Analysis Military

Afghanistan Weekly: Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Last Monday the U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad announced a draft deal with the Taliban to end the fighting in Afghanistan. He then flew from Qatar to Kabul to brief Afghan President Ashraf Ghani about the plan because, at Taliban insistence, the Kabul government (or puppet government to the Taliban) has never had a seat at the peace-talk table. The Taliban have always maintained that they will not talk about peace with Kabul until all foreign troops are off Afghan soil. This is apparently what they will get — all international troops out of Afghanistan in 18 months as soon as the new peace deal is signed.

The proposed peace deal includes a Taliban guarantee that their territory will not be used as bases for foreign terrorists like al Qaeda or ISIS. That’s not going to happen. The first problem is USG intelligence estimates of al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan are consistently underestimated; they said there were no more than 50 – 100 al Qaeda fighters in the country for years until they killed over 150 of them during raids on two massive al Qaeda training camps in the Shorabak district of Kandahar province on October 13, 2015. Since 2015 the estimated number of al Qaeda in Afghanistan has stayed at 200. A detailed analysis by Bill Roggio at FDD’s Long War Journal claims that number is an obvious underestimate, while making a convincing argument that the actual numbers are much higher.

Regardless of the real number, the fact is that al Qaeda has stood by the Taliban for the past 17 years. I don’t care what Mullah Baradar says in the peace talks, al Qaeda is in Afghanistan to stay. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al Qaeda, has been hiding with Afghan Taliban for the past 18 years, he may not move into Afghanistan after a peace deal is signed, but it will be safer for him if he does. Al Qaeda is embedded inside  the Pashtun controlled areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan where they plan to stay.

ISIS has been battling the Taliban for years. So there is no reason to think they’ll remain or grow in areas under Taliban control. But they are already well established in the eastern provinces.

Jihadis from around the globe are going to flock to Afghanistan to join a movement they believe just drove the United States out of their country. Some of the Sunni Jihadis will be attracted to Daesh, some to the Taliban; I imagine fighting will flare up between to two groups on a regular basis.

There are also several thousand Afghan Hazara (Shia) fighting in Syria who remember how poorly they were treated by the Taliban and some of them may come back to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

Former Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, in an interview with Foreign Policy, called the deal a surrender to the Taliban. Mitch McDonnell, the top Republican in the senate warned:

“While it is tempting to retreat to the comfort and security of our own shores, there is still a great deal of work to be done,” McConnell said Tuesday. “And we know that left untended, these conflicts will reverberate in our own cities.”

On the other side of the political aisle, the response was predictable. MSN warned that the peace deal could be a setback for Afghan women. The Huffington Post wrote:

 “Democratic lawmakers and aides also expressed a strong degree of trepidation. The standard Trump-related chaos and poor planning ― not to mention a resurgent Taliban ― could lead to ugly results over there during or after the months long process of bringing home 7,000 troops”.

I suspect that the peace deal will leave the Taliban in control of most of the countryside in the east, south and west while the Afghan government controls all the major cities and highways. There is no other way for this war to end because the Taliban aren’t losing but, at the same time, they will never be strong enough to beat both the Afghan Army and the Tajik’s (former Northern Alliance).

The chief Taliban negotiator is Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was just released from a Pakistani prison last October. From the article linked above:

At the time of his arrest, Mullah Baradar had initiated secret contacts with the Afghan government, then led by Hamid Karzai, a move that had angered Pakistan, which has long provided the Taliban leadership with sanctuary.

By arresting him, and a dozen more Taliban commanders in the weeks after, Pakistan made clear to the insurgent leaders that they could not negotiate independently.

Mullah Baradar was a Taliban commander who on the 17th of November, 2001 led several thousand Taliban, crammed into over 1000 trucks, on a mission to kill Hamid Karzai in Tarin Kowt, the capitol of Urozgan province. Karzai was making his second attempt to raise a southern army of Afghans to help overthrow the Taliban. On his first trip (October of 2001) he had CIA money and weapons but no troops. When he returned on the 16th of November, he had ODA 574, A Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th SFG(A), with him. That team, commanded by Jason Amerine, destroyed the approaching Taliban formation with Tac Air. A few weeks after that turkey shoot, Mullah Baradar, one of the few to escape from the American air attack, turned over Kandahar to Karzai and his attached SF team.

oda 574
ODA 574 with President Karzai shortly after capturing Kandahar. Photo courtesy of Jason Amerine.

Mullah Baradar most likely went home like most of the Taliban after surrendering his weapons and pledging support to the new Afghanistan government. Most of the former senior Taliban who went to their homes expected to participate in the national Jirga that would decide the interim government. Those senior Taliban who did not surrender their arms went to Pakistan or up into the mountains to fight.

Mullah Baradar ended up on the Joint Priority Effects List (JPEL) but escaped from the night raid on his compound in 2004. If he was in his family compound in 2004 he probably ran afoul of President Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a known CIA source, who consolidated his power by identifying business competitors and local leaders he did not control as Taliban. Someone of his seniority remaining active with the Taliban while living in Afghanistan would have been unusual.

At this early phase in the Afghanistan War we should have slowed down and watched to see if the Afghans could work things out. In his book No Good Men Among the Living, Anand Gopal describes this fleeting opportunity well while documenting how we were played by Afghan warlords to take out their tribal enemies which fueled the growing insurgency. The book also has a great description of the battle of Tarin Kowt, between ODA 574 and the Taliban in November of 2001.

Targeting by the Special Ops command was refined as the war progressed, but in the early days they made a lot of mistakes.

Regardless of how Baradar ended up on the JPEL, he escaped from his compound fled and to Pakistan where he resumed his duties as a senior Taliban commander. Pakistan has proved a reliable host of Afghan Taliban, who do the bidding of their Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). When Afghan Taliban acted on their own initiative (such as seeking a path to peace with President Karzai) they were immediately arrested and thrown in prison. Pakistan does not want a stable Afghanistan on its border and has been thwarting our efforts to build one for decades. They have accepted billions of dollars in Humanitarian Aid, Military Aid, and direct compensation to stop doing what they have clearly been doing and will continue to do. That’s a strategic failure on the part of the United States; the Taliban problem could never be solved while the Taliban had safe sanctuary in the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan.

What this potential peace deal will do is put the situation in Afghanistan back to where it was after we had chased bin Laden out of the country and toppled the Taliban government. Only now the Taliban controls about 50% of the countryside and continues to inflict unsustainable losses on the Afghanistan National Security Forces in battle.

War is conducted at three distinct levels: tactical, operational, and strategic. The tactical level involves the techniques, tactics and procedures used to find, fix and destroy enemy units. The Operational level involves the planning and execution of military campaigns consisting of multiple battles over both time and space. The strategic level encompasses all the instruments of national power and is thus the purview of the highly credentialed elites who comprise the top echelons of national agencies.

As Sean McFate observed in his book The New Rules of War, “Setbacks at the tactical and operational levels can be overcome, but failure at the strategic level can cause the whole house of war to collapse.” We failed to achieve our strategic objectives in Afghanistan, so despite winning every battle at the tactical level, we have once again lost a war.

Time will tell if the peace deal our special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is trying to achieve results from the current negotiations. But if it doesn’t happen this time, in time, it will happen because there is no other viable path forward. The foreign troops will withdraw and the Kabul government and the Taliban will either make some sort of accommodation or they’ll continue to fight. China, or India or a combination of regional actors could step in help stabilize the situation but I don’t see how they could be effective. I guess time will tell.

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2 years ago

Why, we continued to work with the ISI post Soviet defeat (even during), and allowed Zia, and Musharraf to funnel the billions the US supplied to regional actors of their Islamic viewpoint is beyond me. It continued under Bush during the build up to war in Afghanistan and well after. Directorate S, the arm of ISI that funded and protected both Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives burned through all our money to fight us on the ground while speaking sideways out of the side of their mouth in Washington. Karzai railed against this duplicity, tried time and time again to warn… Read more »

2 years ago

When I read this, I have to feel anger at myself for not knowing more about the details of the War in Afghanistan. And then I am left to wonder, who really knows (the American public, the Lawmakers, the soldiers on ground) about the dynamics of the War in Afghanistan? It really shocks me how little the average American knows and understands what is going on… Awesome article, thanks for sharing your input and teaching me more about these dynamics.

2 years ago

Thank you Baba Tim, please continue the updates. The photo above hurts. The man with the Red Sox hat “Dan” grew up 1/2 mile down the road from where I live. He went to school with my girls and son-in-law. Our town has a memorial in his memory.

2 years ago
Reply to  Baba Tim

Ah, Tim. Dan was one of the two Green Berets that were killed on Dec. 5, 2000 when the friendly fire hit near where Jason Amerine and his men were with President Karzai.

2 years ago
Reply to  Mic-Mac

That photo had to be taken just weeks if not days before. My son-in-law will be 50 this year. He and Dan were in the same class. Both several years older than my daughters, but we are a small town where most people know each other.

2 years ago

Thank you, Tim. This is an informative breakdown of the current situation and how we managed to get here. After reading Roggio’s recent Long War Journal article, I could understand the difficulties of these negotiations. I am glad that our current President has been revising payments to our so-called allies. It had always bothered me that we send money to other countries in hopes of “buying” their good behavior toward our goals. More often, though, they just continue their own agendas of obstruction or defiance of them unless their goals happen to align temporarily with ours. Pakistan is one example… Read more »

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