An Eroding Stalemate
Recently, I updated you on current developments in both the War in Afghanistan as well as the ongoing War against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. As you know, the Taliban are launching a last, major offensive against Coalition Forces in the western part of Afghanistan. They are poised to take the provincial capital of Helmand Province, Lashkar Gah, and they are laying siege to Afghan forces in Farah. They have also entered Kunduz. Obama Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have stated their belief that Afghanistan is all but lost, describing the war as being in an “eroding stalemate” in America’s disfavor. Meanwhile, in a strategy eerily reminiscent of the Eisenhower-Kennedy troop buildup in Vietnam, the U.S. slowly drips in more and more forces into Iraq to assist the Iraqis in pushing out the Islamic State from their country. Indeed, the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are methodically retaking one of the last major IS stronghold in Iraq, Mosul, the city of more than a million people. The fight is going slowly but well. Yet, much of the territory that the Peshmerga have retaken has been vacated by the Islamic State, bringing into question how much of a serious wound the territorial loss will have on the Islamic State in general. In fact, most believe that once Mosul falls, the majority of IS fighters in Iraq will simply return to fighting in Syria.
Between the Taliban and the Islamic State, their modus operandi is quite similar: when not under pressure they expand territorially. When placed under pressure, they shift their territorial center of gravity (into Pakistan for the Taliban and Syria for IS) and begin taking on the aspects of a more traditional guerrilla force. As such, I believe the Obama Administration’s unnamed officials are completely accurate in their grim assessment of the conflict, not just in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq: the U.S. is on the wrong side of an “eroding stalemate.” This will continue to be the case until U.S. policymakers realize that the real fight is not over territory or even in the kinetic realm. Rather, the real war that must be won is the war of ideas and the battle of perceptions. Right now, the United States is horribly losing this conflict.
The Lilliputians Tie Gulliver Down
The metrics that define success in the Global War on Terror for the Obama Administration are flawed. Although the Islamic State is a territorial terrorist organization, the constant drumbeat from Administration officials citing the increasing percent of territory that IS has lost is an insufficient barometer for defining victory over them. The fact is, even if IS were to lose 100% of its Iraqi territorial holdings, they would still exist on the other side of the border in the morass of sectarian violence that is Syria (not to mention their global reach). In fact, in many cases, as soon as Islamic State fighters cross into Syria, they stand a good chance of receiving some form of support from Coalition forces seeking to oust Bashar al-Assad from power. These IS fighters then turn around and begin terrorizing the very same groups in Iraq that we have been fighting to protect–only with our weapons, funding, and in some cases, training! They also turn around and disperse to other parts of the region (and throughout the world) to destabilize and create more enclaves for themselves. Thus, the slow-going attempt to retake Mosul in Iraq, while an important tactical move in the overall war against IS, will be insufficient on a strategic level in defeating the terrorist organization.
Likewise, in Afghanistan, the Administration’s attempt to provide just enough support in order to build Afghanistan’s indigenous capacity to secure, hold, and build their country on their own is a truly byzantine undertaking, requiring herculean efforts on the part of the U.S.-led coalition. Thus far, the commitments made have not been up-to-snuff. Indeed, the very fact that the American people have been balking at what’s already been committed to Afghanistan these past fifteen years indicates that such an attempt to clear-build-hold with Afghan National Forces is unworkable. We’ve already committed almost $1 trillion in fifteen years and have very little to show for it. The gains that have been made have been at great cost to American warfighters–and that was when U.S. forces were nearly double the size of what they currently are in Afghanistan. The Taliban have an old saying, “You [Americans] have all of the watches, but we [Taliban] have all of the time.” This is truly poignant, since the Afghans understood a fundamental flaw in American war planning: we are conditioned to fight big, short wars with conclusive results. The Taliban are designed to fight small, protracted wars where the goal was simply to prevent their larger, more conventional foes from being able to declare victory. In so doing, the Taliban and their allies were able to bog their enemies down and pick away at them, not unlike the Lilliputians did to Gulliver in Gulliver’s Travels.
Think about it: in 2001, the United States had a history-making victory in Afghanistan. In just a handful of months, thanks to America’s highly integrated way of war, a handful of CIA paramilitary guys and Special Forces teams combined with indigenous Afghan fighters to topple the ruling Taliban and push back al Qaeda. But, after those initial victories in 2001-02, what happened? The U.S. stayed in place. A new national government was founded that exercised nominal control over part of the country, leaving the rest along the Pakistan border to effectively fend for itself. And, despite all of the victories, the Taliban simply repositioned itself along with al Qaeda across the border in Pakistan, where it knew that neither the Pakistani government nor the Coalition forces would venture into the untamed region in force (this area is like America’s Old Wild West). The region they settled in was in the Pakistan frontier known as the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). Nobody exercised any real control in this region other than the ancient tribes that had existed there even before the state of Pakistan was founded. Indeed, the Pashtun are a considerable tribe in that region that holds significant political clout there. This is the tribe that most Taliban fighters are from. In many respects, the Taliban are essentially a Pashtun liberation movement. While the U.S. and NATO sent increasing levels of troops into Afghanistan, the bulk of the Taliban and al Qaeda had uprooted into Pakistan. Once there, they were able to rehabilitate their forces and rebuild, all the meanwhile harrying American forces attempting to stabilize Afghanistan.
When the Bush Administration invaded Iraq in 2003, the American war effort in Afghanistan faltered. Because key resources were transferred to fight in Iraq, the War in Afghanistan has never really recovered. It’s just been in a permanent stalemate between the two sides, with the U.S. losing the all-important initiative as political reality in the U.S. changed. It was during this period that the Taliban began making serious plans to reinsert themselves into Afghanistan. By the time that the Obama Administration came into power in 2009, a major reorientation of U.S. policy was made that shifted resources away from the dwindling fight in Iraq back to Afghanistan. Yet, unlike his predecessor, President Obama did not feel compelled to give the military free reign in their desire to have a surge in Afghanistan. So, the U.S. military was limited on where it could go and what it could do.
In 2009, then-U.S. commander General Stanley McChrystal wanted 60,000-80,000 troops to tackle the Taliban in both southern and eastern Afghanistan, but he was hamstrung, and only given half of his requested force. This meant that, rather than focusing on both areas in the most efficient way possible, McChrystal had to pick one area and defeat the insurgency there before moving on to the next. Under McChrystal’s command, the military was successful. They cleared, built, and held the areas they wished to control. However, as was soon determined, they weren’t defeating the Taliban and their allies, so much as they were forcing them out of one region and into a less controlled one. As the Coalition forces pacified the south, for instance, the east remained a hotly contested zone. So, when the U.S. believed it had stabilized one side of Afghanistan and began focusing on the other, the Taliban and their allies simply packed up and switched back over to the recently stabilized portion of Afghanistan and destabilized it yet again.
This back-and-forth has occurred ever since. In fact, since 2011, the U.S. has been slowly drawing its force levels down and severely limiting what its remaining forces are able to do in Afghanistan. This has had the cumulative effect of reaffirming the Taliban position that the U.S. is not committed to defeating them. As such, the Taliban believe all that they have to do is wait the U.S. out. As a matter of course, even as the Taliban launch this audacious offensive in the western portion of the country, the U.S. continues its drawdown in Afghanistan unabated (going from 9,800 remaining troops to 8,400 with additional forces set to return home thereafter). This is a terrible sign to send to our besieged Afghan allies, as it will only encourage them to fight with less resolve, and it will prompt many Afghans to switch sides. What is needed is a surge of U.S. forces into Afghanistan aimed at not only stabilizing the Afghan frontier, but also at expanding the larger war into the Af-Pak region. Regardless of whether the Pakistanis approve of such an action, the only resolution to this conflict is to inflict debilitating losses on the Taliban and al Qaeda elements that are protected in Pakistan.
Similarly in Iraq, the solution to the problem lies not in simply pushing back the Islamic State from its Iraqi territorial holdings (though that is an important aspect of the strategy). Rather, the real solution to the problem lies in Syria. The U.S. must work with all interested parties (including the Russians) in creating an amicable political deal that respects the wishes of groups (like the ruling Alawites), yet still affirms America’s commitment to Human Rights. It must do so by settling the dispute in a way that appeases the groups currently rebelling against Assad’s vengeful rule. America must then pivot, with the interested parties in Syria, into utterly eradicating the Islamic State within Syria. Until the Syrian Civil War is resolved, however, the Islamic State will always have a place of refuge. And, until the refugee crisis is stemmed in Europe, until the U.S. shuts down the Cyber Caliphate, and until domestic security services can completely tamp down on the spread of IS attacks globally, the Islamic State in particular will continue to plague us. But, the crux of the issue lies in Syria.
So, keep this in mind when you hear the Obama Administration tout its supposed successes in the ongoing War on Terrorism. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, we have missed the larger picture. That is the stateless nature of these groups and their ability to morph and adapt in order to survive in a fluid situation. When the time allows for it, both the Taliban and the Islamic State take and hold territory. When the time isn’t right, they take on the makeup of a traditional guerrilla force and become a stateless insurgency. Remember, Jihadist doctrine disallows for the recognition of existing state borders in the Islamic world. As such, groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic State do not respect the territorial boundaries of the states in which they operate. These groups will gladly use porous borders between their areas of operation and neighboring states as a means of keeping their organizations alive to fight another day (of their choosing).
There is a way to win this fight, but it won’t be easy. In much the same way that 80% of the stock market’s success is predicated on consumer confidence, 80% of beating terrorism revolves around defeating the terrorists in the arena of perception. The United States has been supremely efficient in killing bad guys these fifteen years. In fact, the U.S. military and the intelligence services have a truly impressive track record when it comes to killing terrorists globally. Yet, Jihadists are more dangerous and more widespread than they have been at any other point in the war. Why is that? A large reason is due to the fact that the Jihadists are perceived to be defeating the West. The area of Public Diplomacy has been totally ceded to groups like the Islamic State. It’s how they’re able to convince Western-born and/or raised young people to join in their Jihad. The pinprick method that the Obama Administration has taken in “defeating” IS, while it has done damage since 2014, has in no way been decisive from a strategic viewpoint. Quite the contrary, the slow drip of U.S. forces into the fight has given the appearance that, despite the force of the U.S. military having been brought to bear, the Islamic State has managed to withstand the onslaught. This, coupled with the Islamic State’s rhetoric about being the vanguard of the final Jihad in history (and taking religiously significant territory in the Greater Levant), has only led to the perception that the Islamic State’s victory over the West is inevitable.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, a similar issue has arisen with the Taliban. While nowhere near as popular in the Islamic World as the Islamic State is, the Taliban have managed to feed off of the perception that theirs is an existential battle for Islam; they have managed to be perceived as the force that will remain in Afghanistan as the one constant: whereas the Americans will eventually pack up and return home, the Taliban–the Pashtun–will remain. Their wait-and-see approach to insurgency from across the Pakistani border has only encouraged the illusion that they are invincible. More important to the Afghan context, they have fostered the notion that they are the more powerful horse in the fight. As such, fence-sitting tribal leaders who once swore fealty to the United States no longer believe in America’s staying power. Consequently, they have begun making their own deals with the Taliban in order to ensure their place in the coming postwar Taliban order in Afghanistan.
In both cases, foreign backers must be prevented from lending aid to these groups. So, in the case of the Taliban, Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence bureau must be stopped from granting protection to the Taliban. Likewise, groups like Turkey and Saudi Arabia must be prevented from lending aid to the Islamic State. Also, the U.S. must strengthen its coalition fighting the Islamic State to include state action against the ideology driving the Islamic State. For, it is easy to kill a Jihadist. However, defeating Jihadism is far more complex. It will require less kinetic military engagement and more effective engagement in the arena of ideas. This is the one place that American policymakers have abandoned since the end of the Cold War.
The United States has indeed found itself in an eroding stalemate in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In the former country, the Taliban will have control over most of Afghanistan within the next couple of years, should the U.S. continue operating as it has under the Obama Administration. As such, the Taliban will have defeated the United States entirely. For the latter country, so long as Syria remains unstable, Iraq will continue to be threatened by the Islamic State. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. failed to understand that the North Vietnamese viewed their conflict as the Indochina War. Because of this, American forces never fully appreciated how the Vietnamese would fight: by using Cambodia and Laos as extraterritorial bases of operation from which to conduct their devastating attacks upon the boxed-in Americans in South Vietnam.
This is doubly true for Americans fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Until we acknowledge the stateless nature of these organizations, we will continue to be on the losing side of an eroding stalemate, no matter how much territory we take from either the Taliban or the Islamic State.