Afghanistan: New initiatives, old problems

August 6, 2018
Afghanistan: New initiatives, old problems
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

War and chaos have been present in Afghanistan for almost all of the past four decades.  The current conflict there in 2001, when the United States and NATO allies invaded in response to al-Qaeda attacks on the United States on September 11 of that year.  Recently the United States government announced a new effort at direct negotiation with the Taliban insurgents, who once governed Afghanistan, but were driven from power in 2001.

As we approach another anniversary of the present conflict there, and witness yet another new diplomatic initiative, it may be worth some time examining the current state of affairs.  There are three principle threads that define the status quo:

1.) Daesh and the continuing war on terror,

2.) Negotiations between and among the Taliban, the United States, the Afghan government, and the role of Pakistan, and

3.) The present and future role of the United States and NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Much of what is being pursued at present appears to be the continuation of previous strategies applied to persistent problems in Afghanistan.  Though one may hold out hope that gradual improvement will out-pace new crises, there is little reason to believe that Afghanistan will overcome its present troubles soon, or that the presence of NATO forces in Afghanistan will at any time in the near-term be viewed as unnecessary.

Daesh and the Continuing War on Terror

Although Daesh (Islamic State, ISIS/ISIL) has been all but removed from its self-proclaimed “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, it continues to operate in other parts of the world, including Afghanistan.  Calling itself the Khorasan Province of the Islamic State, Daesh in Afghanistan has made itself the enemy not just of the United States-led NATO mission there, but of the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents.  With its emergence in Afghanistan in 2014-2015, attacks against Shia cultural centers have risen, along with suicide operations against Afghan government facilities.  In the last year, Daesh has stepped up its use of targeted suicide bombing missions.  Beginning in December 2017 through the summer of 2018, Daesh claimed responsibility for several deadly, high-profile suicide bombings against government security facilities and Shia cultural centers.

According to reporting from several sources, Daesh and the Taliban are rivals, despite some perceived similarities.  The two groups are natural competitors for recruits, material, and control over Afghanistan’s illicit heroin trade.  They are also defined by different end goals. While Daesh claims it seeks to establish a universal caliphate for all whom they consider true Muslims, the Taliban have been more narrowly focused on governing Afghanistan according to their particular religious doctrine.  The Taliban likely view the arrival of Daesh in Afghanistan as another form of invasion.  The result is that the Taliban and Daesh regularly exchange violence as they both seek dominance.

Daesh is not likely to garner much popular support, as they continue to harass Afghans and are viewed as foreign disruptors.  Tragically, during Ramadan 2018, Daesh targeted a conference of 2000 Islamic scholars and clerics who had met to denounce terrorism as un-Islamic.  On June 16, 2018, during a ceasefire between the Taliban and Afghan government forces—to mark Eid, the end of the holy month of Ramadan—Daesh attacked a gathering of Taliban and Afghan civilians in Nangarhar province, killing 25 and injuring 54.  A second attack was carried out in Jalalabad the following day.  Though Daesh did not claim responsibility for the second attack, it was widely suspected that they were in fact behind the violence.  Thus, Daesh disrupted the first ceasefire between the Taliban and the Afghan government in the seventeen-year history of the present conflict there.

Daesh in Afghanistan represents an opportunistic element, but its presence will be used to justify ongoing counter-terror operations there indefinitely.  Apart from Daesh, al-Qaeda continues to find safe-haven in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as do other violent groups.  Local conditions in Afghanistan tend to favor insurgent and terror group operations, and this is not likely going to change anytime soon.  This means that one should expect counter-terror missions that emphasize kill-capture operations will continue in Afghanistan for years to come.

Negotiation with Taliban & Pakistan

In July of 2018, the United States government announced it would renew efforts to begin direct negotiation with the Taliban.  The complexity of those negotiations extends beyond the Taliban-U.S. bilateral relationship.  The United States government has long insisted that such negotiations must include the Afghan government, something rejected by the Taliban, while the Afghan government has felt sidelined in the effort.  Beyond the Afghan-Taliban-U.S. relationship, the role of the government of Pakistan and Pakistan-based Taliban (and other extremist groups) will eventually need to be reconciled.

Earnest efforts to negotiate directly with the Taliban began in 2011, under President Barak Obama.   Those initial forays laid out the familiar contours of the various parties demands: the U.S. insistence of Afghan government leadership and Taliban acceptance of the contemporary Afghan constitution to include rights for women and minorities; rejection by the Taliban of Afghan government participation, and demands for a future role in shaping Afghan politics, and Afghan government demands of Taliban demobilization.

Recently, some of the negotiating positions have changed, as have the heads of the various parties involved.  For his part, the new Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in February of 2018 offered to open talks with the Taliban “without preconditions,” and suggested that there could be a place for the Taliban in a future, peaceful Afghanistan, including a review of the country’s constitution.  As recently as January of 2018, the U.S. president rejected the possibility of negotiating with the Taliban, saying at the time, “We don’t want to talk to the Taliban. We’re going to finish what we have to finish.”  This may have been a response to a massive terror attack in Kabul on January 28, 2018, followed closely by an attack on the Intercontinental hotel, in which four U.S. citizens were killed.  In spite of his January unease with Taliban negotiations, it appears President Trump has opened his government to the opportunity to begin such negotiations.  The commander of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan has said U.S. leaders, “are ready to talk to the Taliban and discuss the role of international forces.”  For their part, the Taliban have responded with cautious optimism.  The 2018 Eid ceasefire between the Afghan government and the Taliban was a positive sign.  Notably, during the ceasefire, United States airstrikes against the Taliban were stayed (though the United States was not officially party to the ceasefire), while those assets were shifted to increase military action against Daesh targets.

Pakistan’s role in the decades of conflict that has embroiled Afghanistan further complicates already dynamic and volatile arrangements.  Recalling that during the 1979-1989 occupation and war brought by the Soviet Union, Pakistan was both host to millions of Afghan refugees, and served as conduit for billions of dollars of covert military aid from the United States to the mujahedeen fighting the Soviets, Pakistan’s role in contemporary Afghan politics cannot be overestimated.  President Trump acknowledged the complex role Pakistan plays in the region as he announced a new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in August 2017.  “We [the United States government] can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” said Trump, and then acknowledged, “in the past, Pakistan has been a valued partner.  Our militaries have worked together against common enemies … But Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people.”

Pakistan is both home to, and victim of, several violent extremist groups.  The Pakistani intelligence and military services provide material support to the Taliban (operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan) and the Haqqani networks.  It would be a mistake to equate this provision of services with blessing by the Pakistani government writ large.  The intelligence and military play an outsized role in Pakistani politics and are largely free to do as they will.  Recent studies have argued, Pakistan (to the extent that one can convincingly refer to it as a unitary actor) fears greater instability in Afghanistan would have negative effects in Pakistan, and a strong Afghan government open to Indian influence would be equally unacceptable.  Consequently it views a reliably conservative ally like the Taliban in power in Afghanistan as the least bad option.  Pakistan’s role in the Afghan chaos is at the same time purposeful and intended while being the result of mismanagement and competition among elements of the Pakistani state.

Negotiations among these competing groups will be complicated, and the probability of failure is high.  Overtures by the new Afghan government to the Taliban are cause for optimism and caution; peace is desirable, but the brutality of Taliban rule should not be conveniently forgotten.  The U.S. government appears to earnestly desire peace as well, probably coming to realize that the cost of military victory is beyond what it is willing to pay.  The U.S. has also indicated that it is narrowly focused on negotiating its future withdrawal from Afghanistan, rather than also dictating preferred political outcomes.  The Taliban appear to accept that as a genuine approach, for now.  The Pakistan element in the equation is probably the most difficult to reconcile.  Pakistan has deeply entrenched and sometimes conflicting interests in shaping the future of Afghanistan, and has been satisfied with a weak, chaotic Afghanistan.

Future Role of the United States and NATO Mission

NATO’s  “Resolute Support” mission began January 1, 2015, bringing to a close the International Security Assistance Force mission, which began in December 2001.  Its mission is to “train, advise and assist the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.”  It consists of approximately 16,000 service members from thirty-nine NATO allies and partners.  The United States effort, named Operation Freedom’s Sentinel became U.S. Central Command’s (CENTCOM) operational priority in early 2018, shifting resources from Iraq and Syria.  Presently, the United States effort in Afghanistan can be characterized by two priorities.  The first is to continue to apply military force against terror groups operating in Afghanistan; the second is to develop Afghanistan’s own capacity to defend itself effectively and efficiently, without attempting to reshape the Afghan political architecture.

In August of 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump described the strategy his administration would pursue in Afghanistan and South Asia.  In that he described his vision for U.S. political objectives there,

“Ultimately, it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future, to govern their society, and to achieve an everlasting peace.  We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live, or how to govern their own complex society.  We are not nation-building again.  We are killing terrorists.”

Taken together with how U.S. Army general, John Nicholson, NATO Resolute Support Commander, described his priorities during testimony to the U.S. Senate in February, 2017, we can delineate the contours of the NATO-U.S. mission in Afghanistan.  He listed “two narrow, but complementary missions”; first, to “prevent Afghanistan from being used as a safe haven for terrorists,” and second, leaving a “sovereign, secure, stable, and unified Afghanistan.”

Practically, building the Afghan National Security Force capacity has come to focus in part on leadership training and developing local Afghan security “sustainment” (which refers to logistical support to combat forces, to include everything from maintenance of complex jet-powered aircraft to feeding and clothing security personnel).  Along with leadership and sustainment, the NATO mission is focusing on increasing the lethality of the Afghan National Special Forces and its air force.  Both have proven invaluable in confronting a dispersed, irregular insurgency as presented by the Taliban and terrorist organizations.  This includes advanced training on special tactics, medical evacuation for wounded personnel, and more reliable “fires” or close air support or artillery in support of ground operations.

What their mission apparently does not include is seeking a fundamental transformation of the Afghan political culture, leaving behind desires to remake the region in the image of western-styled democracies that characterized the early days of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.  As noted above, a new effort at direct negotiations between the United States and the Taliban appears to be limited to defining the security conditions under which U.S. forces would permanently withdraw.  The new administration in the United States has announced it will apply a “conditions-based” approach to determining when to withdraw forces rather than a “timeline-based” approach.  The security conditions under which the United States and its NATO allies would be ready to leave Afghanistan wait for definition—one would expect that this is an almost impossible calculation to make with a credible measure of certainty.


The current war in Afghanistan soon enters its eighteenth year.  New diplomatic initiatives and military objectives have come and gone before with little positive effect. Terrorism continues to beleaguer the Afghan people, as the operational presence of Daesh reminds us.  Efforts and reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan state should be welcomed while encroachment on Afghan liberties should be guarded against.  Ultimately, the future form of their government rightly belongs to the Afghan people.  The NATO-U.S. mission in Afghanistan continues along familiar lines of actively pursing terrorist organizations, while augmenting and developing the Afghan National Security Forces.  Gradual improvements should be applauded, and innovative diplomacy encouraged, but no recent development should be taken as a turning point toward conclusion of the U.S. and NATO role in the Afghanistan conflict nor its resolution.