Over the course of 20 years, the United States made strategic mistakes in its war with the Taliban that helped fuel the insurgency and likely precluded an earlier end to the war. The U.S. government became fixated on a purely military solution, to the neglect of a political solution. This overwhelming focus on dealing the Taliban a decisive defeat was reinforced by the perceived political risks of negotiating a peace agreement with an organization that was seen solely through the lens of the war on terror. The United States should learn from its experience in Afghanistan and the opportunities it missed to reach a better and faster outcome to the war. Policymakers should apply these lessons to other conflicts — starting with the war in Ukraine.

A U.S. Army Chinook helicopter flies over Kabul, Afghanistan, May 2, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
A U.S. Army Chinook helicopter flies over Kabul, Afghanistan, May 2, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

Lesson 1: Seek opportunities for peace when military leverage is greatest.

The United States’ moment of greatest leverage with the Taliban was in late 2001, when the regime was militarily defeated and ousted from power. From 2001 through 2004, dozens of senior Taliban offered various forms of surrender and reconciliation in exchange for amnesty. The United States rejected these, excluded the Taliban from the new political order, and barred Afghan interim leader and later President Hamid Karzai from talking with the Taliban. We will never know whether greater openness to such offers might have averted two decades of war.

Later, as the Taliban insurgency emerged and grew, the United States increased its military presence, which peaked in 2011 with roughly 100,000 U.S. and 30,000 NATO troops in the country. Despite Taliban willingness to talk, U.S. leaders were highly skeptical about the prospects for a negotiated settlement. Military commanders sought to capitalize on the troop surge to strengthen the U.S. position in advance of any talks, and overestimated President Obama’s willingness to maintain the larger military presence. Some officials also feared that negotiations would undermine the war effort by forcing the military to enter into a cease-fire or reduce violence against the Taliban.

The Taliban made steady gains as the foreign troop presence declined over the next decade. By the time the United States came to the negotiating table in 2018, in desperation to end the “forever war,” it did so from a position of weakness. The tragedy is that, in the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement, the United States acquiesced to Taliban demands that it never would have considered earlier in the war but might have been able to resist or counter when it was stronger. The deal secured for the United States only the safe withdrawal of its troops, which in turn fatally undermined the Afghan Republic government in its negotiations with the Taliban — and later precipitated the collapse of Afghan security forces and the government that the United States had supported for 20 years.

Lesson 2: Be careful not to neglect peace efforts, particularly when overconfidence in the war effort might dampen support for negotiations.

The United States never seriously invested in a peace process to end the war in Afghanistan until it was too late. Up until 2018, the United States consistently sought to achieve a complete victory against the Taliban on the battlefield, either through its own military operations or those of Afghan forces. The overwhelming U.S. focus on winning militarily — rather than exploring a political settlement — illustrates retired Army colonel and scholar Christopher Kolenda’s argument that the U.S. government “has no organized way of thinking about war termination other than seeking decisive military victory.”

Despite years of warning signs that the Afghan government was losing the battle for legitimacy and that its security forces would not be able to sustain the fight against the Taliban without significant ongoing support, U.S. leaders continued to pursue a strategy that hinged on those trends reversing themselves. They believed — wrongly — that time was on their side. Defense Department reports to Congress overestimated Afghan forces’ strength and legitimacy relative to the Taliban’s. Part of the problem was that defense officials were using bad data and changing metrics for Afghan army and police capabilities that overestimated their actual strength and cohesion. In turn, overconfidence in the war effort limited policymakers’ appetite for pursuing peace. Why prepare for and invest in a political track to end the war if U.S. and Afghan forces were expected to turn the corner in the next six to 12 months?

Lesson 3: Pursuing peace can entail greater political and bureaucratic risks than continuing war.

Even as the United States doubled down on counterinsurgency efforts at the start of Obama’s presidency in 2009, a handful of senior officials in the White House, State Department and Pentagon quietly agreed that the United States needed a Plan B. In an interview, a former senior White House official told me that in early 2010, these officials created a small “Conflict Resolution Cell.” The cell helped pave the way for secret U.S.-Taliban talks, which began later that year. Those talks proceeded episodically over the next several years, but largely remained “talks about talks” and focused on prisoner releases. They were stymied by diplomatic snafus, the eroding U.S. relationship with President Karzai, and the Taliban’s refusal to include the Afghan government in talks (a U.S. demand).

But backchannel talks were also hamstrung by serious political and bureaucratic obstacles within the U.S. government. A former senior State Department official told me that “there was never a willingness to take political risks that would have been necessary to advance the peace process.” For example, prisoner releases faced an array of barriers: disagreements between the State Department and Defense Department, congressional certification required for releases from Guantanamo prison, and cabinet-level secretaries’ aversion to associate themselves with a politically risky prisoner exchange or with the talks themselves.

So, at the peak of the United States’ military leverage, the Obama administration never resourced peace efforts in a significant way (e.g., as in the Balkans in the 1990s), nor aligned both Defense and State Department efforts behind a peace process. There was no single U.S. official on the ground in Afghanistan who was responsible for coordinating military and political tracks, much less one who was empowered to do so.

Lesson 4: Do not demonize the enemy. When opportunities for peace negotiations arise, it will be harder to garner political and public support for talks.

For most of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, talking with the Taliban was taboo. U.S. presidents saw negotiations — and the prospect of any concessions to the Taliban — as politically toxic, even as many policymakers acknowledged that there was no military solution to the war. The taboo was rooted in the maxim that the United States does not negotiate with terrorists, the Taliban’s brutal treatment of women, and post-9/11 rhetoric that made little distinction between the Taliban and al-Qaida despite the two organizations’ different origins and goals and the fact that no Afghans were part of the 9/11 attacks.

The problem with a black-and-white, dehumanized portrait of the Taliban was that it sharply constrained U.S. policy options and blunted inclinations to better understand the movement. As early as 2001, simplistic perceptions of the Taliban — combined with the trauma of 9/11 and political pressures for vengeance — cut off pathways for negotiations. These factors led the Bush administration to rebuff Taliban attempts at reconciliation. A decade later, the same factors undercut the Obama administration’s backchannel talks and made even modest confidence-building measures a political lightning rod with Congress and the public.

Lessons for Other Conflicts

The U.S. experience in Afghanistan suggests that the pursuit of military leverage should be paired (perhaps quietly) with diplomatic and other tools of national power. And it shows how the failure to do so can prolong a conflict in ways that do not serve the interests of the United States and its partners, and may lead to a less-favorable negotiated settlement down the road. It also demonstrates that accurate intelligence about battlefield trends and military capabilities, and political will to admit that U.S. leverage is declining, are crucial for weighing when to pursue a peace process. Further, without White House attention and resources, U.S. efforts on peace negotiations may well founder and fail.

As the topic of negotiations becomes ever more taboo in the Ukraine war, there are echoes of Afghanistan. U.S. policymakers should seek to maintain space for discussion — including within U.S. agencies — of various scenarios, outcomes and the potential for a political process. The work of thinking through the conditions that would be conducive to negotiations, redlines to hold and what outcomes could prevent a relapse in hostilities can be done now. Critics might say such efforts signal weakness and risk emboldening Russia. But if the United States fails to identify or shape potential opportunities for a just peace in Ukraine, U.S. leaders may not be prepared to seize those chances when they arise.

This article was originally published by Lawfare.

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