The news that the Americans recently held face-to-face talks with the Taliban suggests that longest war in US history may have reached a turning point, although the road to such a peace is long, rocky and plagued with as many improvised explosive devices as the highway from Kandahar to Kabul.
That the 17-year old war has reached a tipping point seems clear. The Taliban now controls more territory than they have since the American invasion in 2001. Causalities among Afghan forces are at an all time high, while recruitment is rapidly drying up. In spite of last year's mini-surge of US troops and airpower by the Trump administration, the situation on the ground is worse now than in was in 2017. If any one statement sums up the hopelessness -- and cluelessness -- of the whole endeavor, it was former Secretary of State's challenge to the Taliban: "You will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you."
Of course, like any successful insurgency, the Taliban never intended to "win a battlefield victory," only not to lose, thus forcing a stalemate that would eventually exhaust their opponents. Clearly the lessons of the Vietnam War are not part of the standard curriculum at Foggy Bottom.
Why things have gone from bad to worse for the US/NATO occupation and the Kabul government has less to do with the war itself than a sea change in strategy by the Taliban, a course shift that Washington has either missed or ignored. According to Ashley Jackson of the Overseas Development Institute, the Taliban shifted gears in 2015, instituting a program of winning hearts and minds.
The author of the new strategy was Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who took over the organization following the death of founder Mullah Omar in 2013. Instead of burning schools, they staff them. Instead of attacking government soldiers and police, they strike up informal cease-fires, even taking turns manning checkpoints. They set up courts that are not tainted by corruption, collect taxes and provide health services.
Mansour also made efforts to expand the Taliban from its Pashtun base to include Tajiks and Uzbeks. According to Jackson, both ethnic groups -- generally based in northern Afghanistan -- have been appointed to the Taliban's leadership council, the Rahbari Shura.
Afghanistan's main ethnic divisions consists of 40 percent Pashtuns, 27 percent Tajiks, 10 percent Hazara and 10 Uzbeks.
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