The New York Times reported Sunday that the C.I.A. broadened its Afghanistan mission from hunting al-Qaida and developing Afghan intelligence capability to fighting the Taliban. The piece explained the significance best:
“The C.I.A. has traditionally been resistant to an open-ended campaign against the Taliban, the primary militant group in Afghanistan, believing it was a waste of the agency’s time and money and would put officers at greater risk as they embark more frequently on missions.”
The CIA has a complex history in Afghanistan. From 1979 to 1989, it provided weapons and financial assistance to Islamic fighters with ties to Pakistan during Operation Cyclone. The program was portrayed in the 2007 film Charlie Wilson’s War starring Tom Hanks.
After the Islamic fighters, or mujahideen (literally those who commit jihad), defeated the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan in 1992, the C.I.A. mostly abandoned the country until the 2001 invasion in retaliation for the al-Qaida terrorist attacks on September 11th.
With the help of a handful of special operations troops, the C.I.A. allied itself with a group of fighters in Afghanistan called “The Northern Alliance,” to overthrow the Taliban government. The Pakistan-backed Taliban took power in 1996 after a bloody civil war as a partial result of the C.I.A.’s involvement in the 1980s.
Then, the C.I.A. let the conventional military begin what has become known as the forever war: dozens of rotations of military officers and units fighting in 6-14 month deployments in Afghanistan with less than ideal continuity between them. After a decade and a half of this, with troop numbers ranging from a few thousand to 100 thousand, the Taliban implausibly controls more territory now than it has since 2001.
But now under the leadership of Director Mike Pompeo, the former Congressional Representative from Kansas, appointed by Trump, the C.I.A. is back in the Taliban fighting game.
Pompeo is not known for his wisdom or restraint. As a Congressman, he said many foolish things on national security. Whether he was making the point that saying the words “radical Islamic terrorism” was the key to our success overseas, or lying about the support of American Muslims for domestic terrorists, he developed a reputation for deplorable brashness.
Most recently, he was caught boldly lying about the agency’s conclusions on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and saying the C.I.A., shamed by revelations of torture in the past decade, should be “more vicious.”
So, the agency’s counter-terrorism direction under Pompeo may not come as a surprise to some. But it is important to understand that whether the C.I.A. kills more Taliban or not, clandestinely killing militants is not a strategy. The United States and Afghanistan governments both plan on fighting Taliban years from now.
If the U.S. wants to bring peace to Afghanistan — a prospect it pays lip service to, but there are few signs this is a true policy objective — the only way forward is via political settlement with the Taliban. Merely doing away with deadlines to signal to the Taliban that they cannot wait the U.S. out, as the top general in Afghanistan recently told NPR, will not work.
The U.S. cannot wait out the Taliban. Endlessly prolonging combat is not a strategy to defeat the Taliban, let alone bring peace to Afghanistan. Yet, the only public strategy from U.S. officials is: stay forever, kill terrorists (and Taliban). The Taliban are not considered terrorists under the State Departments Foreign Terrorist Organization list, but the distinction seems moot at the moment since they are getting the same treatment.
To bring peace to Afghanistan, the Taliban must be invited into the political process. They will not stop attacking coalition forces — whom they consider foreign “invaders” and “crusaders” — or the U.S.-backed government in Kabul until they have a political stake in it.
A model for this kind of absorption of an armed insurgency into the government as a political party exists in South Africa, Lebanon, Kosovo, and Northern Ireland, among others. The Taliban is unlikely to come to the bargaining table while the C.I.A. are on patrols killing their fighters. After all, killing Afghan soldiers and C.I.A. officers has been much more effective for them so far.
Taliban control districts remain unchanged from last year, despite troop increases and heavier C.I.A. involvement. Additionally, Afghan soldiers and police are dying by the thousands. At least 6,785 Afghan soldiers and police died in 2016 and in 2017 casualties remain “shockingly high” according to the United Nations.
However badly the U.S. is performing in Afghanistan, its leaders — some elected by the American people, the rest appointed by those elected — continue to fight on aimlessly overseas. As the New York Times Editorial Board quoted retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich on Sunday, “A collective indifference to war has become an emblem of contemporary America.”