If there are epitaphs for the US involvement in Afghanistan, it will resemble the problem of a modern military against a historically unconquerable country built on tribal differences. The winner will be Pakistan and the loser the people of Afghanistan.
In a remarkable and previously unreported incident in early December, top Trump administration officials reviewed classified intercepts from the National Security Agency that led them to believe Joint Chiefs head Milley was undercutting the civilian leadership of the Pentagon, according to three sources with firsthand knowledge of the classified documents.
The intercepts included a conversation between an American who had spoken to Milley and a senior Afghan official. The American told the Afghan official that Milley had no confidence in the civilian Pentagon leadership that Trump had installed — a direct shot at Miller, his chief of staff Patel, and the rest of their crew.
Another intercept indicated that senior Afghan officials had been convinced that Trump’s generals were going to defy the president’s desire for a speedy draw-down and would slow-roll his orders.
The nature of these intercepts led to conversations among senior Trump officials about the potential undercutting of civilian control of the military — a serious, likely fireable issue, but one that took a back seat in the final, chaotic days of the Trump administration.
Jonathan Swan on his new @axios reporting – that Trump tried to pull US troops from Afghanistan, the Middle East, Africa & even Europe at the 11th hour. If this weren't true, you'd think it was a poorly researched screenplay. @JohnBerman @jonathanvswan pic.twitter.com/FNbv1tMRhI
— Brianna Keilar (@brikeilarcnn) May 17, 2021
Trump cites a March 2020 phone conversation with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar — believed to be the first conversation between a U.S. president and a Taliban leader — as the reason no U.S. troops were killed in combat in Afghanistan in more than a year.
Trump also claims he told Baradar that if the Taliban launched an offensive, the U.S. would return to Afghanistan and “hit you harder than you’ve ever been hit before” — a claim Taliban representatives reject out of hand.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid disputes that Trump raised any strongman talk of retaliation during his conversation with Baradar, telling Axios that the president “did not exert pressure nor issue any threats and warnings.” He characterizes the phone call as “cordial and normal.”
Mujahid also says that Taliban leaders have not spoken directly to Biden or Secretary of State Antony Blinken since the new administration took office, coordinating instead through U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.
The situation on the ground in Afghanistan remains desperate and tenuous. Amid escalating violence, dozens of Afghans are still being killed every week. A recent bomb attack targeted schoolgirls in Kabul, killing more than 80 people.
Looming over Biden’s withdrawal is the serious possibility that the Taliban retakes full control of the country and returns it to totalitarian rule.
The group continues to launch deadly attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 8,820 civilian deaths and injuries [PDF] in 2020. Though that figure was one thousand fewer than in 2019, the last three months of 2020 saw a 45 percent increase in civilian casualties compared to the same period the previous year. During those months, targeted assassinations and improvised explosive device attacks accounted for many of the casualties. UNAMA attributed a majority of the casualties in 2020 to the Taliban and its rival, the Islamic State in Khorasan. Civilians were also caught in the crossfire between insurgents and government forces. Afghan government forces and air strikes, a majority by international military forces, also caused civilian casualties.
- The Islamic fundamentalist group ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Since then, it has waged an insurgency against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
- Experts say the Taliban is stronger now than at any point since 2001. With up to eighty-five thousand full-time fighters, it controls one-fifth of the country and continues to launch attacks.
- The Taliban started its first direct peace negotiations with the Afghan government in 2020 after signing an agreement with the United States. Little progress has been made.
Put bluntly, it is probably too late to salvage either the civil or military situation in Afghanistan. It almost certainly is too late to salvage it with limited in-country U.S. forces, outside U.S. airpower and intelligence assets, and with no real peace agreement or functional peace process. Limited military measures are not the answer, and neither is simply reinforcing the past processes of failure. Tragic as it may be, withdrawal may not solve anything and may well make conditions worse for millions of Afghans, but reinforcing failure is not a meaningful strategy.
KARACHI, Pakistan (Reuters) – Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies gave funds and other assistance to Pakistani Taliban militants to fight Islamabad, the group’s former spokesman, who surrendered last week, said in a video released by Pakistan’s military on Wednesday.
Afghanistan strongly refuted the claim, while India’s Ministry of External Affairs said it was not yet able to comment on the video. Both Kabul and New Delhi have often accused Pakistan of masterminding terror attacks on their soil.
Liaquat Ali, better known by his nom de guerre, Ehsanullah Ehsan, was a senior commander for the Pakistani Taliban, and later for a Taliban breakaway faction, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar.
Ehsan led both groups’ media campaigns, becoming a household name as the Islamist militants claimed responsibility for mass bombings and attacks that wrought chaos on Pakistan.
In his first appearance since it was announced last week he had surrendered, Ehsan alleged India’s intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and Afghanistan’s NDS provided extensive help to the Pakistani Taliban or TTP.
The Biden administration hopes to reduce spiraling Taliban violence in Afghanistan, but it is losing its most potent leverage: troop presence.
— The Wilson Center (@TheWilsonCenter) May 16, 2021