“A Looming Peace for Afghanistan’s Long Hard War?”

“A Looming Peace for Afghanistan’s Long Hard War?”  E-International Relations.  February 2019. https://www.e-ir.info/2019/02/26/a-looming-peace-for-afghanistans-long-hard-war/

During the last week of January, the news was awash with stories covering the current administration’s ostensibly unprecedented progress with Special Envoy Khalilzad’s recent talks with the Taliban and their Pakistani sponsors in Qatar. In a statement that the U.S. Embassy Kabul released on the last Monday in January, Khalilzad stated that the peace talks had made progress on important issues and that the negotiators had agreed on a framework for further talks in February. In the eighteenth year of a long and stalemated war, there are reasons to be sanguine about these developments, to some degree, simply because this seems to have been the most talk about peace among the belligerents yet in this long hard war. And Mr. Khalilzad is indeed one of the best people to be the U.S. envoy leading the talks given his Afghan origins and years of experience as ambassador in Afghanistan and Iraq.

However, there are also reasons for much caution and some alarm about the current progress and the potential for peace in Afghanistan since the deliberations and decisions about many previously intractable issues still require prudence and patience.  These details may potentially augur the gravest consequences for Afghanistan, its neighbors, and the U.S. Several things of great importance have yet to be worked out. There is still much uncertainty in what outcomes these talks will result in, and looming yet elusive peace also brings up questions and concerns about the Taliban’s and their sponsor’s true intentions.

According to the U.S. position, it is imperative that the “everything” to be agreed includes direct negotiations between the current government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. A comprehensive ceasefire is also a U.S. requirement for bringing talks forward. On the other hand, until now, the Taliban have intransigently refused to talk with the legitimate Afghan government and are also apparently demanding a U.S. withdrawal before they commit to a comprehensive ceasefire, although they have stipulated that their intentions are not to monopolize or take over the Afghan government. What is also significant, but suspect, is the Taliban’s claim that they will not allow Afghanistan to again become a sanctuary, or a geographic space hospitable to al-Qaeda or Islamist terrorists of similar ilk. The timing and conditions of these seemingly irreconcilable demands will be tough to work through. The devil will be in the details and those details relate to the hard realities and facts of the long war in Afghanistan.

This article postulates that the U.S. and its partners should retain their troops and advisors in Afghanistan as a means of ensuring the peace and enforcing the Taliban and Pakistan’s compliance with the terms. It explores the hard realities of Afghanistan, explains the American propensity for tactics over strategy, and examines the main reasons for the impasse in the war. It concludes by recapitulating recent potential changes in policy and by emphasizing the imperative to enforce and verify the terms of any agreement by sustaining the current operational approach and force levels.

The Hard Realities of Afghanistan – Defying Predictions and Expectations

Afghanistan itself defies prediction and eludes expectations. When the Soviets withdrew in February 1989, many predicted that the Soviet-sponsored regime would collapse quickly, yet it survived for over three more years. After the U.S.-led Coalition routed the Taliban in 2001 with a modest number of special operations and conventional forces working with indigenous Afghan and using airpower, the U.S. expected an end to the war. Yet, the Taliban revived, and the war continues. Now, after the longest peace talks in a long war, some are predicting an end to the war that leads to peace. There is much to be done, and much that can happen before peace breaks out.

A number of fables also blur the facts about Afghanistan, as the Afghan war is not necessarily America’s longest war[1] nor is Afghanistan the graveyard of empires, although Afghanistan has indeed proven easier to invade than to pacify. Contrary to the myth of being an ungovernable place, Afghanistan has been governable when governance has been compatible with its culture, as for almost 50 years before the 1978 April Revolution, the country saw more peace than the U.S. and Europe during the same period.

Yet, war itself defies certainty and prediction because it is a complex, social, and violent interaction that sees rationality, non-rationality, and irrationality escalate and reciprocate.  To be sure, for any war, there are so many variables interacting at so many levels that the outcome is impossible to predict with certainty. Add to this the petulance and impetuosity currently manifested in the American polity, and it should be clear that the details and the devil loom in the future talks.

Facts about the Long War – Tactics versus Strategy and How It Became Endless War

“The key to success remains sustained military pressure against the Taliban.” -December 2018 Defense Department 1225 Report, “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan.”

One epic problem that helps explain the long hard war in Afghanistan is evident in the quote above from the recent Defense Department report. The emphasis on sustaining military pressure through actions and tactics derives from America’s and its military’s propensity for tactics and action over strategy in the wars after 9/11. Since the Vietnam War, senior American civilian and military leaders have often neglected the key idea from Clausewitz, that in war military means cannot be divorced from political objectives and that the latter drive the former, guiding and communicating the logic of strategy to the grammar of violence. War’s purpose is to fulfill policy with the means of violence, not the other way around. Strikes and raids that kill or capture enemy leaders do disrupt Islamist militant groups like the Taliban, but their effects are impermanent, not decisive.  Military actions can bring pressure and operational momentum they but do not amount to strategic momentum if they do not bridge the political object of the war and the violence with the logic of strategy.

In the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001, the horror and grief engendered by those attacks animated the collective will of the U.S. Government, its armed forces, and its people, in theory, to employ the means necessary to achieve the political end of punishing the al-Qaeda leadership, removing the Taliban regime that provided al-Qaeda with sanctuary, and preventing Afghanistan from becoming a sanctuary for al-Qaeda and similar ilk ever again. The problem was, however, that the American senior leadership after 9/11 emphasized the military action over political ends in Afghanistan, and so in the rush to respond to the attacks, the how and the what replaced the why and to what end. U.S. senior leaders did not fully analyze or appreciate how to align the violence they could undertake with policy objectives that aligned with a peace featuring a stable Afghanistan inhospitable to al-Qaeda and other like-minded terrorists.

The Bush administration found the very idea of rebuilding Afghanistan (nation-building was a reviled term in the Rumsfeld Pentagon) abhorrent and instead targeted individual senior al-Qaeda leaders and terrorists for killing and capturing. For at least the first half-decade in Afghanistan, the U.S. depended too heavily on warlords, accommodated unscrupulous Afghan leaders, used air power indiscriminately, and killed too many non-combatants. All of this unjustly wronged many Afghans and catalyzed support among a number of Pashtun Afghans for the revival of the Taliban.

To make things worse, Team Bush committed strategic malfeasance by choosing to invade Iraq out of ignorance and arrogance, only to create a quagmire. As a result, Afghanistan became a secondary and poorly resourced effort for the U.S., with a limited number of special operations and conventional forces conducting strikes and raids to kill or capture key leaders. There were too few troops and too little resources committed to address the challenges of stabilizing the country. During the middle of the last decade when the U.S. was mired in Iraq, security gaps developed in the east and south of Afghanistan. Pakistan filled those gaps with its two favorite Islamist surrogates, the Taliban and the Haqqanis.

The U.S. leadership was then also unwilling or unable to either understand, or coerce or compel, the other real enemies who had directly or indirectly aided and abetted the Taliban regime and its al-Qaeda brethren in Afghanistan. Physical sanctuary, material, recruits, funds, and ideology flowed from Pakistan while funds and ideology from Saudi Arabia and other sponsors helped mobilize insurgents and terrorists in South Asia for decades. Pakistan continued to provide all of the above means of support to the Taliban and other militants after the Taliban fled to Pakistan in late 2001 and early 2002.

The Obama administration tried to focus resources on Afghanistan with a measured and prudent approach to strategy. It undertook a laudable but insufficient effort to align means to the political object by crafting a theory of strategic victory for Afghanistan with the surge that began in 2009. But Pakistan’s malign yet predictable strategic conduct, coupled with an American inability to muster the creativity, resources and coercive measures to curb Pakistan’s pathological proclivities, accounted for the gap between the theory and the practice.  After years of a limited number of troops conducting tactical strikes and raids, the Obama administration’s strategy and surge in troops made discernible operational gains but these were fleeting because the strategy failed to effect the sine qua non of the Taliban, Pakistan’s support and sanctuary.

Facts about The Stalemate – Sanctuary and Support Prevent the Taliban’s Defeat

“We either address the sanctuary and win the war, or we don’t and lose the war.  It is that simple.” – CIA Station Chief, Kabul, 2011[2]

“The current military situation in Afghanistan remains at an impasse.” – December 2018 Defense Department 1225 Report, “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan.”

The sanctuary problem quoted above mainly explains the military impasse cited from the recent U.S. report. This is the second epic problem that has plagued and protracted the Afghan War. It stems from Pakistan’s long-ingrained strategic propensity for exporting Islamist militants as an instrument of policy. In other words, the stalemate is of Pakistan’s design. Pakistan has sustained the stalemate by its use of Islamist proxies in the form of the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, and imposed a strategic paradox on the Coalition because of an asymmetry of will and means. It has persistently used its means – a deep pool of zealous Islamist militants – to prevent the Taliban’s defeat, to protract the war, to erode the will of the West and its Afghan allies, and to make their means irrelevant.

Unsurprisingly, the recent U.S. report from last December again identifies the unfettered support and sanctuary that the Taliban receive from Pakistan as one of the most significant impediments to ending the war successfully (p. 24-25). It notes that “an externally enabled and resilient insurgency” and the “highest regional concentration of terrorist groups in the world” continue to pose an existential threat to Afghanistan (p. 23-24). A decade of Defense Department reports similarly attest that the Taliban and the Haqqani network, along with a host of other Islamist terrorist groups, benefit from the sanctuary in Pakistan. The report from December recognizes the Haqqanis as an continuously integral part of the Taliban’s effort to pressure the Afghan government in Kabul and eastern Afghanistan. What’s more, Sirajuddin Haqqani’s role as a Taliban deputy probably increased Haqqani influence within the Taliban leadership, and resulted in an increase in Haqqani influence to areas outside its normal operating areas of Paktika, Paktiya, and Khost provinces in eastern Afghanistan (p. 29). The Taliban, the Haqqani network, and other Islamist militants continue to carry out high-profile attacks in Kabul and elsewhere to generate the perception of prevalent insecurity and “undermine the legitimacy of the Afghan government.”

It has boiled down to an asymmetry in what the main actors, the U.S., the Afghan government, Pakistan and the Taliban, seek to achieve in Afghanistan, what value they ascribe to it, and what they will pay in time, costs, and sacrifices to achieve it.  For the Taliban, it is existential and it is about their survival. For Afghanistan and its security forces it is likewise existential. In Pakistan’s case, it is about history, proximity, and perception, as Pakistan perceives its policy of asserting control and influence over Afghanistan as existential through the filters of its strategic culture. From its inception, Pakistan’s existential postulation was to oppose India and to revise the regional status quo through the export of Islamist militant proxies. This pathological tendency provided meaning and purpose for Pakistan’s political elites and its security establishment, and its civilian populace cohered behind it. Pakistan’s preference for Islamist terrorists is a strategic-cultural attribute. Six decades of experience in cultivating and using Islamist militants have deepened this propensity, where the export of jihad has become central to Pakistani strategy[3]. But for the U.S., though a stable Afghanistan inhospitable to the likes of al-Qaeda is important as a measure to help prevent another 9/11, it is not vital or existential. For the U.S., the war is limited in purpose and means so the value of the political object it seeks is low relative to the Taliban and Pakistan. According to Clausewitz, the value of the object effects the costs and sacrifices a polity is willing to pay in magnitude and duration of a war. The value relates directly to political will and the costs of Afghanistan seem to have exceeded the value of the object for America.

Conversely, for the Taliban and Pakistan, the value of the object is high and there is therefore an asymmetry of political will vis-à-vis the U.S. The Taliban are willing to pay the costs in magnitude and duration because the U.S. has lacked the will to impose higher costs on Pakistan. Therefore, even as Pakistan is supporting the peace talks, it sustains the Taliban as they continue to attack and bomb its targets in Afghanistan, like the devastating attack on the Afghan intelligence service’s base in Wardak last month.

Revising and Renouncing the Ends And The Means

“Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition.  Terrorists take heed: America will never let up until you are dealt a lasting defeat.” –  U.S. president’s August 2017 speech announcing new Afghanistan Strategy

“I have seen much war in my lifetime and I hate it profoundly. But there are worse things than war; and all of them come with defeat.” – Ernest Hemingway

“Some places are relatively forgiving of strategic incoherence.  Afghanistan is not one of them.”  – Alex Marshall and Tim Bird[4]

Since the beginning of this administration’s tenure in 2017, the executive branch has flipped and flopped in major ways a number of times. The president came into office wanting to get out of Afghanistan altogether. Then in August 2017, he heeded the advice of his most experienced and knowledgeable senior national security principals and announced a strategy with a commitment to a win in Afghanistan. The commitment was highlighted by the increase of about 3,500 U.S. forces – to a total of over 14,000 – to advise and assist the Afghan security forces. NATO countries also contributed additional troops, bringing the total number of Coalition troops in Afghanistan to more than 21,000. Beyond the strategic imperative to find a regional solution that would reduce external support for the Taliban, this approach re-aligned the increase in troops to advise more tactical units, to continue to double the Afghan special security forces and to expand the Afghan air force, all toward overmatching the Taliban in the fighting.  This idea is that this increased capacity can build military pressure and operational momentum against the Taliban to convince them to reconcile with the Afghan government.  Regional pressure would theoretically reduce the effects of sanctuary.

However, at the end of 2018, the chief executive announced, apparently without consulting his Defense Secretary, that the U.S. would withdraw half of its 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. No orders yet exist for a withdrawal and no troops are yet withdrawing but if America does withdraw 7,000 troops this year it will be before the previously-announced conditions-based strategy have would time to be realized. Two corollary conditions are that the Afghan security forces are strong enough to deny Afghanistan as sanctuary for terrorists and that there is a political settlement with the Taliban, requiring the latter to have rejected the support or use of terrorism. These two conditions would be central to the aim of securing a stable South Asia that cannot be used to plan and support terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland or its allies. The unpredictability engendered by Afghanistan, war, the peace talks, and the ill-advised announcement of a withdrawal all combine to promise much uncertainty still.

The previously announced and stated political object from August 2017 through most of 2018 had been to win in Afghanistan. This offered some reason for optimism since it was a contrast to the previous policies, which seemed to be simply not to lose. Another reason for optimism from August 2017 through most of 2018 was that the strategy was based on conditions on the ground being met, not arbitrary timelines. The surge was tied to a rigid timeline that was not congruent with meeting the necessary conditions on the ground. The Coalition’s operational campaign and presence in Afghanistan have some advantages that can weigh on the peace talks, the negotiated agreement, and the potential peace. It is prudent to continue to strengthen the Afghan Special Security Forces, build the capacity of the Afghan Air Force, and improve the other security forces by continuing to sustain and employ the current number of advisers with tactical units that do the fighting until the negotiations see some serious results. The presence of advisors has a positive influence on the Afghan security forces and will provide more negotiating weight than hastily withdrawing half, or even one quarter, of the 14, 000 U.S. troops now helping sustain pressure on the Taliban. The operational approach should allow the Afghan security forces to win more battles against the Taliban and sustain operational momentum that will help sway key decisions and conditions during the future peace negotiations.

A mutual and comprehensive ceasefire should be at least one precondition for any withdrawal of U.S. or Coalition troops because impulsive withdrawals translate to less leverage in the talks. A premature withdrawal would yield the necessary leverage to negotiate from a relative position of strength and it would signal a lack of will to verify and enforce any agreement. In addition, the Taliban and the Afghan security forces continue to wage war on the ground. The fighting on the ground is an instrument of the belligerents’ policies and the current level of Coalition force and advisors help sustain and improve the Afghan security forces capacity to generally outfight Taliban in heavily populated areas. Given that Afghanistan is the most permissive theater of war for the U.S. forces and the best platform for counter-terrorism efforts against the very Islamist groups that helped start the war, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, retaining the platform and the capacity for the long-term should be on the table to guarantee that Afghanistan does not become a welcome sanctuary for al-Qaeda.

But what would a real win look like in Afghanistan? A win would see a durable Afghan state, with the government, the security forces and the population aligned against a marginalized or reconciled Taliban. A policy to genuinely win would require a strategy that aligned U.S. and Coalition political will, intellectual capital, and capacity to defeat the enemy’s strategy. This means that for any strategy to have had held a chance of success, it should have focused on taking away the main sources of strength that allowed the Taliban to continue fighting for over 17 years. Pakistan’s sanctuary and support are the sources of strength without which the Taliban would not have survived until now. The modest increase in troops during the last year along with the strategy announced in August 2017 was not enough to break the strategic stalemate without any alteration in Pakistan’s strategic malice.

Furthermore, reconciliation with the Taliban in Afghanistan will be a seemingly implausible goal if the withdrawal goes forward and the peace agreement does not demand or enforce verification and compliance. The principal goal of the South Asia Strategy restated in the December report is to end the war in Afghanistan on terms favorable to Afghanistan and the United States to achieve a durable and inclusive political settlement to the war. These stated aims seemed to have evolved into something more fungible than the talk of winning in the president’s speech of 21 August 2017 that announced his then new strategy. With the president’s unstaffed announcement late last year of withdrawing half the American forces from Afghanistan and with peace talks underway, the negotiated political settlement and its consequences will now possibly engender something less than unambiguous success.


Until now the Taliban have adamantly and obdurately refused to talk to, reconcile with, or integrate with the existing government of Afghanistan. They view it as illegitimate and they did not want to join it but to take over because they see themselves as the legitimate Islamic government to institute and enforce sharia law. Until now they have also not renounced al-Qaeda or their collusion and support of other terrorists. The Haqqanis, an integral part of the Taliban, still remain on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. And, importantly, the Taliban still want a complete withdrawal of U.S. and Coalition forces before they will commit to a ceasefire.

For achieving peace, the current American approach and presence in Afghanistan would bring advantages on several fronts. The U.S.-led Coalition should retain this leverage to verify and enforce a peace. These are practical factors that argue in favor of sustaining the command and the force levels in both advisors and counterterrorism elements to ensure that Afghanistan does not fail. The existing Afghan government and its security forces do welcome and need the U.S. and its allies’ help to grow and improve. Though imperfect, the government and its security forces are working with the American-led Coalition toward common purposes of securing populated areas and bringing pressure to bear on the Taliban as well as denying sanctuary for other extremists.

The long war in Afghanistan has entered its the fifth month of its eighteenth year this month. For war to end in success and a better peace, ends must drive means, not the other way around. The value of the political objective, or the worth of the ends sought, determines how long and what costs the U.S. should be willing to pay. The value of what the U.S. sought in Afghanistan related directly to America’s willingness to pay the costs in time and magnitude to prevail in war and bring about a successful outcome. The duration of the war and the magnitude of the sacrifices and costs now seem to have exceeded the value of the original political objective so the U.S. may settle for something less by suing for peace with the enemy undefeated on the battlefield.

Now, the war in Afghanistan and the talks for ending will not be a win, but a qualified conclusion. One best case now for ending the war seems to be settling for a draw and a peace with some hope of enduring. A worst case would not be entirely dissimilar to the end of the Vietnam War where the delusion was peace with honor and a decent interval, yet the reality ended up being a peace with dishonor and an indecent interval between withdrawal and defeat.  The North Vietnamese forces took Saigon just over two years after the conclusion of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973.


NB: This article does not reflect the views of any of the institutions with which the author is associated.

[1] See George Herring’s America’s Longest War and Bruce Palmer’s The 25-Year War

[2] Steve Coll, Directorate S. p. 536.  New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2018.  This quote was in his briefings to Congressional delegations that explained the single biggest obstacle to a successful outcome for the war in Afghanistan.

[3] S. Paul Kapur, Jihad as Grand Strategy, p.p. 32-50.  New York, NY:  Oxford University Press, 2017.

[4] Alex Marshall and Tim Bird. Afghanistan: How the West Lost its Way, p. 6.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 2011.

“No, the war in Afghanistan isn’t a hopeless stalemate.”

“No, the war in Afghanistan isn’t a hopeless stalemate.  The Conversation.  May 2018.


The war in Afghanistan has become so protracted that it warrants the epithet the “Groundhog Day War.”

Fighting has gone on for nearly 17 years, with U.S. troops in Afghanistan seven years longer than the Soviets were.

The U.S. leadership claims to have a strategy for victory even as warm weather brings in yet another “fighting season” and new rounds of deadly violence in Kabul.

Sixteen years and seven months of violence, loss, sacrifice and significant investment, without victory, is alarming – but is it without hope?

As a scholar of Afghanistan and strategy and a soldier who has served four tours in the country, I’d like to explore both the apparent stalemate and the reasons for harboring hope of an eventual resolution.

The ‘Groundhog War’

In terms of fighting battles and taking ground, momentum in the war in Afghanistan has ebbed back and forth from the coalition formed by the U.S., NATO and Afghan troops to the Islamist insurgents who call themselves the Taliban, or “the students.”

The two sides see gains and losses each year, until colder weather diminishes their ability to fight until the following spring. As the weather warms up, the pattern repeats itself. This story is told by 10 years of U.S. Department of Defense reports on Afghanistan that are required every six months by Congress.

Of course, it’s impossible to identify simple reasons for the failure to win something as complex as a war. Early on, the coalition and its Afghan partners lacked a strategy and a willingness to help rebuild the country after decades of war among Afghans, Russians, the Mujihadeen – and ultimately the Taliban – made Afghanistan one of the most damaged and destitute countries on the planet.

The Bush administration reviled the notion of nation-building, focusing instead on targeting individuals for killing and capturing. For the first several years, the U.S. relied too heavily on warlords, tolerated venal Afghan leadership and employed air power indiscriminately, thus inadvertently killing civilians. All of this aggrieved many Afghans.

Still, none of those missteps were decisive. Rather, I would argue that the war has dragged on for one overarching reason – Pakistan’s support for the Taliban.

The proof is in years of those Department of Defense reports.

A place to run and hide

The November 2013 report stated that Pakistan provides physical sanctuary to the Taliban leadership and that sanctuary is “a major factor preventing their decisive defeat.” It reported, Taliban “insurgents that attack Coalition forces continue to operate from Pakistan.” What’s more, most of the materials required to sustain the conflict, and “emanating from Pakistan,” remained significant.

Nothing had changed three years later when, at the end of 2016, yet another report noted that the Taliban – including the senior leadership of the lethal Haqqani clan that excels at high-profile terrorist attacks – had retained sanctuary inside Pakistan.

The December 2017 report affirmed “the externally supported Haqqani Network remains the greatest threat to Afghan, U.S., and Coalition forces.”

In testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, General Joe Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command expressed concerns about the Haqqani network, saying it “poses the greatest threat to Coalition forces operating in Afghanistan.”

Of course, Pakistan’s security establishment consistently and eloquently denies all this.

Afghan protesters hold a banner that reads ‘ISI clear enemy,’ during a demonstration in Kabul in 2011. ISI stands for Inter-Services Intelligence, part of the Pakistani Army.
 AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq

Too much tactics

A corollary explanation for the stalemate is America’s tendency to focus on strikes and operations without necessarily linking those operations to the ultimate desired outcome: peace and stability.

This was the case 30 years ago when the U.S. was supporting the Mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War, and it was the case with Rumsfeld’s Pentagon from the beginning years of the war in Afghanistan.

After the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan turned into a secondary and underresourced effort for the U.S. with a limited number of special operations and conventional forces conducting strikes and raids to kill or capture key leaders. There was a dearth of troops and resources committed to address the challenge of stabilizing the country.

The biannual defense department reports tell this story too. They tend to quantify the number of tactical actions – rather than assessing their effectiveness. While strikes that kill or capture enemy leaders do disrupt and damage the Taliban, their effects are fleeting, not decisive. They do not bring strategic momentum.

Not hopeless

However, with the change in policy last August, there is cause for hope.

The stated policy of the current administration is to win in Afghanistan. This contrasts to the previous policy, which was simply not to lose.

But what would winning look like?

A win, according to a definition worked out during my tours as an adviser to senior military leaders, would be a durable Afghan state, with the government, the security forces and the population aligned against a marginalized Taliban.

Another reason for hope is that this new strategy is based on conditions on the ground being met, not arbitrary timelines. The strategy calls for an increase of about 3,500 U.S. forces – to a total of over 14,000 – to advise and assist the Afghan security forces. NATO countries are also contributing additional troops, bringing the total number of Coalition troops in Afghanistan to more than 21,000.

This modest increase in troops isn’t enough to break the strategic stalemate. However, it will support growing the Afghan Special Security Forces, building the capacity of the Afghan Air Force and improving the other security forces by employing more advisers with tactical units that do the fighting. That should allow the Afghan security forces to win more battles against the Taliban and gather marked operational momentum that will complement efforts to alter Pakistan’s harmful strategic proclivities.

Perhaps most notably, the new strategy avows that “we must see fundamental changes in the way Pakistan deals with terrorist safe-havens in its territory” for the strategy to gain momentum.

Of course, just stating that there is a new strategy does not necessarily mean the strategy is working. In mid-January 2018, America’s U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, stated that Afghanistan peace talks are closer than ever before. Days later, the Haqqani network attacked the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel, killing at least 30 people. Less than a week later, the Haqqani network murdered more than 100 people by detonating an explosive-laden ambulance in a crowded section of Kabul. Two more complex suicide attacks followed in April. And in early May, Islamist militants attacked a voter registration site in Khost Province, killing over 17 and wounding more than 30. Khost is next to the Haqqani sanctuary in Pakistan.

Since 9/11, the United States has explicitly stipulated that Pakistan must cease support to extremist and terrorist groups. Diplomacy and US$33 billion in aid since 2002 have not brought a change in Pakistan’s conduct. Some have suggested that withholding aid from Pakistan is a step in the right direction. Withholding funds is not nearly good enough to compel accountability, nor to punish Pakistan for years of odious actions. Pakistan has not stopped its support of terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan in any fundamental way. It is time to consider responding with punitive, lethal measures aimed at institutions in Pakistan that directly advise and fund the Taliban and the Haqqani network.

Some may wonder why it’s necessary to persist in this war – and not just bring the U.S. involvement in it to an end.

Practically speaking, Afghanistan represents an excellent base for combating Islamist terrorists in that region of the world.

But there is also an ethical argument for seeing the war through to a successful end. Afghanistan has been the good war of the post-9/11 wars. The United States went to war there for the right reasons – defeating al-Qaida, the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, and removing the Taliban regime that provided sanctuary to al-Qaida. Although imperfectly carried out, the coalition also attempted to fight a just war by avoiding the killing of civilians. It would be fair to argue that it is a moral imperative that the U.S. not quit on a commitment to its Afghan allies in a war against externally directed murderous Islamists.


“No, the war in Afghanistan isn’t a hopeless stalemate.  The Conversation.  May 2018.


“The Illusion of Strategy in Afghanistan: No Change in Pakistan’s Malice”

“The Illusion of Strategy in Afghanistan:  No Change in Pakistan’s Malice.”  The Globalist.  January 2018. https://www.theglobalist.com/united-states-afghanistan-war-pakistan-taliban/

“Strategy is not always an illusion, but it often is.” 
(Richard Betts)

“The key to peace for the entire region lies with Pakistan.” 

(Ahmed Rashid)

As 2018 begins, Pakistan has not stopped its support of terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan, and elsewhere, in any fundamental ways.

America and its Coalition partners have now been at war in Afghanistan for six years longer than the Soviets were at war in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan: A protracted stalemate

There are a number of reasons why the war in Afghanistan is a protracted stalemate, but a huge one lies in the delusion that portrayed Pakistan as a friend and, until now, impaired clear-eyed thinking about a strategy for Pakistan.

The reason for the stalemate is the support and sanctuary that the Pakistani security establishment has continued to provide to the enemies of the Afghans, Americans and the Coalition partners.

Pakistan is nominally a U.S. major non-NATO ally that receives all the benefits that this status confers. But the reality is that Pakistan comports itself like a malicious and mendacious enemy to America and to Afghanistan.

The Pakistani Army and its Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) continue to collude with the Taliban and the Haqqani network, preventing their defeat and prolonging the stalemate.

Pakistan’s continued perfidy and America’s years of naïve neglect have seen Pakistan’s senior leadership deny and lie with shameless impunity about its support for the Taliban and other Islamist militants in Afghanistan.

This is why there is a protracted stalemate and this portends either no end, or a bad end to the war in Afghanistan. This is not a secret. It is stated in unclassified form for anyone to read in years of U.S. Department of Defense and NATO reports on the war in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s machinations and America’s delusions

There are many astute South Asia scholars and journalists who have written books about Pakistan’s machinations and America’s delusions about Pakistan. Myriad titles and works ring true about Pakistan’s role and the prospects for stability and peace in Afghanistan.

A number of such works prompted this article, which distils insights from several works and titles to paint the grave picture that is Pakistan’s strategic duplicity, and America’s strategic illusion in presuming it can alter Pakistan’s conduct without fully investing itself in a regional strategy.

Magnificent Delusions

In the aptly titled Magnificent Delusions, a former ambassador of Pakistan to the United States offers an incisive view of the long relationship between Pakistani senior deluders and the deluded senior interlocutors from the United States.

The relations between the United States and Pakistan constitute a saga of false promises, mismanaged expectations and disastrous betrayals. Husain Haqqani notes that in the history of American-Pakistani relations, the United States’ rationale for seeking an alliance with Pakistan has differed from Pakistan’s reasons for wanting an alliance.

Pakistan’s purpose for the relationship has always related to its geopolitical competition with India. The United States’ reasons for the relationship were related to the Cold War competition with the Soviets and then to the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

American and Pakistani interests were most aligned during the Soviet-Afghan War, yet they were still imperfect. Those interests were most misaligned after 9/11 when the United States sought Pakistan’s help to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda, the same Islamist monsters that Pakistan created.

The Dark Side

In The Dark Side, Jane Mayer explores how the United States under the George W. Bush Administration, with the heavy influence of a frantic Cheney, and supported by ideologue lawyers, breached a host of international laws and norms.

The Bush Administration’s response to the 9/11 attacks was a massive over reaction that led it to authorize torture and to expand renditions significantly.

Ultimately exposed at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the Bush team’s abominable transgressions of the international laws against inhumane treatment, combined with the colossally ill-advised and inept invasion of Iraq, to undermine U.S. security interests by catalyzing more support and recruits for its Islamist enemies.

Dark Side policies also helped catalyze the revival of the Taliban in Pakistan. The extralegal program engendered by the Bush team’s war against terrorists was a subversion of the U.S. rule of law. The torture policy did damage to the United States’ reputation and security that will take decades to reverse.

Cheney himself announced the Bush team’s self-destructive response to the attacks on the first Meet the Press after 9/11, when he said “we’ll have to work sort of the dark side, if you will.”

Deadly Embrace

Deadly Embrace describes the United States’ relationship with Pakistan and explores Pakistan’s disconcerting role in creating the global jihad movement.

Pakistan is the second largest Muslim country, the worst nuclear weapons technology proliferator, the single largest enclave for Islamist militants and the only country in the world with its capital named for Islam.

Author and long-time South Asia CIA veteran Bruce Riedel sees Pakistan as the epicenter and birthplace of global Islamist jihadists. He also describes Pakistan as a “crucible of terrorism” and “arguably the most dangerous country in the world.”

The war in Afghanistan should have ended in 2002 but instead Pakistan’s security establishment regenerated the Taliban and hosted the movement and its headquarters in Pakistan, along with myriad other Islamist terrorist groups.

The Pakistan Army and ISI continue to be longstanding patrons of Islamist militants like the Taliban and the Haqqanis, yet Pakistan has increasingly been a victim of the monsters it created.

The United States has helped make Pakistan fecund ground for growing Islamist movements by pursuing short-term interests and actions like supporting the most virulent strains of Islamists among the Mujihadeen and helping empower the ISI during the Soviet-Afghan War.

The Wrong Enemy

The Wrong Enemy examines how the United States’ policies and actions in response to the 9/11 attacks failed to focus on the correct enemy, Pakistan.

Carlotta Gall is a journalist with years of experience on the ground in South Asia. This book explores how the U.S.-led Coalition, instead of going after the real enemy of Pakistan, inadvertently and unwittingly made too many of the Afghan people its enemies as a consequence of attacks and strikes that the Coalition undertook because it did not understand Afghanistan.

By relying on too few forces, a dearth of quality intelligence and a surfeit of air power, for the first eight years of the war in Afghanistan, the United States and its Coalition partners bombed, killed, or imprisoned too many innocent Afghan men, women, and children.

From the beginning, the operational imperative in Afghanistan should have been, do no harm to the Afghan population. A big part of the explanation for the revival and return of the Taliban, along with the protracted stalemate that Pakistan’s regeneration of the Taliban created, lies in the fact that the United States mistakenly bombed too many Afghan civilians and invaded Iraq.

By attacking the wrong enemy, and not focusing on Pakistan, the true enemy, and an unequaled incubator for Islamist militants, the United States allowed and enabled Pakistan’s security establishment to resurrect the Taliban and destabilize Afghanistan.

The axis of evil was mistaken rhetoric and malfeasant strategy. Iraq was not a state sponsor of Islamist terrorists or a nuclear proliferator. But, Pakistan was, and continues to be, the biggest nuclear proliferator and a jihadist factory.

Descent into Chaos

Descent into Chaos looks at what happened in Afghanistan after the initial operational successes in 2001 and 2002.

Ahmed Rashid explores how a U.S. failure to understand the war in Afghanistan, the real enemy there, and itself, all contributed to Afghanistan’s Descent into Chaos again.

The book covers the poor decisions by the Bush team and heavy-handed actions on the ground to explain why Afghanistan and the world were generally less secure eight years after the 9/11 attacks.

Impetuous actions, in lieu of prudent strategy, saw the United States ignore what was needed to consolidate victory in Afghanistan by removing the root causes of instability, in favor of invading Iraq unnecessarily and creating the single biggest military disaster in U.S. history.

Rashid fully explores the role that Pakistan and its ISI played in resurrecting the Taliban. For example, he highlights that support, fuel, and supplies continued to flow from Pakistan into Afghanistan well after 9/11 and until late fall 2001 while the ISI and its Islamist allies in Pakistan welcomed the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other Islamist fighters fleeing Afghanistan into Pakistan during the same period.

Jihad as a Grand Strategy

Jihad as Grand Strategy delves into Pakistan’s strategic propensity for cultivating, exporting and employing Islamist militants to pursue its security policy in South Asia. A recurring theme in the ascendance of terrorism as an ever-present global threat is the disproportionate amount of terrorism that links back to Islamist militants in Pakistan.

Author Kapur’s central argument is that since its inception in 1947, Pakistan has employed Islamist militants for two main purposes, one external and one internal.

Externally, Pakistan had relied on Islamist militants to pursue its policy of revising the status quo by confronting India and asserting influence over Afghanistan.

Internally, Pakistan relies on its support of Islamist militancy to promote domestic cohesion and give the country meaning to compensate for the tumult and weak political foundations related to Partition. Pakistan realizes its essential purpose by supporting Islamists.

Fighting to the End

Fighting to the End complements Jihad as Grand Strategy. Instead of focusing on the strategic culture of Pakistan as a country, C. Christine Fair argues that the Pakistani Army’s organizational culture is a more salient explanation for Pakistan’s sponsorship of Islamist terrorists because it has been the Army that has dominated Pakistan’s foreign and security policy.

This idea relates to the adage that most countries have armies but the Pakistani Army has a state. One of the book’s central assertions is that the Pakistani Army is imbued with an obligation to defend Islam and employ Islamist militants to further Pakistan’s policy and interests to revise the status quo in South Asia.

This cultural preference stems from the way the Army perceives India as an enduringly existential threat, how it perceives itself as the principal protector of the Pakistan state as an Islamist bastion, and the Army’s interpretation of Partition as an unfinished outcome that disadvantaged the then nascent Pakistani state.

Playing with Fire

Finally, Playing with Fire portrays Pakistan as a national security state that is under siege by the same violent Islamist groups that it deliberately indulged.

The author, Pamela Constable, is a journalist with much experience on the ground in South Asia. Among this book’s relevant insights are that in Pakistan, “truth is an elusive and malleable commodity,” something that is ephemeral and politically fungible.

This book explores and explains why Pakistan has been unwilling and unable to check the growing menace and appeal of Islamist militant groups. Playing with Fire indicts Pakistan relentlessly for how Pakistan comports itself in international affairs, as Pakistani leaders consistently deny, deceive, and prevaricate about Pakistan’s machinations in Afghanistan and India.

As an example, Constable points to the Pakistani security elites’ persistent claims that Pakistan has no links to the Taliban or other Islamist terrorists. Yet, Pakistan’s cultivation of Islamist groups has gravely damaged Pakistan’s security and regional stability.

Some of the very Islamist terrorists that Pakistan created have been attacking Pakistan for years. It is analogous to an arsonist compelled to act as fireman for his own house that he lit on fire.


U.S. stated policy is to win in Afghanistan. In a pre-Christmas visit to Afghanistan this month, the vice president delivered a speech to troops, asserting that the administration’s strategy for Afghanistan would ultimately lead to victory.

But, for a winning strategy in Afghanistan, America must close the wide gap between theory and practice by marshaling all resources to compel Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban.

The current U.S. Afghanistan strategy acknowledges that Pakistan’s support and sanctuary for the Taliban is a major obstacle to success.

Until the U.S.-led Coalition has a strategy that shuts down the sanctuary and factories for the Taliban in Pakistan, operational forces will continue to capture and kill Taliban and the Taliban will continue to regenerate and multiply, with a flow of Islamist militants into Afghanistan from the incubator-madrassas in Pakistan.

It is no wonder then that the West has not achieved strategic momentum in Afghanistan. Until Pakistan changes its malicious strategic behavior, strategy for Afghanistan will remain an illusion, and the war will continue, with no end in sight.

“Pakistan: Graveyard of Strategy”

“Certain extremist groups—such as the Taliban and the Haqqani Network—retain freedom of movement in Pakistan.”

“The externally supported Haqqani Network remains the greatest threat to Afghan, U.S., and coalition forces.”

“Afghanistan faces a continuing threat from this externally supported insurgency and the highest regional concentration of terrorist groups in the world.”

— Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan,
Department of Defense report, 2017

For any Afghanistan strategy, the gap between theory and practice will remain vast until the full host of resources is employed to prevail upon Pakistan to stop supporting the Haqqani Network and the Taliban. Until Pakistan stops harboring and employing its Islamist proxies against Afghanistan, the key points of US strategy for Afghanistan will remain essentially theoretical, impossible to implement in practice. The three direct quotes above are from the most recent US report on Afghanistan, Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan. The facts they convey, combined with two others—that the Haqqani Network is an integral part of the Taliban and that Pakistan is the external supporter of both—make Pakistan’s role in thwarting US strategy abundantly apparent.

This recent report also declares that “we must see fundamental changes in the way Pakistan deals with terrorist safe-havens in its territory” for the strategy to gain momentum. This same report avows that a key pillar of the new strategy is to hold accountable those states that support proxies who undermine stability in Afghanistan. Withholding funds is a good start, but it is not sufficient to force accountability, nor is it commensurate punishment for years of inimical and insidious actions. Pakistan is the single biggest supporter of Islamist militants that threaten Afghanistan. And yet, despite US pressure, Pakistan has not stopped its support of terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan in any “fundamental” ways.

Stating that there is a new strategy for Afghanistan does not necessarily mean that there is a viable strategy. During a visit to Afghanistan in December 2017, Vice President Mike Pence told US service members that the current strategy for Afghanistan would ultimately lead to victory. In mid-January 2018, America’s UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, stated that the Afghanistan policy is working, asserting that peace talks are closer than ever before. Yet, just days after the UN ambassador’s sanguine claim of imminent peace, it seems that Pakistan’s favorite proxy, the Taliban’s Haqqani Network, attacked the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel, killing at least forty people. Less than a week after the attack on the hotel, yet again, the Haqqani Network, the Pakistani security establishment’s preferred Islamist terrorist group for exporting mayhem into Afghanistan, murdered over 100 people by detonating an explosive-laden ambulance in a crowded section of Kabul.

Afghanistan is not the graveyard of empires, despite the sobriquet’s frequent appearance, but Pakistan is looking more and more like the graveyard of strategy, America’s and its own. The “graveyard of empires” metaphor is found in many titles but it is a worn-thin trope that belongs in the graveyard of platitudes. Afghanistan, in and of itself, did not bring ruin to the Greeks, the Huns, the Mongols, the British, the Russians, or the Americans. It is untrue that Afghanistan is innately ungovernable. It is governable with the right blend of government and governance that is apt for the demography, topography, and history of Afghanistan. Until now, however, Pakistan’s persistent use of Islamist proxies in Afghanistan to pursue its quixotic notion of strategic depth has killed any strategy or momentum for the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, and also threatens Pakistan, because some of the same Islamist militants that Pakistan cultivated have turned on and attacked Pakistan.

Gen. John Nicholson, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has acknowledged that the war is “in a stalemate.”Senior leaders in the US Senate have acknowledged that a stalemate after sixteen-plus years means that we do not have a workable strategy and that we are losing. The explicit recognition in the current US Afghanistan strategy that Pakistan’s support and sanctuary for the Taliban is a major strategic problem should mean that the United States now holds no pretentions about Pakistan’s role vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Pakistan is neither an ally nor a friend; it is the foremost ideological and materiel source of Islamist militants. Sustaining the fiction over the past sixteen-plus years that Pakistan was an ally in the war against Islamist terrorists, one that would really act in ways to help defeat Islamist militants, made America liable in Pakistan’s nocuous double-dealing.

Not doing anything to punish Pakistan’s security establishment for its serial betrayals of the partnership with the United States, and for Pakistan’s refusal to honor its own pledge to counter the very Islamist terrorists that it created, permitted Pakistan’s intelligence service to continue with its treachery. Senior US leaders should continue to be forthright, in public, about Pakistan’s malign influence in Afghanistan and support for the Taliban. Statements like that of Secretary of Defense James Mattis in October before the Senate Armed Services Committee that “Pakistan has a convoluted history with terrorism” fall far short of capturing the real extent of Pakistan’s bent for using Islamist terrorists in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

It is also not entirely helpful to purport tactical and operational measures of performance as strategy or indicators of strategic momentum. The following is another excerpt from the December 2017 DoD report quoted above:

From June 1, 2017, to December 1, 2017, SOJTF-A components advised or enabled 2,450 ground operations and conducted 330 kinetic strikes and 228 Air to Ground (ATG) strikes. These operations included 420 ground operations and 214 air strikes against ISIS-K, resulting in more than 174 ISIS-K killed-in-action (KIA); 1644 ground operations and 181 air strikes against the Taliban, resulting in 220 Taliban KIA; 68 ground operations and 28 air strikes against members of the Haqqani Network, resulting in 34 Haqqani KIA; and 43 ground operations against other insurgent networks, resulting in 36 enemy KIA.

Strikes and raids that kill or capture enemy leaders do disrupt and impede Taliban and Haqqani operations, but their effects are ephemeral. Strikes and raids are not decisive and do not equate to strategic momentum. A policy to win in Afghanistan requires a regional strategy that aligns political will, intellectual capital, and capacity to defeat the enemy’s strategy. This means that for a strategy to be real and vibrant, it must focus on taking away the sine qua non for the Taliban’s sustenance and survival. The material, ideological, and sanctuary support the group enjoys make Pakistan the sine qua non for the Taliban’s survival. Pakistan’s behavior is the reason for the stalemate.

In theory, the US policy is now to continue to work with coalition and Afghan partners in pursuit of a regional strategy to win. War without strategy is violence without purpose, so a real regional strategy is a key requirement for success. A modest increase in American and coalition troops to advise and assist the Afghan security forces is one important aspect of the new strategy for Afghanistan. Though this increase alone will not break the strategic stalemate, it will support the theater commander’s operational design to grow the Afghan Special Security Forces, build the capacity of the Afghan Air Force, and improve the conventional forces by using more advisors with tactical units that fight.

These conditions alone will not bring strategic momentum but they can complement other pieces of a regional strategy that aims to undermine the will and capacity of the enemies of Afghanistan and the coalition. Another new aspect of the current policy is a focus on conditions on the ground, and not rigid timelines, to discern momentum. It is also a positive sign that the stated Afghan policy acknowledges that Pakistan’s support for the Taliban is a major reason for the current state of the war. This is not hyperbole aimed at making Pakistan a patsy for a stalled war. It is an irrefutable fact—one which Pakistan’s leaders and pundits regularly propagate an eloquent narrative to deny.

Pakistan’s proxy Islamists cannot be defeated if strategy is moribund. Since 9/11, the United States has explicitly stipulated that Pakistan must curb all domestic expression of support for terrorism against America and its allies; show a sustained commitment to and make significant efforts towards combating terrorist groups; cease support, including by any elements within the Pakistan military or its intelligence agency, to extremist and terrorist groups; and dismantle terrorist bases of operations in other parts of the country. Elsewhere, I have described a get-tough approach with a menu of eight to ten steps that would essentially take away things of value to Pakistan and impose things that punish Pakistan. Fiscal compensation and diplomacy have not brought a change in conduct. It is time to consider reciprocating with punitive, and even lethal, measures aimed at Pakistan’s institutions that directly work with the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.

Pakistan’s penchant for producing and exporting Islamist militants is deep, ingrained in its strategic culture over seven decades. To envisage any possibility for influencing Pakistan to modify its pernicious strategic calculations demands a regional strategy that incorporates both Pakistan’s fears and its interests. A win is an Afghanistan that does not fragment and is not hospitable to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or the Islamic State-Khorasan. There will still be poverty and violence, but stability without a continuous threat to Afghanistan’s existence is a win. Success is a relatively stable Afghan state, with the government, the security forces, and the population functioning in relative concert against a marginalized Taliban (or with any of the small number who might be reconciled).

Afghanistan is not the graveyard of empires, although it is true that the country has been more readily invaded than stabilized or pacified. But it is not possible to defeat an insurgency and bring peace to Afghanistan when the Taliban’s sources of strength—the group’s senior leadership, resources, and recruits—remain protected in Pakistan’s sanctuary. Pakistan remains a graveyard for strategy in Afghanistan because its protection and support of the Taliban prevent a winning US strategy in Afghanistan. Until the US-led coalition strategy induces Pakistan to stop mobilizing the Taliban in Pakistan for export and use in Afghanistan, operational forces will continue to face a continuous flow of Taliban into Afghanistan from the sanctuaries of Pakistan. No change in Pakistan’s affinity for Islamists means that strategy is dead. This portends a prolonged stalemate without end.


“Pakistan: Graveyard of Strategy.” Modern Warfare Institute.  January 2018.  https://mwi.usma.edu/pakistan-graveyard-strategy/