Military expert Anton Lavrov on how military defeats in Afghanistan forced the U.S. to begin negotiations with the Taliban.
The suicide attack at an Afghan National Directorate of Security base on Monday shook this country already accustomed to terrorist attacks. Never before have Afghan scouts suffered such losses all at once. More than 100 fighters were killed or wounded; this group was better supplied and financed than the rest of the security forces, and was often used as special forces for combat operations against the Taliban (an organization banned in Russia).
This attack demonstrates that the United States and the government of Afghanistan which the U.S. supports are losing the war of attrition imposed by the Taliban. The losses of the army and police troops continue to grow, while the Taliban are expanding their zone of control. Since 2015, according to Afghan authorities, the 28,000 members of the security services have been killed, and recently, more than 500 government fighters have died every month. The case isn’t limited to provincial police. There have also been losses among the best Afghan units, trained by the U.S. In November, one ambush in the Ghazni district alone killed 25 elite commandos.
Today, Taliban activity is recorded in two-thirds of the country’s region, where half the population lives. In the capital, the bloody terrorist attacks by suicide bombers do not stop.
The Taliban are not limited to partisan activity and terrorist attacks. Its number has increased to 60,000 fighters, and they are gradually “biting off” peripheral and mountainous areas, taking one small district center or another by storm. There, they liquidate the authorities.
But the Taliban aren’t yet able to control large sites and densely populated provinces where there is a large concentration of army and police forces. The situation is a stalemate. As long as they maintain the current balance of power, none of the parties will be able to win in the foreseeable future. But U.S. intentions threaten to disrupt this balance.
The situation in Afghanistan began to change for the worse after the departure of NATO contingents in 2014. They left instructors and advisers instead of soldiers, but the Afghan replacements turned out to be unequal to what was there before. Now they’re joined by the U.S. Together with the withdrawal of American contingent forces from Syria, Donald Trump intends to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan by half, and to reduce financial assistance to the country. The withdrawal of 7,000 American soldiers will significantly weaken the position of the Afghan authorities.
The prospect of withdrawing from Syria was met with hostility by Trump’s opposition. A presence in the Syrian Arabic Republic can be justified by the need to confront Iran, fight the Islamic State, or at least protect friendly Kurds from Turkey. The resistance to plans for Afghanistan was weaker. Everyone in the U.S. is tired of the war there. This corner of the world remains too small to spend decades losing soldiers and to justify the expenditure of monstrous amounts of funds.
It’s not a well-known fact that over the past decade, Afghanistan was the world’s largest recipient of gratuitous American military aid. With a sum of more than $40 billion, U.S. aid to Afghanistan exceeded not only that allocated to Iraq and Egypt, but also Israel. Even after Trump reduced aid in 2017, Afghanistan received a generous $3.6 billion.
At the very least, an agreement that allows you to leave the country while saving face and reducing costs will be considered a great success in this situation. In prior years, the U.S. has repeatedly accused Russia of contact with the Taliban. But in the end, it had to admit that no national reconciliation in a war-torn country was possible without direct contact with the Taliban.
A little more than a month ago, the first major negotiations with Taliban representatives and U.S. authorities took place in the United Arab Emirates. It wasn’t possible to negotiate a truce, but a statement about the possibility of reducing the presence of contingent forces immediately followed the talks. This is hardly a coincidence, given that the withdrawal of foreign troops is the Taliban’s main demand.
Of course, neither Russia nor the United States is happy about having to sit down and negotiate with armed religious fundamentalists who widely use terrorist methods in their war. But the last 17 years have shown that the U.S., supported by NATO countries and other allies, wasn’t capable of resolving the Afghan problem by force.
The new negotiations didn’t prevent the Taliban from claiming responsibility for the suicide attack on the intelligence base on Monday. Since Tuesday, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and his staff are sitting at the same table with the Taliban again, this time in Oman. In this way, they are unwittingly confirming Russia’s theory of diplomacy with respect to the possibility and usefulness of negotiating with more moderate representatives of the movement.
The main thing that the Americans are seeking is the guarantee that, after reconciling with the Taliban, Afghanistan will not be used to shelter U.S. enemies and attack other countries. At the same time, it is even ready to discuss lifting sanctions on some Taliban leaders.
The main problem is that the Americans aren’t speaking from a position of strength and it’s not clear how it can force the Taliban to execute the agreements they’ve reached. The Soviet experience is still alive in our memory. When the Afghan government under Najibullah left without USSR support, it didn’t last long and was swept away by radical Islamists. It’s impossible to guarantee that the pro-American government will not suffer such a fate if we abandon it to chance.
The situation in Afghanistan will worry Russia. It’s far from the U.S., but it is within our sphere of interest. The Taliban are already entrenched in almost all border areas of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. That’s why we’re forced to maintain a full-fledged military base of division strength in the former Soviet republic. Turkmenistan doesn’t have such protection and is currently experiencing hard times. It is potentially the weakest link south of Russia for spreading the influence of radical Islam from Afghanistan.
Therefore, despite general approval for the reduction of American influence in the region, Russia is watching the situation there with caution. It’s bad right now, but the Taliban’s military victory and the further exacerbation of the civil war in Afghanistan could make it even worse, which is quite possible if the United States leaves the country too hastily, as is Trump’s style.