In a recent article for Defense One, national security expert Stephen Biddle argued that much of the debate on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan focuses on the wrong thing—the timetable for withdrawal—rather than on America’s ultimate strategic goals. The real objective, Biddle wrote, “is to end the war on terms Americans and Afghans can live with. But calendar deadlines and fixed withdrawal schedules make this almost impossible.” The only alternative to the collapse of the Afghan government and a likely victory by the Taliban, Biddle continued, is a negotiated settlement.
This conclusion is solidly grounded in the long, bloody history of insurgencies, particularly when foreign nations support the insurgents either overtly or by turning a blind eye to safe havens on their territory. Under these conditions, outright victory by one side or the other is nearly impossible.
This applies to Afghanistan today. There is no reason to believe that the Kabul government will ever muster the power and the will to militarily defeat the Taliban and eradicate its base of support inside Afghanistan. While a negotiated settlement that gives the Taliban a role in Afghanistan’s future is far from what Americans and most Afghans want, it may be the only feasible solution. The problem is getting to a settlement. That requires that all of the key participants—the Afghan government, the Taliban and Pakistan—conclude that continuing along the current path would be worse than a settlement.