The Taliban have recently declared that they have defeated the U.S. in Afghanistan, and Jeff Schogal argues that, “…the Taliban know they just need to wait us out. To cite an overused cliché: We’ve got the watches; they’ve got the time….That’s why the Taliban have won.”
This view would only make sense if the Taliban was a movement that formed following the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the United States and which had as its only goal the expulsion of the U.S. They could then celebrate the drawdown of American troops as a kind of victory, perhaps. Yet, that’s not at all what happened. Given the facts, it’s not surprising that the Taliban likes this revisionist narrative.
During their reign from 1996 through the summer of 2001, the Taliban unquestionably controlled 90% of Afghanistan. They implemented a harsh and repressive regime. They hosted Al Qaeda, who used this base and freedom of movement to recruit, train, and launch large scale attacks against the United States, including 9/11.
The Taliban and Al Qaeda wanted that state of affairs to continue indefinitely. It did not. The September 18th, 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) authorized the President “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”
American troops subsequently removed the Taliban from power through combat. The Taliban have been fighting to regain it ever since. So where do we, the Taliban and the United States, sit after 20 years of war? Have the stated goals of the AUMF been fulfilled?
According to figures from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the Taliban controlled 12% of Afghan districts in 2019. Al Qaeda has lost Bin Laden, lost its freedom to operate with impunity in Afghanistan, and has failed to launch any attacks on the scale of 9/11 since the war started.
We can either conclude that the Taliban freely gave up 78% of the districts they once controlled, or that they were forced to in defeat by the efforts of our troops. We can either conclude that Al Qaeda freely decided to give up organizing and launching 9/11-scale attacks, or that they were forcibly prevented from doing so by the efforts of our troops.
Now, no one who has served in Afghanistan, including me, should claim that everything’s coming up roses in Afghanistan. SIGAR also reported that the Afghan government controls only 54% of the districts with the remaining 34% contested by both the Afghan government and the Taliban. SIGAR’s figures were from 2019, the last year SIGAR reported them. The Congressional Research Service notes that “Conflict dynamics in the past two years do not appear to have shifted in the Afghan government’s favor.”
Then again, it’s not clear that they have shifted in the Taliban’s favor either.
The war against the Taliban is obviously not over. Though, as Schogal himself notes, it is a war mostly fought by the Afghan government against the Taliban. It has long been the stated goal of the United States to enable the Afghan government to wage war against the Taliban so that U.S. troops could return home. That is now happening. It has been over a year since enemy action killed American troops in Afghanistan. American troop levels in the country are the lowest since the start of the war.
The fight is now being carried on by Afghan troops who are dying by the thousands to defend their country from the Taliban. It is a fight the Afghan public supports. According to the Asia Foundation, the longest running Afghan public opinion survey, sympathy for armed opposition groups like the Taliban has plummeted from 22% in 2009 to 4% in 2019. The number of respondents who expressed no sympathy for the Taliban sits at 85%. American officials generally assess that “the Taliban do not pose an existential threat to the Afghan government, given the current military balance.”
Schogal says the Taliban have won. I say it’s an odd victory when you’ve lost virtually all your territory, virtually all of your public support, are militarily unable to regain power or effectively control more than a small fraction of the country, and the terrorist organization you hosted has similarly lost its effectiveness.
On the other hand, American troops leaving an Afghanistan where the Taliban are no longer in power, are being kept at bay by Afghan troops instead of Americans, and Al Qaeda has been unable to launch 9/11-scale attacks against us. This has long been the stated goal of America’s war efforts.
James Seddon is a father, husband, author, Navy veteran, speaker, military veteran activist, IT manager, and regularly unsuccessful fisherman living in Southern California. Find him at https://james-seddon-author.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/jamesseddonauthor