Lt. Gen. John Nicholson, the recently nominated commander of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan, has confirmed what many of us have feared. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his Jan. 28 confirmation hearing that security in Afghanistan is worsening.
The Taliban are emboldened by the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal. On Monday the United Nations reported that 2015 civilian casualties from terrorist attacks in Afghanistan reached an all-time high since 2001, a 4% increase over 2014.
The Obama administration pins its hopes on China and Pakistan persuading the fundamentalist Islamist group to negotiate the end of its insurgency. Yet the Taliban’s main demand—the establishment of what they deem to be an Islamic order—is nonnegotiable. They talk not with the intention of giving up fighting but to regroup and attack again.
Liberal Americans, encouraged by the Taliban’s main backer, Pakistan, assume that there is a deal to be made. This is the same mirage the U.S. has pursued since the Taliban emerged in 1993 out of the anti-Soviet mujahedeen movement and initially found favor among many Afghans disenchanted by the corruption and lawlessness of the first post-Soviet regime.
The Clinton administration believed the Taliban’s aspirations were limited to asserting ethnic Pashtun supremacy and were nationalist, not Islamist, in nature. The Taliban’s subsequent ruthlessness and imposition of Islamic law once they took power didn’t get the Clinton administration’s full attention until 1998, when the group’s decision to host Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda resulted in U.N. sanctions. That left Pakistan as the only country with full diplomatic relations with the Taliban regime.
Then, as now, a Democratic administration tried to negotiate with the Taliban through Pakistan. This time, too, the Taliban’s precondition seems to be that the U.N. withdraw the post 9/11 resolution that froze the movement’s assets— estimated in 2001 to be $100 million in the U.S. alone, with additional assets in Gulf states and in Pakistan—and limited international travel by its leaders. The Taliban have since increased}/s_2012_683.pdf their assets to at least $400 million through drug trafficking, kidnapping for ransom and by extorting U.S. and Afghan-government contractors.
Although Pakistan felt compelled to join the international coalition against al Qaeda and the Taliban after 9/11, it never severed ties with the Taliban. Most Taliban leaders ended up on the Pakistani side of the 1,398-mile-long Pakistan-Afghan border. Some of them secured protection from tribes straddling the two countries; and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) protected others, who lived openly in Quetta and Peshawar.
The ISI wanted to keep using the Taliban as an Afghan proxy in Pakistan’s perennial competition for influence with India. The U.S. couldn’t or wouldn’t move against the fugitive Taliban leaders for fear of violating Pakistan’s sovereignty. (The search for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was a one-time exception.)
The Obama administration initially spoke of coercing Pakistan into giving up support for the Taliban. In 2011 then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Pakistan couldn’t keep “snakes” in its backyard.
The very next year, President Obama announced a schedule for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. That made the Taliban and their Pakistani backers intransigent; they knew that all they had to do was wait. With another U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan by the end of 2016, leaving a small force of some 5,500, it is no wonder that Taliban attacks in provinces bordering Pakistan have increased.
The Obama administration’s decision to negotiate with the Taliban through Pakistan was embraced by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani after his election in 2014. China, Pakistan’s major international supporter, was brought in as a facilitator, arranging meetings in Beijing between the Taliban and the Afghan government. China was expected to broker a deal involving Kabul, Islamabad and Pakistan’s Afghan proxies.
Yet Pakistan may no longer be able even to bring a unified Taliban movement to the negotiating table. The Taliban have splintered, and factions affiliated with ISIS have emerged to compete with groups tied to al Qaeda. Although the Taliban continue to depend upon the ISI for money, training and arms, it is becoming clear that at least some Taliban leaders would rather follow an independent course.
Former Taliban negotiator Tayeb Agha reportedly resigned last year after the election of new Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, saying Taliban leaders should relocate to Afghanistan from Pakistan to “preserve their independence.”
This is not the only reason talks will likely fail. Afghan security forces and intelligence services don’t trust Pakistan because of the haven it provides the Taliban. The Taliban look upon ISI with suspicion because of its connection with the U.S.—further diminishing Pakistan’s capacity to broker peace in Afghanistan.
Faced with international pressure as well as growing internal threats from the Pakistani Taliban, Pakistan has cleared out some known jihadist sanctuaries in the border region of North Waziristan, depriving Afghan groups such as the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network of their historical base of operations. The assumption in Washington is that Pakistan wouldn’t like to see the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan.
But a similar assumption in 1993 was shown to be naïve as the Taliban marched into Kabul with full Pakistani backing. Neither is there any sign today that Pakistan’s military is willing to give up its decades-long pursuit of paramountcy over Afghanistan. So unless the U.S. is willing to keep sufficient troops in Afghanistan, the outcome of the “fight and talk” policy now being pursued by the Taliban and the U.S. will only feed chaos. Or a return of the Taliban as a fait accompli when the troops finally leave.