Even with the surge of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the coalition’s position continues to erode as the Taliban gain strength. Ahead of the July 2011 date to start pulling troops out of Afghanistan, the Obama administration approaches a strategic review of the war in December and will have to decide whether to maintain course or change direction. Meanwhile, American public support for the war is waning.

Just back from another trip to Afghanistan, Gilles Dorronsoro details in a Q&A the deteriorating security situation on the ground in Afghanistan, analyzes U.S. strategy, and makes the case for negotiations with the insurgency. Dorronsoro argues that Washington’s approach is failing and talking with the Taliban—through the Pakistani military establishment—is the least-bad option available. The best hope for exiting the war is to Afghanize the conflict and establish a coalition government that includes Taliban leaders.


How is the situation changing on the ground?

Security in Afghanistan is clearly deteriorating. When I arrived in Afghanistan this summer, I didn’t anticipate a major change in the safety conditions since my last trip in April. Even with the surge of U.S. troops, I expected things to have stayed mainly the same within the short window of time between trips. I was wrong. There was a palpable regression.

The conditions have only gotten worse since the new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy was rolled out. While the coalition is talking about progress in a few districts, the general picture is quite different.

In Helmand, where the coalition has used its best troops, progress will take at least five years to materialize, according to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, James T. Conway. With an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign in Marja, coalition troops have been working to suppress the local insurgency. But months after the offensive started, Marja remains unstable and insecure. The lack of progress in Helmand delayed plans to move onto Kandahar, the second largest city in Afghanistan, and forced the United States to rethink its ambitious agenda.

Operations in Kandahar will be even more difficult because the insurgents enjoy strong popular support west of the city and this is where the most severe fights will take place in the next few months. The fighting is currently strongest in a small district north of Kandahar city where there are a series of military bases. While this is a strategically important location for controlling the city, U.S. forces have been unable to extend control beyond their bases—it takes hours to go just hundreds of meters outside on patrol. And they have failed to build a local militia or strong ties with influential people. The Taliban are too powerful in the south to defeat.

Things are also going badly in the north. The Taliban are in charge in many places and, even where they are not, the Afghan government has no real support. Of course it’s not a situation where areas wholly support the government or the Taliban, it’s more complicated than that as there are locations with local commanders who are not dependent on Kabul.

In the east, the United States is trying to implement a political strategy, but these efforts are unlikely to change the course of the entire struggle. Special forces have been able to build a tribal shura, or leadership council, in the Chamkani district in the east and according to early indications this has been received positively. While it’s too early to tell how these efforts will progress, minor progress in the east won’t have any concrete impact on the overall direction of the war itself.


How strong are the Taliban?

The Taliban are trying to take the fight to every part of Afghanistan and are successfully gaining control as the group becomes more of a national movement. The strategy is working as the conflict spreads across the country. Without many more troops than would ever be feasible for the United States or NATO to supply, the coalition will be unable to face all the threats at once, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to gain a tactical success in a single location that could have wider tangible implications for the war. The progress of the insurgency is now irreversible as the Afghan government is too weak to roll back the insurgents.

The presence of the Taliban can even be felt in Kabul. They are progressively surrounding the capital and tightening their control in adjacent areas. With the center of the city remaining safe, even to foreigners, there are fewer and fewer places outside the city that are reachable by car. The Taliban have placed checkpoints on the roads out of Kabul in the north and south. It’s dangerous to drive as government employees risk being killed and foreigners are in danger of being captured. The isolation of Kabul is putting further strain on the government and coalition as they cannot easily travel outside the capital.

In the south, the Taliban are successfully holding their ground with low levels of casualties in Kandahar and Helmand, despite concerted American campaigns. And the Taliban have successfully discouraged local partners from working with the coalition.

In essence, the Taliban are building a shadow state. Right now, the Taliban are the only effective force in many areas. The services provided are limited, but efficient. A clear indication is that international nongovernmental organizations are beginning to deal directly with the Taliban as they need their support to operate effectively. The process has become so formalized, for example, that international groups can now expect to receive a paper that is stamped and sealed by the Taliban to work in some Taliban-controlled areas.


How important are the parliamentary elections in September?

The parliamentary elections scheduled for September will in many ways be a rerun of last year’s presidential campaign. The political process will be extremely corrupt and the international community won’t be able to monitor the election on the ground. President Karzai will marginalize progressives and use the elections for his own political gain.

Still, the elections will not be a major development in determining Afghanistan’s fate. Karzai is increasingly going around parliament and through a jirga—a tribal gathering of leaders—to establish new policies. If Karzai wants to do something, he simply marginalizes the parliament.


Is the current U.S. strategy on course? Did the influx of U.S. troops change the war?

The United States has a failing strategy in Afghanistan. Since last year there has not been one serious element of progress and the situation will not improve without a strategic recalculation.

Washington wants to weaken the Taliban by beefing up the counterinsurgency campaign to the point where the Taliban will be forced to ask for amnesty and join the government. But the Taliban are growing stronger and there are no indications that U.S. efforts can defeat the insurgents.

So far, additional troops have not translated into a tactical victory. Despite arguments to the contrary, the higher levels of casualties in the coalition do not equal progress on the ground. The coalition has not been successful in Marjah and is fighting without clear political objectives in Kandahar because it’s not able to reform the local administration. The idea that the coalition can win the hearts and minds of the people is too optimistic without concrete results. And even if the situations in Kandahar and Marjah improve—two big ifs—the Taliban will remain a strong movement across Afghanistan, while the United States would have to use a large portion of its forces just to hold them.

Complementing the additional forces was a civilian surge. The idea behind providing more money for development was that it would improve the lives of the local population and marginalize the Taliban. The concept, however, is not proven as there is no empirical data to support the theory.

It’s quite the opposite in fact. When billions of dollars are dumped into the local economy, it destabilizes the population and society. The provincial reconstruction team poured $80-90 million into Kunar province in east Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009, but the local economy wasn’t able to absorb the cash. It fed corruption and reinforced a war economy where beneficiaries are interested in perpetuating a low level of conflict.

In a year, the Taliban will not disappear as a political force or even be weakened militarily—the longer it takes for negotiations to begin, the harder it will be for the coalition to carry out the best possible exit strategy. Negotiations are the least bad option.


Has the arrival of General Petraeus altered the U.S. war strategy? Will the policies be rethought this year?

General Petraeus has not yet fundamentally changed U.S. strategy, but he wants to change the rules of engagement slightly so U.S. forces will be less restricted and more able to respond to the Taliban attacks.

Petraeus wants time to implement the counterinsurgency tactics and win the war. Debate over the future of the war will liven in the run-up to the December review by the Obama administration. The evaluation of U.S. strategy, however, will be about politics, not about the situation on the ground. All sides will try to manipulate public opinion. At the end of the day, President Obama will essentially have two possibilities—he can either maintain the current course or begin negotiating with the insurgents.

Advocates of a continued push will argue that only now are the resources in place for the counterinsurgency strategy to be effectively carried out and more time is needed to assess results. But this line of reasoning ignores reality that the strategy has already failed on the ground and there is no evidence that the situation can be reversed in strategically decisive ways. This is dangerous because the Taliban are less likely to talk in a year.

Moreover, the growing strength of the insurgency, combined with the withdrawal of Canadian and Dutch forces, means that reinforcements will be needed in the next few years. Not only will the United States not be able to begin a withdrawal next summer, but more troops will be needed just to slow the Taliban’s forward momentum.

Instead, the White House can take the situation into its own hands and admit that the American-led coalition is not going to win the war. Recognizing the deteriorating conditions, the United States can lead the effort to negotiate with the Taliban through the Pakistani military.


How should the United States shift its current policy?

While the interest in a calm, secure, and stable Afghanistan is widespread, the longer the United States waits to begin negotiations the smaller chance they will have to succeed. The United States needs to Afghanize the war. Instead of a global war pitting the United States against jihadis, the future needs to be in the hands of Afghans and only then will they find local solutions to the war.

The way forward is apparent. In the coming months, the American-led coalition needs to declare a ceasefire and begin talking to the Taliban. While negotiations could be an extremely long and fraught process, the sooner they begin the more likely they are to achieve results.

Negotiations must include the United States, Taliban, Pakistani military, and members of the Afghan government and Northern Alliance. It needs to be relatively small at first as bringing in too many regional powers would only complicate negotiations.

The idea of negotiating only through President Karzai is not a good idea. He is both too weak and surrounded by influential advisers who oppose the United States. He is no longer a partner of Washington and it would be irresponsible to leave the talks in his hands. Plus, neither the Taliban nor Pakistan wants to negotiate with Karzai because he can’t deliver results. The United States must play a leading role as it would be dangerous not to.

The talks will need to establish a coalition government in Kabul—that includes Taliban leaders—and security guarantees for the Western alliance that al-Qaeda will not return and use Afghanistan as a base to mount terrorist attacks abroad. As negotiations proceed, there will need to be a political agreement detailing the withdrawal of coalition forces. Ideally, 10,000-20,000 troops will stay in the country to defend against external threats, but this would depend on how the talks are going.

After a broad-based government is set up, a larger international conference will be needed to garner global support for the new body. This certainly must include India, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.  It could perhaps be under the auspice of the UN, which might provide some of the important outside powers more incentive to cooperate than if the United States were driving it alone.

If the United States starts now, it can work. If the international community waits too long, the Taliban will be too strong and will be unwilling to make concessions.


What role is Pakistan playing in the war in Afghanistan? Can the United States trust the Pakistani government and military?

It’s clear that the Pakistanis are still supporting the Taliban. This was known well before WikiLeaks disclosed secret documents detailing supposed links between the Pakistani military and Taliban. 

In February, the Taliban’s operational commander, Abdul Ghani Baradar, was arrested in Karachi. As the second-ranking Taliban official after Mullah Muhammad Omar, the arrest was heralded as Islamabad’s new devotion to eradicating the Taliban and fighting terrorism. But the arrest was not a change in strategy, it was designed to cut off secret peace talks between Kabul and Baradar that left out Pakistan. The Taliban’s connections with the Pakistani military persist.

U.S. policy on Pakistan, however, is disconnected from reality. Washington continues to funnel money to the Pakistani government to move against the Afghan Taliban—but this is yesterday’s policy. It’s far too late for the Pakistani army to reverse course. And even if Washington got what it wanted and high-level Taliban leaders were arrested, it would not kill the insurgency. The Taliban are too strong and the remaining players in Afghanistan will refuse to negotiate.

In fact, if Islamabad loses influence over the Afghan Taliban, it will be a loss for Washington. Instead of trying to disconnect the Pakistani government from the Taliban, the United States should use the links to start talking. The United States must start using the situation to its own advantage.