The Taliban’s threat to Sangin, a strategic district of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, is a sobering reminder of the challenges that Afghan forces face and the risks that continue to plague the U.S. campaign against terrorism. It underscores the need for the United States, which is reviewing its strategy on Afghanistan, to prioritize a political settlement above tactical battlefield gains that fail to address strategic objectives.

Capt. Said Kamal Sayeed keeps watch while fellow Afghan National Army soldiers work to repair a vehicle disabled in a Taliban ambush in Sangin, Afghanistan, Aug. 15, 2013. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Tyler Hicks
Capt. Said Kamal Sayeed keeps watch while fellow Afghan National Army soldiers work to repair a vehicle disabled in a Taliban ambush in Sangin, Afghanistan, Aug. 15, 2013. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Tyler Hicks

This week’s move of Sangin’s government and military facilities a mile south to prevent civilian casualties in the case of Taliban attacks is a blow, because the area represented a hard-won success of the U.S. military surge. Marines wrested control from the Taliban in 2010, after some of the deadliest fighting of the Afghan war. Sangin was then transitioned to Afghan government control, and Afghan military forces took full responsibility for security in 2014.

Afghan security forces say they plan to reclaim territory with a new offensive in Sangin soon. But that only illustrates the “stalemate” that General John Nicholson, the leader of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, described in his February testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Sangin setback comes at a significant time for the Trump administration, which just concluded a conference of the 68 nations and organizations in the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS and also is reviewing U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. Administration officials will be tempted to “cut our losses” in Afghanistan and retreat from U.S. ambitions to stabilize and develop a country that has been the focus of intensive efforts over the past 15 years.

But the parallels between Sangin in Afghanistan and Falluja in Iraq cannot be ignored. Falluja saw some of the deadliest and most courageous fighting by U.S. Marines in 2004 against a determined insurgency. The Marines prevailed and handed over a secure district to the Iraqi security forces, which the U.S. had mentored and trained.

Then, two years after U.S. combat forces fully withdrew in December 2014, ISIS captured the city. The ISIS movement succeeded because of sectarian and other grievances that the Iraqi government failed to address.

The case of ISIS and Falluja offers two important lessons for U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. One is that, as frustrating and costly as continued engagement is in Afghanistan, withdrawal of U.S. forces could easily pave the way for an outcome that is much worse for U.S. security. Without sustained and robust military assistance, the Afghan security forces are likely to lose more ground, increasing the risk of safe havens for international terrorist groups. 

A second and more important lesson is that military support and training is insufficient without political solutions. The Taliban’s strength and the Afghan security forces’ vulnerability are rooted in unresolved grievances among ethnic and regional groups about their rightful share of political power. 

Resolving these longstanding problems will not be quick or easy, and ultimately must be decided by Afghans. But the U.S., NATO allies and Afghanistan’s neighbors can help by focusing political, economic and military efforts on creating the conditions for a peace agreement rather than all sides attempting tactical gains in a fight that everyone is losing.

Related Publications

Seize This Moment for Afghan Peace Talks

Seize This Moment for Afghan Peace Talks

Monday, May 21, 2018

By: Johnny Walsh

Even though fighting continues, nearly all serious observers believe a political settlement in Afghanistan is the only plausible alternative to open-ended war. So, while Taliban leaders over the last month have announced their annual spring offensive and disputed Kabul and Washington’s sincerity about making peace, they concurrently show signs of flexibility in how they envision a potential peace deal.

Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

ISIS Seeks to Threaten Afghan Democracy with Latest Assault

ISIS Seeks to Threaten Afghan Democracy with Latest Assault

Thursday, May 3, 2018

By: USIP Staff; Johnny Walsh

With last week’s attack aimed at discrediting the electoral process and dissuading Afghans from participating, the Islamic State has made clear that it intends to suppress Afghanistan’s democratic development. Afghanistan’s burgeoning independent media is one of the country’s major success stories and most-trusted institutions.

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Democracy & Governance

Grading Counterterrorism Cooperation with the GCC States

Grading Counterterrorism Cooperation with the GCC States

Thursday, April 26, 2018

By: Leanne Erdberg

This testimony covers the following questions: (1) How have GCC countries addressed violent extremism and terrorism within their own national borders; (2) How have GCC countries addressed violent extremism and terrorism regionally and internationally; and, (3) What recommendations can enable future GCC efforts to go beyond eliminating today’s terrorists and prevent terrorism from emerging in the first place?

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Civilian-Military Relations; Violent Extremism

Scott Worden on the Taliban in Afghanistan

Scott Worden on the Taliban in Afghanistan

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

By: Scott Worden

Following the horrendous bombing outside a Kabul voter registration center, Scott Worden shares his sobering analysis and commentary about the continuing war in Afghanistan where he says most agree that a military victory is unlikely. The conflicts grinding stalemate, Fall 2018 elections and presidential elections due a year from now concern Worden especially with today’s Taliban announcement of a new fighting season and rejection of President Ghani’s peace offering.

Violent Extremism; Electoral Violence; Conflict Analysis & Prevention

View All Publications