Seventeen years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, America is still at war with the Taliban in Afghanistan, with no victory in sight. The war has now dragged on so long that Americans born on or after September 11 will shortly be old enough to fight in it; on the Taliban side, that milestone was passed a few years ago, and we are almost at the point where half the population of Afghanistan will have been born after September 11 (the median age in Afghanistan is 18.8 years, with 41 percent of the population age 14 and under, and 63 percent age 24 and under). In a majority-illiterate society, that means many young Afghans know only America at war in their country, and have no memory and possibly no knowledge of the terrorist attack on America that started it.
The Taliban were not the only party responsible for aiding al-Qaeda as it planned the September 11 attacks, but they were the most open about giving al-Qaeda sanctuary and alliance, to the point that the two organizations were effectively intertwined, and they were also the most unrepentant — as they remain to this day — about continuing to do so. No nation on earth could have tolerated such an attack without retaliating in force, and the armed forces of the U.S. and its NATO allies quite properly deposed the Taliban from power by the end of November 2001.
Talking To Ourselves
But the Bush administration was never able to finish the job, and as Thomas Joscelyn details exhaustively in The Weekly Standard, things got worse from there. The Obama administration, in pursuit of a “peace process” with the Taliban (especially after having prematurely declared that our war there was over), effectively negotiated against itself for years:
The Obama administration’s dance with the Taliban is a near-perfect picture of diplomatic failure: The Taliban dangled the prospect of talks to extract concessions while offering nothing of value in return. At first, the United States and its allies fell for Taliban impostors. Secretary Clinton abandoned America’s preconditions for the talks, recasting them instead as the goals of an imagined “peace process.” Just for the opportunity to talk, Clinton’s State Department agreed to have some Taliban figures removed from the U.N.’s list of sanctioned terrorists and to split the Taliban and al Qaeda designation lists under the phony assertion that the groups are wholly separate. A Taliban emissary who raised funds for al Qaeda paved the way for the opening of a political office in Qatar, which the Taliban used to embarrass the United States. The Taliban also secured the release of five of its hardened commanders, three of whom served the organization at its highest levels prior to being detained at Guantánamo. Throughout all of this, the Taliban never issued a single statement renouncing al Qaeda or terrorism — one of the few “confidence-building measures” sought by the American side.
The episode involving the opening of what amounted to a Taliban fundraising office in Doha in in 2013 was a particularly humiliating fiasco. In part, this reflects one of the two major strategic dilemmas of the war: Because the Taliban continues to ally itself with al-Qaeda and identify their causes as a single movement towards a single goal, the United States cannot tolerate a return to Taliban control and dominance of the country, the same status quo ante that led to the 9/11 attacks. But at the same time, the Taliban have long positioned themselves as both a force for order (of a brutal kind) in a chaotic country and the representative of the Pashtun, the nation’s largest ethnic group (an identification that still commands loyalty even as the movement has drawn on disaffected members of other ethnic groups). In short, the Taliban’s leadership, command structure, and ideology argue for an American war of annihilation — but the support it draws from a large segment of the population, which isn’t necessarily predicated on buying the whole ideology, argues for some negotiated accommodation. And the default position for some years now has been the latter.
There is nothing wrong in principle with negotiating with bad actors like the Taliban, or even with doing so with few preconditions, but unilateral concessions just to “build confidence” are foolhardy and, in fact, have the imperatives of a successful negotiation precisely backwards. Anyone paying even modest attention to the American government knows that the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations have all been more than willing since 2002 to find some minimally tolerable way to cut a deal — and honor it — to leave Afghanistan to the Afghans. It is already a huge and arguably dangerous concession for the United States to hold direct talks without the legitimately elected government of Afghanistan, which the Taliban refuses to recognize, but recognition of a post-war government that is acceptable to all parties can reasonably be the end goal, not the starting point, of negotiations. (And we still don’t really have a practical sense of what, if anything, a post-war government that gives some concessions to the Taliban without restoring their ability to re-empower al-Qaeda would or could look like.) If Taliban leaders need more inducement to come to the table, send them a fruit basket.
But the one non-negotiable precondition of any talks is that American confidence needs to be established that it is negotiating with someone who actually has authority to bind the opposing forces — including accepting responsibility for al-Qaeda breaches of any peace. If you aren’t negotiating with someone who can effectively guarantee that the fighting and the terror will stop, and who is willing to be held responsible in concrete ways if they resume, then you’re not negotiating at all; you’re just debating.
The Trump Card
Unless and until there is a plausible partner with whom to negotiate, our efforts to do so just signal our lack of commitment to continue the war. And commitment to fight indefinitely the one thing the Taliban still has in spades: It’s their country, life is cheap to them, and in many ways the Taliban is better suited as an organization to being an insurgency against a foreign enemy than to actually running a nation at peace without stirring up its own internal enemies. But the Trump administration is led by a president no more genuinely committed to the war than Obama was. Despite the best efforts of Trump’s national-security team and the president’s grudging willingness to plod on, the administration has failed thus far to find a way to either leave an Afghan government willing and able to continue the war to the bitter end on its own, or to communicate to the Taliban that America truly has the will to bring them to heel no matter how long it takes.
This is in part due to the other strategic dilemma in the war, one that has recurred through nearly every American war since 1945: the American desire to deal with Afghanistan piecemeal, without addressing the various roles of neighboring Pakistan and Iran — as well as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Gulf states — in the conflict. As Joscelyn notes:
Though President Trump has been tougher on Pakistan than his predecessor, some of the Taliban’s most senior leaders still patiently plot from the territory of our erstwhile ally. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” he said in his August 21, 2017, speech. “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.”
In keeping with this stern warning, the Trump administration has withheld funds, designated additional Pakistan-based facilitators as terrorists, and chastised Pakistani officials for inaction. It is possible that this has had some effect behind closed doors, but it certainly hasn’t changed Pakistan’s overall behavior. Moreover, America is generally unwilling to target senior Taliban leaders inside Pakistan. The last time the United States killed a Taliban leader inside Pakistan was in May 2016. This safe haven has been crucial, allowing much of the Taliban’s leadership to operate with impunity.
So long as your enemy has a safe border to retreat behind, without being chased there, it is nearly impossible to win a war.
Even Vietnam is now well exceeded by the length of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and no end appears in sight. But the anniversary of the September 11 attacks is a grim reminder of the costs of simply admitting defeat.