x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Ten years later, the US is trapped by its view of the Taliban

Admitting defeat without admitting defeat is a new narrative the US must write in Afghanistan, argues Mustafa Alani.

The Taliban leadership believes that the withdrawal of the US-Nato forces, - or their "escape" - from Afghanistan is inevitable, and merely a matter of time. In late December, the US vice president Joe Biden reconfirmed an early promise made by President Barack Obama on the United States' intention to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan by 2014 and said that the process of withdrawal was due to start by mid-2011. "We're starting it in July of 2011 and we're going to be totally out of there, come hell or high water, by 2014," Mr Biden said.

One of the jihadist websites, which is known to reflect Taliban thinking, agreed with Mr Biden's statement that the United States will withdraw from Afghanistan but disagreed with his time estimate. The website told militants that the US is "bleeding heavily, we only need to widen and deepen the wound", and that it cannot sustain the human and financial burden of this war for long, certainly not for another three years. In fact, if the present level of the Taliban "advance" can be sustained, the group believes that the United States will leave Afghanistan much earlier than planned.

The Taliban also disagreed with the second part of Mr Biden's statement, which indicated that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan could be similar to its withdrawal from Iraq. Recalling the agreement the United States had with the Iraqis on a three-year timetable for withdrawal, Mr Biden said that the United States would follow the same process in Afghanistan as it had in Iraq, stressing that the US forces would hand over responsibility to the Afghan government.

However, the Taliban believe that Afghanistan is not Iraq, and what was possible for the United States to achieve in Iraq cannot be duplicated and implemented in Afghanistan. They argue that in Afghanistan the United States will not be able to hand over power to the Karzai government or to any other "puppet government".

The Taliban consider themselves as the only legitimate government in Afghanistan, even though US forces removed them from power in 2001. Legitimacy is not an issue for them as they believe that they "never lost their legitimacy".

On the question of territorial control and the extent of authority, the Taliban claim that at the beginning of 2011, they have control over 80 per cent of Afghanistan's territory. They wish to present the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan is a foregone conclusion.

In fact, it has become extremely difficult for the United States and for the international community to ignore the enduring power and influence of the Taliban inside Afghanistan. The main obstacle facing the US leadership is how to justify the idea of the Taliban's return to power after the immense human and financial cost endured by the people of the United States since 2001. That conflict has been fought with the aim of removing the Taliban from power and establishing a "democratic and secular" regime and to end "the brutality and inhumanity of the medieval Taliban regime".

Ten days after the attacks of September 11, which claimed the lives of 2,973 innocent people, in a speech to the US Congress the then-president George Bush identified al Qa'eda as the organisation responsible for the attack on the US mainland. He then accused the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan of "aiding and abetting" al Qa'eda.

Now, the US administration needs to soften the impact of Taliban's possible return to power. Many US citizens still link, justifiably or unjustifiably, Afghanistan and Taliban with the September 11 attacks. Thus, the US war in Afghanistan is seen as a legitimate war by the great majority of American people. In contrast to the US invasion of Iraq which was considered an illegal and unwarranted war, the Afghan war is seen as a war of necessity and part of the US right for self-defence.

The question is this: can the US administration present its withdrawal from Afghanistan on the basis of it being an "unwinnable war", a war without a clear or assured end and a war of attrition that United States cannot sustain forever?

The administration's policymakers and publicity strategists will be required to heavily edit the final chapter of the US-Afghan story, hoping to present the painful realities as a positive or normal ending. The difficult task ahead will be how one can rationalise defeat without admitting defeat.

Mustafa Alani is a senior adviser for security and defence studies at the Gulf Research Centre