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The longest war in America's history will be concluded by year's end, with the enemy undefeated. U.S. combat forces are preparing to depart Afghanistan having failed to stamp out the Taliban, which still poses a formidable threat to the fragile political and security order the U.S. will leave behind.
Vastly superior U.S. firepower was able to periodically scatter Taliban fighters back into the Afghan countryside, but not to stop them from returning. For most analysts, Taliban resilience was partly a product of help from neighboring Pakistan.
Not so, say the fighters featured in an upcoming Al Jazeera Fault Lines episode, “On the Front Lines With the Taliban.”
“If we see any Pakistani forces we’ll fight them too,” said one Taliban fighter, from Logar province, in eastern Afghanistan. “Whoever tries to conquer our country — Pakistanis or other foreigners — we’ll fight them until the end. Until there is not even one foreign soldier here, we will never make peace.”
Still, the U.S. withdrawal, perhaps counterintuitively, creates a moment of hope for war-weary Afghans: If the Taliban is to be taken at its word, the U.S. departure would seem to remove the insurgency’s purpose, diminishing the basis for its narrative of resistance against foreign troops. And with the country’s first democratic transfer of power scheduled to take place after elections next month, many Afghans hope the Taliban's leadership might be more receptive to the idea of peace talks with the successor to President Hamid Karzai. Despite a recent chill in his relations with Washington, Karzai is widely viewed as an American puppet.
There is a peace lobby in the Taliban who will want to resume broken negotiations once the U.S. leaves. But the Taliban will have to make an internal political decision after next month’s elections. Everything is on hold until then.
author of numerous books on the Taliban
“The Taliban are ripe for talks and compromise,” said Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani author of several books on Afghanistan and the Taliban, in a phone interview from his home in Lahore. The Taliban have sustained heavy casualties, and the leadership is ready to return home to Afghanistan, Rashid said.
“There is a peace lobby in the Taliban who will want to resume broken negotiations once the U.S. leaves,” he said. “But the Taliban will have to make an internal political decision after next month's elections. Everything is on hold until then.”
U.S. officials don't expect the withdrawal to have a significant impact on the balance of power between Afghan and Taliban forces — security responsibilities have long since been transferred to the Afghan National Army and its constituent forces. But it could not have come at a more pivotal moment for the fragile Afghan state.
In April, Afghanistan will hold elections, and while hopes are high for the democratic transfer of power, previous elections have been rife with irregularities, and turnout has been low in the face of violently enforced Taliban boycotts.
Free and fair elections whose results were widely respected across Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic tapestry might weaken the hold of the Taliban in areas under its control, but another election producing a limited and contested mandate could bring the country’s fragile political framework crashing down just as U.S. forces beeline for the exit.
“The enormous uncertainty that’s been generated among neighboring countries and Afghans themselves, it’s all around the outcome of the elections, and whether they’ll be rigged or accepted,” said Rashid. “It’s been a real failure by the U.S. to not recognize that and to time the withdrawal with the elections. That’s the real tragedy of withdrawal.”
Washington is hoping that the election produces an Afghan leader less hostile to the U.S. than Karzai has become. “This is something Afghanistan has wanted for so long now,” Karzai said when the U.S. first announced the gradual pullout in February 2013. He has refused to sign a deal extending the deadline for troop withdrawal from his country, although some suspect Karzai is merely posturing, distancing himself from the “foreign occupiers” as he engages in furtive peace talks with Taliban leaders.
Anand Gopal, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is less sanguine than Rashid about the prospect for U.S. withdrawal spurring any movement toward peace talks. “There’s a section of the Taliban leadership which does think that way, but the problem is that there are forces on the ground now who are seen as American proxies — the Afghan police and army and U.S.-backed militias. They’re responsible for all sorts of human rights violations on a daily basis, so there’s still an impetus for the Taliban to fight them.”
Most analysts believe the Afghan army, despite its 200,000 soldiers, is still too weak to conquer the remaining pockets of Taliban influence in the rural south and east, where the insurgent group has been rooted for two decades.
Still, many in the Taliban's leadership realize that they're unlikely to return to power through military means, lacking both the manpower and the will to recapture a major population center. Such a move might turn the tide in their favor, but would also disrupt the local economies from which the Taliban extorts money from in the form of religious taxation.
At the same time, most analysts believe the Afghan army, despite its 200,000 soldiers, is still too weak to conquer the remaining pockets of Taliban influence in the rural south and east, where the insurgent group has been rooted for two decades. The army reportedly suffers from low morale and a high desertion rate.
There is also reason to believe the government, which claims to control 93 percent of Afghanistan, overstates its hold in certain regions. Much of Charkh district, in Logar province, which the government says it controls, appeared to be under Taliban rule when Fault Lines visited this year. And Taliban fighters have executed a spate of wanton attacks in the heart of Kabul in recent months. On Friday, four gunmen opened fire at an upscale Kabul restaurant, killing nine people. In January, a Taliban attack at a Lebanese restaurant popular with expatriates killed 21 people.
While some believe these strikes in the heart of the capital indicate the Taliban are slowly clawing their way back, most analysts do not envisage the movement decisively tipping the military balance in its favor anytime soon. The Afghan war will likely be settled in negotiations, they say, but there is no consensus about when that will happen. Some, like Gopal, believe that for all its billing as a turning point in the 13-year war, the U.S. withdrawal will be largely inconsequential.
“It’s not like the Taliban are going to be backed against the wall and forced to come to the table,” he said. “The withdrawal is really a continuation of the war, but in a different form. Everyone that’s fighting the Taliban are people we’ve propped up and funded, so in many ways it’ll be the same as the past 20 years. The only difference is that people here won’t hear about it because it’s not Americans dying.”
That latter notion underlines what seems to be the prevailing Afghan concern about the U.S. withdrawal. For better or worse, once the U.S. has formally relinquished ownership of the war in Afghanistan, it might be easier for Washington to disengage from rumbling violence halfway across the world. Rashid believes that could make it harder for Congress to convince taxpayers that the $10 billion in promised annual aid is worthwhile, especially if the insurgency shows no signs of slowing down. Europe could follow suit.
Without that U.S. lifeline, the government in Kabul would likely collapse, and the Taliban could be eying a resurgence.