Trump's Afghan Troop Withdrawal Is a Gift to the Taliban

The U.S. and its allies have been at war against the Afghan Taliban for nearly two decades, and still understand the enemy so poorly that they can’t decide if “Taliban” is singular or plural. Either way, the insurgent group is riding high, ratcheting up violent attacks even as it strings along the Kabul government and Washington in negotiating a truce.

Now President Donald Trump, on his way out the door, can’t leave bad enough alone. His administration’s announcement that it intends to withdraw 2,500 of the 4,500 U.S. forces still in the country follows a long pattern, begun under President Barack Obama, of not just getting Americans out of harm’s way but also telling the Taliban exactly how and when it will be done.

Callous political calculation? Or did successive presidential administrations just not understand the enemy?

I found someone who does: Austin L. Wright, a co-author of a fascinating working paper called “The Logic of Insurgent Electoral Violence.” (Confession: I skipped over the math parts.) Wright is an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and an associate at the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts, which sounds like it must have great holiday parties. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our chat:

Tobin Harshaw: Before we get to Trump’s troop withdrawals and how that may complicate things for the Joe Biden administration, maybe we want to talk a little more generally. You’ve written about how non-state actors can act strategically like actual nation-states. Can you explain what you mean in a nutshell?

Austin L. Wright: For a long time, there's been a misconception that the individuals and organizations that participate in armed rebellion and political violence are irrational. That they are unorganized and live hand to mouth in terms of resources and funding. And that the strategies or the tactics that they use are erratic.

This turns out to be almost completely wrong in the case of most modern insurgencies. Most of these actors engage in very deliberate planning on how to tax and generate revenue from the civilian population. They know how to extract resources from areas where they operate, which allows them to provide public services and of course fund military operations.

Insurgent groups aim eventually to influence policy by influencing the government itself. This separates them from terrorists, who typically don't have territorial ambitions. Most of my work is trying to use data to look into the strategies insurgents use — what are the various tactics that they deploy in the field?

TH: So the Islamic State is aptly named, to some extent.

ALW: Exactly. The names of ISIS or ISIL are a very deliberate representation of their aspirations. For two reasons. The first is statehood, their actual goal. But it also serves a broader messaging purpose: It signals an intent to rule, which is useful even when the state itself is gone. They are able to attract fighters from around the world, to engage in some pretty sophisticated propaganda.

TH: Let's talk about the Taliban more specifically. In what ways did they take on these state-like functions of taxation and regulation?

ALW: It's important to remember — and I think a lot of people have forgotten — that the Taliban were the government of Afghanistan. They weren't the government for a long time and they weren't actually particularly effective. But they have a very well-established set of bureaucracies.

TH: Such as?

ALW: They have shadow governors in the provinces; they run a sort of separate political system that operates behind the actual Afghan government’s system. They have Islamic courts across the country — which are actually one of the more popular things that they do, helping to resolve local disputes by bypassing the government’s courts.

They engage in a substantial amount of taxation to fund those fairly sophisticated institutions. The revenue comes from the general public, especially opium farmers, as well as from traffickers who pay for protection and move opium and other illegally gotten assets out of the country. They also get taxes from other sources like the trade in timber and some precious metals and stones.

TH: Initially after the 2001 invasion, the U.S. and its allies said they were going to make a big effort to stop the poppy growing and the opium trade. Did that effort fail?

ALW: I think “fail” is putting it mildly. If you look historically at overall production levels, they started declining in the late 1990s and early 2000s, during the Taliban government. Since then, aggregate production has been skyrocketing.

There was some discussion in the early years of something like the “Plan Colombia” approach, which involved massive aerial eradication — in Colombia that was coca. In Afghanistan, there was a substantial amount of pushback because of health concerns about those chemicals. The alternative was field eradication — sending teams out to literally chop down the plants — which is how it's still done now. As you might imagine, both the civilians who rely on this crop for their livelihoods, as well as the Taliban who rely on it for revenue, don't exactly take kindly to this.

TH: After the killing of Osama bin Laden, Hillary Clinton boasted that the message to the Taliban was, “You cannot wait us out, you cannot defeat us.” What did you think when you heard that?

ALW: It was just not true. The U.S. was not going to maintain surge-level troops in Afghanistan indefinitely. When the bin Laden raid was happening, troop levels in Afghanistan were incredibly high, about 100,000. But the Obama administration and the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul, as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization broadly, had already committed to a timeline for withdrawal. That timeline was literally a playbook the Taliban needed to follow to wait out NATO, and eventually to overrun the Afghan government.

TH: So you and your colleagues looked at data from more granular sources like the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. What did you find?

ALW: In our paper, we wanted to investigate whether this handover was effective. Did it reduce violence?

There were actually quite a few reasons to think that going from coalition forces, who were targets for political reasons, to local Afghans providing security might be more effective. The Afghans know the field better, they can better connect with civilians and maybe they can get them to cooperate more easily. It's not a foreign occupation or a foreign operation anymore; it's just local actors.

That secure transition, which Clinton said the Taliban couldn't wait out, came in phases. The first, beginning in 2011-2012, was a handover in operational control — that is, in military control and who's leading the operations. This was staggered over five waves in different districts. After the first phase, we saw a significant reduction in the violence, which could be an initial sign that local actors are more effective than some expected.

TH: Wishful thinking?

ALW: Yes, there's a second phase, which is the actual physical withdrawal of the U.S. and allied troops. Over the following months and years, into 2013-2014, they leave and the bases get shut down. And then we find a huge surge in violence. The Taliban knew the schedule, and were strategically responding to the state of the war as they could see it in the field.  

For the U.S. and NATO, once the physical withdrawal occurred, the costs of re-intervening would have been extremely high, because you have to redeploy all the forces, manage the logistics of rebuilding infrastructure — it’s very, very costly. Once the coalition had withdrawn, the Taliban could ratchet up violence. And that's exactly what the data we found told us they did.

TH: Let's jump to the present day. Trump has ordered a drawdown of as many as 2,500 troops from the 4,500 or so still there. Either way, it’s a very small number of troops compared to the hundreds of thousands once there. Is drawing out half of that tiny group really going to have an effect on the ground?

ALW: I think it will. There's a reason this move came only after Defense Secretary Mark Esper was fired. If you had to choose the worst possible time to withdraw forces, it would be when you haven't finished negotiating and implementing the final peace deal. You are giving up leverage in the bargaining against the Taliban in a few different ways.

One is that those 4,500 troops are working to enhance the security of the Afghan government — and thus ultimately of the international community — by supporting missions and operations and training. There's a reason why American taxpayers are paying for them to be there, and why they're putting their lives on the line.

So they serve a purpose operationally, but also from the bargaining side, by signaling the U.S. commitment to support the government of Afghanistan during this shift. A negotiated settlement that's welfare-enhancing is a good thing. The way to establish and maintain that kind of peace deal is when all sides recognize the commitment that each side is willing to make. If one side begins to back away before the deal is done, especially if they're doing it along a clearly political timeline, it matters.

TH: After Trump made the announcement on the troop withdrawal, the Taliban acted very much like a state, warning Biden not to reverse it. If you were advising the president-elect, what would you recommend he do?

ALW: Ultimately, it depends on whether or not Trump’s directive is implemented. If half the remaining troops are gone, then I think the best advice is to find other ways to signal U.S. commitment to the Afghan government. If a small-scale troop surge would risk the potential of the peace deal falling apart, then we could trying to re-establish a stronger civilian presence. This could include making sure that reconstruction projects are being put in the field, that they're supported by American engineers, that they’re supported by American advisers.

That could be seen, by both the Afghan government and the Taliban, as a symbol of America's enduring interest and support for the Afghan people.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tobin Harshaw is an editor and writer on national security and military affairs for Bloomberg Opinion. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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