A Taliban Resurgence: Investigating U.S. Counterinsurgency Mistakes

Written by: Ariana King

As of January 19th, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad has individually met with all parties involved in the seventeen-year-long war that began with the 2001 U.S. ouster of the Taliban government. The Taliban is an Islamist extremist group which has imposed harsh Sharia law on the Afghan people and which was a key ally to fellow Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda. 

Since being removed from political power by the United States, the Taliban have continued their insurgency into the present day. A 2018 BBC study found that they controlled more territory at the beginning of last year than they ever had since 2014. As the Taliban have grown stronger the war has dragged on, taking a severe toll on both U.S. and domestic military resources.  Because of this, there has been a lot of international pressure placed on the Taliban to begin peace talks in order to settle the conflict. As of January 28th, the Taliban and the United States have formed a rough outline of a potential peace plan that proposes a complete withdrawal of U.S. military forces and a commitment by the Taliban to not host any terrorist groups in Afghanistan. The conflict is far from being over, however, and true reconciliation is unlikely given the Taliban’s continued refusal to negotiate with the Afghan government.  

In order to put pressure on the Taliban to speak to the Afghan government, Pakistan detained key Taliban militant Hafez Mohibullah. Still, the Taliban has demanded a firm date for U.S. troop withdrawal before ceding to that request. Pakistan does not appear hopeful for a Taliban and Afghan government dialogue, but the United States believes that Pakistan may have more influence over the group than they would like to admit, making Pakistan’s true allegiance in this war on counterterrorism unclear. While Special Representative Khalilzad has made it clear that his greatest wish for the war-torn nation is peace, he states that the United States will fight to maintain peace if necessary.

 While the January 28th peace draft represents some progress in this long, drawn-out war, diplomacy has not always been a go-to U.S. counterterrorism strategy. On December 2, 2018, for example, the United States used its military might to launch an airstrike that killed senior Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund.  While the United States has used air strikes to take out top leaders before, there is a lot of debate over this strategy’s effectiveness. Afghan interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish stated that the loss of Akhund hurt the Taliban much more than they cared to admit and would lead to a decrease in troop morale. The Taliban, on the other hand, argue that Akhund’s death wasn’t significant enough to severely hinder their mission to reclaim power in Afghanistan. More importantly, President Trump’s increase in air power against the Taliban has resulted in more civilian deaths, killing off potential allies whose communities, family members, and friends now have more reason to join the Taliban’s fight against the United States.   

Another way that the United States has sought to fight the Taliban is by eliminating their source of revenue.  For a long time, the cultivating and selling of poppy was thought to be the Taliban’s main source of income, and the United States responded by destroying the drug labs that converted opium to heroin. Unfortunately, there are two problems with this response. First, the drug labs are easily replaced, making the effects of the destruction fairly temporary. Second, in 2012, the United Nations found that poppy was not the only major source of income for the Taliban. As of 2018, United States airstrikes were found to cut into only 25% of the Taliban’s opium revenue, too small of a dent in the Taliban’s funds to be truly detrimental. Despite previous belief around an emphasis on the opium revenue, the Taliban make a lot of money through other means including taxing goods that pass through their territory, claiming goods and wealth from the territory they capture, seizing and maintaining control of mining sites, controlling telecommunications, and receiving funds from sympathizers and, allegedly, Pakistan, Iran, and Russia (which each country denies).  Clearly, the diverse nature of their funding necessitates a change in U.S. policy that focuses on cutting the group off from more than just poppy revenue. 

Another issue any counterinsurgents face is dealing with the terrorists themselves, but what happens when the suspected terrorists are children? Many children, mostly boys, are suspected or convicted by the Afghan government as suicide bombers and serve two to ten-year sentences for their crimes.  More often than not, the children claim that they are not guilty of these crimes, that they were were coerced by the Taliban and are actually loyal to the Afghan government.  While most people would like to believe their stories, many of these boys work against the government after their sentence.  This is often the case because the majority of boys who are arrested for suicide-bombing related crimes received their education, and subsequent indoctrination, from madrasas – religious schools the Taliban use for recruitment and military training.  Because of state lacks funding for counselors and therapists who can de-indoctrinate them, the young suicide bombers simply have nowhere else to turn once they leave prison but back to the Taliban. 

While it is unclear how current U.S. policy deals, if at all, with these young suicide bombers, it would be wise for the United States to extend its counterinsurgency strategy from mostly military action to more humanitarian aid. By providing money and resources to the Afghan government to de-indoctrinate these young suicide bombers and win their trust, the United States would not only rob the Taliban of potential recruit but gain a community of allies as well. Ideally, the United States would extend this strategy to the wider Afghan population as a whole, relying on local allies and partners to help rally people against the Taliban and eliminate the desire or appeal of the Taliban’s message. Only by proving to the overwhelming majority of the population why aligning with the United States and its local allies is a better alternative will the Taliban be truly weakened. As the long duration of this war has proved, winning the war on terror is not just about military victories but also winning the hearts and minds of local people.