US efforts to rid Afghanistan of Taliban empowered group

January 25, 2021

Refusal to talk peace may have led to more war with the Taliban. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

American leaders’ refusal to make peace with the defeated Taliban after 2001 may have paved the way for its return to power in Afghanistan, a new study argues, challenging earlier conclusions that structural problems made a post-invasion insurgency inevitable.

In fact, the U.S. helped to fan existing ethnic tensions and new political grievances in Afghanistan when it set out to purge members of the Taliban without allowing them to surrender and to incorporate into the new Afghan government, according to the paper, published online on Jan. 14 in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.

This process of “de-Talibanization” appears to have fomented an environment in which the Taliban would thrive as a viable alternative to the new Afghan government, allowing it to secure new recruits and foreign support for its cause, the authors wrote.

Today, with upward of 60,000 members, the Taliban is at the height of its power, leaving new U.S. President Joseph Biden with “bad, worse and terrible options” when it comes to ending the war in Afghanistan, said Tricia Bacon, the lead author of the paper and an associate professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs.

“[Biden] is in a situation without good options, and some of that can be traced to a failure to deal with the Taliban when they were at their weakest,” Bacon told The Academic Times. “We’re not saying this would have been easy right after 9/11, but the deal now will be much, much worse.”

The Taliban was swiftly overthrown by U.S.-backed forces in December 2001, having lost its stronghold in Kandahar just two months after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

Members of the group would mount modest attacks against the new government in the coming years, but it wasn’t until 2005 that the opposition fully mobilized. That year, insurgents launched 155 attacks that killed 367 people, a sudden spike compared to just 38 attacks and 74 fatalities in 2002.

The conflict in Afghanistan, America’s lengthiest war to date, has inspired a range of research digging at structural factors that may have led to the insurgency, but much of this work has neglected events prior to 2005, when the Taliban was on the retreat.

For instance, political scientist Seth Jones had argued that the onset of the Afghan insurgency was due to the political instability left by the Taliban’s removal, as well as the insurgent groups’ apparently strong ideological preference for a Sunni-controlled regime.

Bacon’s paper primarily considers the order in which political events unfolded on the ground, which in turn triggered the outbreak of the 2005 insurgency, remarking that many of the commonly examined factors such as governance and ideology predate the insurgency by several years.

“It’s easy to sort of forget how long it took for the insurgency to develop … It was really unlike Iraq in that way where the insurgency developed really quickly,” Bacon explained. “So there was a period where the Taliban were not willing or unable to engage in organized violence and weren’t willing to get the support from the public so that it could become a more organized insurgency.”

Though they do not dispute prevailing claims about the insurgency, Bacon and her co-author Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, contend that these are “not sufficient explanations” for the insurgency.

“There’s a lot of analysis about whether the [troop] surge succeeded and different things like that, but they tend to be further along in the U.S. experience in Afghanistan,” Bacon said in an interview.

“Part of what precipitated [us] to write this paper was the idea that if there had been some kind of accommodation or deal struck at any time between 2001 and 2005, the Taliban could have been brought into the system in a way that would be much more palatable than anything we would see now,” she added.

To this end, the authors employ a path dependence model, a concept well-established in political science and economics by which later events, in this case the Afghan insurgency, are believed to be highly sensitive to earlier actions taken by actors like the U.S.

The pair also make “claims about events that did not actually occur” in a counterfactual analysis — in this case, accommodating the Taliban’s desire to surrender — to make “plausible” claims that the U.S. could have done something different to affect a new outcome. According to scholars, this method requires that scientists make “minimal rewrites” of history and not inherently render other explanations less likely. 

Counterfactual analyses are considered a useful method of hypothesis testing when the number of possible analyses in a given case is 15 or lower, according to political scientist James Fearon. But this design makes it difficult to draw conclusive findings from the study, especially given the unusual conditions present in Afghanistan.

Both research methods center on a “critical juncture,” a relatively short period in which actors are less constrained by political structures and have more choices than they usually do, while their decisions are more impactful during that time.

This definition fits the circumstances under which the U.S. carried out its de-Talibanization of Afghanistan, when obstacles such as domestic political fissures and aggressive neighbors were “temporarily abated” in the immediate fallout of the Taliban’s removal, the authors write.

The researchers assert that three particular de-Talibanization actions in December 2001 set in motion a series of events that in turn had a causal effect on the 2005 insurgency. These steps were carried out by the U.S. with the express goal of purging the Taliban’s influence in Afghanistan, and that of its affiliate Al-Qaeda.

First, the U.S. excluded the Taliban from the Bonn Agreement, which set up the new Afghan government; then Taliban leaders drafted a letter of surrender, which was reportedly rebuffed by officials such as then-U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney; and finally, the U.S. launched a series of strikes with the help of local warlords in power, incurring civilian casualties.

Together, these events had the effect of pushing the Taliban into friendly territory in Pakistan to regroup while the majority Pashtun population in Afghanistan grew increasingly disaffected with the ethnic minority-controlled government. Eventually, these tensions would lead to increased support for Taliban rule in the country.

The authors noted that the wholesale American rejection of conciliating with the Taliban ran counter to the “Afghan way of war,” in which the losing side is incorporated into the victor’s ranks and offices.

“There was this idea that all Taliban were equally accountable for 9/11 and there wasn’t a way out of the corner,” Bacon explained. “It left them in a situation where their only option, really, was to fight.”

The temporal linkages they found between de-Talibanization and the resurgence of the Taliban, the authors said, suggest that U.S. officials may be “conflating” swift military victories with long-term political victories, or what Bacon calls “ultimate victory.”

“We saw with the Taliban and we saw with the resurgence of ISIS in 2014 that we tend to think that once we’ve won militarily, that’s the end of it,” she said. “It’s not. And we have to add to it this much more political victory dimension.”

“And part of that may be, as was the case with the Taliban, that elements of these groups can be integrated into the system and you can address grievances or avoid grievances that helped these organizations to resurge,” she added.

The paper, “De-Talibanization and the Onset of Insurgency in Afghanistan,” was published online on Jan. 14 by Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. It was authored by Tricia Bacon, an associate professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs and a former foreign affairs officer for the U.S. State Department, and Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and a former professional staff member of the U.S. 9/11 Commission. 

This story has been updated to correct Tricia Bacon’s position.

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