On 12 March 2017, the war in Afghanistan reached day 6000. It is quickly becoming one of the longest wars in history, and has no signs of dying down soon. With nearly 14,000 U.S. soldiers on the ground, there are reports indicating another 1000 may soon be on the way. Additionally, since the beginning of February the United States has been shifting combat and intelligence-gathering aircrafts to Afghanistan as the campaign against ISIS dies down in Iraq and Syria. The increased U.S. military presence raises questions as to whether there is any information available to assess the state of the conflict in Afghanistan. On its face, a grim picture is painted. An average of 66 civilians die every week in Afghanistan, and the Taliban now control more territory than at any point since the U.S. invasion in 2001. At the beginning of 2018, several vicious attacks tore through Kabul. In the wake of a bombing in a crowded street in Kabul on 27 January in which 95 people were killed, The Atlantic argued that it showed the Taliban’s continuing ability to strike at the heart of the Afghanistan. While these recent attacks were indeed callous acts, it is uncertain as to how well an indicator they serve for the conflict in the country.
Seth G. Jones has been following the current conflict in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion. In a piece written for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he explains that these types of attacks are orchestrated for their psychological effect and are used to cast doubt on the Afghan government’s ability to protect the population. Since these attacks are intended to grab headlines, they are not necessarily accurate indicators of the state of the conflict. Insurgent groups in Afghanistan are primarily political in nature. The Taliban’s stated goal is to overthrow the government in Kabul and replace it with a government based on the Deobandi interpretation of Islam. Political insurgencies need to mobilise local populations in support of their goals and because of this there are several indicators worth tracking. The first set of indicators identified by Jones are changes in population control. Data on territorial control is misleading because it does not distinguish between population levels. According to publicly available data, the Taliban control around 10-12 percent of Afghanistan’s population as of October 2017, up from 9 percent in August 2016. Government control decreased from 69 percent in August 2016 to between 60 and 64 percent in October 2017, leaving about a quarter of Afghanistan’s population living in contested areas where neither side has significant control or influence. The Taliban control no major urban areas. The second set of indicators identified are changes over time in local support. While the Taliban’s ideology may be amenable to some Afghans, a nationwide poll in 2015 found that 92 percent of Afghans supported the government in Kabul. However, according to a recent Asia Foundation poll, only 32.8 percent of Afghans believe their country is going in the correct direction. While this is a slight upsurge from a downward trend that started in 2013 according to Asia Foundation polls, it is not an encouraging number. Additionally, Afghanistan ranks 177th out of 180 countries surveyed by Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index. These numbers, along with sanctuary in Pakistan, help explain why the Taliban has remained a viable group for so long. At best, this appears to have caused a stalemate in the conflict.
Given that the conflict is stalemated, what are the next steps? The Trump Administration’s ‘fight to win’ strategy, unveiled last summer, has increased U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan, increased the number of frontline advisers assisting Afghan army units fighting the Taliban in remote areas of the country, and has increased U.S. airpower. However, as noted above, this strategy has had few tangible results. This then raises the serious question, should we talk to the Taliban? There appears to be no other solution to the conflict, but there are still serious obstacles to negotiations. The Taliban’s recent terrorist attacks in Kabul demonstrate their disregard for commonly held conceptions of the delineation between legitimate (combatant) and illegitimate (non-combatant) targets. But without the possibility of a political settlement the Taliban have no incentive to stop their attacks. This leads us to an unusual statement by the Taliban. On 14 February, the Taliban issued a 17,000 word appeal to the ‘American people,’ asking them to pressure U.S. officials into ending the conflict in Afghanistan. The letter insisted that the Taliban would prefer to end the conflict through a peaceful dialogue but warned that Taliban could not be subdued through force. A spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani responded to the letter by saying the Afghan government would not negotiate with the Taliban. However, by the end of the month Ghani offered the group amnesty for war crimes convictions and the status of the Taliban as a legal political party in an attempt to end the 17 year long conflict. This is Afghanistan’s most significant peace offer to the Taliban and largely resembles a deal Ghani made two years ago with the insurgent group Hezb-i-Islami, under the command of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Ghani’s peace overture reflects an understanding that the conflict in Afghanistan cannot be solved militarily. The Trump Administration has distanced itself from a role in any talks by retaining the standard line that any talks must be Afghan-led.
While a political solution appears to be the only way to end the conflict in Afghanistan, it is not certain when it will finally appear. The Trump Administration’s strategy to the conflict has focused heavily on the military dimension and while this has boosted some confidence in the abilities of the Afghan Armed Forces, it has done nothing for civil or political stability. Ghani’s peace efforts are also complicated by an unwieldly coalition that includes former warlords and ethnic militia leaders that have challenged his authority. This has made his adversaries judge him as increasingly weak, desperate to reach a peace deal. A divided Afghan government makes it unlikely that Ghani’s olive branch will be accepted by the Taliban. If the Afghan government wants to reach a political settlement with the Taliban, it should first focus on internal political stability. The prospects for an agreement with the Taliban will be higher if the government is united. As to the American military efforts in Afghanistan, the focus needs to be on denying the Taliban increased levels of population control while enhancing the capabilities of the Afghan security forces. In the meantime, victory will continue to remain a nebulous concept.