Exit Strategy: Is Afghanistan Lost to the Taliban?

Exit Strategy: Is Afghanistan Lost to the Taliban?

The United States is leaving Afghanistan just as Taliban insurgents make significant land grabs.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

The US is set to conclude its military mission in Afghanistan as the Taliban makes gains across the country.

KEY INSIGHTS

– President Biden recently stated that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will conclude by August 31.
– The Taliban has made rapid advances in the countryside and appears to be preparing for a military victory against Afghan government forces.
– More decisive engagements between Taliban fighters and Afghan National forces are likely to be concentrated around key urban centers and provincial capitals.

CHANGING OF THE GUARD

The US’ longest-running conflict is ending following the departure of General Austin Miller from his post in Afghanistan. The long-serving four-star general relinquished his command on July 13 to Marine General Kenneth McKenzie who will head the ongoing US mission to provide strategic and logistical support to Afghan security forces. Highlighting the immensity of the task those forces face, the Taliban has recently claimed the key strategic border crossing of Spin Boldak. Between July 8 and July 16, armed convoys of Taliban insurgents entered into the surrounding area, raising the ‘White Flag’ of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan before allegedly engaging in myriad human rights abuses. According to a Taliban spokesman, the seizure of Spin Boldak means that the Islamist group now controls vital road infrastructure from the Pakistan border to the city of Kandahar. Further complicating matters, some outlets have reported that the Taliban now exercise control of a majority of Afghanistan’s borders.

Other key international actors and US allies have also been ramping up the extrication of military personnel. Australia began withdrawing its forces earlier this year, completing the task in late June. Similarly, France has begun the process of removing its troops from the country and has recommended that all French citizens exit the country on special flights it has scheduled to leave from Kabul. The embassy has warned that it would be unable to ensure their safety after July 17.

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LOOKING OVER THE HORIZON

These latest developments follow President Biden’s announcement that the US military mission would come to an end on August 31. In remarks released from the Whitehouse on July 8, Biden made it clear that he was not willing to “send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.” According to some analysts, this should come as no surprise considering the President’s long-held belief that the US military’s involvement in the country should be discontinued.

Apart from these bleak prospects for peace, the decision to remove US military personnel extends beyond the geopolitical boundaries of Afghanistan itself. At the forefront of US strategic planning is the problem of deteriorating relations with Beijing. As stated in the Whitehouse release, the withdrawal from Afghanistan has also been informed in part by a perceived necessity to allocate greater resources towards US interests surrounding China. By comparison, the threat of international jihadists using Afghanistan as a staging ground to strike US interests is relatively small to that of a near-peer competitor with its eyes set on Taiwan and the Pacific. Additionally, Biden has stated that he believes the US has already achieved its primary objective in the country – preventing Afghanistan from being used as a base for international threats.  On that point, it appears quite evident that Washington is betting that a resurgent Taliban will also be careful to prevent international jihadist organizations like Al Qaeda from giving cause for international forces to return to the country.

US Army patrol in Khogyani district Nangarhar Province 2010 09 18 4

Photo: David A. Jackson/DoD

AN END TO THE ‘FOREVER WARS?’

Looking back to Afghanistan, with the leading US general in the country having relinquished his command, Washington is signaling its commitment to completing the military withdrawal. Despite Washington‘s assurances that the US will continue to execute its counterterrorism strategy across the region and support for the Afghan government, the Taliban has no doubt been emboldened.

As such, the likelihood of continued violence across the country is high. According to the US Department of Defense, the recent surge in the conflict is indicative that the Taliban believes it can achieve a military victory over the Afghan government. Considering this, Taliban forces will seek to consolidate their territorial gains while avoiding direct conflict with the remaining US presence. In the meantime, the Taliban are also likely to continue prosecuting a guerilla-style campaign against the government, drawing highly trained and well-equipped Afghan special forces in to engage them in small-scale operations, ambushes and skirmishes. In addition to wearing these elite, US-trained forces down and exposing other strategic points to attack, any Taliban victories over these forces will be highly circulated over social media, making for potent propaganda.

Soon after the final withdrawal of US troops at the end of August, these smaller skirmishes in rural and remote areas are likely to be overshadowed by larger, more decisive engagements. It is reasonable to assume that the Taliban will look to test the resolve of government forces while ultimately preparing to arrest control of major urban centers and provincial capitals. Without US ground forces to contend with, Taliban commanders looking to secure personal power and prestige will be keen to seize these symbolically and strategically significant locations before their competitors do. However, the fervor of these forces will be tempered by the threat of deploying en masse against Afghan security forces fighting from fortified positions supported by US airstrikes. Furthermore, Taliban commanders will be reluctant to hand the Afghan government sorely needed victories in the conflict – victories that could boost the wavering morale of those Afghan security forces still willing to fight.

Regardless of the outcome of these initial engagements, a Taliban military victory appears to be the most likely conclusion. The political boon of the world’s premier military power withdrawing from Afghanistan has awarded the Taliban renewed legitimacy. Some US intelligence reports have even indicated that the Afghan government could fall within six months of the withdrawal. With pressure mounting, it seems improbable that the bulk of the Afghan security forces – plagued by corruption and a lack of proper training and equipment – will be able to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield.