Mattis claims Taliban ‘cannot win at the ballot box’

Once again, a top United States official has failed to properly identify the Taliban and Islamic State’s disinterest in participating in peaceful political process.

After the Islamic State’s Khorasan province killed 25 people, including nine journalists and 11 children, in a double suicide bombing in Kabul yesterday, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis fielded a question from a reporter on how ISIS could carry out such an attack in the capital:

SEC. MATTIS: Yes. But ISIS also takes advantage of these — it’s not — you can break them apart in terms of what organization they’re part of, but their goal is to destabilize the elected government and open the door — and they’re not all ISIS, by the way. Some of the attacks have been Taliban — for example, the one in Lashkar Gah, I’m pretty sure, was Taliban. I’ll check on that.

But no, this is the normal stuff by people who cannot win at the ballot box, so they turn to bombs. I mean, this should be completely expected. It’s what they do.

Mattis’ response was that since the Islamic State can’t win an election, they bomb stuff. That simplification may be considered by some as nitpicking Mattis’ off the cuff comments, but it is deeper than that. Words matter, especially from top-level officials such as Mattis. More importantly, this frequent misidentification of terrorist group interests has spanned the course of three administrations, which indicates there is a pattern of thought.

Just last week, then-acting US Secretary of State, John J. Sullivan, urged the Taliban to run for office. These were his words, from an official Department of State press release:

As President Ghani recently said, the Taliban should turn their bullets and bombs into ballots. They should run for office. They should vote. We encourage Taliban leaders to return to Afghanistan from their foreign safe havens and work constructively for Afghanistan’s future. More violence will not bring peace and security to Afghanistan.

The fact that Sullivan’s statement was not off the cuff indicates the idea that the Taliban should lay down its arms, join the political process, and share power with the Afghan government, runs deep within the US government.

As explained after Sullivan made his statement, the Taliban (and the Islamic State for that matter) would no sooner participate in elections than a great white shark would become a vegetarian. Elections are antithetical to jihadists. They believe it is their religious obligation to wage jihad (holy war) to oust Western occupiers and impose their harsh brand of Sharia (Islamic law).

US officials should stop making inane statements about the Taliban and Islamic State joining a political process, learn to properly define the nature of the enemy, and communicate it to the public. Mattis’ proper response to the question of the Islamic State’s bombing is that they are religious radicals who are hellbent on murdering everyone and anyone who stands in their way of imposing their will on Afghanistan.

The failure to properly define the nature of our enemies in Afghanistan, be it the Taliban or the Islamic State, has led to bad policy. For more than a decade, US and NATO officials have harbored the erroneous belief that if we can just deal the Taliban a significant military blow, it will come to the negotiating table and Afghanistan will magically fix itself.

This did not work during the Bush administration’s offensive in Kandahar and Helmand in 2006. And it didn’t work during the Obama administration’s surge from 2009-2014, which saw more than 120,000 American troops in country during its height. During the Obama surge, the Taliban lost control of key provinces, including Helmand and Kandahar, yet persisted in maintaining its insurgency.

Today, the Taliban controls or contests more than 59 percent of Afghanistan, more than it has at any time since the US invasion in 2001. The Taliban certainly benefits from the support and safe haven of its patron, Pakistan. But its fanatical religious motivation and fervent believe in its obligation to wage jihad has allowed it to persist in the toughest of times.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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14 Comments

  • Pete Speer says:

    This is not unusual. Gen. Mattis may be a superb military officer in Conventional War. He does not understand that neither Daesh or Taliban are not vertically organized with large staffs and a deep “Division slice.” This ignorance pervades the Ground forces. All direct combat is fungible. Next in line easily step up upon the loss of a local force leader without losing momentum.

    Our earlier foolishness regarding the al Qaeda horizontal, decentralized system was not taken into account. OBL was not the gneralissimo. He was the operational commander with the authority to distribute resources after approval of the operation. His flat organization which received distributable funds has been described (by the undersigned) as the “McDonald’s” of the terrorist biz. Franchise allocation, training facilities (think Tora Bora), even funding were and are distributed to radical Sunni, without regard to nationality. The huge mosque building programs in undeveloped countries were led in every location by radical (Salafist Wahhabi) Imams. The competitionn in the underdeveloped nations were such creeds as animism as well as Christianity.

    The underlying purpose was to maintain Riyadh as the holders of the

    To this, the Ottomans had a responce: the establishment of an independent state, full of Islamist Turkish influence, but aming towards taking into this “Caliphate” the radical religious independence without — technically — being ruled by the Saud family or Erdogan and the Turkish General Staff.

  • Paddy Singh says:

    The decade ago.Taliban could not give a damn what Matis says. They took Afghanistan by force and they will do so again. they were never defeated but beat a tactical retreat more than a

  • Bob Baker says:

    Mattis and the rest of the flag officers did not experience Vietnam, where the similarities are many and the terrorists similar.
    As much as I understand that the military would rather not make references to Vietnam, they might make use of the Lessons Learned in fighting the Viet Cong, who were almost a non-entity by 1972. I would contend that the VC were far worse than the Taliban and ISIS.

  • Ken says:

    We ought to stop calling them mosques and call them military outposts or FOBS. We’ve been in Afghanistan for how long now and high ranking officials still don’t get it. Doesn’t anyone share intel? Don’t people in the military and D.C. talk and build on the knowledge base. I’ve read three books on Afghanistan and Iraq and every other page was a litany of errors with almost flat learning curves, if you can even call them curves. No one has a strategic vision.

    • charles says:

      Actually nobody shares intel. Back in 2003 (in Baghdad as private businessmen) when we described the way to reconcile the competing factions in Iraq we would say “the reconciliation needed is not between the Sunni, Shia and Kurd; it is between State, CIA and Pentagon.” I served in US Embassy Riyadh before during and after the 2001 9/11 events. I was a neutral, independent senior Country Team Member. The heads of State, CIA, FBI and Pentagon hated each other. Few even spoke beyond common courtesies. The disrespect was deep, and visible in day to day interactions. Sadly this has been underway since at least 1991 when the pentagon went to war in Kuwait and remained at war with the decade long Iraq No Fly air embargo. US military were in active combat and in such situations, were Not under the authority of the Ambassador (or so they acted, at least). By 2001, this was deeply institutionalized in growing budget and manpower disparities. Today? too late.

  • W Martyn says:

    Bill
    You are quire right that policy makers and leader still do not understand even the basics; to quote you, “properly define the nature of the enemy, and communicate it to the public”.
    The officials’ comments were not inane. They were insane and ill informed.
    But, there are two points, it seems to me could be amplified.

    1. The Taliban actively reject, as they must as a matter of doctrine, democracy and elections because, in their view, such a practice is prohibited by shari’a. Thus, to participate in any way, would be shirk: raising a partner with Allah (who, as we know, according to the Taliban’s world view and that of all salafi-jihadis, – rules without partners).
    Democracy places a partner beside Allah. Hence, democracy represents disbelief and idolatry.

    2. The Taliban are not disinterested in elections, as you suggest. “Disinterested” means freedom from bias or involvement; lack of interest; indifference; to [be] free from concern for personal interests. They are ideologically opposed to elections.

    People seem to forget Abdullah Azzam’s catch phrase: “Jihad and the rifle alone; no negotiations, no conferences, and no dialogues”

    You cannot negotiate with people who consider anyone not like them to be outside their moral community – and who believe they are not only authorized, but required, by their god to exterminate you, make you convert – or extract protection money (jizya) for the privilege of living in a state in which religious apartheid is a foundational doctrine.

  • Observer 1 says:

    Could not agree more.
    WHY are they pushing to negotiate with the Taliban? It is not just the last couple of months, but a good year since the subject was raised and Taliban laughed. The idea behind NOT negotiating with terrorists was sound. The simple act of offering, publicly, to negotiate with them empower the Taliban, only. And to do so when they have clearly been gaining ground – and trust – is like an admission of defeat. They seem to recognize this and are emboldened by it, as could be expected. So the question arises . . . IS it an admission that Ghani and the west have lost, or given up?

  • John Barr says:

    All very interesting and intelligent replies to this article, though it still comes down to the question of how can this conflict be resolved? Can it ever be resolved? If not, then can the US, NATO and international community carry on indefinitely and continue to spunk tax payers money away on a country that has to be propped up by charity? As General Nicholson recently alluded to in a recent statement, Kabul is now a city under seige. The official statistics illustrate that the Taliban have approximately 45% territorial control of the country. Personally speaking I think this being liberal with the truth. Anyone that sets foot outside the city limits of Kabul does so at extreme risk and needs to be armed up to the max. I would describe Kabul as an isolated city state with very little control of the provincial rural areas. Similarly, other main urban population centres such Herat, Mazar etc reflect this trend.

    I did three tours in Helmand with the military and since leaving the army I’ve worked in Afghanistan as a security contractor. So I’ve seen lots of changes, and few of them have been good. But yeah, from my humble worms eye view of Afghanistan since 2008 it doesn’t look good out here, and I definetly agree with the article that the politicos have no idea what they’re dealing with. These guys can’t be reasoned with and maybe the ones that are open to reconciliation are the old timers who are war weary and just want watch their grand kids grow up. However, they’re not the ones with the clout anymore, it’s the radical young zealots who’re dancing to a different tune that are calling the shots. ISIS are considered to be far fanatical and lethal adversaries than Taliban or AQ fighters fr instance.

    AfPak as a region is at the eye of the storm and essentially the epicentre of Jihadist terrorism. I suspect the US and NATO couldn’t walk away, even if they wanted to, so it’s a catch 22. But after over 16 years one would think that someone might have asked Question 1 of the NATO Combat Estimate process, which is What is the Enemy doing and Why? Clearly no has as yet, but it help if someone did if a nw generation of young soldiers are going to be getting their taste of the meat grinder.

    JWB from Kabul.

    • Nick Mastrovito says:

      John, thanks for your service. My only comment is that if we want any decent result in Afghanistan, it will take a long time. The opposite is to let the Taliban, et al regain a terror home base where they can continue to launch global terror events. In the big picture, the US and NATO military need to shrink out of the picture. The Taliban says that they’ll make peace when there are no foreign troops. That’s a lie. They will take over the country again when there are no foreign troops to protect the tenuous control of the central govt. That is another problem. Afghanistan needs a federal system with a weak central govt and strong district govts. Ultimately, this is an Afghan problem and they will need to fix it. Our and the rest of the free world’s problem is to prevent Afghanistan in becoming a terror safe haven and training base again.

  • Nick Mastrovito says:

    I don’t dispute Bill’s take on the SECDEF’s remarks nor do I dispute any comments posted here but what I see is a fundamental misunderstanding of counter-insurgency principles. The Tailban, ISIS, et al in Afghanistan are truly insurgents- that is, they want to overthrow the current form of government for their own. They, like several of you commented, have no need for elections, etc as they really don’t care what the populace wants.

    In order to counter that ideology, the Afghan Government and Security Forces (both military and police) must be able to show the populace that they can take care of them and that they will treat them ethically. That’s a tough order because Afghanistan presents huge challenges, primarily because their isn’t a homogeneous ethnicity in Afghanistan. I’m not an Afghan expert but there are at least 5-6 major ethnicities and they all pretty much hate each other. The ideal situation for Afghanistan and for the Government of Afghanistan is to bring the Taliban, et al back into the fold. That will probably never happen, en masse, because the hardcore Islamists will never be content until they can subjugate the populace with their ultra-conservative brand of Islam.

    Counter-insurgencies are not short wars- if you look at the handful of successful counter-insurgencies in the 20th century, they took 40-50 years. We want to fix Afghanistan in 5 minutes. Not going to happen. Afghanistan has not very huge challenge in that they have no history of democracy. Even the US democracy took 100 years to cement and this was with people who had some idea of democratic roots.

    So, to criticize the SECDEF or other members of the US Govt regarding the terrorists and elections is actually feeble. The FARC ruled half of Colombia for half a century. They had no intention of demobbing and now they have been brought to the bargaining table. The Brits still have a very tenuous agreement with the Northern Irish and that took 700 years. We need to be patient in Afghanistan and we need the UN, Muslim nations, and State people to help form good and competent governance in Afghanistan.

  • Mike says:

    It’s required rhetoric. I doubt Mattis thinks these guys are interested in anything but domination. I mean we know he eats crayons, but he isn’t actually that foolish.

    • irebukeu says:

      Required rhetoric (I have another opinion on that) that requires a defense to anyone that would disagree with it or speak against it. There are lies, damn lies and statistics. This is not a statistic. Two left.
      The military is paid to break things. They have been turned into social workers and cops who will soon need body cams to escape lawsuits from the locals. Mattis is a great man. I love that guy. What is he doing?

  • TIM says:

    if they have enough money they can!

  • Ben D. Shiriak says:

    An excellent group of replies. No fools trolling here. It would be nice if a way could be found to publicize this article and the replies outside of longwarjournal.

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