April 26, 2019

IntelBrief: U.S. Endgame in Afghanistan 

FILE - In this Feb. 25, 2019 file photo released by Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Special Envoy of the Qatar Foreign Minister for Counterterrorism and Mediation in conflicts resolution, Dr. Mutlaq Bin Majid Al-Qahtanithe, mediates talks between the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Deputy Commander of the Taliban Movement for Political Affairs, Mulla Abdul Ghani Berader, in an undisclosed place in Doha, Qatar. (Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs via AP, File).
  • The U.S. and the Taliban will soon resume talks in Doha, Qatar, as the peace process moves forward but without significant input from the Afghan government.
  • Peace talks are primarily centered around two issues: a Taliban pledge not to harbor international terrorist groups and the full withdrawal of foreign troops.
  • The Taliban is as strong, if not stronger, than it was in 2001 while the Afghan government continues to struggle to project influence beyond the capital of Kabul.
  • If the Taliban believes that the U.S. will ultimately withdraw its forces, as President Trump has publicly suggested on several occasions, then there is less of an incentive to forge a political agreement.


On September 14, 2001, the U.S. Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11th. The AUMF was the legal justification for the invasion of Afghanistan and reads in its entirety as follows: Authorization for Use of Military Force - Authorizes the President to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons. That one sentence has remained the legal justification for the nearly two-decade-long military campaign in Afghanistan (and many other military campaigns around the globe). 

Since 2001, the U.S. has viewed the stability of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) as the primary metric of success of its war in Afghanistan. The use of this primary metric has led to what has been labeled ‘the endless war.’ The Afghan government has never been able to maintain a monopoly on the use of force across the country. The U.S. is now looking to wind down its military campaign in Afghanistan by framing the debate in terms of the language of the original authorization. Simply put, as the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks no longer enjoy sanctuary in Afghanistan, and if the Taliban pledge to never harbor such a group again, then the goals of the AUMF have been met. Washington can thus obliquely reference objectives achieved while  exiting this unforgiving conflict. It is clear from the exclusion of the Afghan government from the U.S.-Taliban talks that the U.S. is no longer tying its military presence in Afghanistan to a robust and well-functioning Afghan government. 

The long-term prospects of peace and stability in Afghanistan, with a democratic government in place, are slim. The Taliban and their supporters firmly believe, with justification, that they are winning the war. They control or have the ability to project power and influence in many provinces and districts and maintain the capability to strike even in the most hardened targets in Kabul. On April 4, the Taliban killed approximately 30 soldiers and police officers in the western province of Badghis. The group was able to encircle an army garrison as well as the governor’s office in Bala Murghab. On April 20, there was an attack against the Ministry of Information that left eight people, including all four attackers, dead. The Taliban denied responsibility for the attack, which was subsequently claimed by an affiliate of the so-called Islamic State—ISKP, or Islamic State Khorasan Province. 

The U.S. also supports peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Taliban canceled face-to-face meetings with the Afghan government set for April 20 in Doha after alleging that the government delegation was too large. Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Special Envoy for the Afghan talks, has been traveling both to Kabul and Doha, working on parallel tracks to end the U.S. military presence and bring all relevant parties to the negotiating table. Meanwhile, the Taliban continue to pursue a policy of ‘fight and talk,’ and recently announced the beginning of their annual spring offensive. If the Taliban believes that the U.S. will ultimately withdraw its forces, as President Trump has publicly suggested on several occasions, then there is less of an incentive to forge a political agreement; on the contrary, the Taliban will simply wait for U.S. forces to depart before moving to retake broad swaths of territory. In that likely scenario, the Taliban will continue to challenge the Afghan government and Afghan National Security Forces militarily while promoting its image as a legitimate political entity capable of ruling the country in full.


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