I was one of the last civilian advisors to leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014, having worked in the country for six year including three in the Taliban strongholds in Kandahar and the surrounding Pashtun provinces. From this experience, I came to understand how Taliban view the US and other foreign soldiers in the country as just another invading army trying to change their centuries old way of life and fundamentalist religious beliefs.
Contrary to popular conceptions, the Taliban are not terrorists – unless you consider indigenous people fighting to expel "infidels" who have invaded and occupy their native lands (including installing an unpopular and corrupt pro-Western government) to advance the intruder’s geopolitical interests to be terrorists. Moreover, the Taliban are not militant Salafi jihadists like al-Qaeda and ISIS adherents. Ironically, Osama bin Laden came to Afghanistan in the 1980’s to support America’s "Charlie Wilson’s War" against the Soviets. He and his band of jihadists just never left their Afghan hideouts and later planned the 9/11 attacks from Afghan soil. But no Afghan nationals were involved. There is no evidence the Taliban even knew of the 9/11 attacks in advance.
Equally ironic, the Taliban’s Sunni Arab patron was not al-Qaeda, but America’s long standing Middle East ally – the House of Saud (the Saudi dynasty). Under the aegis of the royal family, Saudi clerics spread their fundamentalism form of Islam (Wahhabism) to the Pashtun tribes in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1990s. The largely unreported fact is that the Taliban (adherents of the quietist wing of Wahhabism) are as committed as the US military – with or without having a peace deal – in not letting jihadi Islam (i.e., radical al-Qaeda and ISIS factions) take hold in the country. One could argue the presence of US troops in Afghanistan is hampering the Taliban’s ability to root out Salafi jihadists who attempt to infiltrate in their country. There’s no need for US troops to stay to do this.
In one of my last assignments, I met with Ambassador Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, in December 2013 on a fact finding trip she made to Kandahar. She was there to ground-truth Obama’s proposed plan to have all US combat troops out of the country by 2016. The objective was to reduce the US military’s presence in Afghanistan to a small contingent (less than 1,000) of non-combat soldiers at Bagram Airbase north of Kabul. These troops would support the Embassy and its continuing foreign aid programs and be available to evacuate Americans if the US-installed government fell. This plan was intended to make good on Obama’s pledge to end the Afghan War during this term in office. Alas, this plan was torpedoed by the Pentagon and the war-hawks in Congress. They pushed for and got the post-2016 troop presence increased to a residual force of 8,500 US troops. This change included keeping two F-16 wings in the country to continue the bombing campaigns and troops for conducting counterterrorism operations from both Bagram and Kandahar Airbases.
I believe Obama’s desired "exit plan" was based on his administration’s realization that, no matter how many and long US combat forces stayed and how much US taxpayer money was spent propping up a corrupt government (the current burn rate is about $45 billion/year); there was no possibility to quell the insurgency and obtain a host government agreement to allow US military forces to remain in the country on a long term basis. Precluding this end-state was that hard truth that the longer US forces stayed; the more committed Afghanistan’s pesky neighbors (Iran, Pakistan, China, and Russia) become in preventing the US from establishing a permanent military presence in their region. And these guys have homefield advantage in this renewal of the 19th century Great Game in Central Asia.
Indeed, the facts on the ground – including an increase in civilian casualties and loss of more territory to Taliban control – have steadily deteriorated since I left in 2014. This happened even through President Trump – also elected on a pledge to end the Afghan War – acceded to the Pentagon’s request in mid-2017 to increase US troop levels to the current level of over 12,000 (along with 4,000 or so other NATO soldiers).
As I explain in a book I wrote, ever since it became clear in the 2010 timeframe that the US military (and its NATO allies) were never going to defeat the Taliban insurgency in a war of attrition; the Taliban and the US political/military establishment prosecuting the war have had two mutually exclusive endgame objectives. The US war proponents want to maintain a permanent military presence in Afghanistan (specifically, Bagram Airfield to project power in the region as a Great Game replay) for advancing their perceived regional geopolitical interests; and the Taliban are committed to keep fighting until all foreign troops leave or are driven off their ancient lands as they have done over centuries. This mindset reflects who the Taliban (and all Afghans) are as a proud and historic people. It’s not a transactional matter for them as it is for the US.
The Obama administration, starting in 2010 under Ambassador Richard Holbrooke (special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan) and then under Ryan Crocker as the US Ambassador in Kabul, attempted to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban to end this impasse. These talks failed to make any progress due to each party’s immutable positions (along with Pakistan’s interference and Karzai’s intransigence). These talks have been continued, off and on, since then as Kabuki Theater: both parties have had their own reasons for wanting to appear to be pursuing a peace deal. As documented in the Afghanistan Papers, the fighting continued and US troops levels peaked at over 100,000 during this 10-year period in what was a known in Washington to be a "lost cause" war.
Sadly, as I see it, the pending peace deal with the Taliban is just a continuation of this long running Kabuki Theater and stalemate. As a public relation ploy on both sides, President Trump will announce with great hype at the end of this week that he – the great dealmaker – has reached a "peace deal" with the Taliban – something Obama never could do. This deal will purportedly lead to the withdrawal of all foreign troops in Afghanistan sometime next year – provided that some nebulous conditions are met. I can see 4,000 or so US troops leaving Afghanistan this year (dropping the count from over 12,000 to around 8,500) to give credence to the belief that a full pullout is underway. This gesture will allow President Trump claim to his base in his reelection campaign that he is keeping his promise to end America’s endless war in Afghanistan. Note that that this likely election-day troop level of 8,500 is just the pre-Trump status quo ante, i.e. the troop level Obama caved to when the Washington pro-war establishment objected to and successfully overrode his proposed Afghan endgame plan in 2014.
Reading between the lines in Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani’s opinion piece on the proposed peace deal in the New York Times on February 20, 2020, it’s clear to me the Taliban know all US forces will not soon be leaving their country. I believe they tip their hand with this proviso in Haqqani’s statement, "the United States does not trust us completely, we too are very far from fully trusting it." Another thing I learned living in Afghanistan: Anything written on a piece of paper in Afghanistan is just that, a piece of paper. You would not believe how much time and effort US officials spent getting Afghan nationals to sign legal documents as if US jurisprudence and international law applied – when the Afghan signatories were illiterate and the country’s formal legal and judicial system is largely nonexistent. The ruling authority is Sharia law and ancient honor codes.
Indeed, there is no reason to believe the US political/military establishment will accede to removing all their troops and vacating Bagram Air Base next year if Trump is reelected. Richard Haass, President of the Council Foreign Relations and an unofficial spokesperson for the "Blob" in Washington, said as much in his appearance on Fareed Zakaria GPS on February 23, 2020. Mr. Haass said the same thing last year after Rand Corporation put out an indignant report taking President Trump to task for daring to "precipitously withdraw US forces in Afghanistan." Senator McConnell echoed this disparagement of the president’s withdrawal plan with a classic neocon speech on the Senate floor. Like Obama, Trump learned it is the elitist self-serving foreign policy establishment in Washington that currently controls U.S. military policy – not the elected Commander-in-Chief.
The high priests of the Washington political/military order are not going apoplectic over Trump’s pending peace deal with the Taliban and plan to withdraw all US troop from Afghanistan next year for a simple reason. They know what happens in Afghanistan after November, if the mercurial Trump is reelected, will be inconsequential to him. Thus, number of US troops that are needed to maintain the current status quo in Afghanistan (i.e., keep the puppet government in power and Bagram Airbase in US hands) can be sent back next in next year as needed if he is reelected. And assuming a War Party controlled Congress, the Pentagon will get whatever funding it requests for perpetuating this disastrous war as it gins up new Cold War with Russia and China. To justify this re-escalation, the allegation will be made that the Taliban – as unilaterally determined by the war-drum beaters in Washington – has violated some nebulous provision of Trump’s peace deal.
The long suffering Afghans will get their country back and America’s long-running neocolonial involvement in south Central Asia will end only when a true-believer non-interventionist president is elected along with a majority in Congress who do not cave to the entrenched political/military establishment in Washington. Our last two presidents were unable to deliver on their campaign promises to end America’s endless wars. Let’s hope a committed noninterventionist president and less pro-war Congress is elected this year and they end this pointless war by promptly implementing Obama’s original 2014 exit plan.
Ronald Enzweiler is a Harvard MBA and MIT graduate who served in the US Air Force and has lived, worked and traveled extensively in the Middle East, including working at field-level as an USAID contactor and U.S. Foreign Service (limited) Officer in the Iraq and Afghan wars from 2007 through 2014. He’s written a memoir critiquing U.S. foreign and military policy based on his life experiences titled: When Will We Ever Learn?