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Has the Taliban won the War in Afghanistan?

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

Uncertainty is Imminent as the US withdraws Troops

Ayse Ergene, CTG Alumni, American University School of International Service Graduate Assistant

Disclaimer: this article was written and published before August 9, 2021. As we continue to follow the latest developments in Afghanistan, we suggest our readers follow the Counterterrorism Group's analyses and reports. Public reports can be found here.

On July 12, Gen. Austin S. Miller, the top US Commander and NATO General in Afghanistan, stepped down, a symbolic end to America's 20-year-old war. Most of the NATO forces and European troops have already pulled out of the country, causing a power vacuum and leading to an escalation of violence. Around 650 US troops will remain stationed in Kabul to provide diplomatic security at the airport and for the US Embassy in the capital city. With the ground and air support drawn back completely, the Afghan government nears the brink of collapse.

Meanwhile, the Taliban launched a military offensive that has gained control over much of the country’s 400+ districts, including nearly all the border crossings. The campaign set up checkpoints on key highways, which led to the surrender of the Afghan forces and the seizure of US-supplied arms and vehicles that the US hoped would enable the Afghan government to retain power after the withdrawal.

Key provincial capitals throughout the country are under siege, and the government's counterattacks have had little success. Consequently, hundreds of civilians have been injured or killed, thousands of people have been internally displaced, and hundreds of thousands are fleeing the country – signaling a regional refugee crisis. As the Taliban threatens to capture more territory, Afghan security forces, which are already neither resilient nor capable, are losing their counterterrorism capacity. While the US is set to fully depart by the end of August, the legacy in Afghanistan indicates a failing US mission despite spending more than $2 trn since the invasion in 2001. Thus, given the deteriorating security situation, there is certainly not much hope left for peace and stability in Afghanistan.

The Taliban claims to have won the war, and the violence is unlikely to stop until they begin to rule the country again. However, President Biden and other US leaders have expressed confidence that the group will not be able to overthrow the Kabul government. Under the Peace Agreement signed with the Taliban in February 2020, the US committed to withdraw troops in return for the Taliban fulfilling their commitments, including cutting ties with other terrorist groups, reaching a ceasefire and entering intra-Afghan negotiations. However, the Taliban not only intensified violence against civilians, but also remained in close contact with other terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda conducts trainings in Afghanistan and deploys fighters alongside the Taliban; there are 200 to 500 Al-Qaeda fighters across about 11 Afghan provinces, according to the January UN report.

As the Taliban continues its aggressive rise, the government is losing ground on all fronts. After IS-Khorasan, the local affiliate of ISIS, launched a series of deadly bombing campaigns that killed hundreds of civilians in many cities, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani asked his entire national security team to resign, creating additional political instability in the country.

In a desperate effort to keep the Taliban at bay, the government encouraged the local warlords, who are anti-Taliban, to remobilize militias – an alarming throwback to the brutal civil war of the 1990s. However, mujahideen groups' fight alongside Afghan forces might be one of the few ways to stop the Taliban from advancing. Although the Taliban has additional support from other Islamist extremist groups, together, Afghan security forces and the warlords can outnumber the Taliban by about fourfold. Thus, the battles in major cities are expected to be harder since the government is preparing to form an alliance with the independent militias. Yet, a growing fear is that a short-term fix could lead to a wider breakdown in the country.

While the struggle to end the war continues on the ground, diplomatic efforts to achieve peace are in the works as well. In theory, Taliban and Afghan officials, accompanied by delegates from regional nations, have been involved in peace talks since September 2020, although infrequently. In practice, little progress has been made in each round so far, as neither side is willing to negotiate or establish a power-shared interim government as the US has proposed. Territorial victories may be seen as a way to win without making compromises at the negotiation table: Since most of the members of the Taliban’s negotiating team have strong ties with the group’s military wing, the Taliban might be stalling for time in the peace talks while stepping up its game on the ground. Thus, territorial victories may be seen as a way to win without making compromises at the negotiation table.

Although the odds are in the Taliban's favor, the war is far from over. The chances of an end are fragile due to continuous corruption, poverty, violence, and the concentration of power in the government. At this stage, regional and international support is critical to avoid a protracted conflict. The international community should actively facilitate peace talks to address urgent matters underlying the conflict and to set immediate goals to resolve them. Operationalization of these goals can be catalyzed through support from the regional powers, who want to avoid a civil war or a Taliban era in the country. International sanctions should not be lifted and no additional Taliban prisoners should be released unless the Taliban shows commitment to the peace process and reach an agreement ending the war.

The Kabul government should be more responsive to the public. Afghan society needs representation, not leaders with technocratic instincts that impose a singular and restrictive political order. Creating multiple avenues for participation can prevent further violence by allowing civil society actors, including activists, youth, and women's rights groups, to be involved in the peace efforts. Mobilizing high grassroots demand in the country can foster national unity, pressure both the Taliban and the government to reach an agreement, and ensure diverse support for the peace process.

The future of Afghanistan is still uncertain and perhaps the only certainty is that the country is most likely headed towards a fragmentation, unless both sides are ready to compromise and reach an inclusive political agreement.

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