Getting to “Yes” in Afghanistan

A.J. Rosmiller has a great piece in TNR casting doubt on the oft-made assertion that Afghanistan is at some kind of tipping point:

To be at a “critical juncture” implies that one side or the other is poised to decisively gain the upper hand and therefore to win. But the situation in Afghanistan is almost the exact opposite of that. I will likely have my pundit card revoked for saying so–nothing diverts attention like saying that a situation isn’t at a critical turning point–but it’s true. After eight years of fighting, two things seem clear: First, the insurgency does not have the capability to defeat U.S. forces or depose Afghanistan’s central government; and, second, U.S. forces do not have the ability to vanquish the insurgency. It’s true that the Taliban has gained ground in recent months, but, absent a full and immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, it cannot retake sovereign control. This is not to say that Afghanistan isn’t unstable; it clearly is. That has been the case for eight years, however, and, in the absence of some shocking, unforeseen development, it could be true for another eight or 18 or 80 years. An increase of tens of thousands of troops will not change that fact, nor will subtle tactical changes. Rather than teetering on the edge of some imagined precipice, the situation in Afghanistan is at a virtual stalemate.

This then leads to the question of what sort of political accommodation in Afghanistan could end the stalemate on terms that are acceptable to American interests. Spencer Ackerman says breaking the deadlock requires substantial military progress:

The choices at hand would have to be something like (1) beating the shit out of the Taliban until it’s willing to accept a powersharing deal in Province X in exchange for laying down arms; and/or (2) holding out the hope of national powersharing in exchange for laying down arms and/or breaking with al-Q.

I’m not totally sure if this is correct. Suppose we could just maintain the stalemate. Life is uncomfortable for the Taliban and they can’t gain any further ground. But we’re not pouring the resources in to overrun them either. Still, the Afghan government is weak enough that if we withdraw the Taliban stand a decent chance of overrunning the government. But our aid and our training are making the Afghan forces more competent over time. Wouldn’t it make some sense for the Taliban to agree to a power-sharing deal that involves breaking it off with al-Qaeda? Importantly, under that situation it would also make sense for the Afghan government to agree to power-sharing, because if they’re not willing to strike a deal we could just abandon them and strike a deal with the Taliban. One problem with the “fight and win and then deal” scenario is that the better we do against the Taliban the more intransigent our Afghan allies are likely to become.


Further concerns about political accommodation are that it’s hard to know what a verifiable Taliban turn against al-Qaeda would look like, and it’s also hard to know how to square the US government’s purported interest in a reconciliation deal with the practical and rhetorical emphasis put on “winning.”