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The Taliban is not winning in Afghanistan. But it’s also not losing

The Afghan conflict is — as it has been for years — a stalemate. 

Smoke rising from the Intercontinental Hotel during an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sunday.
REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

Here is a bit of good news: Despite its ability to hold large swathes of land and conduct spectacular attacks like the one in Kabul last weekend, the Taliban is not winning in Afghanistan.

The bad news? After more than 16 years and 2,400 U.S. military deaths, neither are the United States and the Afghan government.

The Afghan conflict is — as it has been for years — a stalemate. Candidate Trump was inclined to pull out, but as president settled on a version of what has been U.S. policy since the middle of the Obama administration. Stabilize the Kabul government and make sure the country doesn’t become a haven for terrorists. Pursue negotiations. Pressure Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban.

In the Trump era, the generals get a freer hand and the president has a tantrum, as he did with his first tweet of 2018. Obama aimed to withdraw all U.S. troops by the end of 2016, but backed off. Trump imposed no such deadline. Does his policy have any greater chance to succeed? Probably not. Does anyone have any different ideas? Maybe — but nothing Trump is likely to pursue.

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As Seth G. Jones writes in Foreign Affairs, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and others have declared in recent months that the Taliban is winning. Jones argues that the Taliban actually “is weaker today than most recognize.” It is too extreme, too closely tied to one ethnic group and too brutal for most Afghans. Plus, it is too reliant on Pakistan and too deeply mixed up in the drug trade.

The Taliban still is capable of attacks like Saturday’s assault on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul that killed 14 foreigners. In 2015, Jones recalls, the Taliban was able to briefly overrun the northern city of Kunduz. In 2016, it pressured several provincial capitals but failed to capture them. Last year, it didn’t put sustained pressure on any provincial capital.

So the American presence helps ensure a somewhat normal life for millions of Afghans. Women are an established presence in parliament. Girls, who were banned from school, now are 39 percent of public school students. Those are victories, and it’s important not to forget them.

For those who prefer their glass half empty, though, there is this map, courtesy of the Long War Journal. Its researchers concluded in September that the Taliban controlled or was contesting 45 percent of Afghanistan’s districts.

While the Americans and Afghan government control urban areas, the Taliban uses domination of the countryside to put pressure on cities. Controlling a belt of territory in south-central Afghanistan gives it free movement across the country. It is in no danger of being defeated.

Nearly everyone agrees you have to get to negotiations. But how? This is where experts who provide great analysis turn to making recommendations – and almost invariably disappoint. The problem is that hard.

Still, here are three ideas.

Put pressure on Pakistan. Trump’s New Year’s tweet storm varied in style, but not substance, from long-held attitudes of U.S. policy makers. Everyone is frustrated with Pakistan. The U.S. has tried boosting aid. Cutting aid. Taking matters into its own hands with drone strikes and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Public criticism and private diplomacy. Now, Trump is back to trimming assistance and public criticism. There is no settlement that does not involve Pakistan, so there is no alternative but to keep trying. David Rohde of the New Yorker, who was held for seven months by the Taliban inside Pakistan, quotes Richard G. Olson, Jr., former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and the U.S. special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, as recommending a concerted diplomatic push. Neither Bush nor Obama really tried, he says. “You have to pursue them with the same vigor that you pursue military campaigns,” he says. Unfortunately, Trump doesn’t really do quiet and consistency.

Talk to Iran. Georgetown University professor C. Christine Fair reminds us of two important facts. First, Iran was deeply interested in working with the U.S. on Afghanistan in 2001. The Bush administration rebuffed it. Second, as long as the U.S. supplies Afghanistan from the east, Pakistan will have leverage. So why not work with Iran and Pakistan’s rival, India? India has helped Iran develop its Gulf of Oman port Chabahar, and transportation links to landlocked Afghanistan. Fair is under no illusions that the Trump administration will do this — but she argues that Pakistan is the greater menace.

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Engage the Russians. Russia has watched the U.S. flounder in Afghanistan, as it did in the 1980s. In recent years, it has gotten involved again. It may be providing arms to the Taliban. So it’s not exactly an ally. But it does want some of the same things Washington does – to limit the Afghan drug trade and make sure the country doesn’t export terrorism. Maybe there is a way to work with Moscow. Personally, Trump might be inclined to do that. But politically he has no room to maneuver because of his unwillingness to confront Russia on its election meddling.

Just like Obama, Trump will have to decide how important Afghanistan is. U.S. involvement will end someday. Perhaps Washington will leave unilaterally; perhaps it will find a fig leaf. But perhaps adding some relatively small ideas, and applying them consistently and creatively, could prove just good enough.