by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.
The U.S.-led intervention against the Islamic State (IS) has made obvious progress in the last year and a half. Criticized in late 2014 and early 2015 for failing to stop the militants’ advances, the Arab–Western coalition first started reversing these gains after the Siege of Kobanî in January, 2015. This February, the Iraqi Security Forces freed Ramadi, the only Iraqi city that IS had captured since U.S. warplanes started bombing it. Three months later, Syrian soldiers with Russian air support expelled the militants from Palmyra, the Roman-influenced city that IS had conquered a year earlier, to much fanfare. From Fallujah in Iraq to Manbij in Syria, the terrorist organization is on the retreat, and news media has been dutiful in reporting the achievements.
The disaster in Afghanistan, for which the U.S. government bears much of the responsibility, has received far less attention. Last year, the Taliban seized Kunduz, a northern provincial capital far from traditional militant strongholds. The country’s ill-equipped soldiers required U.S. air and fire support — in addition to the participation of U.S. special operations forces — to recapture the city. Journalists focused on the accidental bombing of the MSF-hospital during the lengthy firefight instead of the startling facts on the ground: the Taliban, once on the run from Western soldiers in the Afghan countryside, now had the firepower, manpower, and willpower to seize the country’s fifth-largest city. Since then, the Taliban has managed to besiege Kunduz again in addition to making further inroads into Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province and the centerpiece of its illegal drug trade.
The U.S. have failed Afghanistan on the level of peacekeeping and public opinion. Though the country hosts 9,800 U.S. soldiers, more than Iraq’s 5,000 and much more than Syria’s several hundred, the U.S. government has failed to commit itself to peace or victory in Afghanistan, giving the Afghans enough air and fire support to maintain tenuous control of urban areas but too little to hold and secure the countryside around cities such as Kunduz and provinces such as Helmand, where the Taliban has blocked the northern highway and mined the eastern one. The insurgents have even severed supply chains between the capital and the rest of the country.
The number of airstrikes conducted by the U.S. Air Force in Afghanistan this year until the end of August, 813, pales in comparison to the 19,623 of U.S. bombings aiding anti-ISIS campaigns in Iraq and Syria. Afghan officers in Helmand and elsewhere have begged the Americans to launch more airstrikes as the Taliban constricts their country’s cities. Whereas the Pentagon has injected hundreds of millions of dollars into strengthening Arab and Kurdish militias and security forces in the Middle East to support its efforts there, U.S.-led projects such as the Afghan Local Police have been a disaster, in part contributing to Kunduz’s initial fall. According to the U.S. government’s own sources, the Afghan National Army replaced a third of its recruits in 2015, meaning that the security forces founded by the Americans still have little loyalty to what should be long-term U.S. goals, such as defeating the Taliban.
The Americans have sent mixed signals on the subject of peace talks, perhaps the best hope of stopping an insurgency that has survived over a decade of Western airpower and firepower. On the one hand, the White House has encouraged the Taliban to join peace talks and engaged the insurgents before, negotiating the release of Bowe Bergdahl in 2014. On the other, the White House killed the Taliban’s controversial leader this May, citing his opposition to peace talks. The irony of this confusing strategy came full circle when the Taliban’s new leader, more conservative than his machiavellian but pragmatic predecessor, voiced renewed opposition to peace talks. Given that the Taliban has cooperated with Iran and Russia, which itself occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s, it would follow that the U.S. should be able to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table, yet they have failed.
The Taliban controls a fifth of Afghan territory and influences half of it, giving the insurgents little reason to negotiate or retreat. Afghanistan now resembles Iraq in 2014: Militants are using a Western withdrawal to besiege or seize cities while the U.S. government and public express reluctance to intervene in a country where they have spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives. This attitude, however understandable, led to the power vacuum that empowered IS. A similar blitzkrieg by the Taliban, which hosted al-Qaeda during the planning of 9/11 and still maintains an alliance with it, presents a threat equal to (if not greater than) IS. The Taliban has fought U.S. soldiers for fifteen years without facing IS’s near extinction of the late 2000s, rendering it a more patient, resilient foe.
If the U.S. government wants to prevent an Afghan sequel to the IS surge in Iraq, it must invest military and political resources in Afghanistan now, when adequate intervention can preserve the Afghan state and protect its national security. The Taliban will only concede or negotiate if the U.S. government gives it a reason to fear defeat. Till then, the insurgents will edge closer to victory.