Understanding the Battleground
In More Detail
America’s frustrations and disappointments over its long, costly war in Afghanistan are due, in part, to inconsistent and ineffective strategies based on a short-term approach to a long-term problem set.
The desire for a quick victory in Afghanistan impelled a very successful initial military campaign that unseated the Taliban government. But America’s short-term mentality led to a neglect of tasks critical to achieving a sustainable political outcome and rendering the Taliban and other terrorist organizations in the region incapable of mass murder on the scale of 9/11.
Soon after the Taliban fled the Afghan capital of Kabul, America’s attention turned to the war in Iraq. As what was supposed to be another short war there morphed into a protracted counterinsurgency campaign, the Taliban regenerated in Pakistan with the help of Al Qaeda and the Pakistan Army’s notorious intelligence arm, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.
In 2009, the Barack Obama administration, coping with a financial crisis and sensitive to growing American impatience with the war, prioritized the departure of US troops over what was necessary to achieve a sustainable outcome consistent with US interests.
The administration falsely disconnected the Taliban from Al Qaeda and doubled down on efforts to support and cooperate with Pakistan—a nuclear state—while limiting support for Afghan forces fighting the Taliban. That strategic delusion resulted in a narrow focus to defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and negotiate with, rather than fight against, the Taliban.
It is true that if security in Pakistan collapsed or if Pakistan became completely estranged from the West, the jihadist terrorist threat to the region and the world could increase dramatically. And an isolated, desperate Pakistan might initiate another war with India, a war that could lead to nuclear devastation in one of the world’s most populous regions.
But the US approach to Pakistan since 9/11 often assumed that the Pakistani Army and the ISI would, in exchange for US economic and military assistance, reduce support for and ultimately act against the Taliban and other terrorist networks based inside Pakistan.
US leaders underestimated the degree to which the Pakistani Army’s obsessive fear of India drives Islamabad’s foreign policy. Pakistan’s generals support the Taliban and other terrorist organizations because they want to control at least portions of Afghanistan to provide the “strategic depth” essential, in their minds, to preventing India from encircling them with an Afghan government friendly to New Delhi.
In the late summer of 2020, Afghan leaders released Taliban prisoners and attempted to follow up on a peace agreement that the Donald Trump administration signed with the Taliban in February of that year in Doha, Qatar. But the agreement was flawed. It abandoned a long-term approach in favor of satisfying the desire to disengage from the war. As the United States continued its withdrawal and inter-Afghan talks stalled, the Taliban intensified attacks against Afghan security forces and civilians.
The situation in South Asia requires a consistent, sustainable long-term strategy based on realities rather than wishful thinking. That strategy should be grounded in three assumptions and their implications.
First, counterterrorism operations from “over the horizon” will be ineffective if security collapses in Afghanistan. Afghan soldiers are bearing the brunt of the fight against the Taliban and other terrorist organizations. Therefore, America and the coalition must strengthen security forces and the Afghan state to cope with the regenerative capacity of common enemies.
Second, the Taliban is intertwined with other terrorist groups. Therefore, multinational efforts should aim to dismantle the terrorist ecosystem in South Asia.
Finally, Pakistan will not end or dramatically reduce its support for the Taliban and other jihadist terrorist groups unless the costs of continued support for terrorists becomes too great. Therefore, the United States and other nations must try to convince Pakistani leaders that it is in their interest to pursue diplomacy rather than use terrorists to advance their foreign policy.