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

How Can U.S. Better Help Tunisia to Curb ISIS Recruitment?

How Can U.S. Better Help Tunisia to Curb ISIS Recruitment?

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

By: USIP Staff

As Tunisia last month celebrated the 2011 overthrow of its dictatorship, thousands of young Tunisians protested in streets nationwide, often clashing with police. Young Tunisians widely voice an angry despair at being unemployed, untrained for jobs, and unable to build futures for themselves. The single democracy to have arisen from the Arab Spring uprisings is undermined by the feelings of hopelessness among many youth, and by their exploitation by extremist groups linked to ISIS and al-Qaida. To help Tunisian, U.S. and other efforts to build hope for Tunisia’s youth, a small, USIP-funded project is measuring which kinds of programs are actually effective.

Violent Extremism; Youth

South Sudan’s Pitfalls of Power Sharing

South Sudan’s Pitfalls of Power Sharing

Friday, February 16, 2018

By: USIP Staff; Susan Stigant; Aly Verjee

This week, a new proposal for a power sharing government was tabled at the ongoing Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) High Level Revitalization Forum (HLRF) peace talks for South Sudan. An earlier, 2015 peace deal also contained a formula for power sharing; that arrangement failed and the civil war re-ignited a year later. Power sharing arrangements are appropriate if certain conditions are met, but not enough has been done to ensure the latest proposal will overcome the obstacles present in South Sudan, according to Susan Stigant, USIP’s director for Africa programs and Aly Verjee, a visiting expert at USIP and a former senior advisor to the IGAD mediation, who comment on the proposal and suggest how it could be improved.

Democracy & Governance; Fragility and Resilience; Global Policy

Redefining Masculinity in Afghanistan

Redefining Masculinity in Afghanistan

Thursday, February 15, 2018

By: Belquis Ahmadi; Rafiullah Stanikzai

Following more than three decades of political instability, violent conflicts, and foreign invasions, Afghanistan is home to nearly two generations that have grown up knowing only conflict and war. As a result, violent and aggressive behavior—particularly from young men—has become an accepted norm of...


To Stabilize Iraq After ISIS, Help Iraqis Reconcile

To Stabilize Iraq After ISIS, Help Iraqis Reconcile

Sunday, February 11, 2018

By: USIP Staff; Nancy Lindborg; Sarhang Hamasaeed

An international conference opens in Kuwait Monday to plan ways to rebuild Iraq and secure it against renewed extremist violence following the three-year war against ISIS. A USIP team just spent nine days in Iraq for talks with government and civil society leaders, part of the Institute’s years-long effort to help the country stabilize. The Kuwait conference will gather government, business and civil society leaders to consider a reconstruction that Iraq has said could cost $100 billion. USIP’s president, Nancy Lindborg, and Middle East program director, Sarhang Hamasaeed, say any realistic rebuilding plan must focus also on the divisions and grievances in Iraq that led to ISIS’ violence and that still exist.

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Violent Extremism

View All Publications