – grievances and their alienation from the current power structure couldn’t be farther from the truth.

First of all, more than any other Afghan ethnic group, Pashtuns are victims of the Taliban insurgency. In addition to the destruction of Pashtun villages and livelihoods, the Taliban have burned their schools, erased educational opportunities for their kids, and killed their influential figures, who dared to speak against the Taliban.

Second, many prominent Pashtun figures fought against the Taliban even before the 9/11 attacks and opposed their rule when the Taliban controlled nearly 90 percent of Afghan soil. Others, such as former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, cut ties with the Taliban in their heyday and joined the resistance after realizing their ill intentions and highly questionable relationship with Pakistan. A considerable number of Pashtun intellectuals and politicians totally stayed away from the Taliban and preferred living abroad.

Third, the Taliban have never proclaimed that they fight for Pashtun supremacy and/or the Pashtun cause, nor are ethnic boundaries the criteria for distinguishing their friends and foes. Rather, their main objective was – and still is – to establish an Islamic Emirate to enforce their own version of the Sharia law, and their ideology is the building block and cornerstone of their alliances and allegiances. Anyone who opposes their worldview, regardless of his or her ethnicity, is a legitimate target for the Taliban.

And finally, speaking of Pashtun alienation from Kabul is at best an exaggeration. Both former and current democratically elected Afghan presidents are ethnic Pashtuns, and important cabinet positions including defense, intelligence, finance, and police force have for the most part been occupied by Pashtuns.

The only reason the Taliban have managed to sustain their campaign is that they have been protected from the Afghan and international forces’ onslaught by Pakistani support and safe havens. When pushed by Afghan security forces and U.S.-led coalition troops, the Taliban simply cross the border into Pakistan and avoid punishment. At the same time, Pakistani madrasas – religious schools, now operating as the main radicalization machinery for terrorist groups – have been serving as reliable supply sources and recruitment centers for the Taliban, providing them their endless foot soldiers.

However, Pakistan cannot continue this trend forever, especially when the death of the Taliban’s founding father and undisputed leader, Mullah Omar, has caused an irreplaceable leadership vacuum and fragmentation that is hard, if not impossible, to reconcile. Furthermore, pushing the current path will be very costly for Pakistan, especially at a time when an increasing number of prominent figures, including U.S. lawmakers and top military officials, are calling on the new U.S. administration to put more pressure on Pakistan or even “designate” it as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The Taliban and their terrorist affiliates, which have been waging war against the Afghan people, cannot sustain their unpopular bloody camping forever.

How long it will take the sinking boat of the Taliban to fully submerge partly depends on how the Trump administration approaches the Afghan conflict. If the objective is to responsibly end the longest American war in history, then the new U.S. administration can act as a catalyst and speed up demise of the Taliban by warning Pakistan – as the Bush administration did in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks – about the consequences of sheltering and supporting the Taliban and other terrorist groups that are posing a threat to the U.S. homeland and sabotaging its mission in Afghanistan.

Making Pakistan change course will be the last nail in the coffin of the Taliban and their terrorist affiliates fighting in Afghanistan.

Ghulam Farooq Mujaddidi writes about contemporary Afghan and regional security issues, foreign relations of Afghanistan, and socio-political developments in the country. He is a Fulbright scholar, with MA in Political Science from University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and currently serves as the President of the American University of Afghanistan Alumni Association.