Editor’s Note: Michael Kugelman is deputy director and senior associate for South Asia with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The views expressed here are his own.
US President Trump considering whether to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan
Kugelman: 'Reconciliation won't come easily or quickly, but it's still worth pursuing'
In recent days, with Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgency continuing to gain steam and America’s longest war staggering through its 16th year, analysts have started invoking the v-word (and it’s not “victory”).
Vietnam is a sadly apt analogy. Indeed, just as they did in Vietnam 50 years ago, US troops in Afghanistan are fighting a costly, intractable, and unending conflict against a relentlessly resilient asymmetric foe.
However, it’s not a perfect analogy. The Vietnam War provoked impassioned debate back home, but Americans are hardly discussing the war in Afghanistan. It’s completely off the radar.
It’s high time we talk about this forgotten war, and especially with the Trump administration considering a new policy that would escalate US military involvement. Escalation would be a mistake, and it would further prolong a conflict that can’t be won.
The problem with the White House plan is that we’ve tried it before, during the troop surge in 2010 and 2011, and it didn’t work – even with the withering firepower of 100,000 soldiers unleashed on the Taliban.
One may reasonably argue that the warfighting capacities of Afghan security forces have improved considerably in recent years, and that these better-trained servicemen, aided by US troops, will have more success tackling the Taliban this time around.
And yet, to assume that more robust military force alone will put the Taliban on the defensive is to badly underestimate the group’s strength and to underappreciate the many different sources of that strength.
The Taliban leadership has safe havens in neighboring Pakistan, and insurgencies never die so long as they enjoy cross-border sanctuaries. The Taliban has also received periodic military support from Tehran. With U.S.-Iran relations having taken a tumble since President Trump took office, such support could intensify. Moscow, according to the US military, is now funneling aid to the Taliban as well.
Additionally, the Afghan government is an unwitting source of strength for the Taliban. The weak and dysfunctional administration in Kabul is hampered by corruption and personal animosities and is hard-pressed to carry out even the most basic of tasks – much less craft a formal counterinsurgency policy.
Meanwhile, the arrival of ISIS in Afghanistan has enabled the Taliban to project itself as a softer, more palatable alternative to the savagery of ISIS. All of this increases the Taliban’s appeal and helps boost recruitment. The Taliban, like all effective insurgent groups, knows how to win hearts and minds.
The takeaway is that the war in Afghanistan can’t be won. But it need not be lost either, so long as the option remains of pursuing a negotiated end to the war. Admittedly, this makes for the tallest of orders; the Taliban’s battlefield successes give it little incentive to stop fighting.