By Michael Kugelman September 17, 2019
On September 7, U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly called off his government’s talks with the Taliban—even though the two sides were on the cusp of a U.S. troop withdrawal deal.
With talks off (for now), the Trump administration has vowed to intensify its fight against the Taliban, with the hope that increasing battlefield pressure will compel the insurgents to come back to the negotiating table and make concessions—leading to a new deal with better terms for the United States.
The problem is that this strategy has been attempted many times before. And it has never succeeded.
Trump’s stated reason for calling off talks, cited in a series of tweets announcing his decision, was that the Taliban had staged a deadly attack that killed multiple people, including a U.S. soldier.
This likely isn’t the real reason, however. The Taliban has staged attacks—including those that have killed American soldiers—for the entire nearly one-year period that talks had been taking place. The real reason likely had more to do with increasing concern in Washington—and Kabul—about an emerging U.S.-Taliban deal that was heavily weighted against the U.S. and Afghan governments. This is in great part because the accord did not commit the Taliban to a ceasefire or to launch direct talks with Kabul, which was sidelined from the U.S.-Taliban talks.
…Trump himself bragged in a September 14 tweet that the Taliban “has never been hit harder than it is being hit right now.”
Regardless of Trump’s motivations for pulling the plug on talks, his administration’s new plan of action is clear: U.S. forces will be upping their game on the battlefield with stepped-up assaults on the Taliban. The head of U.S. Central Command made this quite clear during a trip to Afghanistan soon after Trump called off talks, and then Trump himself bragged in a September 14 tweet that the Taliban “has never been hit harder than it is being hit right now.”
As I wrote in a Foreign Policy essay last week, the short-term objective of this step-up-the-fight strategy is to telegraph a message of toughness. But the broader goal is to soften up the Taliban, so that the chastened insurgents will return to the negotiating table and agree to make concessions that they hadn’t made in the previous negotiations with their American counterparts. Washington’s biggest objective, if it can get the Taliban back to the table, is to press it to agree to a ceasefire before it concludes a troop withdrawal deal with the United States.
There are two problems with Washington’s plan to use battlefield pressure to coax concessions out of the Taliban. First, it’s been tried many times before. Second, it’s never worked.
Perhaps the most memorable precedent for this failed strategy was the U.S. troop surge in 2009. The idea was to pour troops into Afghanistan, set them loose on the Taliban, and prepare the ground for eventual talks. At the high water mark of the surge, there were 100,000 U.S. troops—and 150,000 NATO personnel altogether—in the country. They weren’t able to tame the Taliban. And serious talks never got off the ground. If 100,000 American troops couldn’t do the trick, then the 13,000 to 14,000 left in the country now certainly won’t be up to the task.
What adjustments would be needed to get an unsuccessful strategy to work this time around?
As a start, the rules of the engagement on the battlefield—both for Afghan and U.S. soldiers—would need to change considerably. But such a change doesn’t appear to be in the cards.
First, in recent months, Afghan soldiers have often taken defensive positions and not strayed far from their bases amid Taliban offensives. This only emboldens and strengthens the insurgents. For the Taliban to be put more on the defensive, Afghan forces, with support from U.S. forces, will need to be out front taking more offensive positions.
This entails not just going around killing the bad guys, but also building relations and trust with local communities.
Second, for the Taliban to start feeling more pressure, it will need to perceive that it is more disadvantaged on the governance side. And for this to happen, Afghan and U.S. forces would need to play the role of true counterinsurgents. This entails not just going around killing the bad guys, but also building relations and trust with local communities. With the U.S. mission having become defined more as a counterterrorism mission over the last few years, such efforts to win hearts and minds have lost popularity amid American planners. As a result, the Taliban has been able to gain support and new recruits based on its own efforts with rural populations. This in turn has enabled it to gain footholds and influence in areas far from its traditional strongholds, and ultimately to gain more territory. And with so much territory in their control—the insurgents lord over more land now than they have at any time since American forces entered Afghanistan in October 2001—the Taliban won’t be easily demoralized.
In the absence of these shifts in Afghan and American tactics, stepped-up U.S. battlefield pressure is likely to involve little more than intensified joint Afghan-U.S. airstrikes on the Taliban. This may kill more insurgents, but it won’t make the group any more likely to make concessions at the negotiating table. And in fact intensified airstrikes will likely cause more civilian casualties—which would give the Taliban a PR victory and ammunition for new recruitment pitches. This wouldn’t be a new development, either. According to the UN, Afghanistan and its U.S. partner killed more civilians during the first half of 2019 than did the Taliban over the same period.
As the old saying goes, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result each time is the definition of insanity. And yet, because of the poverty of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, Washington appears poised to ignore the lessons of the past and fail once again.
The sad truth is that U.S. policy in Afghanistan lacks a viable Plan B. The question now is whether Washington will one day finally craft a workable policy alternative—and especially one other than an eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces that many observers in Afghanistan have long feared will constitute the final chapter of America’s post-2001 involvement in their country.
Follow Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia, on Twitter @MichaelKugelman.