The Taliban: Undefeated, and possibly undefeatable

Trump’s decision to deploy additional troops to Afghanistan will not help defeat the Taliban.

US soldier in Afghanistan
A US soldier mans a gun at the back gate aboard the helicopter carrying US Defense Secretary James Mattis in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017 [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

Just over a week after US President Donald Trump announced the deployment of additional US troops to Afghanistan, US army servicemen in Alaska were already preparing for deployment to the region. The Fourth Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division is to provide at least 1,000 of the 4,000 additional soldiers announced by the president as part of the continuation of the war.

Even as additional troops get ready to deploy, the United States continues to be without a clear plan as to what it is hoping to accomplish, with defence officials at the Pentagon saying that they are “not prepared to move forward” with the president’s plan and that critical planning was “still under way”. In the meantime, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid responded to Trump’s statement by telling him to take US troops back home because “the Taliban could not be defeated.”

It is a smug statement to make, but in the case of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Afghanistan, it could well be true. In March of this year, the group released a report citing how much territory it controlled. According to the report, 211 of Afghanistan’s administrative districts were in the group’s control or were contested. The estimate was not overblown; a comparison with media reports and estimates released (pdf) by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) shows that they estimate contested and Taliban-controlled districts at 171, not very far from the Taliban number. Either way, then, nearly 16 years of US occupation and the expenditure of nearly $840.7bn (at the end of budget year 2018), the Taliban remains undefeated and possibly undefeatable.

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The question of why, however, is not one most Americans or even the war planners seem interested in considering. Some acknowledge the reality that military solutions are not the answer, and yet seem willing to lobby for deployments of additional forces, while blaming past presidents (Obama) and intransigent neighbours (Pakistan). The truth is distant from all of these analytical directions and centres on a complex amalgam of the beliefs and proclivities of the US military and the reality of Afghanistan’s own normal of constant war.

First among these is the fact that 16 years into the war in Afghanistan, US soldiers find it hard to buy into the moral justifications that they are given for their deployment there. Osama bin Laden is dead and the “war on terror” turned out to be a deadly fiasco. What justifies US military presence in Afghanistan now?

The US plan for Afghanistan may not 'be there yet' but the Taliban is there, and tragically for those Afghans who oppose it, it is there to stay.


US soldiers were told that they were the “good guys” showing up in Iraq and Afghanistan to build democracies, create institutions and establish the rule of law.

The reality of Afghanistan is much different. The ensuing gap between the lie told to gear soldiers up for war and the war itself seems ever widening and feeding the doubt and disenchantment of soldiers who have yet to deploy. A president like Trump may rhetorically disavow nation building but he has failed to answer the ensuing question: If the war is no longer to build Afghanistan, then what exactly is it for?

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The generals at the Pentagon and the war bureaucrats in Washington and Kabul will, of course, never acknowledge that the near trillion-dollar price tag of the war in Afghanistan has been for naught. As recently as a year ago, General John Nicholson, the current commander, insisted that “overall our mission in Afghanistan is on a positive trajectory“. In April of this year, Anthony Box, a Department of Defense adviser lent out to the Afghan government, boasted, “citizens trust in Government is an all time high”.

It was an astounding statement to make, given that the United Nations reports that violence against civilians in Afghanistan reached its highest levels in 2016. Statements like these, reveal the proclivity to create artificial advances where no actual ones can be found.

Americans whose jobs and prestige depend on the war’s success do not wish to acknowledge its failures. Similarly, Afghans, who benefit from the war and aid economies created by the influx of billions of dollars, are eager to goad them on, interested in extending their own well-being as the haves in a country of have-nots.

None of it, of course, is a real success in the sense of being locally sustainable once the influx of US cash is gone. Taliban leaders know this, of course, and they also know that other Afghans know this. Unlike American soldiers, unused to the terrain, ignorant of the language and culture and increasingly confused about why they are there at all, the Taliban is adept at framing its fight as the fight for an authentically Islamic and indigenously Afghan homeland.

As a recent study by Yale political scientist Jason Lyall establishes, Afghans have an extremely strong group identity. The consequence of this is that harm inflicted by foreign forces in the country weakened support for those forces and increased support for the Taliban. However, harm inflicted by the Taliban does not translate into increased support for foreign forces. 

This last fact may actually make a complete Taliban victory in Afghanistan even more likely following Trump’s disavowal of nation building as the supposed prerogative for the US presence in the country. Not only will US troops being deployed to the country face an even larger dose of doubt and disillusionment in the face of risking their lives for some murky strategic motive, but Afghans, confronted with a foreign army waging war for the sake of war, will likely flock to the Taliban in even greater numbers. The Taliban, whose recruits know the terrain because it is their own and have long-embraced war as its normal, will be waiting with open arms to welcome them.

The US plan for Afghanistan may not “be there yet” but the Taliban’s is there, and tragically for those Afghans who oppose it, it is there to stay.

Rafia Zakaria is a lawyer and author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan; and Veil.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.