The Pulse | South Asia

The Long War in Afghanistan Might Be Over. Who Won?

There might be no clear winner after all, but what exactly will that mean for Afghanistan and the region?

By Kambaiz Rafi for
The Long War in Afghanistan Might Be Over. Who Won?
Credit: Flickr/ U.S. Department of State

The recent peace road map signed in Doha between the United States and the Taliban is so far the closest the two sides have come to ending the so-called long war in Afghanistan.

As for a winner, the jury is out and history must long mull over an answer. U.S. President Donald Trump has already been congratulated for the controversial decision that both his predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, thought wise to avoid. Pulling out all U.S. troops from Afghanistan and beginning to end the military engagement there will doubtless help him in front of his cheering supporters in the pre-election season in the United States.

Events on the ground, however, have shown not to go as planned and only two days after the deal, the battlefield mood has been reset. American jets bombarded Taliban hideouts following the Taliban resuming operations against the Afghan government when a seven days’ reduction in violence was declared over by the group.

Other than Trump’s tenuous domestic gains, quick comparisons to the U.S. military campaign in Indochina in the 1960s-70s and to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s hint at a Taliban win in the war. The invading force in this case – the U.S.-led military coalition – has met a similar predicament and is about to yield to an unpalatable popular force it can hardly suppress, despite overwhelming military-technical superiority. The comparison holds so good that it would be wasteful not to wield it.

For commentators who find merit in most things that hinder U.S. hegemony, the ruggedness of the Afghan tribal man adds to the allure of a post-colonial narrative, which pits the white man and his civilizing burden – the United States – and the cultural particularity of a distant land – Afghanistan – that has successfully defied its global mission. Other orders of magnitude in the fight against oppression – religious despotism in the case of Taliban – pale in comparison to the largest moral prize of seeing the hegemon lose its grip on the world.

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However, such generosity toward the Taliban is undeserved. The ethno-religious extremist group has hardly seriously come close to achieving a victory in the war. They are, moreover, not the liberators they pretend to be.

In post-2001 Afghanistan, the Taliban morphed rapidly from a regime into an insurgency, led from sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan where the group’s leadership lives and operates since their removal from power in late 2001. Their Pakistani base of support is undeniable. So much so that cities in Pakistan, Quetta, and Peshawar, have come to embody their very leadership: the Quetta Shura (Shura is Arabic for council) and the Haqqani network dominated the Peshawar Shura, respectively.

Militarily, although the Taliban were relieved of pressure on the battlefield by early 2015 due to the withdrawal of international troops, allowing it to strengthen its grip on eastern provinces and expand into the north, it has failed to seize any urban center. The couple of times the Taliban militants entered a city – the most important being in Kunduz province in 2015 – they were driven out in days. The group’s irregular hit-and-run tactics has not evolved into the capabilities of a regular army necessary for seizing and maintaining a place large in population.

Hopeless assessments of Afghanistan’s government – such as this one – have also helped the group in important ways, not to count the unpaid-for publicity. Views regarding the Taliban’s control over half of Afghanistan’s territory – sometimes more than just half – are uncritically passed on as information, overlooking the fact that the group has remained focused in sparsely populated Southwestern provinces, covered by swathes of uninhabitable desert, for much of their post-2001 insurgency. For instance, anyone seizing only 4 provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Farah and Nimruz will have control over 31.4 percent of Afghanistan with a combined population 3.4 million (just over 10 percent of the country’s population).

The Afghan army and the police forces have prevented the creation of a contiguous territory inside Afghanistan by an insurgent group to declare a parallel state – something the much well-funded and well-equipped Iraqi army failed to do against the Islamic State. One important achievement the Taliban can rightly claim from 18 years of insurgency has been to constantly undermine this capability.

Other than that, the group’s activities are to account for the thousands of civilian deaths that, according to the United Nations, has persistently killed more civilians (with the exception of 2019 when the Afghan Army reportedly outpaced it) with indiscriminate suicide attacks and other insurgent operations since 2009, the year the United Nations began annual reports on conflict-related civilian deaths in Afghanistan. In a recent example, two days after the Doha agreement, a Taliban explosion killed at least three and wounded eleven in a football match in the Eastern Khost province.

Regardless of the ‘war on terror’ being ever justifiable, hinting at a Taliban victory serves the cause of the fanatic group which still firmly believes, among other things antediluvian, that theft should be penalized by chopping off the perpetrator’s limbs, and sexual misconduct by stoning the woman by a male congregation each vying to prove deadlier.

It can also have a tangible outcome. The Taliban at the moment are not nearly capable to march into Kabul triumphantly. The U.S. engagement in Afghanistan is also not yet over to declare its defeat. Rushing to declare the Taliban winners might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy by achieving both.

The symbolism of comparing today’s situation in Afghanistan to the U.S. capitulation in Vietnam and to the soviet-invaded Afghanistan of the 1980s is no less important. It views the Taliban as equivalents to the Viet Minh and to the popular mobilizations in 1980s in Afghanistan. The Viet Minh was far more popular, an essential characteristic that was important in forcing the retreat of first the French and then the U.S. invasions. The soviet foray into Afghanistan too spurred a popular mobilization that, although orchestrated by Islamist parties called the Mujahidin and rooted in religious conservatism, was unprecedented in the country’s history and halted Soviet expansionism in South Asia. The Taliban have never represented such a popular force and are predominantly viewed negatively in Afghanistan.

They are mostly recognized as a proxy to neighboring Pakistan since the group’s inception. Although the group enjoys some freedom of action on the field, have on occasion had rogue anti-Pakistani commanders, and has garnered some financial liberty by securing stakes in the lucrative opium trade that has co-existed with the group in Southern Afghanistan. The group is a central instrument of Pakistan’s push to carve out a peripheral zone of influence in its neighborhood. In its effort to assert its regional clout in rivalry with neighboring India and Iran, the push to establish a plaint government in Afghanistan as a doorway to Central Asia – the only available option for it to expand into – flows naturally from Pakistan’s regional policy. So far, the Taliban have proven reliable partners toward this end.

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The United States has turned a blind eye to the fact that the Taliban have, by all practical means, worked as an extension of the Pakistani military’s cross-border operation, unable to deeply antagonize nuclear armed Pakistan and cut all military and civilian cooperation over disagreements on how to handle war-torn Afghanistan. Washington has conducted its Afghan engagement with the acknowledgement that Pakistan’s regional ambitions in Central Asia cannot be entirely tamed. As put by the former CIA counter-terrorism analyst Bruce Riedel, the history of U.S.-Pakistan relationship has often involved a deadly embrace, the recent episode being played out in the post-2001 Afghan campaign.

The Doha agreement includes a 14 months period of trust-building between the two sides. If after many rounds of negotiations, the Taliban did not leave significant doubts as to upholding their commitments, this long trial period would not be necessary. This adds to the uncertainty of what is to come in the months ahead. What is clear for now is that Pakistan has quickly stepped in as the protector of the agreement. A recent Pakistani government statement demands that the Afghan government respect the prisoner release clause in it that states 5000 thousand Taliban detainees be released in ten days from Afghan government prisons, which Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has rejected as unrealistic.

Pakistan’s mediation role is likely to grow as the U.S. begins its disengagement. It is too soon to say, but Pakistani strategists might’ve gained the most from the United States’ long war. The country’s military and intelligence has bid its time and skillfully feigned cooperation with the US’s war on terror, received billions in civilian and military support, all along pretending to act as an ally without losing sight of their own objectives. It is now poised to step in as the upholder of peace in Afghanistan by leveraging its long-time proxy.

Kambaiz Rafi is a PhD researcher in political economy at University College London.