As analysts look ahead to the possibility that this round of peace negotiations, between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban militia group, will not end in peace; we must unfortunately study the possible outcomes of a return to war. I say a “return to war,” but the Taliban, while pledging to work towards peace, have only been continuing their high levels of violence against Afghan women and children since signing the Doha agreement with the U.S. and finally sitting down with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan delegates to negotiate.
Let me say up front, as lately many have failed to acknowledge my long-standing position on the peace process in Afghanistan—I do not want the ANDSF and the Taliban to continue fighting. I have been involved with shaping Afghan, U.S., and NATO policy towards getting the combatants in this war to enter peace talks since August 2009. I fully support the Islamic Republic reaching an agreement that brings peace to Afghanistan, protects human rights, allocates justice, and that allows the Taliban to stop fighting and also find peace.
I also want to be absolutely clear that I do not think the ANDSF will destroy all the Taliban rapidly if the peace talks fail. So, for those who only read headlines or don’t read to the end of my articles, I AM saying that the ANDSF will eventually win a very long and bloody war with the Taliban—I also don’t want that war to have to happen. I clarify that so that my words are not twisted. I am not saying the ANDSF can beat the Taliban quickly, but that they eventually will—at a very high cost to the civilians in Afghanistan. A cost I am not sure we can fathom – which is why the world must work harder to make this peace negotiation session work.
Comparing the Experiences of the Afghan Security Forces and the Taliban
Some Afghanistan watchers think the Taliban will, either quickly or slowly, take Kabul if the U.S. withdraws all its forces. Those observers seem to downplay that NATO is not signaling they will be leaving even if the U.S. does. Others note that the Taliban actually are nervous about trying to take over any cities and trying to hold them, because they have tried this unsuccessfully a few times since 2001. Some believe the ANDSF will fall apart quickly and others say it will crumble over time as the Taliban continue to pressure them. Those assessing the two forces are often looking at topics like force size, logistics, financial support, weaponry, and other materiel concerns.
I will offer my insights looking at the ANDSF from its creation to its current operations based on discussions I have had with Afghan security leaders and reports from U.S. special operations forces on the ground beside the ANDSF over the last year. While looking at a few of the usual topics in assessing the outcome of a protracted war if peace talks fail, this piece also highlights things often overlooked—morale and international support. In the end, wars come down to morale, or “the will to win.”
Two thoughts from George C. Marshall always sit in the back of my mind when I think about war and peace. First, “It is not enough to fight. It is the spirit which we bring to the fight that decides the issue. It is morale that wins the victory.” The fighting spirit of the ANDSF is intact, and that spirit has their love of country inside it, and the Afghan people behind it. Secondly from Marshall, I never forget that “war is the most terrible tragedy of the human race.” Every nation that has been supporting the Afghan republic should be using every tool at their disposal to end the war in Afghanistan as soon as possible. The Afghan people have suffered enough.
Experiences Matter: The Taliban is Not Well-Rounded
ANDSF experiences as combatants in the war since 2002 compared to the Taliban are a useful place to start. The Taliban experience since the fall of the illegitimate Taliban regime and the 2001 rise of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has been to cowardly murder civilians and fight against security forces often through IEDs, suicide attacks, and assassinations. The Taliban have also ruled though fear and intimidation in the locales they have controlled since 2001. These are not tactics and lessons that create a professional force capable of holding together a nation, or inspiring other citizens. Indeed, the actions of the Taliban since the 1990s has made the majority of the Afghan people despise them. They are in a tough position to be able to inspire loyalty or respect from Afghans. The Taliban are squandering this moment during the current peace talks to earn the trust of the Afghan people.
The ANDSF, on the other hand, have helped their citizens during weather related humanitarian events, protected them from terror attacks, and conducted medical and food aid distribution. The ANDSF has showed its professionalism and avoided overtly political activities during the transition from an interim to an elected government, and through four contentious presidential elections. The ANDSF built its professionalism as they underwent continuous security sector reforms and assisted with reintegration programs to bring former anti-government fighters into society.
The ANDSF proved themselves capable during stand-offs with former mujahedeen-led militias as well as their continuous fight against the Taliban and terrorists. They have stood on the side of the people when rogue governors and militia commanders caused issues for the nation. The ANDSF has endured cross-border attacks from Pakistani Army units, the political whims of now four US presidents, and the unhelpful interference of Iran, Russia and China in the country. On a moments-notice the ANDSF has protected national jirga meetings of Afghan leaders. They have fought to rid itself of corrupt leaders and followed uncomfortable orders during tense prisoner exchanges with the Taliban.
Through all these experiences the ANDSF has learned to respect the population they are sworn to protect, conducted rigorous leadership development programs, sent their leaders abroad to gain education with Afghan partners, and developed the necessary capabilities a military must have to support its infantry. The young Afghan aviation forces have done extremely well in their rapid development. Their air superiority over their enemies will not likely be sapped if the peace talks fail.
The trust that the Afghan people have learned to place in their soldiers is likely one of the most important factors that will determine the outcome of the war if peace does not take hold. The police have further to go to gain trust, but their current reforms are all aimed at that purpose.
The support of the majority of the world will enable the ANDSF to continue to function as necessary even without the presence of international forces. My team recently spoke at a UN development conference on Afghanistan and found that donor nations realize they must also keep sustaining the ANDSF if the development goals are ever going to be reached. NATO also has signaled strongly that they will not be removing their partnership status from the ANDSF even as their forces eventually withdraw. The Taliban may have the support of Pakistan, but that pales in comparison to the nearly 50 nations in the pro-Republic and pro-ANDSF coalition. I expect the air support and intelligence support from the ANDSF’s partner nations will continue to aid them in hunting the Taliban and regional terrorists.
The special operations capabilities of the ANDSF are some of the best in the region, and the Taliban and Pakistan know this. I do not see ANDSF partner nations allowing this capability to decrease in the future. They can likely expect development of a special program of funding/support from outside Afghanistan as peace talks move forward.
The morale of the ANDSF will continue to rise, as it has since 2015 when they fully took the lead in security operation across Afghanistan. The ANDSF as a professional force that is loyal to its people and the republic knows they stand on the side of human rights and freedoms. As long as they play that role, they can expect the continued support of the United Nations, NATO, the OIC and other intergovernmental organizations. The non-governmental organizations that dot the landscape in Afghanistan are also hoping that the ANDSF continues to increase security to enable these NGOs to do their good works in peace. It will be much better for NGOs to be able to carry out their assistance to the Afghan people, than to spend time negotiating deals with the Taliban in order to do business.
If the ANDSF sustains its current force regeneration capability, and recruiting and retention do not drop drastically, they have the manpower and the professionalism to hold their nation together until peace talks (current or future ones) can make a difference. All of the experiences of the ANDSF since 2002 have built it into the most professional force that Afghans have probably ever controlled. The Taliban missed out on two decades of opportunities to grow in professionalism and most importantly to earn respect from the Afghan people. In the end that deficit cannot be overcome by more terrorism and war crimes against Afghan women and children. The Afghan people will choose the victor of this war.
This is not to say the ANDSF is without issues, like every military and police force in the world, there is a lot of room for improvement. Rooting out corruption is still a critical task. Firing weak leaders will make all the difference in the years ahead. Ensuring the soldiers and police are adequately equipped is a task that if ignored will cause a collapse in morale and fighting spirit. Bringing in General Marshall again, “I am interested in the soldier having his pants.” Despite all the flaws of a young security force, the ANDSF is simply a better force and a more beloved force across Afghanistan. They will continue to improve while the Taliban will continue to get more desperate and crueler. In what could be a long war, those actions matter the most.
Peace process watchers and participants must keep the long-term goal in mind—to decrease violence and forge an eventual peace. Few peace negotiations after a war this long, end in success on the first or even second attempts. Eventually one side of the war in Afghanistan will tire of fighting and truly be ready to compromise and build peace. I am of firm belief that the side who tires first will be the Taliban. They cannot fight the ANDSF, who has the majority of the world’s support, forever and Pakistan is economically weakening annually. At some point young men will stop showing up to die for Pakistan’s foreign policy strategy in Afghanistan. The world must continue to support the Afghan people through the ANDSF until the Taliban end their unwinnable war. The Afghan people have suffered enough, the world owes them their best effort to reach peace.
*This column includes some of the findings of a forthcoming co-authored USIP study on the Future of the Afghan Security Sector.