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.