The Reality of Afghanistan
The United States made a decision to withdraw from Afghanistan several years ago. That decision carried with it an inevitable logic. Once the United States resolved itself to leave at any cost, its failures up to that point were laid bare, as were the vulnerabilities of the government it had spent more than a decade building. The door was opened for the enemies of the regime of President Hamid Karzai -- the man who has been synonymous with the post-Taliban government. All that was left to do was wait for the American pullback.
Elements within the U.S. government have not been shy in their criticisms of the Afghan government and the Afghan military as being corrupt and incompetent. Some units have been effective, but it is well known that the Taliban created a program designed to penetrate post-Taliban institutions shortly after those institutions were created. At the most senior level, the Taliban paid, through family members, substantial sums to buy the loyalties of individuals. These bribes worked partly because there was a lot of money involved and partly because people realized that once the United States left, government loyalists would be on their own. This is not a phenomenon unique to Afghanistan -- people would prefer to live, and those in question were hedging their bets.
Separately, there was a significant enlistment of Taliban sympathizers into the incipient Afghan military. This trend was less formal but even more effective. Soon there were Taliban supporters at several levels of the military, something we saw during the wave of unexpected assassinations of NATO personnel by people believed to be loyal to the regime. These are what came to be called green-on-blue attacks.
Therefore, Afghan forces are fundamentally unreliable. Not everyone has to be in contact with the Taliban to render the force unusable; a single person prepared and able to signal planned operations renders any operation either useless or disastrous.
When it created the Afghan force, the United States was extraordinarily lax in monitoring recruitment. Of course, the defense is that most of the trainers had no way to distinguish the loyal from the subversive. This was widely experienced in Vietnam. There was a bartender at a favorite American hangout in Saigon who turned out to have been a colonel in the North Vietnamese Army for years.
But this brings us to one of the most serious U.S. failures in Afghanistan: a cultural contempt for the Taliban. As it did in Vietnam, Washington failed to understand that the absence of U.S.-style bureaucracy and technology didn't mean that the enemy could not identify opportunities or that it lacked the will to take advantage of them.
The Taliban have suffered heavy losses, but in the end what matters on the battlefield is not the absolute size of the force but the correlation of forces. The problem with the Afghan force is that while there are some reliable units, it is impossible to identify them. Moreover, Karzai's ability to cleanse the force of Taliban sympathizers was thwarted by the fact that his own bureaucracy was seen as unreliable. As the United States learned from the South Vietnamese army and the Vietnamization program, the penetration of your force makes your operations ineffective. It gives the enemy insight into your tactical organization and strategic thinking and, most important, it sows uncertainty and distrust.
In a civil war, the viability of the government is not a function of ideas such as legitimacy or international recognition. It is a function of your ability to reliably assert your presence in regions. There are tribes and other groups in Afghanistan that have a high degree of coherence. It is these entities -- not the Afghan government -- that can and will challenge the Taliban. There are a few possible outcomes, including total fragmentation, but the creation of a sustainable national government by the Karzai regime isn't one of them. More important, the United States doesn't believe it is a possibility either.
The American strategic priority is to end the war, leaving some forces to fight al Qaeda but abandoning any attempt to pacify the country. The United States understands that the Karzai government -- or the one that succeeds it -- will be weak and fragmented, but it would prefer that it at least relegate the Taliban to being merely a faction, enabling a transition to occur within the existing framework. The Taliban might well consider this strategy, but the coalition would be a sham. It is unlikely that Karzai could have built a viable force to counter the Taliban. But it is certain that he failed to counter the Taliban. He has no options left, and many of his senior aides know it. They are making their own plans to leave the country or are reaching their own secret accommodations with the Taliban.
I would guess that the United States knows this is going on, but it has no intention of policing Karzai's house. The United States has stated plans to maintain a sizable military presence through 2014, but its ultimate goal is to leave. Washington understands that the Taliban are the single-most powerful force in Afghanistan but also that there are other factions that could block them. However, the United States is not prepared to plunge into the complexities of Afghan politics. Its failures leading up to this moment have left it with no confidence in its ability to do so -- and with no interest in trying.
The U.S. decision to negotiate openly with the Taliban followed more than two years of relatively secret talks. Many issues have already been discussed, and there is an understanding in Washington of the Taliban and what matters to them, and vice versa. When Karzai got upset over the apparent embassy in Qatar, the Taliban lowered the flag. This is highly significant; the Taliban do not want to make it more difficult for the United States to bring Karzai to the negotiating table. Having made their point, they retreated at America's request.
In many ways, the United States is more comfortable with the Taliban than with the other tribes in the country because secret negotiations have left Washington with a better understanding of the Taliban. But Washington's main objective is to leave. It would like to do so gracefully, but graceful or not, it's happening. However, I would argue that the United States believes the Taliban have sufficient coalition partners to wield the most influence in a post-U.S. Afghanistan.
International legitimacy and U.S. recognition are of secondary importance to everyone. What matters is the military reality on the ground. Karzai does not have a reliable force, and soon there will be virtually no U.S. presence in the country. The Karzai regime's fate is sealed. What may be open is the degree to which the Taliban control the country after the U.S. exit, and whether the pretense that there is such a thing as a Karzai government is maintained. The United States will make some cosmetic concessions to Karzai, but there will be no strategic adjustment.
The United States is on its way out. In this negotiation, Karzai is a military cripple. The Taliban are weaker than they were but stronger and more coherent than anyone else in the country. And there are other factions. This is the reality in Afghanistan.