The Failures of the American Counterinsurgency Against the Taliban

Written by: Ariana King

In 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban under suspicion that it was hiding Osama Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda members after the 9/11 attacks. Eighteen years later, the United States is in the process of negotiating a peace agreement with the Taliban in which U.S. troops will withdraw in exchange for the Taliban’s promise to end its use of Afghanistan as a base for terrorist action and to open dialogue with the Afghan government. The Taliban refuses to do either until U.S. troops leave. On September 3, 2019, the United States agreed to a deal in which it would withdraw 5,400 troops in 20 weeks upon the approval of President Trump. The remainder of U.S. troops will be withdrawn if the Taliban open peace talks with the Afghan government and maintain a ceasefire. While many consider this deal a step towards “victory”, others remain skeptical.

This is, in large part, due to the potential consequences of the upcoming Afghan presidential election on September 28. President Ghani, who wants to win another five-year term, insists the elections must proceed in order to uphold democracy; however, following through with the elections will jeopardize peace since the Taliban have already stated that it will continue the war if the elections are held. Because of this, many U.S. officials favor postponing elections until American troop withdrawal begins, saying that peace, not democracy, is the greatest priority. This need for peace is largely in the United States’ self interest, and skeptics are not convinced that the September 28 elections would further peace or democracy. A history of election fraud has already tarnished the legitimacy of the proposed election, and continued violence has left 2,000 polling stations too dangerous for use and diminished candidates’ abilities to campaign. 

Even in the absence of these elections, however, there is heavy doubt that the U.S.-Taliban deal will result in peace. Amidst ceasefire negotiations, the Taliban have conducted major attacks that have hit Afghan civilians the hardest. Even the September 3rd peace deal took place in conjunction with a Taliban attack in Kabul that killed sixteen people and injured 119, providing little evidence that the Taliban will change. According to Ejaz Malikzada, a researcher at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies in Kabul, the Taliban have no intention of maintaining a ceasefire, saying, “[The Taliban] say: ‘we’ll fight even if we sign an agreement with the Americans, we’ll keep fighting and we’ll kill, no matter what’. So the Taliban have not changed, the only change that I can see is their bombs have got bigger.”  

Given this information, it’s difficult to see how a U.S. military withdrawal could be seen as a victory, but at this point the United States has few options. Regardless of whether the Taliban keep its word and work towards peace, the case for continued U.S. military action in the country is weak. Since the wars’ commencement in 2001, the United States has spent an estimated $2 trillion on its counterinsurgency efforts only for the Taliban to control more territory than it did when the war began. Both sides have sustained significant losses, the largest burden taken by Afghan forces and civilians. In the end, it’s these heavy casualties that make peace the highest priority for American officials and Afghan citizens. Even though a U.S. withdrawal cannot guarantee the Taliban keep its word, a path towards peace will decrease the chance that civilians will be caught in the crossfire.