How to best deal with the Afghan Taliban now
By Zia Pacha Khan
The first way to begin dealing with the Taliban begins with stopping the blame game for the failure of the US and NATO mission in Afghanistan. Most of the media and political punditry repeated the same narrative that Afghanistan fell because the Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) did not fight nor had the will to fight. While the reality is that the Afghan forces sacrificed the most from all partner nations in the war on terror being at the frontlines doing most of the ground fighting while the international coalition partners receded to providing advise and assist support from behind the scenes while providing aerial support with the most minimum military casualties. According to conservative estimates, about 64,100 Afghan soldiers died fighting the war on terror while about 2448 US troops and about 450 UK troops respectively died in the 20 years since 9/11. The casualty rates for Afghan civilians is exponentially much higher, with 110,000 killed and injured just from 2009 to 2020 alone. With respect to all those fallen in line of duty, the very large sacrifices of the Afghan nation to support the war against terrorism must not be discounted in any political discourse or punditry.
The August 2021 failure of the Afghan state and defense forces should not have come as a surprise. The cracks in the beleaguered Afghan forces were noted many years back. A SIGAR report released in 2017 made a stark assessment of the Afghan conventional and special forces, the lack of necessary security sector reforms, accountability, and oversight and most of all, being too dependent on US air support. This heavy reliance on air support is one of the main causes of the failure. The Afghan forces, suffering from high casualties and low morale, made a logical decision not to resist the dominant Taliban after losing crucial US air support and other logistical military help in the days leading to the fall of Kabul. The Afghan military and allies felt being abandoned to the same enemies they were fighting for 20 years only to have the US make a peace deal with them and then hastily withdraw. Why should they continue to fight for a lost cause? The Taliban forces, using a tribal Pashtun-style carrots and stick approach, were quickly able to subdue or persuade to surrender the war-torn Afghan forces. This was a classic case of what scholar Akbar Ahmad, in his book “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam,” calls the tribal “periphery” ultimately winning the battle against a corrupt central government.
The second way to deal with the Taliban is to accept it as a forced political reality on the ground. The Taliban are in the same position in Afghanistan as they were at the peak of their regime in the 1990s. The US and international allies can either recognize and work with the Taliban administration or they can choose to sideline and fight the Taliban again from scratch as done 20 years ago starting with Operation Enduring Freedom. It will not be hard to strike the Taliban. The Taliban know they cannot openly rule the territory and their biggest fear is a coalition-led air campaign. While the Taliban seized sizable modern military loot, they still do not have any anti-air defense capabilities which will always leave them exposed to manned and unmanned aerial attacks – just like the US and allies did in Iraq and Syria to reverse the territorial gains of the ISIS Caliphate. A similar approach can be taken to temporarily reverse the Islamic Emirate, but it will come at a huge long-term cost to civilian lives and infrastructure.
The Taliban should be given a probationary period of at least a year to rule the nation and live up to its commitments before the West makes an assessment to take any military action against it. Any premature, misconfigured plan for ‘over the horizon’ military actions has the potential to increase civilian deaths beyond the horizon – which is the ultimate cannon fodder for radical militancy in the AfPak region. Militants will not hesitate to point out the “righteous strikes” that kill innocents. This will make it hard for the Taliban on the ground to take on the radical resurgent Islamic State – Khorasan Province. Any socioeconomic and political downfall of the Taliban regime will inversely increase the opportunities for rival ISKP to capitalize if Taliban fails. Seeking to delegitimize Taliban in the propaganda circles, ISKP would point to the Taliban as a failed regime which made peace deals with the West only to be financially choked all the while having a track record of zero terror attacks outside of Afghanistan. A strengthened ISKP, with more hardline recruits streaming from the Taliban, will be an international worry.
On the political front, the Taliban leadership understand the urgent need of international recognition and economic support and cannot afford to be in a state of pariah as it has a host of issues it needs to deal with now as it takes over government duties. The Taliban state can run on its own in a limited capacity by relying on former government employees or other supporters (including from friendly nations, agencies, and the wider religious Deobandi circle in the Subcontinent) to help continue the functions of the state; but it will still need continuous international aid and expertise to tackle the challenges in the long run. The journey to tackling the issues starts with Taliban getting legitimacy to stabilize the government and reverse the economic brain drain.
While the US administration did the right thing to withdraw from the forever lost-cause conflict in Afghanistan, the method and hastiness of the withdrawal puts in danger any achievement to long-term stability and peace. For the US, the 2020 Doha Agreement with Taliban took precedence over the crucial Bilateral Security and Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Afghan government in 2014 – which has provisions to provide security to the Afghan government. Having failed to at least defend major cities like Kabul without ANDSF support or keep the Ghani administration alive to have some leverage in the peace negotiations, the US-led coalition will now need to press hard politically on the Taliban to stick to the Doha agreement and maintain civil achievements and rights of the last 20 years. Seeking international political legitimacy and addressing human rights and security concerns will be top foreign policy objectives of the Taliban regime. The international community can leverage the need of international recognition to ensure a peaceful and bright future for Afghanistan while providing a probationary period for the Taliban government to function.
Zia Pacha Khan is a DC-based Afghan American international foreign policy analyst and writer. He works as a consultant. He holds a BA in Global Affairs and Economics as well as a Masters in Public Administration.