What does ‘winning’ in Afghanistan look like?
How US strategy has slowly shifted in face of growing Taliban confidence
With US attention fixed firmly on domestic issues, on the other side of the world, the country’s longest running war has seen one of its most deadly weeks in years.
Over the past ten days, hundreds of people have been killed in a series of attacks by Taliban fighters on government forces in Afghanistan.
“Taken individually, each development is an embarrassing defeat for the Afghan government and its Western supporters” says Krishnadev Calamur in The Atlantic; “taken together, the setbacks, especially the events in Ghazni, challenge the US and Afghan government’s narrative of progress in the conflict”.
Reports vary as to how much of Afghanistan is now occupied by the Taliban, but according to a BBC study published earlier this year, insurgents remain active in roughly 70% of the country even after 17 years of conflict.
Former Pentagon analyst Michael Maloof on RT quotes one intelligence officer as saying that if the US were to pull its remaining troops, believed to number around 14,000, out of the country, the US-installed government would not last beyond a week.
For its part, the White House remains committed to the strategy set out by Donald Trump last year, when he said “winning” is still the goal.
But underneath the rhetoric a subtle shift is emerging.
“Afghanistan has gone from being a Forgotten war, to the Ignorable one” says CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh. Rather than outright military victory, “instead the onus appears to be on the West engineering a justifiable exit, or a discreet winding-down of the war”.
This has led to what Paton Walsh calls an “absolutely seminal, but almost unpublicised change” that has happened in US policy over the past months: a decision that it is OK to talk directly to the Taliban.
Seventeen years after the 9/11 and the subsequent invasion, and four years after the majority of western-backed troops left the country, it appears the US is finally willing to engage in direct talks with the militant group.
“Now more than ever, for the Taliban action on the battlefield is aimed at political effects as much as military”, says Peter Apps for Reuters.
“This week's assault looks less like an attempt to capture ground and more a deliberate demonstration of the group’s reach and capability, essentially setting the groundwork for negotiations already quietly underway.”
With no obvious military victory in sign and an insurgency growing in confidence, “the White House is correct to focus on a negotiated settlement,” says CNN. “But times have changed. The US and its allies have to be candid that this will not be the “win” on its terms that it hoped for”.