With the Trump administration apparently close to announcing a peace deal with the Taliban, it is now time for a major consideration of US strategy for Afghanistan. Virtually everyone agrees that Americans should seek to maintain current liberal political gains and prevent a future sanctuary for international terrorists in the country. The question is: What is the best plan to achieve America’s core security aims over the long haul?
Three options are now imaginable. The first is to maintain US ground forces in Afghanistan indefinitely at, near, or even above today’s current levels of 14,000, a position favoured by many in the US Defense Department, think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, and prominent media commentators.
The second is a negotiated complete withdrawal of all US ground forces from Afghanistan in 2020, supported by Trump administration officials who favour negotiated promises from the Taliban; the New York Times editorial board, which would pass the buck to regional players like Pakistan, Russia, Iran, India, and China; and “offshore” balancers, who believe a complete withdrawal would allow for more counterbalancing against potential regional hegemons like China in Asia.
The least discussed option is also the most promising. An “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism strategy would rely on cooperation with local partners and selective interventions of air power, US special operations forces, and intelligence, economic, and political support from regional bases outside Afghanistan for the narrow purpose of counterterrorism. This is ultimately the only plan that is realistic about what can be achieved in such a heavily challenged area as Afghanistan and remains true to America’s core security interests. It is a realistic solution to end an endless war.
The over-the-horizon strategy is a true middle-ground approach between a permanent US ground presence in Afghanistan and a complete negotiated withdrawal. It shifts America’s military commitment outside Afghanistan without abandoning the commitment altogether and so does not simply trust the Taliban or regional players to carry the water for America’s interests or rhetorically signal a possible future return. It is in fact a more active variant of an offshore balancing strategy, which I and others have recommended for years. This active variant should be maintained so long as international terrorism remains a live threat in Afghanistan.
The over-the-horizon strategy comes with a caveat: The United States must be willing to work with the Taliban, not simply negotiate a settlement and leave. Many people will find a working alliance with the Taliban distasteful, but it is the best strategy to meet America’s core security interests in Afghanistan for many years to come.
Perpetual US troop presence is a losing game
Today, after 18 years of failure, there are no serious proponents of using US troops to build a stable democracy in Afghanistan. However, the strategic trends are worse than that.
America’s long commitment to stationing ground forces in Afghanistan is not simply failing to create a stable democracy—it is galvanizing vast portions of the country against the United States. In January, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction estimated that, as of October 2018, the Taliban controlled or contested 46 percent of Afghanistan’s districts, while independent military analysts put Taliban-controlled or -contested districts at 65 percent; all agree the Taliban have increased recruitment from non-Pashtun populations that resisted the group in the past.
Even if US troops can slow these territorial losses, the future is bleak, particularly when we understand the core reasons why the United States is in a losing game and what it would take to truly reverse course.
Multiple factors combine to undermine the objective of using US ground forces to create a stable territorial status quo between areas held by the Taliban and those governed by the current Afghan government in Kabul.
First, after $780 billion in U.S. military spending and economic assistance, the Afghan government in Kabul remains weak, ineffective, and corrupt. Indeed, the Afghan people’s view of the legitimacy of their government has been in persistent decline for well over a decade, becoming worse even during the years of peak US presence in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2013, when about 100,000 US ground forces were in the country.
Second, the Afghan people’s concerns for their security have persistently grown for well over a decade, worsening even during the peak troop years of 2010-2013. The United States and its Western allies have never committed enough troops to create the security conditions for Kabul to enforce stable rule across the country and the US hope of substituting Afghan for US and Western forces has also failed to contain the Taliban. No surprise many Afghans are flocking to alternatives.
With military victory nowhere in sight, maintaining a small Western ground presence in Afghanistan risks potential disaster. According to US intelligence, the most that today’s 14,000 US troops and 7,000 other NATO forces can achieve is a stalemate with the Taliban. But a stalemate is not progress, nor does it ensure that the gradual growth of Taliban-controlled territory will not continue. Even if current troop levels can prevent further territorial losses over the next year or two—a big if—the fundamentals and outlook are dismal.
Deploying massive US ground forces to rectify this situation is unimaginable. As we discovered from 2010 to 2013, 100,000 US ground forces were not enough. Does anyone seriously think the United States would send even more?
As a result, a long established principle of Afghan politics has kicked in: As Afghans come to see that the Taliban are winning the long war, more and more are choosing to bandwagon with the ultimate winner in the near term in order to profit from the spoils of victory later. The tide of Afghan support may well accelerate in favour of the Taliban and against the Afghan government. The consequences of continuing to fight a losing game with a small contingent of Western military forces seem clear: more pain, declining prospects of success, and the specter of catastrophic surprises to US detriment.
The risks of a negotiated complete withdrawal
Negotiating a complete withdrawal with the Taliban or regional players is also a prescription for tragedy. To be sure, the Taliban have reportedly promised to work with the Afghan government, avoid score-settling with rival factions, recognize the importance of liberal reforms, and fight against international terrorists, while regional players too may agree to such promises.
This plan has a fundamental flaw: Once US troops withdraw, who will enforce it? Given the Afghan government’s dependence on US military forces for its security, the agreement could well collapse the moment US forces leave the country. What would be the consequences?
If US forces withdraw, the near-term risks include: 1) The entire NATO mission to provide direct military support to the Afghan government will collapse because the NATO mission is critically dependent on US forces, which make up the largest contingent; 2) about 50 percent of the Afghan state budget and 90 percent of funds for its military and police will rapidly fade away because the international donors who pay these costs could well judge that Washington no longer sees significant security interests in the country; 3) as the centre crumbles, parochial warlords will seize power locally and fight among themselves for control over urban areas and local resources; and 4) as internal violence escalates, the Taliban will lose interest in abiding by the terms of the agreement, civilian casualties will grow, and any gains in liberal norms made over the past two decades will be lost.
These risks are real. They would mean the sure end of the liberal dream to bring democracy to Afghanistan anytime soon. They would also be borne mainly by the Afghan people, so the United States would face moral responsibility for the human costs of walking away from a nation-building mission it conceived.
Still, all these risks for the Afghan government and people loom as predictable realities as the Taliban’s trajectory of success inexorably continues. Even staunch opponents of “precipitous withdrawal” do not predict that keeping a small contingent of ground forces in Afghanistan will put the United States on a path for success. They admit: “Winning may not be an available option.” So the United States and NATO will remain in a losing game—with outcomes incrementally worse and more tenuous year by year—and all the negative consequences for the Afghan government and people will still come due when the balloon finally bursts.
The all-too-real risk with a complete withdrawal is that another international terrorist group bent on attacking the United States or its Western allies will use Afghanistan as a base to plan, organize, and execute future attacks. This has happened before. Although the Taliban have never tried to launch or inspire terrorist attacks against the United States or the West, they did allow, in the 1990s, al Qaeda to establish its main basis of operations in Afghanistan and plan 9/11 and other anti-American attacks.
Today, the Islamic State-Khorasan, IS-K for short, has already sought to establish a sanctuary for itself in Afghanistan, particularly in the southeastern province of Nangarhar and the northwestern province of Jowzjan.
IS-K uses suicide attacks—the most deadly form of terrorism—and in 2018 surpassed the Taliban in the use of this tactic in Afghanistan, according to data from the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, which tracks suicide attacks around the world.
Unlike the Taliban, whose ambitions are limited to Afghanistan, IS-K, like its parent organization, harbours international ambitions. Khorasan, the historical territorial unit from which IS-K derives its name, encompasses not only Afghanistan but large segments of Central Asia and Persia as well. The group’s stated goals include raising “the banner of al-Uqab above Jerusalem and the White House” and inspiring lone-wolf attacks in the West—both promoted in IS-K video propaganda. There is already evidence of IS-K’s efforts to attack the West. In September 2018, then-U.K. Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson reported that IS-K fighters in Afghanistan were in direct communication and planning efforts with terrorist cells in the U.K. There have also been reports of IS-K efforts to mount attacks against the US homeland.
In short, the rise of IS-K in Afghanistan presents a serious threat to the security of America, not only a problem in Afghanistan, and demonstrates the unacceptable risks associated with the “negotiated withdrawal” plan.
A realistic solution
Fortunately, there is a third option: over-the-horizon counterterrorism strategy. This approach would remove US combat troops from Afghanistan in the near term while countering threats from international terrorist groups by establishing long-term partners inside Afghanistan and relying on regional bases in US-friendly neighbouring countries from which to intervene with air power and special operations forces on a limited basis as necessary.
With an over-the-horizon strategy, America’s aim is to work as partners with any legitimate Afghan authority, including the existing Afghan government but also the Taliban. In the near term, the role of US forces at regional bases would be limited to providing air power, small numbers of special operations forces, and political, intelligence, and economic support to these Afghan partners. These regional bases could also serve as launching pads for future deployments of air, naval, and even ground forces, should the security of the United States call for it.
A lasting US security strategy must be built around America’s core national security interests and against threats that Americans will be ready to fight and die for. Since 9/11, Americans have demonstrated again and again—in routing al Qaeda’s forces in Afghanistan, in eliminating the Islamic State as a territorial entity in Iraq and Syria—that they are prepared to defeat international terrorist groups that target the United States.
Vast majorities of Republicans and Democrats have persistently seen terrorism as a critical threat. The American public clearly has serious doubts about fighting an endless war to create a stable democracy, end all violence, or broker a new government in a country far from US shores. But the United States has the stomach to defeat terrorists trying to attack it.
In Afghanistan, America’s vital interest is thus to prevent international terrorists from gaining political and military control of any of the country’s approximately 400 districts or uncontested control of a significant part of a district. Such control would allow small groups of international terrorists—even as small as 50 to 100 individuals—to prepare, plan, organize, and execute attacks effectively unimpeded by counterpressure.
No strategy in Afghanistan could stop all terrorism because it is virtually impossible to prevent an encrypted message from a single person in Afghanistan from inspiring or activating an operative in the West. However, denying terrorists sanctuary large enough for a cohesive contingent of operatives to train, plan, and orchestrate attacks does make protracted campaigns of terrorism vastly more difficult. Not surprisingly, al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria from 2013 to 2018, and numerous groups waging campaigns of terrorism have relied on sanctuaries where hundreds (or thousands) of recruits, fighters, and leaders could operate in a protected environment.
Denying terrorists sanctuary involves more than leadership decapitation and killing identified members of the militant group. Militant leaders and operatives are often readily replaceable. The United States has killed the leader of IS-K with airstrikes four times—in July 2016, April 2017, July 2017, and August 2018. Each time, a new leader soon took over. Rather, effective denial of sanctuary requires rolling back territorial control. This involves US intelligence, surveillance, and kinetic operations often in combination with reliable ground partners who also receive significant political, economic, logistic, and intelligence support. Most important, effective denial of sanctuary requires a persistent, protracted commitment—one that, for the United States, could be over-the-horizon strategy.
How ready are the Taliban to accept a working relationship with the United States, to cooperate tacitly or otherwise on a common purpose to deny sanctuary to international terrorists in Afghanistan with a US over-the-horizon strategy? We cannot tell for sure because the over-the-horizon approach has not been widely discussed in public by the United States, the Taliban, or other parties. However, we can determine something about the Taliban’s attitudes from their interests, past statements, and behaviour.
The Taliban’s strong interest has long been to protect their status as the top governing organization in Afghanistan. The group’s appeal in February 2018 for the United States to start peace talks shows it is against the US occupation—not against US values as an existential threat that must be destroyed:
[T]he Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan undertakes legitimate efforts for the independence of our homeland. Having a sovereign country free from any foreign occupation is our natural and human right. … [W]e have no agenda of playing any destructive role in any other country and we have practically proven over the past seventeen years that we have not interfered in any other country. Likewise we will not allow anyone else to use Afghan territory against any other country. … Our preference is to solve the Afghan issue through peaceful dialogues. America must end her occupation and must accept all our legitimate rights including the right to form a government consistent with the beliefs of our people.
Since 2015—for four years—there has been a compelling reason to think that the Taliban have their own political motives for resisting and combating international terrorist groups.
That reason is IS-K. From the beginning, IS-K and the Taliban have been bitter enemies, and they attack each other at every opportunity. Clashes between IS-K and the Taliban began in early 2015. By the end of June 2015, IS-K fighters had managed to secure substantial territory for the first time and had beheaded numerous Taliban commanders. IS-K posted execution videos of the killings, just as Islamic State central has done in Syria and Iraq. When the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) pledged support to IS-K in August 2015, the Taliban fought the IMU in Zabul province and eliminated its presence there by the end of the year. At about the same time, the Taliban managed to drive out IS-K members from Farah province.
In 2016, IS-K was largely confined to Nangarhar and suffered numerous territorial setbacks at the hands of both Afghan government forces and Taliban fighters, who managed to capture a number of districts controlled by IS-K. In October 2016, IS-K expanded its presence to Jowzjan in the north of Afghanistan. Between January 2017 and October 2018, at least 207 violent confrontations between IS-K and the Taliban have been documented in these two provinces. By mid-2018, the Taliban decisively defeated the Islamic State in Darzab, a district of Jowzjan, with more than 200 Islamic State fighters surrendering to the Afghan government to prevent capture by the Taliban.
Why are the Taliban opposed to IS-K? The answer is a clash of goals. The Taliban’s interest is in regaining domestic power, which overrides any feelings of Islamic solidarity with an international terrorist group like IS-K.
In June 2015, when clashes between IS-K and Taliban forces had started to break out, the Taliban sent a letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State leader in Syria, urging an end to IS-K as an independent entity in Afghanistan. The Taliban called for “one flag, one leadership” in the battle against the Afghan government and the US occupation. The Taliban view IS-K as a direct competitor for domestic political power and control of the local population. When the Taliban control a district, they provide social services, justice, and governance to the population but also levy taxes and tolls. Hence, IS-K threatens the popular support and revenue of the Taliban.
Further, memory of the consequences for harbouring al Qaeda run deep. For the Taliban to tolerate IS-K’s presence would threaten their domestic ambitions and court future military interventions should IS-K make good on its promise to attack the West. The Taliban have nationalist goals, focused on control of Afghanistan. The Taliban’s nationalist ambitions are not lost on IS-K, whose propaganda labels the Taliban as “filthy nationalists” and declares the Taliban to be “infidels.” As a report by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center concludes, “ISK’s message delegitimizes and threatens autonomous groups with limited goals such as the Afghan Taliban.”
The threat posed to the Taliban by IS-K explains why they have already tacitly cooperated with the United States against IS-K. In June 2018, the Taliban agreed and remained faithful to a negotiated cease-fire during major Islamic holidays, an agreement that allowed the United States and Afghan government forces to concentrate on a major air and ground offensive that successfully routed the Islamic State from multiple districts in its eastern stronghold in Nangarhar. Today, IS-K has been rolled back as a territorial unit in Afghanistan thanks to multiprong attacks by the United States, Afghan government, and Taliban forces.
Thus, the Taliban are demonstrating by deeds, not merely words, that they are not an international terrorist group and that they want to rid Afghanistan of international terrorist groups, not harbour them. In effect, the Taliban are now aligned with the highest security priority of the United States and its allies.
Implementing an over-the-horizon strategy
America should not simply trust that the Taliban will always oppose a sanctuary for international terrorist groups. However, the current alignment of interests and tacit cooperation between the United States and the Taliban creates an excellent basis for the transition to an over-the-horizon strategy.
Such a strategy would provide critical power to secure American interests in Afghanistan should the withdrawal of US forces lead to an escalation in the civil war between the existing Afghan government and the Taliban. If these two forces are focused on destroying the other, US over-the-horizon capabilities are crucial to prevent international terrorists from exploiting the civil war, by providing direct military support to either or both sides so long as they devote significant effort against international terrorists and by providing the means for more assertive intervention if necessary. While the strategy would not require first brokering a new lasting and unitary Afghan government, it would offer diplomatic and economic tools to encourage civil peace, limit violence, discourage human rights abuses, and coordinate equitable international and counterterrorism policies with regional players.
An over-the-horizon strategy to deny sanctuary to international terrorists in Afghanistan is feasible. The United States has already established a number of bases in neighbouring Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan and air bases in Qatar and the Indian Ocean. In addition, the United States and its allies also have powerful surveillance capabilities and the wherewithal to provide targeted support to in-country partners. The United States should immediately proceed to improve coordination and intelligence support to the Taliban as a meaningful transition to an improved working relationship.
Over-the-horizon has a track record of success. Since 2001, the United States has relied on this strategy to topple the Taliban and kick al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, weaken and fragment al Qaeda in Pakistan, reduce al-Shabab’s territorial control in Somalia, and again to eliminate the Islamic State’s operational sanctuaries in Iraq and Syria from 2014 to 2018. In the cases of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the Islamic State, the United States delayed before adopting this strategy until after international terrorists controlled major areas. It should not delay in Afghanistan.
Alejandro Albanez and Jakob Urda contributed research to this article.