Editor’s note: This article was originally published by The Weekly Standard.
President Donald Trump opposes his own policy in Afghanistan. It shows.
Trump’s disdain for the war in Afghanistan had long been well known, so no one in the White House knew what he would decide to do about it in the summer of 2017. Multiple options were on the table in Trump’s freewheeling administration. The president had heard plans ranging from privatizing the war under the authority of military contractors, to a narrowly defined, CIA-led counterterrorism mission, to a more robust deployment of American forces, to a complete withdrawal. Finally, after months of debate, Trump decided that the U.S. military would stay in Afghanistan and ordered a modest increase of several thousand troops. The president was frustrated that his own advisers had talked him into this option, according to current and former administration officials familiar with the deliberations. Nonetheless, Trump grudgingly owned it.
On August 21, 2017, the president announced his decision during a speech at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia. “Our troops will fight to win,” he said. “We will fight to win.” The president recognized that “the American people are weary of war without victory,” yet he vowed this iteration of America’s longest war would be different. “The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory,” the president said. “They deserve the tools they need, and the trust they have earned, to fight and to win.”
No one is talking about winning the war in Afghanistan these days. America hasn’t even been trying to win the war. “We do look toward a victory in Afghanistan,” Trump’s secretary of defense James Mattis said in March. Mattis then quickly clarified that this would not be a “military victory.” Instead, the “victory will be a political reconciliation” with the Taliban.
This is not what President Trump said in August 2017. In his speech announcing the policy, the president was openly skeptical that any such peace deal could be reached: “Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.”
According to senior administration officials who spoke with The Weekly Standard at the time, that last phrase — “nobody knows if or when that will ever happen” — was Trump’s insertion. The president was wary of any strategy that hinged on the idea that a grand bargain with the Taliban was possible. He entertained only the possibility that “elements of the Taliban” could be convinced to lay down their arms — not the group’s senior leadership or the majority of the insurgents. Furthermore, the possible talks were to take place only “after an effective military effort.”
Despite Trump’s talk of winning, no such campaign ever materialized. There has been no effective military effort. The promises to furnish our warfighters with the tools they need to win — and a plan for victory — have gone unfulfilled. We are once again fighting not to lose. But we’re losing anyway.
The Taliban launched a massive offensive in Ghazni Province earlier this month. The jihadists ransacked parts of Ghazni’s capital city for several days before melting away into the countryside, much of which they already controlled. As Ghazni burned and its residents were sent fleeing, Resolute Support, the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, claimed the city remained “under Afghan control” and Afghan forces were merely performing “clearing operations.” It was a scene reminiscent of Baghdad Bob telling reporters in 2003 that all was well, even as American-led forces easily dispensed with Saddam Hussein’s men. The Afghans and Americans established some semblance of normalcy in Ghazni after several days, but by then the Taliban was already rampaging through other areas, killing dozens of security personnel.
The lack of demonstrable success has caused U.S. military commanders to redefine victory. Some of them now contend that the war is a stalemate in which the Taliban is incapable of overrunning Afghanistan’s more populated areas. They sell this as progress. But they are seeing the conflict through rose-colored glasses. The insurgents are capable of mustering enough forces for offensives throughout the country at any time. The Taliban’s men contest or control approximately 60 percent of the country — as much ground as at any point since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001. There is no reason to think they feel pressured to negotiate.
Trump preached patience in his speech a year ago, comparing his approach to President Obama’s. “Conditions on the ground — not arbitrary timetables — will guide our strategy from now on,” Trump said. This was a rebuke to Obama’s decision simultaneously to announce a surge in troops and a timetable for their withdrawal in December 2009. Military commanders knew that this created an incentive for the jihadists to wait America out, and that’s what they did. Trump also pointed out that President Obama “hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq” in 2011, thereby paving the way for the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS.
But Trump, like his predecessor, signaled his doubts about the war in announcing his commitment to win it. “My original instinct was to pull out — and, historically, I like following my instincts,” he explained.
Trump is an instinctive president — and an impatient one. Sensing that time is short, some administration officials are now attempting to negotiate a face-saving deal with the Taliban, one that allows America to leave without the appearance of having lost. Multiple news outlets in recent weeks have reported that the White House has given the go-ahead for direct talks with the jihadists.
This effort will almost certainly fail — as it did under Barack Obama. One year after the president’s announcement of a new Afghanistan policy, it’s increasingly clear that the current approach to Afghanistan isn’t a radical departure from Obama’s but mostly a continuation of it.
A DIPLOMATIC FIASCO
In the months after President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, the White House conducted a review of America’s war in Afghanistan, led by Bruce Riedel, a former intelligence official and Obama campaign adviser. Riedel’s policy review concluded that attempting to negotiate with the Taliban’s senior leadership would be foolhardy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s team pressed on anyway. The initial efforts were led by Richard Holbrooke, the longtime American diplomat who had played an instrumental role in negotiating an end to the Bosnian war. Holbrooke, who died in December 2010, tried to play the same peacemaking role in Afghanistan. He did not succeed; nor did those who came after him. The story of their failure is set out in Clinton’s own memoir Hard Choices, as well as in Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Steve Coll, a veteran journalist who is currently dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
In 2010, Secretary Clinton adhered to a series of preconditions for talks with the Taliban, insisting: “They must renounce violence; they must abandon their alliance with al Qaeda; and they must abide by the constitution of Afghanistan.” These had been the Bush administration’s original preconditions for talks with the Taliban. There was no chance the jihadists would meet any of these demands. So in a February 2011 speech, Clinton revised America’s terms, converting these preconditions — requirements for the talks to take place at all — into “necessary outcomes” of negotiations. Clinton and others have presented this as a “nuanced change,” but it was, in reality, a concession – one of several America was willing to make just to get someone from the Taliban, anyone, to the negotiating table. That the Taliban understood it as a sign of weakness would be clear soon enough.
At first, the Americans and the Afghans couldn’t even find a legitimate Taliban emissary to engage, as multiple frauds presented themselves as dealmakers. One of the first supposed liaisons said he was Mullah Mansour, an influential powerbroker within the Taliban. The United States and its allies paid “Mansour” $150,000 and escorted him around Afghanistan as if he were a central character in the war. The Americans eventually figured out that this Mansour was an impostor. The real Mullah Mansour would never agree to peace with the Americans — he was a stalwart ally of al Qaeda who openly referred to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri as the “heroes” of this age. After the Taliban admitted in July 2015 that its founder, Mullah Omar, had passed away unnoticed more than two years earlier, Mansour was named Omar’s successor. The Obama administration droned the genuine Mansour to death in May 2016 after concluding, correctly, that he was no peace partner.
Clinton’s team did finally find a legitimate emissary — a man who fleeced the State Department by extracting further concessions but delivered nothing in return. That man was Syed Tayyab Agha, a personal representative of Mullah Omar. When State began talking with Agha in 2010, Omar was still alive, though it isn’t clear that he was running the Taliban’s day-to-day operations. The State Department was optimistic about talks with Agha, even giving him the nickname “A-Rod,” like the baseball player Alex Rodriguez, because he was considered so valuable. Clinton’s State Department quickly began to pursue “confidence-building measures” with “A-Rod.” In this context, “confidence-building measures” was just diplospeak for “unilateral American concessions.”
In Hard Choices, Clinton lists some modest “confidence-building measures” the United States wanted the Taliban to undertake. “We wanted the Taliban to make public statements disassociating themselves from al Qaeda and international terrorism and committing to participate in a peace process with [Afghan president Hamid] Karzai and his government,” Clinton writes. That’s it — nothing beyond some messages distancing the group from a terrorist organization that had killed thousands of Americans, and a vague promise to talk about peace with the Afghan government. The lowest of low bars. Yet no such statements were forthcoming, nor have there been any in the years since. If anything, the Taliban has more openly cherished its relationship with al Qaeda. In December 2016, the Taliban even released a video, Bond of Nation with the Mujahideen, which celebrated their ongoing alliance with Osama bin Laden’s group. It didn’t matter that the Taliban wouldn’t rhetorically distance itself from al Qaeda, though, Clinton’s State Department was willing to grant some of the group’s key demands anyway.
Talking with the Taliban meant that Washington would be negotiating with terrorists. Indeed, some of the jihadists were formally designated as such by the U.N., a black mark that significantly limited their ability to travel outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Clinton’s State Department was willing to fix that problem for the Taliban, by working to have terrorists redefined as non-terrorists. “As a first step, we agreed to begin working with the United Nations to remove a few key Taliban members from the terrorist sanctions list, which imposed a travel ban,” Clinton writes. The State Department went even further. “Soon the U.N. Security Council agreed to split the Taliban and al Qaeda lists and treat them separately — a direct manifestation of the distinction drawn in my [February 2011] speech — which gave us considerably more flexibility,” Clinton explains.
The former secretary of state further justified this bifurcation of the al Qaeda and the Taliban terror designation lists with a specious argument. Like Obama, Clinton drew a firm line of demarcation between al Qaeda and the Taliban, arguing it was only the former “who attacked us on 9/11,” while the latter “were Afghan extremists waging an insurgency against the government in Kabul.” Clinton claimed in Hard Choices that to “understand our strategy, it was important for Americans to be clear about the difference.”
In reality, there is no such clear difference. The Taliban harbored al Qaeda before 9/11 and continued to do so afterwards. Just days before the hijackings, the Taliban and al Qaeda launched a joint military offensive against the Northern Alliance. This maneuver, which included al Qaeda’s assassination of Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud on September 9, 2001, was intended to weaken a key American ally in advance of the attacks on New York and Washington. Numerous pieces of evidence attest to the fact that al Qaeda has invested substantial resources in the Taliban-led insurgency in the years since then. Al Qaeda couldn’t be any clearer about this, as its leaders’ statements and official documents regularly state that the resurrection of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is their principal goal in South Asia. Elsewhere in Hard Choices, Clinton concedes that the Taliban “had close ties with al Qaeda,” but this simple observation had to be denied to justify the new “peace process.” Throughout her February 2011 speech, Clinton struggled to separate the two in the minds of her audience. She claimed the “Taliban and al Qaeda are distinct groups with distinct aims,” but in the very next phrase conceded “they are both our adversaries and part of a syndicate of terror that must be broken.” She also said the Taliban’s militants had the opportunity to stop “fighting a losing struggle alongside al Qaeda in bombed-out caves” — an implicit recognition that they are, in fact, U.S. enemies with at least some of the same aims. Despite its specious reasoning, the Obama administration’s revisionist history of the Taliban continues to hold great sway inside the U.S. government, according to senior officials who spoke with The Weekly Standard.
The Taliban had two other concessions it wanted from the United States. The Taliban requested permission to open a political office in Doha, Qatar, and asked for the release of several key commanders from the American detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. The Obama administration gave in on both. Despite being a nominal American ally, Qatar is one of the Taliban’s most important foreign backers, providing a cozy environment in which Taliban fundraisers can solicit donations for the ongoing jihad. The U.S. government knew this when the Taliban requested a formal presence in Doha.
The Taliban broke away from the talks in 2012 and the United States was desperate to restart them in 2013. But first, the Taliban wanted its office in Doha. In Directorate S, Coll explains that American officials prepared a memorandum of understanding that was to be signed by President Obama and the emir of Qatar. The memo stipulated that the Taliban “could not command or control the insurgency in Afghanistan from the Qatar office,” “issue propaganda from there,” or raise funds. Crucially, the Taliban’s Doha representatives would have to agree not to call themselves the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA). The IEA was the Taliban’s totalitarian regime, which ruled over all of Afghanistan prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. By describing themselves as the IEA, the Taliban would be saying that the current Afghan government — America’s chief ally in the war and its ostensible partner in the proposed good-faith negotiations — was illegitimate. General Douglas Lute, Obama’s special assistant and senior coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council, and his team proposed that the Taliban instead refer to the Doha facility as the “Political Office of the Afghan Taliban.” As opening day came closer, according to Coll, Washington abandoned the memorandum of understanding because the “effort to finalize all the documents for the Qatar grand opening proved to be a grind.” In its place, Obama penned a letter to Afghan president Hamid Karzai in which he offered the same guarantees the memo was supposed to have provided. Among them: The Taliban wouldn’t call itself the IEA.
“All along,” Coll writes, “the idea had been that the Taliban would issue a public statement when the office in Qatar opened, repudiating Al Qaeda and terrorism in some fashion.” Jeff Hayes, a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst assigned to the National Security Council, even helpfully “copied and pasted language” from messages previously written in Mullah Omar’s name. Hayes’s new ghostwritten statement from Mullah Omar was to be issued by the Taliban on its “big day,” the opening of its office in Doha.
On June 18, 2013, the Americans celebrated the Doha announcement as a watershed moment in U.S.-Taliban relations. An official brought champagne into the State Department to mark the occasion, which some viewed, according to Coll, as a “diplomatic breakthrough that might yet reduce Afghanistan’s violence and end some of its suffering.” That didn’t happen. The Americans were humiliated.
The whole affair quickly proved to be, in Coll’s words, a “fiasco” and “an episode of remarkable diplomatic incompetence.” Al Jazeera had its cameras well positioned for the moment when the Taliban unveiled a sign that read: “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” The IEA’s flag flew high above the Doha office. “F—,” Lute said. As Coll explains, the Taliban had “blatantly violated” the assurances Obama provided to Karzai, who subsequently “waved around the guarantee letter Obama had sent him, to illustrate that no guarantee of the United States could ever be trusted.”
The Taliban didn’t read Hayes’s memo or any other statement renouncing terrorism. Mullah Omar had quietly died two months before, in April 2013. The Pakistanis, who presumably knew Omar was dead, didn’t bother to tell the Americans. “None of the Americans involved” in the diplomatic effort “had a clue” about Omar’s passing, Coll writes. The Taliban continued to play Weekend at Bernie’s with Omar for two more years, only conceding in July 2015 that he was dead. Throughout this entire time, the Americans didn’t know who the real leader of the Taliban was. It appears that Mullah Mansour — not the phony one who bilked America and its allies — was running the show behind the scenes the whole time.
The Taliban wasn’t done extracting concessions. Agha, or “A-Rod,” had made it clear throughout his talks with the Americans that the Taliban wanted certain commanders freed. “The Taliban’s top concern seemed to be the fate of its fighters being held at Guantánamo Bay and other prisons,” Clinton wrote in Hard Choices. “In every discussion about prisoners, we demanded the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who had been captured in June 2009. There would not be any agreement about prisoners without the sergeant coming home.”
Though the proposed swap for Bergdahl arose during Clinton’s tenure, which ended in early 2013, it wasn’t finalized until May 2014. In exchange for Bergdahl, who subsequently pleaded guilty to deserting his fellow soldiers, five hardened jihadists were freed from Guantánamo and transferred to Qatar. Two of them were suspected of committing war crimes in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. According to leaked threat assessments prepared by Joint Task Force Guantánamo, all five had significant ties to al Qaeda prior to their detention.
During remarks delivered in the Rose Garden on May 31, 2014, President Obama heralded Bergdahl’s imminent return. Obama thanked the governments of Afghanistan and Qatar for their support and assistance in arranging the Bergdahl-Taliban Five exchange. He also connected the move to the failed peace talks. “Going forward, the United States will continue to support an Afghan-led process of reconciliation, which could help secure a hard-earned peace within a sovereign and unified Afghanistan,” Obama said. It was an announcement of American weakness — an uneven prisoner swap between the world’s superpower and its jihadist enemies, touted by the president as a hopeful step in peace talks that existed only in the minds of his diplomats. Two and a half years later, when Obama left office, the reconciliation process was still moribund.
There is another humiliating twist in this story. Files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound show that Syed Tayyab Agha — “A-Rod” — had been communicating with senior al Qaeda leaders around the same time he was meeting with the State Department’s representatives. It will take some time to piece together the contents of this correspondence, which is scattered among multiple file folders. But one file, released by the CIA on November 1, 2017, reveals that Agha raised money for al Qaeda. The records show a transfer of proceeds from a donor (presumably in the Gulf) through Agha and into al Qaeda’s coffers. It’s no wonder the Obama administration and its allies in the intelligence bureaucracy fought hard to keep the files from public view.
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.
In return, the Obama administration secured the release of Bowe Bergdahl — a deserter.
A ‘PEACE PROCESS’ WITH THE TALIBAN
The Obama administration’s attempts to negotiate with the Taliban will be remembered as among the most embarrassing episodes in the history of American diplomacy. So why is the Trump administration going down the same path?
It’s a question worth exploring at length. But one answer suggests itself: Trump, like Obama, was never committed to winning in Afghanistan.
Incredibly, Trump’s State Department has picked up where Obama’s left off. Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on June 20, Ambassador Alice Wells, the State Department’s senior bureau official for South and Central Asian Affairs, presented an optimistic forecast. Wells conceded there would be “obstacles and unanticipated setbacks,” but she nonetheless argued there is a “real opportunity this year to start an Afghan peace process that could lead to a durable settlement of the conflict.”
Wells couldn’t point to any concrete statements from the Taliban to this effect. (The group’s public rhetoric is deeply problematic for anyone arguing that peace is around the corner.) She pointed to vague “signs that the Taliban’s Pakistan-based leaders are debating the merits of joining a peace process.” Wells claimed, hopefully, that the Taliban hadn’t responded to Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s call for “unconditional talks” earlier this year. But that isn’t really true. The Taliban has said, consistently and publicly, that Ghani’s government, like Karzai’s, is illegitimate. They have declared that they will not negotiate with the “puppet” regime. But the Taliban has reportedly engaged the Americans in recent months. Why wouldn’t they? The jihadists are better negotiators. They expect to win.
Wells also restated Clinton’s goals for the prospective talks, the same ones that were preconditions, until the Obama administration realized there wasn’t any chance the Taliban would agree to them before a sit-down. “Our desired outcomes for any peace process are clear and have not changed,” Wells testified. “The Taliban must renounce violence, break ties with al Qaeda, and accept the Afghan constitution — including its protections for women and minorities.” Those were Hillary Clinton’s “necessary outcomes” in February 2011, when the United States had approximately 100,000 troops in the field. The Taliban did not acquiesce then. There is no reason to think it will do so now, when there are fewer than 20,000 American soldiers in the country. Regardless, Wells has reportedly met with Taliban liaisons in recent weeks.
U.S. officials are, once again, seeing what they want to see. On June 7, President Ghani announced a unilateral ceasefire. The Americans gushed over the move, with General John Nicholson, who oversees the U.S.-led war effort, declaring it a “bold initiative for peace.” The Taliban ordered its own short-lived ceasefire — lasting just three days, far shorter than Ghani’s — but it was quick to say that this wasn’t in response to the Afghan government’s moves. In fact, the Taliban referred to the Afghan government’s men as “domestic opposition forces” — meaning that they oppose the legitimate government, the Taliban’s own Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban’s leaders quickly rejected Ghani’s request to prolong the ceasefire, resuming its attacks on the “internal puppets.” In the weeks that followed, the Taliban hunted down Afghan personnel and overran a handful of districts before going on the offensive in Ghazni. The ceasefire did prove, however, that the Taliban leads a unified fighting force, with command-and-control over foot soldiers throughout the country. This dispels the myth, common in Western analytic circles, that the group lacks a well-functioning hierarchy.
Some American officials, including General Nicholson, have claimed that the Taliban has offered its own roadmap for peace. They cite an open letter published by the Taliban’s propagandists on February 14. That top U.S. officials have chosen to depict this letter as a reason for hope suggests just how grim the situation really is. The letter includes multiple condemnations of the United States. The Taliban reiterates that its Islamic Emirate is the only “legitimate” authority and demands that the United States end its “illegitimate occupation.” Only then, after America has left Afghanistan or committed itself to doing so, could there be “peaceful dialogue.” In other words, the Taliban is willing to negotiate the terms of its own victory.
The Trump administration risks undermining the Afghan government, just as Obama-era officials did. Everyone involved in planning the talks insists that they be “Afghan-led” — a recognition that there is no end game for the war without a sovereign Afghan government in place. But the Taliban insists it will not negotiate with President Ghani or his liaisons. Thus, by talking with the Taliban directly and without Ghani’s representatives present, American officials may be unintentionally strengthening the Taliban’s claims on power.
Following the precedent set during the Obama years, the U.S. government continues to downplay the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda. In June, the Defense Department released its latest congressionally mandated report on the war, “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan.” The Pentagon report claims, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that “there is no evidence of strategic ties between” the Taliban and al Qaeda, only some “lower and mid-level” cooperation. It’s an absurd claim but it raises an obvious question: Why doesn’t the Taliban just renounce al Qaeda then? The Obama administration begged it to do so for years. It would be simple for the Taliban to release a statement distancing itself from al Qaeda, even if it didn’t mean it. This would be an easy way to extract still more concessions from the Americans. Yet the Taliban has not done it.
Why? Perhaps the relationship is more significant than the Pentagon wants us to think. Indeed, al Qaeda’s alliance with the Taliban is the most strategic relationship Ayman al Zawahiri’s organization has. In 2016, Zawahiri swore his personal fealty to the Taliban’s emir, Hibatullah Akhundzada. This continued a longstanding tradition, as Osama bin Laden pledged his loyalty to Mullah Omar prior to the 9/11 attacks. Zawahiri also swore his allegiance to Mullah Omar and then to Omar’s successor, Mullah Mansour. This blood oath is deadly serious for the jihadists. Thousands of al Qaeda members around the globe owe their loyalty to Akhundzada by virtue of Zawahiri’s bayat (oath of allegiance) to the Taliban leader. Al Qaeda’s men, operating everywhere from West Africa to South Asia, have publicly recognized Zawahiri and Akhundzada as their leaders. What could be more strategic than that?
As Zawahiri’s bayat suggests, Akhundzada is a committed jihadist. In the summer of 2017, Akhundzada’s son blew himself up in a “martyrdom” operation in southern Afghanistan. Yet some Trump administration officials believe they can forge peace by negotiating with representatives of a man who willingly sacrificed his child for the cause and has won the loyalty of al Qaeda’s leaders.
There’s more: The Taliban’s No. 2 is Siraj Haqqani, a known al Qaeda ally. Osama bin Laden’s files make it clear that al Qaeda has long cooperated with Haqqani and his men on Afghanistan’s battlefields. This is not a low-level tie. Haqqani oversees the Taliban’s military operations. The U.S. government has long known that Haqqani’s men wear two hats, serving both the Taliban and al Qaeda. A series of terrorist designations by the U.S. government has exposed this overlap. In January, for instance, the Treasury Department designated Haqqani facilitator Gula Khan Hamidi as a terrorist, noting that he also worked with al Qaeda. Another jihadist designated by Treasury in January, Maulawi Inayatullah, has served the Taliban in various serious roles. He has been the “overall Taliban member responsible for attacks against Afghan and Coalition Forces in Kabul” and has also been in charge of the Taliban’s operations in “multiple Afghan provinces.” Treasury’s analysts found that Inayatullah gave a “large sum of money” to al Qaeda.
There are numerous other ties one could cite along these lines. In recent weeks, Afghan forces have hunted down al Qaeda fighters supporting the Taliban’s insurgency. And according to Afghan officials, the Taliban’s massive assault on Ghazni earlier this month relied on foreign fighters, at least some of whom were presumably from al Qaeda’s newest branch: Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. The Pentagon report ignores this evidence in order to justify a settlement with the Taliban.
AMERICA ADRIFT IN AFGHANISTAN
The United States lost its bearings in Afghanistan long ago. Some of the Taliban’s most senior leaders escaped in late 2001, as did Osama bin Laden. They eventually regrouped and launched an insurgency that continues to engulf Afghanistan in violence. The Bush administration entered the war with a light footprint that was supposed to demonstrate the overwhelming technological superiority of American forces. The Taliban openly ridicules this view in its statements. The Bush administration added more soldiers to the fight over time, but the war effort was always secondary to other concerns.
President Obama and his advisers made a conscious decision to treat the Taliban as the Afghan government’s enemy — not ours. In 2014, Obama unilaterally declared an end to America’s combat role, a pronouncement that had to be reversed. During Obama’s final years in office, the U.S. military also operated under absurdly restrictive rules of engagement. The American mission has been devoted, in large part, to training Afghans to fight and eventually defeat the Taliban. Think about it this way: America has been fighting a war in which it has often sought to avoid direct confrontation with its principal enemy.
During his confirmation hearing on June 19, Lieutenant General Austin S. Miller was asked by Senator Angus King if the Taliban is our enemy. Miller, who is assuming command of the U.S.-led war effort, struggled to respond. He noted that the “Taliban had previously hosted and tolerated al Qaeda,” but claimed “they have now said that that would not be part of their future policy.” Miller sourced his claim to “statements by them” but failed to offer supporting evidence. There is a reason for this: Taliban leaders have never said any such thing.
The United States has asked the Taliban to make such a statement for nearly a decade. If the group had ever said anything remotely like this, the U.S. government would have broadcast the development far and wide. It simply hasn’t happened. The closest the Taliban has come is a statement claiming that it has “no agenda” to play “any destructive role in any other country” and it has “proven over the past seventeen years that we have not interfered in any other country.” But this is a lie — Taliban-hosted al Qaeda training camps continue to allow Zawahiri’s jihadists to operate throughout South Asia.
President Trump inherited this mess. It’s understandable he’d want to wash his hands of it. But Trump has also had the opportunity to reform the American mission since early 2017. The president loosened the rules of engagement. The air campaign has expanded dramatically, with thousands more bombs being dropped than in years past. For the first time in years, for example, American and allied forces have been allowed to directly target the Taliban’s extensive narcotics trafficking network.
But even under Trump, the U.S. military has not been fighting the Taliban like it is America’s enemy. The additional troops deployed to Afghanistan in the last year have been focused on training and assisting Afghan forces. U.S. forces are not leading ground campaigns deep into the heart of Taliban country, at least not regularly. And the Afghans — constantly plagued by corruption, defections, and poor leadership — are not capable of taking the fight to the Taliban on their own. Afghanistan’s counterterrorism and special forces have become more effective, but it is not enough. Not only have they failed to stymie the Taliban, they haven’t neutralized a persistent Islamic State presence. The United States and Afghanistan have led a focused counterterrorism mission against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s diehards, but they just won’t die — not enough of them anyway. Despite numbering far fewer than the Taliban’s fighters, the Islamic State’s “martyrs” regularly strike in Kabul, Jalalabad, and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Taliban is waiting to reclaim its Islamic Emirate. Akhundzada, recently told his men to prepare to rule over more ground in the near future. The jihadists likely view an American retreat as a foregone conclusion.
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.
Whatever good those steps have done, our desperately seeking talks with terrorists — and setting aside facts on the ground to do so — emboldens America’s enemies in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The Taliban can only view the Trump administration’s attempts to negotiate as further evidence that the president’s patience is running out. While it is a long shot, it may be the case that the Taliban is willing to agree to a Vietnam-style deal in which the United States is afforded an orderly withdrawal. If that happens, Americans should know this: Their leaders lost the original 9/11 war.