The issue of western disengagement from Afghanistan has been on the agenda throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, but it has changed shape in the course of these four years. After much debate within the administration, the president in 2010 announced the deployment of a major additional contingent of United States troops (the so-called “surge”) - which, however, was connected to a larger strategy of comprehensive withdrawal from the country by 2014. When Obama confirmed that “de-surging” would begin in July 2011 (a process to be completed by September 2012), the Taliban was jubilant. The Taliban saw this as the start of a complete disengagement from Afghanistan, and was confident that - once the Afghan security forces were deprived of direct western support - the movement would be able to overcome them.
But subsequent events have made it increasingly clear that the Americans are not planning a complete withdrawal even after 2014, and that the pace of further withdrawals is going to be slower than initially expected. Much depends on the outcome of the US presidential election on 6 November 2012, but in all likelihood an American training-mission with attached protection-force will be left behind. This would be able to guarantee (at least to some extent) close air-support to the Afghan army
The Taliban: political and military
The Taliban was thus premature in seeing (from its perspective) “light at the end of the tunnel”. But at the time of Obama’s announcement, the movement was obliged to confront a new strategic choice: negotiate, or go for outright victory? The internal discussions which followed proved to be fractious, with the military leadership inclined to pursue total victory (or in any case nothing more than a negotiated settlement with selected Afghan groups), and the political leadership (gathered in and around the Quetta-based “political commission) giving greater consideration to a wider political settlement. There were also differences within the latter: between those who argued for a faster track to negotiations, such as Mullah Baradar and Mullah Motassim, and those who advocated caution.
The main rationale for negotiating with foreign powers, and in particular with the Americans, was to avoid international isolation after the Taliban had again attained governmental authority. Throughout the discussions, however, some Taliban political leaders have remained doubtful that a complete military victory was achievable, or even good for the movement. The rationale of this view is that the Taliban’s internal divisions tend to become stronger as opposition to it grows weaker. In particular, some political leaders fear an emboldened military leadership, the majority of which has little sympathy for the old political leaders.
The Taliban political leaders who seek to hold back negotiations highlight the lack of trustworthy counterparts; they even believe that the “Qatar track” was an American ambush to weaken and split the movement. They are also aware of the growing gap between negotiations with foreign powers and negotiations with Afghan non-Taliban leaders and groups: these two paths have been diverging since 2011, as during this period international interlocutors have had little choice but to defer to President Karzai while few among the Taliban are willing to talk to him.
The Taliban and its base
These divisions among the Taliban have also been sharpened by diverging attitudes towards the external sponsors who bankroll the Taliban insurgency in Pakistan and elsewhere. This has hindered the Taliban military effort in southern Afghanistan, where the movement lost considerable ground during the second half of 2011 and the first few months of 2012 (at the same time, the Taliban have been strengthening in eastern Afghanistan).
The setbacks in the south were due in part to the protracted Nato/International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) campaign in Helmand and Kandahar, which pushed the Taliban out of important population-centres and fundraising areas. The Taliban, however, also suffered in logistical and morale terms from the ongoing internal frictions - both over negotiations and over the distribution of power within the movement.
During spring 2012, the Taliban was aware that its declining presence on the ground and reduced ability to project its “shadow” in terms of violence were affecting its political leverage as well. In response, the Taliban has been striving to relaunch its military effort in the south, with some success. But politically too, it has been seriously weakened in that region; and the southern Taliban networks are now under pressure from the communities among which they are based, to reduce the level of violence (if not towards peace outright).
The pressure from local Afghan communities sustains demand among the Taliban for a negotiated settlement, even if all experiments and “tracks” have led to failure so far. This phenomenon demonstrates that the Taliban’s political and military leaderships overlap; every political leader is connected into some network of military commanders (and even occasionally lead it). This gives the political leadership considerable resilience, even if most Taliban field-commanders countrywide are today aligned with the military leadership.
The situation on the ground is always fluid, as casualties and rotations exert a high turnover within Taliban ranks, though the trend in recent years has been towards the weakening of the political leadership’s influence. Over the last few years, the military leadership has acquired a separate identity and has in part emancipated itself from the political leadership. The outlook of the former is (unsurprisingly) more “militaristic”, not least because even at the personal level it would have more to lose and less to gain from a peace settlement than the political leadership (or so it seems to believe).
The Taliban and the war
There are continuing efforts to reconcile differences within the Taliban, which perhaps are leading to the marginalisation of the more assertive elements within the “peace party”. Alongside, the war goes on, with an upswing of violence in summer 2012 (as every year during this season),. At the same time, Isaf casualties are (the growth of “insider attacks” notwithstanding) lower in mid-2012 than mid-2011 for reasons that include tactical adjustments which make western troops less exposed to Taliban “asymmetric” tactics. The casualties among the Afghan security forces have, however, been increasing, as they carry a heavier military burden.
So far, there is no sign that the Taliban’s assessment of the Afghan army and police is altering, beyond signs of a degree of respect. The Taliban’s assessment of the effectiveness of the Afghan security forces is shared by many other Afghans, namely that they lack resilience. In military terms, most Taliban see their difficulties in the south and some other areas (such as the north) as temporary. In political terms, western disengagement would make it more difficult for the Taliban to sustain its campaign of violence. But for the moment, withdrawals are at most leading to local ceasefires rather than to any significant shift towards a comprehensive settlement. Afghanistan is still a long way from that.