Whatever U.S. government officials may claim about the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban know that they have won.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reportedly said on Friday that the Taliban are pushing the narrative that the United States has been “defeated,” Fox News reporter Lucas Tomilson tweeted. (The Taliban later denied making such claims after this story was initially published.)
If the Taliban are declaring victory, it would be hard to argue with their assessment given the United States has so little to show for nearly 20 years of war and the deaths of more than 2,400 U.S. troops.
A Pentagon spokesman declined to respond to Ghani’s comments, but he noted that peace negotiations in Afghanistan are ongoing, no terrorist attacks have been launched from Afghanistan against the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, and it has been nearly a year since service members have been killed in combat in Afghanistan. Still, six troops died in non-combat incidents in 2020.
“There is no military solution to conflict in Afghanistan,” said Pentagon spokesman Army Maj. Rob Lodewick. “After more than 19 years of war, the path to a lasting peace for the people of Afghanistan is paved by an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led process to achieve a political settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire. This is happening and the U.S. will continue to support the Afghan peace process.”
With that said, peace negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government have not shown much progress and the expected withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan will remove any leverage the U.S. government has left over the Taliban.
The United States agreed to withdraw all of its troops from Afghanistan by May if the Taliban met certain conditions, such as working to prevent Al Qaeda, the Islamic State terrorist group, and other terrorist organizations from using the country as a staging area to launch attacks against the U.S..
But a Jan. 4 report from the Treasury Department made clear that as of 2020, Al Qaeda was actually “gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection.”
“Al-Qaeda capitalizes on its relationship with the Taliban through its network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support,” the report says. “Senior Haqqani Network figures have discussed forming a new joint unit of armed fighters in cooperation with and funded by Al-Qaeda.”
In the years since the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to destroy Al Qaeda, it would take the blind fanaticism of a QAnon adherent to find a way to put this war in the “win” column for Team America.
The Taliban recently issued a statement denying the Treasury Department’s report, claiming it was written by “warmongering circles based on false information.”
Furthermore, the Taliban had the brass balls to claim “there are no Al Qaeda operatives present in Afghanistan,” and that there is no reason for foreign troops to remain in the country. (For the record: If you believe the Taliban about this then I have some GameStop stock to sell you.)
While former President Donald Trump clearly wanted to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, regardless of conditions on the ground, President Joe Biden’s administration is conducting a review of the withdrawal agreement to see if the Taliban are actually severing ties with terrorist groups. (To make a short story even shorter: They aren’t.)
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby acknowledged as much on Thursday when he told reporters, “The Taliban are not meeting their commitments to reduce violence and to renounce their ties to Al Qaeda.”
When reporters pressed Kirby if he meant the United States might keep troops in Afghanistan beyond May, Kirby carefully avoided answering directly while still leaving open the possibility that the planned troop withdrawal could be delayed.
“As long as they are not meeting their commitments, it’s going to be difficult for anybody at that negotiating table to meet their commitments – in fact; it wouldn’t be the wise course,” Kirby said at a Pentagon news briefing. “We obviously are still committed to ending this war, but we want to do it in a responsible way.”
Kirby added that the United States will still hold up its side of the withdrawal agreement, but as long as the Taliban fail to fulfill their own obligations, “It’s difficult to see how we get there from right where we are now.”
The hard truth is this: The United States has made clear it will eventually leave Afghanistan. Even if the U.S. military keeps a counter-terrorism force in the country beyond May, there is no way to separate fighting Al Qaeda from fighting the Taliban because they remain brothers in arms.
In other words, the U.S. military is trapped in Afghanistan and the Taliban know they just need to wait us out. To cite an overused cliché: We’ve got the watches; they’ve got the time.
That’s why the Taliban have won.
Featured image: In this Nov. 3, 2015 file photo, Afghan Taliban fighters listen to Mullah Mohammed Rasool, the newly-elected leader of a breakaway faction of the Taliban, in Farah province, Afghanistan. (AP Photo, File)
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Jeff Schogol covers the Pentagon for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for 15 years and embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Haiti. Prior to joining T&P, he covered the Marine Corps and Air Force at Military Times. Comments or thoughts to share? Send them to Jeff Schogol via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter.