As the deployment in Afghanistan enters its seventeenth year it has become the longest running war in US history. It is therefore worth reminding ourselves why the US is there. The mission has four principal aims.
Firstly, to reduce the insurgency until it is no longer a significant threat to progress. Secondly, to make sure that core al-Qaeda does not come back. Thirdly, to make sure that Afghanistan remains a legitimate state. And lastly, to make sure that Afghanistan can handle its own security.
Many in the British and American foreign policy establishments see their principal aim as keeping the Taliban out of Afghanistan. This is a dangerous misunderstanding. Most Taliban are ordinary Afghans. (Although most ordinary Afghans are not Taliban).
They tend to be motivated by varying combinations of money, Islamism, and a nationalist desire to free their country of foreigners. Reporter Jason Burke has described how when he asks village locals who the Taliban are, a common response is bemused surprise and the answer “men from my village.”
After 17 years, the Taliban now control more territory than they have since the start of this war. Daily attacks have become so commonplace that they are no longer reported. The government is regarded within Afghanistan as both weak and beholden to its western allies.
It can also no longer be assumed that the Taliban are committed to al-Qaeda. They remain distinct organizational entities divided by languageDr. Azeem Ibrahim
Well-intentioned development projects have not been as big an inducement to support the government as was hoped. And 70 percent of supplies enter the country through two supply crossings – Torkham and Chaman on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border – one of which has recently had to shut for a while due to increasing attacks.
No other significant alternative supply routes into the country have been found. A British military commander has said publicly that the war as currently conceived cannot be won.
Until now, the option of negotiation or power-sharing with moderate elements of the Taliban has not been seriously pursued because of the assumption that the Taliban were monolithically committed to violence. That can no longer be assumed.
Taliban leaders have stated publicly that the Taliban could stand as a party in Afghan elections as his Islamist party had recently done in Pakistan. Some Taliban members have argued that the Afghan state’s army and police should be strengthened in order to persuade allied forces to leave sooner.
Some officials in the Afghan government have said that they were approached by Taliban leaders seeking to negotiate in 2014. And there have been reports of negotiations in Saudi Arabia between Taliban representatives and the Afghan government.
It can also no longer be assumed that the Taliban are committed to al Qaeda. They remain two distinct organizational entities divided by language. There are no Afghans at the top of al-Qaeda and no Arabs at the top of the Taliban. And two Taliban spokespeople have talked publicly about divergence between the two groups.
The bottom line is that the war is at a stalemate. Lasting stability will only be achieved by negotiating with moderate elements in the Taliban and opening the way for them to share power.
That will bolster the legitimacy of the national government and ultimately divide and weaken the insurgents. Troops will be necessary to reduce the insurgency. But this should be seen as a means to the end of ending the conflict by enabling us to negotiate from a position of relative strength.
Only a power-sharing government which includes the least extreme elements of the Taliban will be able to achieve the other three war aims – ensuring that Afghanistan remains a legitimate state, ensuring that it can handle its own security, and keeping core al-Qaeda out of the country.
The current government is committed to a stable, secure and democratic Afghanistan, but we have to start looking at the country long term. We will not be able to secure the Ghani over the long term. The only way to ensure that the next government commits to these objectives is to engage moderate Taliban in a power-sharing government now.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.